Friday, March 2, 2012

Power, Collaboration, and Control

by Miki Kashtan
Many years ago I was embroiled in a very complex legal battle with a landlord. A big part of the challenge for me was that both the landlord and the partner I was living with at the time had been trained as lawyers, and I was quite alienated from the language and mindset of the interactions. I was female, inexperienced in landlord disputes, and with zero knowledge of the law. My partner, in addition to being a lawyer, was also male and had won a lawsuit against a previous landlord. In strategizing how to respond, we both loved the idea of challenging the power structure inherent in these differences. In our conversation, we came to a creative conclusion that we would both gain a lot of learning and stretching if we entrusted the process to me.

And then I called a meeting to discuss our options and next steps. Right away, my partner corrected my strategy and ideas several times within the first few minutes, and I became so overwhelmed and frustrated that I gave up. To his huge credit, he didn’t accept my resignation, and pushed me to engage further, so we could learn and understand what was going on. As my sense of defeat started to melt, I learned a profound lesson about power: if I was going to be empowered and entrusted, my partner would have to be willing for things to not happen the way he thought was the only right way to do it. He could not both hold the power and give it to me at the same time. He stepped back, followed me, and soon started enjoying the process. Eventually, I led us to a successful mediated outcome.

I can now look back and have tremendous compassion for his initial reaction. He knew the law; he was used to being in charge of such events; he had clear ideas about how it would all unfold; and he was a man, and hence implicitly accustomed to having women follow rather than lead. Under such circumstances, and without conscious and deliberate choice to do otherwise, I completely understand how hugely difficult it would be to sit and watch me do what must have looked to him like a potential strategic disaster.

The Urge to Control
This past week, I conducted a teleseminar called “Why Is Collaboration Difficult?” (which was recorded, in case you want to listen). One person sent me a comment about his theory of what makes collaboration so challenging, namely
what he referred to as “the attempt to control based on fear of a flawed outcome.” This is precisely what was so challenging for my then partner.

Having been in a position of less power in relation to him and subsequently finding myself in positions of power and leadership in so many places and ways, I can now see the situation from both sides. I have written before about the dilemma of having power in a piece entitled “Power and Humility.” There is no question in my mind that the willingness to risk an outcome that’s different from what we want is essential for the possibility of collaboration, despite the potential consequences. It’s not about giving up on what we want; it’s only about the willingness to consider a different outcome. That willingness is what allows us to open up to hear others, to see their point of view, to consider other possibilities, to shift at times, and to speak about what we want without insisting on it happening. All of these are fundamental building blocks of the process of collaboration.

Responding to People in Power
As much power as any of us have, true and ongoing collaboration does not depend only on our actions. I can’t imagine that any of us can sustain, indefinitely, the effort of doing all the work on our own to remove barriers to collaboration. I want to also explore the mirror obstacles that those who respond to people in power add to the mix.

I can no longer count the number of times that I have been seen through the lens of interpreting me as attempting to control others. Considering how committed I am to learning about power, to receiving feedback, to reflecting on the ways that my use of power in my small sphere of influence may adversely affect others, and to incorporating changes in my actions whenever I see possibilities for that -- I find it painfully ironic.

Even so, I am thoroughly open to the possibility that perhaps much more often than I am willing to imagine I fall into the trap of accepting others’ implicit deference to me, and thus get my way even when I have no interest in imposing it; even when I am truly open to a different outcome. I am also open to the possibility of there being other ways that I exercise power inadvertently, without seeing it.

And yet…

I imagine that I am not the only one who is thus seen. I particularly imagine that women in positions of leadership are especially prone to such perceptions, since our leadership and power are still so new and are often not accepted, fully, by either men or women.

And so, if many of us are seen this way, then, perhaps, there is something partly amiss in the seeing. I am worried about our collective ability to collaborate when so many people in power are seen as attempting to control, without at the same time receiving the compassion that I now have for my long-ago partner, or for myself in my own struggles about such instances, or for many others who exercise power in their sphere of influence, however large or small.

