Empathy and Privilege in an Interdependent World
by Miki Kashtan
For some years now, I’ve been pondering the sentence I’ve heard, often, from my colleague and friend Kit Miller, director of the Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, and former director of BayNVC: “Empathy doesn’t flow uphill very easily.” Oppressed people already know it doesn’t flow downhill easily. As my late sister Inbal put it, when oppression is present, those in power see the oppressed as subhuman, the oppressed see those in power as inhuman, and neither sees the other’s humanity. When there is a strong power difference, and that power is used to oppress a group, empathy gets blocked – both as a precondition for and an outcome of the oppression.
I can immediately see the appeal of the conclusion, or dream, that bringing individuals together from across lines of oppression, and getting them to hear each other’s stories and develop empathy, would be a step towards transforming the oppression. After all, empathy is liberating, whether we receive it in response to our own suffering, or when we open our hearts widely to shine its light on others and to recover our sense of their humanity.
Except that in practice, what I have seen in groups I’ve been part of is not supporting this hypothesis. Instead, what I have seen and heard of, in contexts of power differences, has finally led me to the opposite conclusion. Unless some very specific ways to focus attention and choice are part of the picture, I now believe that the goal of having “both sides hear each other” reinforces rather than transcends the power differences.
Although I myself have just said it, I am still shocked at hearing these words said. How could it be? Why would we not be able to all be human together, at the same time and in the same way? I still want it to be different, and can no longer do that with integrity.
1986: I am living in Manhattan, and my very first German friend is visiting. He has had too much to drink, which worries me a bit. Then he starts crying. I learn that both his parents were Nazi identified; his mother was in the Hitler Jugend, and his father in the Wehrmacht. He wails as he recognizes that the violence of all this is deeply situated in his body, and will never leave him. I had never before spoken intimately with any German, let alone the son of Nazi parents. I realize how much easier it is to be on the side of the victim, when morality is on my side.
1988: I am in Israel, visiting, in the middle of the first Intifada. I am in a room full of about 100 Israeli women who came to hear from a few Palestinian women, as part of ongoing efforts by women across the lines to create peace. (Incidentally, as has been the fate of women for so long, their work was never publicly recognized when the talks leading to the Oslo accord took place, on ground prepared by them.) Everyone is open, clear, present, curious – until the Palestinian women start sharing personal stories about what happened to their families and beyond at the hands of Israelis. At that moment, the Israeli women become furious and start shouting.
2004: I am co-leading the BayNVC Leadership Program with Julie Greene. There are about 25 participants in the program, of which about 8 are men, and yet we count, over the first few days, that much more than half of the time, men were the first to speak in response to a question, and spoke longer and more often than the women in the room. (This is by far not an unusual occurrence. This is documented statistically, and I have obsessively been observing this phenomenon for decades in pretty much all groups I am part of or lead.) Julie and I decide to dedicate a session in the program to engaging with this and learning from it. At the next large group session, we make the observation and invite a discussion about it. The men protest, crying out to be seen as individuals and not just members of a group.
2009: I am in Auschwitz, as part of a nano-delegation of four women: one each from Germany, Poland, Israel (though living in the US), and USA. Here’s what I wrote about it at the time: “In the midst of the ruins of the human heart, we experienced magic amongst us as we walked around the camps, primarily speechless, but united in our quest for love and healing, especially a desire to understand the unimaginable: what made it possible to do it. The night before, we talked and connected about our intentions and hopes and how we wanted to stay connected, creating a foundation of togetherness as we prepared for the visit. As we moved around the camp itself I sensed those webs of connection holding us together, watching out for each other, honoring our various limits. After the visit, we sat together, reweaving yet again the threads of our shared intention to understand. We tried to imagine being staff at the camp, getting up in the morning to go to work, how to do it. I feel more whole for having done this, for having managed to make some small progress towards being able to imagine what it could have meant. It feels somehow essential to the integrity of doing the work of teaching NVC as a spiritual path to be able to see and understand the human logic that led to these choices.” I am also reminded now, as I am writing this piece, of the moment in which, while reading Alice Miller’s account about Hitler’s life, I felt compassion for the child that Hitler was and the brutality of his life. I knew right then that my own liberation became that much closer for being able to hold him with compassion, even if only as a child.
