Thursday, December 27, 2012

Responding to People in Power

There are topics about which I feel confident and settled in my knowledge and experience to speak with a sense of inner authority. How we transform the legacy of millennia in learning how to respond to those in power eludes me. I keep thinking that I have a piece of the answer, and then I see even more fully how immense the challenge is. Nevertheless, I want to contribute my share to a conversation I didn’t start and which I hope can be ongoing in many circles as we come to see our complicity, both when we have formal power and when we don’t, with maintaining things as they are. I want this conversation to become bigger so that we can tap into our collective wisdom, beyond what I or any one person can offer. I share these thoughts with the humility of knowing I truly don’t know what the way forward is.

Milan Kundera in
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, speaks more than once about the fact that people in power shit just like everyone else. I remember being startled by the bluntness of this image. For myself, I have preferred a different way of aligning myself with the complete and radical shared humanity of all. I remind myself that whoever the person is I am thinking of was once an infant, and I immediately touch my hope that, at least then, that person was loved. Different as these two methods are, they both point to the same truth, though I doubt that Kundera shares my fervent desire for each person on the planet, including all those who have harmed others, to receive sufficient love that harm would stop. This, for me, is one aspect of being able to transform, within myself, how I respond to power. I want the well-being of the person in power even when I want to oust them from power, even when I want to do everything in my power to stop them from doing further harm. 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Adam Lanza and All of Us

Adam Lanza in sixth grade
by Miki Kashtan

I am a Jew from Israel, where the Holocaust is a core formative story we all imbibed. One of the most astonishing experiences of my life was the moment in which I felt compassion for 7-year old Adolf Hitler. So astonishing, in fact, that I am a little afraid to expose this in public. I was reading Alice Miller’s For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence, and I felt my inside shifting and changing as I was reading. Almost every word fell into a clear place, my heart and mind opened and stretched and realigned, and then, without knowing it was coming, there it was. The monster became human, so painfully human. I no longer hated him. It was a milestone on my path. Over time, I lost my ability to hate altogether.

From Alice Miller, and from many other sources, I have come to accept without any doubt that no one does violence to others without violence having been done to them earlier. From James Gilligan, whose work I have mentioned here before (e.g. here and here), I have come to understand the mechanism that translates violence received into violence enacted on others. From Marshall Rosenberg and my years of working with Nonviolent Communication, I now have a clear frame for making sense of the work of Miller, Gilligan and others. The language of human needs helps me understand violence with an open heart, without collapsing, without blaming, without shaming. 

By far not everyone who experiences violence passes it on to others. I am no expert, I have done no research, and I cannot claim to know anything. My humanity is strained when I hear of what happened in Newtown last Friday. I am aware, mostly, of helplessness, of profound, unspeakable grief, of a fundamental inability to change the violence I know about, or to even grasp the violence that remains hidden. And, yet, my heart aches to say something, to summon my strained humanity, in all its limitations, to the task of bringing love and understanding to what I have learned about violence and how it may apply to Adam Lanza and our thinking about what he has done.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Myths of Power-With: # 2 - The Either/Or of Decision-Making

by Miki Kashtan

Recently, I was at Rainbow Grocery, a local worker-owned coop where I do a lot of my shopping. Rainbow has been around since the 1970s, and is one of not so many such places that have survived the test of time and are still thriving. As I was looking for a particular bulk spice (for those who care, their bulk section is what I most go all the way to San Francisco for), I overheard a worker explain to a customer an oddity in the way that the spices were organized. I heard weariness in her voice, so I turned to her afterwards and said something to the effect that this oddity could be fixed. She looked at me with what I saw as an odd mixture of commitment and resignation, and said: “Change is very slow when you run a democracy.”

To me this sentence sums up the crux of the issue I am exploring today. This response assumes something I myself question: why would change have to be slow in a democracy? I know the answer, because I think I know what she and others mean by a democracy. I think they mean a certain version of participatory democracy in which everyone participates in all decisions. I used to share the belief that this was the only possible path. In this understanding, we either compromise on the possibility of making things happen, or we compromise on the ideal of power-with, the value at the heart of this version of democracy: no one has anything imposed on them in any way, shape, or form.

Although this dilemma overlaps with the issue I named in Myth#1, I see a significant distinction between the two. When writing about the first myth, that everyone can be included, I was focusing more on the complexity of membership, which is about who gets to be part of a group or organization in the first place. Membership, then, involves a host of privileges and responsibilities, of which decision making is only one. Here, in this post, I am focusing on the process of decision-making within a group or organization whose membership is already clear. 

Friday, December 7, 2012

Does Nonviolent Communication “Work”?

by Miki Kashtan

The premises underlying the practice of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) often stand in stark contrast to the messages we receive in the culture at large — whether from our parents or teachers while growing up, or from the media or other cultural venues for the rest of our lives. They also, often enough, belie what we see around us in terms of human behavior. To take just one example, how much evidence do we see on a daily basis that would support the assumption that human beings enjoy giving? If we just look at how people behave, without adding layers of contextualizing their choices, there’s no question that the conclusion that people are selfish would be much more warranted.

Looked at from this angle, choosing to embrace Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is admittedly an outrageous proposition. Indeed, many people choose a very limited version of this practice, one that focuses pragmatically on seeing it as a set of skills designed to resolve conflicts. At the same time, I see people, repeatedly, be attracted to the all-encompassing vision that is implicitly painted by these assumptions even when they disagree with them. Often enough, I know of this inner struggle people have because they challenge me when I present NVC from the perspective of its underlying principles.

Sometimes the challenge takes the form of questioning whether NVC would work in this or that situation. Part of the difficulty stems from a misunderstanding of what it means for something like NVC to “work.” When parents bring up challenges with their children and express disbelief that it would “work,” it is a code word for “getting my child to do what I want” without recognizing sufficiently that the fundamental intention when bringing NVC into a situation or relationship is about making things “work” for everyone, which would include the child.

