Tag Archives: nonviolence

The Postmodern Fallacy of Dominance

I wrote this on a social media thread, and chose to use ALL CAPS as a metaphor for the theme of domination and power that I was exploring. I have been influenced to use ALL CAPS in a non-angry way by another writer whose writing on philosophy and spirituality is superb. Somehow his capitalized expressions do not come across as yelling but as emphasizing (as if italicized).

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So, this philosopher Derrida is very popular with the young activist crowd (and some old ones, too). He’s the guy who made an IDEA extremely popular… the idea that all systems, relationships and momentary exchanges are hierarchical in nature and are rooted entirely in POWER dynamics and the drive to DOMINATE.

Derrida went on to exhort us all to FLIP the hierarchy at every possible turn. In other words, we are called to reverse the power dynamics at all times… moment by moment… individuals and systems.

With this premise, it’s perfectly understandable why entire frameworks are created with a straight-out-of-the-gate adversarial stance against “the other” and the feverish drive to “dismantle” all things created and to win back the power that was stolen.

But, a question arises.

What if the original premise is incorrect? What if some -or perhaps many- people simply interacted with us out of the desire to connect? What if some -or perhaps many- people recognized differences in wealth, fortune and status between them and us and desired to share at least part of what they have with us? What if some -or perhaps many- people are simply not AWARE of these differences or how they fail to SEE us or our suffering and oppression?

What if the central premise of POWER and domination being at the root of all systems and relationships is not entirely accurate? What if this premise is just an INVENTED position based from painful personal experience and not a DISCOVERED pattern based on objective observations over time?

I ask this, because I have seen so many other premises (or operating PRINCIPLES) driving the behaviors and creations of individuals, communities and even entire systems…. lust, desire, longing, existential despair, desire for comfort, winning, striving for excellence, creating beauty, new discoveries, the seeking of justice, intentional ignorance of unpleasant realities, fear of death…. turning away from abuses…. and so forth.

Then there is the wondrous delight of building, innovating and creating….. and the ancient, universal and natural patterns of loving, belonging and nurturing…. so, so, so, so, SO much more to all of this than the Game of Thrones.

At least that has been my experience.

In recent years, I’ve seen relatives killed with bullets by law enforcement, dear friends lost forever to addiction, abuse and cruelty, students stabbed to death and shot outside their homes, liars getting away with lies, and the emergence of a culture of ridicule that demands that we diminish the all too real suffering of those whom we stand against.

And, yet I still cannot get behind the idea that life is all about domination, oppression and control. I believe in the goodness of people, even now.

What if re-designing and re-purposing lazily and selfishly designed systems for the betterment of all involved at least some degree of kinship with “them”… if only in the secret chambers of our minds?

What if a person who writes out ideas and questions like these doesn’t have any answers or solutions at all?

What if the answers we find in writers and thinkers lead us further away from ourselves and from one another?

What if this is all just an addiction to “the fight” to escape ourselves?

The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense at Work

I want to review a very useful book today. It’s called The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense at Work. To my great fortune, I was turned onto the works of author Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D about five years ago by a close friend. This is one of Elgin’s greatest works, and should be included among the greatest  contributions to the healthy workplace movement.

Elgin, a linguist, goes into great detail about the ways in which language can be strategically employed to both undermine and enhance the mission and culture of the workplace. She begins by examining the power of language and the importance of “cleaning up” the “language environment” in our workplaces, and goes on to explore the concepts of semantic features (the unique impact on different individuals of specific word choices) and recognizing and responding to what she calls Verbal Attack Patterns (VATs).

The most powerful chapter in the book is titled “Malpractice of the Mouth.” In this chapter, we are introduced to the importance of recognizing “verbal violence” and the responsibility we have to recognize and neutralize verbal violence whenever it surfaces in the workplace, especially if we find ourselves the target. The overarching goal in verbal self defense is to navigate the hostile mode of workplace aggressors towards the mode of “Leveling”. In Elgin’s description, Levelers are people who are straightforward and sincere, even if this sometimes involves a critique of the performance or views of a colleague.

The mode of Leveling does not involve aggression -especially covert aggression- and is the preferred communication mode for those who wish to make the workplace more productive and harmonious. Covert aggression, on the other hand, is the preferred mode of those who wish to “get under the skin” and undermine the confidence of their colleagues. In situations involving covertly aggressive verbal attacks, Elgin offers a way out. First, she instructs the reader in how to recognize the tactic of hiding “buried presuppositions” in verbal attacks. A crass example of this can be seen in the following sentence:

“When did you stop starving your parakeets?”

