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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.

Saying “No” across Power Differences


by: on June 6th, 2013 | Comments Off

As challenging as saying “no” is to anyone in our lives, a topic I addressed a few weeks ago, it becomes exponentially more difficult when there is a power difference involved. The reason for it is that, by virtue of having power, the other person can deliver unpleasant consequences if we say “no.” A parent may do anything from frowning, removing privileges, sending a child to their room or grounding them, all the way to hitting the child or shaming them in significant ways. A boss may reprimand, put a note in an employee’s file, overlook the person when a promotion is coming up, all the way to firing the person. These consequences are far from trivial.

This is precisely the reason why people in power rarely hear a “no” unless they set up explicit structures of support for people to say “no” to them. The cost of having power, when not attended to, means that people in power don’t receive all the information they need to make decisions, because people are afraid to tell them the truth; it means they don’t have access to the full wisdom of the people who work with them, because people hold back; it also means operating in an environment of little trust. All of these can sometimes lead to compromised performance.


Myths of Power-with # 4: 
When Connection Trumps Everything


by: on May 30th, 2013 | Comments Off

In my previous piece in this mini-series, I made a connection between power and needs, suggesting that the quintessential flavor of power-with approaches rests on attending to ever more needs of ever more people. I said then, and will say as often as I can remember, that the repeated experience of magic that arises from engaging in this way has sold me on it forever. I have facilitated so many groups and teams to reach decisions that are based on this approach, and the results often astonish everyone who participates.

Nonetheless, today’s piece is about a huge caveat I have about how to apply this approach within groups. I became familiar with this issue in communities of practitioners of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), especially when people gather in an attempt to make things happen rather than for the purpose of healing. Often enough people experience immense frustration with how such groups function, and are discouraged to see how challenging it can be to make any decisions about anything. I suspect that this issue shows up in a variety of forms in any number of groups and contexts where inclusion and power-with are important to participants in a group. Nonetheless, because I have experienced it primarily in the NVC context, this is the main context which I talk about in this piece.

Although I had experienced the challenge soon after I became part of the fledgling community that has since grown considerably worldwide, I didn’t have a framework for understanding the issue until a particular conversation I had with my late colleague and co-founder of BayNVC, Julie Greene, in 2001. The way Julie characterized the problem was that people didn’t make a clear enough distinction between what she referred to as empathy circles and action circles. The difference between the two is a difference in purpose, not in who is present – the same group of people can sometimes come together as an empathy circle and sometimes as an action circle. In fact, that was one of her clear recommendations to people gathering to make things happen: to have some meetings that are purely designed for relationship-building and empathy.

I have thought about this challenge many times in the intervening years, and now have some hope that I can support NVC groups, and likely others, in finding more effective ways to manage the difficulty.


Leadership 101


by: on May 24th, 2013 | 3 Comments »

When my sister Inbal and I, along with our late colleague Julie Greene and with John Kinyon, founded BayNVC in 2002, one of our top priorities was to create ongoing generations of leaders. This was the reason that we established the BayNVC Leadership Program. That this program is still running beautifully, and without us!, led by our former students, suggests to me that the intention succeeded. The same reasoning informs my choice, as the only remaining founder at BayNVC, to continue to focus on leadership development in so many of my activities.

Time and again, as I try to focus in this way, I discover how muddled the concept of leadership is, for so many people. Is leadership the same as power? Is leadership something given to us, or something we enter into, or something else? Is leadership only significant when it’s formal, or can we usefully refer to certain acts of people without any formal authority as exemplifying leadership? Is leadership a function, an attitude, or a perception?

Each of these questions folds within it some other questions. For example, disentangling leadership from power includes attending to the tricky issue of whether having leaders is necessary or desirable. Of course, what we believe that leaders do or how they do it is intimately interlinked with whether or not we would want there to be some form of leadership, and what we could imagine alternatives would be

Still, this piece is entitled Leadership 101, and I want to aim for keeping it simple.