2015, just a few days ago. I am talking with an African-American woman about the various ideas I’ve had in preparation for writing this piece. She is all excited, and spontaneously shares a personal example. At a gathering specifically designed to explore matters of race and privilege, she is paired up with a white man. When it is her turn, she speaks about how much she wants to be able to have contexts where she can just talk about her experiences as an African-American woman and be heard, without defensiveness, without responses, without being asked, indirectly, to then hear someone else. The agreement for the activity is that each person speaks for themselves, not in response to what another said. She is done, and it’s then the turn of the man she was paired up with. He proceeds to speak about how hard it was for him to hear what she said, and what he wants to be seen for.
It is just a few weeks ago, in Oakland, and a group of participants in a workshop are listening in as I am talking with my friend and colleague Aya Caspi, also from Israel, who has just come back from leading a small group of Palestinians and Israelis in an NVC Family Camp in Vashon Island, Washington State. The intensity is visible on her face as she tells me some of what happened when Israelis and Palestinians were trying to listen to each other. Aya had a particular concern about how to be open to Palestinians’ pain without dehumanizing Israelis. As I listen more, I realize that Aya, like many Israelis, is only familiar with the official story we both grew up on, even as she is open to the possibility that all or some of it is not true. Her heart is weeping with grief for the plight of the Palestinians, and yet she hasn’t chosen, until this conversation, to look deeply into what happened. I have long let go of that story, or so I thought, and then, in the last number of months, I have found sources that, to me, are incontrovertible (though of course others would dispute; such is the nature of major political conflicts), with quotes from early Zionist leaders that leave me shivering with anguish, struggling to breathe. I can barely look at it, and yet I can’t not.
As I listen to Aya and navigate the complexity of the situation – there is this person I love dearly, whose pure heart I trust beyond measure; there is the pervasive and deeply reinforced collective ignorance and denial hanging in the air, even as we both challenge it, of what we have done to get to have a country and language we can call our own after 2,000 years of ongoing persecution; there are the people, a whole group of students, listening to our conversation, watching how we navigate the challenge; and there is the intensity itself, within me – all the pieces suddenly come together for me, and I see a path forward. It is an asymmetrical path, completely different from the simple frame of “we are both wounded and need empathy.” I realize, finally, that this frame itself is a challenge to breakthrough.
This is a path of paradox.
I still believe that what I have always intuited and experienced is true, that opening to the humanity of the oppressor is, indeed, a fast track to inner freedom and liberation… EXCEPT I now realize that it cannot be expected of the oppressed person. Given the pervasiveness of pain, suffering, and especially the inner and outer assault on the dignity of the oppressed, this expectation then becomes one more aspect of the oppression, regardless of how liberating it would be if done voluntarily.
Because I am both in privileged groups (e.g. an Israeli Jew, and a person with access to white privilege and untold amount of educational privilege) and in oppressed groups (e.g. a Jew, with the history this entails, and a woman in a world dominated by men), I can recognize the strength and rigor of this kind of commitment. As the one with privilege, I want to remember to always welcome and never expect someone else to hear me if it’s not their complete and voluntary choice; all the more so if that person is a member of a group that mine continues to oppress. As the one without privilege, I experience the space to choose to move towards my own liberation on my own terms, without expectations, without a timetable. I smell the freedom, I want it, and I can only go there when I can, even though I know that going there will accelerate my liberation.
However appealing being heard might be, I now believe that what is most liberating for the oppressor, the member of a privileged group, is to focus, instead, deliberately and deeply, on looking as openly as our human heart can tolerate at the actions done in our name or even by us, with or without knowing, with or without intention. Like all human beings, we have a deep need, a true hunger, to be seen in the fullness of our own humanity, especially our own suffering and the meaning that our actions have for us, separately from any pain we may have created in the world. We habitually allow this very understandable longing to make us unable to be fully present to the ones suffering as a result of actions we or members of our group took. Opening our hearts to the effects of our actions is a powerful antidote to that tendency. Of course we need to be seen for every small bit of our humanity. And yet we can only receive this gift from those who choose to give it to us.
