Human Permaculture Part 3: Practical Communication Techniques

In part one (1) of this article I explored the possible efficacy of visualising our communication with each other as a invisible flow, less predictable than other energy flows in a Sector Analysis but still able to be mapped as part of a design; while in part two (2) I looked at what catching and storing such energy flows might look like. This third part is turning inwards from the pattern of the wider concept of communication flows, to the details of how we can use permaculture to help our own personal communication be more effective.

Changing the way we think to encourage Earth Care and People Care

 Following on from the idea that communication can be seen as an ‘invisible structure’, we can also see that within us we have our own invisible structures, made up of the languages which we use to think. We can use permaculture to examine these structures and possibly change them to help us communicate more holistically and honestly with ourselves, hopefully allowing for easier communication with everyone else.

One of the first changes which could be beneficial is that of changing how we speak about the natural world. A number of writers, scientists and philosophers – such as Alan Watts (3), James Lovelock (4) and David Abram (5) to name but a few – have pointed out the power of phonetic language to create abstractions within the mental realm. This means that it is very easy to imagine that we are separate from nature, and thus to allow the exploitation or destruction of our world. This abstraction is probably done more or less unconsciously, if the language one grows up with enables abstract thought in this way. So even if you understand theoretically that we are all connected and that trees, animals and maybe even rivers and rocks share the same life as you do, if you still think of ‘Nature’ as an inanimate thing, you may be creating barriers in your mental landscape.

One suggestion for altering how we think of the world comes from scientists James Lovelock and Lynne Margulis, who back in the 1970s developed the ‘Gaia Hypothesis’(5); which takes the idea that every living creature is connected and follows this to the conclusion that we are all part of the same complex, living organism. The name ‘Gaia’ comes from the Greek Goddess of the Earth (see for example 6), showing the scientists’ recognition that this is not a new idea, though possibly the first scientifically-validated version. Whether or not you agree with the science, Lovelock and Margulis have given us a way to speak of the Earth, not as an inanimate ‘other’ but as a living being; so if you use the term ‘Gaia’ you are perhaps able to connect yourself more immediately to the living web of organisms which make up the world, and feel what happens to it on a more profound level.

This is just one example of how we can change our words to encourage more connection with ourselves and the world. David Abram’s book ‘The Spell of the Sensuous’ (5) also has some very practical ideas, such as re-claiming the ‘animate landscape’; and the term ‘air’ to mean not an empty space but an ‘invisible dimension’ filled with messages, scents and currents. For more you can see my article here (7).

Can permaculture help with pain?

There may be other ways in which our language is structured to  which we can apply permaculture principles to help us communicate more effectively. For example, it is entirely possible that you have ways of speaking, in your inner as well as outer world, which are unconscious expressions of pain, sadness or anger (see for example 8, 9), so even if you do not want to share these emotions with others, they may be being expressed anyway, and end up affecting your communication. Many writers and practitioners have explored the way we structure language (see for example 8, 10). One of the most generally applicable practices which has come out of this is Non-Violent Communication (NVC), first developed by Marshall Rosenberg, and widely practiced around the world, by permaculture practitioners among other diverse groups (see for example 11, 12).

Violence revisited

‘Violence’ can often be defined merely as the use of physical force, or of using weapons to kill or maim. As I explored in my article ‘Permaculture as a Tool for Peace’ (13), however, the definition of violence can be broadened to include any act which has the aim (sometimes unconscious or seemingly unavoidable) of causing pain or suffering; including the use of language. Thus NVC can be seen as a useful tool, not only for those who are currently living with overt violence, but for each and every one of us.

How does NVC work?

On the NVC website, Marshall Rosenberg is quoted as saying

“Our survival as a species depends on our ability to recognise that our well-being and the well-being of others are in fact one and the same.” (14)

This quote in many ways sums up the essence of NVC; which is about recognising that, however violently someone may be communicating to you, what they are trying to communicate is probably that they have needs which are not being met. NVC is the art of finding out the needs of others and and ourselves, and communicating these needs in creative ways which then lead to elegant solutions which fulfill everyone’s needs and encourage mutual agreement and respect.

One of Rosenberg’s main ideas is that blame is entirely useless.  NVC, like permaculture encourages clear observation. It suggests the description of situations in terms which can be directly observed, not using opinions, since opinions are personal and could be disagreed with or misinterpreted. This may sounds quite simple but if we are to practice speaking non-violently with each other we probably need to begin with ourselves; by observing the language we use in our own mind and checking whether we are being compassionate with ourselves.

