Communication Skills for Equal Dignity (CommunicationEQ)

Dennis Rivers, Director and Coordinator

On the sacredness of "I beg to disagree. I understand we see this differently."   I am delighted to join hearts and minds with the extended HumanDHS collaborative community. I believe our shared work has deep implications both inside and outside of the university world.  I say this because open dialogue, exploratory questioning and respectful disagreement are three of the most significant prerequisites of universities.  At the present moment, culture at large on planet Earth appears to be moving in other directions: toward armed confrontations, coercive control and a trillion-dollar-a-year global arms race (both conventional and nuclear) which relies on the unquestioning silence and acquiescence of everyday citizens.  None of these developments bode well for the future of universities.  So, in my view, universities need to become much more persuasive advocates of open dialogue, a communication style based on equal dignity, both to offer help and direction to a world burdened with violence, fear and coercion, and also to keep alive the great tradition of universities, a tradition that has contributed so much to human life over the past thousand years.  The Internet offers us many new possibilities to embody and present the life of compassionate reason.  I look forward to working with you toward these noble ends.

Note from Dennis Rivers (August 5, 2005):

The best way to explain HumanDHS's Communication Skills for Equal Dignity Project is to begin with a story.  For many years my colleague in anti-nuclear ruckus-raising, the late Wanda Michalenko, and I gave non-violence trainings for various peace and ecology groups in a large park in the center of Santa Barbara.  Although we studied the literature and made careful preparations for our trainings, we often had the thought, "someday the experts from out of town are going to come and show us how to really do this."  We gradually became aware that non-violence is not a finished body of knowledge that could be delivered to us by experts.  We and our trainings were part of the evolution of non-violence, we had to prepare as best we could and then "make a path by walking" with our learning companions.  For one thing, each person's journey toward a commitment to non-violence was unique.  We could accompany, support and to some small degree evoke and shape that journey, but we also had to leave a lot of room for a person to find their own way, reach their own conclusions and make their own commitments.

In the Communication Skills for Equal Dignity Project we are, in a similar way, traveling into uncharted territory.  As teachers, coaches, trainers, psychotherapists, social workers and developmental companions, we are not simply observers of human interaction, we are intimate advocates, helping people change the way they talk, listen, and think about themselves and others.  But we have inherited tradition of social thought that divides our experience into facts and values, and this dominant tradition is not of much help to us as we strive to support the full development of the people we encounter.  Full development and thwarted development are both facts.  How is it that we choose to support the latter?  I believe very deeply that we need a new paradigm in which fact-gatherers and values-advocates have a dialogue, each learning something from the other.  We need a new paradigm of respectful intervention, a capacity to advocate on behalf of life.  For example, around the world a lot of people humiliate one another, mistreat each other, and even shoot one another with guns.  Why don't we just except these as facts of life?  On what ground do we stand, when we advocate that people should resolve their arguments and differences in other ways?  Part of our task is to articulate that ground more deeply and more completely.  Because communication trainers, social workers, organizational development specialists, etc., have always been interveners and agents of change, they are well situated to help expand our understanding of respectful intervention. 

Our human capacity to destroy life is expanding at an exponential rate, as judged by the power of our weapons, the reach of our enterprises, and the number of species going extinct each year.  The quality and wisdom of our advocacy on behalf of our own lives, the lives of other people, and the lives of other species, do not seem to me to be expanding in all.  So we have what I would call a compassionate advocacy gap. To the degree that we have relied on universities to be a source of new responses to our predicament, I am afraid the universities have let us down, creating new technologies, such as nuclear weapons, but not creating a global culture of new conversations that would be appropriate for a world full of nuclear weapons.  ("Much, error, that's not the responsibility of my department.")  So, just as Wanda and I had eventually to stop waiting for the experts to come and show us the way, and had to create the best non-violence training we possibly could with the materials available at hand, I think researchers on human dignity and humiliation around the world need to spend some time each day dreaming new dreams.  I look forward to exploring with you what new models, stories, biographies, bark paintings, ethnographic reports, mandalas, weavings, poems and songs, open up our horizon of new possibilities. (Please take a look at a recent mandala of mine:  In an evolutionary sense, it does seem to me that we are being challenged by history to come up with a new advocacy of life, compassion and mutual-dignity-granting, that is as strong as our weapons of destruction and institutions of oppression.  Certainly, no one can complain that this is a dull era in which to be a human being.  We will make a path by walking together.