While all of this was swirling inside me, I decided to look up what others thought about this question. The dictionary definitions led me nowhere, defining the concept of leadership either by using a verb (lead), or by using another noun (leader). When I followed those leads (pun so very intended…), I still didn’t find anything that provided a description of what it means to lead or to be a leader.


Taking Ourselves Seriously Enough


by: on May 16th, 2013 | Comments Off

"Self-Effacing Woman" by Soraida Martinez

I have been on the vulnerability path for many years now. I have talked in front of groups hundreds of times. I write a blog, which makes me in principle visible to anyone. Still, when I am in a group that I am not facilitating (it does happen!), it’s still sometimes challenging for me to express what I want.

In the workshops I lead, and in meetings I facilitate within organizational settings, I often see people who either don’t speak, or speak very hesitantly. One example stands out to me in particular, a woman who had a high level administrative position, who was respected by everyone, and who was carrying significant responsibility and decision-making authority at an organization I consulted with. Time and again the owners of the company would invite her into meetings for the explicit purpose of hearing her opinion which they valued so much, and yet she would somehow relegate herself to the role of taking notes, as if that were the purpose for which she was invited. When I talked with her about it, she literally found it difficult to trust that her opinion was, indeed, sought and valued.

Why is this happening, and why do I care about it enough to dedicate a blog entry to it?


Saying “No” without Saying “No”


by: on May 8th, 2013 | Comments Off

Saying “no” to anyone, about anything, tends to be challenging. We know how uncomfortable it is to hear the “no” we would say. We want to avoid that discomfort and the consequences that might come our way for being “exposed” in our unwillingness. Many of us genuinely wish to be always caring and available, and find it strenuous to face a situation in which, for whatever reason, we don’t find the willingness or ability to say “yes” to what is being asked of us. In some cultures, or for certain groups of people, it is entirely unacceptable to say “no,” which only makes things more complex.

These challenges arise even in the most ordinary exchanges, or in our most trusted relationships, and are orders of magnitude more challenging when the relationship has power differences built into it. I plan to come back to the added complexity of how power and “no” interact. For now, I want to look at the “easier” piece, navigating a “no” in a relationship of equals, in a way that allows us to retain trust and a spirit of collaboration.

What Makes “No” So Challenging?

Every time anyone makes a request, two things operate simultaneously. One is the specifics of what is being asked for – the dishes, the report, the favor, or whatever it is. The other is the secret question that hovers over the request, known by both without being spoken or acknowledged, mostly without awareness: “Do I matter?” When the answer is “no,” not only is the specific need that led to the request not going to be attended to. In addition to that the person making the request more often than not will take the “no” to mean that the person saying “no” doesn’t care, or doesn’t care enough to say “yes.”

What this means, if we want to say “no” to someone, is that we need to find a way to subvert this fundamental dance. We can, instead, aim for a way to say “no” to the specific request while continuing to affirm that we care about the person making the request and about what’s important to them.


Does Anyone Deserve Anything?


by: on May 3rd, 2013 | 3 Comments »

Although Nonviolent Communication (NVC) has the word “communication” as part of its title, I agree with Kit Miller, friend and fellow on the path, who says that “NVC is an awareness discipline masquerading as a communication process.” On the path of transformation, both personal and societal, that I envision, I see a two-way street between our words and our consciousness. In one direction, it’s clear to me that we cannot truly change how we communicate unless we think differently. In the other direction, making a conscious choice about which words I do or don’t use, when and how, has had the astonishing effect of restructuring my thinking. In that way, language has become a primary spiritual path for me, continually bringing into greater and greater alignment my values and my way of being in the world.


The Paradox of Why


by: on April 26th, 2013 | 3 Comments »

In an astonishing number of situations, knowing the “why” – why someone did what they did – is what helps us make meaning, be motivated, transform our assumptions, or open our hearts. At the same time, the “why” question – “why did you do that?” – is often the most difficult to hear, leading us to defensiveness and contraction. Both parts of this paradox have clear reasons (their own “why,” if you will). Once we know them, we can find ways to support ourselves and others in knowing the “why” that are less taxing for all.

