Monday, May 31, 2010

Nonviolence and Living Undefendedly

by Miki Kashtan

My spellchecker doesn’t recognize the words ‘undefendedly.’ My heart does. I feel the difference, immediately, between defending myself or not. One protects and closes, keeping me safe and apart, less available. The other allows my heart to be affected, without a shield, keeping me open, soft, and strong.

When I first started thinking about the choices Jesus made in his life, I understood him to have decided to love no matter what. Not letting fear of consequences stop him. No protection. What an awesome, fierce, strength. Inspired by this vision I choose, as an ongoing practice, to remove protection, layer after layer, to make myself available to life, accessible.

I practiced Tai Chi for a few years. Towards the end of that period I started learning “push hands.” I learned that yielding, which requires overcoming the impulse to stiffen up and defend, makes for more strength. When your body stiffens to protect, it’s easier for the other person to push you, and you can lose balance. Your stiff body gives the other person leverage for pushing. When you yield, on the other hand, the other person cannot push you. Yield long enough, and you gain freedom of movement when the other person continues to follow you past their balance point.

If someone says something that’s painful, I have a choice. I can defend, protect, wear a shield, and move away from the pain. This tends to surround me with tension, in my heart and in my body. I have less freedom in that way. I can also remain open, allow the pain, soften myself towards it, towards the person who said whatever it was. With that option I have more strength, less fear, more options for how to respond.

That softness, without protection, can also disarm others, reach their heart more easily. This particular kind of strength is one of the foundations of nonviolence, what gives it power. Undefending myself rests on tremendous faith in the fundamental humanity we all share. For me what captures this dazzling experience of humanity is the core needs common to all.

The practice of undefending, core to any serious engagement with nonviolence, rests on a deep trust that underneath whatever veneer and protection anyone else carries lives a human heart just like ours. Whatever others did, their hearts also long to be loved. They, too, feel vulnerable. In fact, as James Gilligan so lovingly reminds us in his book Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes, apparently an astonishing majority of incarcerated violent offenders are full of shame and untold rates of self-loathing. At the heart of their shame he uncovers precisely the longing to be loved, so deeply unfulfilled as to create shame for even having the desire. Their hearts, in other words, are just as vulnerable as mine and yours. They defend it to such a degree that the result is violence towards others.

If I can respond without tension to what comes towards me, if I can actively look for the tender heart behind any action or word, I convey a deep message. I thereby tell others that I don’t have a reason to fear them. Once their humanity is mirrored back to them, they are more likely to respond in kind.

No wonder that nonviolence requires learning to undefend. The less I defend, the less likely I am to respond with violence. Undefending nourishes my capacity to choose. On the other end, the less I defend, the more capacity I have to disarm others’ tension and protection. My heart, my soft and strong heart, de-escalates violence and conflict by being exposed in its vulnerability.

Because this practice is so dear to me, I am dedicated an entire 6-day retreat to this topic. Living Undefendely: a Retreat for Women takes place July 9-14 in the Santa Cruz mountains. If you want to deepen your own practice of nonviolence through peeling away layers of protection and strengthening your heart, you may want to join the group of women who is forming around this practice.

Friday, May 28, 2010

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

by Miki Kashtan

Part 1 of this mini-series was posted on April 24, and part 2 was posted on May 2.

Many people find it challenging, almost impossible, to imagine asking for what they want in their workplace. This is especially true if they have little access to formal power within the organization. I plan to come back to the topic of power, including within organizations, in the near future. For now, I want to focus on fundamental principles that can help you in lining up resources for yourself in the workplace regardless of where you are in the organization.

Make the “Why” Clear and Relevant
By and large, the kind of requests we make in the workplace are related to our being able to work well within the environment in which we find ourselves. This will likely be either a direct connection (e.g. wanting to buy a piece of software that would make my work more effective) or an indirect connection (e.g. I want to sit ina different office where I am not so agitated about the conversations around me, which would help me feel better and hence focus and be productive).

