Program Design Week: Marti Frank on using Non-violent communication to tell an evaluation story

I’m Marti Frank, a researcher and program evaluator from Portland, Oregon. I’ve found the hardest part of a project is making recommendations that resonate with my client, and I’ve been working on an approach to developing and communicating recommendations that’s rooted in non-violent communication.

Lessons Learned: Evaluation clients are naturally attached to their programs. Finding non-threatening ways to draw attention to program design issues and inspire action can be a challenging skill to master for evaluators.

Hot Tip: Use a non-violent communication approach to develop and present program design recommendations.

Non-violent communication (NVC) dates back to the 1960s and people have found it useful in incredibly diverse contexts, from peace-making to parenting. NVC focuses on three aspects of communication: self-empathy (an awareness of one’s inner experiences), empathy (understanding the feelings and emotions of others), and honest self-expression (expressing oneself authentically in a way that inspire compassion from others). The goal is to foster open, honest communication and avoid communication that block compassion or alienates people. My eight-year-old son is learning NVC at school as a way to mediate disputes. Why not use it in evaluation, too?

In my interpretation, NVC is a three-step process that frames a conversation.

Observations ? consequences ? requests

In the evaluation context:

  • Observations and consequences are both evidence-based, they differ only in their causal relationship; the evaluator’s challenge is to distinguish between them.
  • Observations can be any information that helps us describe the program and its context. This approach to thinking about and reporting on evaluation findings has helped me make a place for anecdotal or otherwise-hard-to-chart data.
  • Consequences are what result from the observed conditions. In my formulation, consequences are usually the social condition we want to explain, or change.
  • Requests are recommendations: what we think needs to happen to move from the consequences at hand to our ideal state.

Lessons Learned: I find the benefits of the NVC approach are that it:

  • Forces us to think about data in a narrative format. This means there’s no shying away from questions of causality.
  • Makes room for anecdotes and other one-off pieces of data that strike us intuitively as important but which otherwise may not find a home in an evaluation report structured around the statistically significant results of data collection activities.  
  • Contextualizes recommendations so that, by the time we get to them in the report or presentation, we’ve brought the audience along on our chain of logical reasoning.
  • Can help tie the particular findings from any single evaluation back to the organization’s theory of change, supporting or adding nuance to the theory.

Rad Resource: Getting to Yes is a classic handbook on negotiation and communication with ties to the NVC approach.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Program Design TIG Week with our colleagues in the Program Design Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our Program Design TIG  members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.