11/1/2015 ~ The Quality of Mercy is not Strain’d…

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Sunday, November 1, 2015 ~ The Quality of Mercy is not Strained

Inquiry:  When you’re beginning to sense that your ‘quality of mercy’ has become strained, what do you do?  (Hint: How might you most effectively and graciously attend to the Universal Human Needs of both yourself and another, simultaneously?)

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One aspect of any Nonviolent Communication apprenticeship is the cultivation of a capacity for empathy or what Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh calls deep listening.

Thich Nhat Hanh:  Deep listening is the kind of listening that can help relieve the suffering of another person.


Thich Nhat Hanh:  You can call it compassionate listening. You listen with only one purpose: to help him or her to empty his heart. Even if he says things that are full of wrong perceptions, full of bitterness, you are still capable of continuing to listen with compassion. Because you know that listening like that, you give that person a chance to suffer less. If you want to help him to correct his perception, you wait for another time. For now, you don’t interrupt. You don’t argue. If you do, he loses his chance. You just listen with compassion and help him to suffer less. One hour like that can bring transformation and healing.

Thich Nhat Hanh on Compassionate Listening

Oprah Winfrey talks with Thich Nhat Hanh – Excerpt

However Marshall Rosenberg qualified this a bit by stressing such things as speaking in “40 words or less” bite sized chunks or noting that by the time you find yourself questioning if you’ve listened for too long to someone, than you likely have already done so. In these tips, he’s referencing striking a balance between empathy for ourselves and others (necessarily go hand-in-hand).  Marshall would often suggest that empathizing is akin to surfing a wave — as Newt Bailey similarly elaborates in the video clip beneath — which entails discerning one’s own capacities, including our limitations, in riding the waves of emotions, both within and without.

Empathy Documentary Project: Insights into Empathy – Newt Bailey

In the clip above, Newt Bailey highlights the component of self-empathy/self-connection, including a kind of visceral/somatic awareness, as key to the process of dialoguing with another.  This dance has been helpfully diagramed in the communication flow charts directly beneath:

Hart’s Communication-Flow-Chart

ZENVC’s Communication Flow Chart

To opt to connect can be a choice to be present for ‘what’s alive’ (feelings/needs), both internally and externally.  It’s also conceivable to view this choice-point of opting for ‘connection’ (over ‘getting our way’ or ‘being right’), as demarcated in both flow charts above, as one of a choice between fear/love (see also:  Authentic Power vs External Power PDF – Gary Zukav).

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Then what to do with the dilemma of when communication no longer seems to flow.  When we notice, even just within ourselves, a wave of emotion that becomes too steep to navigate.  In this, I’ll reference a famous quote from Shakespeare.

The Merchant of Venice – 2004


The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes…

If we notice that our ‘mercy’ or our capacity for compassionate attunement to another, has become somewhat strained, perhaps drowned out by our own internal Greek/jackal chorus editorializing what we’re hearing (rather than merely being fully present) there are a number of strategies we can employ.  

I’ll list two, one micro, the other macro, to keep in one’s back pocket for communicative grace and finesse.

One option on a microcosmic level is what is often referred to as interrupting-for-connection’s sake.  This means that when we notice that we’ve begun to tune the other out (‘losing presence’, in other words finding oneself unable to stay fully focused, noticing any discomfort in taking in more than what’s already been shared), we can begin with self-connection.  As Newt Bailey articulated in the clip above, pausing silently to observe whether we’re tuning in towards our own internal dialogue, sometimes in an escalating or reactive way, and then we might also choose to go a step further and pause the conversation, then reflect a bit of what we’ve taken in from the other before shifting the dialogue in some way (perhaps by being transparent as to our own waning capacity or with some honest self-expression as to what is coming up for us, in taking in what they’ve said).

On a more macrocosmic level we can explore ways to locate a gravitational center that may hold together the two interlocutors, rather than split them apart, such as Miki Kashtan’s notion of the ‘noncontroversial essence.’

The Noncontroversial Essence: Bringing People Together

By Miki Kashtan


essenceThis agreement at the heart of disagreement is based on identifying what I call the “noncontroversial essence.” Fundamentally, I look for the core of what someone wants rather than what their concerns are. Focusing on what’s wanted moves the energy forward towards possibility and solution. This focus is not exactly on what we mean by “need” in Nonviolent Communication, although it’s close! I look for that core, deep enough that there will be no controversy, and only as deep as that. Deeper levels may have even more commonality, as all my years studying and teaching Nonviolent Communication have taught me. Still, I want to stop closer to the specific content, because the level of basic human needs – which always attains commonality – doesn’t provide enough constraints on a potential solution that works for all, which is my ultimate goal in this and all projects. In this case, the need in one word would have likely been “flexibility” or “adaptability” which are just too vague for any decision-making purpose. Once what’s wanted is framed at the optimal level, like “ensuring that each family is handled according to its specific circumstances,” with the result that all agree on it, it then becomes a principle for the collaboration.