I still remember, with immense sorrow and tenderness, a time when I acted like the man in the last vignette above. It was 2005, and I was as oblivious as he was to the dynamics of what was happening in the room. Despite years of participating in talking, feeling, reading, writing, and struggling to transform relations of power, I was entirely absorbed in wanting my innocence to be seen. I was focused on how much my intention had been misunderstood, clearly leaving unattended the effect: the pain of the African-American woman who was responding to the action I had taken.
Let us, any one of us who is a member of a privileged group, seek this balm to our soul only where it is freely given. Even before getting it in full, let us stretch our hearts to their fullest capacity, and make ourselves available, unilaterally, unconditionally, and without expectation, to those who have been harmed by our group, even if they responded with harm along the way, too.
This is clearly not an easy path. How many of us have enough sense of self, enough trust in our human beauty, that we can continue to hold on to it when we hear of harm we have done to others? Few. This is, in my mind, why the Israeli women became angry at the Palestinian women.
Hearing the suffering of the Palestinian women could not lead to the expected compassion and care because it interfered with the “official story” that was the justification for the treatment of Palestinians. Their real life experience, their basic human suffering, was threatening the trust in the self, making it that much harder to maintain a positive moral self-image.
Many years ago, when I was still living in Israel, I read a book (whose name and author I no longer remember) that had a lasting effect on me. The one message I remember clearly from it was that the path that Israel and Israelis could take to shift out of being guilty is to take responsibility. The very act of acknowledging what has happened to the Palestinians, said the author, is a way to move through guilt and reclaim humanity. In a moment, I want to take on that task. Before then, two significant caveats.
One is that part of the fundamental issue facing me as someone who is looking for companionship among Israelis is that the official story that denies the bulk of what has happened to the Palestinians is still the official story, and it is still believed by the majority of the people in Israel. There is no way that I can speak what I believe is true without an inevitable significant pain, leading even to rage, for some people. This is a topic where even what names are used for a piece of land or a group of people is fraught with political intensity. While I am not expecting any Palestinian to offer empathy to an Israeli, I am an Israeli, and I want to write in a way that acknowledges the experience of Israelis who have no access to information I have come in contact with. I am far from certain that I would have learned all this had I stayed in Israel, for example.
The other is that the story is complex and paradoxical. As much grief and horror as I hold about what has been done in my name, I also want it known that Israel is no “colonial-settler” state. There is no imperial base from which the Jews came to this tortured land as was the case in all the examples that Israel is compared to. It was from a history of continual persecution and rejection, over hundreds of years, ending with one of the 20th century’s worst genocides. Even the support of colonial powers, without which clearly the Zionist enterprise would not have taken off, doesn’t make the Jews themselves a colonial power. Just as much as I don’t accept the official Israeli narrative of victimhood, I also don’t accept the narrative that paints Zionism as a one-dimensional act of racism and colonialism. Nothing is simple here, and it would take many pages to bring in all the necessary nuance. Whatever I say here, there will be some people, holding either simplified side of the story, that are going to see me as being of the other side – blind to major facts they each hold as proving their case. I persist in occupying a paradoxical reality in which everything is a human action, in which there are no good guys here, and in which I still want to take responsibility for the actions of my Zionist ancestors and governments.
A Step towards Peace?
I am reminded that the search for fairness more often than not yields an endless cycle of violence, and I want to search for what’s possible instead. This is what I would want to say to Palestinians if I was somehow part of a peace process with them:
I am in so much grief and horror at what happened to your people ever since my recent ancestors came to the land we both love. I am not even sure I know all the horrors that have happened, all the uprooting, the false promises, the intimidation, humiliation, and even killing. I have enough reason to believe that at least some of it was intentional, that they used their own oppression and suffering as justification for passing it on to you. I do not justify it, though I understand the suffering that led to it, with or without awareness.