A clear and simple principle follows from this clarity. Connecting our requests to organizational goals, including your ability to do your job is likely to increase the chances of someone saying “yes” to your request. It’s easier to hear a request when its underlying purpose is clear and connected to goals that are important to the person receiving these requests. This is especially true if the person to whom you are directing the request is in a position of authority in relation to you. If the link is not obvious, make it explicit.

Openness to “No”
Before you make a request, consider what happens if the other person say no. Even if something is deeply important to you, the essential characteristic of a request rather than a demand points precisely to the willingness, however reluctantly, to hear a no and look for other ways to get your needs met, either with this person or with others. This is critical even if you don’t have the power to “make” the other person give you what you want because you can create consequences for a “no.” Your openness to different possible outcomes results in more spaciousness for the other person. All of us, as far as I can tell, don’t like to have no options. If the other person has a clear option to say “no,” the option of saying “yes” becomes more appealing.

If you are not open to a “no,” take a moment to consider if you can let go enough to have it be a request. Sometimes bringing a bit of consciousness, and relaxing into the needs you are trying to meet with your requests, can be enough to create openness.

If you discover that you don’t have any openness to a “no,” then you are not really making a request. In that case, be honest about it, and make it clear that this is a demand, not a request. This is especially true if you are in a position to create consequences for a “no.” Most people find it very discouraging to have someone make a request and then discover when they try to say “no,” that it was a disguised demand. Remember, what makes for a request and not a demand is not how you ask. It’s only how you respond to a “no.”

Thresholds for Saying “No”
Most of the time we will be somewhere between complete openness to a “no” and being completely locked on a particular outcome. Some things are more or less important to us. How to work with that?

The first step is honesty with yourself. How important your request is for you? If what you want is not so important, make it easy for the person to say “no.” Most people find it difficult to say “no,” and you might get a “yes” that isn’t really a “yes.” To minimize this risk, you can explicitly make it easy for the person to say “no,” and use your words to create a very low threshold for them to cross. For example: “I have an idea about how we can make this work more efficiently, and I only want you to do this if you can see clearly that it will benefit you, too. Would you tell me if you have even minor concerns about participating?”

Conversely, there are times when what you want is really important to you and you may be more willing to pay the price in the other person’s goodwill. You are only open to a “no” if it’s a hardship for the other person. In that case, make it clear to the person you are asking. For example, you could say: “This is really important to me, because I don’t know how to get my tasks done without this. I would like you to do this for me even if it’s a stretch for you. Are you open to that?”

Wherever you put the threshold, and however you word your request, the biggest challenge is working out the differences if what you want doesn’t work for the other person. This brings us to another topic for another day: how to resolve conflicts within the workplace.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Uncertainty, Human Limitations, and Acceptance

by Miki Kashtan

I know I am done working my way through something when I get to a place of feeling grateful for it. That’s when I know that I have assimilated the events, and am open to life again. Sometimes it takes years (some things I may not finish while alive, I am quite sure of that), and sometimes it takes only moments. This morning I went from acute helplessness to gratitude in less than an hour, and I want to share what I learned in the process.

The context
I had a conference call scheduled with members of a community I created – the Consciousness Transformation Community. Several things combined to result in my not being present at the beginning of the call, and a number of people calling in and not getting through. In the end, 10 minutes late, I came back from the errand I was going to run, the technical problem was fixed, and the call materialized. By then most people had given up, and only 5 people participated. It soon became clear that while I had taken the steps to ask for the technical support with the call, the people who were going to offer the support that would have prevented this from happening didn’t do it.

