Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Power of Dialogue to Create Change

by Miki Kashtan

Last Saturday I was invited to be a guest trainer at the BayNVC Immersion Program to teach about the use of NVC for social change. This piece contains three snippets from that day.

What Is Effective Social Change?
Early on one of the participants was taken aback by the use of the term “social change activist.” Her image of an activist was one of holding banners and shouting slogans, and in her experience she didn’t see that kind of action as particularly effective. She said she had been involved in humanitarian work within a mainstream organization and she thought that contributed to more effective social change than the activists she saw outside the building. When asked where she had worked, she said it was in the World Bank.

Immediately I took the moment as an opportunity to demonstrate the power of dialogue across disagreement. I was grateful for the years of practice that allowed me to hear her despite strong disagreement with her. We never even touched on the question of whether or not the World Bank contributes to reducing poverty. Instead, I focused on reflecting my understanding of what was important to her and keeping my reflection at the level that could stay common to both of us. I have been advocating openness to being changed through dialogue. And I had exactly that experience. What changed was not my opinion about the World Bank. Rather, what changed was my seeing it as possible and even desirable to work with people to create change wherever it would be effective, whether within or outside the mainstream. I felt relief, curiosity, and excitement at recognizing that I had been blinded by an automatic opposition, and that I was now open.

Taking Power by Making Choices
Kris Heydon (her real name), one of the participants in the group I was visiting, teaches in a public school, where many decisions are made by people in administration. She was confused, because she didn’t see how she could apply what I had presented previously given her perception of total lack of power to affect those decisions. She intended to go on from that statement to another part of her question, something about what she can do in her own classroom, within her sphere of influence. I didn’t want to leave the question of power so quickly, so I probed further. I suggested that she could, if she wanted, get support from others, both teachers and parents, and engage with the decision-makers. At first she didn’t see how, and brought up reasons for why this wouldn’t work. After hearing her challenge, I reassured her that I wasn’t suggesting that she was supposed to do that. It was clear that she didn’t want to, and it was important for me to respect that. My point was only that it was a choice she was making, and she could make it either way, if she wanted. Then she thought for a while, and said she wanted to recap what she had learned. Slowly and carefully she expressed her learning: “I can take power by making choices.” In few simple words she summarized a principle I consider deep and central to the entire project of nonviolence.

To George with Love
In another small group activity a woman, let’s call her Claire, wanted to find respectful ways of turning down invitations to participate in a demonstration, rally, or some other political activity she doesn’t want to attend. We set up a role play between her and a co-worker who urged her to come to a campus-wide protest against George Bush (this was an event that happened some years ago). Her struggle, as we came to see, was that she had been so deeply trained to maintain harmony, that even when she tried to express herself she didn’t really articulate what was going on for her that would lead her to this unpopular choice. She expressed only vague statements such as: “I am not really comfortable going to the demonstration.” In coaching her, I invited her to go deeper into her experience, to become vulnerable and assertive, both. Gradually her passion rose closer to the surface, and her reasons became clear. She was troubled by many of the policies that George Bush was putting in place. She did want to have her voice heard and for George to receive the feedback. Her real concern was that she wanted that feedback to come with love, so George Bush would be able to take it in. All of us in the room fell silent for a moment. Protest with love was a new concept, especially for the woman in the character who was inviting Claire to the demonstration. She seemed to change, even though she was only a character. Then she expressed, spontaneously, how she has had discomfort with the demonstrations, too, and was glad to have this new idea. For Claire to tell the full truth and remain open and unattached served to create space for the other person to change.

How can we engage in dialogue that transforms? Three key elements to focus on:
  • Stay open, curious, relaxed, and let go of changing the other. Be prepared to be changed.
  • Listen and reflect before expressing your point of view. Focus on reflecting what you believe is most important to the other person. Look for commonalities in your reflection, something the other person expresses in their position that you also want for them.
  • When expressing your position, link it to you instead of making it what should be. What is in your heart, what do you value, what matters to you that is expressed in your position? Articulate that, as vulnerably as possible, and the other person will have an easier time listening to you.
I would love to hear your stories of transformational dialogues, both about matters of social change, and about your own personal lives.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Dilemmas of Leadership

by Miki Kashtan

Yesterday I came back from 9 days of teaching in a yearlong NVC leadership program. This was the last intensive of the year, and the 9th year of the program. As is often the case, I came face to face with the limits of my own leadership capacity. Specifically, I was grappling with my aversion to imposing anything on anyone, an ongoing challenge of significant intensity for me. Based on observing myself I am confident that because of this aversion I regularly involve groups in decisions that reduce efficiency of functioning without adding much empowerment value or meaning.

