Deep Listening—Ways of Non-Violent Communication that Benefit Oneself and Others

Li Li, who was passionate about life and work, went to Thailand to take part in a course on the design and planning of eco-villages. (Xue Qichan)

By: Li Li (Founder and Director of Society for Guizhou Indigenous Culture)

Editor's Note:

Advocacy for sustainable living involves social change, something which is inextricably linked to personal transformation. Perhaps it is because NGO workers are so concerned with society at large that they have the tendency to preach and impose their beliefs on others from a moral high ground. They are used to teaching and exhorting others and are quick to criticise. Consequently, they are sometimes trapped in an unpleasant cycle of fault-finding and resentment, which is detrimental to social transformation, which emphasises collective self-actualisation. These changes cannot be brought about by the domination of the will of a few. In these circumstances, what is more important is personal transformation, and “non-violent communication” is an important tool to be learnt. “Non-violent communication” is a way of communication involving consensus building and conflict resolution, which aims at individual as well as communal development.

The focus of learning “non-violent communication” is to enable individuals to connect with both their inner self and with others, to understand their own inner needs and to learn to express them while practicing deep listening and empathy to recognise the needs of others. In PCD’s work on sustainable living, importance is attached to the training of community facilitators to nurture attitudes, skills, perspectives and inner strength for inclusiveness and equality. Non-violent communication is an important part of facilitators’ learning. Li Li is our partner in Guizhou. In this article, she writes about her changes in personal mentality and in her work after she took part in training on “non-violent communication” and how she has benefitted from the training.

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In the workshop on non-violent communication supported by PCD, participants reviewed what they had learnt in a creative manner. (Zeng Yingfang)
In the workshop on non-violent communication supported by PCD, participants recapped what they had learnt. (Wang Jiyong)
Li Li, who was passionate about life and work, went to Thailand to take part in a course on the design and planning of eco-villages. (Xue Qichan)
In a village cultural tour and workshop conducted by Li Li’s organisation, she gave an on spot explanation to the participants.  (Guizhou Local Culture Society)
Li Li hosted a workshop on cultural diversity and rural development in which she facilitated participants to reflect on and respond to the contents of the training programme. (Society for Guizhou Indigenous Culture)
Li Li’s organisation held a seminar in a village to explore with the villagers the relationship between their cultural resources and everyday life. (Society for Guizhou Indigenous Culture)

In September 2015, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to take part in a workshop on non-violent communication co-organised by PCD and Guangzhou Shandao Social Work Service Centre. I am not exaggerating when I say that it was a major event in my life. A lot of changes have happened since I took part in the workshop, which have not only affected my personal growth but also many other aspects of my life, including my family relationships and the development of the organisation I work for.

Revelations learnt through “non-violent communication” training

It was something I had not anticipated before I took part in the workshop. I had wanted to learn how to change my husband, hoping that it would improve our relationship as husband and wife. I had always felt that I was gentle and understanding and thus when I had any difficulty communicating with someone, I thought the problem always lay with the other person. At the workshop, I was shocked to find that all the eight types of problems that prevent one from listening applied to me. Some of these problems are of course more commonly found in intimate relationships while other problems are more often found in the workplace.

Due to limited space, I will not go into detail about the learning process and all the insights I gained. I will only share here the part concerning my public life, that is, the insights I gained from non-violent communication relating to myself and my work in the Society for Guizhou Indigenous Culture (SGIC) and the changes it has brought. I have also become more aware of the close relationship between consciousness and choice on a personal level and how one relates with one’s work and the world.

When I was taking part in the workshop, I received two e-mails from my colleagues. One wanted to resign while the other requested a wage increase.

Unlike before, I did not hasten to “deal” with the problems. Non-violent communication had taught me that change only truly occurs when an inner need is manifested. If you are not concerned with “the need” and only try to “solve” the problem on a strategic level, you are just, as the Chinese saying goes, “scratching an itch from outside the boot”. In other words, you miss the point and are doing something meaningless.

Listening to the needs of oneself and of others

On my way back to Guiyang, I recalled the emotion I felt the moment I received the e-mails, and tried to explore my inner needs. Apart from feeling anxious and indignant, I actually heaved a sigh of relief.

