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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 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?


Intention and Effect


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.


Being Powerful in the Moment


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.


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


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.


Exploring Authenticity


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.


In Defense of Complexity


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.


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


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.


When Others Judge Us


by: on July 3rd, 2013 | 3 Comments »

Many years ago I had a dramatic experience when I offered someone extremely difficult feedback, the most difficult I believe I have ever given to anyone, and he demonstrated a way of receiving it that inspired me. As I was almost in panic about what I had said to this person, and yet knew that I couldn’t relate to him without saying it, he looked me in the eye and told me that his practice was that whenever anyone said anything to him about himself, he stretched to imagine it being true, and then attempted to digest it from that perspective. What I had shared with him was that I experienced him as having unusual powers, like a magician, and that I didn’t trust that the power he had was all benign. Having said that and gotten the response I got, all the tension about speaking that I had been feeling drained out of me, and was replaced by admiration and appreciation for this man. It’s hard to describe the oddity of sitting with him, still not trusting his power, and nonetheless appreciating him so much. We then proceeded to explore, together, what could possibly be the source of the “darkness” that I had experienced about his power. The details of that exploration have evaporated from my memory; it’s only the flavor of the interaction, and the intensity of his willingness to explore with me that stayed as a model.

I have often wondered about what made it possible for this man to have such extraordinary and exquisite openness. What did he do with his own need to be seen and accepted? Sadly, I have no answer. At the time I lacked the vocabulary to ask about this, as this conversation predated my involvement with Nonviolent Communication and the awareness of needs that comes with it. Subsequently, life took him to other countries and our collaboration ended.

Regardless of what was true for him, the question remains. I have never met anyone else who could take in such difficult comments with such grace. What makes it so difficult, and what can we do about it?


The Supreme Court in Action: A Painful Mixed Bag


by: on June 29th, 2013 | 1 Comment »

Yesterday: hundreds of longtime couples marry at last. Credit: Creative Commons

Those of us who have grown up in the industrialized Western world have been fed a steady diet of faith in progress, dating back to the European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. We were told that between the ongoing evolution and maturation of the human species, especially the freeing of our minds from the shackles of superstition and faith and replacing it with reason, and the astounding accomplishments and discoveries of science and technology, life will continue to improve. There may be setbacks, and still, on the whole, we are on a path towards a bright future.

I’ve always been suspicious of this tale, and only more so over time. It’s not so much that I don’t see aspects of life that I trust have improved since hundreds or even dozens of years ago. It’s that I also see aspects of life that have gotten worse, some alarmingly so, within that same time period. This is true both on the material plane and even more so on the social plane. Compared to our pre-industrial ancestors, we have much more convenience, and less time, overall, to enjoy it. We have far fewer deaths from infectious diseases, and far more from degenerative ones. We have more choice, and less community.

I was shocked, for example, when I first learned that there was a higher percentage of women faculty in universities in the 1910s and 1920s than in the 1970s! Even more so, when I learned that shortly after the end of the Civil War, for a short period of time, Black people were even elected to Congress – and then the Jim Crow system was installed which took decades to challenge and at least partially dismantle.

It is within this context that I see the Supreme Court decisions of last week.


Creating a Welcoming Community


by: on June 27th, 2013 | Comments Off

A year ago, I wrote a piece about some of the pitfalls of learning and using Nonviolent Communication. That piece has been one of my most popular ones, and I received a number of comments that pointed out more areas to explore in how to possibly make Nonviolent Communication (NVC) ever more practical, relevant, and authentic. Today I want to address one aspect of this that is related to how welcoming the NVC community can be. I see this as an exercise in humility, acceptance, and flexibility.

Humility doesn’t come easily to me individually. Perhaps because of this awareness, I am quite vigilant about maintaining it as a commitment with regards to NVC. I am sadly aware that the NVC community is not welcoming to some groups of people. Most obviously, I know that if I were a Republican, I would find the groups of people attracted to NVC outright inhospitable. This is not true only of NVC groups, and is sadly familiar to me in any group of people I have seen so far who are politically left of center.

How liberals appear to Republicans?

Here’s one example. Some years ago, I was offering monthly coaching calls to volunteers and activists of the Peace Alliance in support of their ability to work effectively on the Department of Peace campaign – not an NVC group! I remember two specific moments that highlight this difficulty. One was a moment in which someone on the call spoke up and said that she was a Republican, and talked about how hard it was for her to work with the other people in the group, the assumption that everyone would be a Democrat being one of the stumbling blocks for her. The other moment was when I did something akin to a collective role-play. I asked everyone on the call to imagine that they are opposed to the proposed legislation to establish a federal department of peace, and to imagine, as that person, hearing some of the things that they routinely say to each other or the arguments they make about the legislation. Then I asked them if, as that person, they felt any sense of care or respect for themselves. They immediately saw that their normal way of speaking would create barriers; that they truly had some hidden or not so hidden beliefs that Republicans were stupid for having the beliefs they had.