Three “facts” are presupposed in the previous sentence. 1. You have parakeets. 2. You began starving those parakeets at one point in time; 3. You ended the practice of starving the parakeets at another point in time.

If in fact you own parakeets (but have never starved them in the first place), according to Elgin’s strategies for verbal self defense, you will need to respond to the most important presupposition (that you began starving your parakeets) in order to neutralize the attack. She offers several strategies for accomplishing this task in ways that preserve the dignity of both the “verbal attacker” and the target.

I will be presenting hypothetical scenarios in future posts, in which I will explore the various strategies for handling covert aggression in workplaces, social communities, and group projects.

I want to end the post with a final thought.

It only takes a one or two individuals to compromise the mission of an entire organization, and this compromise is almost always built upon the consistent use of covertly aggressive tactics. Most of us care about the work we do, and it would be wise for us to hold these individuals in check. Whether we name the tactics workplace bullying, covert aggression, manipulation, or verbal violence, we need to learn to recognize them and de-fang them if we hope to do great work in a mission-driven atmosphere.

This excellent book will go a long way in that endeavor.

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The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense at Work

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Ten Principles of Servant Leadership

*This is an excerpt from the essay All Shine: How Stewardship Built a Vision

The following list of principles was s developed by Robert Greenleaf.  The categories are drawn from the literature, but the descriptions are in my own words.  For a more in-depth look at the Ten Principles, please visit this website, which provides a description written by Larry Spears.

Listening – A servant leader truly listens to people, not just to understand but to address needs as they arise and are communicated.  Surprisingly, humility is not listed as one of the top characteristics of Servant Leadership, but can be included here as the close cousin to listening.  Without humility, the servant leader can never learn and certainly has no reason to listen.

Empathy – Compassionate leaders care about people they are working with, the people served by the enterprise they are leading, and the community in which their organization operates, including the larger world community.

Healing – A leader who cares about people is committed to wholeness and healing.  If she recognizes a deficiency or need in a person, she works to find ways for that person to heal and to become more complete.  This is not an annoying distraction from the organizational mission or business bottom line, but an important part of building and sustaining a team of mutually trusting partners.

Awareness – A person who has formal authority in any situation, including a workplace, group project or national organization has enormous power to make a difference.  This is why it’s key to elevate people to leadership positions who have a sophisticated awareness about many things.  Awareness of the impact of their work, the patterns of behavior on their team, and the importance of gathering information from multiple sources to ensure the best way forward.

Persuasion – Leaders who care about people do not cause harm.  They recognize that forcing others to act or to take a position is a harmful action, and thus, seek to persuade people with reasoned argument and an appeal to the mission.  They are not coercive.

Conceptualization – Like Transformational Leaders, Servant Leaders provide a compelling framework for the work they are doing in concert with others.  They take care to build concepts that appeal to the hearts and minds of people and that promote values that directly relate to the mission.

Foresight – Socially responsible leaders look ahead to potential fallout and beneficial outcomes of their actions and the actions of the enterprises they lead.  They contemplate not only the ways in which their organization might benefit from specific actions but how decisions and actions impact their people and the community around them.  In other words, they take the long view.

Stewardship – The word stewardship has become a popular piece of jargon, but the principle is profound and important.  Too many stories are coming out that tell the tale of a CEO who comes on board at the eleventh hour of a business and runs it into the ground before walking away with millions of dollars and a large workforce unemployed and destitute.  A Servant Leader comes on board to rescue the business or to work with people to find ways to close the business that can benefit the largest amount of people as possible.  She takes seriously her responsibility to steward the enterprise in a way that helps the micro-community of the business or organization and the macro-community in which the enterprise operates.

Commitment to the Growth of People –  This is a big one.  Regardless of the original mission or reason that people come together, a leader who wishes to serve the common good is first and foremost committed to growing as a person, allowing others to help her grow as a person, and helping other people to grow.  Whether coming together to record a music album, making a full-length feature film, running a public school, or building a legal case, the people with formal authority to set the tone for the community of people always have their eye on the common good as the greater, over-arching purpose.  In this category, stewardship takes on a broader meaning.  What is ultimately and always stewarded is the building of a better world because people have the chance to grow.

