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Miki Kashtan
Miki Kashtan
Miki Kashtan is a co-founder of Bay Area Nonviolent Communication and the NVC North America Leadership Program.



Dialogue, Decision-Making, and Mattering

Sep19

by: on September 19th, 2013 | Comments Off

One of the cornerstones of our modern culture, the great reward that arose from being freed from earlier feudal times, is the idea of personal rights, the freedom to make decisions for ourselves. In the countries that are categorized as liberal democracies, this freedom is often sacrosanct. Once we reach adulthood, and assuming our specific group is not barred from having civil rights (as in women before being allowed to vote, blacks in the South before desegregation, Palestinians in the Occupied Territories), we don’t have to ask anyone for permission to move, to vote, to enter or exit spaces, to eat or not eat, to befriend people, or to do anything else we want to do provided it’s not specifically illegal. Granted, in our workplaces, we trade this freedom for money. We accept that our bosses can tell us what to do – within limits. Still, we do this freely (or so we believe).


So enamored are we with this particular version of what freedom means, that the idea of involving other people in our process of making decisions appears to many of us to be the same as asking for permission. When I used to work with couples, often a sore spot was when one of the partners would be making decisions that affect the other person without consulting with the affected person. More often then not, when I invited the person to check with their partner before the decision, they would balk. Many of them found it really difficult to discern the difference between asking their partner for permission and asking their partner for feedback about the effect of the decision on them. Back in the workplace, when I work with managers, they often struggle with the idea of involving the people they supervise in decision-making. Again, I sense that they associate any form of dialogue about a decision with loss of autonomy.

I believe that one of the best kept secrets about the rewards of choosing interdependence is the wisdom and the richer freedom that are often unleashed through entering dialogue with others as a path to making decisions: together, in complete autonomy, honoring everyone affected. To make this secret more available to more people, to help usher in a possible future, I want to share three stories about how dialogue created shifts that resulted in an outcome that served everyone better than before. Each of these stories illustrates one of the challenges that we face on the path to full integration of autonomy and interdependence.

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Venturing into Risky Waters – Talking about Money

Sep15

by: on September 15th, 2013 | Comments Off

from Occupy Wall Street

I have written about money before, though not much. It’s been a complex topic to address. Because it’s so central to our way of life in modern times, both individually and globally, I feel drawn to address it, to excavate meaning, to find and support freedom in relation to it. Because it’s so loaded, I can’t imagine writing about it without ruffling some feathers. The result: I’ve been accumulating notes, ideas, and questions and mostly waiting for another time to do the actual writing.

Then, earlier this week, I had a very tough conversation about money with three of my most beloved supporters, a volunteer team that’s helping me put together the East Coast version of my program Leveraging Your Influence. The topic was about how we were going to handle money and sustainability in the upcoming retreat in November. One of the results of this conversation was that it reminded me just how important I find this topic, and I decided to up the priority of writing about it. I now have an outline of a mini-series with at least six parts I want to finish by Thanksgiving, when I plan to launch my new Maximum Wage campaign website.

Then I ran the outline by Dave, the man whose creative eyes find all the images that accompany my blog posts, and realized just how much bigger the task was than I had anticipated if I was going to do it justice. Maybe I will continue to write about money for much longer, then. Given the magnitude of the task, I decided to start by a preamble of sorts, writing about my own current challenges with regards to money.

I don’t often expose the difficulties I experience in their raw form on this blog. As much as I am committed to the path of vulnerability, I usually package my feelings into presentable learning before I write about them. This time, however, my intuitive sense is that the details of what made that conversation so painful for me might be meaningful for at least some people to read about. First, some background.

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Can I?

Sep5

by: on September 5th, 2013 | 2 Comments »

One of the most common questions any child I know asks her or his parents is a deceptively simple one: “Can I …?” This question is so common, so familiar, that we carry it with us into adulthood, and often address each other in the same way. We especially are prone to using this question when speaking with people who are in positions of authority.

Two passions of mine combine in wanting to take apart the meaning of this form of speech: my love of language, which includes the belief that words are never simply words; and my burning interest in transforming paradigms of power.



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Personal Liberation and Personal Growth

Aug30

by: on August 30th, 2013 | 4 Comments »

For a long time now I have been troubled by the way Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is often presented and perceived. In our culture, and in several other industrialized, modernized countries I have been to, it is typically seen as a path to personal growth, such as an alternative to therapy, or a way to resolve relationship issues. For me, this focus has been limited. Instead, more and more I think of NVC as a path to personal liberation, and of the two paths as distinct from each other. The former is about enabling us to function, even live well individually in society as it exists, while the latter is about freeing ourselves from the ideas, norms, and roles we have internalized from living in this society. The more free we become, the more we can find a ground to stand on to challenge the system to be much more responsive to all people’s needs, not only some needs of the few.

