Transforming Power Relations: the Invisible Revolution

by Miki Kashtan

This article was published in Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice in September 2002. It is republished with permission. All names in this article are made up.

For more than a century, holistic and progressive educators have creatively thought about and responded to the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual needs of children. Despite this enormously rich work, coercive power relations still hamper our ability to serve students and faculty. Nonviolent Communication can help us understand, engage with and transform some of these relationships. Nonviolent Communication (NVC) provides specific tools to empower ourselves and others to live more in line with our values and deeper needs. When we do that, we become more effective in relating to ourselves, other faculty, and staff, and we can contribute more to students’ ability to feel connected and energized. Through this process, we nurture the hope in everyone about the possibility of creating a world that works for all.

Beyond a certain limited application, the use of NVC requires a radical shift in consciousness. NVC is a dialogue process aimed at a particular form of consensus: solutions to meet both parties' needs. Using this form of dialogue as the primary mode of interaction requires a deep trust that people enjoy giving freely. It also requires an abiding commitment to attend to the needs of other people. When we are equally concerned about others' needs as we are about our own, we make it possible for them to give joyfully. What makes it possible to say YES from the heart is the knowledge that we are free to say NO without suffering consequences. Entering into NVC dialogue means choosing to model this quality of care and connection whether or not others are.

Staying in dialogue is no small feat. It is hard to remember, as NVC suggests, that other people’s actions, no matter how painful to us, are simply attempts to meet their needs. It requires reminding ourselves, again and again, of a crucial point: that people will prefer to meet their needs in ways that don’t harm others when given options that they believe will really meet their own needs.

On the deepest level, we are called to believe in an article of faith that has been central to progressive and holistic educators: that there are ample means to meet everyone’s basic needs. Through meaningful dialogue that creates trust and connection, we can meet more people’s needs more peacefully and more fully.

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NVC is based on the recognition that human needs are not in conflict with each other; only strategies can be in conflict. Through ensuring that both parties hear and connect fully with each other's needs, we look together for strategies that would meet as many of those needs as possible for all parties involved.

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Thus, for example, the more Cynthia can hear, understand, and empathize with her students' needs behind their actions, the more power she has with them. Her understanding and empathy conveys to them that their needs are seen, and that they also matter. When students are heard in this way, they tend to be more open to working together to find strategies to address their needs and others' needs – in this instance, Cynthia’s. Time and again, educators are surprised to find the wealth of wisdom and creativity that children can exhibit in solving problems when they understand everyone's needs.

In a world based on domination the options for strategies to meet needs are drastically narrowed. When we are separated from each other, we cannot work together to find strategies that work for both of us. When conflict arises, even with people we ordinarily trust, we lose our capacity to imagine creative strategies to meet needs. When we have been trained to believe that our needs are at odds with others' needs, we can easily resort to the use of power over regardless of our general spiritual and political beliefs.

Power over is born of the combination of two key assumptions of domination systems. One is the assumption of scarcity of means. The other is the belief that the primary motivation of human beings is to try to satisfy their every impulse, no matter the consequences to self or others.

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How do we learn the art of dialogue when we are primed to respond to relationships by imposing our needs or giving up on them as soon as conflict exists or seems to be brewing? The challenge is enormous: in each moment of conflict we are called upon to undo and transform the core assumptions we were taught, and take a leap of faith into trusting the possibility of attending to both people's needs. How do we acquire the capacity to hold both parties' needs as equally important? How do we learn to connect deeply enough with each other's needs that we find a strategy to meet both?

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When we try to bring the use of NVC to the context of power (over) relations, the challenge is even bigger than in the personal encounter. The social processes and social structures around us continually reinforce the premises of domination. The task of using and modeling NVC in such systems is to imagine power-with relationships into being regardless of what the systemic conditions are.

Teachers occupy a particularly painful dual role. In their relationships with students, "they are central figures of authority and control." But when dealing with school administration and school districts, "they are remarkably isolated and often strikingly powerless." Few roles in society require a person to constantly engage others from both ends of the dominance-submission polarity.

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Learning to have power with our students means empowering them to say NO to us. Only then can we experience the magical beauty of hearing a YES that comes from true choice instead of a "should." Paradoxically, if we let go of the outcome, and are open to dialogue with the “NO” that we may receive, the results will often surprise us.

Linda, a 1st grade teacher in a California school, experienced this recently. Children in her school were engaging in a game that delighted them no end: pulling their elbows back through their sleeves and down to their sides so that only their wrists extend from the sleeves. This silly look appeared to be contagious despite the danger of not being able to break a fall with their hands (indeed one child suffered a concussion from doing this). No amount of reciting safety rules, threats of punishment, or other coercive measures resulted in any change. As soon as adults were out of sight, the children resumed their game.

One day Linda decided to try something different. After she approached one leader of this activity and invited him to talk to her privately, the following dialogue ensued:

Linda: "When I saw you pull your arms into your sleeves, I felt really alarmed because I was afraid you might fall and hurt yourself. Your safety really matters to me. Would you be willing to stop this game?"

