I spend almost every day doing some form of group collaboration. Working in groups is a vital practice for living in community that I can do now, where I am, even without finding the perfect place to live or the perfect community living situation. I like it because it is a shift away from individualism towards interdependence. I get a lot of opportunities to practice NVC and I noticed my growth rate is exponential compared to when I was working more on my own as a solopreneur.
I’d like to explore something that I noticed while working in a group.
Have you ever been in a group where it's like you're saying one thing and they’re hearing another thing? Or a question is asked and you think you've already responded to it? There's some confusion and some pressure to speak better, deliver something that's been asked of you. There’s a sense of misalignment, of not quite being on the same page. And if you're not careful, and even if you are careful, it's easy to fall into disconnection and even despair. The thoughts connected with this despair could look something like:
Some of the impacts of this pattern that I've observed in myself and in others are rising tension and defensiveness. I have also seen someone else who wasn't speaking but was impacted by what was being said shrinking, visibly shrinking, appearing smaller, retreating into themselves. Other impacts are checking out, this might be called the freeze trauma response. Those are impacts at the individual level.
Impacts on the group level could be loss of trust, loss of willingness to collaborate or even loss of willingness to participate at all. If this happened often enough it could result in exiting the group or even exiting the community as a whole. Ultimately, this could result in giving up on the entire experiment in non-violence or collaborative work or community living entirely and sinking back into patriarchal norms.
I had one of these experiences last night. I lay in bed before sleep replaying what happened over and over and over and thinking of how to respond to this or to prevent it from happening. So, I’m writing about this to you today, so we can digest it a bit together. I want to share a little bit about what came to me.
“I want you to meet us where we are,” someone said in yesterday's meeting. To give a little context, I’ll summarise by saying that we were receiving requests and commentary on what I might call “Phase D” of the project and I was presenting information about where we are in the project, which could be called “Phase A”.
“I want you to meet us where we are” reminds me of what my teacher said about empathy. We were talking about listening with empathy, in this case with an individual as they express what's on their mind. My teacher calls this “entering into the jungle of their heart”. I really like this metaphor because it shows one of the core principles of listening to someone with empathy. To respond to someone empathically, I need willingness to pause expressing my world and enter into their world.
We were practicing this with a specific individual. I have an idea that there might be a bit more flow in listening with empathy to someone when they're right in front of you, when you're seeing the expressions of pain or joy. Some part of us moves into their world a little bit: we enter a space of togetherness. I'm witnessing what's going on for them, what's important to them, what they're expressing. This empathic listening is part of being human. I believe it is a universal human need to both give and receive this empathic presence, this empathic receiving. It is a skill we can improve, that we can grow a practice of, that we can apply as an orientation to how we want to respond to people choicefully.
Empathic receiving is a natural tendency that we see in babies responding to facial expressions on the adults around them. Due to living under authoritarian social structures, at some point that natural flow is lost. So we practice it; we reclaim it.
Because that natural flow is lost, even when I may have a heartfelt desire to receive someone with empathy, to enter into their world, and to be present for what is real for them (even if I don't believe it myself or if I don't resonate with it) I might not still actually manage to do it. I might still respond with judgement or defensiveness or distance. Or I might respond with what’s alive in me before they're ready to hear it, before they feel fully heard. And this happens, even with practice, even with a commitment to receiving others with empathy. It happens. I may be full of regret, there may be a cost, cost to the relationship, to the shared work, to the community.
When we scale up from one on one interactions to group interactions, there's a lot more complexity to receive. Every person in that group wants to be received empathically. Every person in the group wants to be met where they are. Again because to be received with empathy is a human need that we all have. This is not always achievable due to the fluctuation in individual capacity and group capacity. Influences on capacity might be time, might be orientation towards achieving a specific purpose, might be unexpressed conflict in the room, it could just be something as simple as tiredness, or habits, or lack of facilitation.
I learned to carry empathic receiving into a group when I was bringing nvc into a school setting to work with teens and their teachers. I stepped into their world, reflected their language, while simultaneously welcoming them into my world. I had to stay on my toes, keeping a foot in both worlds, grounded in myself and what was important to me, bringing it with me while empathically entering into their world, respectfully seeing them as whole, that their worldview and desires matter, landing into trust in our shared humanness.
And, this is in addition to my relationship with the teachers and staff. All of what I just described I also did with the staff when I met with them. To add more complexity, I became a bridge between the teens and the staff, supporting them in hearing each other. I basically grew a third foot, one foot in my world and what change I hoped to inspire in the school, one foot in the staff's world, hearing and caring about the things that were important to them (ie the student’s physical safety and getting more opportunities in life) and one foot with the youth, responding to what was important to them (their mattering). And somehow, to try to support both the staff and the youth in practicing this dual listening (one foot in myself and one foot in the other’s world). And to do it in a group setting. Once a week we sat in circle together, sharing and listening and reflecting.
I want to come back to the original context, the meeting that I had yesterday. My dream would be at even a brief one hour meeting that participants, organisers, facilitators, guests, and team members would come into the meeting with this orientation of emphatically receiving the others with one foot in my own world.
