Working for Transformation: dialogue with Sophie Docker

This is a recording and transcript of a dialogue between me and Sophie Docker about Working for Transformation, a training led by Miki Kashtan, 12-14 June 2018 in Stroud, UK. Sophie is organising the training.

Listen to the recording

You can also download the MP3 file.


Sophie Docker: I’m Sophie Docker, I work with nonviolent communication and restorative practices. I have invited Miki Kashtan over to share her work in the UK. She works with nonviolence in California, she runs the Center for Efficient Collaboration and shares her work with organisations and individuals making change. I’m particularly keen on inviting Miki over because of the way she sheds light on some of the distinctions and nuance that we have as we try and build a world that works for all.

Jonathan Kahn: And my name’s Jonathan Kahn, I have attended a couple of Miki’s trainings and found them incredibly useful in my work as a facilitator and trainer. Sophie and I thought that having a dialogue about specifically why Sophie’s bringing Miki’s training to the UK now might help people to see whether that training would he helpful for them. So I thought we could talk about specifically how the kind of work that we’re going to be covering in this training has helped you in your work.

SD: So the training is about how we can create change in a way that doesn’t reproduce the divisions and separations that we’re experiencing currently and hoping to transform. I have experienced in many different ways this tension between really needing to get to an outcome with a project and maintaining the relationship and inclusion along the way. Typically there can be this dynamic where, when people go against the flow or are outliers in the group, that can feel like it’s impeding progress towards an outcome. Managing how we can develop processes that are inclusive, because it’s a process rather than an outcome. In that way we’re reconciling how we’re working for change with the change we want to create.

JK: So this is where a group convenes to do something, for example in a local community, and there’s this perception that listening to all the different perspectives is impossible, and would actually impede any progress towards this shared goal.

SD: Yeah, and we’re living in such a culture of scarcity that this scarcity of time is a massive feature in how we do things and the processes we use. I was at a conference recently of lots of change making organisations and there was definitely a clear tension between people who were wanting lots of decisions towards certain outcomes, and other groups who were feeling that the process wasn’t inclusive enough. And I’ve seen that happen in different ways in different places.

JK: This is where the idea of difference comes up, which I think, those people who are on social media will have heard discussions about power and privilege. You were talking about this tension between, “let’s just get it done,” and “let’s include everyone’s perspective.” I think we reach for concepts we learnt in school like compromise for example, to try and get something out the door. And I believe Miki’s work provides a whole other way of looking at it than compromise. My question to you is, can you give me an example of where some people wanted to go ahead and ship something into the world, and some other people felt that was actually not really seeing their different perspective? If you can give us an example I think it might be more concrete for people.

SD: Yeah, I think the inclusivity debate often has that effect. At this conference I was at recently, there were people who were bringing up inclusivity a lot, and for other people there was a sense of frustration that that was stopping getting to the end destination, so there wasn’t time to pause and look into how we can meet the need that’s arising for some people at the same time as holding the needs of others. In a sense it was replicating the dynamics of power and privilege and exclusion and such there are in the wider world, inadvertently. It was interesting to see.

JK: I want to try and give an example for those who are less familiar with this language. So, for example, if you look a certain way, in a country like the UK or the US, you will be stopped by police more often. This is actually very clearly evidenced by the police themselves, they collect numbers on this. And this means if you look a certain way, if you are brown for example, you have a very different perception of what the police is than if you are white. So those of us who have been privileged in that way and have never been hassled by police officers, think of police officers in a certain way, as being people who are helping remove unwanted people from our streets… that’s a caricature, but that’s how we look at it, I think. And then people who, for example, are brown see it in a very different way. So when you’re doing some kind of project for example community policing, and we talk about what the experience is of that, if most of those people are, like me, privileged, we’ve never really understood what that other perspective looks like, and so it does seem an irrelevance or a weird thing to start talking about this idea of race, or this idea of privilege.