Student: I was only being silly.
Linda: Are you scared right now, and want to make sure I understand you didn't mean any harm?
Student: Yeah.
Linda: You really just want to have fun and enjoy yourself?
Student: Yeah. I’m being careful.
Linda: Are you wanting me to understand that you are also concerned about safety, and want to be trusted about it?
Student: Nods without speaking.
Linda: (after a pause): I am still really worried about this game, and I’m not comfortable with you guys continuing to play it because I don’t trust that everyone will be safe. I really care about you. I’m wondering if we can find some other ways of having fun that are not as scary to me?

There was no demand, no threat of punishment, and no coercion. Linda was clearly open to listen to why he might want to continue to play this game. When he received this understanding in the form of Linda's attempts to guess what was alive in him, he was able to connect with her feelings and needs, and willingly agreed to stop. Knowing that his safety mattered to Linda, and seeing that she was open to hearing “NO” in response to her request, he was moved to agree from a different place.

Following this one conversation with Linda, this student has not resumed this behavior at home or in school. Indeed, no one else has been doing it, either. Such is the effect of power with: the shift he experienced during this interaction was profound enough to have lasting results.

What would have happened had the boy not shifted easily? How do we interact with others, especially children, when we believe that their actions are not meeting our needs, or theirs, without trying to coerce or punish them? How can we remember to hold theirs needs as they experience them as dear as our own needs and beliefs about their needs? How can we integrate the knowledge that any solution that doesn’t meet their needs will backfire sooner or later?

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Practicing the tools of NVC entails letting go of coercion and the use of force except when life is endangered. Even then, NVC suggests using force only to protect, not to punish, and resuming dialogue as soon as danger is not imminent. At the same time, staying in dialogue does not imply agreeing to what children want to do. Rather, our dialogic stance invites others, including children, to consider everyone’s needs. As we model our capacity to care for children’s needs, and our willingness to express our own needs and ask for what we want, we teach children an important lesson: that their needs matter no more and no less than anyone else’s around them. It is through being treated with respect, consideration, and empathy that they will learn to treat others similarly.

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Making a full choice in the face of fear of consequences requires great emotional strength, sometimes even a willingness to suffer consequences wholeheartedly. This spiritual fortitude is at the core of nonviolence as practiced by Gandhi and King. Sometimes this stance would mean agreeing with what we are asked to do, because of recognizing that it would meet our own needs (be it for generosity, contribution, peace, or any other need). At other times it would mean standing our ground while maintaining dialogue with the person in authority, offering empathy and expression of our own feelings and needs with the goal of meeting both sets of needs as much as possible.

Just as much as the freedom to say “YES” depends on having the option to say “NO”, we cannot truly choose “NO” from the heart if we are unable to experience the possibility of choosing “YES” to meet our own needs, separately from those of the person in authority.

As difficult as it is for us to stand up to and connect with those in authority, it is even more difficult for our students to do so with us. When we begin to practice NVC, then, we can see our own position in a new way, as a window into the possibility of seeing the humanity of everyone. Our struggles with our students can increase our compassion for our supervisors. Our challenges with those in authority over us can add to our understanding of our students. When we are able to see everyone's humanity, we step outside the familiar set of relationships, and get a glimpse of what truly life-serving institutions could look like, when everyone's needs matter and are taken into account.

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I want to stress again that using NVC is not a panacea that magically transforms how we will relate to students, other educators, administrators, and ourselves. Nor does it always enable us to fulfill our goals. But it does give us tools for participating in fulfilling the vision of holistic education, an education in which the needs of each child are cherished and in which children are nurtured to act in joy, compassion, and mutuality. We live this vision by creating communities in which all of our needs are seen as beautiful expressions of our humanity – and in which we work toward meeting all of our needs peacefully. As we do so, we create, in a microcosm, the world we dream of bequeathing to our children.


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Miki Kashtan, Beyond Reason: Reconciling Emotion with Social Theory, unpublished dissertation manuscript, UC Berkeley, 2000.

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Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider, Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1984.

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Kathy Simon, Moral Questions in the Classroom: How to Get Kids to Think Deeply About Real Life and Their Schoolwork, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001.

Karolyn Tyson, Social Influence and the Process of Schooling: The Creation and Perpetuation of Social Inequality at the Primary Level, unpublished dissertation manuscript, UC Berkeley, 1999.

--------, "Politics as a Vocation," in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, edited by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, NY: Oxford University Press, 1946 [1921].

Phillip G. Zimbardo, Haney Craig, W. Curtis Banks, and David Jaffe, "The Psychology of Imprisonment: Privation, Power and Pathology," in David Rosenhan and Perry London, eds., Theory and Research in Abnormal Psychology, 2nd edition, NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975.

© 2002 Miki Kashstan
Miki Kashtan is a certified trainer with the Center for Nonviolent Communication, as well as project coordinator for NVC and Social Change. She conducts public workshops and retreats in the San Francisco Bay Area, in NY and in Boston, as well as offering trainings in organizations around the country.