Miki Kashtan is a “practical visionary”, exploring the application of the principles and tools of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) to social transformation. She is an author, certified NVC trainer, and co-founder of Bay Area NVC (baynvc.org). Miki teaches and works with organizations, visionary leaders, activists, and others to support the transition to a world that works for all.
She addresses the question of “What Could Possibly Go Right?” with thoughts including:
- That having big practical problems to face will bring us together, against our conditioning towards “scarcity, separation and powerlessness”
- That finding the noncontroversial “essential nugget” of agreed principles will create goodwill between opposing sides and pave a way to find solutions.
- That “if you come to a togetherness about solving a problem, it doesn’t matter what your opinion is any longer because you know that you have to come up with a solution that isn’t going to work only for you.”
- That collective wisdom will enable us to solve big problems, especially through mutual influencing. “I hear what’s important to you. I don’t yet know how to do it, but I now care about it and I’m changed.”
- Self-study NVC course: Making Life Work. For You. For Everyone. No Exception.
- Book: The Highest Common Denominator: Using Convergent Facilitation to Reach Breakthrough Collaborative Decisions by Miki Kashtan
Connect with Miki Kashtan
Hi, Vicki Robin here, host of What Could Possibly Go Right?, a project of the Post Carbon Institute, in which we interview cultural scouts, people who see far and serve the common good, asking them each our one impertinent question: in the face of all that is going awry in this world, what do you see from your perch out there, your lookout on the horizon, what do you see could possibly go right? And today’s guest is Miki Kashtan, who’s an old friend of mine. She is a practical visionary, pursuing a world that works for all based on principles and practices rooted in feminist non-violence. Miki is a founding member of the Nonviolent Global Liberation Community (NGLcommunity.org), a co-founder of Bay Area Nonviolent Communication (Baynvc.org), a certified trainer with the Center for Nonviolent Communication, and has taught, consulted and engaged with projects globally. Her books include Spinning Threads of Radical Aliveness: Transcending the Legacy of Separation in Our Individual Lives, The Little Book of Courageous Living, and Reweaving Our Human Fabric: Working Together to Create a Nonviolent Future. Miki also has hundreds of posts on the Fearless Heart blog, and her articles have appeared in the New York Times to Tikkun magazine, Waging Nonviolence, Shareable, and elsewhere. An Israeli native with significant roots in Mexico and New York City, she lived in Berkeley in Oakland, California for three decades before choosing to vagabond in search of learning about liberation and community. She holds a PhD in sociology from UC Berkeley. Now, Miki Kashtan.
Hey, Miki Kashtan. Welcome to What Could Possibly Go Right? We met years ago, as part of a conversation about collective wisdom and we each had specific teachings about how individuals can be more empowered and aware, and yet longed for something more for a society that solve pressing existential huge problems, inclusively and consciously. I know I still have that immensity of longing, even in this time, and so much seems to be going in the wrong direction. I noticed that you said on your website, imagine a world where everyone’s needs matter and people have the skills to make peace. And I love that. We started What Could Possibly Go Right? at the beginning of the pandemic, and at the beginning of what has become a rolling pandemic of unresolved wounds in our national psyche surfacing. This is an immense reshaping of human systems and destiny. Our guests are helping us see more clearly and act more courageously. I wanted you on the podcast, because you’ve worked for decades to help people solve problems together and unearth and resolve conflicts compassionately. So, Miki, what do you see as you scan the horizon for inklings of possibilities for a more healed and whole world? What can possibly go right?
Thank you. It’s a deep delight for you to have traced us back to when we first met and all the depths of connection that we’ve had over the years, always touching on the same questions. So when I think about what could possibly go right, the first thing that comes to mind and I wasn’t thinking about it, it’s just like the magic of you asking. We are conditioned by the structures and systems and socialization that we receive. Our conditioning for several thousand years has been within a field of scarcity, separation and powerlessness. That’s what I see. I call that field patriarchy, and people think that I’m talking about men. I’m not. I’m talking about a turn away from life. That happened when suddenly it was important to know who was the father, and in order to know who is the father, you need to control women, because without controlling women, you can’t know who is the father. So control is baked into it and it all emerged from loss of trust in life. That’s what the scarcity seed is.
So, we are all enculturated into that. Men, women, children, adults, this culture, that culture. There are very few people in the world nowadays that are not born into patriarchal society, and each of us finds that encounter alone, in a very small body, without anyone telling us a different story, and dependent on very big creatures that are trained not to orient to our needs, because orienting to the needs of a baby with a bad idea and patriarchal societies. So this is the mess from which we emerge. It’s very deeply baked into us. However, under conditions of when there is a big problem that we face together, we know affects all of us, the existing structures don’t have a solution and we have stakes in the thing and the authority to solve the problem, we will.
