Saturday, July 30, 2011

Transcending Norms of Separation

by Miki Kashtan

One of the things I do in life is talk to strangers whenever I have any inkling of a possible human connection, however momentary. These acts feel precious and a little subversive. Talking about these moments feels oddly more vulnerable than the act of reaching for the connection in the first place, and so I rarely do it. Yesterday I experienced two in a row that were so meaningful I decided to risk the embarrassment for the hope of inspiring others to join me.
I was walking out of the Berkeley Farmers’ Market, and a woman was coming towards me from a distance. Even though I couldn’t see her clearly, her appearance and presence captured my eye. I just loved how she looked. As we walked towards each other, I saw that her hair was completely white, and I thought to myself that she probably wouldn’t think of herself as looking great. As she walked by, I stopped her and asked if I could speak to her for a moment. I saw the expression, the moment of hesitation, wondering who I was or why I would want to talk with her, maybe a concern I might ask for something. And so I told her that what I had to say was unusual, and that I just wanted to tell her that she looked great. Oh, how she lit up in that moment. I mentioned to her that I didn’t imagine she would have that thought about herself. She said she was 76, and I said that was part of what I so enjoyed, that she didn’t pretend to be younger than her age. She smiled and laughed throughout this dialogue, and in the end told me with some glee that she was going to tell her husband. I stayed with it long enough to satisfy myself that she really took it in.
As if this was not enough to make my day, while parking at a grocery store I noticed a young African-American man, probably about 15, whom I had seen previously with other older people who were selling the local street journal for a dollar. This time he was alone, and I imagined he was asking for money himself. Then I witnessed what for me was a remarkable moment as a middle-aged white man approached him and they shared a substantial hug. As I came out of my car, the young man indeed approached me for money. Having just run out of money at the market to the point of owing money to the last vendor, I told him I didn’t have any money, and wouldn’t when I came out either. He was fine with that and thanked me.
On my way out carrying a bunch of bags, he asked me if I needed help. I told him that I still didn’t have money. He told me he knew, and that he still wanted to know if I needed help. As I came around, touched by his offer, he walked across my line of vision with an immense smile, not directed at me. That was when I decided to talk to him. I called out to him and told him I was so happy that he was still able to smile. Whereupon he looked at me for more than a split second. So I proceeded to say some more. I told him I had seen him share the hug with the other man earlier, and that I was so touched, because most young men his age don’t do this, don’t let it show that they need love. He kept looking at me with such intentness. And so I went on, daring the closeness. I said: “Don’t give up. You have some much stacked up against you. Don’t give up. Ever.” Our eyes locked and we looked at each other for a long time. Then I said to him, while still holding his gaze, that in that moment we shared a human connection and knew that we could do anything we wanted, and that no matter what happened, that was always possible, even if everyone told him he couldn’t. His parting words were that he would never forget this moment.
This, too, is possible in our world.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Holding Tough Dilemmas Together – Part 2