Building Community – All of the above principles act in concert to build a positive community.  Because of the principles of listening, awareness, persuasion, stewardship, healing, awareness and empathy, there is little room for a “cult of personality.”  Furthermore, if the conceptualization of the community’s mission is clear and includes foresight, there will be a built-in understanding of the ways in which authoritarianism and “cultishness” can be avoided.  This is partly related to a commitment to the growth of people.  People can only grow if a community isn’t all about the “leader” and if there’s room for feedback and development of the leader himself.  Ultimately, this kind of community is made up of Servant Leaders, all of whom take turns to step into the role of stewarding the community’s process at one time or another.

Taking care of one another is a principle of stewardship in a world of extraordinary need.
The overarching principle that guides a leader who serves is the commitment to use one’s influence and resources to take care of others, at whatever scale.

What I’ve learned about “positive politics”

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I miss graduate school.  The UMASS Boston program’s training in pedagogy was excellent, but the dual degree also focused on organizational change and dialogue, which I fell in love with.

The following list is a guide for managing the political aspects of effective management and community organizing.  It was developed during my graduate work, and the original title was “The Key Elements of Effective Representation”.

I adapted the title and language to include the broader domain of both formal and informal leadership in communities, projects and organizations.  The basic point is that leadership requires the consistent quality of trustworthiness and the intentional effort to maintain healthy relationships with colleagues, subordinates, superiors and all other stakeholders.  Some organizational scholars have called this approach “positive politics.”

KEY ELEMENTS

1.  Adopt a healthy attitude about “politics”

Politics is a neutral word. It means nothing more than a group of three or more people negotiating the ways and means for distributing resources (money, time, people) and determining who gets to have influence and how much. Positive politics, if played fairly and ethically, can create mutual respect and harmony. Without active and positive political management (see elements below), the politics of any community or project can descend into defensive maneuvering and unproductive conflict. So, adopt a healthy attitude towards your political role. It is needed.

2.  Maintain collegial relationships with all stakeholders

Even if you are not actively seeking support for something or gathering input, informally check in with colleagues, managers, subordinates, partners and other stakeholders in your community.  Most importantly, treat all with equal respect and dignity -even those who have disagreed with you or have opposed ideas and/or initiatives you have proposed in the past (see number 5). Please keep in mind that those with a lower-status position in your organization could one day be a huge resource for an initiative, so try not to slight them or exclude them.  Of course, they matter in their own right, so treat them respectfully for its own sake.  Finally, try not to adopt the anger or hardline stance of any particular faction in difficult situations (even if you share their point of view). You will need to keep your relationship with the offending party intact during these challenging circumstances, so try to remain as neutral as possible.

3.  Circulate, circulate, circulate!

Simply put, try to circulate throughout the  organization on a regular basis.  This is especially important when trying to generate support for a project or when you need input from colleagues, manager/directors or other stakeholders. But, it’s important not to feel entitled to anyone’s time. If someone is obviously occupied, politely stand aside and wait for the right moment or return at a later time.  People will appreciate it when you respect their time and space and will more readily give you their time when you come back.

4.  Distribute leadership and responsibilities

“Power” and influence are neutral energies. Over time, if they’ve been at it long enough, individuals or groups could come to acquire one or both. It is well known that power can corrupt, but the softer version of “influence” can cause burnout (people of influence are go-to people, which can take up a lot of their time and mental space). To avoid corruption and burnout, distribute leadership and responsibilities as much as possible. Share the tasks of writing letters and emails, facilitating meetings and circulating. The added bonus of sharing these responsibilities is the increased investment of others in the organization.

5.  Embrace the opposition

Every “battle” comes to an end. Sometimes a project or initiative you have proposed fails or never gains ground. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. Don’t make anyone your permanent adversary. Someone who opposed your idea(s) in the past could one day become your greatest ally for an even better idea in the future. The most valuable thing about embracing the opposition, however, is not limited to maintaining a politically viable relationship for future endeavors. The simple fact is that sometimes the opposition is right. Listen carefully to the opposition in all circumstances. Even if you decide to stick to your position, their views will help inform you about the best way to proceed.

