"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” 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
It was only when I sat down to write this piece, some version of which has been brewing for some time, that I realized that it is, in some ways, a direct continuation of what I wrote about last week. It is a piece that’s about how we came to make money so central to our lives that it masks the fundamental dependence we have on each other. It is also about how our interdependence likely was and can become again fueled by a web of love and care instead of fear and separation, as it is now.
I get an inkling of this, in my own life, from seeing that, in some small and yet significant ways, I have exited the money economy. Even though I clearly have more money than the vast majority of the human population, I don’t have, and am unlikely to ever have, enough money to hire all the support I need in order to make my work possible. By necessity and by luck, I can only do my work because of the existence of people who, based purely on their love and the inspiration they get from my work, take on projects that would otherwise simply not get done.
Moving beyond Relying on Money
The reality behind this privilege, namely my access to far more resources than the money I have could ever buy, is based only on love. In this way, I have joined the large web of sharing resources that, I believe, is the underlying truth of our humanity, where we started and where I want us to move toward (I will have more to say about sharing resources and about love in a moment).
While I rejoice, I also recognize that I am still quite limited in my ability to fully relax into this web and to make choices about what I do or don’t do that are purely motivated by the intrinsic meaning of the action, without taking into consideration money. I am definitely part way there, just not all the way.
Although I have been writing some version of this piece in my head for some time, today is the first time I am venturing to actually write it. This is not a hopeful piece, and in this medium I usually shy away from sharing, in full, the pain that lives in me about people’s lives the world over. I know that many people read this blog and come to study with me because they are longing for vision, for some way to imagine a better life for themselves and for the world. I am glad, most of the time, to be able to offer that vision, which I have in abundance. It’s easy for me to see what’s possible, and I derive great pleasure from weaving stories about what’s possible and from finding companionship for those images. This pleasure, and the care for everyone’s longing, keep me from speaking about the acute and persistent pain I regularly experience about the gap between vision and reality. Why would I want to bring despair rather than empowerment to people? Nonetheless, it is part of my work, part of my integrity, part of my calling, to share truth as it lives in me, even if difficult. So, today, as I am sitting in an apartment in Geneva overlooking a river and the mountains, I am writing a piece about pain, little snippets about the world of work.
#1: About Menial Labor
Before embarking on my trip to Europe, I got some support from a local teenager who packed my impressive collection of supplements into little plastic baggies. This was work for pay, quite decent pay for a 14 year old. It took her four hours, and she delivered it almost flawlessly. She told me afterwards that it was really tedious and annoying. I asked her if she regretted it. She didn’t, she was glad to have the money, she said, though she wouldn’t do it again. Then she added: “I’m not cut out for menial labor.”
Ten years ago this week, Leah and I joined a group of peacemakers in Baghdad during our government’s “Shock and Awe” campaign. The experience has shaped the rest of our life. As I remember the millions of people, both Iraqi and American, whose lives have been affected, a reflection on what I learned there:
I am sitting in the lobby of a small hotel in Baghdad, listening to an American grandmother who has spent her last six months in Iraq. She is a member of the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), a literal reserves for foot soldiers in the army of the Lord. Since 1986, CPT has made it their mission to “get in the way” of violence by practicing direct action nonviolence in conflict zones. I grew up singing camp songs about being in “the Lord’s army,” but never imagined the call of duty would lead me here. I am in a war zone, my head foggy from several nights of interrupted sleep, looking to a wiser soul for direction.