At other times, people triumphantly presented “proofs” that NVC doesn’t work. One of my recent entries was about one such example - the fact that “even” people with extensive NVC experience end relationships and go through breakups.

I also have my own anguishing examples: relationships I haven’t found ways of transforming or exiting; sour endings in relationships, both personal and work-related, that left my heart aching for imagining another outcome.

Friday, November 30, 2012

A Thread of Creative Hope

by Miki Kashtan

More often than I like, when I look around me, or hear the occasional news that breaks through my voluntary media fast, or in some other way come in contact with the world at large, my response to what I notice and observe is one of grief. This past week, three different pieces of news caught my fancy and brought a smile to my face. Then I saw a connecting link, and that’s when I decided to write about them here. 

Supporting Those Affected by Hurricane Sandy

For anyone who believes that Occupy is dead (I sort of did myself, with quite a bit of sadness), I urge you to learn about one of its latest incarnations. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, a massive grassroots effort in New York City that’s come to be known as Occupy Sandy emerged from the movement in order to support people who’ve been hit by the hurricane, especially in low-income areas. Rather than duplicating information that’s widely available elsewhere on the Internet, such as this on HuffPo, I want, instead, to highlight some of what’s been most striking for me about this initiative.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Holidays, Families, and Fairness

by Miki Kashtan

One “secret” about me that is quite well known to those who know me is that I actually know very little about mainstream media - television, most magazines, celebrities, and the like. So it would hopefully come as not too much of a shock to my readers that until today I didn’t know of the existence of Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, one of the better known advice columnists on the web. I became introduced when Dave Belden, who offers all manner of support with my creative projects (if you love the pictures on this blog, he’s the one who selects them, for example), sent me an exchange from her column and urged me to write a post about it.

Holiday Family Dinners

The exchange, which I copy below in its entirety (excerpted from this week’s Dear Prudence column), relates to the perennial challenge of political differences during holiday family dinners:

Q. Maybe a Not-So-Happy Thanksgiving?: I am recently married, and will be spending Thanksgiving with my new in-laws. They are a very, ultra conservative group and dislike our president. I, however, voted for him, and have tried to stay away from the political banter. My sister-in-law recently sent my husband a message asking if I was a "closet" Obama supporter. Quite honestly, it's none of her business, but I took it upon myself to respond to her directly instead of through my husband. I know she has told his family that I support Obama, and I know it will be an issue at Thanksgiving (we live four hours away from them). Luckily, my husband is amazingly supportive and has stated that he will stand by me no matter what. I'm just not sure how to handle his family. Thank you, I don't want a fight.
A: The answer to are you a "closet" Obama supporter is no, because you are a proud and open Obama supporter. You are also right that your political views are none of their business, unless they want to make it so. You and your husband need to plan this out before the assault on mashed potato hill. If you start being goaded you can say, "I know it's painful when your candidate loses, so let's talk about more pleasant things." Or, "I'm happy to discuss the issues, but probably everyone's digestion will be better if we don't." Ignore the random Obama put-downs—during them you can recite to yourself, "Yeah, and that's 332 electoral college votes for my guy." If it becomes intolerable your husband should be prepared to interject that it's time the subject got changed, and then ask what teams people think are going to the Super Bowl.

I’ve been asked questions similar to the above dozens of times. So much so, that I dedicated a segment of the Conflict Hotline to addressing this topic. I’ve witnessed so much pain in people related to this topic, and I want to support people in finding solutions that truly allow the warmth of family to be primary instead of the bitterness of disagreements to prevail. I am doing a segment of a teleclass about it in December through the NVC Academy.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Myths of Power-With: # 1 - Everyone Can Be Included

by Miki Kashtan

The terms power-over and power-with were coined in 1924 by a woman who has mostly been forgotten - Mary Parker Follett, while writing and lecturing about management theory and practice. Her approach, which centered on human relations and collaboration between management and workers, stood in stark contrast to the mainstream management practices of her day, which were rooted in what was then called scientific management, pioneered by Frederick Taylor

I don’t know, nor do I imagine it easy to trace, how these terms migrated far away from management theory into the realm of social justice movements. Along the way, they have acquired iconic status. Power-over has become a symbol of domination, is equated with hierarchy, and tends to be seen as “bad.” Power-with is promoted as the be-all and end-all of “good” practices, and is often equated with an absence of leadership. This has been a huge issue in the Occupy movement: its “leaderlessness” has been the source of both admiration and condemnation by its participants and those who wish it well but don’t join in.

I am embarking on writing this piece and sharing my thoughts about this topic with a fair amount of trepidation, the kind that comes from fear of upsetting people. Here is my dilemma: I am profoundly committed to using power with other people and not over other people. In fact, I am temperamentally averse to imposing anything on anyone. Nonetheless, over years working with groups, both within organizations and in community settings, I have come to believe that a certain rigidity surrounds these terms and results in loss of effectiveness for groups and causes I dearly want to see thrive.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Thoughts on Hospitals and Healing

by Miki Kashtan

For many hours every day for more than two of the last three weeks, I was in a hospital setting, supporting my beloved sister’s recovery from a major surgery. I have a lot of very personal experiences - of sorrow, helplessness, and moments of grace - that are now part of who I will forever be. This piece is about what I learned from all of this about why so many of us hate being in hospitals and what it would take to create hospitals that are truly designed to support healing.

Despite everything that I am about to say, I am confident that all of us who were with my sister during this time would rate the care we received as excellent. We were in a hospital ranked in the top 5% in the US. Nonetheless, my overall conclusion is that hospitals, as currently conceived and designed, are not conducive to healing. I have no research to cite for any of what I am saying, only my own deep intuitive humanity that speaks to me, my soul’s mourning about what I saw. This mourning is made especially poignant given that I have absolutely no doubt about the dedication, care, and commitment to the well-being of patients on the part of everyone we encountered while at the hospitals. I am not talking here about the rare individual whose spirit has been so damaged that they end up taking their suffering out on other people (commonly known as sadistic). I am talking about a system and a setup in which people whose hearts shine are unable to create a healing environment.