I can barely breathe in full when I focus all the way on the fact of your suffering; when I take in that it is woven into the very fabric of what became my state, my language, my nationality. I want to focus on it, because I want to witness what I believe is true. And, even though I am also heartbroken and horrified at your choice to respond with violence, and wish you had found a way to embrace nonviolent resistance instead, I do not equalize your violence with what you have endured.
We are here now. The past cannot be undone. We can mourn it together; all that has happened. We can recognize the entirety of human history in the last many thousand of years, where violence, separation, oppression, and more are so prevalent in so many places. We can mourn all of that.
And my hope is that, at a certain moment, we can choose to work together on the enormously rich and hopeful puzzle of figuring out, together, and in the context of all that has happened, how we can create a future that truly attends to all of our needs – all of us, all our needs.
Final note: I just learned that an Israeli human rights organization that I have a lot of respect for is a candidate for a Dutch human rights prize of 100,000 euros. Part of the selection process is crowdsourced. I would love it if people reading this piece will be moved to vote for them.
 I wrote about this in my very first published piece: “The Pain, The Anger, and the Hope: Women Peace Workers in Israel,” Magazine of Creation Spirituality, March 1992.
Credits: at top: “Desperate Leap” by Taomeister, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0 license. Below, both images by Dave Belden, CC.
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13 thoughts on “Empathy and Privilege in an Interdependent World”
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”….especially our own suffering and the meaning that our actions have for us, separately from any pain we may have created in the world…” As a mother who has created pain in the lives of my children, I too long to be seen for my own suffering and the meanings my actions have had for me.
”…. it cannot be expected of the oppressed person. Given the pervasiveness of pain, suffering, and especially the inner and outer assault on the dignity of the oppressed, this expectation then becomes one more aspect of the oppression, regardless of how liberating it would be if done voluntarily….” Ah- a breath of fresh air. Yay. Companionship of my experience.
I watched the “Town Hall” program on PBS last night entitled “America After Charleston” and I noted refrain after refrain from African-Americans asking for truth about American history to be told, and the dissatisfaction with event after event like a “Town Hall Meeting”–one responder said that he was tired of having the same conversation over and again, noting that he had participated in a similar event a year ago in the wake of the events in Ferguson, MO. And you have named the essence of some of their concerns with your chilling conclusion that “the goal of having ‘both sides hear each other’ reinforces rather than transcends the power differences.” Responders also emphasized that people need the power to choose when and if they forgive behavior like Dylann Roof’s. I am appreciating how well you are capturing their concerns and framing it in a way that starts to make a process of reconciliation more clear and attainable.
Hi Miki, I’m relieved to see the discussion on privilege continuing and deepening. I especially appreciate the vignettes you included to help see examples of how privilege shows up in varied and different ways. I’ve had a growing awareness of how blind I am to my privilege as a white male born in North America to a middle-class mother who had been to university. Your ongoing willingness to point out the dangerous consequences of unquestioned privilege-blindness has been deeply helpful…
Miki and all, I sosavor how these sentences of yours resonate for me:
“As the one with privilege, I want to remember to always welcome and never expect someone else to hear me if it’s not their complete and voluntary choice,” –reminding me how much I treasure autonomy.
“As the one without privilege, I experience the space to choose to move towards my own liberation on my own terms, without expectations, without a timetable.’–reminding me of how much I have come to claim self-responsibility.
I appreciate your writing, particularly your obvious years of engaged, heart level contemplation on violence, oppression, power, humanity. Primarily, one of the cruxes of what you speak about, that those who have been/are powered-over must initiate the reconciliatory process, if they so choose, for the process to be truly liberatory for all. the one/group in power can experience liberation for themselves without needing to be heard from those they have hurt or used, abused, oppressed, etc, and if they are seeking to break the cycle of oppression, it is certainly not in imposing such a process onto those they’ve oppressed. I genuinely appreciate your articulation and exploration of this. I believe deeply in NVC and its intentions and capacity for healing, yet one area I’ve craved to try to understand it better (and, even, see IF it can apply) is within the context of extreme difference of power dynamics.
