John Ellison

Day 43: NVC Workshop

7 min read

On the morning of Day 41, we kicked off the day with a workshop on non-violent communication ("NVC"). Ben Sauer and Anna Carlson had spoken about NVC before, and I'd witnessed Ben deal with some difficult conversations like a pro so I was really looking forward to learning about how to communicate better.

The workshop started off with a 'check-in' which was basically asking the question: "How are you feeling right now?" Answering this question in itself was an interesting exercise. Without bringing in the world of emotions from outside the room, how do you express how you are feeling right now?

It was interesting to see people's reaction to the word 'feeling' and how the atmosphere in the room was bordering on profundity and awkwardness.

Steve Stark, one of the facilitators of the workshop, started us off. He very simply said "I'm feeling a bit nervous about the workshop—anxious if you like." This simple expression of here an now set the tone for the rest of us moving forward but it was fascinating to see how easy it was to diverge outside the 'here and now'.

Pete, the other facilitator expressed how this concept of 'here and now' is by no means a fluffy new-age spiritual term but a very practical and pragmatic term. Right here. Right now.

While concepts of mindfulness and being present are commonly associated with 'spirituality' and the like, I think they both have great importance in our ability to perform well and interact with others.

Steve's Culture Recap

Ben Sauer asked Steve Stark to give us a recap on the culture investigation he performed at Clearleft earlier in the year. Steve told us that he was brought in by Clearleft to uncover the implicit and explicit parts of Clearleft's culture and to help the organization deal growth healthily and organically. Steve ran a few surveys and interviewed each person within the organization.

While I wasn't here to witness his exploration, the findings he presented were fascinating. In my short time here at Clearleft I had experienced specific examples of how communication sometimes fails within the organization.

Clearleft has an amazing culture. There are so many fantastic attributes of Clearleft as an organization and it is wondeful to work here. These observations I made are merely observations, not judgements. I couldn't be happier working here, and I think having an open context to make observations is a beautiful thing. So the fact that I would even feel comfortable sharing this publicly is a testament to the amazing culture and values at Clearleft.

My Input

After we had a list of the weak points in Clearleft's ability to communicate, Steve asked if any of us wanted to add to them.

Having just moved from the US to the UK, I had a few insights on the differences in culture and communication between Americans and British, but it also seemed like some of the differences were especially poignant within the context of Clearleft.

There is one pattern that I have noticed several times in my time here working at Clearleft and living in the UK. I'll try to illustrate without making any judgments whatsoever:

Cultural Comparison

I went to university in Louisiana—an ethnically and culturally diverse state in the Southern United States. The South has a lot of fundamental conservatives who treat people of other races, gender and sexual orientation less equal than people of their kind. The South isn't known for being especially liberal, progressive or tolerant.

In Brighton and Clearleft in particular, there is less ethnic and cultural diversity and people tend to be more liberal progressive and tolerant. People at Clearleft tend to be incredibly accepting of all races, genders and sexual orientation.

One thing I have noticed in Brighton and Clearleft is while it is very tolerant in many regards, it often makes mockery of anyone who 'believes' and has a faith of any kind. While I haven't heard people making fun of Muslims and Muhammed, I have witnessed a handful of occasions where Christians and Jesus are openly mocked and laughed at.

When I shared this observation, one of the facilitators made an interesting enquiry. He said, "So does that mean that rationality is held higher above everything else?"

I wasn't sure how to respond to this question because the premise of his enquiry is that anyone who as a faith or associates with a religion is not rational. I guess the facilitator (who has practiced NVC for many years) illustrated the cultural paradigm better than I could have done myself...

Things We Just Don't Talk About

The other point I mentioned was this: While there is a strong value at Clearleft of openness and speaking your mind, there seem to be some things that are just never spoken about. I've witnessed this as a very 'English' thing to do and say, but I honestly wonder how this affects the way that Clearleft deals with conflict.

Being married to a lovely English woman, I do know the ups and downs of English politeness. While my wife can often point out how rude and arrogant I am being, I can often see instances where conflict is avoided at all costs and difficult conversations are the bane of one's existence...

Clearleft's Commitment

Exploring Clearleft's ability to communicate was quite similar to the value exploration I did on Day 3 where I quickly identified examples of Clearleft's values being lived out in their workplace.

It seems like Clearleft is very familiar with both its strengths and its weaknesses. That is a strong place to be. Clearleft seems to know its values and understand its culture. There are some people who have identified problems with communication in the organization and the company has agreed to implement a plan to help everyone communicate better. That is amazing.

This commitment to continual improvement is an immensely encouraging sign. I haven't heard of any other company acting in this way. It seems healthy and destined for positive growth. I am very grateful to witness this chapter within the organization and I am even more grateful for an opportunity to work in such a unique place.

The Workshop's Flow

The workshop had an interesting ebb and flow. While we were provided with very practical tools and methodologies for communicating better as individuals, we also spoke of specific examples about how communication breaks down within the organization.

I noticed the facilitators bringing every conversation back to very specific examples so that we weren't dancing around with vague notions but concrete instances of communication failure within Clearleft.

I won't go into any of the examples at length, but our session proved to be immensely challenging and fruitful for many of the people in the room.

My Takeaways

I walked way from the workshop with a huge list of things that I need to improve upon as a communicator. It was amazing how many things I do poorly without being consciously aware of it. Now that I am incrementally more aware of my weaknesses as a communicator I am going to do my best to apply the tools and methods that were presented in the workshop. There was one technique that I found to be especially valuable:

When communicating with another person, try this template: "I feel X when Y because Z."

The facilitators had us practice this sentence template and talk about specific instances at Clearleft where this template would be useful. At first it was a bit hard to apply this specific template to real situations, but once we got moving it demonstrated its value immediately.

Pete mentioned that when you simply express how you are feeling and provide non-judgemental observations about why you are feeling that way, it is a very powerful and effective tool.

I'll certainly be giving this one a try before the next session...