I don’t believe the saying that power corrupts. Coming into power does not create the fundamental desire to have things be our way; it only provides access to resources that make it possible to do so. In the process, extraordinary harm can be done to others, sometimes millions of others. Whatever our sphere of influence, and whatever our vision or personal goals, our power gives us access to extra resources, and thus can multiply both our benefit and our harm. There is no substitute for meticulous attention to the effects of our actions. I see it as an enormous challenge to come into power and live its attendant responsibility without creating harm.

At the same time, putting all the responsibility on the person in power makes it less likely that the learning, attention, and care will actually happen. A critical piece that is often overlooked is the “corrupting” effect of having power and being deprived of empathy, compassion, and understanding for the immense challenges that come with power and responsibility; having power and being seen as attempting to control without acknowledgment of the endemic urges for control shared by so many, with or without power; or having power and having people defer so successfully that the person in power sometimes has no way of knowing until the damage is done.

Unless we all do the work of transcending the endemic either/or paradigm, we will continue to miss out on the exhilarating possibilities to collaborate deeply, to engage with power and learn together, and to give and receive honest and caring feedback across power differences. Feedback will sometimes mean a personal conversation in which we let the people in power know the effects of their actions. Sometimes it will mean putting in place structures that set limits to the harming potential of people in power. And sometimes feedback takes the form of nonviolent resistance, when harm is done and no other way of providing feedback and preventing harm exists. Whichever form it takes, the function is critical for power to be a form of service and stewardship rather than an avenue for personal gain or unilateral visioning at the expense of others.

My dream in this area is that we provide a radically different legacy and understanding of power and collaboration to future generations than what we have received. In this legacy power can be increased and shared, those in power can be loved and supported and share their power with others without fear, those with less power can find more power to lovingly engage with those in power, and all of us can embrace the uncompromising commitment to make things work for all.


  1. Miki I wondering if you might comment on what you might do if suddenly Mitt Romney could channel you to help him most gain the nomination? I just hate seeing how all of these politicians resort to negative ads ,sound bytes(when I think they don't want to) and in the end the negative ads are effective..what could be done differently ,within the current playing field that could be seen and make a difference?

    1. Hello,

      I thought and talked about this, and I came to the conclusion that I am simply not the person to comment in this arena.

      For one thing, I am very seriously not involved in electoral politics. The issues, even the players, are not familiar to me, and that would be one reason to disqualify myself.

      In addition, I am very sober about the limits of what one individual, even in a position of such power, can do within a system that is so fundamentally not oriented to addressing human needs.

      After learning what I learned, I can only say that I can only imagine how tough it is to be him now.


    2. I thank you for thinking about this and responding.

      I came to a similar conclusion to yours, but wondered if you perhaps you had some ideas. And like you, I feel for not only Romney, but other politicians caught in a system that makes it hard for them to connect with compassion(as opposed to a 'side" "a position") to themselves, their opponents, their constitutients, and the country as a whole.

      Without sounding too idealistic and disconnected from reality, let me say, I do believe that the work of NVC and what I have learned specifically from BayNVC trainings(last one being LP11) that the work we are doing will make it possible to see a change to systems that is so hard on so many.

      thanks again for responding

      And for your work, your passion, and your tenacity


  2. Hello Miki, thank you for your continued writings . . . I am inspired and encouraged when I read them! I am passionate about collaboration as well, and as of yesterday, just started a website that I hope will encourage collaboration on a larger scale.
    In powerful peace,