And moving on further, as much as I wish I was in a position not to find myself locked in on a “random detail” of something you’ve said to the Palestinians should you be in a position to speak with them, I am finding myself stuck here. And its not because I want to harp on a meaningless details and miss the overall spirit of your words. No, I believe I am hearing the spirit of your words and intentions and I do trust them. BUT, rather, it is because something still feels off FOR ME, as a Palestinian woman, and as I’ve been sitting here working to calm my own triggers, its not resting for me.
And so, more or less, here it is.. the details of how you describe what the Israeli people “have done”…wondering if some of it “WAS intentional”, overall giving me the impression that you recognize past violence from the Israeli forces but somehow kind of miss the current, ongoing nature of that. Certainly, however, you feel sad that the Palestinian people have responded in violence, but again, this is difficult for me to hear or understand, given the knowledge you have said you now have, when, as I’m sure you’ve heard innumerable times, the violence the Palestinian people are dealing toward Israel is truly a handful of sand in an ocean compared to the violence CURRENTLY going on in the occupation.
I suppose, overall, I feel really skeptical when I hear people even mention the Palestinian violence because I just can hardly see how one could ever expect the Palestinian people to so defenselessly, defeatedly take such abuse…to the point that, even as a studier and student of NVC lifestyle and spirit, I feel confused at even having to mention how “violent” Palestinian people are. It is a drop in the bucket, is what I am saying, and that is something I think I am needing to hear from you. The acknowledgment that the magnitude of disparity in violence is so great that it can quite nearly go without even having to speak of the Palestinian’s violence. I understand that there are Israelis today in Israel fearing physical harm or death, but the way many Palestinian people are fearing harm or death is truly worlds away from that fear of individuals in relatively comfortable, autonomous circumstances, scared of statistically uncommon violence. I do hate to get into the business of comparing one’s feelings to another, and I give you my word that I am working to approach this conflict, which is so close to my heart also, with more of the nonviolence spirit. I do see that comparing the severity of one’s experience to another’s can perpetrate violence, but isn’t that the nature of power relationships? The one with more power wants to decrease the disparity between their pain and suffering. The power wants to make it seem that they are actually pretty close in their suffering… And I just feel like, no, there is not a lot to argue about here that there is PRESENTLY massive disparity between the suffering of the Israeli people at large and the suffering and oppression of the Palestinian people both inside Gaza and West Bank as well as immigrated out.
Thank you for listening, and again, thank you for engaging this difficult conversation that that not many Israeli people are interested in having. You are my sister on this earth and we have pain and our people have broken histories but I think our collective spirits can heal through this very deep and ancestral wound.
I can’t tell your name from the response above, and I’m grateful that you wrote… I hope to respond to the content of what you say in the next coming days… in the meantime I’d like to let you know that Miki is currently offline, without access to internet (until Friday, Oct 16th) and won’t be able to respond until after that. Aya.
Thanks Aya! I’ll check back in here. -Ash Dasuqi
I think your name is Ash, and I am finally writing in response to your comment, as I was away on two trips.
I am so grateful that you chose to respond, and to respond so fully. I am also grateful for the companionship in searching for solutions to the immense pain in the region that work for all. I sense that from you, and treasure it.
I am also grateful that you chose to focus on the piece that is not working for you, and am taking it very much as a sign that you are engaging with me and wishing to move forward together.
I want to start by stating the gist of what I am hearing from you, to see if I got it fully:
1. You want to call attention to the ongoing and continued nature of what is happening, not just to how it started. In particular, I imagine you want acknowledgment of the continued occupation, the acts of violence, humiliation, confiscation, the building of the wall, and the killing of people, and many many more instances of what the occupying forces and the Israeli government are continuing to create in the Palestinian areas.
