Saturday, April 23, 2011

Why Would I Want to Understand?

by Miki Kashtan

I recently wrote an article linking NVC to the legacy of Gandhi in which I identified seven principles that are common to both. I consider the third principle - seeing others’ humanity – as core to the practice of nonviolence, and at the same time as profoundly demanding. It is so much easier, on so many levels, to only “grant” full humanity to some people and not others.

NVC provides a practical method for cultivating this capacity to see others’ humanity, based on the principle that every human action, no matter how destructive or abhorrent to us, is an expression of basic human needs that are shared by all of us.

When I express the full extent and radical ramifications of this principle, very often people raise the example of Hitler. Isn’t he, ultimately, beyond the pale? To me, nothing is. As I wrote the article, I was amazed to learn that Gandhi wrote to Hitler, and addressed him as “Dear Friend.” I know that Marshall Rosenberg dedicated significant research and personal reflection to studying Hitler’s life so he could see and understand his humanity. I know it’s possible. And so I included a paragraph in which I explored what could possibly be some basic human needs that could possibly be hidden deep underneath the choices that led him to such extremes. The paradox is astonishing to me. The choices themselves are so beyond comprehension to me that I can barely breathe when I truly attempt to take them in, and yet the needs I could imagine are fully and easily understandable to me. Here’s what I identified: “I can easily see, and often experience, being only with people similar to us as one strategy for the human needs to belong, to have ease in relating, and to have a sense of meaning and connection. Seeing this, I can resonate with Hitler’s underlying needs, and thus make human sense of Hitler despite of and independently of his actions.” (If you are curious about why acting on these needs would take the form of such unimaginable actions, I highly recommend James Gilligan’s book Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes. Gilligan discusses, in particular, the role of shame in leading to violence and cruelty.)

From Emotional Protection to Open-Hearted Grief
For some people it seems virtually impossible to fathom the possibility of such compassion. They want to protect themselves from the excruciating pain that the specter of the actions raises for them. As one reader wrote after the article was posted: “It is so painful for me to ponder what needs of his he was trying to meet by his actions. I have a preference to stay away from people or things that are just so "needy" and require so much work on my part to not judge or condemn.”

On the most personal level, my own main reason for wanting to extend understanding is the profound effect it has on me. I believe it was Martin Luther King who said that the practice of nonviolence first of all affects the person who practices it, before it affects anyone else.

From the moment I understood the revolutionary depth of this principle, I have been working systematically to integrate it and make it available to me in more and more circumstances. Sometimes I have taken days and weeks to reflect on what could possibly be the human needs of someone whose actions I could not comprehend, whether someone I know personally or a public figure. I have also been in dialogue with people very different from me and focused on understanding, really trying to make sense of their actions from within their own frame of reference, and get a visceral feel for their needs. Many times I have taken on very difficult roles as part of my work with people, and have always found a human nugget at the heart of sometimes extreme actions. Each time this happens, I feel bigger and stronger as a human being. Most of the time, these days, I no longer need to reflect much; the experience of entering another person’s reality is now fairly easily available to me, and I consider that a blessing.

I am not without pain. I would never trade that pain for what I felt before. I have so much less fear these days, so much more room to be, to explore, to experiment. I am so much more at one with the whole of humanity, without separation, without enemies. My world feels safer and bigger when everyone is essentially human like me.

From Moral Indignation to Compassionate Determination
A more common concern I have heard often is that compassion is somehow the same as making the actions OK. In particular, I have heard many express the fear that with compassion we would do nothing to stop actions that are harmful. Because of the millennia of training to see everything as either right or wrong, if I don’t call something “wrong” it’s easy to see me as saying that it’s “right.” Understanding, for me, is entirely different from agreement or acceptance. It’s an entirely different orientation. I do not have to hate or condemn someone in order to do everything in my power to stop their actions. I can do it with compassion, and I can have just as much intensity, determination, and passion for what matter to me. I can act with as much conviction and decisiveness while still having care for the person whose actions I am trying to stop. Gandhi, again, comes to mind. He didn’t hate the British officers. He stood up to them, resisted, mobilized millions, and all the while maintained a sense of full respect for their humanity. In fact, he fully believed it was to their benefit to leave India.

