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Sociocracy and Nonviolent Communication (NVC) are often used together. For a good reason! The essence of Nonviolent Communication is “Everyone’s needs matter”. The essence of sociocracy is “every voice matters” – sounds pretty similar, doesn’t it?
In this article, I want to show how they share the same foundation and how they complement each other. (I’ll assume familiarity with the two frameworks but you can see a short summary of each model in these boxes. Feel free to skip them if you’re familiar.)
Nonviolent Communication® (NVC), developed by Marshall Rosenberg in the 1960ies, offers a model that helps us understand why people do what they do: each individual has basic needs, like to matter, to be known, hope, purpose, choice, contribution, appreciation, love, connection, joy. Those needs are universal, which means every human being needs them and can relate to them. As human beings aim to survive and thrive, every action a person takes is a strategy to meet needs (e.g. a strategy for connection is to call a friend). Strategies are evaluated by how effective they are at meeting needs. For example, meeting my need for clarity might mean writing a to-do list for the day; yet that might not meet my need for self-expression and spontaneity.
When our needs are met, we experience feelings like happiness. When a need is unmet and relevant, we feel feelings like sadness, anger, or fear. Understanding feelings helps us identify what needs are important at the moment, and that will make it easier to meet the need. For example, a parent who yells at their child that’s not listening might want to be heard and to matter. Yet, yelling at someone is typically not an effective strategy for being heard. Once a person becomes more aware of the need, they will have more choice in picking a strategy that supports meeting more needs, or to make requests of others to support us in meeting our needs.
Sociocracy, developed by Gerard Endenburg in the 1980s, is a framework that helps groups govern themselves with the intention of optimizing connection and self-organization. It allows teams (‘circles‘) to make their own decisions by giving them authority in their domain. To make sure different efforts are aligned and create synergy, sociocracy links circles so information can flow between teams.
Circle meetings often make use of rounds where circle members speak one by one so each person can be heard. Circles can choose to give authority to a role and to select a person by consent to hold that role. When it’s time for a decision, it is made by consent: a proposal is approved when no circle member has an objection. That way, no voice can be ignored in a circle. If there are objections, the circle strives to find understanding and to integrate the wisdom in the objection to improve the proposal.
Sociocracy actively builds feedback loops to seek input/data as a way to measure effectiveness and to make sure voices outside the circle are heard.
Sociocracy and NVC implicitly share some basic assumptions and values:
- Non-coercion. Both assume that people are inherently willing to contribute and that coercion is unnecessary and undesirable. Instead, they support people in creating environments and systems so people can meet their needs and each other’s needs themselves.
- Self-organization. There is no external authority in either system – all that counts is what people decide for themselves, granted they make agreements fully based on willingness/consent. This inter-personal approach is, therefore, beyond moral right or wrong, and the only measure of success is how well people were able to meet as many needs as possible, or how well a circle was able to reach the aim. Both of them leave behind the absolute and instead aim for balance and cooperation to maximize a desired outcome.
- Learning and effectiveness as a measure. Both models include a commitment to learning and growth. There is trust that everybody is doing the best they can and that if there is conflict or friction, it is an opportunity to understand each other better. The better we understand our team’s work and our needs, the better we can see what strategies are effective to support our purpose. Therefore understanding each other, our work, and ourselves better supports us in having more choice at finding effective strategies.
- Holistic and system view. Both systems have a holistic frame of interdependence: what I do has an impact on you, and I can support you in meeting your needs.
What Sociocracy and Nonviolent Communication (NVC) can offer to each other
How NVC complements sociocracy: supporting effectiveness
Feedback is integral to sociocracy, and that includes interpersonal feedback. How could we improve our performance, our collaboration, our meetings? Each of those has strong interpersonal aspects. Sociocracy offers the stage to give feedback (during meeting evaluations, selection process, policy, and performance reviews) but it doesn’t give any direction on how that feedback can be delivered so it can be heard well. This is where NVC comes in. NVC helps us give feedback with the level of self-responsibility (our needs are our need, our feelings are our feelings) and compassion for the other person that makes it easier to hear. Note that NVC is not about packaging a hard-to-hear message into a sweeter message. It’s about being real. And the reality is that no person can be dismissed as a bad person. Reality is that we all are part of the system that shapes the actions around us. And we need to look at the system without scapegoating. If something is clearly not working, NVC teaches how to stay with one’s own experience (which is what we have first-hand knowledge about) instead of putting words into someone’s mouth or projecting intentions into someone’s mind (which we don’t have first-hand knowledge about). In that way, NVC is more real than blame and shame.
Thanks to its foundation in observable reality and effectiveness in communication, NVC makes it more likely that a request of ours will be heard. “It would contribute to my peace of mind if you could send out the follow-up to our client today and would check it off the list” will be more much likely to lead to cooperative action than “You are always too late in following up! What’s so hard about checking it off the list?!” If one is serious about wanting positive change (as opposed to being right), NVC offers a model to do that.
Efficiency and deeper connection
Since needs offer a way to talk about the heart of the matter right away, NVC is also a way to be more efficient in understanding each other. This can be helpful for example in integrating objections. An objector that offers needs – or a facilitator that is able to offer guesses about needs unmet to the objector – can speed up the mutual understanding so effective strategies can be found more easily.