To clear up any confusion there may be, in talking about healing I am making a distinction between healing and curing. A quote from the book Choices in Healing, by Michael Lerner from Commonweal, an organization dedicated to individual and global health, might help make this distinction clearer: “A cure is a medical procedure that reliably helps you recover from an illness. Healing is an inner process through which the human organism seeks its own recovery--physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.” There is no question whatsoever that hospitals are places where people’s lives are routinely saved, where multiple diseases and conditions are treated with stunning success, and where everyone is committed to supporting such processes in happening.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Empathy Hurdles

by Miki Kashtan

A few months ago, my sister Arnina, who lives and teaches Nonviolent Communication in Israel (, was telling me about someone who had just taken an action that was very painful for her. Part of the pain, as is almost always the case in such situations, was caused by the familiar enigma: how could anyone do this? Then she said something that has stayed with me ever since: “I can explain his behavior, but I don’t understand it.” I have quoted her often, because this simple sentence captures, for me, the profound and slippery distinction between empathy and analysis. However compassionate our analysis might be, it remains external. We see from the outside. If we explain another’s behavior through knowing or imagining their personal history, or we do so by imagining what human needs could lead to the behavior we struggle to understand, we maintain some distance from their own lived experience. We don’t fill in the gap between the history and the present, or between the need and the particular choice of strategy to meet that need.

I want to hear others through the lens of the meaning their actions have for them rather than through the effect their actions have on me. The very root of empathy resides in this fundamental shift. Whenever someone’s actions are at odds with our own needs, most of us, most of the time, do the latter. In that way, we keep our attention on ourselves rather than on the other person. We cannot be in empathy when we are focused on how things affect us.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Visiting Europe

by Miki Kashtan


It’s never easy to visit Germany, not as an Israeli Jew, no matter how many years I’ve lived in the USA. The question is never far enough away to forget it: What did your parents do during the war? (or now it’s grandparents for some of those I meet). When I know that 90% of people supported Hitler, how can the question not be asked? At a workshop on the power of requests, it takes me the entire day before I can bring myself to tell the usual story about the power of requests based on the Oliners’ study of rescuers of Jews (for more details, see Tests of Courage, Part 2). I am in Germany, and the discomfort is bigger than my capacity, for most of the day. At night, sitting with friends over dinner, I allude to my general sense that the Germans haven’t really dealt with the Holocaust, not in a deep, significant way. I am met with vociferous disagreement, which dissolves when I explain what I mean. Have the Germans truly looked into what led so many people to be willing to participate? When I was in Dachau a number of years ago, the most intense aspect of it was how emotionally blank the entire exhibit was. I didn’t see any engagement, any sense of horror, only facts and figures. I do not have a facile belief that the Holocaust could only have happened in Germany. I do not believe there is something unique and horrible about Germany. I do believe that a certain culture of obedience, of following and admiring rules and order, is a part of what happened. Have Germans changed the way they raise their children? 

In an earlier visit, I stayed at someone’s home for a few days. She told me, on the first day, that she had moved back in with her parents, and described in moving detail how she now enjoys a relationship without limits, where they talk with each other about everything. Two days later, when the Question was finally asked, I learned that her parents apparently sided with the Nazis, and suddenly she was in intense discomfort, and told me how they have never once talked in full about the topic. How come this discomfort, this anguish she expressed and about which she cried, didn’t get included when she talked about their relationship two days earlier? She expressed gratitude to me for opening the door for her to look at the issues.
We agreed to stay in touch, and she didn’t. Months later she responded to an email and admitted it was tough for her to stay in touch. How could Germans completely heal from what happened to them without allowing such anguish to surface, without talking with all of us, the Jews and the others they harmed, without looking at their cultural habits, without looking directly and squarely at what hurts?

Friday, October 19, 2012

Punishment and Reward

by Miki Kashtan

I have been carrying a vivid memory with me for over 50 years. In it, my father is chasing me around the little circle of dining area, kitchen, corridor, and living room that existed in our apartment. In my memory, this has happened already, to me and to my older sister. I don’t know, in actuality, if it was a one-time event or recurring. As I am running away from him, I suddenly realize there is just no way I can manage to escape. He is bigger, and faster, and I am small, not as strong. Sooner or later he will catch up with me. I stop, crushed by the futility of the effort, and turn around to accept the inevitable slap in my face I know is coming. I stand in my small body facing him as he is coming my way. I close my eyes as tightly as I can, contracting the muscles around them, raise my face in his direction, and wait. The burning sensation of that slap is still imprinted on my cheek. More significant by far is the impossibility, to this day, of having a visceral understanding of how a grown man could look at his five year old daughter, see her stand the way I remember me standing, and still deliver the slap. What could possibly make it appear to be the right thing to do?

I have no awareness of what the “transgression” was that led to this event. I do know that making me submit to his will was a major project for my father. As it is for so many parents in relation to so many children.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Unique Privilege of Meaningful Work

by Miki Kashtan
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? -- Mary Oliver

Appalachian portrait by Stacy Lee Adams
After I wrote my previous post about privilege, I was more attuned to the presence of privilege in my life and around me. It is in the nature of privilege to remain invisible to those who have it, and I wanted to make use of my heightened awareness to expose and explore other forms of privilege. This brought me back to a topic I alluded to in a very early post about despair and never fully explored: the privilege of having work that emerges from passion, from a calling, from a sense of meaning. This is a form of privilege that cuts through social class, though also tends to align with class privilege.

Dreaming and Social Class

I remember years ago being paired up in a support group with a person who was raised in dire poverty in Appalachia. Our task was precisely to connect with dreams that we’ve had for our life, dreams we still wanted to accomplish. When it was my turn, I rattled off my dreams one after the other, and focused my attention on the wistfulness I felt about not seeing a way to fulfill them. When it was the other person’s turn, I encountered for the first time the possibility that anyone would have any challenge to even dream. Until that day, I was entirely unaware of the social privilege of being able to dream. I now know that far fewer people without access to external resources find their way to dreaming, let alone going for the dream. 

I have since learned, when I was in graduate school in particular, how much the schooling that people get in different social classes prepares them for their different presumed future lives. A fellow student was doing an observation study in two preschools, one serving an affluent community, and one serving a low income community. I was struck by the difference in what skills the kids were being taught. The low income preschool emphasized obedience and following rules. The higher income preschool taught the children to think for themselves how to work out situations. In a context of rule following and strict obedience, cultivating dreams is a luxury few can reach. When you add to that the enormous social obstacles that low income people have in terms of pursuing dreams, it’s no wonder that so few manage. How would anyone emerge into meaningful living when they have fewer inner resources to handle the bigger external obstacles?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Talking about Money and Privilege

by Miki Kashtan

Some time ago I was sitting with a group of Nonviolent Communication enthusiasts on a cold winter night, watching the fireplace crackle, eating, laughing, and talking. The group invited me to support their development as a leadership group of their community. A few years before they had gotten together to make NVC known and visible in their town. When I was visiting, they were celebrating their success, as more and more people in their town came to know about NVC through their efforts and have come to trainings they organize. Now they wanted to take their work to a new level, to break free of the social homogeneity of their group and its members, to reach into communities and populations they had not yet connected with. That was what they wanted my support for.

I regularly sit with groups like this in different places in the world. I also sometimes get emails and questions from people around the world. The enthusiasm, the vision, and the willingness to put energy and resources into work towards such dreams touch me deeply. This particular conversation was so extraordinary for me, that I feel moved to bring its content to others, changing circumstances and location so as to keep the anonymity of people and allowing them to do what I experienced as sacred work in peace.

I want this anonymity because we engaged with one of the biggest taboos in the country: money. It started out entirely innocuously, when I described to them my pet project (which I am inching my way to making more publicly known beyond just doing it myself) of a maximum wage campaign. The idea of it is simple: each person that wants to join the campaign decides - for themselves, without any hint of suggestions about it - what is the amount truly needed for them to have in order to sustain themselves and their families at a level that allows them to focus where they want to focus, and declare that to be their maximum wage. Any time they end up generating more income than their maximum, they pledge to give that amount away, to whatever cause they choose.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Tending or Ending a Relationship

by Miki Kashtan

A frequent belief that people have is that if we only had enough skill or the “right” attitude, we would never end any relationship. Indeed, I have had plenty of opportunities to hear people triumphantly present, as “proof” that Nonviolent Communication doesn’t work, the fact that “even” people with extensive NVC experience end relationships and go through breakups. In my view, learning Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is no guarantee for positive relationships. Moreover, I don’t consider ending a relationship to be a “failure” as some do. More important to me than whether people maintain relationships or bring them to closure is the question of how they reach those decisions and how they relate to each other while making them. 

Why Getting along Is Tricky

One of the essential insights that NVC presents is the distinction between our core needs and the strategies we employ for attending to our needs. Needs are finite and tend to be universal. I like to group them into four basic categories: subsistence and security, freedom, connection, and meaning. The current list that I like to use is slightly longer than a hundred. Strategies, on the other hand, are just about infinite. There are so many ways in which any of us can go about attempting to meet our need for meaning, for example; so many ways, varying by factors such as culture and location, that we recognize something as meeting our need for respect. Human variability, cultural norms, and getting along are all about strategies, not about needs.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Extraordinary Challenge of Wanting to Create Change, Part 2: Beyond the Personal

by Miki Kashtan

Last week I wrote about how we can approach individuals when we want to see change in their behavior. I ended with an exploration of relating to children, which can serve as a possible entryway into exploring change within organizations, the original context that started me thinking about this rich and difficult topic. The similarity between the context of organizations and the context of parenting has been striking to me. In particular, in both settings the power difference is vivid and clear, as is the expectation, common to both relationships, that the one with power is the one who knows what’s best.

Supporting Culture Change within Organizations

My recent work with organizations has been the direct catalyst of this entire line of inquiry. My intense inner engagement with the general question of how change comes about was precipitated by some challenging experiences I’ve had with one client recently. Specifically, I noticed that within one organization, where my charge is quite limited, the work I am doing is making more ripples, whereas in another organization, where I have been doing a much larger project, there have been significant obstacles. 

In both cases I am engaged with the CEO, the leadership team, and some other teams within the organization. In one case, the smaller project, I came in knowing that I was going to work within the existing paradigm of power. This is a service organization that has a fair amount of bureaucracy and established procedures for everything they do. When I meet with the leadership team, I am following their lead in terms of what they want, my only limit being my personal integrity, which has on occasion led me to express what I see and want to see happen in ways that have earned me a reputation within that organization of someone who is willing to speak truth. Within these constraints, I have managed to shift the internal dynamics within the teams I work with such that the administrative staff now participates in meetings rather than just observing and recording meeting notes. I have supported the creation of conditions that now allow for more conversation and trust within the leadership team, and I hear from the team that they are able to apply in other circumstances what they learn in the meetings I facilitate. There is more trust, and more collaboration is beginning, laterally and vertically. It’s a slow process, and yet I often leave my meetings almost elated, whether with one of the teams I support or with the CEO. I see change happening.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Extraordinary Challenge of Wanting to Create Change

by Miki Kashtan

In the last few days I’ve been almost haunted by realizing how often we want others’ behavior to change. We may want to see change in some small, annoying behavior that our child does, or a major harm created by the CEO of a transnational corporation. It has recently dawned on me that no matter the person or the behavior, creating change in another’s behavior is, in essence, a monumental task. And then again - why am I so surprised, when I know how difficult it is to create change within ourselves when we actively want to create such change? When, on top of how difficult creating any change is, we add the extra challenge that the other person may not want to create the change that we seek, it’s no wonder that we so often don’t manage to create the outcome we want outside ourselves.

