Thursday, May 31, 2012

Dialogue, Power, and Nonviolent Resistance

by Miki Kashtan

It is not non-violence if we merely love those that love us. It is non-violence only when we love those that hate us. -- Gandhi

Painting these watercolor portraits of Gandhi helped
Malekeh Nayiny find an inner path toward healing.
From the Tikkun Daily Art Gallery.
I have been thinking, for years now, about Gandhi’s invitation to be nonviolent in thought, word, and action. It’s only this past week that it finally dawned on me that in many instances, nonviolence in action is easier than nonviolence in word, which in turn is easier than nonviolence in thought. Many more groups and individuals worldwide, for example, have refrained from physical violence when engaging in social change action while at the same time harboring hatred of those in positions of power. For an extreme example, most people don’t kill anyone even though it’s known that many people entertain fantasies of killing. Our habitual thoughts are deeply ingrained, and require ongoing active and conscious practice to transform. I am not surprised to discover that both Gandhi and Martin Luther King, in different ways, wanted their biggest legacy to be how they lived much more than their external achievements.

As I think about what it means to live in a nonviolent way, I keep coming back to the clear insight I’ve had that all of us can be nonviolent when everyone does exactly what we want them to do. The test of our nonviolence is precisely when people do things we don’t like. Whether individuals in our personal life, co-workers, people we supervise, or bosses at work, or those with significant economic, social, or political power - the challenge is the same. Something profoundly changes when we take on loving everyone. This love is of a unique kind. It isn’t about wanting to be everyone’s friend. It’s not even about liking what people do. For me, it’s about two core bottom commitments. One is to maintain complete awareness of that person’s humanity, and therefore uphold their dignity in all our choices about how to respond. The other is to continually aim for solutions that attend to that person’s needs, as best we understand them. Both of these are internal matters, and they tell us nothing about the specific kinds of actions to take in response to what we don’t like. At the same time, those intentions completely affect how we might choose to respond in those times when someone else’s actions are at odds with our own human needs. 

Friday, May 25, 2012

More about Bullying

by Miki Kashtan

“There are people in this world who can show their wounds only by inflicting them.” 
-- Aurora Levins-Morales, Medicine Stories
I have been deeply touched by the many responses to my recent post about bullying. So many questions and topics have come up, that rather than responding to specific comments, I thought I would collect them and respond in one post. I see the entire question of bullying as deeply significant, capturing in it so much of what I want to transform in how we overall relate to each other in the world, and to our children in particular. I imagine that every child learns deep lessons from the prevalence of bullying and from seeing how bullying is handled. I want those lessons to be ones that will support them in trusting the possibility of workable systems and human relations, and in their own capacity to make a positive difference in life around them. If even a few parents or teachers are inspired to shift the environment within which bullying happens, it would give me the satisfaction of having made a difference myself. My hope and vision are far bigger, which if you read this blog regularly you already know anyway…

My Own Path
I was asked how I was able to transcend what happened to me and come to a place of being open and vulnerable. I am not surprised this question is coming up. I have pondered some version of this question for years. It seems big and huge to me. While it seems pretty commonly accepted these days that people who act violently toward others were themselves previously traumatized and often abused, it is equally clear that not all those who are abused pass the violence on to others. If I understood fully what made it never appealing for me to inflict harm on others, not even in my fantasies, perhaps I could use this understanding in supporting others. Why is it that what was most painful for me was my inability to understand why anyone would treat me, or anyone else, the way I was treated? Much more painful than the actual experience of leaning against a tree all night and shivering. The more I am able to understand, the more calm there is in my heart.

My friend Aurora Levins-Morales, poet and writer extraordinaire, wrote in her book Medicine Stories about having been tortured as a child, and knowing that her only way to remain human was to resist the temptation to hate her torturers. She understood, even while it was happening, that hating them was the first step toward becoming like them. I feel fortunate never to have hated those who tormented me.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Embracing Nonviolence

by Miki Kashtan
When I discovered Nonviolent Communication (NVC) in 1993, I had no concept of the rich world that would open up to me over time. My intellectual and moral lenses were transformed beyond recognition through this encounter with NVC. When I thought of what to write my Ph.D. dissertation about, NVC informed me every step of the way as I critiqued, then offered alternatives to, theories of human nature that we have been handed down through millennia of Western Civilization. I found satisfying ways of articulating a perspective rooted in NVC, which transcended and integrated the age old dichotomy of reason and emotion and offered a theory of human nature grounded in human needs. Unlike just about anyone I ever met, I loved writing my dissertation and was sad to be done. It’s only in the last couple of years, ten years after completing my dissertation, that I have come back to writing. 

Immersing myself in NVC also became my calling. Many people don’t know that I used to be a computer programmer in a software house in NY, working on IBM mainframes. I was still doing part-time computer consulting when I stumbled on NVC. Two years later, when I had a deep visceral experience of the transformative power of NVC-based empathy, I decided on the spot to focus my life energy on bringing this gift to others. NVC is my livelihood, it grounds my vision for how the world could be, and affects every thought and interaction that I am conscious of. 

At the heart of these massive changes was the transformation of my own thought process, understanding, and style of interacting with others. Early on I took on what I now name the path of vulnerability, my main access to inner and outer transformation. Fewer and fewer things get me off balance as I continue on this path. I can meet more and more people and situations with presence, clear choice, and tenderness. I can open my heart to almost everyone in almost every circumstance, even if not immediately. I can accept almost everything that happens to me (not yet in the world at large). Life hasn’t become less painful, because the gap between vision and reality remains big, both personally and globally, and because I continue to feel lonely despite everything. With, through, and despite the pain I am more at peace, more open to life and to myself, more available. I like who I have become.  

For many of these years, even though I was conscious of the name, I was conspicuously ignorant of the tradition of nonviolence from which NVC emerged. For a long time I was one of the people who thought that “nonviolent” was a negation and wished for a different name. I don’t remember exactly how all this shifted, how my world exploded and expanded. Three milestones were Michael Nagler’s  Is There No Other Way, Walter Wink’s The Powers That Be, and the movie A Force More Powerful (a book by the same title also exists). Some bottom fell from under me, and I found myself in a much bigger ocean of meaning and possibility. What it means to be human became larger. Nonviolence became bigger than communication. Gandhi’s notion that nonviolence extended to our thought, word, and action began to make sense. Especially understanding how much our thoughts were implicated in our words and our actions. 

This exploration has been so rich, that I still make new discoveries just about any time I teach any part of this work, most of the times when I write, and even when I interact meaningfully with others about any of the deep questions that fuel my quest. Whereas I used to be concerned about the “Nonviolent” part of NVC, nowadays I am in love with that word, and my concern has shifted to the “Communication” part of NVC. I no longer think of NVC as primarily about communication. I think of it as a deep and endlessly concrete practice of nonviolence with applications in most areas of human life, such as our spiritual life, our moral codes, how we interact and collaborate with ourselves and each other, and how we can create organizations and even larger systems that are designed to support human needs. This is not nearly an exhaustive list. 

And what is nonviolence, then? For me, nonviolence is the coming together of love, truth, and courage in a fierce commitment to what my tradition of birth, Judaism, calls Tikkun Olam: the healing and repair of the world. In small or large measure, nonviolence for me is about finding the courage and love to bring truth in times when what is happening is violating our values and interfering with our own or others’ human needs. It’s the willingness to stand up for what’s of value to us while remaining open-hearted towards those who see things differently. It’s the antidote to the consciousness of separation, scarcity, and powerlessness that leads almost all of us almost all the time to go along with systems and practices we know don’t serve life. 

I am excited, after all this extensive exploration and study over years, to offer a first course (a four session telecourse starting this Thursday at 4pm Pacific Time, open to anyone, through NVCA) that explores the relationship between NVC and nonviolence. I am imagining it as an opportunity for nonviolence enthusiasts to learn about NVC as a practice that can enhance their path, for NVC enthusiasts to learn about the tradition and context that can give a new layer of meaning to their practice, and for both to learn from each other. It matters to me, because the only way I can imagine to reach a livable future for all is based on nonviolent means.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Ruminations on Romney: Bullying through a Compassionate Lens

by Miki Kashtan

For most of my years in school, I was ostracized, teased, and tormented by others. More often than not I wasn’t invited to participate in anything social, be it play or, later, parties. This went on for years, with two periods that stand out in particular. Before I was eleven, I was blackmailed by a classmate for three months, and subsequently banned for some weeks by everyone in my class, at which time only one brave girl would sneak to my home to play with me. Then, when I was thirteen and lived with my family in Mexico, I was continually tormented and taunted by others and saw swastikas on the blackboard that were hastily erased when a teacher would come. At one time I was locked out by a group of girls who didn’t want me to be part of their cabin, and I was all alone all night, leaning against a tree and shivering. 

Miki at thirteen (front row, second from left) amidst her tormentors and other classmates.
The word “bully” hadn’t existed in my world at the time. I had no context for making sense of the trauma I endured. Like so many people who suffer at the hands of others, I didn’t talk to anyone about it at the time and had no hope of being understood. Today, the phenomenon is widely recognized as a major stressor in children’s lives. The Bully Project estimates that thirteen million children are going to be bullied this year. One study indicates that 88% of children have observed bullying, and 42% in one poll of those who attended health ed centers admitted to having participated in bullying others. These numbers are staggering.

Despite this growing awareness, most children still don’t talk about bullying. In a survey of US middle and high school students, “66 percent of victims of bullying believed school professionals responded poorly to the bullying problems that they observed.” Others provided other reasons for not talking about it, such as feeling shame at not being able to stand up for themselves, fearing they would not be believed, not wanting to worry their parents, having no confidence that anything would change as a result, and even thinking their parents’ or teacher’s advice would make the problem worse. 

Current Responses to Bullying

I can see why the children don’t trust the adults. So often the response to bullying is one of belittling of the issue, as can be seen in Mitt Romney’s response to the allegations about his high school bullying, and in the attitudes of many other adults, even teachers and administrators. “Kids will be kids,” they say, or they look at bullying as indistinguishable from teasing and mostly harmless. At times the suffering of those bullied gets minimized, which only contributes to the shame they already carry about their experiences. For years after my own devastating experiences, I kept thinking that other people suffered much more than me. It took years for me to understand the full extent of the trauma I had experienced. 

At other times, the response is harsh and punitive. The bully as a person is seen as a problem. Here’s one troubling example. Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist, organized a writing contest for school students about bullying. In an op-ed this week, he said about the essay writers who had been bullied: “You want to reach out to these kids and envelop them in a big warm hug and tell them that they are smart, sensitive human beings, a thousand times better than their tormenters.” I am troubled by this response. I want to ask, isn’t Kristof bullying the bullies by describing them this way in the nation’s leading newspaper? I would be hard pressed to believe that any change in the amount of bullying would arise from this characterization of bullies. Even more troubling is reading the winning essay, in which one girl describes her bullies as having “the self-entitlement of a celebrity heiress and the aggression of a Roman gladiator. Like vampires, they feed off the blood of the weak. They’re pubescent monsters.” This writing, to me, does not characterize a smart, sensitive person. Rather, I see in it the self-protective, separating, and angry response that can only perpetuate the atmosphere of violence.

“Zero-tolerance” policies leave no one safer. Bullies are sent home without any support for understanding their behavior and its effects. A dear friend of mine told me about his experiences as a young boy in England, years ago: “I was as highly principled as they come but had an episode of being a bully for some weeks at an earlier age, around ten, I think, punching a slow boy who didn't retaliate, until his parents saw the bruises and I was called in to the principal's office, and that scared me because I didn't understand it. I feared myself thereafter. No one knew what to do to help me understand it.” 

Alex (at left), one of the bullied children in the movie Bully, provides a powerful window into the experience of bullying: “They punch me in the jaw, strangle me, they knock things out of my hand, take things from me, sit on me. They push me so far that I want to become the bully.” A full two thirds of attackers in school shootings had previously been bullied. More recently, we have a dramatic illustration from nature that the cycle of abuse is not just a human phenomenon. A New York Times article reports research on a species of birds that are aggressive or sexual toward unrelated young. Researchers “found high correlations between the amount of aggressive behavior demonstrated by the adults and the amount of abuse they had endured as nestlings.” 

Humanizing Everyone

A way out of either belittling or punishing bullying is to understand that bullying is a community affair, not an individual aberration. Since the problem affects everyone, let’s put in place preventive and restorative solutions that attend to everyone’s needs.

Everyone in a school community needs safety, which can be provided by changing the factors in the environment, such as increasing adult supervision, staggering recess and lunch, and implementing measures to respond swiftly and compassionately to bullying once it happens. 

A bullied child needs empathic adults and friends who can help her or him speak up and move towards finding supportive friends and inner confidence—complex abilities that few of us can develop without help. 

Compassion doesn’t mean accepting the behavior. It does mean accepting the child who engages in it. A child who bullies also needs support for a culture change to happen.  Those who bully are usually shamed and judged by others. That punitive kind of response deprives them of opportunities to understand themselves and to learn about their own needs. They need empathic friends and adults who can help them grasp why they are choosing this behavior, and what they can do instead. 

Instead of classifying bullying as a crime, as proposed in one Canadian blog site, compassionate community approaches find ways to gain a deeper understanding of what causes bullying in the first place, and what can be done to restore trust once bullying has happened. Punishment does not restore trust. More often than many of us would like to believe it plants or waters seeds of future violence, because it contributes to shame and self-loathing, fertile ground for violence to grow in. 

Since often what people who engage in harmful behavior lack is empathic understanding of the effect of their actions, restorative justice seeks to bring those who harm together with those who have been harmed. As one principal of a middle school in San Francisco said in a Greater Good article about the Romney incident, “We’re human beings, we’re going to have a sense of compassion for this person that we harmed, once we have a chance to see how our actions made them feel.”  [Photo: A listening adult ear: Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth director, Fania Davis, with 10th Grader Jihad Seymour, in a still from a forthcoming film by Cassidy Friedman, Stories Matter Media.]

I want to emphasize again that letting go of a punitive response does not mean accepting the behavior. We can all respond to incidents of violence in ways that restore trust and respect, rather than create further hurt by demonizing and punishing those who bully.

The success of programs such as Roots of Empathy and the extensive research about the cycle of abuse and the deep links between shame and violence lead me to a deep faith that the failure of our times is a failure in empathy rather than a loosening of strict control. We are bombarded by images which glorify violence even as we are admonished against it. We are provided with fewer and fewer avenues for loving connection with others. It is not cool to express affection, whether for teens in school or for all of us at work, for example. What can we do to increase the overall kindness of our culture? How can we provide children, whether bullied, witnesses, or current and former bullies, with avenues to explore their true human needs and develop strategies to meet them that are embedded in human relationships? I so deeply want to strengthen the fabric of our interrelatedness so we can nurture all children.

A last word about Romney: Given his visibility as the presumptive Republican candidate for the Presidency, the community affected by his long-ago actions now appears to be the entire population of the US. What can Romney do that would restore trust? I wish he could recognize the momentous opportunity he has to engage in a restorative process, even after the person he is alleged to have tormented is now dead. He could visibly and publicly open his heart to the horror in which he participated and take ownership of it instead of dismissing it as a prank that went too far. He could, conceivably, provide a window into what the inner experience of participating in such an act feels like, so others who bully could possibly understand themselves better. Such an act could humanize him, others, and ultimately all of us. 

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Why Does It Take so Long?

by Miki Kashtan

In my last post I wrote about some of the ways that I see Nonviolent Communication (NVC) as being remarkably practical. That piece was set up as a response to the frequent critiques of NVC that come my way, sometimes even from long-time NVC enthusiasts. In this post I want to address this critique from a different angle. 

I have, indeed, often seen dialogues that take way longer than I would anticipate, even with support from an experienced NVC mediator or facilitator. I know of people who have given up on certain relationships or groups they were part of, despite making ongoing attempts to connect and reach mutual understanding. I have seen many times decisions about seemingly small items take so long that many wished someone would just dictate the outcome instead of the agonizing attempt to get everyone’s needs on the table. What is going on in all of these situations?

Lack of Trust
Undoubtedly there are many different reasons and issues at play in each situation. My own experience leads me to a strong suspicion that a major contributor to this difficulty is the degree to which so many of us live with a permanent sense of mistrust. Just last week I was present for a situation between two friends and business partners who clearly love each other and nonetheless operate in a mutually antagonistic way about their business. I was astonished by how each of their attempts to protect and guard their own needs resulted in more stress for the other, who then proceeded to guard their own needs even more strongly. Trust, especially the foundational trust that we matter, appears to me to be a sine qua non for the possibility of resolving conflicts, reaching agreements, making collaborative decisions, or any other endeavor that includes within it the possibility of difference and disagreement. 
Tuesday evening, during the discussion of my previous blog post that took place as part of my weekly telecourse on the topics of this blog, I became even more clearly aware of this dynamic as one person after another spoke about the ease with which they lose their emotional balance in difficult situations. That ease, in my view, is rooted in the lack of trust that our needs would matter, and hence an intensity of protectiveness around them. Learning to make NVC more practical, then, is about cultivating inner trust as well as recognizing others’ lack of trust, and aiming to nurture both while engaging in any challenging conversation.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Is NVC Practical?

by Miki Kashtan

One of the most common critiques I hear of Nonviolent Communication is that it’s simply not practical. “It would be great if this can work,” the line often goes. “Too bad that in my (school, family, organization) we don’t have the luxury of taking all this time to do all this endless dialogue that it takes to get anywhere. No one would have the patience, anyway.”

I have my thoughts about why working things out for everyone’s benefit takes as long as it often does and how to shift out of those challenges. I plan to write about it in a blog post soon. For now, I want to highlight three areas in which I see the use of NVC as directly contributing to movement. So practical, in fact, that I sometimes wonder how anyone can get anything done without this support.

Resolving Inner Conflict
My experience of working with people in diverse situations over the years has shown me that more often than not our inner conflicts are equally if not more distressing to us than our outer conflicts. Inner conflicts take many forms. It can be a decision that we can’t make, a painful inner loop of self-criticism followed by impatience with ourselves for still criticizing ourselves, regret about something we did that we can’t seem to come to peace about, or a host of other equally familiar ones. Even our outer conflicts are often intertwined with our inner life, since our reaction to others is fundamentally more the expression of our own meaning-making than a direct result of anything the other person  does.

I have seen both myself and others reach fast and lasting relief, even from ongoing issues, by applying the core practice of NVC which makes everything else possible: being able to name and make full emotional contact with the needs that give rise to the various thoughts, images, inner demands, judgments, or even fears that we carry internally. When I was agonizing for weeks with the decision about whether or not to continue to lead the BayNVC Leadership Program, I went back and forth without much progress until I listened fully to all the different voices inside myself. Once all the needs were on the table, I was able to make a decision easily and gently in less than an hour. What makes this possible, in my experience, is overcoming any reluctance to listen seriously to what any part in me would want, which allows synergy and internal coherence to emerge.