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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.

Personal Change, Structural Change, and Nonviolent Communication


by: on October 31st, 2013 | 2 Comments »

One of the questions that keep coming up in discussions within the community of Nonviolent Communication trainers is how to become more effective at bringing Nonviolent Communication (NVC) to a level where it may support significant cultural change. Most recently, someone calculated that in order to train, for example, the UK armed forces, it would take 7,000 training days just for a basic level of training of 12 hours in groups of 50 people. This calculation helped me reach even more clarity about a question I have been wrestling with for a long time. The starkest way of framing the question is this: can the training model be a strategy for social or cultural change?

Workshops and Culture

Although much of what I write about below is about NVC, my fundamental question is far beyond NVC. I see it as being about any attempt to create fundamental change using a model of change that focuses primarily on individuals changing their behavior or ideas.

Seeing the numerical analysis above immediately suggests to me that the training model is limited, not just that the number of existing NVC trainers is small. There are several reasons for this. The most obvious, given my sense of the urgent need for transformation in the world, is that I simply don’t believe that we can reach enough people fast enough in this way. This is one of the reasons why in my own work I am focusing on understanding how to change structures and systems. That is not a substitute for personal transformation. It just makes it easier.


Language, Meaning, and Consciousness Transformation


by: on October 24th, 2013 | Comments Off

There is no question that my love of language is an inherited trait. My father was a lay linguist, in addition to being a teacher, writer, and public intellectual. In the last few years of his life, in his fifties, he went back to school to get a Ph.D. in linguistics, a project he didn’t complete due to illness. Not having a degree didn’t stop him from writing and continuing to perfect a book about common errors in usage of Hebrew until he got sick and had the book finally released for publication. My mother also wrote a book about language, explaining in detail a unique method she developed for teaching Hebrew, both to native speakers and as a second language. I hope she gets to publish it in her lifetime. Our family culture was suffused with intellectually stimulating conversations about politics, society, Judaism, psychology, social critique, and deep engagement with all of our daily experiences. In among these topics, we always had extensive discussions about language and meaning, about the source of words, and about how changing words, even word order, can change meaning. It’s no wonder to me that I landed on a language-based practice as a primary passion and my calling.

I continue to carry in me the deep reverence for precision and clarity in use of words that unites our family. Which words we choose to say is not “just semantics,” as so many often say. Rather, I see each word that we choose as carrying a specific field of meaning. If we change the words we use, we change the message we send – both to the person who hears it as well as to our own brain. I have a distinct experience that a language-based practice such a Nonviolent Communication (NVC) can most literally change the wiring within our nervous system.


The Saga of Writing about the Government Shutdown


by: on October 18th, 2013 | 1 Comment »

There are three ways of dealing with difference: domination, compromise, and integration. By domination only one side gets what it wants; by compromise neither side gets what it wants; by integration we find a way by which both sides may get what they wish. — Mary Parker Follett

A couple of days ago, I was approached by someone asking me to videotape some responses to the government shutdown. His hope was that having a YouTube video in response to the crisis could possibly travel wide and result in the possibility of an invitation to support dialogue. As it turns out, I’ve been sick (finally I am getting better), and the prospect of recording my voice was singularly unappealing. And so I decided to write a blog piece instead. My contact was super happy. I read the background information he sent me, and then some, and proceeded to write a piece. Then I sent it to two people whose opinion I value. They didn’t like it. They had some pretty strong things to say about what I had written, two of which were that what I wrote was “oversimplifying” and “naïve.”

I was ready to can the whole thing and write about something else, when I got a new suggestion from my contact’s partner. She suggested that I write about this whole process – getting the request, writing about the situation, getting the feedback, and everything in between. Given my predilection for transparency, I was inspired. Then, before I got a chance to come back to this, one of my critics sent me a new piece to read, and it all came together. The result is here in front of you.


Gandhi, Trusteeship, and the Commons


by: on October 10th, 2013 | Comments Off

As much as I have read and heard about Gandhi for years, it is only recently that I have become acquainted with the complex vision he had of trusteeship. In essence, as I understand it, Gandhi proposed that anything material that goes beyond the elusive notion of need satisfaction (which I discussed last week) be viewed as held in trust for service.

In preparation for writing this piece, I had a long discussion with a friend, let’s call her Nadine, about the ramifications of what this approach could possibly mean. Nadine, a woman who lives in great simplicity, far beyond any I can claim, was talking about a computer she had acquired some time ago, and what it truly means to view herself as holding this computer in trust. At present, it seems straightforward: since she is using the computer almost exclusively for the purpose of supporting her service work in the world, she is at peace. What would happen, however, if she stops doing her work? Would trusteeship mean that she would be obliged to give her computer away to someone else who would use it for others’ benefit? Would she be able to part with it, to undo, within herself, the visceral sense that this computer is “hers”? That was the moment we both understood deeply that trusteeship calls into question one of the most sanctified pillars of a market economy: the institution of private property. Trusteeship means we don’t own anything; we consume what we need, and the rest is ours to use for the benefit of all.


Gandhian Economics, Universal Well-being, and Human Needs


by: on October 2nd, 2013 | Comments Off

As this entry is being posted, it’s Gandhi’s birthday. Given how much I have been influenced, even transformed, by learning from Gandhi about nonviolence, I wanted to write something to honor his legacy. Because I’ve recently started a mini-series on money, I decided to focus on a lesser known aspect of Gandhi’s work: his views about economics.

At first sight, many of Gandhi’s basic economic thoughts seem entirely irrelevant to our very different time, culture, and context from the one in which he operated and wrote. For example, the idea of village cottage industry, which might have been feasible in early 20th century India, is very hard to imagine now as a primary way forward for industrialized economies. Delving into it a bit deeper, I see a number of convergences between his ideas and the direction that many are advocating today, such as simplicity, localism, and decentralization. Rather than an exhaustive introduction to Gandhian economics, which can be found through a search on the web, I chose, instead, to look more deeply at two core principles that resonate deeply with me and the path I am on with regards to thinking about money and the economy. This week, I am looking at the question of what constitutes universal well-being and how we approach the conundrum of attending to human needs. Next week I plan to look at Gandhi’s notion of trusteeship and connect it with current unfolding thoughts about the Commons.


The Powerless Are Not Necessarily Pure


by: on September 25th, 2013 | 4 Comments »

I am not so keen on the idea that power corrupts, and have already discussed this to some extent in an earlier post. My difficulty with this framing is multiple. For one thing, this saying maintains the pervasive belief that power is bad in and of itself, a belief that can only result in perpetuating itself, since it will keep many people away from taking power lest they oppress others.

As I see it, coming into power does not create the fundamental desire to have things be our way; it only provides access to resources that make it possible to do so. In the process, extraordinary harm can be done to others, sometimes millions of others. Whatever our sphere of influence, and whatever our vision or personal goals, our power gives us access to extra resources, and thus can multiply both our benefit and our harm. There is no substitute for meticulous attention to the effects of our actions. I see it as an enormous challenge to come into power and live its attendant responsibility without creating harm. I am concerned, in part, that less of this work will happen for as long as we continue to believe that the issue is power rather than what we do with it. My hope remains that that we can all recognize that we can have power and still not use it over others.

Another difficulty that I see stemming from associating power with badness is the corollary move of associating powerlessness with purity. I cannot imagine finding a way to say it any clearer than MLK:


Dialogue, Decision-Making, and Mattering


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.


Venturing into Risky Waters – Talking about Money


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.


Can I?


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.


Personal Liberation and Personal Growth


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?