Monday, August 22, 2016


The word combinatorics is a fancy way of recognizing that we do not live in a single-cell universe.  We live among an infinitely large number of things.  And who is to say where between one thing and another the association stops?  Can you say that you are unconnected with a fortuneteller in Mongolia, or a cloud on Venus, or a rock in the Alpha Centauri System.

I was reading exchanges among NVC (nonviolent communication) students this week, where I ran across some interesting ideas.

The first was that when there are 3 nodes in the communication environ, all agreements take the form of 2-to-1 or 3-to-0.  There is no opportunity for disagreement (absence of agreement), unless 1 of the 3 exits the structure.  I have frequently written here that the only manageable associations are 1-to-1, between 2 members of an association.  But I can reconcile that with the combination of 3.  The proponent of the threesome idea drew a diagram similar to this:

/   \
/      \
/         \

There are 6 ways in which an agreement can reach a majority between two,  A can sway B or B can sway A.  A can sway C or C can sway A. C can sway B or B can sway C.  But if any of these combinations occur, the third node can opt out or in, 1 agreement or 2.  But the one agreement, or the two separate agreements, are all 1-to-1.  In a voluntary arrangement, A cannot dictate what form the agreement between B and C takes -- in other words A cannot control the interaction between B and C, cannot intervene in any practical sense.  The 3-way arrangement can only survive, as voluntary, if each participant refrains from intervening between the 2nd party and the 3rd.  In my opinion, it is very hard for humans to do this.  Rather humans will almost always gang up 2-against-1.

This brings us to the second idea -- nonviolent communication (NVC) is composed of 
  • Observation free from evaluation,
  • Feelings free from judgment,
  • Needs free from strategy, and
  • Requests free from demand.
Viktor Frankl wrote, "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."  A friend insisted that we have our filters in place before we get to that space, but it seems unlikely that we do not also have the choice of which filters or no filter or the need to build a new filter in that space.  To the extent that we can keep an open mind, delaying evaluation, that is the extent to which we can optimize non-violent communication and keep our filters in good health.

Feelings and judgment also have a space.  Feelings don't just demand judgment, they demand analysis.  What is causing our feelings?  What, objectively, will resolve the emotional tension?

The same can be said of needs.  We often confuse needs with wants, and thus with emotions.  We often spend huge amounts of time with strategies which are attempts to escape the emotions surrounding true needs and false needs (wants).  Our tendencies is to be content, to know where our next meal is coming from -- maybe our next meal does not need to come from our enemy's table, maybe there is no need to consider another as an enemy because they appear to have a full table.

Lastly, we most often do not need coercion to satisfy our needs.  Coercion turns the simple existence of a need into the strategy of satisfying a need by impairing another's satisfaction of of their need.
In all of these, the trick is expanding the space in which our learning and wisdom can affect the outcome, avoiding externalities that can corrupt wisdom.