Last weekend I had the opportunity, in fact the urgent need, to try something new. Something that felt a little risky. Something important. It’s called Non Violent Communication, and I’d like to tell you about it, because the results showed it to be a valuable tool for my communication toolkit – and perhaps for yours.
On July 6th and 7th I participated in the first of what I hope will be many Stoos Stampede conferences. This one was in Amsterdam, and I was really excited about it, but as I packed my bags I found I was stewing. The organisers had declared the event a hybrid of Open Space and a regular conference… which set off warning bells for me. By way of background: I’ve been involved in (participated in, organised, and facilitated) many unconferences since 2004. In fact, as a woman with a mission, my time is precious to me, and I attend almost exclusively unconferences. In this time I’ve had some outstanding experiences, and seen some things that left me angry and sad: people confused, and confusing others, about the “un” part of unconference, reducing the joy and learning of the event and, worse, creating division.
Now, joy, learning and community are huge values for me, and in the days leading up to my attendance at the Stoos Stampede I found myself fretting: at this event that is so important to me, will our minimalist organizers, in using only parts of the Open Space format, remember to share the simple rules that put everyone on the same footing to co-create the event?
I found it hard to talk about this with my colleague and key organiser Jurgen Apello – being an ardent advocate of classic Open Space myself, and knowing that Jurgen had both publicly and privately expressed his dislike for it. When deep values are threatened, a feeling of conflict is natural, and my default stance in conflict, i.e. when I don’t choose otherwise, is withdrawal. So I had been keeping this concern to myself. However I was also toying with new ideas about conflict, since learning about Non Violent Communication or NVC at AgileCoachCamp. Clearly, NVC is intended for just such a situation, so on the train to Amsterdam I did a little reading and pondered how to use this new tool to put my passion and experience (which were “stuck”) back into the service of the community I care about.
On Thursday night I declined Peter Stevens’ kind offer of a beer and sat on the bed in my hotel room, using the NVC formula to think about this conundrum. I stumbled at “what do I need?” realising that this felt like a conflict to me because my perceived need was that “they should do it my way!” How juvenile, and yet how human, to frame it this way to myself, LOL. I reflected some more and dug til I was satisfied with “I need this event to model (my) Stoosian values of respect, inclusiveness, self-organisation, team intelligence.” Already this felt less like a conflict and more like a “crucial conversation.” Encouraged, I DM’d Jurgen and set up a 7:30 breakfast rendezvous.
As it turned out, Erwin van der Koogh was there, too: perfect! I got some eggs, avoided the temptation to seek refuge in a conversation with Steve Denning, and asked if Jurgen would like to hear my concern. He said yes, and my first experiment with NVC began, while Catherine Louis and her husband Paul looked on curiously. I won’t say it was a complete success – being calm isn’t my strong point (perhaps I married Ilja hoping to learn that skill – hmmm, in fact, that’s where I first heard about NVC :-). But I was impressed at how that simple formula, together with some deep reflection, had transformed my experience of this conversation. It had moved me from “indulging my anger” to “honoring my anger” constructively. It was short, almost easy (since driven by passion), and built a deeper bond rather than separating us.
The NVC formula ends with “a request”. I just blurted out the one I had decided on in my hotel room, something like: “will you allow me 5 minutes during the opening to welcome newcomers and explain the Law of Two Feet?” “Sounds important,” said Erwin. The two of them agreed to make room for it, and I promised to organise myself to keep it short.
And that is the story of my three-minute “welcome to un-conferenceing for newbies”, squeezed in just before 10 am. I explained The Law, and the strange Butterflies and Bumblebees it produces, and how each participant is responsible to create their own conference experience, to bring what’s important to them into the event.
During those 3 minutes I had created the opportunity I needed to suggested a voluntary working agreement that could level the playing field between “book authors” “talking heads” and “how-on-earth-is-this-going-to-work? unconference newbies.” And I had invited everyon’s passion. Already in the first few minutes, the event had embodied some of the Stoosian values I most love. Mission accomplished!
Who did I do this for? Why, everyone! Well, in fact, for me most of all – because I believe that teaching these values will help me change the world.
If you were in that room – I’ll bet you thought I was an organizer, right? :-) Nope. I was, like you, a conference participant, exercising the Law of Two Feet (and just a little passion :-) to get what was important to me, LOL. With help from NVC (thanks, Bettina Ruggeri for sharing NVC with us at ACCDE12).
(And thanks to Erwin, Jasper Sonnevelt, Arjen Uittenbogaard, Steve Denning and others at the Storytelling session, for starting me on the journey of becoming a storyteller. How did I do? :-)