Category Archives: commskills


There MUST Be a Better Way
Thoughts as the USA Stumbles Blindly Toward War with Iran

An editorial addressed to his fellow U.S citizens by Dennis Rivers
January 6, 2020

In the name of Jesus, who said “love your enemies,” and from the Inner Light of my own heart, I mourn the death of every person killed in war, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani of Iran included. May his children find consolation on the loss of their father.

To all those American politicians and commentators who have just said loudly, “No American will mourn the death of this man,” I ask this question: Is this the best that America can do? Is this all that America can do? How can we ask God to bless America if all America can do is kill people, assassinate leaders of other countries, and then threaten to kill even more people after that?

There MUST be a better way. We cannot possibly be so smart that we can put rovers on Mars, and then be so dumb that we can’t work out our disagreements with other countries. Continue reading

Beyond the Hall of Mirrors

Reflections on War, Terror and Human Interaction
Dennis Rivers — 2005 (Revised 2018)

Introduction. For everyone working in the field of communication skills and conflict resolution, the past few years of war and terror attacks have been a time of special catastrophe. Like the buildings of Falluja, Iraq, so many of our hopes and dreams for a better world lie in ruins. The recent bombings of the London subway remind me of how much we need, along with firefighters and paramedics, some deeper understanding of the struggles going on in our world today. We need some sort of intellectual compass to guide us through the storm of claims and counterclaims, alarms and calls to arms.

Many of the topics in this essay are beyond my personal comfort zone, but it is difficult for me to see how any communication trainer can now avoid them. War and terror, however justified they may seem to their participants, are the deepest possible challenges to all visions of cooperative communication, dialogue, compassionate listening and win-win negotiations. If our vision of the life of dialogue is not to wither away, I feel we must creatively and compassionately assert and explain it as an alternative to violence and coercive force.

In the following essay I want to explore some of the limits of coercion, in everyday life and on the stage of the world. For I believe what we are witnessing today could well be described as a giant contest of coercive force, a contest which I imagine all the participants will lose. I also want to explore some possible openings toward hope in this time of great suffering.

Our everyday language suggests that every war has a winner and a loser. One of the purposes of this essay is to explore the dangerous unreliability of this common idea. The idea that every war or contest has a winner and a loser, two possible outcomes, obscures at least two other significant possibilities: that the two sides might mutually destroy one another, a kind of tie of mutual doom, and also that whoever allegedly wins may have to pay costs far beyond what the victory was worth. If these third and fourth options were included in our everyday understanding and discussions of war, people might think more carefully before deciding to take up arms. They might try harder to negotiate, a fifth option. The same thing is true in everyday arguments. We imagine that each argument has a winner and a loser. What that thinking obscures is how often arguments destroy the relationship of the two participants. I view as deeply misleading our common pattern of using games such as chess or football as models for both conflict and communication in life .

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CHAPTER 1: The Magic of Dialogue — Daniel Yankelovich

The Magic of Dialogue
Transforming Conflict Into Cooperation

By Daniel Yankelovich

In this groundbreaking work, famed social scientist and world-famous public opinion expert Daniel Yankelovich reinvents the ancient art of dialogue. Successful managers have always known how to make decisions and mobilize coworkers. But as our businesses continue to expand, conversations and discussions just aren't enough to bring people and their different agendas together anymore. Dialogue, when properly practiced, will align people with a shared vision, and help them realize their full potential as individuals and as a team. Drawing on decades of research and using real life examples, The Magic of Dialogue outlines specific strategies for maneuvering in a wide range of situations and teaches managers, leaders, business people, and other professionals how to succeed in the new global economy, where more players participate in decision-making than ever before.

CHAPTER 1: Overcoming the Dialogue Deficit

Dialogue played a special role in reversing the nuclear arms race and ending the Cold War. Some years after the end of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, George Shultz, who had been Reagan’s secretary of state, asked Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union, what the turning point in the Cold War had been.

“Reykjavík,” Gorbachev answered unhesitatingly.

He explained that at their meeting in Reykjavík, Iceland, he and Ronald Reagan had for the first time entered into genuine dialogue with each other — a dialogue that extended far beyond their main agenda (arms control) to cover their values, assumptions, and aspirations for their two nations. Gorbachev credited this dialogue with establishing enough trust and mutual understanding to begin to reverse the nuclear arms race.

In Oslo, Norway, in the year before Israel’s prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated, a delegation of top-level Israelis and Palestinians, previously implacable enemies, held nonstop dialogue sessions over a period of months. Together they hammered out a blueprint for peace in the Middle East that lasted until Rabin’s violent death upset the political balance.

These are history-making examples of dialogue. But dialogue is not the exclusive property of those who perform on the world stage. It works at all levels of life in ways large and small:

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Three Deep Lessons
on the Road to Communicating More Compassionately

Excerpts from a talk by Dennis Rivers — 20 minutes

This audio file is from a talk that I gave at a Buddhist gathering in San Francisco.  In the talk I report on the growing edge of the cooperative communication skills work presented on this site.  I have recently been asking myself “what are the deepest life lessons in this work?”, prompted by the fact that The Seven Challenges Workbook is being used by a prison inmate in the Mid-West to coach other inmates, in the hope that they will all be successful at rebuilding their lives and staying out of prison.  This talk grew out of our letters and phone calls.

::: A U D I O ::: P L A Y E R :::

Three Deep Lessons
Download as MP3 file:
Three Deep Lessons

you are already a communication skills trainer!