So I want to give one example, because it’s very striking. The example is a town in Kansas. I think it might have been called Greenberg, I’m not sure. The town was wiped out with a tornado. 1500 people wiped out. About 500 people decided to leave and go do something else with their lives. 1000 people decided to rebuild their town. I think they got money from FEMA or from something, they hired an architectural company that specializes in large projects, I don’t remember the name of the company, and they guided them through a process of discernment. I don’t know what their tools were. At the end of this whole process, and now we’re talking about Kansas, this is the heart of rugged individualism, deregulation, all of these things, they came up with a restructuring of the town that as I understand it, would be the envy of any green town. Why? Because it actually makes sense. It is more aligned with life, it is more aligned with human thriving, because they were in these conditions. They had a practical problem to solve, a big one. They were together in it, they got good support, they had a shared purpose, they had the authority, nobody was going to tell them what to do. They didn’t need to wait for the approval of anybody else. What happens under those conditions is people talk for real, rather than talking about their opinions. Opinions are really cheap. Because you don’t have a stake in anything, you can just say your opinion about anything. If you come to a togetherness about solving a problem, it doesn’t matter what your opinion is any longer because you know that you have to come up with a solution that isn’t going to work only for you. It’s also going to work for people who disagree with you. That is the crucible within which we can work things out.
The deep question is how do we create those conditions? And I’m not the first one to talk about it. Rebecca Solnit talks about it in her book, A Paradise Made in Hell. I have studied a bit of the principles, the tools, the practices that support this in happening. In addition to these preconditions, what can you do to support people in actually getting there? And because I know about these tools, these ways, these pathways, even if the preconditions are not optimal, using the tools well can compensate and bring people together. So an example of this is a project that I did, not something I read about, in the state of Minnesota where they had for many years an legislative gridlock about child custody. Now child custody isn’t first tier culture wars, its second or third tier, but the people who are engaged with it are equally demonizing of each other as first tier culture wars. It was awful. After 10 years, some of them didn’t even want to be in the same room, it took months to get them to agree to be in the same room together. It took one day for them to come up with a list of 25 principles that they all agreed to, not a solution. But the principles that they all understood. If there were going to have a solution that all of them could embrace, it needed to address these principles. I can give an example if you think that we’re would help.
Yeah, yeah, I’m fascinated.
So that in the lead up to this, and this happened before we had Zoom and all of this, so it was on regular conference calls that you don’t see anybody’s face, and all of that, you probably remember those days. And so I don’t know who is who, and I don’t have the visual cues to see who is where and what the energy is, just my intuition. So one guy says, Look, and when somebody says that, it’s gonna be trouble next. So it’s just, we can’t work it out. Some of us just think that a presumption of shared custody is not wise. And that’s all there is to it. Of course, that’s not all there is to it. But he didn’t give me enough information. So I asked him, Can you tell me? What about it is not wise? If you have a presumption of blah, blah, blah, then families will be forced to do things that don’t work for them, but it’s not going to be safe. I can’t even remember exactly what he said. Then I turned back to him, and I said, Okay, here’s what I get what you want, is a solution to the problem that will be tailored to each family’s specific needs. To which he says, That’s exactly what I said. And of course, it wasn’t what he said. But it was what the essential nugget of what he said is. I call that essential nugget, it’s kind of ugly word, but I’ve come to love it. The noncontroversial essence. I gave it back to him, I gave it back to him in a way that captured him, and that I trusted everybody else would basically agree with. That’s when I did this leap. I said, Okay, now I’m going to check in with whoever her name is, who was on the opposite camp. And I said, Susan, Janet, whatever her name was, said, I bet anything that you also want for every family to have the solution that is tailored to their specific needs. To which she said, “Yes, of course, but…” then I stopped her. And I said, the “but” is what we will deal with when we are in the room together. For now, I just want the two of you to see that even though you have opposing opinions, you agree on this principle. We have a list of 25 such principles that everybody agreed on. And when you have those principles, it literally creates goodwill. It’s almost visible, it’s almost physically visible, the energy. People settle, and then you can start talking about, Okay, then how do we actually do it? That took two legislative sessions to get there. But in the end, they passed legislation that both houses of the Minnesota Legislature approved with only three senators that said no. Everybody, so it’s basically unanimous. I can’t remember the number of people, maybe 186 people in the two houses or something like this. It was unanimous after 10 years of total acrimonious debate, and they weren’t even people who had the authority to make the decision. There were only three legislators in the group that I worked with, but it was a very diverse multi-stakeholder group that included lawyers, family lawyers, it included activists on both sides of the debate. I knew if they could agree the moral authority of that would sway the legislators and it did. That is what I bank on, that people can do that. That is what could go right.