The Habit
I am sure this kind of dilemma is familiar to many. We each have our own peculiar ways of responding in such moments. My own habitual response became clearer to me than before this call. Simply put, I have been putting attention and energy, mind and heart, on understanding how the unwelcome result happened, and what can be learned to prevent it in the future. This kind of focus is one of the deepest sources of stress for me: always working on eliminating possibilities for error, forgetfulness, or inattention. It’s as if I have been trying to make something go away that cannot: the irreducible uncertainty of life and human interaction. I don’t think I am alone in this. In fact, I imagine us all to have a collective illusion about our limitations. If only everyone paid attention fully, if only everyone took responsibility, if only … then there would be no unwelcome outcomes. From here it becomes so easy to blame – others or ourselves as the case may be.

The Alternative
With the help of others on the call, I found an alternative to my habitual response. I saw that I could open up for real, not just in concept, to the irreducible uncertainty of life. There is never going to be anything definitive that I or anyone else can learn, integrate, or put in place that would take away this uncertainty. The very attempt to do so feeds my sense of helplessness and creates the stress. I am only beginning to imagine what life could be like. Instead of helplessness, I can see simply mourning what happened, being with the sadness of the results and their effect on me and others. In this case, I am still feeling waves of it in relation to all the people who were looking forward to the call and couldn’t get on it.

The difference between the two emotional states is immense. Helplessness is full of tension and contraction, and is about moving away from life and what is happening. There is no peace in it. Mourning, even when intensely painful, flows with life. My heart opens, and I know and accept the consequences. The shift from helplessness to mourning is not about having no pain; it’s about how I relate to life. Am I opening to acceptance, or am I in some fundamental way fighting life?

Opening to What Is
Then, and only then, can I notice what is happening instead of being entirely with what didn’t happen or what should happen or what I can do to make it never happen again. One of the people on the call brought to my attention that I said, several times, that the call wasn’t happening, when, in fact, we were on the call, connecting, learning together, and even having fun and laughing. I found my way to gratitude. I could see that this depth of learning, in community, with support, came about precisely because this mishap happened and I was in acute helplessness at a time I could receive support. Whenever something doesn’t happen, something else does. Life continues, and we have only so much say about what it will look like. I can fight life, or I can join the ride, with the mourning and the laughter, the pain and the joy.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Overcoming Defensiveness

Why is receiving feedback challenging? Whenever any one of us gives feedback that is tainted with criticism, judgment, or our personal upset, we create a situation that requires a lot more capacity and skill from the person who receives our feedback. So, a big part of why receiving feedback is so challenging is because so few people around us know how to give feedback. But, if we wait for others to offer us usable, digestible, manageable feedback, we will not likely receive sufficient feedback for our growth and learning.

The alternative is to stretch our inner muscles, seek feedback, and grow in our capacity to fish the pearl that’s in what may otherwise be someone else wanting to be heard for how upset and angry they are with us. How do we do that, and how do we grow in our capacity to do that?

The more self-acceptance we have, the easier it is to hear feedback, because we can relax into ourselves and receive it as information rather than confirmation that there is something wrong with us.

Working towards receiving feedback also invites us to listen empathically to others. What is the essence of what they are saying? Can you hear an observation even if it’s not fully stated, or ask for one? Can you reach for understanding why this is important to the person giving feedback even if the words are focused entirely on you? Can you fill in the gaps about what strategies you might employ for addressing the issues raised even if the other person has no suggestions?

If you want to grow in this arena, here are three specific suggestions:

Working on defensiveness

You can set up role-plays in which you invite people to give you “negative” feedback with low-intensity. Listen to it, and as soon as you feel a contraction, the precursor to defensiveness, stop the feedback process, and inquire into your reaction. You can empathize with yourself out loud, or ask the other person for empathic presence (outside the role-play). If you are not familiar enough with the tools of NVC, you can work on self-acceptance directly by taking a few breaths and saying to yourself internally: “even if this thing said about me just now is true, there is still nothing about me that’s worse than anyone that’s ever lived.” Whatever you do, do it for a little while, until you feel ready to hear more feedback. Then go back to the role-play and continue until you can get through the entire piece of feedback without contracting. Then redo with a higher intensity feedback. Over time, if you continue with this practice, you will increase your presence with yourself and be able to stay relaxed.

