Saturday, April 23, 2011

Why Would I Want to Understand?

by Miki Kashtan

I recently wrote an article linking NVC to the legacy of Gandhi in which I identified seven principles that are common to both. I consider the third principle - seeing others’ humanity – as core to the practice of nonviolence, and at the same time as profoundly demanding. It is so much easier, on so many levels, to only “grant” full humanity to some people and not others.

NVC provides a practical method for cultivating this capacity to see others’ humanity, based on the principle that every human action, no matter how destructive or abhorrent to us, is an expression of basic human needs that are shared by all of us.

When I express the full extent and radical ramifications of this principle, very often people raise the example of Hitler. Isn’t he, ultimately, beyond the pale? To me, nothing is. As I wrote the article, I was amazed to learn that Gandhi wrote to Hitler, and addressed him as “Dear Friend.” I know that Marshall Rosenberg dedicated significant research and personal reflection to studying Hitler’s life so he could see and understand his humanity. I know it’s possible. And so I included a paragraph in which I explored what could possibly be some basic human needs that could possibly be hidden deep underneath the choices that led him to such extremes. The paradox is astonishing to me. The choices themselves are so beyond comprehension to me that I can barely breathe when I truly attempt to take them in, and yet the needs I could imagine are fully and easily understandable to me. Here’s what I identified: “I can easily see, and often experience, being only with people similar to us as one strategy for the human needs to belong, to have ease in relating, and to have a sense of meaning and connection. Seeing this, I can resonate with Hitler’s underlying needs, and thus make human sense of Hitler despite of and independently of his actions.” (If you are curious about why acting on these needs would take the form of such unimaginable actions, I highly recommend James Gilligan’s book Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes. Gilligan discusses, in particular, the role of shame in leading to violence and cruelty.)

From Emotional Protection to Open-Hearted Grief
For some people it seems virtually impossible to fathom the possibility of such compassion. They want to protect themselves from the excruciating pain that the specter of the actions raises for them. As one reader wrote after the article was posted: “It is so painful for me to ponder what needs of his he was trying to meet by his actions. I have a preference to stay away from people or things that are just so "needy" and require so much work on my part to not judge or condemn.”

On the most personal level, my own main reason for wanting to extend understanding is the profound effect it has on me. I believe it was Martin Luther King who said that the practice of nonviolence first of all affects the person who practices it, before it affects anyone else.

From the moment I understood the revolutionary depth of this principle, I have been working systematically to integrate it and make it available to me in more and more circumstances. Sometimes I have taken days and weeks to reflect on what could possibly be the human needs of someone whose actions I could not comprehend, whether someone I know personally or a public figure. I have also been in dialogue with people very different from me and focused on understanding, really trying to make sense of their actions from within their own frame of reference, and get a visceral feel for their needs. Many times I have taken on very difficult roles as part of my work with people, and have always found a human nugget at the heart of sometimes extreme actions. Each time this happens, I feel bigger and stronger as a human being. Most of the time, these days, I no longer need to reflect much; the experience of entering another person’s reality is now fairly easily available to me, and I consider that a blessing.

I am not without pain. I would never trade that pain for what I felt before. I have so much less fear these days, so much more room to be, to explore, to experiment. I am so much more at one with the whole of humanity, without separation, without enemies. My world feels safer and bigger when everyone is essentially human like me.

From Moral Indignation to Compassionate Determination
A more common concern I have heard often is that compassion is somehow the same as making the actions OK. In particular, I have heard many express the fear that with compassion we would do nothing to stop actions that are harmful. Because of the millennia of training to see everything as either right or wrong, if I don’t call something “wrong” it’s easy to see me as saying that it’s “right.” Understanding, for me, is entirely different from agreement or acceptance. It’s an entirely different orientation. I do not have to hate or condemn someone in order to do everything in my power to stop their actions. I can do it with compassion, and I can have just as much intensity, determination, and passion for what matter to me. I can act with as much conviction and decisiveness while still having care for the person whose actions I am trying to stop. Gandhi, again, comes to mind. He didn’t hate the British officers. He stood up to them, resisted, mobilized millions, and all the while maintained a sense of full respect for their humanity. In fact, he fully believed it was to their benefit to leave India.