Why “Why” Matters

For myself, understanding the “why” is the fundamental bridge between me and another. When I see another person’s action, decision, or choice, or hear their request of me, and I don’t know the “why” – either by being told, or by managing to imagine it effectively enough – a gap forms within me, made up of lack of understanding. The gap may be tiny and temporary, or it may be the beginning of growing and ongoing mistrust. This gap is likely bigger and lasts longer the less the other person’s movements align with my own preferences.

I have heard similar themes often enough to trust that in this particular way I am not that different from others. Just think of the last time someone didn’t show up at the time you expected them and you were irritated, then you found out the why and the irritation disappeared. Without knowing, we tend to fill in the gap of understanding by providing our own “why,” creating our own stories about what someone’s behavior means.


Learning from Life – A Journal


by: on April 18th, 2013 | Comments Off

In the last few weeks, since I returned from Europe, I learned so much through the experiences that I found on my path, without planning to learn anything, that it became clear I wanted to write about the experience of learning all the time. I decided I wanted to expose the bits and pieces below for the purpose of showing, both myself and others, how everything that happens, happy or not, can support our movement toward where we want to go. If you are reading this blog, you know that I am plagued by a fundamental and deep impatience fueled by a deep longing for an entirely different way for us, humans, to live on the planet. The vision is strong, and what I most want is companionship, many people willing to join me on this amazing journey to a profound personal freedom that will allow us to take a stand and, together, turn the tide. I am dedicating this sampling of my learning, these very personal reflections, to this bold vision, without quite knowing what connects to what.


Mourning Our Way to Acceptance


by: on April 11th, 2013 | Comments Off

For years and years I’ve been mystified by the idea of acceptance. I could point to it as a need on the list that people who study Nonviolent Communication consult for their learning and growth. I could understand, in some general sense, what people mean when they say that they want to be accepted. I even included a commitment called “Accepting What Is” in the 17 Core Commitments. Still, all the same, there was something that simply didn’t make sense. So much so, that I didn’t even know exactly how to talk about it.

The core question that was so unsettling for me is remarkably simple: What does it mean to accept something we don’t like?

One loop I would go into in trying to understand this was the experience of the person who hears, from another, “I want you to accept me the way I am.” What’s the person hearing this to do if they don’t like the behaviors that the other person does? This would come up again and again with couples, in friendships, in groups I was leading. I couldn’t shake off the idea that, essentially, there was some subtle way that the person asking to be accepted is really, deep down, asking to be liked. What is the difference?


Behind Every Complaint There’s a Vision


by: on April 4th, 2013 | Comments Off

Managers, at all levels, often tell me how little patience they have when they hear complaints from the people they supervise, how their disempowered nature drags them down. Those who get pegged as repeat complainers are often avoided by their coworkers.

Outside the workplace, I also hear the echo of all the times I’ve heard parents tell their children to stop complaining, often with an irritated tone of voice. There’s something about complaining that most of us find very unappealing to be around – unless, of course, we ourselves participate in that workplace “ritual” that, for so many, is the only way to get through the day. Even then, when asked, we all know that our complaining arises from a sense of powerlessness, of having little faith that anything will ever change. Somehow, it serves as an outlet, and some subtle agreement exists about when and how to start and stop.

I know that even when a friend appears to me to be complaining I find it challenging, even, maybe especially, if I love the person. One of my most significant friendships took almost three years to bloom because I kept some distance in my heart. I couldn’t bear to see her act in ways that seemed so powerless to me. Then, one day, almost by some miracle, a window opened, I saw her power, and a new world of friendship opened up for us. What’s most amazing is that since then I have never heard her complain any more, though I am sure she didn’t change her ways of speaking so much all at once. Rather, I think that what changed was between us, not in her. We co-created a new dynamic of engaging with challenges in her life. With both of us connected to and seeing her power, we found ways of responding that were novel, connected, and focused on moving towards what she wanted instead of what was happening that she didn’t like.