Nonviolent communication

by Anna Finlayson and Daren DeWitt

Domination and partnership cultures

Peace is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process, gradually changing opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new structures. And however undramatic the pursuit of peace, the pursuit must go on!

John F Kennedy

What is the cultural style of your organisation? And how does this style impact on the ways members of your workforce relate to each other and to your clients, customers or service users?

This page gives some theoretical background to Nonviolent CommunicationSM. We outline two basic human cultural styles – ‘domination’ and ‘partnership’ – highlighting how the language and attitudes of each of these cultures impacts on its members. We then look at how these cultural styles manifest in organisations and offer some suggestions to support you in working with these styles within your own organisations.

Domination cultures

Domination cultures are ‘power over’ cultures. They have a hierarchal structure, where a person or small group of people exert power and control over other people. According to anthropologists, most, though not all, human cultures over the past 8,000 years have been domination cultures.

Tribal chieftains, kings and emperors and their families have had economic, political and religious power over the people they have ruled. Their aims have usually been to get people to do what they wanted, often to increase their wealth, power and control over others. Their main methods of motivation have been physical force (or threat of force) and verbal coercion.

Techniques included punishment and reward (punishment is still the basis of most judicial systems around the world, despite extensive evidence that it doesn’t reform criminals) and verbal coercion, through inducing guilt, shame and a sense of duty and obligation. In order to justify these techniques, a paradigm developed that human beings are essentially bad and unruly and need to be controlled, because if left to our own devices we will create chaos and destruction.

People who are under the power of others have two choices – ‘submission’ or ‘rebellion’. ‘Submission’ often results in demotivation in those who submit to the will of others, while ‘rebellion’ often results in violence in some form or other.

The language and values of a culture evolve to support the cultural style. Key elements of the language of domination cultures include

  • Moralistic judgments based on the concepts of right and wrong, good and bad – so the king or leader is considered the ‘good’ ‘right’ and ‘just’ person, while the people who don’t do what the leader wants are ‘bad’, ‘wrong’, or ‘evil’
  • Labels used to define and reinforce people’s place in the hierarchy – ‘king’, ‘prince’, ‘pauper’, ‘peasant’ or, in modern times, ‘manager’, ‘worker’; other labels, such as ‘selfish’, ‘inconsiderate’, ‘stubborn’, ‘lazy’ and so on, are used to coerce people into doing what the people in power want
  • Praise and blame, which are verbal forms of reward and punishment, designed to get people to do what the person in power wants.
Key concept

Enemy images

One of the results of domination-style thinking is that it creates ‘enemy images’ of other people. This means that when we are in conflict with others, rather than see them as fellow human beings with needs that are different from ours, we see them as adversaries who are deliberately, even maliciously, blocking us from having what we want. As long as we have an enemy image of someone we are in conflict with, it will be difficult to resolve the conflict amicably. Nonviolent communication helps us to transform our enemy images of others into friendlier images.

Partnership/life-enriching cultures

Partnership cultures are ‘power with’ cultures, within which power is shared between people. In other words, all people are valued equally, treated with respect and included in making decisions that affect them. These cultures are characterised by greatly reduced levels of violence among their members. The website outlines 25 societies around the world in which there is very little internal violence or external warfare. Many of these are closer to the partnership cultural style. They successfully promote harmony, gentleness and kindness toward others as much as they devalue conflict, aggressiveness and violence.

In modern times, most cultures around the world are not as extreme as earlier cultures in human history. Most contain a mixture of domination and partnership styles, to varying degrees. However, many elements of the domination cultural style linger on, especially the language of domination. This language and coercive communication style is one of the main contributors to conflict and violence, both globally and within organisations.

I believe that violence comes because of how we are educated, not because of our nature... it’s in our nature to enjoy giving to one another. Nonviolent Communication helps us connect with one another by allowing our nature to come forward in how we give to (and are given to by) others.

Marshall Rosenberg, from Speak Peace in a World of Conflict, p 17-18

Nonviolent communication and partnership/life-enriching cultures

Nonviolent communication is a language and approach to life that supports partnership cultures. Essential elements of nonviolent communication that promote partnership include the precepts listed below.

  • Judgments are based not on the dualistic system of right and wrong, but, instead, on the concept of ‘needs’. Everything that everyone says and does is said and done to meet their own needs. Fortunately, one of our deepest needs is to contribute to the well being of others, which makes human society possible.
  • Situations are evaluated in terms of what needs are met and not met for all individuals involved. If someone does something that hurts others, it is not because they are ‘bad’, but because they are unaware. An attempt is made to communicate to them what needs weren’t met by their actions, understand what needs of theirs they were trying to meet, and find new actions or strategies that would meet the needs of all concerned. In this way, there are no ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ and no need for ‘submission’ or ‘rebellion’.
  • Cooperation is achieved through communication and dialogue, rather than through force or coercion.
  • Force is used only to protect people when emotional or physical safety is at risk, not to punish the ‘perpetrators’.

Domination and partnership styles in organisations

The quality of an organisation can never exceed the quality of the minds that make it up.

Harold R McAlindon

By now you should be able to work out which of the two cultural styles predominates in your organisation. Where the domination cultural style predominates, we are likely to find

  • Managers making decisions about the direction of their work teams with no or little consultation with their teams
  • Rigid and inflexible rules governing staff
  • An office culture of cynicism and mistrust, with people talking behind others’ backs, especially about the management or those who hold more power
  • Low morale and high staff turnover amongst staff
  • High incidents of disputes, grievance and disciplinary cases
  • High levels of staff absence and sickness.

Where a partnership or life-enriching cultural style predominates, we are likely to find

  • Decisions being made collectively or after full consultation with all who are affected by the decisions
  • Flexibility with regard to staff, to meet their needs as well as those of the organisation
  • An office culture of openness, trust and cooperation
  • High morale, dedication and loyalty to the organisation
  • Incidents of disputes and disciplinary measures are rare
  • Mediation processes in place to resolve conflicts that do arise.

What if you are in a domination-style organisation?

If you find yourself working in an organisation that has a domination style, there are several possible things you could do:

  • Try to encourage anyone higher up in the organisation – senior mangers or directors – to adopt the partnership-style approach, or at least elements of it. If you can get some of the people who hold power interested, then they can use their power to cascade these principles down the organisation, through training and so on
  • Make connections with and encourage those people in power who show signs of openness to the partnership style, to increase their awareness and understanding of this approach
  • Strengthen your own skills in the partnership communication style, for example by studying and practising Nonviolent Communication, and use these skills within your sphere of influence within the organisation
  • If the organisation you belong to leans strongly to the domination style and this is sapping your own morale, consider leaving and finding an organisation to work for that is more sympathetic to a partnership style. In our times, it is possible to find them out there!

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world.

Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Meade