It will help if I explain the background of my situation. Since SGIC was set up in 2008, it has been run by staff on a low pay scale. As the organisation grew, by 2014 it was able to raise funds of RMB2 million and the staff received a substantial pay rise. In the meantime, there had been staff expansion as the workload and the demand for work quality had increased.

While this was something that we should celebrate, it has also caused a few problems. Since the Spring Festival in 2015, my colleagues have been complaining that there was not enough communication, and they criticised each other when confronted with any problem. We tried to find the causes and took all sorts of measures to improve communication, such as strengthening online information sharing and organising collective offline activities. However, the situation was still far from satisfactory.

By listening to myself, I found that behind my anxiety and indignation I had many needs of my own that were not met and that there were conflicts among these needs. For example, the resignation of a colleague means an increased workload. A colleague’s request for a pay rise means upsetting the present wage scale and more fundraising is needed. However, I was also relieved that the colleague had applied for resignation. This is because he was drafting a new proposal, and there had always been differences between us and the funding agency in terms of the direction and the pace of our work. Since we need to pay wages and administrative expenses, we wanted to get the funding as soon as possible. However, deep inside I wanted to take a rest and to spend time with my children and my family. I also wanted to do things that I felt were more valuable, more fun and that truly respond to the needs of the community.

Genuine benefits from listening to needs

After I was clear about my needs, I immediately wrote to the colleague who wanted to resign (he wanted to take up a new job soon). I gave my approval and expressed my understanding with regard to his resignation. However, I also said that we must abide by the rules of the organisation and so I expected him to complete his work and hand over all documents within a week. When I was writing, I genuinely wished him well.

Now, what kinds of emotion and what sorts of inner needs were there in my colleagues, including the one who had asked for a pay rise before it was time to appraise their performance? I wanted to listen and to help all of us to become aware of and to express our needs. On this basis we could then explore strategies and ways to respond to our common needs.

First I talked to every colleague individually. Then all of us sat together and listened to each other in a process which lasted for about 20 days.

We found that in the old organisational structure, my colleagues looked at me as the mentor, the decision maker or the boss, and in my interaction with my colleagues, I had also unconsciously reinforced such roles. For example, I would give orders, pass judgment, instruct, suggest, guide, teach and mediate. I rarely truly listened. We were disappointed to find that what drew us to development work—respect for and stimulation of the subjectivity and creativity of every person—had not been truly realised in SGIC.

Making changes after listening

We wanted to change. We decided that to bring about changes we had to alter the way we ran SGIC. We decided to modify the employment structure. Instead of employees, the staff would now see themselves as co-workers and partners. SGIC would become a platform that we would share and build together. Every member would decide on the way they connected with this platform, taking into consideration their own needs and aspirations.

After all team members truly listened to each other, we also decided to shelve a project that was being negotiated and was not yet approved, even though it meant that we would lose the funding. This decision was made because we found that in the eight years since SGIC’s establishment, even though most of our programmes were closely linked with our objectives, sometimes we did not remain true to our mission because we needed funding to run the organisation. Sometimes when we planned our programmes, instead of the needs of the community, we thought in terms of what the funding agencies and SGIC needed. In some cases, we had not gained a comprehensive and deep understanding of the needs of the community even though we had worked with them for years. Sometimes even when we saw their needs, we are not able to make an appropriate response.

Restructuring resources and reformulating ideas

We reminded ourselves of our original intention when we first committed ourselves to this endeavour. Then we restructured our resources and reformulated our ideas and made a new start. The sense of existence and values are important, but we should not become slaves to them. We hope that our future programmes and our future work are developed on the basis of discovering and responding to the needs of the community, and that the content and style of our work are closely linked to our own interests and strengths, and that they will help us grow and nurture our lives. We hope that we will practice what we preach. That is, we must be able to live out the values and the lifestyle that we advocate and act according to what we believe.

In so doing, we have a new understanding of the role of SGIC in the community. If we think of villagers as the subject of rural development, what we should do is arouse and strengthen their subjectivity and not to treat them as weak and helpless people. Our role is to act as allies, listen to them and give them support. We are not their leaders, saviours or guides. Instead of trying to change the community according to our values and aspirations, we should help the community to achieve self-discovery and self-awareness, and support their self-initiated actions for change so as to bring about the community’s self-actualisation.