6.  Provide framing in difficult situations

As a manager/director or a community organizer, you will have developed relationships with a number of people from different sectors of the larger community.  At times, you may find yourself navigating divergent views and representing the entire spectrum of opinions around an issue, procedure or policy.  Because of your many relationships, you may able to provide the framing around an issue or decision because of the fact that you have all of the information and perspectives.  Whether you choose to take sides or to remain neutral about something, try to find a way to respectfully surface each point of view in an open forum. You can do this during meetings or in the writing of letters, proposals or memos. However you choose to proceed, frame all points of view in a clear narrative and connect them to the shared values, goals and vision of the  community.

7.  Gather input to make buy-in unnecessary

If you want a project or initiative to be successful, your colleagues and other stakeholders will need to know that you have consulted them every step of the way. Gathering information and input is the best way to generate support. People love to support projects in which they have served as one of its architects. This goes for writing, too. Jot down the phrases, metaphors and tidbits that you gather from those you’ve consulted and include them in the writing associated with the project. However small, staff input in the writing and framing goes a long way in shoring up support.

8.  Tell the truth always, but know your audience

Lying will get you nowhere and will erode your informal authority and influence in a New York minute. The fact that you were untruthful can circulate very quickly no matter how sophisticated you are in presenting a favorable image. If you have formal authority (such as a CEO, manager or administrator) you might have some more leeway here, but, in most cases, it is best to avoid deception and trickery.  Once you lose trust with people, it’s difficult to get it back.

However, be strategic about who you share information with. A gossipy colleague who enjoys ridiculing others may not be the best person to communicate with in certain situations. While maintaining transparency and stating your intentions are laudable goals, use caution, discernment and balance in your communications. Not everyone is an honest broker.

Always remember, too, that there will be circumstances that require confidentiality. Never repeat anything told to you in confidence. It will be regarded as a betrayal, and if word gets around that you betrayed someone’s confidence, nobody will trust you.

Finally -resist, resist, resist the temptation to ridicule others or to gossip about them. A “juicy” or entertaining piece of information might offer the satisfaction of one-upping a potential adversary in the short run, but it will sully your professional reputation in the long run. Besides, it’s mean, petty, and just plain wrong.

 

Tell the truth and be respectful always. As a leader with formal or informal authority, your reputation around issues of honesty and trust is the highest political capital you have. You don’t want to squander that.

9.  Respect that politics is often about perception

Five words. How will this be perceived?

The following bullet points will help you to navigate the stormy waters of the perception game.

  • Use language strategically and constructively. Avoid making absolute statements when possible by using the following words and phrases: might, may, could, possible, possibly, potential, potentially, commonly understood to be, general consensus that… When possible, make general statements about issues that commonly surface in the arena in which you are operating.
  • Connect your ideas and concerns with the organization’s mission as much as possible.  Try to avoid confusion by being explicit about your intentions in all matters.  When possible, connect those intentions with the intentions (purposes and goals) of the organization.
  • Share the credit and tasks of writing emails, letters, action plans and reports. This will help to maintain the collective spirit of personal investment among the organization’s leadership, workers and stakeholder partners.   It also keeps the focus on the organization and its goals, rather than on any single person.

10.  Don’t make it about “you”

Don’t take anything personally. You could be lionized as a hero, maligned as a phony, or tolerated as a nuisance. You might even  be ignored. No matter what, don’t make it about you and try not to let others make it about you. Of course, if someone expresses gratitude for something you’ve done, graciously accept it and walk on. Remember, everybody loves a hero, but not nearly as much as a fallen one. Don’t buy your own press. And make it about others.

The elegance and power of nonviolent talk

Good evening.

I discovered an article written by William Powell, the author of “The Anarchist’s Cookbook.”

The title is “I wrote the Anarchist Cookbook in 1969.  Now I see its premise as flawed”.

Powell argues for his book to taken out of publication and urges us to understand that “violence can’t be used to prevent violence.”

But, the same principle can be applied to the words we say, too.

Equally violent -and often a direct cause of physical violence- is the growing culture of mockery and deception, and the intentional distortion of the character and positions of those we consider adversaries.

This culture seems to be everywhere: the political arena, the playground, the workplace, the local pub, the media, the internet…. everywhere.

For now, cruel talk is king, and our celebration of it continues to poison the well.

Hopefully, there will come a day when the elegance and power of nonviolence will open up to include the way we communicate with our tongues and fingertips.

The impact on progress in politics, the office, and in all communities would be nothing less than remarkable.

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