So, taking a look, I could go on with this forever, but taking a look at some of the collective issues. The boundary of who the “we” is that’s suffering from this is worldwide, the boundary of the “we” is beyond national borders. And yet, we in the United States at the moment, are trying to bang out the people’s infrastructure plan, the $3.5 trillion plan of Biden. Are there places now, as you look on the horizon, where you see this kind of process happening, that we might be able to derive, if not hope, at least some information from? Where do we see this happening now; not resolved, because these things are not resolved at the moment?
I think what we have are tiny pockets and nuggets, because the divide and conquer thing is not just words, it actually is something that happens. I don’t think it happens maliciously. I don’t think that there’s an evil man, somewhere there going, hmm. Let’s divide the masses, and then we can rule. But it happens from the fear of losing control. So just one semi-tangent, it has been proven, again and again, that when you increase worker participation, collaboration, decision making, etc, the entire company benefits. Profits increase, morale increases, all of these things, and yet time and again, these programs are dismantled. When I sat down one day, it’s like, why are they dismantled if they’re better? And I reached the conclusion that the people who run these mega corporations, they want control, even more than they want profit. So if profit increases, productivity increases, morale increases, engagement increases at cost to their control, they would give it up to regain control. That’s my analysis. I think it’s not unique to the people in power, it’s just that when they do control, it ripples. But it’s in every one of us this. I’m gonna lose control. If I agree to this, if I say this, if I show my vulnerability, and this business. So the places where people can come together without control, those are the places to look at what could go right. There are examples. They are all off the mainstream of the media. I don’t know how your podcast works, but if you want to put resources there, I can send you links.
In our show notes, we’ll put in the links.
I’ll give you my favorite example is Rojava. Rojava is a region within Syria that is majority Kurds. Now the Kurds are very interesting group because they are divided between four countries. There is Kurdistan, but Kurdistan is not a political entity. It’s a it’s a cultural and ethnic and regional and geographic entity, but it’s divided between Syria, Iran, Iraq and Turkey. It’s a terrible fate for the people, because Syria is a semi failed state. They were able to self organize and they are actually running their region, bottom up. Bottom up concentric circles that choose who goes next and they are explicitly feminist. Everybody who has any committee or whatever has to have at least 50% women and have one man and one woman who are the leaders. So interestingly enough, when there is a part of their area, they have people who are not Kurds, where women are not allowed to be in public spaces. How did they solve that problem? They said to the people from those regions, you don’t have to send a woman if you don’t want to, but then you can send only one representative to the assembly. That’s fantastic. It’s so creative. They reach their decisions in this way. And they invest a lot of energy into training and educating people in critical thinking. It’s a fantastic example. Several million people, not a small village.
Right, I think that there’s an aching, that’s stuck in a paradigm that isn’t working, and yet not having opportunities to act on it in a different way. I wonder what your thought is about, it’s sort of like a pop psychology idea that the countries that were having a better result with the pandemic were led by women. Jacinda Ardern is one of the best examples, but there’s other countries with women leaders. Is this a bit what you’re pointing to?
It’s those countries, and also, the extremely few countries that still call themselves socialist. Five. I don’t remember them, but there are only five left. They also did better. When I tried to look at what is the intersection between socialism and women; care, thinking about the whole, orienting to need. You can say a lot of things about top down control; yes, all socialist countries that I know are top down control. And still they’re orienting to need, more so than to things like profit or any of those things. So that intersection of care, holding the whole, and orienting to needs, that is what I think is made it possible for them to have better results.
Well, may it be so. Earlier, you’re talking about the conditions in break down, that set a possibility for breakthrough. I was thinking about years ago, I was living in along the Idaho River, near Idaho City, and there was a bunch of towns along that river. And all of them were sort of collapsed because the mining industry collapsed, the forestry industry collapsed. There was a third industry, I forget what it was.
