Friday, October 18, 2013

The Saga of Writing about the Government Shutdown

by Miki Kashtan

There are three ways of dealing with difference: domination, compromise, and integration. By domination only one side gets what it wants; by compromise neither side gets what it wants; by integration we find a way by which both sides may get what they wish. -- Mary Parker Follett

A couple of days ago, I was approached by someone asking me to videotape some responses to the government shutdown. His hope was that having a YouTube video in response to the crisis could possibly travel wide and result in the possibility of an invitation to support dialogue. As it turns out, I’ve been sick (finally I am getting better), and the prospect of recording my voice was singularly unappealing. And so I decided to write a blog piece instead. My contact was super happy. I read the background information he sent me, and then some, and proceeded to write a piece. Then I sent it to two people whose opinion I value. They didn’t like it. They had some pretty strong things to say about what I had written, two of which were that what I wrote was “oversimplifying” and “naïve.”

I was ready to can the whole thing and write about something else, when I got a new suggestion from my contact’s partner. She suggested that I write about this whole process – getting the request, writing about the situation, getting the feedback, and everything in between. Given my predilection for transparency, I was inspired. Then, before I got a chance to come back to this, one of my critics sent me a new piece to read, and it all came together. The result is here in front of you. 

Some Background about Me and Politics

Much as I care deeply about the state of the world, I generally stay away from politics per se. In part, it’s because I don’t truly believe this is where the future of our species will be determined, something that could be attributed to a degree of cynicism (oddly coupled with being naïve…) about the role of any kind of government in relation to the global powers of corporations. In part, I have never found it compelling in my entire life. At the same time, I’ve had a deep conviction, for quite a number of years now, that it would be entirely possible, even likely, that with some support, governments could operate in a collaborative way. This is where the “naïve” part meets the cynical. I clearly have a mix of deep faith and mistrust when it comes to people, and politics is no exception.

I know I would go just about anywhere if an opportunity presented itself to support the political process. This is why I’ve been working with a group of legislators and advocacy groups in the state of Minnesota, helping them shift from an acrimonious debate to a collaborative effort to attend to a many-year impasse regarding child custody laws. It took a monumental effort to get the people into the room with me for my first visit, and only that day to reach an initial agreement on twenty five (later augmented to twenty six) principles [at right] to guide the continued efforts to collaborate. Next week I am going back to Minnesota both to teach a workshop about the process I am using, which I call Convergent Facilitation, and to meet again with the group to take the next major step. Lawyers and legislators have all been amazed at seeing the changes, in themselves and in the atmosphere, as a result of focusing on finding a solution that works for everyone rather than advocating for their own position in a win/lose effort. 

Of all the projects I have been part of in my life, of all the places I have contributed, of all the magic I have seen, this project most inspires my hope that something radically different is possible, even in the very mainstream of US politics. This success is a big part of why I feel so confident that I could offer support in a situation like the government shutdown, even if this confidence earns me the badge of naïveté. I also derive some of the faith from my experiences, during workshops, of “being” people such as George Bush or a soldier coming back from Iraq, and inviting others to practice connecting with me. I’ve learned so much, expanded my heart so widely, in stepping, within my body and heart, into the shoes of someone whose worldview is so different from mine. All this is why I immediately agreed when I was approached.

Excerpts from the Piece I Wrote Earlier

I am no expert in national economics and have no plans to comment on the financial aspects of the situation. What I want to focus on, instead, is the method by which the government could move towards a more robust agreement. As part of preparing for writing this piece, I was looking at a presentation on CNN, a gallery of quick profiles of the key players in the government shutdown drama. This piece was posted before the shutdown actually began. I was struck, while looking at the profiles, by the absence of any mention of what was important to the different people. What is featured, instead, are short descriptions of people’s power positions, what they are likely to vote or not, and other related items. Anyone who knows anything about serious engagement between opponents would recognize that in order to create any lasting agreement that stands any chance of having staying power requires knowing what’s truly at stake for different people. I know the general cynicism that permeates people’s beliefs about politicians. I still believe that everyone, including politicians, make choices based on what’s important to them. Not knowing what that is, we lose vital information that could help create an outcome that many players, if not all, could agree to. 


I also looked at a short video [above] that juxtaposed Obama and Boehner in such as way that they appear to be in a conversation. In this video, they say very little about the substance of the disagreement, reserving most of their comments to the stalemate itself. After hearing it, I am in the position I often am in when I mediate between people: I can easily understand both of them. Since I have no direct access to them, I have no way of knowing for sure. I still want to present it, because I see the very practice of identifying what’s important to people as essential for human thriving at this complex time in history. Of course there is much more to these men than the little bits they show here or what I can understand from it. The point is not how fully I understand them. Rather, the point is how easy it is to understand both of them, because they are both fully human to me.

I want to start with Boehner. After reading all I read, I am not surprised by the move he took. I trust that there is a lot at stake for him. I want to take him at face value, my practice with everyone I engage with. In what I hear, it appears to me that he is very seriously concerned about the situation. I hear him saying that he wants to have a much deeper understanding about why the US government is living beyond its means. It’s a core value of fiscal responsibility that I hear through those words. Given how strongly it sounds to me that he holds this value, I can completely appreciate why a moment in which there’s a possibility of exerting pressure on the president would be appealing. This is what I know from all of us: when we don’t see an option to attend to our needs in collaboration with another, we are more likely to resort to coercive means.

As to Obama, in listening to him on this video, I also could understand easily the values in the name of which he speaks. As a president who’s had so many of his initiatives challenged so strongly, including those that he explicitly attempted to craft to include what he believed were the needs of his opponents, I can imagine him being weary. I have no trouble understanding why he would want the power and autonomy to carry out the functions entrusted to him as president, why he would want to uncouple negotiations and dialogue from agreeing to anything under threat. I also hear, in what he says, a different aspect of the same value that I hear in Boehner’s words: care for fiscal responsibility, in the form of maintaining the credibility of the US government as capable of paying its bills.

I can imagine that if Boehner had sufficient confidence that serious dialogue about the essence of what matters to him would take place, he would agree to back off. I wish that Obama, who has done so much to bring empathy to the foreground, would step into Boehner’s shoes and see the challenges that he is facing – within his party, and likely within himself. Similarly, I wish that Boehner could see what a challenge he is creating for Obama, and have some understanding for what makes it so hard for Obama to agree to talks now rather than after government functions resume.  

Part of what feels almost tragic to me is that I believe that if they, and all politicians, could talk with each other at this level, they could reach agreements and develop policies together much more easily. This is true of all people, and I see it happening regularly – people at odds with each other finding ways to transcend their differences once they speak fully and hear each other. We are affected when we truly hear each other, and politicians are human like the rest of us, not a separate species.

Like the rest of us, they, too, are not always able to sort out their differences on their own. Since time immemorial humans called on each other for support with conflict. We are, after all, interdependent creatures. The issues here are far from resolved, and I don’t see the players as able to do it on their own in a way that could truly work. 

The Critique and My Response

I have no difficulty recognizing and accepting that politics is not my expertise. Like I said, I haven’t followed the politics of government, neither in the country where I grew up nor in the country I have moved to in my late twenties. What I bring to thinking about the political world is the same as what I bring everywhere else: my fundamental belief that everything that anyone does comes from core human needs that are shared by all of us. This is the premise that has helped me role play untold number of people to the total astonishment of those present, who so often said things such as: “This is exactly what my mother (or co-worker, or anyone else as the case might be) would have said. How did you know?” It’s not that I am particularly talented. It’s that I am unwavering in my faith that we are all made of the same fabric. I truly see everyone as kin, the infant and the mass murderer, the CEO and the social activist, the tea party member and the socialist. No exceptions for me.

Still, I could see, after reading the critique, that it would be hard for me to get credibility based on what I say. As one of my critics said: “Even the word ‘negotiate’ has a different meaning in Washington. I.e., no one really wants to come to a mutually satisfying negotiated ‘peace.’ They just want to look good to their constituency, or their enemy’s constituency. ‘Compromise’ is more frequently used, meaning they gave up their moral position so they could look good to everyone. And compromise, I sense from your writing and stance, is not something you would necessarily agree to.”

Between this, and the other critic’s concern that I was “drastically oversimplifying what both men's concerns are,” I was ready to call it quits. I know I only have a small window into a very complex set of relationships and structures. Of course these men have much more on their minds and hearts than the specific things I was able to glean from my background readings. I know that they are not just two individual men having a dispute; they are embroiled in a conflict that runs deep, within structures that make it monumentally difficult to collaborate even when people want to. So I accepted the critique, and was ready to shift gears completely.

Then, being invited to write about the whole process, I came to see how much disappointment I was actually carrying. Not so much about this particular piece, which it was easy to let go of. Rather, it is about the gap between the simplicity that I see and have experienced, and the continued perception that things are complicated and intractable. Yes, positions are, power struggles are. And yet even as I know the complexity, I continue to believe that it is only a layer on top of a bare-bones human reality that I continue to refuse to believe is impossible to transform.

When I started the work with the people in Minnesota, I had a few quotes hanging on the wall, one of which was the Mary Parker Follett quote that I put at the top of this piece. I used this quote, again, when I met with one of the small groups recently, and in other contexts as well. I have experienced an intuitive acceptance of its wisdom. People immediately see that negotiations, compromises, concessions, and all the other words that come with this framework are all rooted in the “win-lose” paradigm. It’s no accident that in addition to this quote, Follett also bequeathed to us the term “win-win.” Perhaps because “integration” is not such a familiar word people really think about it when they hear it, and can see how much more is possible than compromise. That, and only that, is what has made it possible to create so much movement in the Minnesota project: people being infected by my faith and also being heard, trusting that their needs are included because they are captured well, and because I model the integration with no compromise. As a result, people find willingness to open up and engage from a much simpler layer, without posturing, without defending or protecting. This is precisely the essence of the magic.

The disappointment, in other words, is about how much it would take for more and more people to trust the possibility of magic. Even in complex situations, even when the entire structure of our cultural beliefs and global institutions makes it unlikely, when the people in the situation agree to participate as human beings, something shifts and makes this magic possible. Yes, the structure as a whole would need to change, and yet we can start somewhere. 

The Gender Finale

As I said earlier, minutes before embarking on the recasting of this piece, I received a link from one of my critics to a news item about the role of women in creating the deal that made it possible to reopen the government. It’s called “Men Got Us Into The Shutdown, Women Got Us Out.” Reading it, I felt instantly at home in some fundamental way. Senator Pryor was quoted as saying: “The truth is, women in the Senate is a good thing. We’re all just glad they allowed us to tag along so we could see how it’s done.” I was reminded of a sad story I heard recently. Jean Shinoda Bolen, in an LA public reading of her book Urgent Message From Mother: Gather the Women, Save the World, described a situation where two warring parties in Sierra Leone were asked by the UN to have 50% women participate in the negotiations of a treaty. The response was: “We don’t want women here, they’re just going to compromise.”

The article he sent me talks about how the women in the senate have formed friendships and a sense of camaraderie. As Senator Collins said: “Although we span the ideological spectrum, we are used to working together in a collaborative way.” The six women on the committee that was formed to break out of the stalemate worked together to make it happen. They are just as beholden to their constituencies as anyone else is. Still, they did it, and the men noticed.

Now I come full circle to wonder. I am a woman. My sensibilities are not just my own or random. They are honed by the necessities of engaging and relating that have made up the life of most women as long as humans have existed. Such sensibilities are intensified, for better or worse, by millennia of being raised and trained in a world dominated by men. Is there anything about my sensibilities that sets me apart from my critics, that makes it more likely that I will be “naïve” in the ways that I apparently am, that gives me more willingness to be ridiculed for having faith that it truly could be simple?

Click here to read the Questions about this post, and to join us to discuss them on a conference call: Tuesday October 22, 5:30-7 pm Pacific time. This is a way that you can connect with others who read this blog. We are asking for $30 to join the call, on a gift economy basis: so pay more or less (or nothing) as you are able and willing. This week Miki is away and the call will be led by Sarah Proechel, midwife, organizer, and frequent commenter on this blog.


  1. Reading this was like fresh air coming into a stuffy room. I also believe/know we are interconnected and my attitude is the energy that I put into the mix. While traveling one time I was pondering as I often do and the phrase "soften your heart...heal the world" came to mind; when I returned home, I created an art piece of that title. I know when I am in the soft heart space, I hear more, understand more and can move into a state of compassion. Gretchen Blais

  2. Dear Miki, although I agree wholeheartedly that every human being has a heart and conscience that lies at the very root of one’s humanity, these are in various states of inaccessibility from being covered over with veils of false values and illusions.

    I have heard experienced people state quite plainly that newly elected legislators and executive leaders are indoctrinated by manipulators as they enter into office in order to assure that those seeking to control them will be able to do so. These new political “leaders” may often be true idealists seeking to serve their fellow citizens, but are all too soon persuaded into believing that they must compromise their principles and surrender their integrity if they want to succeed at all. “Here is how the game is played. Play it well and things will go well.” These indoctrination's could come from one who is sincerely sold themselves, but the Truth still remains, as it always is, in their hearts creating inner conflicts and a tortured soul.

    Can people ignorantly encased in their own self-interest, while still holding their identity as a “good person” wanting to serve others, be engaged in the kinds of decision-making processes you and I look to as the wave of the future?

  3. I read an article in the New York Times yesterday that gave me some hope that it is possible for legislators to make structural changes in government that decrease partisanship and increase collaboration. Check it out if you are interested: :)

  4. Dear Miki, I would like to understand more about what you mean when you say that you want to take Boehner "at face value" and that this is something you choose as a "practice with everyone [you] engage with". I think that in many contexts people will not say what they are really wanting or really trying to do. For example, I perceive politicians as often justifying actions by saying they are motivated by very different concerns than the ones they are really acting from, like saying a military intervention is about humanitarian protection when in reality it is a strategy relating to access to resources. I want to be clear that looking at it this way doesn't imply any blame for them, I see the gap between what is said and what is really going on as a symptom of much wider patterns and structures, a sign of the contexts in which they/we all are living. Basically, I think there are many many contexts, including formal political ones, in which it appears that there would be something significant to lose in saying the real motivations behind actions. So, to get a sense of what is deeply meaningful to someone based on what they say, which is how I'm understanding what you mean by "face value" in this context, seems to me like it could often miss the essence of what is going on. Could you say more about what you mean by face value, maybe I haven't got it, or, if I have understood you, would you say why you chose to take the concerns people explicitly refer to as what they are really motivated by. (To be clear, I'm completely in agreement in believing everything that anyone has ever done is an attempt to meet needs, I don't think any underlying motivation is "bad" or "illegitimate", I just think that sometimes we refer to other needs/motivations than the ones which are really energising certain actions, because we believe, often accurately I think, that there might be something to lose in being fully honest, given the social contexts/systems in which we mostly live.

    1. Thank you for this question. I have three separate answers, all converging.

      1) This is a deep spiritual practice for me of not knowing. I have no way to "know" what the motives are behind what someone says. Sticking with this humility supports me in significant ways.

      2) The same commitment also supports a different access to connection across differences. Part of the issue is that people so often decide they know who the other person is, and with that false "knowing" there is little room for innovation.

      3) Perhaps the most significant one for me: it's a way of building trust. As you say, the only reason that someone would not say some piece of the truth, politician or otherwise, is because of fear of consequences. If I take seriously at face value what someone says in dialogue with them, and accept it wholeheartedly and humbly like I said, I have seen many times people then saying something like "Actually, it's not that" and proceeding to tell a deeper layer of it for themselves, one they would otherwise protect. In other words: this practice provides a way for the conversation to flow in unexpected and respectful ways. This creates an opening, and in that opening, all kinds of magic can happen.

      Hope this helps.


    2. I have experienced this practice of yours and being taken at face value as startling, refreshing, deeply supportive and highly effective at building trust. You model what it is to be truthful and expect truth from others and therefore create a field where truth is more easily spoken. It may look naive but I have experienced it as being quite powerful.

    3. I really like the descriptions offered by Sarah and Miki of how one can hold truth up by employing the practice of what I call whole-heartedly giving someone the benefit of the doubt, allowing them to chose to live up to the higher value. “Magical” and “powerful” indeed, and worthy of experimentation.

      Perhaps this practice can serve as a means of breaking through hypocrisy, that is found so often on either side of our relationships. While reading Anon’s comment, I couldn’t help but think of a quote I read just a few days ago: “The reason there are so few female politicians is that it is too much trouble to put makeup on two faces.” --Maureen Murphy

  5. "The disappointment, in other words, is about how much it would take for more and more people to trust the possibility of magic." mmmm. . . I'm really taking this in. Yes! How can we nurture this kind of trust in ourselves and each other. Let's trust in the possibility of magic!!! I believe this is one reason it is so incredibly helpful to have specific stories of "magic." Whenever I hear stories of surprising connections, hearts softening, creative solutions spring out of "nowhere" (where is that?), my trust is strengthened. Thank you for sharing so many stories of your own stories and encouraging us to tell our own.