Compassion and Nonviolence
What many people don’t know is that nonviolence was used, and successfully so, even during WWII. (See Michael Nagler’s book The Search for a Nonviolent Future for examples.) As our capacity to destroy increases, and our collective global willingness to use that capacity remains high, I am more and more eager to see the nonviolent alternatives. I have complete faith that nonviolence can be a primary approach to resolving international conflict. I don’t believe we can get there without learning to see others’ humanity no matter the circumstances.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

What Makes Collaboration Work? - Part 2

by Miki Kashtan

This piece is a continuation of yesterday’s post.

Telling the Truth with Care
The founder of a start-up company brought to the workshop the challenge he had about having a sales person whose judgment calls he doesn’t always trust. What can he do to move towards a collaborative experience with this employee?

Sometimes the most important thing about collaborating is truth telling. Often enough we avoid telling the truth because of fear of hurting other people. This is because we’ve been trained to believe that truth and care are mutually exclusive. Instead, I aim for truth with care. In order to find a way to shift the dynamics with the employee, I invited everyone at the workshop to imagine themselves being that employee, and what they would want to hear from the founder in such a situation. Within moments we came up with several ways to present the truth. One example: “I have some concerns about how you respond to some situations. I want us to work together well, and I want to support you in being successful in this job. Are you open to reviewing a few situations together so we can get more alignment around our priorities?”

More generally, whenever we have a difficult message to deliver, we can imagine being the other person, really and truly stepping into their proverbial shoes. From within that perspective we can often feel directly what would register as care, what’s necessary to say or highlight to make room for the truth to be digestible. It’s never about compromising the truth; it’s only about framing it in a context of collaboration.

Shared Ownership of Outcome
One young facilitator in a hi-tech area brought forward the challenge of having very acrimonious meetings, full of arguments and without any clear resolution. She was daunted by the prospect of navigating such a meeting to a collaborative spirit.

In polarized situations one key skill is particularly helpful – the ability to hear the dream, vision, value, need, or goal that is hidden behind the different opinions. For example, let’s say that we are in a meeting to evaluate two different software platforms, and someone says: “This product sucks. They haven’t been supporting it for years.” What I hear is that what’s important to this person is reliability in terms of tech support. Or if someone says: “It’s so boring, there’s nothing to it,” I hear that they want a product that’s innovative or has complex functionality. Why is this capacity important? Because moving towards something has more potential for getting people together than arguing about what’s not working.

Once we verify with each person that we got clearly what’s important to them, the next step is to generate one list with all that’s important. This, then, becomes the list of criteria to use to evaluate the product in this case, or to evaluate any proposal that’s on the table more generally. Key to the success of this approach is to create one list with the core qualities that are sought without any reference to the specific product, direction, or strategy that’s being discussed. What then happens is that the group can move to shared ownership of the list, an act which gradually de-polarizes the group and shifts it into an orientation of finding, together, a solution that meets as many of the criteria as possible. In that way we support collaboration even in a charged context.

Learning to Collaborate
Most of us have been raised to work alone and in competition with others. I have a lot of compassion and tenderness for our efforts to collaborate without having all the necessary tools, and I feel passionate about providing these tools. I can only do so much online through this blog. To move more clearly towards transforming our work lives and making collaboration be the norm in our society, I am collaborating with a group of other NVC trainers to create the Making Collaboration Real retreat and optional yearlong program that’s starting next month.

As part of our vision, we want to transform the way businesses deal with money, and we are committed to modeling this transformation in our own practice around money. Now that the curriculum for the program is ready, I am itching to make this unique opportunity available to more people. If you are drawn to participate in this retreat or program and cost is the only reason you would not attend, please read our brief philosophy about money, and contact us to talk about how to make attendance at this program possible for you.

The depth and level of detail of the curriculum leave me in awe about how much is needed in order to make collaboration work. I am so excited to have a coherent and systematic way that collaboration can be taught, experienced, and practiced. I have confidence that with focus and dedication we can all master the art of collaboration at all levels.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

What Makes Collaboration Work?

by Miki Kashtan

Why is collaboration so difficult and tenuous for so many people? Since we are so clearly social animals, wouldn’t we naturally know how to collaborate?

In the last several weeks I have been deeply immersed in learning and teaching about collaboration. I participated in planning and leading the Making Collaboration Real conference, and noticed the immense hunger people had for more tips about how to do collaboration. I attended the Social Venture Network gathering, where I led a breakout session about collaboration, I led one other workshop on collaboration at the Hub SoMa, and I have worked with people struggling to collaborate effectively.