SD: Yeah, privilege is a real hot potato as well because I think it’s really important to hold that it’s not a binary thing, either I’m privileged or not privileged, and it’s not a static thing, it’s changing constantly. It’s also not necessary my fault or my responsibility, it’s something I’m born into. Miki’s work is fantastic at holding that with real compassion and accessing the most transformative potential in it. So that we can be working from a place of most privilege in order to disrupt the dynamics that there are in the world currently. And I have my own personal experience with this, of realising that I had such shame around the privilege I had, I sabotaged my life in way to try and hide it. And then when I really embraced it, there was a real empowering shift in me that was– OK, this is me, I can own this, and in owning this I can really use it for the benefit of all. That was really significant.

JK: I want to talk about that specific question of how the approaches that we’ll be covering in this Working for Transformation training can actually help move us beyond this “stuck in shame” reaction to realising all this privilege and actually help to integrate those perspectives that are foreign to us. Can you talk specifically about, in your experiences for example at this conference where this was coming up. People wanted to get going, and some people wanted to talk about the fact they had a different perspective. What kind of approaches, what kind of things were you able to do as a result of having learnt the kind of things we’ll be covering in the training?

SD: Something that we did at that conference which was really interesting was, at some point we all formed into sub-groups, and I was part of a group on access and inclusion. We looked at– there are certain indicators, like how many people of colour there might be on the organising committee, how many women, or different groups. But actually we were really keen to get past a certain set of indicators because that’s an outcome focus again and we were all tuned in with the idea that what we needed to do was to develop a process of inclusion. Because currently it might be women and people of colour that might feel excluded from the process, and in the future it might be Australians or people who have a PhD. Things change, and unless we build processes where we’re constantly listening to the people on the fringes and including them rather than discounting them then we keep replicating the same thing. And how we did this at the conference was we looked at how we could embrace difference, how we could lower the threshold on people engaging who had different opinions, particularly people who were going strongly against the flow, sensing that would be a really difficult place to be in. And the power dynamics, organisers/non-organisers, different status within groups. So we developed a few different levels of involvement for people. We had a place where people could anonymously feed back in writing. We have a group of people who were prepared to listen empathically to anyone who had any tension or challenge. We asked organisers to specifically encourage people to bring their tension and challenge as a really important piece of information about how they’re impacted by the process. We encouraged people to speak up in big groups and small groups with the idea that, if they were bringing a different perspective, that was valuable, vital information to the group. So we were trying to take it from a few different angles, and it was a really interesting process and massively welcomed by people.

JK: Well that’s interesting, that it was welcomed, because when I was listening to you I was thinking, how did these organisers react to the suggestion that they try and explicitly welcome strong objections to what they’re doing?

SD: I think in that group there were a lot of people who’d been looking at some of the ideas that are around at the moment in terms of organisational structure, such as sociocracy and holacracy that look at things being “good enough for now and safe enough to try,” for example. And allowing what’s alive in the group to come in. And it was difficult, and there was some time when there was this tension, as we spoke of before, around some people wanting to get to certain a outcome and then feeling other people were bringing in this same thing that had been talked about already. In a sense there was a slight reluctance to engage with was coming in terms of feedback around inclusion because it was going to sacrifice getting to the end of the conversation, or to a closing point. That’s really interesting because where there’s that reluctance and pulling back, that’s when it’s keenly felt by everybody who’s trying to bring something. So there’s a way of holding everybody’s needs– so getting to grips with what the need is, maybe setting up a sub-group to talk about it further, or figuring out a way to capture that need but not to sacrifice the needs of the whole group.

JK: Yeah. The way I look at this when I’m trying to think about these issues, is the person who thinks that they just want to get this out, I don’t think they’re going to get what they want, in a way, if they don’t integrate the other perspective. Because it’s somehow an ingrained reaction we have to see someone objecting to us as being difficult, or not seeing what is important, or derailing us. But I think only via those derails, and the learning I can get from understanding those derails, will I actually end up with the solution that genuinely does work, for me! Because I am interdependent, however I’m looking at the world, I am ultimately interdependent.

SD: Yes. And the louder people shout, it’s because they’re not feeling heard that they need to raise their voice. In developing a process for hearing the feedback, we can minimise the amount of time that goes into these things.

