Broadcast February 7, 2021
Featuring: Steve Torma, Eric Wolf
In this episode, Earthaven member and SOIL Faculty member Steve Torma discusses how nonviolent or compassionate communication (NVC) has been helpful in his life, neighborhood, and at Earthaven, along with how he discovered and started teaching NVC.
Steve has been an Earthaven member since 1994, helped build the village and was a co-founder of two neighborhoods.
The podcast host is Eric Wolf, Earthaven resident and esteemed storyteller.
Having been a lifelong geek around communication and relationship skills, social justice, social transformation, I began to get really clear that of all the things that I had been interested in, that NVC was the best combination of theory and practice of anything that I’d ever experienced.
Hello, everyone, my name is Debbie Lienhart from the School of Integrated Living at Earthaven Ecovillage. Welcome to the Integrated Living podcast, where we explore integration within ourselves with the people around us and with the planet. In this episode, host Eric Wolf talks with Steve Torma about compassionate communication in community settings.
So one of the things that I (Eric Wolf) love on my tours, I do public tours, sometimes Earthaven private tours and things I love to talk about is conflict and community and people go on my tours and say we were here last week. But this tour is very different. And I really enjoy that aspect because I think as Americans or many Americans don’t realize how much energy it takes to get along when you don’t have to, when you can’t buy your way out of the situation you can’t just leave. You can’t just move. And so to me, this is the secret sauce and Steve has developed his own recipe. And so today we’re going to be learning the secret sauce of community.
Well, maybe growing up in a family of 11 kids and authoritarian parents. I’m joking about it. But I’m very also serious that as a kid, I started realizing not only in my personal life, but also in the world that, why is there so much conflict and why do we have such trouble getting along with each other and so forth? And as I continued on my path into intentional community, it was very obvious to me that this desire that we have to live together and enjoy each other and work together can get so disrupted by the ways that we generate unnecessary conflict and our inability to handle the inevitable conflicts.
I don’t think all conflicts are inevitable. I think conflict is inevitable. But most of the conflicts that we create are not necessary, in my opinion. But they’re products of how we’ve been raised to think. It’s often called a dominator culture. So I would say pretty early on in my community life, in my early and mid 20s, it was clear to me.
So let’s say someone is listening and they’re living in community. What would be a central idea or practice that they could adopt that would help them to live more successfully through community. And understand that in my definition of community, community is conflict. To be in community is to be with people. You’re going to have difference of opinion. The question is it violent, emotionally present? You know, what form of conflict are you working through? And so I’m curious what you have learned. What is the most valuable thing for you in how to deal with the close quarters of community?
Well, first, I want to appreciate what you just said about conflict, and I think that’s important. I just want to add that I’ve been very influenced by a man named Dominic Barter. He and his community developed a system called Restorative Circles. And one of the things that Dominic said resonates with what you just said, Eric, is that conflict is the flow of information between people and that conflict becomes painful when we resist the flow of information. I had never heard anything like that. And it really got me thinking. And as I was thinking about it through the lens of compassionate communication or nonviolent communication, I started thinking about the theories and ideas that Marshall Rosenberg, the man who developed nonviolent communication, about how everything that we do is an attempt to meet a need, and that when we can see through that lens, when we’re having a conflict with someone, if we can see through that lens of like, oh, they’re saying this thing or they’re doing this thing and it’s painful for me or in some way uncomfortable.
If I can go to the level of awareness of, oh, they’re trying to get their needs met. I wonder what needs they’re trying to meet and then to ask myself that same question. If I’m feeling something and wanting something, what needs am I trying to meet? So I’d say the number one skill to practice is to drop into this need level, because in nonviolent communication or compassionate communication theory, conflict is never between needs, it’s always between strategies.
And that sounds like a huge claim. And the first time I heard it, I didn’t believe it. And I asked Marshall himself once when doing a training Do you really mean that? Like, it’s always a conflict between strategies and never between needs. And he said, yes, absolutely. And here’s a guy with 50 plus years all around the world working with everything from couples to warring nations.
It’s an incredible claim. And so I’ve been experimenting with that idea for about 12 years now. And it’s really fascinating how a conflict can shift when we start getting curious about each other, about what is going on at your level. What are you needing? What are you hoping? What needs are you hoping to get met by this thing that you’re saying or this thing that you’re doing? And when both people get curious like that, it almost always dramatically changes the situation and makes it much more workable.