I heard the entire gamut of challenges: from performance reviews to decision making, from interpersonal relationships to leadership styles, from online relationships to in-person group meetings, and from innermost experience to how systems are set up. I now can say more clearly than ever that in today’s workplace effective collaboration is an accomplishment rather than a given. Here are some snippets from my recent weeks with some tips you can use to increase your chances of collaborating successfully.

Full Responsibility
I often hear from people something to the effect that they can’t collaborate with someone because of that person’s actions, choices, or communication. For myself, I hold that if I want to collaborate with someone the responsibility is on me to make that collaboration work. In tough moments I remind myself that I am the one who wants to collaborate, and therefore I want to take the responsibility for making it happen. The less willingness another person has, the more presence, skill, and commitment are required from me. Expecting fairness interferes with the possibility of collaboration. Instead of thinking about what’s fair, I think about what’s possible in any situation given the level of skill and interest that all the players have. Sometimes this may be more than I want to do, in which case I may choose not to collaborate. I still know that it’s my choice, and not the other person’s limitations, which end the collaboration. This orientation has helped me tremendously to the point of carrying no resentment to speak of even in situations that break down.

Making Use of Input
In one of the workshops a senior program officer in a high-profile non-profit organization talked about dreading the experience of bringing her ideas to her team. The reason? They usually don’t like what she says, then she sits and endures their input despite the pain without saying anything to them, and finally she thanks them for the input and makes whatever decision she makes.

One way of transforming such a challenge is to be proactive about the kind of input that we want. For example, when she proposes a plan, she can start by saying that she wants to hear a few people express only what they like about the proposal. Providing specific positive comments supports her in relaxing, and supports the others in connecting more with the reason the proposal is there in the first place. Then she can ask the team to name those areas that they don’t like and for which they have concrete suggestions for improvement. This builds a sense of movement and possibility. Finally, she can ask for any additional concerns for which people may not have a solution. By then enough goodwill gets generated that the group can look at those concerns together and brainstorm suggestions with her. She is then not alone and overwhelmed with so much input without solutions. And everyone has the experience that their input is valued. In that way she leads them to collaborate.

I plan to post the 2nd part of this post tomorrow, with two more tips: how to tell the truth with care, and how to create shared ownership of the outcome.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Facts, Controversies, and Change of Mind – Part 2

by Miki Kashtan

This is a continuation of yesterday’s post.

Can Facts Settle a Controversy?
When emotionally charged controversies are at play, even when agreement on the facts is possible, it’s unlikely to lead to any settling of the real issues, because beyond the facts comes the meaning we assign to them.

For example, I have been in an ongoing conversation with a colleague about the healthcare situation in the US. We have absolutely no disagreement about the basic facts of there being dozens of millions of people who have no or low access to adequate healthcare. However, the meaning of this fact remains fully divided between us. Is it government stepping in that has created this, or government stepping out? Is it more important to provide care, or more important to support autonomy?

To come back to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, whatever facts we can possibly agree on are always seen through the lens of the framing story. That story informs what we see as cause of anything, how we evaluate the actors, and how we want to respond. A bomb explodes inside Israel. Is it a terrorist act designed to kill Israeli civilians and demoralize the people who are trying to live in peace in their land, or is it an act of a courageous freedom-fighter who believes no other way exists to call attention to the plight of Palestinians? If you believe the former, your response is likely to be doing whatever is necessary to protect life. If you believe the latter, you are more likely to want to be in dialogue to end the conditions that make life hard for Palestinians.

Given this wrinkle, I would much rather focus on attempting to create mutual understanding about matters of meaning than about the facts. I simply don’t see that facts can serve that big of a role in reaching across an opinion difference, a point to which I come back momentarily.

This is the primary reason why I wrote the original article the way I did: I was trying to uncover and connect with the underlying meaning for both parties. Our habit is to point to what we think of as “gross mis-statements of fact” and to believe that once the facts are settled, the rest will logically follow.

What I try to focus on, instead, is to understand this: if the other person agreed with you on the facts, what would be the meaning of that? What is underneath that wish for shared reality? What is it that you want to be seen for that what you think of as facts illustrates for you? This is the level at which I hope dialogues can happen. I trust what I have seen come out of such dialogues.

Do Facts Lead to Change of Minds?
In my work with volunteers in the Campaign to establish a US Department of Peace, I was repeatedly faced with the focus everyone puts on what they are going to say, such as the arguments they are going to present to support the proposed legislation or the facts and figures they can cite to make a case for the campaign. I have rarely met an activist who is trained in how to listen, or in being able to engage with others at the level of the deeper meaning that facts, arguments, and counter-arguments represent.