Let’s look at an example of inner communication which could be violent; you break a dish in your home and you then start thinking ‘Why am I so stupid?!’ Instead, you could try to simply describe what happened and diagnose your needs. ‘I was thinking about all the things I have to do, and feeling stressed, and the dish slipped out of my fingers. I need to focus on one thing at a time, this will help me to relax.’ The times when this can be most difficult are when we are in emotional states, although these are also the times when NVC can be the most useful.

From my own experience, the practice of NVC is an art which it is possible to become more skilled in over time. When used in a blunt manner it is possible that it could have a detrimental effect, as Looby Macnamara explores in her book ‘People and Permaculture’; if you are in an argument with someone and then you suddenly start questioning them on their needs, they may feel like they are ‘being NVC’d’ and resist the communication (12). To avoid this we can pratice communicating non-violently and compassionately on a regular basis so that it becomes a natural part of our communication.

 Language and its power

This article has explored just a few examples of the way that we structure our language and some practical ideas to change these structures for more effective communication. There are so many more theories of language structure out there, and people exploring how we can more holistically use language. These range from very specific techniques such as Neuro-Linguistic Programming to ongoing evolutions of terms such as the shift, in the permaculture movement, away from the term ‘sustainability’ towards ‘restoration’ or ‘regeneration’. I encourage your own explorations into how to use this valuable tool.


  1. Ashwanden, C, 2018. ‘Human Permaculture: Communication as Flow part 1’. Permaculture News, 23/5/2018.– retrieved 5/11/18
  2.  Ashwanden, C, 2018. ‘Human Permaculture: Communication as Flow part 2’. Permaculture News, 8/10/2018.– retrieved 5/11/18
  3. Watts, A, 1975.  Tao: The Watercourse Way. With the collaboration of Al Chung Liang Huang. Pantheon: New York City, USA
  4. Lovelock, J.E.; Margulis, L, 1974. “Atmospheric homeostasis by and for the biosphere: the Gaia hypothesis”. Tellus. Series A. Stockholm: International Meteorological Institute.
  5. Abram, D, 1997. The Spell of the Sensuous: Language and Perception in a More-Than-Human World. Vintage: New York City, USA.
  6. Smith W, 1873 (?). ‘Gaea’. A Dictionary of Roman and Greek Mythology.– retrieved 5/11/18
  7. Ashwanden, C, 2015. ‘The Invisible Dimension: Suggestions for How to Relate to the Air We Breathe’. Permaculture News, 3/8/15.– retrieved 5/11/18
  8. Rosenburg, M, 2003. Non-Violent Communication: A Language of Life.Puddledancer Press: Encinitas, USA.
  9. Firman, J; Gila, A, 2002. Psychosynthesis: A Psychology of the Spirit.SUNY Press: New York City, USA.
  10. Bandler, R; Grinder, J, 2005. The Structure of Magic, vol.1. Science and Behavior Books, Palo Alto, USA.
  11. Morrow, R, 2014. The Earth User’s Guide to Teaching Permaculture. Permanent Publications: East Meon, UK.
  12. Macnamara, L, 2012. People and Permaculture: Caring and Designing for Ourselves, Each Other and the Planet. Permanent Publications: East Meon, UK.
  13. Ashwanden, C, 2017. ‘Permaculture and Community part 1: Permaculture as a tool for Peace’. Permaculture News, 2/11/17.– retrieved 5/11/18
  14. Non Violent Communication, 2018. ‘NVC.’– retrieved 5/11/18


Photo Credit :  by Sushobhan Badhai on Unsplash

Charlotte Ashwanden

Charlotte Ashwanden (nee Haworth) I got my Permaculture Design Certificate in 2011, from Treeyo at Permaship in Bulgaria, and since then have been traveling the world learning about and practicing permaculture. Born in London, I've lived in a number of places in England, Spain, the Basque Country, and Italy. My mum lives in Leipzig (Germany) so I've spent some time there. In 2015 I got married in a pagan ceremony in a field to David Ashwanden and changed my surname to Ashwanden. A professional dancer, I do fire and hula dance and have recently become interested in dance meditation. Currently, I live in Thailand in a Forest Buddhism community school, so you can expect lots of tropical permaculture related articles in future.

One Comment

  1. Thanks Charlotte for your important considerations. When we work as a group in Permaculture it is so important to know how to communicate through our body language as well as through words. Empathy is a great way to generate transparent or invisible communication and through the diverse tasks in bringing permaculture plans into manifestation we can better see ourselves and others through the ways we behave. Many times words and actions contradict themselves and as friends we are better able to work through our own contradictions. I work in Brasil with permaculture and eco psychology. Thanks so much for your stimulating 3 articles. Hope all is well in Thailand. Regards Pete

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