Formerly the interim Director for Bay Area Nonviolent Communication (BayNVC), Erica Grevemeyer joined the organization in 2003, after acting upon her desire to find meaning beyond financial sustainability in her work and left her software engineering career of 6 years. Prior to that she served 2 years in the Peace Corps in Morocco. She has a BA in Linguistics from University of Chicago and has been a student of Buddhism since 1992. Erica, also affectionately known as ‘Svani’, has been a regular fixture in the New Dharma Community since 2006. ‘Svani’ is short for Sundaresvani, which in Sanskrit means, “beautiful voice.”
CXC: What does your organization do? How would you describe its programs?
EG: BayNVC offers tools to prevent and resolve conflicts and improve relationships. We teach Nonviolent Communication (NVC) to the public and in organizations such as schools, prisons, non-profits, faith communities and corporations.
BayNVC is based in Oakland. We have trained people locally, nationally and internationally. Our trainings range from a 2 hour introduction to an intensive year long leadership program.
I sometimes jokingly say we teach people to have more fun fighting. The truth behind that joke is that I believe we help people to more effectively meet and navigate conflicts authentically, rather than suppressing what matters to them, while taking responsibility for our choices rather than lashing out at others.
CXC: How do you define Nonviolent Communication? What do you want folks to know about it?
EG: One way I like to describe it is: it’s a set of linguistic tools that help you to get curious about what is important to you & to others about an experience.
These linguistic tools stealthily work on consciousness, ultimately transforming consciousness — moving from right/wrong & us/them & blame & demand, to simply a sea of people. People often mistake the training-wheels, these linguistic tools, to be what NVC is. They think that to use NVC means they are going to be constrained in how they speak for ever & ever [eek!] They are just a teaching tool.
When I get down to the ‘essence’ of NVC, I believe it is about cultivating curiosity. It is a rigorous practice of cultivating curiosity about the experiences of others, and the experience of myself & what is really important in each interaction.
CXC: This month’s newsletter theme is new year, new beginnings. Can you share a few words of what this theme means to you as the interim director of Bay NVC?
EG: We are taking the opportunity at the new year to reassess our work & how we are offering it. Many of our trainers have a great deal of enthusiasm for using Nonviolent Communication to create social change, perhaps in different ways than we have in the past.
Combining this with the fact that BayNVC, like many others, has felt acutely the dramatic contraction of the economy we’ve concluded continuing to do what has worked in the past is unlikely to continue to work. We see this as an opportunity to take a pretty close look at what ways we can most effectively bring our skills forth into the community to have the largest impact we can have.
CXC: What do you think is the relationship of Nonviolent Communication to transformative social change?
Dehumanization is an essential first step in mass violence. It is a first step in violence of any scale. NVC is one of the most effective tools I’ve found to help me connect with the humanity of the other (that’s anyone I perceive as separate from me: politicians, the guy on BART, my partner etc.). I believe this can make me more effective, make it more possible for me to work with people who seemingly have opposing ideas.
Let me share a story with you:
When I was brand new to NVC I spent a summer in a foreign language class with a man who was from the extreme opposite side of the US political spectrum from me on almost every issue. We spent the entire summer arguing politics. The conversations were heated, emotional, and full of what we each believed to be the ‘truth’. [This was during the early days of the Iraq war, so there was plenty to disagree about — not like now… 😉 ]
What stood out to me, what made the debates remarkable, was that we weren’t trying to convince each other — we gave up on that within minutes of meeting each other. Instead we spent the whole summer trying to figure out, “how could a smart guy/girl like you think like you do!?” — It was eye opening.
By the end of the summer, I saw that there were just a few core beliefs, perhaps 2 or 3, that separated my political choices from his. Through openness and curiosity, we came to a common ground that opened the space for real dialogue.
Both of us expressed our gratitude to each other at the end of our time together — it had been a true pleasure to listen and be listened to so completely — not from the perspective of a ‘knee jerk liberal’ or a ‘rabid conservative’, but from two real people, concerned about the state of the world today, and wanting to make sure that all of us have a place to live that is safe, and healthy.
I saw with the meager skills I had at that time, what was possible. I was inspired and motivated to learn more.
CXC: How has Nonviolent Communication shaped your life?
EG: Hmm, not so much ‘shaped my life’ as given voice & structure to HOW to implement all that all of my spiritual practices have taught. Practical linguistic training wheels helped me to see HOW to get from thinking I ’should’ love my enemies to actually loving these people who infallibly cease to be my enemies.
Every practice community I’ve ever touched, has had some version of “look for that of God in everyone” or an exhortation toward “loving kindness” or “doing what Jesus would do”. I kept seeing these as something that I ‘should’ embody, that if I were a ‘good person’, I’d be able to see everyone’s intrinsic humanity. NVC helped me to shift from this being merely a ‘good idea’ to having sign-posts directing me to my heart.
When I first started exploring NVC I heard many people talk about the gifts found in the “NVC community”. I was clear that wasn’t what drew me. I felt well connected and didn’t want to add another group in my life.
Even so, I have found my life enriched by what the community offers. Two things in particular come to mind: a shared commitment to authenticity and a kind of support I find very satisfying. The deep commitment to authenticity invites my own and supports me in stretching to be my biggest self. The practices work well with other mind-body awareness practices to invite myself to closely look at where I am and what is motivating my choices.
Prior to discovering NVC & NVC students, I often found that people offered support in challenging situations by giving advice. I never enjoyed it. I appreciated the intention but there was something that often felt ‘off’ like I wasn’t being heard.
As I studied NVC I came to understand that I didn’t feel comfortable with the advice because they were responding out of their own stories and not necessarily mine.
I prefer the kinds of support I get from folks in the NVC community because people habitually start listening first, long before they offer strategies.