I identify and check the noncontroversial essence when I facilitate groups, when I coach individuals, when I lead trainings, and, probably, in every conversation I have. I learned over time that it supports everyone in any process to aim for that level. For the person who spoke, especially if it’s a controversial position, it is comforting to be heard and to know that what’s truly important to them matters within a process. For me, as facilitator, it provides succinct clarity about what’s going on that helps me navigate to shore, to a collaborative outcome. For those who are in disagreement, it provides them a way of seeing their “opposition” in a different light… (continues here & here: The Noncontroversial Essence, Part 2)


I first became cognizant of the value of discerning the ‘noncontroversial essence’ during a strained discussion with a friend as to politics, specifically the merits of Obamacare.  I realized, unfortunately only after the fact, that we may have had a more fruitful debate by establishing common ground first — such as the noncontroversial essence of our shared wish for affordable health care coverage for all — prior to getting into more of the nitty gritty.  Miki Kashtan has also said that when things become strained in a conversation, she’ll offer brief connection requests than can be responded to with either a yes or no, and that will inform her choices of how to proceed.  

Another NVC practitioner shared a passage from her church’s bible study group which included what seemed to epitomize a nonviolent appeal to noncontroversial essence:  Mark 7:24-37.

Mark 7:24-37

24From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Note the capacity to come from love rather than fear in the passage above.

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In essence, by making an appeal through the use of metaphoric crumbs — a  ‘noncontroversial essence’ was established — thereby attending to the need for healing.  

Another way of symbolizing Miki’s idea of the ‘noncontroversial essence’ is rendered elementally in this column by columnist David Brooks, bemoaning a societal disintegration in which the center no longer holds:

Enter the Age of the Outsiders – The New York Times


As every schoolchild knows, the gravitational pull of the sun helps hold the planets in their orbits. Gravity from the center lends coherence to the whole solar system.

I mention this because that’s how our political and social systems used to work, but no longer do. In each sphere of life there used to be a few big suns radiating conviction and meaning. The other bodies in orbit were defined by their resistance or attraction to that pull.

But now many of the big suns in our world today lack conviction, while the distant factions at the margins of society are full of passionate intensity. Now the gravitational pull is coming from the edges, in sphere after sphere. Each central establishment, weakened by its own hollowness of meaning, is being ripped apart by the gravitational pull from the fringes.

The same phenomenon can be seen in many areas, but it’s easiest to illustrate in the sphere of politics, both global and domestic… (continues)

In interpersonal communication, this holding of the dialogic center can be done when one person takes on the role of mediating his own confilicts, what John Kinyon and Ike Lasater refer to as ‘mediating one’s own life’ (when you, in effect, jump back and forth between playing the mediator role and voicing your own point of view, when in conversation with another).  In this mode, we’re using a kind of gyroscopic awareness to ensure that the conversation doesn’t dip too far in one direction or another, such that it retains a kind of interpersonal buoyancy.

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Part of what helps us, in this regard, is what could be referred to as our intuitive awareness (other ways of characterizing this quality are 1) mystic Thomas Hübl‘s notion of ‘subtle energy competency’, 2) quantum physics popularizer Gary Zukav‘s idea of Multisensory Perception, or 3) interpersonal neurobiology founder Dr. Dan Siegel‘s concept of Mindsight — pick your preference/poison — all three are pointing at a similar practice of attuning to the unspoken dynamics and navigating them well).  The more adept we become at navigating choppy waters, the more seaworthy we will be in venturing further from safe shorelines, towards the exploration of ever distant and more exotic horizons…

Sherry Turkle’s

“Reclaiming Conversation” | Talks at Google

Reclaiming Conversation: The Power Of Talk In A Digital Age

The Personal Extrapolated to the Political:

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The Quality of Mercy

Quote (in its entirety)

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.

— The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1

The Quality of Mercy (Portia’s Speech)

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This entry was posted in Dialogue, Kashtan, What's Up Next?, ZENVC ~ Catherine Cadden & Jesse Wiens and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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