Monday, January 19, 2009

Happy MLK Day!

Happy MLK Day!

Our semester started today, and so I've been preoccupied with that, but I did take time out this afternoon to attend an MLK Service, which was very moving.

And on Friday I attended a Mediation and Negotiation Workshop. I'm very familiar with mediation and negotiation, but it is always good to have a refresher, and it is always valuable to see how others teach about this. And I always learn something new. But what I learned this time surprised me: I learned just how new and unfamiliar this is to most people.

For example, after a wonderful session on dialogue, we had an exercise intended to apply what we had learned. First we had individual time to think about how we would respond in a fictional scenario, and so I dutifully applied all that we had just learned about how to engage in dialogue with the difficult person described in the scenario. Then we had to discuss this at our tables. Here's where I was surprised. All of these nice, thoughtful, bright people at my table took the situation very seriously but their response was not at all to apply the principles of good dialogue to the situation! Instead, they all judged the person difficult and unreasonable and described the ways that they would put pressure (mostly by using threats!) on the person to change his behavior to match how they thought he should behave!

In my own tactful dialogic way, I questioned them without quite pointing out that they were totally ignoring all that we had just heard described for the past 20 minutes, and I wondered out loud whether things might be more successful if one were to engage this hypothetical difficult person in a conversation about why he was doing what he was doing. "He might have a perspective we haven't considered," I suggested. "Maybe we'd be persuaded that his behavior is not as much of a problem as we had thought -- or maybe he himself would come to reconsider what he is doing and propose making changes." After all, one of our charges was to find a way to address the situation that would not make this hypothetical person become defensive. But the people at my table just looked at me as if I were from another planet.

Now the different tables were to share their insights with each other in a full-group discussion. I hoped that I might now receive some backup from the other tables. But I didn't. Instead there was almost a competition among the different tables about who could be "toughest" on that hypothetical difficult person, and which version of toughness was most likely to be successful.

The facilitators did their best to question such strategies in hopes that the participants themselves would come to realize what they were doing, but I don't think they ever did. I tried to chime in as well, but everyone kept just ignoring me.

It was a very strange experience. I realized anew how much our mainstream culture reinforces the view that when people do things we think are problematic, we must employ threat-based techniques of behavior modification to get them to change. "Nice" people instead substitute reward-based techniques of behavior modification. The automatic assumption in both approaches is "if I don't like what someone does, I'm right, they are wrong, and they won't change unless I can somehow force or manipulate them into changing."

The message that we should double-check our own motivations and our own perceptions, because we might be wrong, does not get through easily to people. The message that it's not up to us to change the people around us, but that we should instead solicit their help in reworking problematic situations and relationships that we share with them, does not get through. We have internalized bad habits of blame and punishment.

I think about all of this on MLK Day. Martin Luther King, Jr., got it. He really understood the power of nonviolence. And so did a lot of people who were involved in the civil rights movement, because they learned through experience how effective it is. And so I remind myself that it really is experience that is the best teacher. Imagined scenarios cannot quite get people to have the experience of how powerful nonviolent action is. Role-playing is better, but it is actual experiences of effective nonviolent action that is the best teacher.

And we don't need to look far to find such opportunities, actually. We can find them in daily life if we are perceptive enough. People every day blame others and try coercively to manipulate their behavior -- or even behave this way towards themselves. Living from genuine respect towards everyone (including oneself) is really challenging -- and really important. This is what changes the world.


  1. I completely agree. We spend so much time focusing on the wrongs of others, and so much time convincing the person we speak to that we are right - that we are never really listening to eachother. Working as I do in psychodynamic psychotherapy (althlough not as a therapist)I have learned that blame and punishment (plus unrealistic expectation and fantasy) are the main reasons relationships breakdown. And by that I mean mother-child, sister-brother, husband-wife, friend-friend and all other correlations one can think of.

  2. Yes. It's really important to notice when we move into blaming behavior (including self-blame) and then pause to question whether blame is really appropriate or helpful. One of the best books I've read on this is Marshall Rosenberg's Nonviolent Communication.