A deeper connection between team members is beneficial to any group process. Mutual understanding and trust is the glue between people that makes any collaboration easier. People whose needs at work are met will be more likely to do good work. By that, I don’t only mean the supply of coffee and beer but the psychological safety that NVC and good process can contribute to by meeting needs for respect, consideration, choice, autonomy, competence, peace of mind, and many more. If one of those needs is relevant and unmet, that person will experience feelings. For example, if a team member is repeatedly over-talked by her colleagues, she is likely to be upset. That anger is useful information to access her need for respect. The feeling will lead us to the need, and once we understand the need, we can modify our behavior or system to meet the need more effectively. If we ignore or dismiss feelings, we ignore a whole lot of useful information that would help us make work more effective. That’s another way in which NVC can contribute to sociocracy and help build processes and procedures that work better for people and their work.
How sociocracy complements NVC: scale up!
NVC is a good tool to help get deep, mutual understanding in a small group. For example, a couple can hear each other’s needs and make agreements to guide their relationship based on strategies meeting those needs. Yet, this really only works in small numbers. With bigger numbers, for example, 10 people, it will be too much effort for all 10 people each to be heard by the other 9 people on all aspects of their collaboration. Also, it’s not unheard of that NVC-informed groups operate like this: someone makes a proposal, and two people share their own reaction to the proposal, which leads three other people to share their reactions to those reactions. The sheer numbers and the complexity of strategies and needs with many people make it impossible to get the level of mutual understanding and consideration to operate. Consideration is a good tool when, for example, 4 housemates make an agreement to label their food items in the fridge. But what if the 4 people run the fridges in a dorm of 40 people? Will each of the 40 people have to hear the needs of the other 39? What if something changes, will we do another listening session on the fridge question? You can see that the approach of NVC doesn’t scale because it’s very effective but also very time-consuming to aim for complete mutual understanding. (Granted, if these 40 people are excellent and succinct NVC-trained communicators, there is a chance, but there is a limit.)
In that case, we have to shift from agreements between members of a group to policies made by circles. Sociocracy divides up the authority over domains among groups. Now 4 people might be in charge of the fridges for the 40 people in the dorm, but they will ask only for input from the 40 people and then the 4 people will make a policy decision. The other 36 might not even hear about all the needs considered – but hopefully, they can trust that people’s needs were considered when the decision was made and that they will be heard if their individual needs aren’t met by the policy that has been set.
Practices that can be addressed using NVC can be codified and turned into systems by sociocracy.
- Within teams. NVC assumes that everyone’s needs matter equally. Yet there is no system to ensure that; sociocracy offers rounds and the decision-making method consent as a way to ensure equal consideration within teams.
- Between teams. In the same way, alignment across teams, using only NVC, could be achieved by talking with the other teams and exploring alignment based on needs and shared strategies – but it would depend on the attention of individuals whether that happens consistently. In sociocracy, linking as a tool ensures that alignment across teams happens reliably.
- Among organizations. Since everyone’s needs matter, this is also true for stakeholders of the organization (whether they are inside or outside the organization) and related organizations. To consider and care for interdependence among organizations, sociocracy implements multi-stakeholder boards (Mission Circles) with stakeholders and members from allied or related organizations.
Note that this codification of strategies that sociocracy brings does not lock an organization into certain practices/strategies. Since all agreements in sociocracy are by consent – which means they can be changed by consent – the strategies are easy to change. The default-settings of sociocracy are an offer, a default-strategy, nothing more.
NVC and sociocracy both want cooperation and alignment based on willingness, not coercion. They make very similar assumptions and have different foci and tools within their context. NVC complements sociocracy and offers much-needed ways to make sociocracy work well. Sociocracy scales up the mindset of NVC in a systemized way so it can work for organizations and at scale – systems that help us be consistent and in integrity in how we operate.
Appendix: comparison of concepts
Thanks to Jerry Koch-Gonzalez for pointing these out to me!
|As humans, we share the same universal human needs.||In an organization, we all share the same aim(s).|
|Feelings helps us evaluate how well needs are met. (Observations as well.)||Data/feedback helps us evaluate whether we are achieving our aim(s).|
|Strategies are attempts to meet needs.||Policy and operations are attempts to achieve the aim.|
|Action requests are attempts to find shared action to meet a need through a certain action/strategy.||Proposals are attempts to find shared action to achieve the aim using a particular strategy.|
|Connection requests aim to establish a caring connection.||Check-in, clarification rounds (are we understanding the proposal the same way?), quick reaction rounds (what comes up for you around this proposal?), meeting evaluations (how did you experience this meeting?) are tools to find mutual understanding and connection in a team.|
|We might say no to a request if the request leaves a relevant need of ours unmet||We raise objections if a proposal creates harm to the aim.|
|If we struggle, it’s often because we lack clarity of our needs and about the strategies to meet our needs.||When we struggle, it’s often because the we lack clarity of our aim (or it’s not shared), and when we disagree about the strategy to achieve the aim.|