Sunday, March 13, 2011

Talking about Bullying

by Miki Kashtan

When I said “yes” to giving a keynote speech about bullying at a community conference put together by the Albany Unified School District in CA, I knew I could count on a global network of Nonviolent Communication trainers to help me. The biggest support I received was a deeply moving story about Zeke, a 16-year-old boy, member of the KKK, who was met with such empathy that he could recognize that his membership was an attempt to have connection with his father. Being understood as deeply as he was by my colleague Catherine Cadden was a new experience for Zeke. He came up to her after the event and said: “You know, that was the first time I felt fear begin to leave my body. I’m actually relieved.” Zeke ended up leaving the KKK after taking a deeper look at his choices.

I titled my talk For the Benefit of all Children: A Compassionate Perspective on Bullying, and started it with Zeke’s story (click here to see the talk on Youtube). I could see and hear the shock in the room when I mentioned his affiliation. As the story unfolded, I sensed that people were trying on the idea, so foreign to our habitual sensibilities, of meeting a KKK member with empathy. Unless, of course, one is a KKK member, in which case meeting many other people with empathy would be equally shocking. By the end of the talk I had a sense that the audience and I had been on a journey together. We went from an individual responsibility for and a punitive response to bullying to a community-based sense of responsibility and a systemic approach based on preventive and restorative responses. Understanding violence as an expression of unmet needs invited the audience to consider the possibility that having everyone’s needs cared for and more of them met would likely result in significantly less violence. Whatever is leading a person to bullying would not be attended to by being told it’s wrong and bad to bully. Especially given the strong association of violence with shame, as James Gilligan so lovingly calls us to consider in his book Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes, punishment can only increase violence, because it leads to more shame.

I ended the talk with a vision of possibility. In this vision schools are structured in a way that maximizes children’s physical safety. When transgressions happen, both the child who bullied and the child who was bullied know they will be accepted and supported in finding reconnection.      The child who was bullied has hope that s/he can express her/his vulnerability and pain, and that it matters to the community. The child who bullies has support in finding other ways to get her/his needs met. The child who bullies also has hope that there is a place in the community for her/him. No one is ostracized. The community has a way to talk about behaviors that harm others without making the person who did the harming bad or wrong. The sense of a community caring for everyone is maintained even through hard times.

I have so much faith that in such a community fewer and fewer children will resort to violence, because they will have ample other avenues to meet their needs.

If the audience indeed went on a journey with me, I also went on a journey with them. Being a visionary for so many years I have gotten into a tragic habit of assuming that people will ridicule or oppose my vision. I believe I spoke this time without compromising my message and without alienating people, at least as far as I could tell through my interactions with the audience. To do so I had to muster enough trust and confidence to assume that people will join me on this journey, to counter my habitual assumption to the contrary. I walked from the place of being all alone in the world to a place of trusting that there is room for me in this world and in this community that invited me to speak. Like the person who bullies, or the one bullied, I want to trust my belonging. I can see now that the invisible expectation of not being heard, not having room, not finding commonality, may well be a self-fulfilling prophecy and make it harder for me to connect fully with others. I hope to be able to apply this lesson in every area of my life.


  1. Miki :) I'm ecstatic knowing Roots of empathy is now getting into the US and that mentioned it. Mitsiko

  2. What hope this fills me with to read this post, Miki! I've been trying for some time to introduce this way of seeing bullying and conflict into my local school system, with so far limited success. Now, however, an incident of (relatively minor) school-based violence has garnered an invitation to present two brief introductions to NVC in my daughter's school -- one to a group of staff, the other to a group of students.

    I'm really connecting with the idea that bullying represents an opportunity for everyone -- bully, victim, and the surrounding community of students and teachers and staff and parents -- to come together, to look at whose needs are not being met, and to create a safe community where everyone's needs _can_ be met. I will be considering your lesson more deeply as I think about what I'd like to say to the school community.

  3. Miki,

    I haven't yet watched the video and I feel inspired by your willingness to lay out a compassionate vision on the bullying issue.

    The more I do this work (Compassionate Communication training and life coaching) the more I see the import of a "systems" approach to communication issues. I like what you wrote about a compassionate school system that honors all needs.

    I have been loosely involved with a group in San Diego working on the topic from a legislative perspective -- they recently showed the video on bullying produced by the Southern Poverty Law Center. I'm hopeful that your video will give me a little more clarity on how I might bring a compassionate approach to the topic in my town :)

    Peace and Light,

    David McCain

  4. Wonderful. Thank you for sharing this story, and this work. It gives me a strong sense of tangible opportunities for building hope, and growing peace. NVC also touched my life directly this week. I attended a one-day training led by Mercedes Frace in Florida - and it enhanced my commuinications and relationships in a few key areas of my life. This week has been intense and wonderful.

  5. Miki, someone sent this TED talk to me recently that fits so well with your subject and your perspective.

  6. Hi Miki,
    I really resonate with your concern about your concern that people will ridicule your visions. I am grateful that you put these visions out there as often as you do. I am inspired by your courage to be more courageous myself. While reading your blog, I remembered something that happened at the charter school where I was doing research on what might come out of NVC training for school directors, teachers, and students. Often when directors and teachers empathized with who were involved in a conflict, the parents wanted to know why the students (their own children) were not being punished or why there were no consequences for the student who was to blame. So, we (the NVC trainers) gave a talk at a parent/teacher meeting, where we explained some of the underlying premises of NVC, including the difference between protective or punitive use of force. We explained that students who are empathized with, rather than punished or blamed, are far more likely to act less violently in the future toward other students and teachers. Later the director said to me, "I'm so glad you came and talked to the parents. Now, they understand that we are not crazy. We have thought this through." What I observed when speaking to the parents that night was many thoughtful faces. It's such a new idea - empathy rather than punishment or threats. The research, by the way, did demonstrate that NVC training led to a much quicker resolution of conflicts, and a second research study, at the University level, demonstrated an increase in cooperation, respect, and compassion between students and Graduate Teaching Assistants as a result of the GTAs empathizing with students rather than threatening punishment. While respect is not always considered a need by some NVC users, the Graduate Teaching Assistants brought it up numerous times in my interviews with them, so it obviously meant something important to them.