Empathy in the Face of Powerful Structures

Several years ago I was heading to a holiday party I’d organized with a bunch of supplies in tow.  I live in New York City and was riding the subway.  I packed all the decorations and food in a large cart with wheels to make it easy to transport.

By the time I got to the subway, however, I was running late and in a hurry.  And given that I could not fit through the turnstile with my cart, I decided to see if I could open the automatic gate with my metro card.

In my previous experiences on the subway, I would get the attendant’s attention, swipe, and then wait for them to open the door.  I had never known for sure whether that was necessary, given there was a swipe machine next to the gate.  At this point, swipe cards were still relatively new (they had replaced tokens) and the whole gate process was a bit of a mystery to me.  Given that I was running late and the attendant was busy with other customers, I decided to try it.  I swiped, tried the gate– it opened!– so I went through. Success!  How exciting– I’d never bother getting the attendant’s help again with that gate. I was so pleased with myself!

Well, I had only gotten five steps from the turnstile when a police officer stopped me.  I’d entered the subway system illegally, he told me, without paying!  I was completely confused.  I had swiped my card, and the gate had opened. “You were standing here.  Didn’t you see me swipe my card?”“Yes,” he said, “but it doesn’t matter. You don’t have a service entry card so the scanner would not have read your card.  So you got in without paying.  The gate swipe machine reads only service entry cards.” 

It made no difference to him that the gate opened (he informed me that it was already unlocked—how would I have known that?  I thought the card had worked).  It also didn’t matter to him that on the turnstile there’s a picture of a regular yellow MTA card, with no notice that it’s for service entry cards only! “Ignorance of the law is no excuse,” he told me.

I was flustered.  I wanted to be seen for my intention and wanted trust about my intention — that I had intended to pay.  He already had written the ticket so I knew there was no point in discussing it further.  It was a done deal.  Before leaving, though, I told him I was definitely planning to go to the hearing and I asked him if he would give me his word that he would definitely attend as well.  He looked surprised.  If an officer doesn’t show up, you automatically win your case.  But for me, this was just not about the ticket and the $85 fine.  It bothered me on principle and I wanted to dialogue with the officer about it.  I wanted to be heard.  He agreed.  He said he would see me at the hearing.

I had six weeks until my court date, so it gave me plenty of time to prepare for the hearing, get lots and lots of empathy, and also do some practice role-plays with my empathy buddies.  I wanted to be really prepared because I knew this would be a challenging and most probably triggering situation for me, sitting on my own in front of a judge and an officer– two authority figures, with all the structural power, who I assumed would be inclined to follow the letter of the law and bureaucratic protocol, simply out of consistency and ease.  Because of some traumatic experiences earlier in my life, I knew that I could become passive and give up in the face of authority or become defiant. I wanted to handle this situation very differently: from a place of choice, empowerment, and conviction.

Consistent with the Nonviolent Communication (NVC) concept of having a clear observation, I also went back and took some photos of the turnstile, showing that it featured a picture of a regular bright yellow MTA card with no notice stating that it was for service entry use only.

On the day of the hearing, I was on edge — what would happen, I wondered?  At the same time, I felt as prepared as I could be.  Over the course of several empathy sessions and journaling, I had gotten to my core needs.  So I was feeling relatively relaxed and calm. And I’d practiced what I might say.

I also was relieved to find that I wasn’t going before the judge in an actual courtroom; I had this vision of a Law and Order courtroom when thinking about the day.  Instead, it was a very small office, with just enough room for a table and three chairs.  The judge sat on one side and on the other side sat the police officer, who had kept his word, and had turned up.  Interesting to me, as if it were a mediation, the officer and I sat next to each other on one side, and the judge on the other.

First, the judge read the complaint and the officer gave his version of events, which was pretty simple: that I had entered the MTA system without paying and included other details like the date, time, which subway stop, his location, and that he’d observed me entering without paying.  I was then given a chance to speak.  I started by recapping and empathizing a bit with the officer.  I wanted him and the judge to know that I had gotten his points, both on a content (cognitive) level and on a core needs level. 

I said to the officer that I could understand his point of view — that, on the most basic factual level, I had entered the system without paying.  Ignorance of the law and the gate being open (unbeknownst to me) did not matter.  I could understand that he would want some shared understanding of these points.  I could, in fact, understand that it would be hard for him to do his job any other way.  I checked with him if I had gotten it accurately and he nodded.

I then shared what really mattered most to me about this situation.  I said to the officer: “I’m curious and confused: you were standing there when I swiped and went through the gate. Do you think I could have seen you standing there?”  He agreed that I could. “And did you notice how surprised I was when you stopped me?”  He acknowledged this point as well — that I appeared to him to be authentically surprised.  I showed the judge my observations — the photographic evidence. 

While ignorance of the law is not an excuse, it clearly was my intention to pay.  And I had no reason to believe that I hadn’t paid, since there was a regular MTA card featured on the turnstile, and the gate opened when I swiped.  With each of these points, I shared the needs up for me:  a desire for understanding, shared reality, and trust.  Even in a city the size of New York, I would love for there to be some trust about people’s intentions.

The judge was interested in the photos of the turnstile. But she also seemed to be taken by hearing my core desires — to live in a city where there are human trust and connection.  Some benefit of the doubt.  Some trust about intentions.  How else could we live together and operate in a city of this size?  While the conversation started about not paying a fare, I invited the judge to consider a meta-view of how we live and relate to each other.

When the judge gave her decision, the officer was clearly surprised.  He was taken aback, literally.  The judge seemed surprised herself.  She said this was the first time she’d made a ruling of this kind and overturned a ticket like this.  She needed a few minutes to talk with her supervisor because otherwise, he wouldn’t understand her decision when he saw it.

While I waited for her, I thanked the officer for honoring his agreement and coming to the hearing.  I appreciated him giving me an opportunity to be heard.  If he had not turned up, I would have won the case automatically.  But for me, I had a much deeper desire: to be seen for my intentions and to be heard for my vision of the kind of city I want to live in.

And that day, thanks to my NVC skills, I had an opportunity to live in the kind of city that I envisioned — where intentions, trust, and human connection could matter.

About five months later I noticed that the turnstiles near the service gates were now clearly marked, “Service Entry.”

13 thoughts on “Empathy in the Face of Powerful Structures

  1. Dian, this blog brings me to tears. I am so moved by it. I find inspiration and learning here. And a vision of the kind of community, I, too, want to live in. THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THE WAYS THAT YOU MODEL WHAT IT MEANS TO PRACTICE NVC WITH CONSUMMATE SKILL. It is a gift to our NVC community and to the larger world.

  2. I loved reading this! I learned so much about empowerment and integrity as an antidote to the idea of “winning.” I love your determination to have your intentions seen and your promotion of trust in a big city.

  3. Oh how I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall when you spoke with the judge and officer. I tend to collapse in the face of such power. Thanks for sharing, it meets needs for hope for a brighter and improved future here in NYC.

    • Thanks for letting me know that it had meaning for you! I just want you to know that i also struggle in the face of power over. In this case, I got several empathy sessions and role played in advance. I really did my empathy homework in advance !:) Hope that inspires you!

  4. Thank you for posting this story! I searched for the NVC need “to have your intentions seen” today, searching for understanding about what this need really means. This post was the one single thing I found online describing it. Now I understand. Thank you!

  5. Dian, Happy New Year!

    I just reread this and it’s very inspiring. I’m planning to share it with Barbara. You really walked the talk here!

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