But there was one town that was flourishing. I went and I talked to people all over the town about like, how did you do this? Because they were attracting tourists. They were an interesting town. One of the things they cited is that they’d have enough money to hire a consultant for a sort of system analysis. And they had a water resource, the river. I think they started a hatchery. So basically, they took a look at what they had, rather than what was crashing to work with the consultant. The money ran out, there was no consultant left. But there was a pattern that was left in the people from having done that process of, what are our assets? They’re outside of our identities. And they were able to use that to go forward.
I also was out in Forks, Washington at the time of the spotted owl. I was very curious about the face off, it’s not new for me being curious about the face offs between when regulations come down, and understanding the identity of loggers. It’s not just they cut down trees, they have an identity, they have a culture, they grow up in it. They have a good paying job right out of high school, they don’t have to go to get another training. I couldn’t really feel the heart of the logger, and the shock that they were experiencing. But then I met a woman who’s a florist. In the clear cuts, there were new plants that were growing that had red stalks, the red branches of these new whatever bushes they were. And she started florist business, selling these beautiful, perfect branches for fuller floral arrangements. So, it’s the seeing, that in that gap between stories, when you’re trying to identify who’s doing this to us? And how do we, a little backwater Idaho City town or Forks, how do we pull ourselves out of this? Because often the forces that are creating conflict locally, are not locally sourced. There’s a big world out there, something’s shifting out there, and we’re at the butt end of it, and our way of life is being challenged. So it just feels like one of the things, the inklings on the horizon that I’m seeing from what you’re saying, is that even to hold in consciousness, what’s the possibility inside this breakdown? And my neighbors, the people I don’t agree with live on my island or who live in my town, they are not doing this to me. I am not doing anything to them, we are in a larger force that we are struggling with. And the genius is being able to get people in a condition of, we’re doing this together, not in some like la la land, but just pure survival.
I thought that was a great missed opportunity when Biden was elected. He said, I’m going to be the president of those who elected me and those who didn’t elect me. And I thought that was a great line. Almost in the same breath, he said, and now we’re going to have all these regulations about COVID and all of this – which we are not getting into, am I in favor or not in favor of those regulations? That’s not the point. The point is, you can’t say those two things at once, because the people who didn’t elect you don’t want these regulations. So if that’s what you’re saying, then you’re not going to be their president. At the time, I was really looking to see if I could find connections to his transition taskforce, because what I wanted to propose to them is to bring together people from across the different positions, and do the same process that I did with the people in Minnesota. What is the public policy that is going to be attentive to what’s important to everyone, not only to what’s important to the people who now happen to be a little bit more in power. And that would be my pathway for how to solve the COVID situation, bring together the people who disagree with each other, and give them the task to find a pathway that works for everyone. That pathway exists. But you or I can’t find it; it’s only collective wisdom that will find it. The collective wisdom comes from trying to solve the problem, through which there is mutual influencing. This is the deepest layer of human wisdom, is mutual influencing. I hear what’s important to you. And I don’t yet know how to do it, but I now care about it and I’m changed. You hear what’s important to me, you don’t know how to do it, but you’re changed. And in that being changed, that’s where our genius of solving problems is. That’s what we have big brains for, is to solve problems, because doing the daily things, you don’t need that much of a big brain, but it’s to solve the problems when things don’t actually instantly flow to work for everyone; it’s how do we still make it work for everyone? That’s what’s missing now.
Boy, that is the nugget, to use your word. That’s the Gordian Knot. In a way, if we can loosen our grip, if I can loosen my grip on the desire to solve the problem and have happily ever after, to have problems of those dimensions is just an amazing opportunity for souls to contribute. What an opportunity to live in these times? Even if I would rather live in a different time, where I could say what the Happily Ever After is and go “bing”, if I was the author of the whole thing. I just, I’m astonished in this conversation. Is there anything you want to add before we sign off? Because I just feel like you did this wrap up that is so potent, but any other thoughts?
Let me pause for a second. I’m just thinking about the people who are going to be listening to this. Most of them live individual lives, not community lives, not places where these kinds of processes exist. So I’m just thinking what can they do, if they let’s say get inspired by what you and I talked about. What is it that they can do? The thing that I want to say to each person listening is walk towards, not away from. Seek togetherness. Find a way to hold the problem together, even if you don’t know how to solve it with the person that you disagree with. “We are in disagreement” is a non-polarizing event, is a non-polarizing way of saying we are in disagreement. Let’s just be with that. It’s not, “Let’s agree to disagree.” That actually separates. Let’s be together with the reality that we are in disagreement and yet we both would wish to find a solution together; that already brings you together, so those are little steps that everybody can take in their environment.
Not so little really. Thank you so much, Miki, for this wisdom. My word. I feel quite inspired.