In the absence of engagement with the deeper layers, any fact and any argument can be subsumed into a pre-existing worldview without challenging it. It is well known that even hard core scientists are happily living with counter-arguments to the theory they espouse in their scientific field. You only need to read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions to see how widespread and intrinsic to the development of science this phenomenon is. Of course, here I am doing the exact same thing: citing a book, making an argument, pointing to facts…

I have been monitoring when I or others are being asked for reference for something we say. This rarely happens when the person asking for the reference is in agreement, except when they want the reference to be able to refute someone else’s position… Rather, people ask for a reference when what I or others say is not in alignment with their worldview. This is just one small example of how the underlying story of life that we have affects how we listen to everything.

So what is the alternative? The long version is likely to be a topic for another day. The short version for me is simple. I aim for mutual understanding rather than change of mind. When I enter a dialogue I remind myself that unless I am truly willing to change my own mind, I have no business asking the other person to change theirs, no matter how much I may think that my position is right and theirs off. I aim to see the humanity of someone with whom I disagree, and support them in seeing mine, because that is the best foundation for creating connection. It is, indeed, my belief that when we change our minds it is usually over time, in relationship with something or someone about which we care, and when we experience a respectful invitation. It is my hope that my work can contribute to more such conversations happening in the world.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Facts, Controversies, and Change of Mind – Part 1

by Miki Kashtan

In response to my blog piece In Appreciation of Complexity, I received 6 comments on this blog and 5 on the Tikkun blog where I am cross-posted. I read them all with great curiosity and interest. I am grateful to everyone who wrote back. I have no capacity to explain to myself, let alone others, why one comment caught my eye enough to want to respond.

Here’s the original comment from Susan B. posted on March 6th:

“Well, no, actually, those arguing against the Goldstone report are not asking for recognition of millennia of suffering.

Rather, they are objecting to the gross mis-statements of fact, which have been pointed out in various other documents, including reports and information that were available to the Goldstone commission before their report was published.

There have been many things written about the many factual errors and omissions in the Goldstone report, which led to incorrect conclusions, as well as their apparent misunderstanding of international law in regard to what is or is not a war crime.

So, maybe he was brave to take the job, but the problem is that he botched it badly.”

Given the focus of my work, which is much more on how we hear each other, how we come together across differences, how we learn to hold everyone with care, I am not planning to get into the actual content of the Goldstone report and what critics have said.

Even without the specific focus of my work, I wouldn’t likely get into the details, because I see so much complexity in how facts figure in major controversial issues. This is what I do want to write about. I hope that Susan finds some understanding in what I say below.

What Counts as Facts?
I am far from the first person to point out that more often than not controversies are so difficult to even talk about because part of what’s being disputed is reality itself. In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, here are some perennially unresolved questions of fact:

  • What really happened in 1948? There are at least two stories, and they clash. I am not going to spell them out here, because the references are ubiquitous and the details are complex on both ends.
  • Who is victim and who is oppressor? Here I am familiar with at least three stories:
    • Tiny Israel is fighting for its capacity to exist against a largely hostile vast Arab world backed up by an even larger Islamic population.
    • Palestinians were kicked off their land by Zionist imperialist colonizers backed up by world superpowers.
    • Two peoples live on the land, both with painful histories, and they are struggling over a piece of land without seeing each other’s humanity.
  • Who is ready for peace? Here the stories are endless:
    • Neither side is ready. There will never be peace, and they will drag the world down with their obstinacy.
    • Palestinians are ready and have been willing to compromise so much and can’t go any further when Israel is totally entrenched in maintaining the status quo and unwilling to negotiate.
    • Israel has been waiting for decades for a partner, and there is really no one who wants to talk about peace, because in reality all they want is to eliminate the state of Israel.
    • No side will come to the table until they are forced, and it’s never too early to impose a solution.
    • Given the challenges both parties face, better options are necessary to make dialogue palatable. When the invitation is authentic, when good facilitation is available, and when they can be fully heard, peace will flourish.

And the list goes on.

The lesson for me here is that what counts as fact is always within a particular frame of reference. Our notions and wishes color what we see. And so it doesn’t surprise me that people completely disagree about the Goldstone Report on the factual level.

I plan to post the 2nd part of this post tomorrow, addressing two more questions about the role of facts in controversial issues. One is about whether facts can settle a controversy, and the other is about whether facts lead to change of minds.