  3. When I read this, a few things come up for me: 1. A guess that there is loneliness in leadership, and a real longing to be seen for one's intentions, and a longing for companionship. 2. An awareness that there is much confusion in our culture, including in NVC communities, about the definitions of "power" and "control" and how they relate. Indeed, recently an NVC colleague sent out an email saying that "it is not possible to share power" b/c it is an intrinsic need. I'm longing for clarity and shared understandings of these concepts. 3. I am reminded that when we have not made peace with our own longing for something, it is often more difficult to accept this need in another. Eg., if we haven't made peace with the longing for play, we may judge people who are playing as being silly or childish or not serious enough. I wonder if there is some of this going on, and the psychological and cultural factors that create obstacles to connecting with power in a way that is truly life-serving. 4. I notice the ways I might have difficulty in claiming this need and am mindful that a spiritual teacher I'm working with specifically gave me a practice on power some months ago, encouraging me to cultivate this quality. Celebrating that, and his insight into an area of growth and personal development for me. Thank you for articulating these concerns and holding the vision, Miki. Jean

  4. Micki, it is frustrating to me to see someone with as much to contribute as you have, who possesses such knowledge and skill in nvc, falling for common myths and not achieving their potential because of not knowing about a few other key ideas.

    I'm convinced you will be much more powerful after you learn what some of the other intellectual giants besides Marshall Rosenberg have to offer. I hope you'll read or listen to a couple of Murray Rothbard's books, along with a couple of Nathaniel Branden's books. Once you have heard their messages I think you'll find them very complementary to Marshall's.

    Separately, because we're not just disembodied minds, I recommend Tom Naughton's movie, FatHead, for the surprising and useful facts about which foods cause illness and which other foods are really the healthy ones.

    1. Hi Marc,

      Thank you for the comment. I am, indeed, not familiar with Rothbard and Branden, beyond knowing of them as leading libertarian thinkers, Rothbard preferring the term anarcho-capitalist, I believe. Would you be able to briefly explain how you see their thinking and work as complementary to Marshall Rosenberg's? I don't immediately see more than a partial connection. I would like to understand these ideas better and hope to do some more reading. Alas, my reading list is only growing. So, for now, can you point me to a particular article or two, or website, something shorter than a book?


    2. Thanks for your reply, I am encouraged that you are considering looking further into these ideas. I'll try to give a taste of what I got out of them, to show the complementarity to NVC.

      I used to feel guilty for having any money beyond the minimum. I thought rich people were unjust and selfish, I thought they were exploiting others and I resented them for it. I also thought I should live for the good of others, for something more important than just little me, and it made me feel bad about myself.

      Reading Murray Rothbard, I learned how voluntary exchanges benefit both parties (or they would not agree to it, since no one is forcing them). I learned about the role of money in facilitating these exchanges, and I learned how society can work based on voluntary (non-violent) interactions, instead of being based on force as it is today. With a better understanding of money and economics and politics, I can now work towards goals that I know will benefit everyone, and I can enjoy a clear conscience.

    3. From Nathaniel Branden I learned about self-esteem. I thought I knew all I needed to know, but just as with money I realized I had mostly picked up common misunderstandings and misrepresentations. I learned that self-esteem is the reputation I keep with myself, that thinking "No one will know but me" is a mistake because for self-esteem the opinion that counts is mine. And I learned that I need to be on my own side first, to stand up for myself, before I can be on anyone else's side. This lets me be at peace with myself, it makes me more open to others, it helps me choose what to do, and it helps me be more effective at what I do choose to do.

      Before learning about NVC, I used to think that people had to be punished when they did something wrong. It took me many months to stop thinking in terms of people being right or wrong and shift to the NVC perspective. Marshall Rosenberg's ideas brought me yet more peace and clarity, which is where I see the complementarity with the two other groups of ideas. All three seem essential to me.

    4. You asked for something shorter than a book, have you tried audio books? They got me from 1 to over 10 books per month, in addition to all the reading I do on the computer. Time spent on chores is now doubly productive and much more satisfying! Anyway, the shortest introductions I know of are:

      the first 84 pages of What Has Government Done to Our Money? by Murray N. Rothbard, 1963

      The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, by Nathaniel Branden, 1994

      I'll be glad to point you to further resources!