Compassion and Nonviolence
What many people don’t know is that nonviolence was used, and successfully so, even during WWII. (See Michael Nagler’s book The Search for a Nonviolent Future for examples.) As our capacity to destroy increases, and our collective global willingness to use that capacity remains high, I am more and more eager to see the nonviolent alternatives. I have complete faith that nonviolence can be a primary approach to resolving international conflict. I don’t believe we can get there without learning to see others’ humanity no matter the circumstances.


  1. Since the example of Hitler is so extreme and probably the hardest to use in most venues I'm familiar with, I'd love to be able clearly to go through the steps you speak of with people in mind such as Ghaddafi, Bin Laden, or even a typical, or 'common' present day 'terrorist'.

    Trying, alone, to think through the Gandhian process even with those examples used, is extremely challenging. How much moreso in situations that arise including others who are at least willing to try and engage in such a conversation.

    This topic is so vital, yet so challenging for myself and most people I know, that indeed, 'in the name of"peace"' (or 'quiet', ie avoiding some sort of violent eruption) in our immediate surroundings, more often than not, I sadly and dejectedly join the people around me in avoiding the whole topic, while aware of perhaps some missed opportunity to even begin.

    Thanks for bringing this up.

  2. I love the way you expressed yourself above, Miki. It speaks my thoughts and feelings.

    I think that expressed love, in words and actions (especially in childhood,) is a big part of what makes us who we are. If a human being is valued by his caretakers from the time he is born, she unlikely lash out to inflict pain. Doing is often a way one says, "See how it hurts? Now you understand what I feel."

    I love connecting with the place in everyone that is innocent. Then, I feel at peace with myself and others.

  3. NVC, to my mind, is at its deepest level (non-ego, non-dual) a spiritual practice. At this level, empathy is not a matter of understanding but of an elemental response to another living thing. It was at this level that I was touched by video showing the fear in Saddam Hussein’s eyes when he was dragged out of hole where he was hiding from the American invaders of Iraq. I could identify with him, because I know what it is to be afraid. At this same level I could also admire the courage with which he walked to the gallows. For I also would like to show such self-respect and control in the face of danger. It is at this level that even now I thrill at Hitler’s speeches because of the energy of their focused purpose.

    At the same time, on the level of ego and ordinary thought, I was glad to see Saddam caught and wanted to see him executed because for millions that would mean that justice is possible. I don’t agree with that meaning of justice; but we can begin communicating only where people are, not where we’d like them to be. Similarly, my thrill at Hitler’s charisma didn’t drown out my conviction to oppose him in every way possible.

    Thought and elemental empathy can coexist within ourselves if we can differentiate them as two qualitatively different inner experiences. This is what I take to be the meaning of Buddhist awakening, Christian charity, and humanist unconditional regard.

    I’d like to tie these comments to Miki’s apologia several months ago for the term “non-violent communication”. I thought at the time that her analysis, though valid, was tortured. Why maintain a term that required so complex an explanation? But a recent discussion recalled to me the medieval method of via negativa (the negative way) and the corresponding Buddhist “not this, not that.” Our deepest inner experience, which NVC calls (elemental) empathy, is beyond the specific, definable contents of ordinary experience. Violence, on the other hand, is quite tangible and identifiable. So perhaps the fundamental impulse behind “non-violent communication” is to move us beyond the definable to an elemental empathy that we can only experience. Just a thought.

    Gary Schouborg,

  4. Thank you for taking the time to post this. I felt my heart open up.

  5. Thank you.I'm interested to read this article in it's entirety! Where was it posted? Is it possible to get a copy?

  6. a slightly earlier version of the article (i assume you mean the article about NVC and Gandhian principles) is available at this link: