Monday, April 26, 2010

Taking Action in the Face of Despair and Helplessness

“I choose to risk my significance,
to live so that which came to me as seed
goes to the next as blossom,
and that which came to me as blossom,
goes on as fruit." Dawna Markova

Penny Spawforth asked me in a comment: “I would love to hear how you transform the despair you feel about where the world is heading and your helplessness about contributing sufficiently as I daily experience and feel a sense of helplessness that creates despair and minimal action ('no action seems large enough to be of use'). What I see as my tiny contribution to the world I want to help create just doesn't feel 'enough.'”

Before discovering my current passion for Nonviolent Communication, I was in exactly the kind of place that Penny describes. I saw no way that I could support movement towards what I wanted to see in the world. Then, while talking with my friend Tom Atlee, we came to realize that having a calling, knowing what you are to do in your life, is a form of privilege. It provides clarity and focus, eliminates or drastically diminishes certain forms of struggle, and provides a sense of meaning, and energy for action.

Today I still often fall into pits of profound despair. What helps is that I now know what I am called to do, and do it to the best of my ability. Then I think of all the people who, like me years ago, don’t have a clear sense of what they can do to contribute, and I remember how wrenching and helpless this experience can be. I want to offer Penny and others some tips and milestones about how to move from despair to action.

Opening to Despair
The first thing I learned was to embrace my despair. This was no easy task. Many times over I shut down instead of feeling the despair. Over time I found ways of keeping my heart open to the pain and anguish that live in me. They’re still there. What’s changed is my ability to keep breathing, thinking, moving, and connecting with myself and others when the despair is present. I am no longer afraid of despair, because I learned to see it as a manifestation of my immense care.

Letting Go of Outcome
You and I are likely to die in a world not dramatically closer to what we want than the one we live in now. I derive relief and patience from realizing that I am not able to control the outcome no matter how hard I try. As a result, I keep moving closer and closer to doing what I am doing because it’s the only thing I could be doing. While I have truly no idea about the long-term effects of anything that I am doing, in the moment I experience more effectiveness when I am able to be present and connected instead of fueled by the frantic energy of urgency.

Risking My Significance
Since I started inviting people to risk their significance I am deeply saddened to see how many of us have been trained to believe that we don’t matter and that what we have to offer doesn’t amount to anything. Risking my significance hasn’t meant guaranteed success. I have at times experienced, instead, ridicule or harsh judgment, and often tremendous loneliness. It’s still what I choose to do. I have committed to following my heart, however feeble its voice may initially be. That voice has grown, and with it my trust in myself. If I have any inkling of what I want to do, I do it. When I manage to let go of outcome, I choose to take any action, however small.

And since I can’t know the effect of my actions, large or small, I want my motivation to be, more and more, the effect that my actions have on me. Whether or not I create what I want in the world, I want to die knowing that I lived with the integrity of trying.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Empathy and Authenticity in the Workplace (part 1 of 3)

by Miki Kashtan

When I talk with people about Nonviolent Communication and about empathy and authenticity, I often hear skepticism in the form of “Yes, but what about_______.” Frequent candidates for filling in the blank are teenagers that don’t respond to anything; Hitler; very angry people; and workplace situations. It seems many of us are habituated to thinking that empathy and authenticity belong only in some contexts and not others. Today I want to look at the workplace context, because so many of us are at work more of our awake time than anywhere else.

Can Connection and Effectiveness Coexist?
On the surface, it appears that the time it would take to reach mutual understanding and collaboration would detract from task-oriented focus, thus taking away from productivity and efficient decision-making. On closer look, I see at least three ways in which connection could enhance effectiveness. First, people who are heard and understood, have more goodwill to contribute. Second, people who are often operating within the fear and discomfort arising from conflict and mistrust literally have less of themselves available to produce. Lastly, when decisions and agreements are based on true connection and mutual understanding, such that “yes” is really a “yes,” people are much less likely to back out of what they said they would do.

How Can We Connect without Appearing “Touchy-Feely” to Others?
Rachel Naomi Remen tells in Kitchen Table Wisdom of two surgeons from the same department who were seeing her for therapy. Each of them said that he was the only one in the department who cared about patients, and that everyone else was there for the money, while she knew at least one other person in the department who also cared about patients and just didn’t show it. This story has stayed with me, because it helps me remember that no matter what the surface presentation is, everyone has a heart like mine underneath it. If I want to connect, to be present empathically and to show up authentically, whether in a workplace or anywhere else, I want to reach out to others in a way that is most comfortable for them. How can you do that?

For starters, be clear on the purpose of your reaching out. In particular, consider what amount of connection is needed to achieve the purpose at hand. More often than not, in my experience, people balk at the language of feelings and needs when the speaker is trying to connect without such clarity. In such instances often the speaker, eager and excited about using their newly acquired skills of empathy, ends up inviting more connection and especially more vulnerability than the culture of the workplace supports. In almost every situation it may be possible to find a way to express to others your understanding of what’s important to them without invoking language that’s challenging for them. For example, the act of pausing to reflect in and of itself supports relief of tension without requiring going into any depth of feelings.

Similarly, when choosing to express with more authenticity, you have a wide range of choices about what to say and how to say it. For myself, when I manage to be as conscious as I would like, I tend to focus my expression on those aspects of my experience that point to shared purpose with whomever I am speaking with. For example, if I want to say “no” to someone who asks me for something, I make a point of saying (if it’s true, of course) how much I want to support them and why it doesn’t work for me to do what they want. This is a way of tending to relationships. Whether in the workplace or anywhere else, everyone wants to know that they matter, and you can prioritize conveying that with sufficient clarity.

In short, put your empathy and your authenticity in the service of finding common ground and mutual understanding. My own choice of what I focus on is not random. To the best of my ability, I strategically offer transparency, authenticity, and empathic presence that are likely to support those goals. More often than not, this focus results in solutions that are likely to work for everyone involved.

More on empathy and authenticity in the workplace in the days and weeks to come. In the meantime, if you are inspired and want to learn more, I will be co-leading a 5-day intensive training May 10-14 called Making Collaboration Real: Empowering the Workplace with Nonviolent Communication. It would be lovely to meet some of my readers I don’t already know.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Empathy and Good Judgment

President Obama ignited controversy when he named empathy as a necessary quality in a Supreme Court judge. Wendy Long, legal counsel to the Judicial Confirmation Network and former clerk to Justice Clarence Thomas, said, "Lady Justice doesn't have empathy for anyone. She rules strictly based upon the law and that's really the only way that our system can function properly under the Constitution." Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) referred to empathy as “touchy-feely stuff." During Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) asked her, “Have you always been able to have a legal basis for decisions you have rendered and not rely on extralegal concepts such as empathy?”

Long, Graham, and Kyl understand empathy as an uprising of emotion that is irrelevant – even harmful – to sound reasoning and the application of justice. I see empathy as the capacity to understand the world from another’s perspective, part of what Daniel Goleman refers to as emotional intelligence. Empathic reasoning recognizes that others are human like us, thereby shedding light on the facts and making sound judgment more likely.

The concern about empathy reflects a long tradition of valuing rationality, and the Enlightenment's imperative to overcome instincts, passions, and emotions through exercising reason. This exclusive focus on reason applies across the board: to moral theory, to the law, to professional conduct, and to our assessment of our own choices and decisions.

I want to challenge the idea that we make better decisions without emotions. In Descartes’ Error, Antonio Damasio examined the rare people who have lost their capacity to have emotions as a result of losing their prefrontal lobes. While usually capable of impeccable and intelligent reasoning, such people are unable to make any decisions. Without the capacity to feel and be guided by their emotions, these individuals become entirely dependent on the kindness of their families for navigating even the simplest daily choices. Even though we can reason our way to some decisions, without our emotions we lose the moral and practical compass for making sound ones.

Instead of attempting to overcome emotions, it seems that goal would be determining which emotions can support us in making sound decisions and in living a decent, moral human life. If so, then empathy would be a clear candidate to cultivate. More and more studies indicate how profoundly widespread access to empathic capacity would change human culture. In particular, empathy plays a decisive role in sustaining or preventing violence.

Nowadays, violence is commonly seen as a failure to curb passions and act rationally. My own studies, however, bring me to see violence more as a failure to experience empathy. Modern rationality, with its efficiency and impersonalism, creates conditions that make it more likely for people to ignore empathy. This has resulted in an unprecedented proliferation of violence on a global scale. Indeed, a brief exploration of an admittedly extreme example – mass violence in Nazi Germany – can provide some insight into the significance of empathy.

In Modernity and the Holocaust, Zygmunt Bauman suggests that “The Holocaust did not just, mysteriously, avoid clash with the social norms and institutions of modernity. It was these norms and institutions that made the Holocaust feasible.” (Italics mine). When people focus more on doing a good job and following orders than on the impact of their actions, their innate capacity for empathy ceases to function as a guide to moral action. Bauman concludes: “Mass destruction was accompanied not by the uproar of emotions, but the dead silence of unconcern.”

Empathy is the lifeblood of a vibrant democratic society. It is necessary not only for Supreme Court Justices; it is vital for members of Congress, teachers, doctors, police officers, business owners, workers, parents, and children.

The gift of empathy is that it integrates mind and heart in the very same act as it brings together self and other. When we ignore empathy, we pay an enormous price in the form of depression, apathy, victimization, and anger on an individual level, and crime, neglect, alienation, bullying, even war, on a societal level. When we cultivate empathy, our emotional health improves, and in addition also our sense of hope, and our capacity, both individually and collectively, to act as moral agents in addressing the enormous challenges facing us today.

by Miki Kashtan

Friday, April 16, 2010

Is Resentment Inevitable?

by Miki Kashtan

Recently I talked with a friend about why he harbors so much resentment towards his partner and their 13 year old child, that he sometimes reacts with intense anger to relatively minor snappy expressions. My friend, let’s call him Fred, wanted to free himself from the grip of unconsciously chosen anger, so he could choose how to respond.

Invisible Contracts
As we talked, Fred recognized that it’s highly unlikely that he can transcend his reactivity in the moment. It’s almost always too late. The moment of true power is earlier, when he makes his own choices about what he will or will not do.

Fred suffers from a common affliction I like to call being “overly nice.” Simply put, Fred tends to stretch towards his partner and his child, or say “yes” to what they ask of him. That “yes” often comes with an expectation, usually unconscious, that they will appreciate him later. Then, when they don’t show appreciation, he can easily experience it as a breach of an invisible contract they don’t even know they signed! No wonder he gets so angry.

Complete Ownership of Our Choices
The first practice Fred decided to adopt was simple: before he says “yes” he will check to see if he is genuinely able to do so without expecting anything later. Fred was shocked to discover how often he would then have to say “no.” I then offered him a middle strategy as well. If he couldn’t release his expectation, maybe he could be honest about it. He could say something like: “I'm willing to do it. I am so sad to say that I don't have the capacity inside to do it without building resentment. Would you like me to do it given how much of a stretch it is for me?”

Asking for What We Want
Fred was excited about how much freedom he could get just from learning to identify and honor his limits. For greater freedom, he decided to become equally honest and exacting with himself about what he wanted from his family and to take explicit action to make it happen. His continuous willingness to stretch had been hidden from his family, making it so much easier for them to take his “yes” for granted. Now he plans to be transparent about stretching so he could be seen.

He also intends to let his family know how much he wants appreciation, and to ask them to express appreciation whenever they notice it. Working his way towards expressing his need, Fred had further insight that self-respect is about how he treats himself, and has very little to do with how others treat him. This allowed him to glimpse the possibility of expressing to his partner in full the pain he sometimes experiences in their interaction, rather than masking his vulnerability with anger.

I heard from Fred that in the first 24 hours of applying his practice he already experienced much more freedom than before. He said “no” to his child on a number of occasions. He noticed how much harder it was to say “no” to his partner. Even without changing all his habits, he experienced growing clarity, self-honesty, and choice, and reduced resentment. I like to believe that many of us can increase our sense of power in life if we become more honest about saying “no” when anything less than unattached generosity is motivating our choice, and if we grow in our capacity to ask for what we want.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Empathy, Obama, and Connecting across Differences

“Empathy [is] the act of understanding and being sensitive to the feelings and experiences of others. … Empathy is essential for any president… To be authentically empathetic, however, presidents must consider how policies affect all Americans.” Gary Bauer, Obama and the Politics of Empathy

Understanding Bauer’s Experience
After reading Bauer’s article, I want to extend another invitation for dialogue across the divide. I was struck by the depth of alienation from the current administration and President I see in his article. I want an opportunity to understand and to reach mutual trust about our care for each other’s well being. Is his main concern, in essence, a plea to have all voices matter, including those with whom the President disagrees? What else is important to him?

Understanding, Care, and Agreement
Empathy calls on us to open our hearts and imagination to others’ humanity. It’s easy to understand and show care for those similar to us. The challenge of empathy is precisely in the face of differences. How can we show care for others needs even when we say “no” to what they want? How can we understand and remain open and respectful even when we believe others’ positions are potentially harmful? How can we appreciate others’ suffering when we believe it’s caused by their own actions or misunderstanding? It seems that both Conservatives and Liberals have failed to step out of being themselves and to enter and understand another perspective.

Beyond understanding, conveying empathy to others in the face of disagreement makes the challenge of connecting across differences even more intense. For example, short of agreement with Bauer’s policy prescriptions, is there any way that Obama could convey to Bauer and others that their voices matter, and could affect the decisions he makes?

Coming Back to Essential Human Needs
In a country saddled with persistent core disagreements about most fundamental policy issues, connecting across differences seems essential for our continued functioning as a nation. What can we then do as common citizens, public figures, or the President, to cultivate and convey empathy?

My own hope rests on my experience that even in the most intense disagreements we share core needs, values, qualities, and aspirations that inform our opposing views. Here are two examples.

Bauer says: “Conservatives can be just as empathetic. But they believe that, in most cases, it’s not government’s role to be the primary dispenser of empathy.” What I read in this statement is care for people’s well-being mixed with a deep respect for individual freedom of choice. Although I disagree with Bauer’s view, I have no difficulty relating to these values, because I share them.

Bauer also says: “our children and grandchildren … will be saddled with paying for today’s unprecedented borrowing.” I am touched by our shared desire for the coming generations to be cared about, even though my worry about the next generations comes up in different contexts, not this one.

Can We Work Together?
Shifting attention to what matters most to each party to a debate can bridge seemingly insurmountable gaps. I dream of town hall meetings facilitated by skilled people. I want all participants express the core of what matters to them, and to hear each other across the divide. This is not a pipedream. Skilled individuals are available. Models of productive citizen deliberation exist and have been successful at finding policies that diverse groups with opposing views can embrace (see the Tao of Democracy, especially chapters 12 and 13). What would it take for the people of the United States of America to transform their town hall meetings from battleground to an opportunity to shape a shared future?
by Miki Kashtan

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Nonviolence and Vulnerability

Just as one must learn the art of killing in the training for violence, so one must learn the art of dying in the training for non-violence. Violence does not mean emancipation from fear, but discovering the means of combating the cause of fear. Non-violence, on the other hand, has no cause for fear… He who has not overcome all fear cannot practice ahimsa.” (Gandhi, All Men Are Brothers, 104)
Courage in the Face of Fear
This quote has been haunting me ever since I first discovered it some years ago. I think about it several times a week. I find it so intense, so fascinating, and at one and the same time inspiring and discouraging. I know that the practice of nonviolence – whether in the social activism context, or in daily life – requires tremendous courage. In moments of great challenge this statement sometimes helps me find the courage to face my fear and continue anyway. At other times, in moments of darkness, the continued existence of such basic fear in me becomes so disheartening. If after all these years of rigorous training and practice I am still so often paralyzed, what is the point of even trying to teach nonviolence?

Today, as I am sitting here to write this, I am also wondering: if nonviolence, ahimsa, is about love, is moving forward through the fear enough? Is it possible to act on pure love when we are afraid? Are there different kinds of courage, one protected one not? What exactly are we choosing when we embrace nonviolence – either as a path, or in a particular moment?

Facing the Risks of Embracing Nonviolence
Since 1996 my own path of nonviolence has been embracing vulnerability. I have been systematically undefending and unprotecting myself. My sustenance and inspiration for this path come from experiences that are very remote from my own life. Gandhi, and his willingness to put his life on the line with complete commitment to love, openness, respect for his opponents. Jesus, whose commitment, as filtered to me through generations of interpretations, was to loving no matter what. Martin Luther King and the many people who worked with him to train a cadre of young women and men ready to face anything to implement their vision of respect for all people. Even though my own practice never endangers my physical survival, the risks of social isolation, humiliation, and loss of respect are equally frightening for my emotional self. I choose to face the risks, more and more over time. I lean on these figures, images of love and courage, in the most literal way to help me walk through abysses that sometimes seem bigger than my individual capacity.

Not Knowing
I am not settled. I face my fear and walk on, risk the consequences, and learn to survive them. Does this mean I will be less afraid next time? Will the responses affect me less next time? If I am vulnerable – enough – will there eventually be fewer consequences, more openness to the vision I am bringing forth, to my own individual self, to my own human fallibility? If I survive enough times, will I find more ease in the midst of the fear to unprotect my heart? I mean, not just gather my strength and move forward, but most literally lay down the armor that surrounds my innermost part and walk forward, embracing life as it unfolds in that moment? What exactly am I hoping for? What exactly am I trying to teach?

More questions arise. What can I tell people about how to act when fear is all-consuming? What did the students in the Civil Rights Movement do? Did they feel fear when they were sitting at the lunch counters and being ridiculed and beaten up? Did they continue despite the fear, or was there some vision, conviction, love, unity or anything else that transcended the fear complete for the moment? What made it possible for them to do what they did that is missing in our time?

The very act of writing this is part of my practice. I am writing about being unsettled, unsure, struggling with questions I don’t know how to answer. This is not a clear, confident, upbeat, or optimistic message. So why share it? Because truth is what I am after, whatever its flavor. Because exposing my uncertainty may invite you, too, into self-acceptance, and the willingness to let down your guard. Because knowing you are not alone in your struggle may just be what you need to keep going on your path. Because breaking down the isolation we live in may well be vital for deepening our collective exploration of how to face the challenges of our time and survive as a species.

by Miki Kashtan

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Empathy from Left Field – Part II

To support people in being able to reach a true empathic openness, I have often in the past conducted role plays in which I assumed the role of a much maligned figure, often George W. Bush, and asked people to enter dialogue with me by offering me empathy and understanding. Independently of people’s success in the activity (spotty), entering these roles has transformed me, because I now have a felt sense of what it might be like to be someone so different from myself. I was most moved when I imagined being the former president just about the time of September 11, 2001. I felt the weight of the responsibility, of having to make a decision about how to respond to the situation. I felt how awful it was to be hated by half my country.

Another time I engaged in a similar role play in which I was a soldier returning from Iraq only to face the judgments of others. As this soldier I was able to feel the outrage, the experience of not being understood at all for my profound willingness to sacrifice everything in order to protect the way of life of this country that’s so dear to me. I was able to feel what it was like to be together with others, risking my life, knowing I would do anything to protect theirs.

I feel less separate as a result. My own positions and views have not changed. But I now have a complete appreciation of the shared humanity of people who are far away from me on the political spectrum. I know that we have different worldviews, and I can hold that knowledge without losing understanding for the other worldview, even when I am frightened by the consequences I associate with it. I know that the fear is mutual. Conservatives are just as worried about my views, and what would happen if everyone espoused them, as I am about theirs. Knowing this helps me increase my compassion and understanding.

Opening Dialogue
Thursday night, on my TV show (posted on, I worked with the cast on a couple of “hot topics” of major differences. The first one was about the health care bill that just passed. I wish I had a true conservative in the studio. Instead, one member of the cast took on the role of a woman who thought of the bill as “Un-American” and undermining freedom. The other cast member took on the role of a Brit (which she is) who is strongly advocating for health care as a universal right. Together we worked on how to reach mutual understanding instead of arguing and trying to convince each other. Both were surprised, in the end, to recognize that they had shared values despite opposing views.

If Helen Smith, or anyone else who is Conservative and sees this post, is up for dialogue, I would be honored and touched. I mourn the fact that, as she says, I live in a bubble, with little that would bring me in contact with Conservatives. I mourn the fact that in order to teach empathy for Conservatives I must conjure up role plays instead of live dialogues. I hope she takes me up, because I want what I have learned about empathy to support healing the rift between the Right and the Left in this country. Yes, there are core differences as Haidt points out in his careful research. Yes, it may be that Conservatives are more able to empathize with Liberals than the other way around. I still maintain that we can connect across our differences. We may not immediately find ways to come closer on specific issues, but we can see our shared humanity, appreciate the struggles we face in understanding each other, and emerge with more humility and goodwill.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Empathy from Left Field

I love a good challenge, and Helen Smith’s recent article immediately called my attention. As someone who’s dedicating my life, in part, to increasing empathy all around in the culture, I found some of her comments painful, because they matched my own experience with liberals.

The Missing Empathy for the Right
In the social circles in which I find myself, and in much of the Left media, conservatives are regularly referred to as stupid (at best), backward, uncaring, or unevolved. At every opportunity I have, especially in my workshops, I invite people to look at what might be the underlying values behind conservative positions, to imagine how a decent fellow human could arrive at such opposing views. I wish I could contradict Helen Smith, but my experience only confirms what she says.

I see a complete dearth of genuine, open-hearted empathy towards conservatives. I regularly hear jokes at the expense of conservatives in my workshops, and I cringe. I am not conservative myself. Far from it! I find most liberals to be more conservative than me. I cringe because if I were a conservative, I would not experience Nonviolent Communication communities hospitable. I worked for several years with volunteers who are part of the campaign to create a department of peace in the US. They have not been able to cross the Democrat-Republican divide. As I see it, the obstacle was not the Republicans, but rather the challenge these activists had in being able to hear their opponents, listen with respect and care, imagine their values and deeper longings and aspirations, and be open to be affected by what they hear. What is dialogue, after all, if we are expecting others to change their views, positions, or strategies, without a comparable willingness on our part to be affected and changed by what we hear?

(tomorrow – more on cultivating empathy)