Nonviolent Conferencing

Nonviolent Conferencing

Photo of some folks in a nonviolent conference

OK, not so many Agile or business conferences end up in a brawl or other such overt violence. But I have been at several conferences where violent language was rife.

In any case, this post is not about that.

It’s about the use of the principles of nonviolent communication in making better conferences.

“The number one rule of our [NVC] training is empathy before education.”

~ Marshall B. Rosenberg

So, how to encourage and maybe even assure empathy as the primary objective for a conference? Well, having it as the explicit objective might help, for starters. I’ve never been at a conference (of any format) where empathy has been the declared goal.

Of course, many folks in the Agile community are quite close, like family almost, so I note Rosenberg’s caution:

“It may be most difficult to empathize with those to whom we are closest.”

~ Marshall B. Rosenberg

Having been practising nonviolent communication with my nearest and dearest recently, I can attest to the truthiness of this caution.

What is Empathy?

According to Rosenberg:

“Empathy is a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing.”

I’m thinking here more about sharing an understanding about what folks are experiencing in their at-work situations – although what they’re experiencing at the conference itself has some relevance and interest, too.

The Four Steps of Nonviolent Communication

So, if we take empathy as our primary goal, how might we address the question of a suitable format or structure of a Nonviolent Conference? I suggest the four steps of Nonviolent Communication can guide us:

  1. Say what you saw, or heard (a simple evaluation-free statement)
  2. Say what you felt (it can help, initially, to pick from a list)
    “I feel…”
  3. Say what you need (again here’s a handy list)
    “…because I need/value…”
  4. Make a request (the concrete actions you would like taken)
    “Would you be willing to…?”

How can we convert these steps into a conference format? Here’s my take.

  1. Folks share with each other their observations (things seen, heard or otherwise observed at their places of work, free from judgements or evaluations).
  2. Folks then share what they felt about these things observed.
  3. Folks state what they needed, needs which caused them to feel that way.
  4. Folks make requests (non-demanding, positive, actionable) of the other folks gathered together (i.e. their fellow attendees), in the hope that someone (or some number of those folks, together) might be able to meet that request.

To recap, this is suggesting that:

a) Someone states a context for a request
b) They then make the relevant request

Rinse and repeat. Easy as.

Of course, this might be new to most if not all the attendees. And identifying one’s own feelings, and the needs which cause them, is a skill that develops only with practice. It would be great to have Dr. Rosenberg there to facilitate, of course, but given his busy schedule, maybe we could find some other experienced NVC practitioner(s) to help things along. And the day could open with a demonstration of these four steps by someone who had either rehearsed or was practiced in them.

As to format, I can think of several options:

  • One large room, with everyone taking turns (or drawing straws) to share their context and request.
  • Several smaller rooms or areas, each with some means for serialising access to the “speaker’s” slot.
  • A goldfish-bowl or park-bench setup, with a small self-selecting queue of folks in line to “share and request”.
  • A World Cafe arrangement, where each table is seeded with a “share and request”-er and the other three people at the table attempt to meet the request. This may need some coordination to improve the odds that the three have the wherewithal to meet the request.
  • A series of Pecha Kuchas, with each 20-slide presentation setting the context and closing with a request, subsequently responded-to by members of “the audience”.
  • I’m sure you can come up with other ideas too. Would you be willing to share?

Some Other Pertinent Advices

Other aspects of nonviolent communication have relevance to conferences too, I believe, including:


“Never do anything that isn’t play.”

~ Marshall B. Rosenberg

Which may appeal to the Legoists out there, but let’s also remember Rosenberg’s definition of play. “Play” is any activity where we

“make choices motivated purely by our desire to contribute to life, rather than out of fear, guilt, shame, duty or obligation.”

Aside: I have myself experienced too many “play” sessions where judgement, fear, guilt, shame, duty or obligation were writ large in the proceedings.

Absence of Judgement

“When we judge others we contribute to violence.”

~ Marshall B. Rosenberg

How to give feedback to e.g. speakers and yet remain true to this advice? See the Fours Step of NVC for guidance on that, too. As well as my past blog post “How to Give Feedback“.

“Every criticism, judgment, diagnosis, and expression of anger is the tragic expression of an unmet need.”

 Absence of Coercion

“Learning is too precious to be motivated by coercive tactics.”

And I’d include “making” people sit and listen to speakers (through social expectations, politeness or lack of alternatives) under the soubriquet of “coercion”.


Not particularly a concept from nonviolent communication, but congruent, and an idea I’d like to see more in conferences everywhere. It’s been my experience that some Open Spaces and Unconferences have scratched the surface of creating a sense of fellowship amongst the folks involved. And I think we can all do so much more in this regard.

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there.”

~ Rumi

– Bob

Further Reading

Beyond Good and Evil: Marshall Rosenberg On Creating a Nonviolent World ~ Dian Killian

  1. gothandy said:


    I know a conference format that would encourage cross domain dialogue would meet my needs of seeing new ideas emerging. I’d love to experiment with the idea of breaking up into smaller groups to work on new ideas and a fresh presentation that can then be given to the wider group later in the day or on the 2nd day.

    Perhaps the first stage i.e. sharing what you see/hear can be done remotely before the face to face time?


  2. I think NVC is insufficiently strong to deal with politically motivated people. One needs to meet them on their own territory before you can bring them over to a more productive approach?

  3. Tobias said:

    I like this idea. Agile conferences need shaking out of their corporate coat-tailing mentality. Open Space isn’t the answer.

  4. Bob, thanks for alerting me about this post. I’ve been designing conferences that incorporate many of the themes you mention for the last twenty years, and wrote about the design that emerged in my book “Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love”, published in 2009. My conferences attempt to provide just the right amount of structure to support participants connecting, learning about and from each other, and ultimately creating the conference they want and need collectively at the event.

    You raise too many issues for me to respond to in detail here but I do want to mention two aspects.

    – The opening process I use—The Three Questions—effectively provides the information and context for the four step process you describe by publicly, yet safely, uncovering participants’ answers to why they came to the conference, what they would like to have happen there, and the expertise and experience they have that might be useful to others.

    – Explicit ground rules, which I started using about ten years ago, have made a subtle yet big difference to the feel of my events. I use six: the Four Freedoms (two of which are the freedom to ask questions and talk about feelings), a rule about confidentiality and one about staying on time when using scheduled space.

    Finally, I’ll add that I have been surprised at the ability of the peer conference process I’ve developed to avoid the kinds of violent communication you mention. For example, I’ve run state-wide conferences about food issues in Oregon and diversity in Vermont, where there were activists and government representatives present with widely different perspectives. One of my greatest pleasures has been to see how good process has allowed participants who have often clashed with each other in different environments to move to a place where they can get to know each other and meet in ways that are constructive and foster mutual respect, if not always agreement.

  5. Hi Bob,
    I’m pretty new to NVC, but I like your thoughts in the blog post. Could you give a realistic example of what a four step “share and request” would look like for an “agile” conference?



    • Hi Joakim,

      Thanks for joining the conversation. Can you help me better understand what you need? What you mean by a “realistic example”?

      – Bob

  6. When I read your post I started thinking about how I could experiment with these ideas when organizing or participating in conferences in the lean/agile communities. Since I am fairly new to the concept of NVC (I have read about it, but I haven’t practiced it) it is not that clear to me what your proposed four step “share and request” format would look like in this context. I guess that what I mean with “realistic example” is a concrete example in this context, e.g., if you were to participate in a conference like this what would a “share and request” from you look like? Since you seem to have been doing more thinking and practicing around this I believe that a concrete example would help me better understand your ideas.



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