In one of those ironies of timing, this was also the week in which I read “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will not be Tweeted.” According to this article (and I confess not being deeply educated on the topic), the Civil Rights movement was heavily centralized in its leadership style. I found that fact disturbing, fascinating, complex, and provocative. Specifically, I find a generative tension in juxtaposing the effectiveness of the Civil Rights movement in its form of leadership with the anti-authoritarian ethos that came to prevail in many subsequent social change movements and lives in me in the form of this aversion to imposing.

Circumstances wouldn’t allow the topic to recede into the background. Yesterday I led a workshop at the Bioneers 2010 conference - Everyone Matters: Interdependence in Action, a topic which emerges directly from the core vision that inspires the work I do with Nonviolent Communication. The questions of leadership were once again prominent: What does this vision tell us about leadership? Is anti-authoritarianism the only way to ensure that everyone’s needs matter? What does all this mean in terms of our collective capacity to contribute to transformation on a significant scale, and to do it with love, courage, and creativity?

With those questions already on my mind, I went directly from my workshop to the Metta Center for Nonviolence for a viewing of a rare documentary about Gandhi made in the early 1950s. When Michael Nagler, founder and president of the Metta Center, initiated a conversation about the film, I raised the question that by then was already burning in me: Is top-down centralized leadership of the kind that both Gandhi and Martin Luther King apparently used absolutely necessary to have an effective movement to create significant change in society?

The conversation that ensued raised even more questions for me, and resolved hardly any. What does it really take for a group to function effectively in service to a complex task? Are emergent, self-organizing groups able to meet such challenges as mobilizing large numbers of people to create structural change using nonviolent methods? If strong leadership is indeed necessary (even Gandhi with all his charisma and willingness to sacrifice everything wasn’t ultimately able to prevent violence from erupting), where is the line between authority and authoritarianism? What can keep people empowered enough so they can entrust decision-making to leaders rather than submit or rebel? What can leaders do to avoid the abuses of power that stem from their own and others habits?

Precisely because I am so committed to transcending and transforming the deeply ingrained models of living and leading that we have inherited, I want to keep asking these questions. I want to think about them deeply, to learn more from what has happened before, to engage with others about them, and to experiment in my own small scale leadership. I have small scale evidence that efficiency is possible without compromising collaboration and empowerment. I feel completely humble about not knowing what’s really possible or necessary. This doesn’t stop me from cultivating the faith that collaborative, empowering, effective, and transparent leadership is scalable, and we can collectively meet the challenges of our time provided we have clarity of purpose, a deep commitment to nonviolence on all levels, and a rigorous personal practice. That is part of how I understand Gandhi’s legacy: an invitation to see means and ends as one, so we can live every moment, personally and as a leader, in courageous pursuit of love and truth.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Edges of Confidence

by Miki Kashtan

In my last post I alluded to having discomfort when asked by a group of people on a conference call to share my own vision. I said I was planning to write a post about the incongruity of that discomfort. Now, sitting down to write about it, I am feeling it.

I chose to write about this for a variety of reasons. Primary among them is the desire to make my humanity, fallibility, and limitations known to you who read this blog, so as to increase the possibility that you would trust yourself to take on more visibility. Another is to create companionship for me and for those of you who identify. Another is to continue and deepen the practice of exposing and undefending my own vulnerability for my own growth and inner freedom. Lastly, related to the previous one, choosing to be on the forefront of the epochal movement towards a different kind of leadership that’s more transparent and less idolized.

I am connected to all of these reasons. And I am nonetheless struggling with why I might want to write and then post something so personal that may, after all, interest only a handful of people.

This is where I stopped a few days ago. Now coming back I see even more clearly where and why the challenge arises. I lose my sense of something being of value to others when it’s about me, or when it’s very radical in terms of vision. The intensity of it is so high that often enough I literally can’t tell whether or not I like what I wrote until someone else reads it. The experience of having a blog and posting things without running them by someone else first has been stretching me considerably in this area. So far I have overall gotten enough positive feedback that I keep finding the inner resources to continue. And still the discomfort persists.

Why is this discomfort incongruous? Because it shows up when I want to share what is most precious to me, my biggest visions for the world, my hope and faith in the actual practicality of creating systems based on caring for needs, it feels absolutely tragic to me. I so much want people to know about it, I so much want companionship in holding a sense of possibility, I so much want movement in that direction – and still I lose my confidence when asked to talk about it. That’s the incongruity for me.