I often heard from Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of NVC, that a similar concern led to his own decision as a psychologist to leave behind clinical work and private practice in his search for the largest contribution he could make. The issue hinges on the question of what is being served when we attend to the individual effects of a system that fundamentally doesn’t support human needs and life as a whole. I’ve been haunted by this question in multiple ways.

Here is but one example: when an individual human being suffers a debilitating depression and a pill exists that can provide relief, what are the effects of administering this pill? There is no question that many people experience the difference between being able to function at all when they take the pill, and levels of agony that are extreme, even life-threatening. The issue for me is the effect on a larger scale: as I wrote about in an earlier post, medicating problems that are arguably caused by systemic conditions prevents us, collectively, from knowing that we have created conditions in which humans cannot thrive. Is it always a benefit to allow people to continue to function if the system as a whole is riddled with difficulties?

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Intention and Effect

Aug23

by: on August 23rd, 2013 | 6 Comments »

One of the most common responses when someone expresses upset about our actions is something along the lines of the statement “I didn’t mean to hurt you.” Any of us who have heard this kind of response know how little it offers, and yet we keep doing it. I’ve wondered about this for some time. What is clear to me is that this response shifts the focus from the effect of actions to their intention. At one and the same time, this is also a shift in focus from the person who is upset to the person whose action resulted in the upset. No wonder we don’t feel heard when we get this response!

Our intention and the effect of our actions don’t necessarily line up. In exploring that gap in a variety of contexts, both internal and relational, I hope to support clarity and the possibility of greater personal liberation for many of us.

Privilege and Defensiveness

Recently, I was sitting with a friend at a café. She was telling me why she had been, for a lengthy period, keeping a distance from me. What made this unusual, in my mind, is that she is African-American and I am white, and the reason for her distance had everything to do with this difference between us. In effect, my friend, let’s call her Darcy, was calling me on what she interpreted as white, privileged behavior.

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Being Powerful in the Moment

Aug17

by: on August 17th, 2013 | 1 Comment »

When I was leading a retreat in Ohio a couple of months ago, I was bussing my dishes one day, later than we had been asked to do it. The person who works at the kitchen, prepping, serving, and cleaning, was there in that moment. So I said something like: “I am regretting bringing the dishes here so much later than the time that we were asked and making life harder for you. I was caught in a conversation and didn’t notice the time.” To which she said: “Don’t worry about it, it’s OK.” Instead of letting it go in that moment, I persisted. I said: “It’s not OK with me. I know you are working hard here, and I wish to support you, at least to acknowledge that this has a significant effect on you.” That’s when she raised her head from what she was doing , turned to meet my eyes, and said, in an entirely different tone: “Thank you.” I knew that, for that small moment, she had an inkling that she mattered.

I am likely never to see this person again. Still, when I sat down after this exchange, I felt thoroughly satisfied. Within the one moment that life brought us together with each other, I knew I did the most that I could see possible to move in the direction of my vision of making life work for everyone.

I have had such interactions with people for many years. Perhaps because the training was, largely, about leadership and power, I had an insight that shook me up a little. I suddenly understood what it means to be powerful in a new and different way that tied it to the present moment. At any given moment, I am in a particular place, with exactly the people I am with, in the circumstances we are in. it’s within that context, moment by moment, that I can find my most powerful self. Whenever I think about the people I would wish to be with instead to be more effective, or the activities that would be more meaningful, or any other such thought, I literally take away from my power, in that moment. It became clear to me that if I can remember in each moment to choose the actions that most move in the direction I want to move within those circumstances, I am de facto becoming my most powerful self.

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Myths of Power-With: #6 – Unilateral Choice Is always Negative

Aug9

by: on August 9th, 2013 | Comments Off

When "unilateral" is oppressive

Along with the beliefs that hierarchies were fundamentally power-over structures, and hence irredeemable (see Myth #4), in the past I equally fervently didn’t see any role for the use of anything unilateral. Again, unilateral choice or unilateral force became synonymous with power-over, and I was committed to never imposing anything on anyone, for as far back as I can remember. When I first heard from Marshall Rosenberg about the protective use of force, I was quite uncomfortable.

It’s been quite a journey since those days to have arrived at the conclusion that I want to learn to overcome my aversion so as to be able to consciously choose to make unilateral choices, even to use unilateral force, when I believe that choice would attend to the maximum needs possible under the circumstances in which I find myself.