2. As much as you long to find and embrace a nonviolent response to the conflict, it is difficult for you when anyone points to the responses of the Palestinians, because you want a deep and fully acknowledgment of the massive disparity between the experience of having active, daily struggle for survival that the Palestinians have, and the relatively calm and protected experience that Israeli Jews have, even when there are instances of killing. While you recognize the comparison of suffering usually leads to separation, you nonetheless want attention to the extreme suffering that your people constantly face, in large part as a way to have understanding and compassion for their desperate choices in response.
Is this the gist of what you wanted me to hear?
Assuming that I am somewhere in the ballpark of what you were hoping for me to hear, I want to say this.
First, that I am fully aligned with the first point. I was focusing on the initial acts, because that is the part that is least spoken about, least known to most Israeli Jews. In the last week I’ve been reading the book THE IRON CAGE by Rashid Khalidi, translated into Hebrew, actually. It’s the story of why the Palestinians never managed to get to statehood even as all their neighbors have. It’s heartbreaking, and I am only part way through it. I am becoming ever more fully acquainted with just how far the mythology I was raised on is from what I now understand happened. That is what I was focusing on. I cannot reconstruct why I chose so specifically and deliberately to talk about origins without including the present.
So I want to take this moment to say that I cannot bear the weight of the horrors been done in my name, that continue to be done still. I am sad for every second in which you may have felt pain on account of believing that I am not holding that piece with you.
Second, I completely understand the delicacy of comparing suffering. I prefer not to do it in the way that I understood you to ask for. What I want to say, instead, is that I am deeply troubled by how little is known inside Israel about the extraordinarily horrendous conditions within the West Bank and Gaza. This lack of knowledge is part of what makes it possible for many Israelis, I would believe, to not see the relationship between their cumulative collective actions and the responses. The effect is all too often either denied, downplayed, or justified. That is heartbreaking for me.
I also want to say that I do have understanding for why Palestinians respond as they do, and I do not equate such responses with the acts that created the level of suffering that unleashed these responses. I understand the helplessness of facing such a massively armed and supported opponent, and losing any faith in other possibilities.
Still, even after reading all you said, thinking about it, feeling all my feelings, and reflecting all this, I am landing in the same place: however “small in comparison”, these are still for me acts of violence, and as such support the escalating cycle and delay the possibility of finding a resolution that truly works.
Since our exchange started, the landscape has changed. There are now acts of killing, on both ends, that challenge my humanity, my capacity to digest and bear witness to suffering. In my own immense challenge, I do continue to come back to the lesson of nonviolence. Just today I read a quote from Gandhi: “Not an ounce of nonviolent energy is ever wasted.” I hope so very much that you and I and the many others who truly long for a peaceful path will continue to grapple with the immense pain and stay open-hearted to each other, those who suffer, and everyone else.
I am, as always, open to more.
My breakthrough with my own white privilege only came when I was able to work through my guilt and innocence with a fellow white person who had done diversity work. She was able to both acknowledge my pain at bearing the inheritance of guilt from horrific acts I had no part in, and also point out gently over and over that nobody was actually accusing me of anything but actually just wanting their experience to be heard, validated, valued, and addressed. And that despite the fact of my innocence, the world is still unfair and I still benefit from that and to be responsible and ethical in the face of that fact, I had to face my own ignorance and assumptions and educate myself. And I did. I was able to let go of my guilt, and it was replaced with a deep desire and commitment to understand these dynamics. But I wouldn’t have been able to get there if I hadn’t been able to be heard first.
From that experience, I think it is imperative that privileged people talk with other privileged people and become educated and aware before being brought into interactions designed to hear the other persons experience. I think that has to be part of the structure of this work. Otherwise as you say, it backfires. Looking back I am horrified at some of the things that I said in ignorance during that conversation, and I am glad I could get through that stage in a way that didn’t oppress anyone further.
I don’t see any other way to address it. The oppressor class is walking around in a fog of blindness and ignorance. Education has to happen. If it can’t and shouldn’t happen “uphill”, it has to happen among people already on the hill. So essentially it’s not enough to understand oppression–once you understand it you have an imperative to educate other people in your oppressor grouping, in as gentle and loving way as possible, because there is no more ethical way for that education to happen.