How have you seen Earthaven shift and mature over time as you’ve lived here? Like, what are some of the behaviors you saw early on that were spectacularly unsuccessful and how over time this behavior shifted?
Yeah, I would say that integrating nonviolent communication into the culture of Earthaven has been an enormous step for us in moving toward being able to live our purpose as a community. It’s allowed us to be much more effective at creating inner peace within ourselves or not so agitated in dealing with each other, for being more skilled at communicating with each other and working out conflicts, increasing our capacity to collaborate with each other, to be more powerful in manifesting projects, reaching our goals. It’s been very, very significant in the evolution of our community.
Steve is particularly good at not saying things that make people look bad. I’ve noticed that about Steve. That was a great answer, don’t get me wrong. But how has behaviors here at Earthaven changed over 20 years and you almost refused to say the ways that like.
Can you describe, because I know there are people listening who are living in a conflict or there might be someone listening who’s living in communitarian conflict. And could you describe some of the spectacular failures, without saying anybody’s names, of course, that you’ve seen over the past 25, 30 years?
Sure. Probably the most noticeable one is what we call an NVC judgment as a tragic expression of unmet needs. So two people or two groups are having a conflict about a particular issue or proposal. And instead of saying something like, wow, I’m just really frustrated when I hear the way that you’re describing, you know, that project or what you want. I’m really frustrated and I’m really scared about how that might affect the well-being of the community or that might affect the quality of the land or how we interface with the public or, you know, what the concern is.
And instead of saying the feeling and the need, someone says a judgment. Something like, well, that’s a ridiculous idea. That’s a stupid idea. Why would you even say that? You know, don’t you care about the community? Or if we do that, that’s going to be terrible for the community. I make all these judgments that almost always people would respond defensively and mutually aggressive. And there was so much time and energy wasted on slinging judgments and criticism and blame back and forth, rather than being able to drop down to the need level, which in NVC, NVC being the acronym for Nonviolent Communication, which in NVC we believe that in every moment we’re just trying to get our needs met.
So the word spectacular is quite accurate. It was a spectacular waste of time and energy and created so much pain between people and over the last 10, 12 years. As we’ve grown our self awareness and our skills of communicating and so forth, we’ve gotten much, much more efficient at working together and being curious and empathetic.
So I would say those two words, curious and empathetic, are the the practices or the the energy that helps to shift when people are are stuck and locked into conflict to be able to go to curiosity about the other person, genuine curiosity and genuine empathy, which in NVC means really listening to and connecting to the other person’s feelings and needs.
How difficult was it to convince the community that nonviolent communication should be a part of the curriculum for new members?
I think it naturally happened over time. It was not a goal that I or any of us had at the very beginning to try to make this be part of the membership process. I was just kind of, you know, desperately trying to have less conflict in my own personal life, in my neighborhood life and in my community life. It was kind of like, I want to put these fires out, you know? And so as more of us had the direct personal experience of, whoa, I’m using these new tools and things are feeling better and I’m being more effective at communicating and working together with people, then over time it just became a natural occurring thought to many of us, how do we weave this into the culture of Earthaven?
And that’s when one of those strategies was let’s make it be part of the membership process.
In particular, what skills or practices of nonviolent communication, would you recommend people bring into community life?
Yeah, such an important question. You know, as you asked me that, I remember this philosophical struggle I when I talked with others about it, because in NVC we don’t try to make anybody do anything. It’s contradictory to the spirit of NVC to say you have to learn NVC. But in conversation with people, it became clear that the basic consciousness and skills of NVC would make people’s entry into the community much easier and much more effective.
And so we did have it included in the curriculum or in the membership process. And I would say the most important skill is to start with what we call an NVC self empathy, which means the ability to drop out of my head and out of the dominator culture ways of thinking, which are judging and blaming and diagnosing, and drop into our bodies to actually be able to know what I’m feeling and what I’m needing. So in NVC, we call that self empathy.
So that’s the most foundational skill that there is to develop a feeling and need literacy so that at any moment I can connect to that part of me that then allows me to be able to share that with other people. So that’s the next concept or skill is what we generally just call honesty, which is to be able to share what’s going on for me at the feeling and need level instead of just sharing my judgment and criticism. And then the third would be empathy, which simply means my ability to connect with and put my attention on your feelings and needs.