JK: It’s making me think of this jargon that I’ve mainly heard in feminist circles called tone policing. Which is where those of us in positions of privilege say, “well, your point’s ok but the way you’re expressing it is just not.” And we tend to do that when we are shocked by the way someone’s expressing themselves. Which just came to mind from the way you were saying someone’s going strongly against the flow. Because in order to really express that what is being said in this group is not representing that person, who comes from this in some way disadvantaged group, they need to push against this huge coordinated attempt to just do it the normal way. And the reaction they tend to get when people are not aware is, “you’re being unreasonable,” or using some kind of trope to describe what they’re like. Through the tools that Miki’s teaching we can actually move that person from tone policing and saying, “please don’t express yourself in that loud way,” to, “I really want to understand what’s going on for you that’s meaning that you’re needing to push against this process, and how that feels for you.” That really, I believe can be transformational.

SD: Yes, exactly, and there’s a leaning in, in that. A welcoming that is felt by everybody beyond the words that are used, I think that you just expressed so well.

JK: So I guess, in your experience, in the real world, in projects that you have a commitment to and a wish to make happen, what are the practical things that you’ve been able to achieve– I’m not talking about, that you changed the world, but have you helped someone to see something, have you brought someone to empathy… what kind of outcomes have you seen through attempting to apply the teachings?

SD: Just constantly in my personal life and professionally, when people feel heard fully it lets off steam and shifts things. I do restorative justice facilitation and restorative approaches and that’s a massively transformative part of the process, is just in hearing people. And hearing can come in so many different forms, witnessing something and leaning into it as you were saying before.

JK: I think it’s worth exploring or defining restorative justice for people who are not familiar with it. My understanding of it is that the justice that we’ve been inculcated with is this retributive justice which says, if someone did something wrong we must punish them as retribution for their evil. And one way of looking at that is it’s very ineffective, if you look at the numbers. And my understanding of restorative justice is to say, the fact that someone was hurt is an indication of something that is broken in the fabric of our community and so it’s kind of everyone’s problem, even though we don’t wish to say that the experience of the person who did it and the person is the same– it’s not the same. They’re both somehow negatively affected by this tear in the fabric. So through some type of process of restoration, might it be possible to find a solution that’s way better than retribution, for everyone.

SD: Yeah, exactly. It’s not about finding who’s wrong and punishing them for it, it’s looking at the harm that’s been caused and how people have been impacted by that, and what they need to move forward. It’s similar to nonviolent communication in that it’s about building a connection in order to make change. So the transformation comes when there’s a connection to the humanity we share, and we can recognise each others’ humanness, and then people feel a willingness to want to contribute to each others’ wellbeing. And so that can even be the case when people have experienced fairly extreme harms, through the actions of another person present. And it can also be used in disputes where it’s less clear than one person’s done something to someone else. And it’s more of a recognition that we’ve all been impacted in various different ways. And some of those impacts are systemic and some of them are personal and relational.

JK: I’m interested in that theme, because I think we’ve all got situations, I believe, where we have a sense that there’s a potentially better way, a way that works for everyone that we’re somehow not accessing. And so I’m interested, within that restorative justice work, are you able to share any stories where these types of issues came up and you were able to use an approach that you potentially learnt from Miki to then help the group.

SD: Yeah, I think Miki’s approach informs a lot of what I do and particularly this idea of not making people wrong and that we’re not going to make change if we make people wrong. Being able to hear people fully without that meaning I need to give away anything that’s important to me.

JK: We’re coming to the end of our time so I just wonder if you might share with people who are listening, the top takeaway, the thing that they would get from coming, whatever context they’re in.

SD: If people are in change-making organisations or organisations with other purpose, or even if people are trying to make change within their families and personal lives, I think the light that Miki shines on all of this is really rich and rewarding. Looking at how we can really align what we’re doing with our purpose and our aims and what we want to achieve in the world. And really seeing how we can embody nonviolence internally and within the work that we do so that it’s making the kind of impact that it can. I feel really passionate that there’s a real key here to how we can create change in a way that’s really inclusive and that we can move forward in the world together towards a world that works for all, that holds everybody’s needs with equal care.

JK: I think that’s a great place to leave it.