This speaks to me of the depth of the needs for belonging and acceptance, both in me and in others, and of the anguish in moments when they seem to be in conflict with authenticity. I know many people who choose to let go of authenticity in order to gain acceptance and belonging, and who nonetheless suffer because they ultimately don’t trust the acceptance. For as long as acceptance depends on hiding the truth about who we are it remains suspect, temporary, elusive. What if people found out the hidden truth? I also know the experience of losing belonging and acceptance because of choosing to be authentic in ways that can be challenging for others. This is still work in progress to me. I have the contours of a path, without full clarity on where it leads. I know I want to grow in my flexibility about what feels authentic to me. I also at the same time want to grow in my willingness to risk losing everything for truth. I know how to grit my teeth and express truth anyway. What I want to learn more and more is how to remain relaxed and soft in my expression when I am stretching my limits.

I see now that I am re-discovering an insight I had a few months ago that I wrote about (Making Room for Being Different). For a moment I felt a wave of embarrassment and an instant urge to delete all I have written above. Then I realized that this is just how life happens. We cycle and circle and loop and spiral, learning things again and again, falling and getting up, and eventually something gets fully integrated and becomes a seamless part of who we are.

Most of the time I both appear and feel relaxed and confident about what I have to offer. I can do public speaking often without even preparing much. I can work with individuals and groups and facilitate intense conflicts. I can easily share ideas, insights, and visions. Still, the discomfort in writing or speaking about me and my visions can get paralyzing at times. Even in the course of writing this piece, and surely as I get closer to the actual posting of it, I have experienced waves of profound uncertainty about the value of sharing all this. I am happy to see that I am willing to take the risk without contracting inside. I’d like to believe that in addition to my own strengthening, exposing my discomfort and trying to make sense of it may support you who are reading this in gaining more courage to move closer to the edges of your confidence, so that more and more of us choose to bring forth our gifts and vulnerabilities. I have no doubt they are all needed for the immense task of making the world work for all of us.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Personal Growth and Social Change Addendum: Real-Time Conversation and Comments

by Miki Kashtan

Last Sunday, October 2nd, I held a conference call to discuss my Personal Growth and Social Change mini-series. This was a total experiment that I had no idea how it would work. There was 44 people on the call for all or part of the time, and many more signed up and didn’t attend. The call was recorded, and anyone who wants to can listen to it. One exchange that was particularly moving for me was a conversation with a man who wanted to look at the question of privilege, and how painful he finds the idea of having to “give up” privilege in order to care for others’ suffering. When I shared with him my own faith that privilege is a poor substitute for real needs that we are told we can never meet, he felt much more hopeful about finding a way to move forward (I intend to post on this topic soon).

When we broke into small groups for in-depth exploration of some topics that came up, one of the callers wanted to hear from me about my own vision. To my astonishment, delight, and intense discomfort, an entire group of callers converged wanting to hear the same. (I intend to explore the incongruity of this discomfort in a separate post, hopefully tomorrow.) After I overcame my discomfort, I chose to focus my sharing on the vision of a global gift economy. This, too, is a rich vein, and I hope to revisit it again and again.

So, stay tuned. Based on the level of engagement and the unanimous vote of confidence at the end of the call, I am likely to schedule future calls on other topics that may be of interest to readers of this blog.

Meanwhile, on Tikkun Daily, where I am cross-posted, a small flurry of activity ensued when their managing editor, Dave Belden, issued an invitation to people to come to the call. In one reply to that article Michael Lerner, the founder of Tikkun, was immensely critical of NVC, which he sees as a generally useful tool that has the danger of turning people away from noticing what’s happening in the world and taking action to change it. In this comment he went further to say that NVC is “a stumbling block–they seem to think that the communication style is an end in itself. Unfortunately, NVC is compatible with what others have called ‘friendly fascism.’”

You can imagine this was not easy or fun to read. In the end, I wrote a new post called How NVC Can Help Progressive Politics. Even if you read the entire mini-series, that one piece is shorter and different enough in its focus that you may want to read it. (Of course writing it also meant that I wasn’t as available to write the next post for my own baby blog.)

I want to conclude with two invitations. One is for people local to the Bay Area, and one to people in many countries. The local is an invitation to Speaking Peace - BayNVC’s free annual fundraiser, during which I am doing an hour-long introduction to NVC (I rarely do those), and a rich program with music and celebrations and food. Yes, we ask people to contribute, and, true to our principles, only what people are moved to give freely is what we want.

The second invitation is to a new teleclass I am teaching next year through the NVC Academy. This is a yearlong class called Taking on the World: Learning to Become a Change Agent. My hope is to attract people who are serious about wanting to bring a consciousness and practice of nonviolence into the world at all levels. I hope to hear you there.