Seeking feedback from people in your life

You can start with your closest people, the ones you would most trust love and care about you, who would be willing to do it in order to support you. Invite them to talk about things they may have been happy to let go of because of their love and trust. Let them know how much of a gift their honesty would be for you. In the process, you will discover how much more intimacy this added level of honesty can bring to your relationship, even if it’s uncomfortable for both of you along the way.

Then branch out to people who are not so close to you, whose feedback you may not find so much ease in receiving. As you work on your defensiveness, feedback, even angry feedback, is not going to be as scary. Be clear inside yourself what is leading you to seek feedback from each person you approach, and communicate this clarity to them. And, in the end, remember to thank them, even if you are in pain.

Integrating Feedback

Once you received the feedback, it’s time to decide what you want to do with it. The first thing is to overcome any self-judgments. One way of doing it, in addition, to the self-acceptance practice I suggested earlier, is to remember all the people in the world who may have had a similar experience of self-judgment. This, too, sometimes helps relax the intensity of the judgment and bring perspective back in.

Then, connect with your own interests and goals in terms of your growth. Is this feedback aligned with areas you want to work in? If not, you can mourn the unmet needs that arise from your existing behaviors and choices, and relax into self-acceptance. You don’t have to work on anything and everything that someone says is an issue for you. You are the one who sets the priorities.

If you do want to work in this area, can you come up with incremental steps that you can put in place to implement the changes you want? Is there a way that you can enlist the person who gave you the feedback as support for monitoring your movement towards your goals? Are there others you can lean on as you embrace the vulnerability of change? Can you maintain sufficient self-acceptance so that your attempt to change behaviors or choices does not turn into harshness and violence towards yourself?

The gift of feedback is about increased honesty, connection and even intimacy with the people who share it with you, and about increased opportunities for you to grow where you want. Keeping this clarity and avoiding the trap of taking blame or pushing back, will turn feedback into what it could be: a gift that one human being gives another freely for the benefit of both of them.

by Miki Kashtan

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Making Collaboration Real – Report from the Field

This past week I co-led and then led (my co-leader left on the 3rd day for family health reasons) a residential training dedicated to using Nonviolent Communication in the workplace retreat. We called it Making Collaboration Real: Empowering Organizations with Nonviolent Communication. There was no easy access to email, or I would have written much more as we went. Now I can only write about some of what I still remember.

We had three groups of people: a few who work within organizations, a few who work with organizations as consultants, coaches, or facilitators; and a few very experienced practitioners and trainers of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), who came for the learning on how to adapt NVC to the workplace.

Bringing a Needs-Consciousness to Organizations
If there had ever been a question about whether a needs-consciousness is relevant in the workplace, the answer from this week is a very resounding yes. The people who came, some of them without any previous NVC experience, were so hungry and so happy to have the tools, and could see plenty of ways to apply what they were learning immediately in business situations they were facing. Some of them used the tools while still there. One woman for whom this was her first experience told me that a phone call in which she used NVC saved a delicate negotiation between two of her clients.

We practiced together how to be authentic and empathic in the workplace without appearing “touchy-feely,” the main concern that keeps people from showing up as fully as their hearts and souls wish for. We did a series of listening exercises, for example, that lasted about 90 seconds each, in which people practiced finding ways of showing their empathy verbally and non-verbally. I was, as I often am when doing these exercises, so inspired by how 90 seconds of being heard can be so powerful for people, even in a practice setting. Imagine what it would be like if workplaces provided built-in opportunities for people to have that experience in their work life.

Negotiating Agreements
The interpersonal and conflict management parts of the training culminated in an activity in which people experimented with negotiating agreements using the NVC perspective: empathic presence, authenticity, making clear requests, and in particular considering everyone’s needs in proposing agreements. During the practice I was supporting a negotiation with two teams, where one team was practicing using NVC and the other was not. The non-NVC team started the negotiation with wanting to take an item off the table that had previously been agreed to without giving the reasons, then they lied about their reasons for that move, and in the end were compelled to reveal the truth during the negotiations. It came from inside their own humanity and integrity – they couldn’t find sufficient comfort to continue the lie given how much they were trusted by the other group. I really saw how powerful it is for people to experience the assumption of innocence combined with such clear authenticity. What could have easily turned into an escalating conflict by being protected and scheming became the occasion for reaching a place of sharing, together, for solutions that work for everyone.