One focus of my work over the past decade has been the creation of an online free library of training materials. Along with putting my own communication skills workbook online, I was especially pleased when, several years ago, the Quaker peace activist, Ms. Gene Knudsen Hoffman, gave to the Library her lesson plans for the compassionate listening workshops she had been teaching for many years.  The Online Library at, now distributes about 8,000 web documents a month about cooperative communication skills, compassionate listening, conflict resolution and non-violence to visitors from approximately 120 countries.  About a thousand of those copies are of Gene Knudsen Hoffman's lesson plans and essays.  Scholar/practitioners working in these areas are invited to join in this cooperative effort by contributing books, monographs, training materials and essays to be made available free of charge in PDF format.  (It is hard to organize for equal dignity when some people have books and others do not.  Free libraries on the Internet are far from an ideal response to this problem, because not everyone has access to a computer with a connection to the Internet, but at least free libraries on the web are the start of a response.)

For this global, shared library, I am especially interested in training materials, although training materials occupy perhaps the very lowest rung on the academic totem pole.  What I have discovered in my own work as a trainer is that there seem to be two deep pragmatics at work in human conversations: a logic of explanation, and a logic of facilitation.  The logic of explanation points toward the past, and explains events that have already happened. The logic of facilitation points for the future, and arranges for people to take new actions.  The logic of facilitation assumes that people are active agents, causing events to take place.  The logic of explanation, in identifying causes of events, often casts us as the passive recipients of those causal influences.  This leads to a kind of knowledge that one worker in the field of child malnutrition called TBU (true but useless)[1];   tracing causal links often tells us nothing about where the openings for change are in a situation.  The logic of facilitation suggests that if you want to find out about a particular process, dignity granting for example, try to enact that process yourself and try to help others do it, even if your ideas about the process are only of a preliminary sort.  My colleague Barnett Pearce frequently tells a story about Thor Heyerdhal, the Norwegian explorer.  After Heyerdal proved that the aboriginal people of South America could have migrated to Easter Island on rafts, by constructing a traditional raft of balsa wood and making the trip, he took up the issue of the great monoliths on Easter Island. Scholars had puzzled for decades about how the great monoliths on Easter Island had been constructed.  Heyerdhal did something no one before him had done: he asked the Easter Islanders to build a monolith so that he could see how it was done.  And he did see just that!  I want to add here that I am not advocating that we abandon our quest for causal understanding. All my training materials have been heavily informed by the best psychological and communication research I could find.  But their goal is not to prove a point, their goal is to help a person take new action.  I invite everyone doing training work in the areas of tolerance, cooperative problem-solving, communication skills, and conflict resolution, to share their materials more broadly.  By sharing our facilitation work with the world, we can enlarge the circle of what is possible.

Please e-mail me at

1. Read about Jerry and Monique Sternin's work in Vietnam at


Communication Skills for Equal Dignity  --  Books and Essays by Dennis Rivers

The Seven Challenges: A Workbook and Reader on Communcating More Cooperatively
is available free of charge as a series of web pages, each with an easy link to a
printer-friendly version. The Workbook is also available as a single PDF file (2MB, free)
and in addition can be purchased as a printed book (US $16 + postage).   

A one-page summary of the Seven Challenges
A single page version complete with the same color cartoon
illustrations that appear in the Workbook.  
Adobe Acrobat version

The Cooperative Communication EMERGENCY KIT

    A one-page list of suggestions about how to manage 
    and resolve conflicts.  By Dennis Rivers, MA and Paloma Pavel, PhD
Adobe Acrobat version

What Kind of Person Am I Becoming?  What Kind
of People Are We Becoming Together?

    Reflections on interpersonal communication 
    and the journey of becoming a person. 

Reflections on the Struggle to Be Honest
    Honest conversations viewed as counseling 
    and counseling viewed as conversations that
    allow for honesty

Special Essay, June, 2005:
Beyond the Hall of Mirrors --
Reflections on War, Terror and Human Interaction


The NewConversations.NET Library   Invites your contributions.


Links  (under construction)


Please send suggestions to

Ellison, Sharon (2003). Taking the War Out of Our Words: The Art of Powerful Non-Defensive Communication. Berkeley, CA: Bay Tree Publishing.