When it's protective use of force

The first of these is the protective use of force, both individually and collectively. I consider the entire project of nonviolent resistance to be an extension of the protective use of force as applied to structural situations. Just as in the case of stopping an individual from inflicting harm, nonviolent resistance uses the force of a collectivity of people to create conditions that would allow harm to stop, all the while remaining open to dialogue.

In addition, I want to illustrate the challenges of this myth using two more examples, each of which illustrates another aspect of what the choices might be about that would lead us to unilateral actions that affect others directly.

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Exploring Authenticity

Jul31

by: on July 31st, 2013 | 1 Comment »

My mother used to say, ‘If you will lie, you will steal; if you will steal, you will kill.’
‘That is a bit harsh don’t you think,’ I said. ‘We all lie a little. Sometimes it is a way of being polite.’
Anger flashed across her face.
‘No, no, no, no, no! A lie is a lie. The grace that is the real oil that eases the frictions of life is truth spoken in love.’

– from Halloween after Ms Sandy (A Short Story)
by Valerie Elverton-Dixon (at right)

Until some time in my mid twenties, I was unable to lie. Except as a child, and only to my parents. It wasn’t exactly a moral decision, more like a physiological impossibility. To this day, although I have trained myself, in some very exceptional circumstances, to manage to choose to lie, any time I assess that the context I am in cannot tolerate the full authentic self that I am, I disappear into some internal void, paralyzed and shut down. I see it as a limitation of mine, an inability to make choices about what I say or don’t say, to whom, and how. I experience this as dramatically different from simply being a value of mine that I choose to live by. Consequently, I gravitate towards those people and places where I feel free to express the fullness of who I am.

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In Defense of Complexity

Jul18

by: on July 18th, 2013 | 3 Comments »

When I was a girl, somewhere before ten years old, it was already clear to those around me that I wanted adventure in my life. At the time, I asked my mother why it was that the people and children in the books I was reading had all these astonishing adventures and I didn’t. It is only in the last couple of years that I had the sudden awareness that I did, indeed, grow up to have a life full of adventures, even if I’ve never tracked down a murderer or exposed an international network of crooks, as the heroes and heroines of my childhood books did.

It was this sense of adventure that was ignited when I received the itinerary for my recent trip to Thailand and realized that I had, twice, a six-hour stopover in Shanghai. Without thinking twice, I decided to find my way to Shanghai, to experience, smell, see, walk in that city, feel for myself what it’s like to be in China. I’ve been curious about China for many years, both culturally and politically, and I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity, despite the warnings of the travel agent.

When this turned into actually having people waiting for me at the airport, people from the Chinese Nonviolent Communication (NVC) community, I was so excited I could barely wait. Then I met Yin Hua, the person who’s been most influential about bringing NVC to China, who stayed in Shanghai an extra day after doing a workshop there (unrelated to me, just perfect timing), and the two of us got lost on the subway and barely made it to town.

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Myths of Power-With: #5 – All of Everyone’s Needs Are Equal

Jul12

by: on July 12th, 2013 | 2 Comments »

One of the core principles that shows up in just about everything I write is the commitment to holding everyone’s needs with care. This, with a specific focus on holding with care everyone’s needs for meaningful choice, is the core guideline I use for understanding how to apply the power I have. For as long as those [in my circle or organization, ed.] with less power than me have access to choice, I am satisfied with my use of power.

That said, I’ve always been uncomfortable with the addition of the word “equal,” which changes the principle to “holding everyone’s needs with equal care.” Aside from the philosophical uncertainty about how equality of care can even be measured, I don’t see it as either possible or even desirable in all situations to hold all of everyone’s needs equally. In fact, I believe that the insistence on equality of this kind can compromise both the effectiveness and integrity of movements and groups.

This is why I have replaced the word “equal” or “equally” with “full” or “fully.” I can say, with far greater ease, that I can hold everyone’s needs with full care even when I don’t hold them with equal care.

As I see it, power-with means finding the path that, relative to the purpose at hand, supports maximal empowerment and participation on the part of all. That doesn’t necessarily mean equality, though often it would. Here are two concrete examples of when I see a difference.

Compensating for Lack of Power

When I facilitate groups, I make a point of holding in my awareness the power relations present within the group. This can be formal power relations, as in an organizational power hierarchy, or social-structural power differences as in, for example, racial groups. Whether in a teaching context, when facilitating a business meeting, and even in a two-person mediation, if my commitment is to holding everyone with full care and to maximize choice and participation, then I will in some ways prioritize the needs of the person with less power even while holding those with more power, also, with full care.

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