Communication Skills for Equal Dignity

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.

Please see the CommunicationEQ mirror page on Dennis River's website!


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 intervenors 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.  ("Uhhh, errr, 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 www.NewConversations.NET, 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 Heyerdal, the Norwegian explorer.  After Heyerdal proved that you could go from South America to Easter Island on a raft, by constructing a raft of reeds 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.  Hyerdhal 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

Please see the CommunicationEQ mirror page on Dennis River's website!



Please note that the entire HumanDHS website is maintained by volunteers, since its inception in 2003, and this is mainly done by Evelin Lindner. Until 2012, she usually pasted interesting news into this Links section. From July 2012 until 2017, she tagged interesting information on From 2017 onward, you see Evelin's personal list of interesting web links on Twitter:

The System Improvement Process
SIP was developed to solve any difficult large-scale social problem. This includes the "excessive humiliation problem." Systems Engineer Jack Harich invites all researchers to study SIP (in a personal message, 15th January 2013).

Global Voices
Global Voices is a community of more than 300 bloggers and translators around the world who work together to bring you reports from blogs and citizen media everywhere, with emphasis on voices that are not ordinarily heard in international mainstream media. Global Voices seeks to aggregate, curate, and amplify the global conversation online - shining light on places and people other media often ignore. We work to develop tools, institutions and relationships that will help all voices, everywhere, to be heard. Millions of people are blogging, podcasting, and uploading photos, videos, and information across the globe, but unless you know where to look, it can be difficult to find respected and credible voices. Our international team of volunteer authors and part-time editors are active participants in the blogospheres they write about on Global Voices. Global Voices is incorporated in the Netherlands as Stichting Global Voices, a nonprofit foundation. We do not have an office, but work as a virtual community across multiple time zones, meeting in person only when the opportunity arises (usually during our Summits). We rely on grants, sponsorships, editorial commissions, and donations to cover our costs. Our Projects Global Voices is translated into more than 30 languages by volunteer translators, who have formed the Lingua project. Additionally, Global Voices has an Advocacy website and network to help people speak out online in places where their voices are censored. We also have an outreach project called Rising Voices to help marginalized communities use citizen media to be heard, with an emphasis on the developing world. Read more.

Youku is a video hosting service based in People's Republic of China.

'$100 laptop' to Sell to Public
By Jonathan Fildes
Science and technology reporter, BBC News
Computer enthusiasts in the developed world will soon be able to get their hands on the so-called "$100 laptop".
The organisation behind the project has launched the "give one, get one" scheme that will allow US residents to purchase two laptops for $399 (£198).
Please read the entire article at and on

Mobile System Promises Free Calls
A new way of making calls directly between phones, for free, is being trialled by a Swedish company. It is hoping to dramatically improve communications in the developing world. Swedish company TerraNet has developed the idea using peer-to-peer technology that enables users to speak on its handsets without the need for a mobile phone base station. The technology is designed for remote areas of the countryside or desert where base stations are unfeasible. Projects backed by TerraNet recently launched in Tanzania and Ecuador...
Please read the entire article at

Americans Embrace Politics Online
Americans are increasingly using the internet as their primary source of political news, a study has found. The report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project also found that more people are contributing to political debate via their own blogs. While it stops short of claiming the net has politicised Americans, the report sees a growing online influence on how people think about civic issues. The prevalence of broadband in US homes is one reason for the growth. Nearly half of US homes now have a broadband connection and the internet is playing an increasing role in daily lives... Increasingly Americans are turning to international online news sources to get a perspective on how domestic political life is played out on the wider stage. "The BBC News website is among the most popular," said Mr Rainie...
Please read the entire article at

One Laptop Per Child Project
$100 laptop project launches 2007
The first batch of computers built for the One Laptop Per Child project could reach users by July this year. The scheme is hoping to put low-cost computers into the hands of people in developing countries. Ultimately the project's backers hope the machines could sell for as little as $100 (£55). The first countries to sign up to buying the machine include Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Nigeria, Libya, Pakistan and Thailand. The so-called XO machine is being pioneered by Nicholas Negroponte, who launched the project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab in 2004. Test machines are expected to reach children in February as the project builds towards a more formal launch.
Please read the entire article at

An Ecology of Devotion: A Personal Exploration of Reverence for Life
In EarthLight Magazine, Issue 49, Summer 2003 (revised February, 2004).
You can access this article also on Dennis website.
Please see also the CommunicationEQ mirror page on Dennis River's website!

Taking the War Out of Our Words: The Art of Powerful Non-Defensive Communication

Sharon Ellison, 2003, Berkeley, CA: Bay Tree Publishing.