by Miki Kashtan

In my previous post I shared two examples of how a conflict can be transformed by being held together with another as a shared dilemma: what can we do here to respond to both of our needs? Today I want to illustrate with a third example between father and teenage daughter.
Sharing Responsibility with a Teenager
Bob, the divorced father of a 15 year old, was struggling with a challenge that involved both his daughter and his ex. When his daughter was with him, she went to sleep late, woke up late, and was often late for school. This threatened her mother’s continued willingness to have her stay with Bob. He brought up this issue during a telecourse with me, and was beside himself about how to proceed. The night before, for example, he asked his daughter to stop playing games on her iphone and go to bed, to which she said “get out of my face” and to which he said “this is not OK.” Tension arose as he proceeded to take away her iphone and insist she go to bed. This was not the relationship he wanted to have with his daughter. What could he do instead? What is the dilemma he could invite his daughter to hold together with him?
As things stood, Bob was in full blown mini-war with her. He tries to force her, which at the age of 15 is extremely difficult to do, and she resists and fights back. This is a losing strategy. The more he threatens, the more he attempts to enforce rules, the less connection and trust they have. His daughter, like every teenager, and like every human being, wants to have autonomy, to make her own choices about her life, to move about in ways that are meaningful to her and flow from within her, not based on someone else’s rules.
What would happen if, instead of the usual fight, which in any event fails, he invited his daughter to participate in creating the solution? Both of them want this to work, want her to be able to stay in his house more often. He could be more fully transparent with her by telling her how much he wants that, and how much he struggles to find ways to make it possible. He could tell her that the issue, as she well knows, is that when she so often arrives late to school when she stays with him, her mother understandably is not supportive of this option. Then he could ask her, in the most humble and literal way, what she thought they could do to make it work. Or he could ask her what was going on for her that made it harder for her to go to sleep in time for school to happen with ease when she was at his place. Or he could ask her what is something he could do to help shift the difficult dynamic between them in a way that supported their shared desire. The options are many. The key is to invite her in. By being asked for her input, she would then receive a hugely important message: that she, her needs, her opinions, and her well-being matter. That’s a key building block for a solid relationship with a kid. Inviting her like this dramatically reduces the chances of persistent conflict.
Although Bob liked my suggestions, he was still concerned about what he could do with his anger in those moments when she used words such as “get out of my face.” Clearly, the daughter would only use these words when she is in extreme distress with regards to her need for autonomy. One way that Bob could respond would be to open his heart to her experience, see life from within her. Time and again when I ask parents how they would feel if someone treated them like they sometimes treat their children they suddenly remember that their children are fully human like them, and open up to dramatically different possibilities for how to be with their children.
Bob is also human, and sometimes he just won’t be able to find empathy in the moment for his daughter’s reaction. After millennia of the training most of us received, he is more likely to hear his daughter’s words as an affront to his authority as father than as an expression of her suffering. Once he hears her words in that way, anger is entirely predictable. Bob would still want to know how to communicate his experience effectively, because what he currently does escalates the situation without addressing the underlying issue. Instead, I suggested to Bob that he could take full ownership of his anger. Instead of saying “that’s not OK” he could say what is more honest and connected. He could tell his daughter that he is deeply concerned about her way of speaking to him, that he wants very much for her to treat him with respect even when she is unhappy with him, and that he loses his ability to hear her and stay open to her needs when she speaks like this. In so doing, if he can, he stops the escalating spiral and he models the quality of respect he wants from her. Where else would our children learn empathy and respect if not from how we treat them?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Holding Tough Dilemmas Together