By Dennis Rivers, MA. Adapted from from a talk given at the Santa Barbara
Community Counseling and Education Center.

Communication training for a transformed world
using a chambered Nautilus model of skill development, 
emphasizing self-help and peer support.

The chambered Nautilus model is a radical alternative to the normal way people think about learning new skills and teaching new skills to others.  Please allow me to explain some of the ways in which the self-help and peer support model of learning new skills differs from the professional training model.  I’m going to call the professional training model “the normal way” because it is so widely used in schools and colleges around the world.

The normal way

  • makes a strong distinction between teachers and learners,
  • marks the path of learning as a series of clear steps of limited duration,
  • celebrates the completion of the steps with the awarding of certificates and licenses, and
  • restricts who can teach to those who have licenses.

Someone other than the learner is in charge of the learning process. The people at the top of this pyramid earn money by providing services to the people at lower levels of the pyramid.  The normal way is as much about excluding incompetent practitioners as it is about recognizing competent practitioners. These are two sides of the same licensing process.  Because there is not enough room at the top of the pyramid for everyone, in an economic sense, and because not everyone can become high competent within the limits of existing training programs, the normal system must necessarily fail a large percentage, often a majority, of its participants, must declare them to be incompetent.  

Every now and then someone observes that any training scheme that fails to produce competence in many of its participants is itself a failure. This is the growing edge of educational thinking around the world.  Institutions that intend to help people learn, must themselves learn.  Unfortunately, the goal of the normal system right now is not to get everyone across the finish line of competence and excellence, each person receiving whatever help they need in order to make that journey.  I think it is important for us to be realistic about the fact that the normal system is set up in such a way that it serves some people well and fails many people.  Right now, I simply want to acknowledge that as a fact, and not go into all the arguments about whose fault it is, or about how competition creates excellence, and so on. (I accept that competition creates excellence among at least a few of the competitors.  My concern is the ratio of how many become excellent versus the total number who participate.  I am also interested in how many become permanently discouraged, because that is part of the cost of any training scheme and needs to be looked at and compared with open eyes. Gasoline that destroyed the engine of every third car would not be considered a great success, only something with great potential.)

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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  
– – –  
by Dennis Rivers, MA  —  Communication Skills Trainer  —  1998


In recent years I have taught a series of courses in communication skills to groups of university students who are about to volunteer in prisons, county jails, juvenile halls and other criminal justice institutions. We focus on topics such as the power of supportive listening and how we come to know ourselves better in the process of explaining our experiences to someone. In their role as peer mentors they will be both using their communication skills and encouraging their mentored companions to develop better ways of communicating their way through everyday conflicts. The focus of my class and the focus of peer mentoring is largely tactical, how to listen and express yourself more competently. There are, however, larger issues connected with interpersonal communication and subtle but important transactions going on between coach and trainee. I would like to be able to tell my students, all of them headed toward challenging encounters, just what these issues are, but it has taken longer than I imagined to put the issues into words. In this essay, dedicated to my students, I will be exploring how the way we talk and listen is related to the way we live, so that coaching a person to communicate differently is at the same time coaching a person to live differently. 

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Fred Luskin: Two Articles on Forgiveness

Introduction (excerpt from The Stanford Daily, February 4, 2002 )

New studies look at forgiveness  —  by Gohar Galyan

To earn his doctorate in counseling and health psychology from Stanford in 1997, Fred Luskin had to write a dissertation. At the time, Luskin was furious with a friend. To complete his graduation requirement and to cope with the pain, Luskin researched and wrote about forgiveness.

“I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t forgive,” he said. “I was badly hurt by a friend of mine and it threw my world upside down.”

Luskin, now a research associate with the Stanford Center for Research in Disease Prevention, focused on Stanford students’ experiences when he initially began studying forgiveness. In 1999, after earning his doctorate, Luskin launched the original Stanford Forgiveness Project, which studied Bay Area residents. According to Luskin, the study involved 260 participants, including 100 men.

“The results were very positive,” Luskin said. “People showed less stress, less anger, more optimism and more forgiveness.”

Research is conducted in a workshop format and typically lasts from five to six weeks, he said. In his research, he teaches forgiveness as a skill.

“It is not therapy. It is teaching people how to learn this kind of skill,” he said. “We can teach people to forgive and that will improve their well-being.”

The Stanford Forgiveness Project has evolved and now exists as an umbrella organization for numerous Stanford research projects that address forgiveness.

Over the years, researchers with the Stanford Forgiveness Project have worked with families from Ireland who have lost loved ones due to civil strife. The Stanford- Northern Ireland HOPE Project has conducted research on three different occasions with Irish families.

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Michael Henderson’s
Forgiveness: Breaking the Chain of Hate

Book Review by Gene Knudsen Hoffman  —  Summer 2002

There is a way the world can change from war to peace, from hatred to love. It requires a lot of effort, a lot of understanding, and it begins at home.

For centuries we’ve been told to practice it, that it’s healing for ourselves and the other, that it’s a way to manifest love and courage. It brings peace to the participants. It is a brave and noble thing to do, and — it can be very costly, costly to pride, to arrogance, to fear, to hate.

Michael Henderson has written the definitive book on it and it’s called: Forgiveness. Of it Desmond Tutu wrote, “A deeply moving and eloquent testimony to the power of forgiveness in the life of individuals, of communities, and between and within nations. It effects change — a powerful book.”

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