Sunday, December 2, 2012 ~ To Surf, or Not To Surf,
the Wave of Another’s Emotions
What does empathy feel like? A little less then 3 minutes into this video Newt Bailey, a Nonviolent Communication (NVC) coach and trainer from the San Francisco Bay area, uses this incredible metaphor of surfing to explain the concept of empathy and what it feels like to be connected with another person in this way. Equally valuable is his explanation of understanding when to choose to be on or off someone’s wave and when to choose silent empathy over speaking.
“And, for me, when you’re empathizing with someone, it’s almost like you’re riding the wave of their experience. And you’re staying with them, just in the same way a surfer stays with a wave. And you’re doing it for the joy of doing it; for the joy of connecting with another human being…Sometimes, there are some waves, which can be a little hard for you to ride. And if your surfing is not up to that particular wave it’s maybe a good idea for you to go back into the beach and let someone else surf that wave. And that is an additional part of the metaphor that I like. You surf when it’s enjoyable for you to surf and if it starts to feel dangerous or scary or uncomfortable for you to be empathizing with that person, riding that wave, then you stop.” ~ Newt Bailey
Read more pieces like the beneath at The Fearless Heart:
by Miki Kashtan
The terms power-over and power-with were coined in 1924 by a woman who has mostly been forgotten – Mary Parker Follett, while writing and lecturing about management theory and practice. Her approach, which centered on human relations and collaboration between management and workers, stood in stark contrast to the mainstream management practices of her day, which were rooted in what was then called scientific management, pioneered by Frederick Taylor.
I don’t know, nor do I imagine it easy to trace, how these terms migrated far away from management theory into the realm of social justice movements. Along the way, they have acquired iconic status. Power-over has become a symbol of domination, is equated with hierarchy, and tends to be seen as “bad.” Power-with is promoted as the be-all and end-all of “good” practices, and is often equated with an absence of leadership. This has been a huge issue in the Occupy movement: its “leaderlessness” has been the source of both admiration and condemnation by its participants and those who wish it well but don’t join in.
I am embarking on writing this piece and sharing my thoughts about this topic with a fair amount of trepidation, the kind that comes from fear of upsetting people. Here is my dilemma: I am profoundly committed to using power with other people and not over other people. In fact, I am temperamentally averse to imposing anything on anyone. Nonetheless, over years working with groups, both within organizations and in community settings, I have come to believe that a certain rigidity surrounds these terms and results in loss of effectiveness for groups and causes I dearly want to see thrive.
I’ve been collecting what I am referring to here as “myths” of power-with for some time. Learning to identify and counter some of these has been a personal journey of significant magnitude. I’ve had to stretch within myself, to transcend my aversion to exercising unilateral decision-making, in order to arrive at a much humbler and more nuanced understanding of how use of power can support the elusive project of attending, as best we can, to everyone’s needs in any given situation. This humility includes, in part, an acceptance of our human limitations. It’s been painful, sad, and sobering. At times, it’s also been inspiring and uplifting to recognize and think of ways of going beyond blocks to compassionate effectiveness.
My fear about writing all of this is none other than being seen as betraying the ideal and vision of holding everyone’s needs dear, of losing my heart, of giving up on the dream and becoming “one of them”, whoever “them” might be. I am well aware that this fear means that I haven’t fully completed the inner process of self-acceptance about my thinking and practice. I have waited for many months, and I want to wait no longer before offering these insights in the hope that they may contribute to others’ efforts at navigating the old and the new and finding a path that truly honors our humanity as we move, haltingly, and learn about creating a livable future.
I have identified, so far, six different misconceptions. It will take more than one post to cover them all. Today I am focusing on one particularly challenging one.
Myth #1: Everyone Can Be Included
I’ve been thinking about inclusion ever since a wise friend pointed out to me some fifteen years ago that total inclusion is impossible, because the explicit inclusion of all so often leads to the implicit exclusion of those who cannot bear the behaviors of some. During the months that the Occupy movement was operating in the streets, for example, many insisted on having all the meetings be open. I had so much admiration for the endless willingness of some people to weather the intensity, the wildness, the difficulty in maintaining any sense of continuity, the fighting, and the lack of movement, in order to maintain that principle of openness. Others, on the other hand, left the movement in part because they couldn’t tolerate these experiences and lost hope that the movement would move anything anywhere.
The question, as I see it, is not about whether we can create a space where everyone is included. I am quite confident that we cannot; at least not under present conditions in the world in which so many have been so starved for being heard, for their basic human dignity to be recognized, for their presence to matter, that they either cannot participate in a collaborative manner, or cannot tolerate others’ difficulties in collaborating.
So what do we do?