by Miki Kashtan

No matter what we do and where we are, life always presents us with an unending succession of things to work out with other people. Those range from inconsequentials like going to a Thai or Chinese restaurant with a friend all the way to major differences in values, worldview, or life choices. Whether or not such differences turn into conflicts depends largely on how we face them. We create conflict when we polarize and separate from the other person, because we don’t know how to hold what’s important to us alongside what’s important to the person with whom we have the differences. I derive a great deal of hope and sustenance from the growing evidence I have, through my own life and the many people I have worked with, that conflict is not the only option. Even in very tough circumstances we can find ways of holding together with others the dilemma of not seeing a way forward that works for everyone. At the very least genuine togetherness creates dramatic shifts in the experience of the difference. We may experience collective mourning at not finding a way rather than fighting with each other to get our way. Or we may sometimes experience nothing short of magic. An unexpected solution may emerge. Or one of the parties relaxes from knowing their needs are included, and lets go without acrimony. Or the mere fact of removing the tension dissolves the issue.
I’d like to illustrate with three examples. Two are personal relationships, and one a workplace relationship. One is a relationship of equals, and two have power differences on top of the issues. The names and some of the circumstances are changed to protect anonymity.
Facing Cancer Together
At a workshop for people with cancer and those who care for them I had the opportunity to work with a couple on a painful conflict. Jane was facing pancreatic cancer and Susan, her partner, was caring for her. Their issue was quite significant. Jane, a former physician, was holding out complete hope for her recovery despite the common assumption that pancreatic cancer is fatal. Susan was completely distraught, because she couldn’t get Jane to talk with her about what would happen when she died. This had been going on for quite some time, and was clearly sapping the relationship of its trust and goodwill, despite the evident love and care between these two women. Each of them was desperately trying to get the other to see her point of view and agree with her. Jane kept saying that Susan was not supporting her and was a nay-sayer, and Susan was in tears when she talked about Jane being in denial and how alone she felt in holding this responsibility. The breakthrough happened within minutes after they settled into understanding each other’s plight and really seeing the pain the other was in as well as what was of core importance to each of them. That shift was palpable in the room, and others commented on it. When the conflict energy drained, it was one word that brought them completely together: shifting from when to if in talking about Jane’s death. Both of them relaxed into accepting that it was impossible to know what would happen. As such, Jane could easily join Susan in planning, and Susan could easily recognize that she really couldn’t predict, no matter anything about statistics, whether or not Jane would die from this disease. The conflict disappeared.
Collaborative Ending of Employment
Roger, a manager in a small business I support, was at the end of his tether when he called to talk about an employee named Arlie. Arlie had a position that interfaced with many people in the organization as well as customers. He already knew that people working with her were dissatisfied, and had already brought it to her attention with an agreement to implement some significant changes. Prior to calling me, however, he heard some new information from a couple of key players in the organization that left him convinced he wanted her out of the organization. Given his commitment to collaboration, he wanted my suggestions about how to proceed. This was not a trivial task for me, and I thought long and hard about how to advise him. What would it mean to hold this dilemma together with Arlie? Here, in addition to the difference in their desired outcome, and likely in their perception, there was also a power difference. How could Roger invite Arlie into a collaborative conversation when the goal was essentially predetermined? The simply answer would be to reduce, ever so slightly, the absoluteness of known outcome, and to leave even a microscopic crack for another possibility to emerge. Roger and I talked at length about how he would approach Arlie. Later I found out how things unfolded. He told Arlie exactly the truth: that new information had come to his attention that was distressing enough that his vast preference was for Arlie to leave the organization, and yet he wanted to talk with her about it and remained open to the possibility that they would arrive at a different outcome. That was the slight opening. While in previous conversations Arlie was quick to defend herself and her choices, this time she sensed the openness and they had a satisfying conversation about the details of the feedback. Because of knowing the opening existed, she didn’t feel defensive. Instead, she expressed gratitude for how he talked with her and asked for some time to reflect before continuing the conversation. While the conversation was unresolved, they maintained connection and mutuality, despite how charged the issue was, and despite their power difference.
The next day Arlie approached Roger and told him that she had given it some thought overnight, and could really see how much the organization would benefit from having someone else occupy her position who had certain skills and experiences that she knew she didn’t have. Together they picked the optimal date for her to leave that would give them enough time to find and train a replacement and crafted the statement to the staff. Roger was delighted to tell me how much care and respect he sensed between them at the end of the process.
Stay tuned for part 2 of this post, about how a father learned to invite his teenage daughter into partnership about being late for school because of staying up.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Musings on Empathy

by Miki Kashtan

“The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have the capacity do not possess it.” – Simone Weil

An astonishing paradox I witness regularly is how, time and again, we long for others’ presence when we are suffering, and yet when others are suffering we reassure, offer advice, change the topic awkwardly, comfort, sympathize, offer our own experiences – anything but bringing our presence. How can we meet those moments with more presence and be in empathic connection with the other person?
Pure Presence
The first step, perhaps, is to release ourselves from the idea that we have to say something. Presence is wordless. It’s about making our being available to be with another person’s experience instead of being focused on our own. I imagine, if we manage to work through the challenges of our current times and survive as a species, that a time may come when we will have language to describe what presence looks like. For now, all I know is there is a high correlation between one person’s listening presence and the other person’s sense of not being alone, and this is communicated without words. We can be present with someone whose language we don’t understand, who speaks about circumstances we have never experienced, or whose reactions are baffling to us. It’s a soul orientation and intentionality to simply be with another. Presence, in this sense, is a sacred act for me.
Sometimes getting there is hard, because the content of what the person says is charged for us, or because we are involved and we want a particular outcome or action to take place, or because we are uncomfortable being in the vicinity of strong emotions, especially ones of pain or sorrow of any kind. Whatever our reaction, if we can open to it with tenderness we greatly increase the chances of success in putting our attention on another person. I experience it as a way of caring for myself, honoring my reaction, letting myself know that I take my experience seriously and want to attend to it. Once I do that, I feel empowered and free when I am then able to choose where I put my attention instead of being at the mercy of my own reactions. I become bigger as a human being, more available to life.
Letting Ourselves Be Moved
Often enough even when we become present we are not fully present because we still engage in some kind of mental process of trying to figure out how to respond. At other times we may protect ourselves, keeping some separation or distance with the other person.
Full empathic presence includes the breaking open of our heart to take in another’s humanity. Our imagination can help, too, the simple and famous exercise of trying to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. We listen to their words and their story, and allow ourselves to be affected by the experience of what it would be like.
Then we understand. Empathic understanding is different from empathic presence. We can have presence across any barrier, and it’s still a gift. If we also understand, even without saying anything, I believe the other person’s sense of being heard increases, and they are even less alone with the weight of their experience.
Allowing into our heart the other person’s suffering doesn’t mean we suffer with them, because that means shifting the focus of our attention to our own experience. Rather, it means that we recognize the experience as fully human, and behold the beauty of it, in all its aspects, even when difficult, painful, or upsetting. Pain is not the issue; it’s being alone with pain that has such devastating consequences. I want to do all I can, in the presence of suffering of any kind, to leave people knowing that I am with them, that they are not alone to hold their pain. I trust that this is the most significant gift I can offer – my own full heart and presence.
Empathic Words
Many times my attempt to be with another’s experience is dramatically enhanced by finding words to convey my understanding and my care. In many situations being able to provide an empathic reflection of what we hear increases the togetherness that a person may experience, gives them more trust of being understood. In particular, I have found it particularly powerful to reflect what’s important to the other person and what they most want rather than simply the words they themselves used.
At other times I find an empathic expression reaches more easily across the habitual divide and separation we have in relation to other people. This can be tricky: I talk about my own experience, and yet I want my attention and intention to be focused on the other person and I want my words to serve the purpose of connecting, of conveying understanding and care.
Whichever way I go, I want my words to emerge from the ground of presence and understanding which I occupy, free and pure. Searching for words takes any of us out of presence. The most perfect words without the heart of my presence will never do the trick. There is simply no substitute for the fullness of my own humanity to reach another’s and to give us the mystery and magic of being together.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Truth, Care, and Words