I want to see more skillfulness in myself and in those that I work with. I want to see more capacity to hear what people are saying, to pause my own expression, to pause my own requests and to be more likely to enter into the world of the people that I'm working with. Depending on the number of meetings that you have that might seem like a tall order, and I dare to dream of it. If we lived in a world with less patriarchal wounding this would maybe be a more doable request. If we worked or lived in a community of people applying this practice it may be a more doable request.
So let's look at some applicable strategies that we might bring into meetings or collaborative group work that may support us in walking towards this dream.
Before the meeting or collaboration:
I have been oriented towards community living as a dream for over ten years, long before I started my NVC journey. In fact, part of my motivation for working to learn and integrate NVC was so that I could one day, when I eventually live in community, use it. I wanted to live in community and didnt know how to get there, so I thought I could at least upskill in NVC. So that when the opportunity finally came, I NVC would be the contribution I could give to my much longed for community.
In recent years, I have oriented towards community living a little differently, through the needs-paradigm underpinning NVC. At first, the motivations behind my interest in community living was unclear. When I heard that “community” is one of the Universal Human Needs, I felt an “ah-ha”, this is why!
It made sense finally. As a lonely child, “community” was a long-term unmet need. A need that frequently, for stretches of years, when unmet. One of my NVC teachers, Yoram Mosenson talks about the “Life Project”, that one particular need that is so alive in us that attending to it becomes the project of our lives. When I first heard that it was easy for me to name “community” as the “life project” for me.
So, I began orienting towards it, determined to “meet” this need, finally; utterly unclear as to how.
I used to rant about people using the word "incorrectly". I was so frustrated in NVC workshops, when at the close of the workshop, we went around the circle naming which needs had been “met” by the workshop, learning, understanding, connection,... community. And hearing this word used in this way stimulated me. I would rant the whole car ride home, about how people are so disconnected from community that they don't even know what it is. That because they have a weekend experiencing intimacy and connection it must be community. “They are not going to see these people ever again! We don't have long term connections or shared work! This is not a community, this is a group of people that paid money to learn something and they had a nice time so they are calling it a community. It's not a community stop calling it that!”
When the pandemic started, I circled back to this need for community, and this time, the judgements went inward. What the fuck are you doing Selene? You KNOW this kind of stuff is just going to keep happening and getting worse as climate change intensifies. You have been wanting to live in community for so long and still you aren’t. You never do anything, you have no one to blame but yourself for this.
So when the opportunity came to move to a community on farm land, I jumped at it without hesitation. I lived there for about 3 months, give or take a week. And just this week, I decided to pause living there, to rest and prepare for another community living experiment coming up in April.
What happened that I could go from insisting on living in community no matter what to choosing to step out of that community for a 2 month break?
Well, if you read back the way I was orienting towards community as a human need, community as a thing that I desperately wanted for, you may notice that I was orienting from the scarcity of the need. I was making choices, forming judgements, and seeing the world through my lens of the LACK of community. Of community as being impossible, something I (and everyone else) definitively DONT HAVE.
The strategies that come to mind as we attempt to attend to a need, when we are standing in a place of scarcity are less likely to bring us to the world we actually want.
While the judgements that were raging in my head may or may not have been “accurate”, they were expressions of my pain and fear and loss. They were unexpressed mourning.
After a few months of actually experiencing living in community, and actively shifting almost 100% of my work energy towards supporting community living in the world, my orientation to this is different. I’ve had a taste of what this need may feel like, when in abundance. What this need can feel like, when it is frequently nourished. What life can feel like, when I am surrounded by “community”. What the world might look like, if we all “had” it.
Separate from this need being met or not, in scarcity or in abundance, I am now in contact with the essence of the life energy which we sometimes name “community”.* This essence lives in me and speaks through me.
And now, when I connect to that essence, the strategies that come to me to fill my days and use my energy are different. The lens I see the world through has shifted. And it is this difference, this essence, that I hope to share with you all, in the coming blog posts, in my workshops, in my own community living and consulting.
*This understanding of needs comes to me through Robert Gonzales, whom I strongly recommend learning from.
Selene is sharing her annual practice of setting intentions for the coming year based on the needs she wants to nourish. She'll walk you through the process she uses to move from needs to strategies and goal setting.
What to expect:
Listen to the recording of the live event where we worked with a series of questions in empathic listening pairs, so come prepared to share and explore and support each other. Bring a needs list or set of cards. You can explore these questions with an friend or in a journal. There are no prerequisites for engaging with this process AND if you have done some basic NVC it will be helpful.
This process is based on NVC. It is one way to integrate needs consciousness, to take your undrstanding of needs another step deeper. I also offer this course as an in-person or zoom workshop that can be requested. Email me for details.
Contribution to Selene's Financial Needs:
My preference is to move towards gift economy. For me, this is an application of needs consciousness that is at the core of this work. I'm happy to receive whatever you feel comfortable to give while also asking that you consider my financial needs. The idea is that you choose a number that balances both our needs. I have publicly shared my financial needs so that you can make a grounded decision.
My preference would be that everyone connected with themselves to find an amount that balances both our needs, and I'm aware that may take time and energy that not everyone has. If you prefer not to choose a number yourself, here is a suggestion: 5€ - 20€
Learn more about this here: