Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Why Do We Do What We Do?

by Miki Kashtan

Recently, one of my colleagues posted a question on the listserve that we share, where she asked us to comment on how we differentiate between needs and motives or motivations. Since I’ve been thinking for a long time about similar questions, I decided to take up this opportunity to engage with this question, which I find both intriguing and deeply significant. 

Varieties of Motivation


One of the fundamental premises of the practice of Nonviolent Communication is that everything any of us ever does is an attempt to meet core human needs. Much can be said, and I have written about it before, about what exactly counts as a need, and the difference between needs and the many strategies we employ in our attempts to meet them. There is no claim within this practice that we are all the same; only that we share the same core needs, and they serve as the only reason for us to do anything.

If everything is motivated by one or more human needs, then why am I even talking about varieties of motivations? It’s because what varies is the degree of awareness we bring to the relationship between our needs and our actions. As far as I can tell based on my exposure to a number of cultures, our various cultures don’t generally cultivate in us the practice of knowing what we want. On the contrary, much of socialization is focused on questioning what we want and telling us any number of reasons for acting other than because we want something. This, to me, is a tragedy of enormous proportions, because what then happens is that what we want goes underground: we continue to act based on our needs without knowing what they are, and therefore with far less choice than we might otherwise do.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Sex, Vulnerability, and Power

by Miki Kashtan

If I thought I was treading difficult territory when starting to write about money, writing about sex feels even more risky. It’s even more private, in some ways more charged, and equally considered off limits. I am only doing it because the conversation I had with a dear friend was so inspiring to us, that it seemed to me that what emerged might offer something of value to others, and I was encouraged by my friend’s enthusiastic response. I hope I don’t live to regret this choice.

The starting point of our conversation was a recognition of a peculiar way in which so much that is related to sex gets talked about as if we have no power or choice: either sexual attraction is “there,” and we “must” follow it; or it’s not, and we “can’t” enter a sexual relationship. 

Sexuality, Spirituality, and the Erotic

For years I have felt a persistent discomfort when people around me talk about sex. One of the most important things in the world for me is something about honoring human dignity. Within this, I’ve always wanted speaking about or engaging in sexual relationships to be done in a way that honors that human dignity.

I often wonder what life was like in earlier cultures, before the split between the sexual and the spiritual was institutionalized, before the body became the site of sin, before being spiritual became associated with celibacy, asceticism, and withdrawal from the world. Were the conversations different? Did the experience of being sexual feel different?

When we have a powerful desire for something that has been associated with sin, or is seen as “animal-like,” this creates a strong tension. If, on top of that, we have been trained to believe that in order to sustain the social order we need to suppress what we want, the complexity of what happens can easily lead to a complex response that allows us to choose to follow the desire by playing with the edge of “badness” while telling ourselves that we have no choice, that the very experience of sexual desire takes us out of control.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

What We Know and Don't Know

by Miki Kashtan

A week ago Sunday, a friend sent me a link to a story about Time Magazine covers. According to the article, the magazine has different covers for its US edition as compared to its three other editions (Europe, Asia, South Pacific): the former focus on personal issues and feelings while the latter on international events of significance. Although the assertion itself has been questioned by some who commented on the story, this story sparked some conversations and reflections for me that led to my deciding to make it this week’s topic. 

At the time of receiving this link, I was leading a retreat. Later that same day I led a session in which I described some of my vision and thoughts about money and resource allocation. Little did I know that, in the end, an interaction I had during this session would lead to my having more understanding about the significance of this difference in cover stories.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Ego, Mind, and Culture

by Miki Kashtan

The idea for this piece came to me when I read a comment on an earlier blog post. The specific content of that post (which was about race), is not the issue here. Rather, it was two references to “ego” which caught my attention and got me thinking for all these months. Here they are as context:

“The only use for these false values are to enhance the ego’s sense of separateness, be it through conceived superiority or inferiority.”

“One result of acting upon true values is the freedom from the ignorance to which the separative ego tenaciously clings.”

There is nothing unusual about these sentences. They simply capture a way of speaking that I have been aware of: attributing intention to what is, ultimately, an abstraction. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so noticeable to me if it weren’t for a second aspect: the intention being assigned to this abstraction called “ego” is one that has a negative connotation with it.

It was a sad surprise to me when I learned that the entry of “ego” into the English language was in large part the result of choices made by Freud’s translator, James Strachey. “Ego” was introduced as a translation of the word in German that simply means “I,” thereby changing the meaning and tone of what Freud wrote. “When one says ‘my ego,’” says Mark Leffert, “one can always distance oneself; when one says “I,” no distance is possible.”[Footnote 1]

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Money, Value, and Our Choices

by Miki Kashtan

In last week’s piece, I looked at some fundamental questions related to money and resources. Today, I want to move from the general and abstract to the personal and practical. There are various reasons for wanting to make it personal, ranging from my desire to support people in making their own personal choices about money with much more awareness to the modeling of transparency in talking about money. As this mini-series is unfolding, I am seeing just how much ground there is to cover. For today, I am focusing on “just” two questions, central to the process of using money to mediate transactions in which goods or services are offered.

How Much Money Do I Pay?

This is a question that’s been haunting me for years. We are so accustomed to supply and demand logic, that I imagine most of the time many of us don’t even think about it. When I look at it deeply, however, I really cannot understand, on the human plane, why I give the woman who cleans my house less money than the acupuncturist or naturopath who attend to my body. The “obvious” answer is that they invested years of their life getting educated. Setting aside the huge question of who gets to be educated and how that gets determined, there is still an embedded assumption in this answer. As someone on a recent teleseminar based on one of my blog pieces said simply: “Why are people with education more valuable than others?” This is precisely the part that haunts me. In effect, setting up the system in the way that it is means that some people’s needs are valued more than others.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Money, Needs, and Resources

by Miki Kashtan

(This piece is a slightly modified excerpt from my upcoming book, Spinning Threads of Radical Aliveness: Transcending the Legacy of Separation in Our Individual Lives, which is scheduled to come out early in 2014.)

My vision is of a world in which needs are routinely met, in which the experience of need satisfaction is the norm rather than the exception. Considering how far this vision is from what we mostly know in our modern world, the question of the possibility of meeting human needs takes on a great deal of significance.

In this excerpt, I am skipping the section that deals with some theoretical questions related to this problem, as my intention is to focus on the practicalities.

Ultimately, the question of need satisfaction can only be answered in practice. Unfortunately, as far as I know, no human society has been solely dedicated to meeting human needs, and the data for assessing this question on a large scale simply doesn’t exist. However, on a smaller scale, my work over the years has shown me beyond any doubt for me that more satisfaction is possible even before changing social conditions.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Personal Change, Structural Change, and Nonviolent Communication

by Miki Kashtan

One of the questions that keep coming up in discussions within the community of Nonviolent Communication trainers is how to become more effective at bringing Nonviolent Communication (NVC) to a level where it may support significant cultural change. Most recently, someone calculated that in order to train, for example, the UK armed forces, it would take 7,000 training days just for a basic level of training of 12 hours in groups of 50 people. This calculation helped me reach even more clarity about a question I have been wrestling with for a long time. The starkest way of framing the question is this: can the training model be a strategy for social or cultural change?

Workshops and Culture

Although much of what I write about below is about NVC, my fundamental question is far beyond NVC. I see it as being about any attempt to create fundamental change using a model of change that focuses primarily on individuals changing their behavior or ideas. 

Seeing the numerical analysis above immediately suggests to me that the training model is limited, not just that the number of existing NVC trainers is small. There are several reasons for this. The most obvious, given my sense of the urgent need for transformation in the world, is that I simply don’t believe that we can reach enough people fast enough in this way. This is one of the reasons why in my own work I am focusing on understanding how to change structures and systems. That is not a substitute for personal transformation. It just makes it easier.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Language, Meaning, and Consciousness Transformation

by Miki Kashtan

There is no question that my love of language is an inherited trait. My father was a lay linguist, in addition to being a teacher, writer, and public intellectual. In the last few years of his life, in his fifties, he went back to school to get a Ph.D. in linguistics, a project he didn’t complete due to illness. Not having a degree didn’t stop him from writing and continuing to perfect a book about common errors in usage of Hebrew until he got sick and had the book finally released for publication. My mother also wrote a book about language, explaining in detail a unique method she developed for teaching Hebrew, both to native speakers and as a second language. I hope she gets to publish it in her lifetime. Our family culture was suffused with intellectually stimulating conversations about politics, society, Judaism, psychology, social critique, and deep engagement with all of our daily experiences. In among these topics, we always had extensive discussions about language and meaning, about the source of words, and about how changing words, even word order, can change meaning. It’s no wonder to me that I landed on a language-based practice as a primary passion and my calling. 

I continue to carry in me the deep reverence for precision and clarity in use of words that unites our family. Which words we choose to say is not “just semantics,” as so many often say. Rather, I see each word that we choose as carrying a specific field of meaning. If we change the words we use, we change the message we send – both to the person who hears it as well as to our own brain. I have a distinct experience that a language-based practice such a Nonviolent Communication (NVC) can most literally change the wiring within our nervous system. 

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Saga of Writing about the Government Shutdown

by Miki Kashtan

There are three ways of dealing with difference: domination, compromise, and integration. By domination only one side gets what it wants; by compromise neither side gets what it wants; by integration we find a way by which both sides may get what they wish. -- Mary Parker Follett

A couple of days ago, I was approached by someone asking me to videotape some responses to the government shutdown. His hope was that having a YouTube video in response to the crisis could possibly travel wide and result in the possibility of an invitation to support dialogue. As it turns out, I’ve been sick (finally I am getting better), and the prospect of recording my voice was singularly unappealing. And so I decided to write a blog piece instead. My contact was super happy. I read the background information he sent me, and then some, and proceeded to write a piece. Then I sent it to two people whose opinion I value. They didn’t like it. They had some pretty strong things to say about what I had written, two of which were that what I wrote was “oversimplifying” and “naïve.”

I was ready to can the whole thing and write about something else, when I got a new suggestion from my contact’s partner. She suggested that I write about this whole process – getting the request, writing about the situation, getting the feedback, and everything in between. Given my predilection for transparency, I was inspired. Then, before I got a chance to come back to this, one of my critics sent me a new piece to read, and it all came together. The result is here in front of you. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Gandhi, Trusteeship, and the Commons

by Miki Kashtan

As much as I have read and heard about Gandhi for years, it is only recently that I have become acquainted with the complex vision he had of trusteeship. In essence, as I understand it, Gandhi proposed that anything material that goes beyond the elusive notion of need satisfaction (which I discussed last week) be viewed as held in trust for service.

In preparation for writing this piece, I had a long discussion with a friend, let’s call her Nadine, about the ramifications of what this approach could possibly mean. Nadine, a woman who lives in great simplicity, far beyond any I can claim, was talking about a computer she had acquired some time ago, and what it truly means to view herself as holding this computer in trust. At present, it seems straightforward: since she is using the computer almost exclusively for the purpose of supporting her service work in the world, she is at peace. What would happen, however, if she stops doing her work? Would trusteeship mean that she would be obliged to give her computer away to someone else who would use it for others’ benefit? Would she be able to part with it, to undo, within herself, the visceral sense that this computer is “hers”? That was the moment we both understood deeply that trusteeship calls into question one of the most sanctified pillars of a market economy: the institution of private property. Trusteeship means we don’t own anything; we consume what we need, and the rest is ours to use for the benefit of all.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Gandhian Economics, Universal Well-being, and Human Needs

by Miki Kashtan

As this entry is being posted, it’s Gandhi’s birthday. Given how much I have been influenced, even transformed, by learning from Gandhi about nonviolence, I wanted to write something to honor his legacy. Because I’ve recently started a mini-series on money, I decided to focus on a lesser known aspect of Gandhi’s work: his views about economics. 

At first sight, many of Gandhi’s basic economic thoughts seem entirely irrelevant to our very different time, culture, and context from the one in which he operated and wrote. For example, the idea of village cottage industry, which might have been feasible in early 20th century India, is very hard to imagine now as a primary way forward for industrialized economies. Delving into it a bit deeper, I see a number of convergences between his ideas and the direction that many are advocating today, such as simplicity, localism, and decentralization. Rather than an exhaustive introduction to Gandhian economics, which can be found through a search on the web, I chose, instead, to look more deeply at two core principles that resonate deeply with me and the path I am on with regards to thinking about money and the economy. This week, I am looking at the question of what constitutes universal well-being and how we approach the conundrum of attending to human needs. Next week I plan to look at Gandhi’s notion of trusteeship and connect it with current unfolding thoughts about the Commons.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Powerless Are Not Necessarily Pure

by Miki Kashtan

I am not so keen on the idea that power corrupts, and have already discussed this to some extent in an earlier post. My difficulty with this framing is multiple. For one thing, this saying maintains the pervasive belief that power is bad in and of itself, a belief that can only result in perpetuating itself, since it will keep many people away from taking power lest they oppress others.

As I see it, coming into power does not create the fundamental desire to have things be our way; it only provides access to resources that make it possible to do so. In the process, extraordinary harm can be done to others, sometimes millions of others. Whatever our sphere of influence, and whatever our vision or personal goals, our power gives us access to extra resources, and thus can multiply both our benefit and our harm. There is no substitute for meticulous attention to the effects of our actions. I see it as an enormous challenge to come into power and live its attendant responsibility without creating harm. I am concerned, in part, that less of this work will happen for as long as we continue to believe that the issue is power rather than what we do with it. My hope remains that that we can all recognize that we can have power and still not use it over others.

Another difficulty that I see stemming from associating power with badness is the corollary move of associating powerlessness with purity. I cannot imagine finding a way to say it any clearer than MLK:

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Dialogue, Decision-Making, and Mattering

by Miki Kashtan

One of the cornerstones of our modern culture, the great reward that arose from being freed from earlier feudal times, is the idea of personal rights, the freedom to make decisions for ourselves. In the countries that are categorized as liberal democracies, this freedom is often sacrosanct. Once we reach adulthood, and assuming our specific group is not barred from having civil rights (as in women before being allowed to vote, blacks in the South before desegregation, Palestinians in the Occupied Territories), we don’t have to ask anyone for permission to move, to vote, to enter or exit spaces, to eat or not eat, to befriend people, or to do anything else we want to do provided it’s not specifically illegal. Granted, in our workplaces, we trade this freedom for money. We accept that our bosses can tell us what to do – within limits. Still, we do this freely (or so we believe). 

So enamored are we with this particular version of what freedom means, that the idea of involving other people in our process of making decisions appears to many of us to be the same as asking for permission. When I used to work with couples, often a sore spot was when one of the partners would be making decisions that affect the other person without consulting with the affected person. More often then not, when I invited the person to check with their partner before the decision, they would balk. Many of them found it really difficult to discern the difference between asking their partner for permission and asking their partner for feedback about the effect of the decision on them. Back in the workplace, when I work with managers, they often struggle with the idea of involving the people they supervise in decision-making. Again, I sense that they associate any form of dialogue about a decision with loss of autonomy.

I believe that one of the best kept secrets about the rewards of choosing interdependence is the wisdom and the richer freedom that are often unleashed through entering dialogue with others as a path to making decisions: together, in complete autonomy, honoring everyone affected. To make this secret more available to more people, to help usher in a possible future, I want to share three stories about how dialogue created shifts that resulted in an outcome that served everyone better than before. Each of these stories illustrates one of the challenges that we face on the path to full integration of autonomy and interdependence.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Venturing into Risky Waters – Talking about Money

by Miki Kashtan
from Occupy Wall Street

I have written about money before, though not much. It’s been a complex topic to address. Because it’s so central to our way of life in modern times, both individually and globally, I feel drawn to address it, to excavate meaning, to find and support freedom in relation to it. Because it’s so loaded, I can’t imagine writing about it without ruffling some feathers. The result: I’ve been accumulating notes, ideas, and questions and mostly waiting for another time to do the actual writing.

Then, earlier this week, I had a very tough conversation about money with three of my most beloved supporters, a volunteer team that’s helping me put together the East Coast version of my program Leveraging Your Influence. The topic was about how we were going to handle money and sustainability in the upcoming retreat in November. One of the results of this conversation was that it reminded me just how important I find this topic, and I decided to up the priority of writing about it. I now have an outline of a mini-series with at least six parts I want to finish by Thanksgiving, when I plan to launch my new Maximum Wage campaign website.

Then I ran the outline by Dave, the man whose creative eyes find all the images that accompany my blog posts, and realized just how much bigger the task was than I had anticipated if I was going to do it justice. Maybe I will continue to write about money for much longer, then. Given the magnitude of the task, I decided to start by a preamble of sorts, writing about my own current challenges with regards to money.

I don’t often expose the difficulties I experience in their raw form on this blog. As much as I am committed to the path of vulnerability, I usually package my feelings into presentable learning before I write about them. This time, however, my intuitive sense is that the details of what made that conversation so painful for me might be meaningful for at least some people to read about. First, some background.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Can I?

by Miki Kashtan

One of the most common questions any child I know asks her or his parents is a deceptively simple one: “Can I …?” This question is so common, so familiar, that we carry it with us into adulthood, and often address each other in the same way. We especially are prone to using this question when speaking with people who are in positions of authority.

Two passions of mine combine in wanting to take apart the meaning of this form of speech: my love of language, which includes the belief that words are never simply words; and my burning interest in transforming paradigms of power.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Personal Liberation and Personal Growth

by Miki Kashtan

For a long time now I have been troubled by the way Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is often presented and perceived. In our culture, and in several other industrialized, modernized countries I have been to, it is typically seen as a path to personal growth, such as an alternative to therapy, or a way to resolve relationship issues. For me, this focus has been limited. Instead, more and more I think of NVC as a path to personal liberation, and of the two paths as distinct from each other. The former is about enabling us to function, even live well individually in society as it exists, while the latter is about freeing ourselves from the ideas, norms, and roles we have internalized from living in this society. The more free we become, the more we can find a ground to stand on to challenge the system to be much more responsive to all people’s needs, not only some needs of the few.

I often heard from Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of NVC, that a similar concern led to his own decision as a psychologist to leave behind clinical work and private practice in his search for the largest contribution he could make. The issue hinges on the question of what is being served when we attend to the individual effects of a system that fundamentally doesn’t support human needs and life as a whole. I’ve been haunted by this question in multiple ways. 

Here is but one example: when an individual human being suffers a debilitating depression and a pill exists that can provide relief, what are the effects of administering this pill? There is no question that many people experience the difference between being able to function at all when they take the pill, and levels of agony that are extreme, even life-threatening. The issue for me is the effect on a larger scale: as I wrote about in an earlier post, medicating problems that are arguably caused by systemic conditions prevents us, collectively, from knowing that we have created conditions in which humans cannot thrive. Is it always a benefit to allow people to continue to function if the system as a whole is riddled with difficulties?

Friday, August 23, 2013

Intention and Effect

by Miki Kashtan

One of the most common responses when someone expresses upset about our actions is something along the lines of the statement “I didn’t mean to hurt you.” Any of us who have heard this kind of response know how little it offers, and yet we keep doing it. I’ve wondered about this for some time. What is clear to me is that this response shifts the focus from the effect of actions to their intention. At one and the same time, this is also a shift in focus from the person who is upset to the person whose action resulted in the upset. No wonder we don’t feel heard when we get this response!

Our intention and the effect of our actions don’t necessarily line up. In exploring that gap in a variety of contexts, both internal and relational, I hope to support clarity and the possibility of greater personal liberation for many of us.

Privilege and Defensiveness

Recently, I was sitting with a friend at a café. She was telling me why she had been, for a lengthy period, keeping a distance from me. What made this unusual, in my mind, is that she is African-American and I am white, and the reason for her distance had everything to do with this difference between us. In effect, my friend, let’s call her Darcy, was calling me on what she interpreted as white, privileged behavior.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Being Powerful in the Moment

by Miki Kashtan

When I was leading a retreat in Ohio a couple of months ago, I was bussing my dishes one day, later than we had been asked to do it. The person who works at the kitchen, prepping, serving, and cleaning, was there in that moment. So I said something like: “I am regretting bringing the dishes here so much later than the time that we were asked and making life harder for you. I was caught in a conversation and didn’t notice the time.” To which she said: “Don’t worry about it, it’s OK.” Instead of letting it go in that moment, I persisted. I said: “It’s not OK with me. I know you are working hard here, and I wish to support you, at least to acknowledge that this has a significant effect on you.” That’s when she raised her head from what she was doing , turned to meet my eyes, and said, in an entirely different tone: “Thank you.” I knew that, for that small moment, she had an inkling that she mattered.

I am likely never to see this person again. Still, when I sat down after this exchange, I felt thoroughly satisfied. Within the one moment that life brought us together with each other, I knew I did the most that I could see possible to move in the direction of my vision of making life work for everyone.

I have had such interactions with people for many years. Perhaps because the training was, largely, about leadership and power, I had an insight that shook me up a little. I suddenly understood what it means to be powerful in a new and different way that tied it to the present moment. At any given moment, I am in a particular place, with exactly the people I am with, in the circumstances we are in. it’s within that context, moment by moment, that I can find my most powerful self. Whenever I think about the people I would wish to be with instead to be more effective, or the activities that would be more meaningful, or any other such thought, I literally take away from my power, in that moment. It became clear to me that if I can remember in each moment to choose the actions that most move in the direction I want to move within those circumstances, I am de facto becoming my most powerful self.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Invitation to Help Me Choose a Logo

by Miki Kashtan

After several years of blogging quite regularly, I am getting ready to upgrade myself to a new platform on Wordpress, and to do a variety of things (publish two books, create some learning products, etc) all of which could benefit from having a logo.

Amazingly enough, I have been gifted with the voluntary contribution of a graphic designer and NVC person from India. I love her art (she is also doing illustrations for another project of mine) and her heart, both.

Several sets of eyes have looked and looked at these possible logos, and we have narrowed it down to three options. I would like to get all your support in choosing. Please take a moment to look and decide, and let me know here which one you like . You also have the option of letting me know you like them all equally or none.

Here are the three options below:

Click here to give me the feedback. There's also room for you to leave comments at the bottom.

I plan to keep this open for a few days, closing end of day Monday the 19th.

Thank you for participating in my movement forward in this way.


Friday, August 9, 2013

Myths of Power-With: #6 - Unilateral Choice Is always Negative

When "unilateral" is oppressive
by Miki Kashtan

Along with the beliefs that hierarchies were fundamentally power-over structures, and hence irredeemable (see Myth #4), in the past I equally fervently didn’t see any role for the use of anything unilateral. Again, unilateral choice or unilateral force became synonymous with power-over, and I was committed to never imposing anything on anyone, for as far back as I can remember. When I first heard from Marshall Rosenberg about the protective use of force, I was quite uncomfortable.

It’s been quite a journey since those days to have arrived at the conclusion that I want to learn to overcome my aversion so as to be able to consciously choose to make unilateral choices, even to use unilateral force, when I believe that choice would attend to the maximum needs possible under the circumstances in which I find myself.

When it's protective use of force
The first of these is the protective use of force, both individually and collectively. I consider the entire project of nonviolent resistance to be an extension of the protective use of force as applied to structural situations. Just as in the case of stopping an individual from inflicting harm, nonviolent resistance uses the force of a collectivity of people to create conditions that would allow harm to stop, all the while remaining open to dialogue. 

In addition, I want to illustrate the challenges of this myth using two more examples, each of which illustrates another aspect of what the choices might be about that would lead us to unilateral actions that affect others directly.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Exploring Authenticity

by Miki Kashtan
My mother used to say, 'If you will lie, you will steal; if you will steal, you will kill.’
‘That is a bit harsh don’t you think,’ I said. ‘We all lie a little. Sometimes it is a way of being polite.’
Anger flashed across her face.
‘No, no, no, no, no! A lie is a lie. The grace that is the real oil that eases the frictions of life is truth spoken in love.’

-- from Halloween after Ms Sandy (A Short Story)
by Valerie Elverton-Dixon (at right)

Until some time in my mid twenties, I was unable to lie. Except as a child, and only to my parents. It wasn’t exactly a moral decision, more like a physiological impossibility. To this day, although I have trained myself, in some very exceptional circumstances, to manage to choose to lie, any time I assess that the context I am in cannot tolerate the full authentic self that I am, I disappear into some internal void, paralyzed and shut down. I see it as a limitation of mine, an inability to make choices about what I say or don’t say, to whom, and how. I experience this as dramatically different from simply being a value of mine that I choose to live by. Consequently, I gravitate towards those people and places where I feel free to express the fullness of who I am. 

Like so many of us, I grew up imbibing the implicit dichotomy between authenticity and care, truth and love, honesty and niceness. Whereas many people I know have chosen the polite end of this dichotomy, my internal deep demands on myself always painted me into a corner of being honest to the point of being intimidating and difficult for people to be around. Not that I don’t care. Rather, in the frozenness of struggling to find room to be authentic when I believe I can’t be, I found no access to expressing the care that almost invariably is part of the fuel for the authenticity.

When I discovered Nonviolent Communication (NVC) I learned how to integrate verbally what was in my heart to the point where more and more of the time my expression of self also registers as care in those hearing me. Surprisingly, the main vehicle that brought me to this integration has been the path of vulnerability I’ve been on since 1996. The less of my internal energy is consumed by the attempts to protect myself, the more I find peace and calm in expressing the truth that lives in me, and the more room I have inside to find and express the care, naturally.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Moral Dissonance

by Miki Kashtan

The term moral dissonance has a variety of meanings. I learned the meaning I will discuss here in a conversation with a woman who owned a grocery store in a low-income neighborhood in a mid-size town in the US. Her grocery store brought fresh, local, mostly organic food to what had previously been a food desert. It was teeming with life, and served more functions than just being a place where people could get food. Our conversation was about her anguish when she found no other solution than to call the immigration officers as a way to deal with the violence and disruption caused by a group of young men that started showing up in the neighborhood. It wasn’t so much that she was afraid of losing her livelihood if they stayed, she told me in visible distress. She trusted that she would be able to relocate to another district and do well financially. It was her concern that if she relocated there would be no services left for the majority of the local people. 

Her moral dissonance was about inviting in an agency representing aspects of the federal government she actively opposed (restricting immigration) in order to protect something that was precious to her (community empowerment and service). There was no way she saw to align all her values together in making that choice, hence the experience of dissonance.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

In Defense of Complexity

by Miki Kashtan

When I was a girl, somewhere before ten years old, it was already clear to those around me that I wanted adventure in my life. At the time, I asked my mother why it was that the people and children in the books I was reading had all these astonishing adventures and I didn’t. It is only in the last couple of years that I had the sudden awareness that I did, indeed, grow up to have a life full of adventures, even if I’ve never tracked down a murderer or exposed an international network of crooks, as the heroes and heroines of my childhood books did.

It was this sense of adventure that was ignited when I received the itinerary for my recent trip to Thailand and realized that I had, twice, a six-hour stopover in Shanghai. Without thinking twice, I decided to find my way to Shanghai, to experience, smell, see, walk in that city, feel for myself what it’s like to be in China. I’ve been curious about China for many years, both culturally and politically, and I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity, despite the warnings of the travel agent.

When this turned into actually having people waiting for me at the airport, people from the Chinese Nonviolent Communication (NVC) community, I was so excited I could barely wait. Then I met Yin Hua, the person who’s been most influential about bringing NVC to China, who stayed in Shanghai an extra day after doing a workshop there (unrelated to me, just perfect timing), and the two of us got lost on the subway and barely made it to town. 

The second time I didn’t even know there would be people waiting. I was getting ready to go change money and hop into a taxi when I heard my name, and was greeted by three smiling women, local to Shanghai, who took me under their wings and into a car that one of them had, heading into just the perfect part of town, where old and new, beauty and rush, commercial and residential all mix together. We walked, we laughed, and we ate dim sum Shanghai-style.

Quite apart from this level of excitement, I also had an adventure of the heart and soul. One of the women who greeted me, Liu Yi, spoke English so well that I wondered where she learned it. That’s when I found out that she had lived abroad, in the West, for six years, then four years in a remote province in Western China before going back to her home town. What a story, I thought to myself, so many people would find this choice unthinkable, and yet she was so clearly radiant and pleased to be where she was. The inevitable why jumped out of my mouth, along with letting her know that I was living outside my own country of birth, and we launched into an intensive and satisfyingly connecting conversation. 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Myths of Power-With: #5 - All of Everyone’s Needs Are Equal

by Miki Kashtan

One of the core principles that shows up in just about everything I write is the commitment to holding everyone’s needs with care. This, with a specific focus on holding with care everyone’s needs for meaningful choice, is the core guideline I use for understanding how to apply the power I have. For as long as those [in my circle or organization, ed.] with less power than me have access to choice, I am satisfied with my use of power. 

That said, I’ve always been uncomfortable with the addition of the word “equal,” which changes the principle to “holding everyone’s needs with equal care.” Aside from the philosophical uncertainty about how equality of care can even be measured, I don’t see it as either possible or even desirable in all situations to hold all of everyone’s needs equally. In fact, I believe that the insistence on equality of this kind can compromise both the effectiveness and integrity of movements and groups.

This is why I have replaced the word “equal” or “equally” with “full” or “fully.” I can say, with far greater ease, that I can hold everyone’s needs with full care even when I don’t hold them with equal care.

As I see it, power-with means finding the path that, relative to the purpose at hand, supports maximal empowerment and participation on the part of all. That doesn’t necessarily mean equality, though often it would. Here are two concrete examples of when I see a difference.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

When Others Judge Us

by Miki Kashtan

Many years ago I had a dramatic experience when I offered someone extremely difficult feedback, the most difficult I believe I have ever given to anyone, and he demonstrated a way of receiving it that inspired me. As I was almost in panic about what I had said to this person, and yet knew that I couldn’t relate to him without saying it, he looked me in the eye and told me that his practice was that whenever anyone said anything to him about himself, he stretched to imagine it being true, and then attempt to digest it from that perspective. What I had shared with him was that I experienced him as having unusual powers, like a magician, and that I didn’t trust that the power he had was all benign. Having said that and gotten the response I got, all the tension about speaking that I had been feeling drained out of me, and was replaced by admiration and appreciation for this man. It’s hard to describe the oddity of sitting with him, still not trusting his power, and nonetheless appreciating him so much. We then proceeded to explore, together, what could possibly be the source of the “darkness” that I had experienced about his power. The details of that exploration have evaporated from my memory; it’s only the flavor of the interaction, and the intensity of his willingness to explore with me that stayed as a model.

I have often wondered about what made it possible for this man to have such extraordinary and exquisite openness. What did he do with his own need to be seen and accepted? Sadly, I have no answer. At the time I lacked the vocabulary to ask about this, as this conversation predated my involvement with Nonviolent Communication and the awareness of needs that comes with it. Subsequently, life took him to other countries and our collaboration ended.

Regardless of what was true for him, the question remains. I have never met anyone else who could take in such difficult comments with such grace. What makes it so difficult, and what can we do about it?

Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Supreme Court in Action: A Painful Mixed Bag

by Miki Kashtan

Yesterday: the plaintiffs in California's Prop 8 case marry at last
Those of us who have grown up in the industrialized Western world have been fed a steady diet of faith in progress, dating back to the European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. We were told that between the ongoing evolution and maturation of the human species, especially the freeing of our minds from the shackles of superstition and faith and replacing it with reason, and the astounding accomplishments and discoveries of science and technology, life will continue to improve. There may be setbacks, and still, on the whole, we are on a path towards a bright future.

I’ve always been suspicious of this tale, and only more so over time. It’s not so much that I don’t see aspects of life that I trust have improved since hundreds or even dozens of years ago. It’s that I also see aspects of life that have gotten worse, some alarmingly so, within that same time period. This is true both on the material plane and even more so on the social plane. Compared to our pre-industrial ancestors, we have much more convenience, and less time, overall, to enjoy it. We have far fewer deaths from infectious diseases, and far more from degenerative ones. We have more choice, and less community.

I was shocked, for example, when I first learned that there was a higher percentage of women faculty in universities in the 1910s and 1920s than in the 1970s! Even more so, when I learned that shortly after the end of the Civil War, for a short period of time, Black people were even elected to Congress – and then the Jim Crow system was installed which took decades to challenge and at least partially dismantle.

It is within this context that I see the Supreme Court decisions of last week. Much as I am celebrating the overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act – which now allows same sex couples to have the same access to married privileges provided they live in the right states – my joy is truly overshadowed by the sense of defeat and mourning of the striking out of the core element of the Voting Rights Act, the iconic accomplishment of the Civil Rights movement in 1965. Are we moving forwards or backwards or both? I can only quote Tom Atlee, who coined a phrase that has stayed with me for years: “Things keep getting better and better and worse and worse faster and faster all the time.”

Why my grief ultimately is the more pronounced is that I have some modicum of knowledge about the immensity of what it took to create the conditions for the US Congress and President to accept the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The amount of mobilization, the amount of love and courage, the amount of strategy and leadership, and the immense suffering of so many to achieve these goals are inconceivable to me at this time. All the more grief because here we are, once again being in a position where, if we want to protect the rights of some people to have access to the meager participation in decision making that electoral politics offers, we will need that same kind of genius and determination, because the legal recourse is no longer there. The children in this image from 1965 saying "Let our parents vote" are now in their 60s and have been able to vote all their adult lives, so long as they didn’t run foul of the New Jim Crow, but now may have to fight the fight over again for themselves and their own offspring. I sure hope this time around there will be more white people working with them than back then, willing to take risks to transform the system that still bars so many people from full access to basic civil and human rights.

As to why this happened in the way that it did, I can only refer you to an analysis from Michael Lerner. I don’t have a word to add or take from this piece. It’s called Why “Voting Rights, NO, Gay Marriage, YES” from the Supreme Court? I urge you to read it. I urge all of us to never give up. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Creating a Welcoming Community

by Miki Kashtan

A year ago, I wrote a piece about some of the pitfalls of learning and using Nonviolent Communication. That piece has been one of my most popular ones, and I received a number of comments that pointed out more areas to explore in how to possibly make Nonviolent Communication (NVC) ever more practical, relevant, and authentic. Today I want to address one aspect of this that is related to how welcoming the NVC community can be. I see this as an exercise in humility, acceptance, and flexibility.

Humility doesn’t come easily to me individually. Perhaps because of this awareness, I am quite vigilant about maintaining it as a commitment with regards to NVC. I am sadly aware that the NVC community is not welcoming to some groups of people. Most obviously, I know that if I were a Republican, I would find the groups of people attracted to NVC outright inhospitable. This is not true only of NVC groups, and is sadly familiar to me in any group of people I have seen so far who are politically left of center. 

Here’s one example. Some years ago, I was offering monthly coaching calls to volunteers and activists of the Peace Alliance in support of their ability to work effectively on the Department of Peace campaign – not an NVC group! I remember two specific moments that highlight this difficulty. One was a moment in which someone on the call spoke up and said that she was a Republican, and talked about how hard it was for her to work with the other people in the group, the assumption that everyone would be a Democrat being one of the stumbling blocks for her. The other moment was when I did something akin to a collective role-play. I asked everyone on the call to imagine that they are opposed to the proposed legislation to establish a federal department of peace, and to imagine, as that person, hearing some of the things that they routinely say to each other or the arguments they make about the legislation. Then I asked them if, as that person, they felt any sense of care or respect for themselves. They immediately saw that their normal way of speaking would create barriers; that they truly had some hidden or not so hidden beliefs that Republicans were stupid for having the beliefs they had.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

My Leadership Challenges

by Miki Kashtan

If anyone had told me some 30 years ago that at some point in the future I would be working with people much of my awake time and that I would be enjoying leading groups of people, I imagine it would have been hard for me to believe. I was working in computer programming and feeling really glad that I had machines to work with rather than people. The journey that took me from there to here has been nothing short of extraordinary and miraculous. 

Both photos: a recent workshop Miki (at right) led in Rochester, NY
I am particularly astonished that what I find most inspiring and surprising is that leadership is appealing to me, in large part, because I feel more able to be fully myself. It’s as if the position of leadership is giving me permission to be my full, powerful self. Through that experience, I also find the immense satisfaction of contributing to people’s lives, having a sense of meaning, a deep integrity about pursuing a calling, and the hope (or illusion?) that I can truly make a difference in the world on a larger scale than the individuals I work with.

Since I also work with and coach leaders, I am continually learning about leadership. Sometimes it’s through what the people I support tell me about their struggles and insights. Sometimes it’s through what other people tell me about their experiences with those same leaders. Seeing things from both ends has been so instructive in understanding why transforming the paradigm of leadership from the authority-based model to the collaborative model has been so elusive and challenging.

In addition to what I learn about leadership through working with other leaders, I also experience my own leadership as a learning lab. My ongoing research question continues to be understanding what it would take to succeed in establishing collaborative leadership practices and shifting out of the power-over paradigm. Much of the learning happens through encountering those unexpected moments in which a break occurs in the quality of trust and creative flow that I so cherish in general when I lead. This is what I want to write about today: some of those challenges which are still active and open. It’s part of my commitment to vulnerability, too: not to wait until I have it figured out and then write about it, and, instead, share the raw elemental discoveries and questions as they are when I am still grappling with them.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Talking about Race

by Miki Kashtan

At a training for trainers I recently co-led, an African-American woman, the only one in the entire group (another African-American was there for only three days), initiated and volunteered to lead an evening program about racial identity. With the support of another person, and within the space of less than an hour, she facilitated a discussion that surfaced a number of issues and questions for several people in the room.

In my experience, which is neither vast nor tiny, any time the question of how we relate to our own and other people’s race is raised, complexity and pain come to the room – before, during, or after the event. I myself have been in a major quandary about how to find useful ways of supporting these conversations, and am doing less than I used to in this area, because I have rarely seen the pain that arises, both for people of color and for white people, be engaged with in ways that supported significant transformation. I am grateful to a few colleagues of mine that are continuing to engage in the inquiry year after year, in the NVC and Diversity retreat, where I believe they are breaking ground in creating a space where radical honesty, complete care and respect for everyone in the room, and deep learning for all happen regularly. Slowly, I have some hope that their lessons will support others, as well as me, in conducting race dialogues that are truly fruitful.

Until then, I applaud any of us who tries, who engages, who says what we truly believe, who shares and invites others to share what we are afraid to say of our experience. However little I know, I am confident that not talking about race is not going to get us anywhere new.

After the end of the retreat, one person approached me in writing and asked a couple of pointed questions. These questions, and the topic as a whole, are so significant to me, that I chose, with that person’s permission, to answer them publicly. This is what today’s blog is about. I will call the person who initiated the evening Cassandra, and the person who asked the questions Julie.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Saying “No” across Power Differences

by Miki Kashtan
As challenging as saying “no” is to anyone in our lives, a topic I addressed a few weeks ago, it becomes exponentially more difficult when there is a power difference involved. The reason for it is that, by virtue of having power, the other person can deliver unpleasant consequences if we say “no.” A parent may do anything from frowning, removing privileges, sending a child to their room or grounding them, all the way to hitting the child or shaming them in significant ways. A boss may reprimand, put a note in an employee’s file, overlook the person when a promotion is coming up, all the way to firing the person. These consequences are far from trivial.

This is precisely the reason why people in power rarely hear a “no” unless they set up explicit structures of support for people to say “no” to them. The cost of having power, when not attended to, means that people in power don’t receive all the information they need to make decisions, because people are afraid to tell them the truth; it means they don’t have access to the full wisdom of the people who work with them, because people hold back; it also means operating in an environment of little trust. All of these can sometimes lead to compromised performance. 

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Myths of Power-With: # 4 - 
When Connection Trumps Everything

by Miki Kashtan

In my previous piece in this mini-series, I made a connection between power and needs, suggesting that the quintessential flavor of power-with approaches rests on attending to ever more needs of ever more people. I said then, and will say as often as I can remember, that the repeated experience of magic that arises from engaging in this way has sold me on it forever. I have facilitated so many groups and teams to reach decisions that are based on this approach, and the results often astonish everyone who participates.

Nonetheless, today’s piece is about a huge caveat I have about how to apply this approach within groups. I became familiar with this issue in communities of practitioners of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), especially when people gather in an attempt to make things happen rather than for the purpose of healing. Often enough people experience immense frustration with how such groups function, and are discouraged to see how challenging it can be to make any decisions about anything. I suspect that this issue shows up in a variety of forms in any number of groups and contexts where inclusion and power-with are important to participants in a group. Nonetheless, because I have experienced it primarily in the NVC context, this is the main context which I talk about in this piece.

Although I had experienced the challenge soon after I became part of the fledgling community that has since grown considerably worldwide, I didn’t have a framework for understanding the issue until a particular conversation I had with my late colleague and co-founder of BayNVC, Julie Greene, in 2001. The way Julie characterized the problem was that people didn’t make a clear enough distinction between what she referred to as empathy circles and action circles. The difference between the two is a difference in purpose, not in who is present – the same group of people can sometimes come together as an empathy circle and sometimes as an action circle. In fact, that was one of her clear recommendations to people gathering to make things happen: to have some meetings that are purely designed for relationship-building and empathy.

I have thought about this challenge many times in the intervening years, and now have some hope that I can support NVC groups, and likely others, in finding more effective ways to manage the difficulty.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Leadership 101

by Miki Kashtan

When my sister Inbal and I, along with our late colleague Julie Greene and with John Kinyon, founded BayNVC in 2002, one of our top priorities was to create ongoing generations of leaders. This was the reason that we established the BayNVC Leadership Program.
That this program is still running beautifully, and without us!, led by our former students, suggests to me that the intention succeeded. The same reasoning informs my choice, as the only remaining founder at BayNVC, to continue to focus on leadership development in so many of my activities.

Time and again, as I try to focus in this way, I discover how muddled the concept of leadership is, for so many people. Is leadership the same as power? Is leadership something given to us, or something we enter into, or something else? Is leadership only significant when it’s formal, or can we usefully refer to certain acts of people without any formal authority as exemplifying leadership? Is leadership a function, an attitude, or a perception?

Each of these questions folds within it some other questions. For example, disentangling leadership from power includes attending to the tricky issue of whether having leaders is necessary or desirable. Of course, what we believe that leaders do or how they do it is intimately interlinked with whether or not we would want there to be some form of leadership, and what we could imagine alternatives would be.

Still, this piece is entitled Leadership 101, and I want to aim for keeping it simple.

While all of this was swirling inside me, I decided to look up what others thought about this question. The dictionary definitions led me nowhere, defining the concept of leadership either by using a verb (lead), or by using another noun (leader).  When I followed those leads (pun so very intended…), I still didn’t find anything that provided a description of what it means to lead or to be a leader. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Taking Ourselves Seriously Enough

by Miki Kashtan

I have been on the vulnerability path for many years now. I have talked in front of groups hundreds of times. I write a blog, which makes me in principle visible to anyone. Still, when I am in a group that I am not facilitating (it does happen!), it’s still sometimes challenging for me to express what I want.

"Self-Effacing Woman" by Soraida Martinez
In the workshops I lead, and in meetings I facilitate within organizational settings, I often see people who either don’t speak, or speak very hesitantly. One example stands out to me in particular, a woman who had a high level administrative position, who was respected by everyone, and who was carrying significant responsibility and decision-making authority at an organization I consulted with. Time and again the owners of the company would invite her into meetings for the explicit purpose of hearing her opinion which they valued so much, and yet she would somehow relegate herself to the role of taking notes, as if that were the purpose for which she was invited. When I talked with her about it, she literally found it difficult to trust that her opinion was, indeed, sought and valued.

Why is this happening, and why do I care about it enough to dedicate a blog entry to it?

I’ll get to why it’s happening and what I want to do about it further below. I want, first, to speak about why this is so important to me why I believe that changing the way we relate to our presence in the world, learning to trust that we matter, and acting on that premise, are part of what’s necessary to create a social order that truly supports life in thriving on our one and only planet.