Thank you for this article. I have never read your writings before and am always hungry for infirmation on working through privilege and the oppressor role. As a black, third world, historically poor woman there are only a few spots of entry available to me into work from the position of privilege but being an adult, and living with young people, has given me a much better vantage point of oppressor identity from which to relate to men, white people and the wealthy. The most important part of this work for me, which is seldom emphasized, is the liberation which is only available to me as I discard the privilege. The straitjacket of ‘adultness’ is similar to the one offered by maleness, whiteness, wealthness. And I feel the constriction every day. It is now clear to me that facing this privilege and refusing it, except where it is useful to dismantle the current messed up system, is a gift to myself and no one else. From my experience the oppressor identity is rigid, disconnected, non-spontaneous and compartmentalized. It’s much more fun to shed that heaviness. (I’m not negating the challenges of being in an oppressed group but once basic needs are met I’m so happy to belong to the target groups to which I belong for the above reasons and to reclaim these qualities as I shed ‘adultness.’
My one little input on the Israeli situation from very far away. The complexity of the situation, and the similarity to settler identity in my opinion, comes because the identity of Jewishness, clearly on the receiving end of oppression fir centuries, being intertwined in this case with whiteness – especially of those in power. Without the racism of white as opposed to brown then the post WWII events may have unfolded very differently. Many of us non-whites feel solidarity with Palestinians as brown people having to face the power of those descended from white Europeans -which is the way we often perceive Israel as a nation. I consider myself not on the target end of religous oppression so perhaps my input is oppressive but I soeak here particularly regarding race. Maybe this view is oversimplified but it’s where I currently sit. I welcome your perspective on this.
I am a long time follower of NVC and value your insights here.
I suppose that is in part because this article sheds light on
a critique I have long held in my heart about NVC — that
it works less well across great differentials in power.
I saw that years ago in a thought experiment involving an
adult with little skill in empathy and a small child with
little ability to express herself. Your vignettes are
important variations on that theme.
Your vignettes add on to that dynamic important considerations
involving each of us as persons holding the mindsets of our
cultures which value some people’s needs as greater in value
than some other people’s needs. Movement out of those mindsets
is a process involving years, and even once some progress has
been made with that there remains the reality of still being
among other people who are still valuing needs according to
Can you envision (or have you envisioned) an approach to NVC from the
standpoint of someone who is holding on to the habit (which
they have learned from their culture) of valuing their own
needs as less important than the person they are seeking
to collaborate with?
All the best,
I am very happy with your comment and the questions you raise. I have done a lot of work about applying NVC across power differences, and I invite you to search this blog using the word “power” in the hopes that you will find some things. Another search word my be “collaboration.”
In direct response to your question, just a tiny bit.
I believe that it is, indeed, extremely challenging if not impossible to TRULY collaborate when you don’t believe that your needs are as important as someone else’s with whom you are aiming to collaborate.
Part of why is that if you don’t hold your needs as valuable, then the only way that they will be held with full care is if the other person is doing it even when you are not. That’s a very tall order, rarely achievable. I see it as more likely to work with the person who is not valuing their own needs to come to value them more and to be able to present them in full to the other person while also holding that other person’s needs fully.
I hope this helps, even a little…
I really appreciate what you wrote here. As a trans person and a survivor of parental abuse, I have sensitivities that others do not expect. I’ve been told many times to adopt the NVC language when defending mine, and other marginalized people’s needs. But I find the language required does not allow me to say that things that they’ve done are hurtful and unwelcoming to someone like me. And because I don’t adopt the language, I am being judged as being uncooperative and hostile.
I am wondering how your approach to NVC has changed after your realization that it doesn’t always work when there is a imbalance of power? I am asking because I feel that if I was allowed to speak judgements like, it’s not okay to treat me like there is something wrong with me because I am different than you, amd that was acknowledged, then I would feel that I was allowed equal footing and would be able to listen to the feelings of other.
But without that acknowledgement, I feel that I am always being judged as the cause of the conflict. And that is never a good place for reconciliation to start.