Facilitating Collaborative Decision-Making
My favorite moment, perhaps, was when we did a mock facilitation session using a real life example from one of the participants. His corporation is in the process of a merger with another one. They are charged with creating a new compensation plan, and there is a lot of tension about it, because the two corporations had used diametrically opposed systems, one quantitative and one qualitative. We sat in a circle as people chose a position about the topic, and everyone was affiliated with one or the other of the two companies. The man who provided the scenario was sitting with his jaw dropped as the facilitation uncovered, with ease, efficiency, and hardly any tension (and with support for diffusing tension when it did arise), all the important criteria people wanted for the new compensation plan instead of focusing on the either/or that he had previously envisioned. At the end of the allotted time, we had a small team entrusted with crafting a plan, supported by the pretend-CEO and the group, and including all the tension in the room within it. Everyone agreed to move forward with that plan.

What’s Next?
I have every intention of continuing to write my empathy and authenticity in the workplace series. Beyond the 3rd piece of the original series, I already have more to say, especially about power relations in the workplace, which we also practiced this week. Until then, you can just ask yourself, whenever you find a difficult moment in your workplace: how can I bring more of my authentic self into this situation while caring for everyone else? How can I understand this situation through the lens of shared human needs? What can I do to support a resolution that works for everyone?
by Miki Kashtan

Friday, May 7, 2010

Dialogue across the Divide?

Since I started writing about empathy between liberals and conservatives, (April 2; April 3; April 9) I have been thinking about facilitating dialogues between the two groups. As a first step I wanted to meet people who identify as conservative. This past Monday I had the good fortune of meeting Peeter, who identifies as a “dye in the wool” conservative, and who is a sympathizer of the Tea Party movement. Whether or not this meeting will lead to the dialogue I am wishing to establish, I learned a lot, I was surprised, and my heart was touched. Out of care and respect, I showed Peeter this entry before posting it. I am heartened by what he wrote back: “The whole point of us living in this country and society of ours all together is that we accept the inherent differences in our humanity, and deal with them in a civilized manner.”

A particularly poignant moment was when I looked in Peeter’s eyes and saw just how deeply sacred human life is for him. So deep, in fact, that for him it supersedes freedom, another cherished core value of his, when no strategy exists for upholding both at once. This is the basis of his opposition to abortions. What can I say? I felt deeply connected to him in those moments even though I support women’s choice to have an abortion. I had an abortion myself, and what I was left with was just a depth of anguish about how complex, painful, and impossible the dilemma is. I want women to have the choice, and at the same time I completely see that an abortion is the end of a life that could be. I want to live in a world where abortions aren’t necessary. What would it take to create good options for women?

Peeter expressed a concern about having people depend on the government for their basic needs. I wanted to understand fully what values informed this view. It’s one thing to know in theory that all opinions, views, and strategies stem for shared human needs and values. It’s a whole other thing to experience this in a moment of conversation with someone whose views are very different from my own. One value that informs Peeter’s desire to eliminate dependence on government was his wish for people to take responsibility for the consequences of their choices. Of course I want that, too. I could easily resonate with this wish even though I mix this value with the desire for compassion, so everyone is supported no matter what.

Peeter also expressed a deep faith in the capacity of human beings to take care of themselves and of each other, including those in need, in the absence of government legislation, monitoring, and bureaucracy. This part was completely surprising to me, and goes contrary to my previous semi-unconscious bias, which was that conservatives had a much more negative view of human beings than liberals. Not so for Peeter. Do I have this much faith? I am not so sure. I know I am nervous about leaving the needy without societal guarantees because I am not trusting that all people could overcome their habits of scarcity and greed.

