When I said “yes” to giving a keynote speech about bullying at a community conference put together by the Albany Unified School District in CA, I knew I could count on a global network of Nonviolent Communication trainers to help me. The biggest support I received was a deeply moving story about Zeke, a 16-year-old boy, member of the KKK, who was met with such empathy that he could recognize that his membership was an attempt to have connection with his father. Being understood as deeply as he was by my colleague Catherine Cadden was a new experience for Zeke. He came up to her after the event and said: “You know, that was the first time I felt fear begin to leave my body. I’m actually relieved.” Zeke ended up leaving the KKK after taking a deeper look at his choices.
I titled my talk For the Benefit of all Children: A Compassionate Perspective on Bullying, and started it with Zeke’s story (click here to see the talk on Youtube). I could see and hear the shock in the room when I mentioned his affiliation. As the story unfolded, I sensed that people were trying on the idea, so foreign to our habitual sensibilities, of meeting a KKK member with empathy. Unless, of course, one is a KKK member, in which case meeting many other people with empathy would be equally shocking. By the end of the talk I had a sense that the audience and I had been on a journey together. We went from an individual responsibility for and a punitive response to bullying to a community-based sense of responsibility and a systemic approach based on preventive and restorative responses. Understanding violence as an expression of unmet needs invited the audience to consider the possibility that having everyone’s needs cared for and more of them met would likely result in significantly less violence. Whatever is leading a person to bullying would not be attended to by being told it’s wrong and bad to bully. Especially given the strong association of violence with shame, as James Gilligan so lovingly calls us to consider in his book Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes, punishment can only increase violence, because it leads to more shame.
I ended the talk with a vision of possibility. In this vision schools are structured in a way that maximizes children’s physical safety. When transgressions happen, both the child who bullied and the child who was bullied know they will be accepted and supported in finding reconnection. The child who was bullied has hope that s/he can express her/his vulnerability and pain, and that it matters to the community. The child who bullies has support in finding other ways to get her/his needs met. The child who bullies also has hope that there is a place in the community for her/him. No one is ostracized. The community has a way to talk about behaviors that harm others without making the person who did the harming bad or wrong. The sense of a community caring for everyone is maintained even through hard times.
I have so much faith that in such a community fewer and fewer children will resort to violence, because they will have ample other avenues to meet their needs.
If the audience indeed went on a journey with me, I also went on a journey with them. Being a visionary for so many years I have gotten into a tragic habit of assuming that people will ridicule or oppose my vision. I believe I spoke this time without compromising my message and without alienating people, at least as far as I could tell through my interactions with the audience. To do so I had to muster enough trust and confidence to assume that people will join me on this journey, to counter my habitual assumption to the contrary. I walked from the place of being all alone in the world to a place of trusting that there is room for me in this world and in this community that invited me to speak. Like the person who bullies, or the one bullied, I want to trust my belonging. I can see now that the invisible expectation of not being heard, not having room, not finding commonality, may well be a self-fulfilling prophecy and make it harder for me to connect fully with others. I hope to be able to apply this lesson in every area of my life.
Note: the video Miki’s keynote speech is here.