So those three things, self empathy, knowing what’s going on for me, honesty, being able to share my feelings and needs with you, and empathy, being able to connect with and receive and be curious about your feelings and needs. Those three things are the the the core of NVC as it would be applied to any relationships, but especially community.
How did you begin to find and experience nonviolent communication in your life? What was your first exposure and and where did you learn it and study it? And you’d said you’d actually met with Marshall at one point?
Actually, my first exposure to it was way back in 1983, at the tender age of 25, I did an afternoon little mini workshop with a guy, not Marshall, with somebody else. And so I always knew of it as a thing, but didn’t really practice it all that much. It wasn’t until 2007 when I was experiencing a lot of conflict in my intimate relationship with my partner and within in our neighborhood here at Village Terraces and in Earthaven.
And I was kind of having this sense of desperation of really needing to figure out what I and we can do to get beyond this grueling conflict that was so exhausting. And that’s when we in Village Terraces hired a fella from town to come out here and do an eight week class for us on NVC. And that really lit me up. I had a very clear awareness. That’s what I really need. That’s what we need in order to be able to grow beyond these stuck levels of painful conflict.
And so after I immersed myself in it for a year or two, I decided, well, I’m I’m no expert. But Marshall has this phrase, anything worth doing is worth doing poorly. So I’m going to start offering it here at the community. Just for free, anybody who will be willing to come in and learn together, I would invite people to come and do that. And so I started facilitating classes here at Earthaven and immediately began to see positive results in my own life and in our neighborhood and in the community.
And then a friend of mine approached me about wanting to start a school for teaching these kinds of things, communication and relationship skills and so forth in Asheville. And so I started on a very small scale doing that around two-thousand nine, ten, whatever, and did do a 10 day intensive with a couple of other friends of mine with Marshall and some other NVC trainers. That was a very deep dive into NVC community and process and so forth.
And so it’s just grown from that point. And having been a lifelong geek around communication and relationship skills and social justice and social transformation, I began to get really clear that of all the things that I had been interested in, psychology and religion and spirituality, that NVC was the best combination of theory and practice of anything that I’d ever come across. So I just continued to immerse myself in mostly Marshall’s writings and teachings, but other NVC people as well.
And it’s just become my spiritual path, because I think of it as kind of like a postmodern spirituality. It takes the core teachings of all world religions, and takes away the dogma and the trappings of it and just gets to the to the heart of what those teachings are about and how to live it moment by moment. So it’s both my spiritual path as well as my passion for sharing it with people. And it’s the main thing that I do to contribute to the world and meet my needs for purpose and contribution and meaning in my life.
Well, mostly my own classes that I set up through my Real Center website, but sometimes for other organizations as well. Firefly Gathering is probably the one that I’ve done the most. I think it’s like been eight years or so. I teach there and a variety of other organizations that I may do. A one-off workshop or maybe a class. And one of my favorite things that has happened over the last four or five years is groups of people will come to me, groups of friends get together, family and friends get together who have taken class. One or more of those people have taken classes with me. And they come to me and they say, hey, I want you to teach NVC for my family or for my community of friends.
And so I’ve had about seven or eight. Those they’re my favorites because there are people who already know each other. They already know that they want to go deep with each other. And so I call those my family group classes. So I do that as well. I’m now starting to do a few more things online this year, teaching a lot of classes online. So branching out a little bit now into video as well.
How do you see yourself carrying forward the practices of compassion and communication in community settings going forward?
Yeah, I think what we’re doing right here, getting more into audio and video is a cutting edge for me. And also continuing with this project that my partner Terrie and I started called the 10000 Love Letters Project, which has three goals. One is to write and collect 10000 love letters over the next 30 years. Well, now it’s 27 years, to share NVC with 10000 people and to also distribute 10000 copies of this booklet on the Iroquois Confederacy Thanksgiving address.
So this was a project that Terrie and I started as we were entering our what’s called the third saturn cycle, about a 30 year astrological cycle, which has roughly 10000 days. So it’s a big part of how I want to apply my life and promote these values of community and compassion and social, personal and social transformation and what I hope will be a full third saturn cycle, which will take me to about 90 years old, I hope.
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