As we were winding down our conversation I asked Peeter if he would join me in trying to organize the dialogue I so want to have. Peeter was doubtful about it. He didn’t see what would the point. Conflict and differences, he thought, were unavoidable. No dialogue would bring people together, he thought. Did he feel heard by me? Yes, he did. He liked me, and would be happy to meet with me again. Still, he didn’t see that mutual understanding between conservatives and liberals could lead to anything. This got me thinking. I have more faith than he does in dialogue. He has more faith than I do in people’s ability to care for each other. Am I limited in not trusting that, or is he naïve? Is he limited in not trusting dialogue, or am I naïve? Who is to say?

by Miki Kashtan

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Empathy and Authenticity in the Workplace (part 2 of 3)

by Miki Kashtan

Part 1 of this mini-series was posted on April 24.

Bringing Our Authenticity into the Workplace
In the workplace, as in the home and elsewhere, many people forget about including themselves when it comes to connection. I have already written (April 16) about how leaving ourselves out can lead to resentment. How does this apply in the workplace?

Including yourself means bringing your opinions and visions when you have them, even when there may be disagreement. It also means being willing to say no when you are being asked for something that will not work for you. In addition, if you really want to bring yourself fully into the picture, you will need to learn to ask for what you want.

Discussing Disagreements
Many people are used to hiding their opinions when they are not aligned with the general flow of things. Others argue for them forcefully, to the point of expressing disrespect for others’ opinions. Rarely have I seen the capacity to express divergent opinions and lead a productive discussion about them. What can help?

As an example (loosely based on a real situation I am now working with in a company I am supporting), suppose a new person comes into your department whom you completely dislike and don’t think is a fit for the position. Maybe everyone else in the department is happy with the hire, and one co-worker expresses relief that now you have extra support. What do you do? You could pretend to agree when you don’t. For most people, that creates a level of distance and alienation which can destroy goodwill. You can express your different opinion like this: “I can’t believe you appreciate this new person. He/she is just a lump, totally inept. I don’t know why he/she was hired.” (Remember – this is based on a true story…) You are likely to lose your co-worker’s trust, and in some situations and workplaces word will get around and you may lose your job. When given these two alternatives, most people choose the former, which in part explains why so many of us are unhappy going to work.

A third alternative does exist, though. You can express your disagreement by taking ownership of your response instead of making it sound like a fact with which anyone would have to agree. You could say, for example: “I wish I shared your opinion. I am actually quite concerned. I am worried I and others may not be able to get our work done as efficiently. Do you want to hear more?” In addition to recognizing that this is your opinion and not “the Truth,” you are also expressing what’s under your opinion by linking it to a shared goal or value, in this case efficiency. Lastly, you are also expressing openness to dialogue. During the dialogue you can continue to bring empathic listening and caring authenticity to the conversation. Make your goal be mutual understanding rather than agreement. This is not about “agree to disagree.” When you work towards mutual understanding you will often be surprised by how much you can learn and change along the way.

Saying “No” Respectfully
Whenever anyone makes a request of you, whether at work or elsewhere, the request is made on two levels. One is the content: the person making the request wants something to happen, and s/he has chosen you as the strategy of choice. The second level is about the quality of relationship between you. We all want to know that we matter. That includes everyone who makes a request of you, including your boss.

What this means is that if you are going to say no to someone, it’s vitally important that you express care even as you say no. That means developing your inner muscles so that you can care. And then finding ways of expressing the care. How?

You start by explicitly expressing an understanding of and interest in how what’s being asked of you is important to this other person and/or to the organization. You follow by stating clearly what’s keeping you from saying yes, and you finish by working together with the other person to find alternate strategies to address the underlying need.

(To be continued again. Part 3 will address asking for what you want. I plan to return to the topic of workplace relationships in the future to address power differences and working with groups)