by Miki Kashtan

The Hebrew Bible tells us that "death and life come through the power of the tongue." My father, who was a (mostly) lay linguist, raised all three of his daughters to be in awe of the power of words to create effects. It’s no wonder that I have dedicated my life to a methodology and a practice that put so much emphasis on choice of words to convey meaning and to create inner and outer transformation.
Ever since I started teaching Nonviolent Communication (NVC) I have been exposed to a dual stream of responses. Most people who come in contact with the training report a growing sense of freedom, finding ways of living more in harmony with how they want to be, more connection in their life, and a host of other benefits.
I also hear from people a deep concern about the sense of a forced way of speaking, and concern about manipulation and inauthenticity. Many people tell me that others don’t seem to be happy when they use NVC in communicating with them.
How to make sense of this apparent contradiction?
Having reflected on this for some years now, I have reached a lot of clarity about what is at play here. I see several issues that intertwine to create this challenge for many people who want to learn NVC.
Practice and Life
I like to look at the particular set of words that are used in NVC settings as an incredibly powerful practice to prepare us for life. Just as much as we are unlikely to meditate in the midst of a conversation unless we both agree that we want to take some time to meditate, I want us to be in the habit of using the NVC phrases when we are in a practice setting, or when another person explicitly agrees to us experimenting with our newly acquired capacities, and for the rest of the time let life happen.
Consciousness and Language
What I am fundamentally aiming for is to live the values that speak to me about the NVC consciousness. The words used in practice are in support of this consciousness, not a substitute for it. I want my words to arise from the truth that lives in me. I aim for more and more fluidity in my holding of NVC consciousness, to stay grounded in principles of NVC and adapt the language to the circumstances.
Full Authenticity
I am aware of a lot of conditioning in the culture to not be authentic about our inner experience. I can totally see that unless we consciously work on this conditioning to be “nice”, we can easily fold the tool of NVC into the conditioning. With enough practice, unfortunately, it’s possible even to use NVC to mask the truth of our experience. A Naturalizing the NVC language comes from aligning ourselves with the truth and expressing from that place. I want to learn more and more how to express myself in ways that are completely authentic and require the least amount of effort for the other person to hear me.
Combining Truth and Care
One of the reasons why the conditioning to be inauthentic is in place is because of the widespread perception that truth and care are incompatible. I challenge that assumption deeply, and have come to believe that any truth can be combined with sufficient care to maintain connection while delivering it. Even a painful truth can be connected. We cannot protect ourselves or each other from pain. We can speak in ways that provide care even during pain. Before speaking I reflect on the truth, I look for and find the care inside, even when that’s an effort. I take an extra breath, if necessary, to ensure that they are united inside me, and I let the words emerge from that.
A Teenager Story – Finding the Truth in the Moment
Parents who attempt to use NVC with their children are especially challenged. For example, someone told me that every time she tries to use NVC with her teenage son he tells her to shut up. She was at a loss about how to communicate with her son. I was not surprised. One of the nice things about teenagers is that they have extremely well-honed bullshit detectors.  What they are detecting is authenticity.  Is it for real? If her son doesn’t want to hear her speech, that means he knows there’s something going on and she is not saying it. That’s when we discovered that she was nervous about using NVC, and never told him. She could immediately see that the nervous would leak. As Marshall Rosenberg, originator of NVC, has said, unacknowledged fear looks like aggression. We can’t use NVC language as a substitute for real connection.
Sadly, often enough we think that there is some kind of big truth that we have to express and if we can’t express it then we don’t know what to do. In my experience, more often than not there is a small truth that we can express. In this example, it’s not the nervousness that disconnects this person from her son. It’s having the nervousness and trying to pretend its not there. The simplicity of telling her son that she is nervous simply didn’t occur to her.
Ah, there is so much more to say about this topic. I feel very passionate about wanting the practice of NVC to nourish life and connection; wanting people who learn NVC to treat each other and everyone else with love instead of correcting each other’s speech; and wanting the consciousness of nonviolence at its purest form to permeate life so we can turn the tide of destruction we have been on for so long.
Because of this passion, I am dedicating six days to working with people who want to strengthen their ability to plant themselves deeply in the consciousness of love, courage, and truth-telling that nonviolence is for me, and to live, communicate, and work toward inner and outer transformation from within that consciousness while making their language use more and more natural and flowing. It’s called In Your Own Words, and it’s on August 5-10. For once, it’s on the East Coast, so all those who live there who don’t want to travel to California can find me closer to home. Maybe I will see you there.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Redefining Independence

by Miki Kashtan

Tomorrow is the 4th of July, a national holiday of independence in the USA. I am drawn to reflecting on the topic, and especially how it plays out in the North American culture within which I live and work. Independence is one of the highest values in this culture. Its two interweaving strands of meaning appear as a rejection of dependence, of being in need of others, at their mercy. Both interfere with conscious interdependence, the practice of collaborating with others to create outcomes that work for more and more people.

Moving toward Inner Freedom
One strand of meaning is about the freedom to make choices without having to consult with others. I often see this showing up as a somewhat rebellious stance: “You can’t tell me what to do.” I have had this particular experience enough to recognize that it comes with some kind of satisfaction, some sense that I am standing up for myself. I can so understand the appeal of this response.

This widespread experience has far-reaching consequences for our ability to create a livable future. For a prime example, our material possessions are a sacrosanct institution. We are given the right to dispose of the resources we own as we see fit. This idea is part of the core allure of the modern commodity-based economy, despite all the hardships so many of us experience. We have the carrot of believing that if we accumulate enough resources than no one can tell us what to do. This is the consolation prize for the separation, scarcity, and powerlessness that we experience so often.

This makes it exceedingly difficult to engage with others and make collaborative decisions. When we have few resources, we struggle to imagine that we have a say. We either give up without even trying and feel defeated, or we stand up defiant and forget about the humanity of others and lose our capacity to engage with them productively. When we do have access to resources, we hold on to the option of making all the decisions about our own actions, and struggle to maintain a sense of care for and interest in others who may not have as many resources.

Most of us were mostly told what to do when we were growing up. It’s still an exceptionally rare family in which children are seen as partners. As adults we still lack models for how we can engage with others in ways that completely honor our autonomy. Including others in our decisions appears more like asking for permission than anything that could possibly benefit us. Our sense of freedom is guarded tightly against infringement.

True inner freedom is closer to the original meaning of autonomy – living by one’s own laws. There is nothing reactive, defiant, resistant, or defensive about it. Instead, it comes calmly and softly from within, giving us more resilience when engaging with others. The word for independence in Hebrew, my first and beloved language, speaks to this kind of freedom. Its root is the same as the root for self.

Questioning Self-Sufficiency
Independence is also understood as the idea of living without being in need of others. So many people go to great lengths, even to harming themselves (e.g. by carrying weight that’s too heavy for their bodies) just to ensure they don’t ask for help. Countless times I have been in situations where I offered help to people, especially parents of small children who were struggling to get their shopping done, and have invariably been politely declined. This message is internalized deeply and passed on even when questioned. Its persistence interferes with opening up to receiving support, to reaching out, to knowing that we matter enough to get our needs met.

Ironically, our way of living has actually made us less and less self-reliant, less able to create the resources we need to survive and thrive, as individuals and communities, even as we strive for more and more self-sufficiency. Fewer and fewer of us know how to grow the food we eat, make the clothes we wear, build the houses we live in, or find water anywhere other than in the pipe.

On the material plane we render our dependence invisible through the medium of money. Collectively, we uphold the illusion that if we have enough money we don’t depend on anyone, when in fact we use money to pay for what we don’t do on our own, and irreducibly relying on others, not just ourselves, for surviving. We also pretend that we don’t have an effect on others, with the collective result of operating, in the US, without any sense that we matter, and living reckless lives without much concern for the cost to others and nature.

On the emotional plane we pretend to be OK even when we are not, and maintain a stiff upper lip. The result is living in profound isolation which results in stress, illness, and high rates of depression.

When we can recognize and acknowledge our dependence we can become truly self-responsible. On the material plane this would mean finding self-reliance by recognizing the cost to others and the planet and finding ways to live within our local means. On the emotional plane this would mean learning to understand and accept our needs and asking for what we want while being in dialogue with others to get our needs met in ways that work for them, too.

Cultivating Interdependence
It is no wonder, given these persistent versions of independence, that cultivating awareness of our interdependence is one of the biggest challenges that we could present to the modern sensibility of industrialized countries.

For as long as our sense of freedom and choice depends on rejecting what comes from the outside, the delicate negotiations necessary for making things work for more and more people remain beyond reach. For as long as dependence on others is seen as weakness and failure, the necessary learning about sharing resources appears as taking something away from us rather than providing us access to more.

What is needed is nothing short of embracing our individual and collective capacity to make choice in tandem with others and the willingness to own our fundamental dependence on others. We need enormous strength and perseverance as we work to transcend the insidious message of separation we have inherited. Then we can finally band together, reach out for support, form communities, and create the conditions for all of our thriving.

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