I now believe that we can create change outside ourselves only if one of three conditions is in place. One is that we have enough resources at our disposal to stop the behavior that want to see changed, or to deliver such unpleasant consequences to the person doing it that they would choose to change. Another possibility is that the person recognizes a need of their own that motivates them to create the change we seek. And the last path is that through dialogue the person chooses to create the change because of care for our needs, or because of trust in our intentions for their well being. As someone who is committed to being a change agent, it’s quite humbling to recognize this. Humbling in particular because in my appetite for supporting change I am prone to attempting to stretch people into creating change beyond their own capacity to integrate it. If I truly take in what I am discovering, I may choose to change how I work for change, and, most certainly, my approach to working with others to support change in happening. I am early enough in my explorations about this that I don’t quite know yet how my work will be affected. For the moment, I am drawn to embarking on the exploration of what these conditions mean in three realms: personal relationships, organizational change, and social structural change. Given the bigness of this topic, I plan to focus, today, only on personal relationships, and come back next week to look beyond the personal.

When We Want Our Loved Ones to Change

Within our families and circle of friends, our clearest path to change is likely to be dialogue. I have long believed, and have experiences of it with several colleagues and my own housemate, that when two people have sufficient trust in their care for each other, a conversation about change in behavior can be relatively easy. The key is to be open to inquiry. If you do something I don’t like, there is no automatic formula about what would happen. I want to explore with you what it is that bothers me about the behavior and what it is that leads you to engage in the behavior. It’s only then, when we have that understanding deeply settled and trusted, that we can decide, together, whether you will change the behavior, I will adapt to it, or we will find a creative solution that transcends the either/or terms we began with. One of my little sorrows is knowing just how few people have experienced the magic that happens in such conversations when the goodwill is intact and the heart skills are there to support the flow of communication and connection. It’s not about having no conflict; it’s about having conflict that leads to more understanding and more satisfaction.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Who Benefits From Empathy?

by Miki Kashtan

When we are in conflict with someone, or are adversely affected by someone’s actions, even without personal interaction, or see others being adversely affected, our habit is often to pull back, close our hearts, create judgments about the other person, and all around make them less than human.

For me, for example, where I get completely lost, is whenever I interpret anyone’s behavior to mean that they don’t care. My entire life, as far back as I can remember, I’ve been profoundly affected by anything that registers in me as unkindness or lack of care. It’s only recently that I’ve been able to recognize the nature of the effect. It’s a shock to my system. Despite all I know about what human beings are sadly capable of inflicting on each other, I am still, somehow, shocked whenever I see any instance of it. My soul still refuses to believe, as it always has, that cruelty and unkindness truly happen.

It is not uncommon for me to receive several such shocks in the course a normal day. Almost anything can affect it. Sometimes it’s just seeing a tattoo, and thinking about the pain a person put their body through in order to have the tattoo. I could feel this shock when seeing someone throw something out through the window of a car into public space. Or when hearing someone say “I don’t care about how she feels!” I shudder when hearing someone make a joke at the expense of someone else or a group. I cringe in some movies when an audience laughs at a person designed to be made fun of because of their weight, and just thinking about what life is like for that person that would lead them to accept an acting role in which they know they will be made fun of, and why others find it funny. I feel this shock when I see, in many of the places I work with, how bosses talk about or interact with their employees. At times I feel this shock more than anywhere when I see how many parents respond to their children.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Some Thoughts about Trust

by Miki Kashtan

Trust, like safety, runs deep. When we don’t experience trust, as when we don’t experience safety, we shut down, protect, and hide our vulnerability. We also, in both cases, tend to place responsibility for our experience on the outside. It is extraordinarily challenging, when we don’t experience trust, to recognize it as our experience instead of assuming that whoever we are not trusting is simply not trustworthy. It is similarly difficult, when our experience tells us that we are not safe, to step outside of the conviction that “it” is unsafe to be where we are.

Before proceeding much further, I want to make it clear here that I am talking about trust and safety as they relate to the emotional and social aspects of life, and I am not addressing situations in which physical safety is at risk. Only a rare few of us are able to maintain choice and presence in the face of physical danger. As inspiring as such stories are, they are not within reach of most of us, and I am therefore choosing to exclude physical safety from what I am focusing on. That said, I nonetheless want to stress that my readings so far in life have led me to believe that the human possibility exists that even when what’s at stake is our physical safety, accepting our vulnerability and our ultimate inability to control ourselves or the environment, we often have more ability to transform our inner experience and to affect our outer environment.

From Trusting People to Trusting in Life

Some people are slow to develop trust. They check out new people for a while before lowering their guards and trusting them. Whether by grace or naïveté, my own responses have been different. I usually have a great deal of ease trusting people when I first meet them. I extend my heart, expect the best, get excited about possibilities, and open up fully.

Some people lose trust with someone instantaneously and have an extremely difficult time restoring it. I’ve had chilling experiences with people, times when I did something that affected another person negatively, and that was the end of any communication between us. Or times when one false move resulted in such profound loss of trust toward me that I couldn’t imagine what I could do to restore trust, ever. A distance descended on the relationship, either in the form of coldness, or in the form of avoidance of meaningful engagement, keeping things on a safe surface. I’ve also had experiences when people responded in dramatically different ways, and approached me to engage in order to restore trust, which we were then able to do.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Long Arc of Commitment

by Miki Kashtan

One of the challenges that many people must transcend along the way of integrating the radical freedom that living from within our needs spells is the temptation to ignore commitments we made at a certain point because of a more pressing and live need that arises in the moment. At a recent workshop, the difficult task of balancing spontaneity and intention came up. In the conversation that ensued we used a metaphor that helped us understand more fully both the challenge and what we can do about it.

Whenever we make a decision to do something to attend to a need or some needs, the metaphor goes, we are drawing an arc between the moment we are in and the completion of what the decision is about, ideally the fulfillment of those needs. If I decide to go to the market to get vegetables for dinner that arc is much shorter, and therefore closer to the ground, than the arc that would signify a decision to go to graduate school and get a Ph.D. in sociology. At any moment in time, any number of arcs are active at various places on the trajectory. I, the person who always decides what I do next, choose among the many of them which I will give my attention to. On the way to the market I encounter a friend I haven’t seen in years, and am faced with the choice of delaying the vegetables and the dinner they promise. While in graduate school I find myself impatient with the book I am reading for a seminar and I want to take a ride to the beach. Having decided that I want to dedicate my resources to supporting people working to transform the world, I am faced with an invitation to work with a corporation, at a time I am financially strapped.

What is it that helps me stay the course with the initial, longer arc, when the immediate needs keep arising? Is this even what I would want to do, in all circumstances? How do I discern fruitfully? “I am not a slave to my own decisions,” a friend said one day when he lit up a cigarette within days after deciding to quit. What does freedom really look like in those moments when an earlier decision that may no longer feel alive, relevant, or real, encounters an immediate call to our attention, another need that is born from within the flow and reality of the moment? It “feels”, often, freer to ignore the past decisions and only respond to what’s in the moment, one of the challenges that anyone who seriously applies themselves to the study of Nonviolent Communication learns sooner or later. Is that the real freedom, or is there another kind of freedom in being able to stay true to an earlier decision, to follow the arc of life inherent in the moment in which the commitment was made?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Our Habitual Responses to Authority

by Miki Kashtan

I have known for some time now that the models of authority and leadership we have inherited are deeply flawed and fully embedded in the either/or paradigm which underlies our way of living. We lack forms, models, and habits of collaboration which are essential for transforming the way we use power. I have looked at some of the dilemmas and challenges that this presents to any of us who take on responsibility and leadership anywhere and want to do it with care and integrity. One of the obstacles to collaborative leadership that I have looked at is the tragic phenomenon of pervasive disempowerment which makes the challenge of collaborating from above that much more difficult. People hear demands when they are asked to do something by a leader; they remain cynical about efforts to solicit their input and participation in decision-making; or they persist in not expressing themselves honestly even when a leader is committed to creating a no reprisal environment.

Once I began to recover from my despair about not finding ways of changing relationships with people from my own position of limited power, I recognized, sadly, that the same forces that shape how those in power act also shape our responses to those in power. Unless we put deliberate attention into it, we accept without much questioning the notions of power that have been handed down to us as the only version of power there is. When I lead workshops about power, I almost invariably find that people have a deeply suspicious relationship to power. Invariably, this has been because of what they associate with power: lack of care for others, top-down unilateral decision-making, and power-over relationships. We accept, in particular, another either/or aspect of the prevalent power paradigm: that the only possible responses to power are submission or rebellion.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Are Judgments Wrong?

by Miki Kashtan

This piece was born out of my ongoing confusion about how to talk about the vision of living beyond right and wrong thinking. Two questions repeatedly arise, and I am not always satisfied with my responses to them. As different as they may seem, both, to me, are indicative of the same challenge. One question is some version of: “Are you saying that it’s OK to kill someone?” The other takes the form of: “Aren’t you saying that judgments are wrong?” My one word answer to both of them is simply “no.” So, what, then, am I saying?

Our Words Have Consequences

My rather arbitrary starting place in disentangling the many threads in this knot is to explore the significance of our choice of words. Saying that something is “wrong”, or “right”, or “beautiful”, for that matter, has consequences for the speaker as well as for the person hearing the words. This form of speaking assumes a standard of what these words mean that is external to the speaker and the listener. The speaker is not taking full responsibility for being the one making that judgment. The listener is subtly invited to agree with the speaker rather than to understand the speaker. The ensuing conversation, if one takes place, is less likely to be one of exploration and connection than one of making pronouncements and, in the case of disagreement, debate, possibly acrimony.

If, instead, the speaker speaks of their experience, what they say becomes incontrovertible and invites a different quality of relating. No one can argue with me about whether or not I liked a certain movie. Anyone could argue with me about whether or not this was a bad movie. Speaking of our own experience, our own inner frame of meaning, and taking responsibility for that being my frame instead of some truth that lives outside of me, has different effects.

For myself, based on years of learning, practicing, and teaching, I can say with definite clarity that I prefer the consequences of speaking without judgments to what happens when I use judgment words. The quality of connection and dialogue, and the capacity of people to work together to create something they can both live with, increase with the former. In part, this is because saying things from a personally owned perspective tends to be more vulnerable and therefore, again in my experience, invite a response that is also more vulnerable. In part, this is because when the speaker expresses things in that way, there tends to be more of an explanation of a “why” that the other side can then relate to.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Would You Help Support Our Work?

by Miki Kashtan

In a recent post I mentioned that we have had a serious crisis here at Bay Area Nonviolent Communication (BayNVC), the organization I co-founded ten years ago. I expect some people who read this blog have not heard about this crisis, as I have not previously written about it here. The organization is recovering extraordinarily well: we have restructured our operations to operate within our means and, thanks to an amazing response to our fundraising efforts, have already retired about 60% of our debt.

But we still have a ways to go and I realize that some who read my posts might like to support either my writing and work specifically or the work of BayNVC in general. We have set up a way for you to give regularly -- even as little as a few dollars a month on a regular basis would be a huge help, both for retiring our debt and for creating the new ways we want to bring Nonviolent Communication to the world.

My own writing and work: Although some people do make income from blogging, this has not been true for me. If you like what you’re reading here I’d love you to consider giving a regular monthly amount. I’m also deeply involved in writing books: I have just fully come to terms in the last week with the realization that the book I wrote last year, Reweaving Our Human Fabric, is actually four books, as I prepared volumes two through four for a publisher who is considering the first one. There are six more books on other topics in the pipeline! More and more, I am called to writing as a way to reach many more people than I can reach through teaching.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

All At Once

by Miki Kashtan

On my post this past week I wrote about my desire "to enjoy in full and mindfully the good times, and to accept and savor the bad times." I was delighted to see that in his comment a reader, Ron Greenstein, included the lyrics to a song he had composed, "For Each Hill", about accepting the good times and bad times, the sane times and mad times. In response I want to offer this poem of mine, which I have never before shared publicly.

All At Once


Across centuries and continents
the web of life is holding us
unknown to each and all.
We are never all asleep
or all awake.
Someone is always carving a face
in a stone, from the Earth.
Someone is always selling a face
to another.
Someone is always smiling
someone is crying.
Endless rows of cars flow incessantly
while a million nimble hands are
creating toys
caring for those who cannot.
All at once.
Bombs fall and
babies are born
birds and animals wither away
covered with spilled oil
never able to know why
and some awaken to life
and understand for the first time.
All at once.
One kills
and one tends to the wounds.
All at once.
The ocean rises up and 10000 are wiped out
and grace visits others.
All at once.
All at once.
The scream in me
explodes and reverberates
echoes from mountain tops
descends into the rivers
floats into the ocean
which still cannot quiet it down.
So loud that
the music of the gods
comes in barely audible.
I cannot remember the time
before the scream but
I know the smell
of the freedom beyond it.

Miki Kashtan, Oakland, July 27, 1996

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Global Art Project: The Dragonfly

by Miki Kashtan

For years I've been quoting Sharif Abdullah (at left) and referring people to his book Creating a World that Works for All

He recently posted a blog entry in which he describes a fictional global cooperation project that touched me so much that I want to share it with those who read my blog and may not know of his. 

Here are the first few paragraphs:

The Global Art Project:  The Dragonfly  

[Most of the time, my topics are deadly serious.  However, that’s not the only kind of writing I do.  I’d like to share a piece I wrote awhile ago, the seriousness hidden inside the humor.  It’s actually based on a dream!  It was nice waking with a smile on my face, having dreamt this!]  


Imagine a delicate dragonfly, with glass wings, a metal body and spindly metal legs.  It’s thin, outstretched wings shimmer iridescence in the sunlight.

Now, imagine this dragonfly 100 miles long and 75 miles wide.  You see it above you in the sky, because it’s in low Earth orbit.  The first global work of art.

What did it take to create the dragonfly?

All it took total human cooperation.  All of the nations of the Earth had to come to consensus.  It took most of the productive output of humanity for 50 years.  For decades, all the people of the Earth had to work on Project Dragonfly.

All of the money, every penny of it, that was spent on killing and oppressing other humans was diverted to Project Dragonfly.  (This provided more than enough money for several dragonflies.)

Read the rest here.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Demon of Doing Well

by Miki Kashtan

Some time in May, it became clear to all of us at BayNVC, the organization I co-founded in 2002, that we were in such financial difficulty, that even after laying off three of four remaining administrative employees, including the executive director, we were facing a significant debt, much of which was to me or in my name (you can read more about what happened, and how we are responding to this crisis, here). This came at a time when I was very depleted and in need of a break from responsibility. The level of crisis I felt was acute, sharp, visceral. It affected me physically with unprecedented intensity of stress. One of the more challenging aspects of my experience was the utter sense of helplessness, seeing no way in which I could make any choice that would attend to the magnitude of the crisis and still attend to my longing for balance, for a way to care for myself.

Taking on responsibility for the whole is part of how I respond to crisis, personal or otherwise, so it’s no surprise to me that it took four weeks to envision a different path forward, one I could embrace with integrity, which took me towards releasing myself from responsibility. It took another four weeks, and much inner work, both conscious and unconscious, to regain my sense of freedom, to see a way that I could focus on what was most important to me with far less cost. Meanwhile, the most immediate initial ripples of the crisis were subsiding. Fundraising efforts and other ingenious ideas were beginning to bear fruit. The group of collaborative trainers working with BayNVC coalesced into a sweet community forging a way forward together, making decisions that made sustainability possible. Some conflicts that emerged during the transition were dissolving, and new opportunities began to emerge.

Then, one morning, I woke up feeling good. The sense of crisis was gone. I felt back in my life, full of energy and a sense of possibility. Challenge was still there, and it didn’t detract from this fundamental sense of well-being. Then, immediately in the wake of this lovely feeling, I was filled with dread about the next bad thing that was going to happen. This experience filled me with sadness, even though I understand the many experiences in life that created this expectation within me. The sadness is not because I have any illusion that there could ever be good times that would just last forever. Rather, I was sad because I wanted to be able to enjoy my well-being while it lasted instead of losing it right away because of the fear of losing it later.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Expanding the Circle of Care

by Miki Kashtan

Q: What is the ultimate in codependence? A: You’re drowning, and somebody else’s life is flashing in front of you. So runs a joke that captures something fundamental about so many people’s difficulties in putting their own life, needs, and well-being at the center of their attention.

At some point in my life in the early nineties, someone suggested to me that I might want to consider the possibility that I was codependent myself. Because some people very close to me were getting tremendous benefit from other 12-step programs, I decided to check it out. Knowing that I was likely to be skeptical and not see benefit, I decided, before even attending the first meeting, that, regardless of how I felt about it, I would attend one weekly meeting for two months straight before evaluating. At the end of the two months, I left the group. The choice to dedicate these weeks to that group was nonetheless hugely beneficial to my learning. What I learned on the very personal level was that I didn’t see myself sharing many behavioral patterns with the members of the group. I could see their shared experiences, and they were different enough from mine that I didn’t see that I would benefit from staying. “Codependence” was simply not my issue. I appreciated the freedom I got through that.

I also came to understand, through being in that group, something about the power of 12-step programs to bring about miraculous change in people’s lives. From my own small experience then, as well as what I’ve heard from others over the years, I now see at least three factors that combine in that: a community that people can truly feel at home in; a degree of acceptance of human fallibility that makes room for everyone, regardless of where they are on their path; and a commitment to honesty and deep sharing that supports truth and learning. I was and am in awe of what these groups can offer people who are isolated and in deep need of transformation.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Eliminating Feedback Loops at Our Peril

by Miki Kashtan

Long as my recent entry about interdependence was, at one point it was even longer, because it included an entire additional section I had written about the role of feedback loops in supporting the interdependent web of life that we are part of, and about how modern life has been eliminating and masking feedback loops. The irony of cutting out a piece that was about eliminating feedback loops is only now becoming apparent to me.

The word feedback, which originated in 1920 in the field of electronics, has expanded its meaning widely to refer to almost any mechanism by which information about the effect of an activity or process is returned and thereby can affect the activity or process. Such feedback loops are built into the way that natural systems work, and they affect all life forms at all levels. Natural selection, as one example, is based on continual feedback in the form of which individual organisms make it long enough to reproduce. Whole populations of species grow and diminish based on such feedback loops. As food sources dwindle, a population dies out and as predators are removed from an ecosystem, a population of animals can increase. In places where predators don’t exist, a species can literally take over, as has happened with several introductions of non-local species that are destroying previously existing balances.

Our own human species, in relation to nature, has systematically endeavored to control nature with the desired effect of exactly those two outcomes: eliminating all of our predators, from large mammals to microbes, and expanding our food supply through the practice of agriculture and factory farming of animals. The result has, indeed, been a massive explosion of the human population to the point of threatening the continued existence of our civilization as we know it.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Tenderness and the Tragic Lens

by Miki Kashtan

It is in the nature of my work that people bring to me those situations that challenge them beyond what they are able to handle with their own skills. More often than not, I have the joy of supporting them in finding a way to go back to the situation and respond in a new way, with more love or understanding for another, with more willingness to express some previously hidden truth, or with more capacity to attend to everyone’s needs. From time to time, a situation that someone presents to me is such that I, too, don’t see a way that it can be handled externally. Sometimes, the only place where we can effect any transformation is internally, in how we frame a situation to ourselves. Since we are, as I often see it, meaning-making creatures, what we tell ourselves about a situation can radically alter our experience. 

One frame I find to have extraordinary potential for such inner transformation is the tragic lens. It’s a soft and loving approach which dissolves the stiff walls we hold up in protection from life, that softly embraces everyone and extends tenderness to insurmountable obstacles we encounter along the way to living a conscious and human life.

Understanding the Tragic Lens

Recently, during a call that’s part of my teleclass series based on this blog, I had one such opportunity to engage with a man, let’s call him Ben, who was facing a situation with so much challenge for so many people, that the tragic lens was my best offer to him. I suggested that embracing a situation as tragic rather than wrong allows us to mourn it, and in that way liberates us. It took some effort. Initially, Ben, like so many of us, couldn’t separate “tragic” from “wrong,” and remained outraged and helpless. He couldn’t see his way to having empathy for the person in his situation whose actions most affected the whole group. Gradually, he discovered that he didn’t have to first receive empathy for himself so he could let go of his reactivity. Instead, he saw the possibility that the tragic lens, which holds compassion for our human fallibility, all of us at once, could support him in finding tenderness for everyone in the group. The man in question would surely be horrified at the effect he was having on others if he had the capacity to open himself up to the feedback others were attempting to give him before they lost their cool and reacted to him, one after the other. He couldn’t, because the amount of mourning he would need to encounter would knock him out. The people who had been trying to give this man feedback and disappeared into rage and threats instead would surely vastly prefer to find a way to stay connected with him so they could be effective in transforming his behavior which had been so destructive for the group. And Ben himself, as someone committed to Nonviolent Communication with all its attendant intention to make things work for everyone, would surely prefer to have found an empathic way to respond to all, including himself.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Choosing Interdependence

by Miki Kashtan

Sisters Inbal and Miki Kashtan spoke together, Monday, on
interdepedence to launch the BayNVC Telesummit.
See below for a free recording.
Many spiritual traditions converge with certain aspects of modern science in a basic understanding of life as one interdependent whole. In the natural world, for example, if predators are removed from an ecosystem, the herbivores multiply beyond the available grass and the entire ecosystem is endangered. Our global economy is now recognized to be interdependent as well: if one country falls into an economic crisis, a cascading effect can destabilize the entire global economy. On the human plane, recent developments in neuroscience lead many to conclude that our apparently separate brains are interwoven: others’ responses and expressions affect us in a direct way through mechanisms such as the firing of mirror neurons. These phenomena and so many others are examples of interdependence as a fact of life.

At the same time as our awareness of this level of interdependence is growing, our capacity as individuals to engage in behaviors that recognize and engage with our interdependence is diminishing. Interdependence as a practice invites us to consciously engage with ourselves and others in ways that honor and nurture our connection with all of life.

From Self-Sufficiency to Self-Responsibility and Self-Reliance

“Each of us lives in and through an immense movement of the hands of other people. The hands of other people lift us from the womb. The hands of other people grow the food we eat, weave the clothes we wear, and build the shelters we inhabit. The hands of other people give pleasure to our bodies in moments of passion, and aid and comfort in times of affliction and distress. It is in and through the hands of other people that the commonwealth of nature is appropriated and accommodated to the needs and pleasures of our separate, individual lives. And, at the end, it is the hands of other people that lower us into the earth.” -- Jim Stockinger