I’ve been pondering these questions for years, and have yet to reach anything that feels robust enough to serve as foolproof guidelines. Still, I’ve seen too many groups flounder and disintegrate because of too much inclusion, and the heartache I have about this is large enough that I am willing to offer my unfinished thoughts because they may spark more conversation and more clarity for many.
The direction I’ve been pursuing in exploring this rests on learning to accept our limitations. As organizers, leaders, and members of groups, we can come to terms with our limited resources. To come back to the example of Occupy, there simply wasn’t enough capacity within the encampments to handle the overwhelming needs of people who had been living on the streets, who had been having addictive relationships with substances, who had a different relationship with reality than most, or who suffered from severe trauma. As much as it may seem like abandoning the dream to decide to keep some people out, it seems to me that it’s more honest to recognize that sometimes we simply don’t have enough love and attention to provide to those in serious need. The art form, what makes this tragic awareness humanly bearable to me, is to maintain the true humble understanding that it’s our own limitations that make it necessary to exclude someone, not any fault of that person.
I want to believe that some day we will catapult ourselves into a way of living in which there simply aren’t individuals with so much trauma and anguish that they challenge all around them. I want to believe that we can find ways to surround people with enough love that we can move forward with everyone intact. For now, I don’t see it quite happening. My heart aches, and I am willing to accept this tragedy in order to support groups in continuing to exist as groups.
Individual difficulties are not the only challenge facing groups. Another core issue is the question of shared values and shared strategy. This, too, came up in powerful ways within the Occupy movement. At least in Oakland, and I believe in some other cities as well, the struggles around whether or not to adopt nonviolence as a key principle became overwhelming for many. Once again, I suspect that quite a number of people stopped participating because they couldn’t bear the repeating discussions that didn’t ever result in a resolution everyone could support. Might it not have worked better to amicably depart? Then, perhaps, those who were dedicated to nonviolent protest, non-cooperation and the creation of alternative power structures could pursue their strategy for gaining popular support for their cause. This is a case where what appears on the surface as exclusion might have given the movement a real chance to grow in popularity and draw in many more people who were turned off by the presence of those who wanted to include confrontational, even violent strategies, within the range of options they would consider.
The question of how a coherent strategy might be formed in a large leaderless movement remains open and unresolved. At some future point in this mini-series or elsewhere, I want to return to this topic, because I tend to believe that the anti-authoritarianism that exists in many progressive movements can get so extreme as to prevent forward movement. I am still digesting and pondering the reality that the large nonviolent movements of the 20th century, both Gandhi’s and Martin Luther King’s, were based on strict adherence to rules and precepts that were set by a very strong leadership. Nothing like what we see now. I am by far not advocating that model. I am just humble enough to recognize that something is sorely missing in the total rejection of leadership.
Back to the question of inclusion, I know that based on my own and Occupy’s experience, I have shifted. In practical terms, in the groups I help start myself, I am now willing to set conditions for membership instead of keeping everything open, and to accept that sometimes a group will need to ask someone to leave rather than lose itself as a group. How to do all of this with love and care remains an open question for me.
Power, Resources and Choice
- personal power
- power over and power with
Our inquiry is how to contribute to a world where everyone’s needs matter and people have the skills for making peace. We choose to explore issues of power, resources and choice because they address two passionate commitments: first, to including all people both in mattering (while clearly delineating between universal human needs and the myriad of tangible strategies towards meeting those needs) and in peace-making skills development, and second, to working toward social transformation in a way that embodies the values we seek to create.
Power: The capacity to mobilize resources to meet needs.
Resources: Strategies, ideas, behaviors, things – anything that can be used to meet needs. This includes both external and internal resources.
Miki Kashtan, “learning to understand our power and being conscious of it is extremely important if we are going to, in a conscious use of our power, to create different outcomes from the way that it has been so far. If we don’t become conscious of our power and make active choices about it, we’re less likely to create transformation.”
“I would like to look at the pull to power and look at the pull away from power. Many people have some of both. Both attraction to having enough power to control the outcome, to control our own feelings, to control the environment, as well as having a visceral aversion to power because of associating it with negative experiences or being politically opposed to power because of only seeing power as power over.”
Miki Kashtan: “One frame that I have found really helpful for my own peace of mind as someone who wants to create changes in the world is that as individual agents without a social movement that I am part of, my ability to change external circumstances, structures, people’s material circumstances, and access to external resources, my ability to do all of that is extremely limited, close to zero. And I could sit and be in mourning and helplessness about it or I could do what I have done, which is by realizing that in the absence of external resources, people can still have more power by having more internal resources. I feel at peace knowing that my contribution is primarily about supporting people to have more internal resources as a way to have more power and to transform situations in which their access to external resources or to power or to structural power is so minimal.”