27. Tools for Big Triggers
26. 10 Tips for Feeling Fear
25. Get to Know Your Unconscious Mind
24. Shine a Light on Your Shadow
23. Resources for Building Successful Relationships
22. Lead Yourself with Compassion
21. Share Your Courageous Honesty
20. Find the Gold in Your Shadow
19. Working Successfully Through Difficult Dialogues
18. Build a Relationship with Fear
17. Make Time to Grieve
16. Help Others Build Their Own Truth-Finding Neural Pathways
15. Keep Asking for Help
14. Admit to it Too
13. The 8 Most Powerful Things You Can do to Build an Inspired Relationship
12. Connect to the Living Energy of Your Needs
11. Catching Hearts
10. Take It To The Trees
9. Cultivate Connection Before Asking for Action
8. Slow Down and Get Empathy Before Making Important Decisions
7. Make Poetry Out of Empathy
6. Talk About Conflict When You’re Not In Conflict
5. Invite People to Say No
4. Ask Before Offering Advice or Suggestions or Stories or Hugs or…
3. Ask to Understand
2. Separate Needs from Strategies
1. Practice Self-Empathy with Your Whole Body
27. Tools for Big Triggers
1. “I’ve got you.” – Keeping Your Inner Adult Online
Big triggers are almost always connected to events from your past that overwhelmed your capacity to feel, understand and integrate. When experiences are not integrated, the emotions, sensations, and behaviours related to the experience get activated each time a similar experience occurs.
I like to think of big triggers as my inner child still trying to integrate those overwhelming past events. My first tool for big triggers is to say/think to my inner child, “I’ve got you.” And, I’ll add other phrases that help, such as, “I’m with you. I’m right here with you.” Then, I breathe and feel, breathe and feel. Saying these things to my inner child brings some calm to my body enough to stay connected to my inner leader (inner adult, inner parent, whatever term you prefer) and to my prefrontal cortex–the part of the brain that calms emotions can sort through our inner experience.
2. Self-Empathy – Staying Connected to Your Body and Finding Your Needs. Crucial.
If I’m connected to my inner leader, then I can guide myself more effectively through the steps of self-empathy. Using Self-Empathy to stay connected to my body and get to my needs helps me move through the emotions that are activated. See Blog Post to the left.
3. HeartMath – Using the Heart to Calm Your Trigger
According to the HeartMath Institute, there are neurons that go from the heart to the amygdala–the part of the brain that generates emotions and the fight/flight/freeze response. If you generate emotions of the heart, such as gratitude and love, those neurons will calm the amygdala. The HeartMath process is similar to cultivating the living energy of your needs. I like to add the HeartMath process to my self-empathy. And, sometimes, I do HeartMath first and then self-empathy.
4. Connect the Present to the Past – Making Sense of Your Trigger and Going Deeper
Finding the events of the past that are connected to your trigger will help you have more understanding about why your emotions are so big and will allow you to work with it more fully. For example, you can give empathy to the young part that experienced the past event, or, you can hold the young part close while you do HeartMath or other processes.
5. Breathwork – Moving the Emotions
Few things help me move my big emotions like Breathwork. There are several types of breathwork. I recommend you try a few and see which works best for you. Be sure to have well-trained support to guide you. On top of moving emotions, my body feels so relaxed and open after breathwork.
6. Support – We are not meant to do this alone
We are not meant to do this alone. We are not meant to do this alone.
What an utter tragedy that many of us learned that there is something shameful about asking for help. If you have big triggers going on, find skilled support.
26. 10 Tips for Feeling Fear
In my ongoing experiment in coming alive, I’ve found that one of the most powerful avenues into aliveness is through exploring fear. Exploring any emotion can bring more aliveness, but there is extra aliveness in fear, at least for me there is. Most, if not all, fear is the fear of death—death of the body or the death of the ego. Therefore, exploring fear is very helpful for a conscious relationship to death.
The following tools for exploring fear can be applied to any emotion.
- Make a conscious choice to explore fear. Choosing to explore fear will allow you to better prepare and feel the fear.
- Start with smaller fear and work your way up. Try a new hobby. Strike up a conversation with a stranger. Address conflict you’ve been avoiding. Take a workshop/course that is out of your comfort zone. If you’re not able to do whatever you set out to do, get lots of empathy and try again or try something less difficult. I believe that a slow, steady, compassionate, and consistent approach will be more effective than pushing hard to take big leaps (and, sometimes, big leaps are called for). Be careful not to sabotage yourself with black and white thinking—I face it all or I don’t face it at all. Find a middle way that works for you.
- Get as much support as you can. The deeper you explore your fear, the more trained/skilled your support needs to be. I don’t do deep healing work or plant medicine with just anyone. In the end, only we can feel our feelings, but we don’t have to do it alone. And, the more you stretch yourself, the more important it is that your support people are skilled and experienced.
- Acknowledge your fear and take responsibility for it. During the most intense part of my ceremony, during the third night, I acknowledged fully to the medicine—to the consciousness of the plant–that I was afraid to die. Immediately, the intensity of the medicine lessened.
Acknowledging and taking responsibility for your fear can also be immensely helpful in relationships. You’re chances of working through conflict in a connected way are so much greater when you share your fear instead of your judgements and blame. It is crucial that you don’t share your fear with the intention of making the other person responsible for it. Share it with an intention to take full responsibility for it and it will lose some of its power over you.
- Look for the deeper fear that might be related to trauma or pain from your past. After the difficult third ceremony, I spent some time exploring more deeply my fear of death. I asked myself why I was afraid of death. I found a few answers: a fear of being left behind, of being utterly alone, a fear of annihilation. I felt a young part in me holding those fears and I gave it empathy and comfort. I doubt I could have gone as deeply as I did in the final ceremony without getting to those fears. Finding my deepest fears and getting empathy and support for working through them has also helped move through stuck places in my relationships and in my life.
- Breathe your attention into your heart. Thanks to some inspiration and support from a friend who was there with me, I decided to fully trust the plant for the fourth and final ceremony. Each time the medicine became intense, I told her I trusted her, and then she would make it clear to me that the way to feel through the fear was to breath my attention into my heart. Time and time again during that last ceremony, I experienced how the intensity of the feelings and the visuals increased toward chaos when my attention was in my head and softened when I trusted and went down into my heart. In my heart, there was always a still point to anchor to. I thanked her again and again for such a powerful teaching. (Incidentally, I’ve heard that there are neurons that go from the heart to the amygdala—the part of the brain that stimulates a fear response in the body. I believe the HeartMath Institute that has done research on how these neurons will calm the amygdala if you can generate heart-based feelings such as gratitude and compassion.) I highly recommend HeartMath tools.
- Develop a body- or heart-based meditation practice. See point 6 for inspiration.
- Trust something greater than yourself. I recommend increasing your capacity to trust something great than yourself, whatever that might be. It’s easier to face fear when you are able to trust something greater than yourself, at least it has been for me. See point 6.
- Take time to integrate. Sometimes, I get very excited about coming alive and making the most of this precious life and don’t take time to integrate my experiences after I’ve moved toward fearful things. When that happens, my body usually pays the prices. For me, integration includes reflecting on my experience, learning from it, getting empathy for the challenging parts, and doing things to nurture my nervous system—mediation, time in nature, naps, massage, etc.
- Be clear about your vision and motivation. Come up with your own answer as to why you want to expand your capacity to feel fear or any other emotion. Think about the cost of blocking your emotions. How does it impact your relationships and your connection to yourself and your aliveness? How would your life be improved if you could improve your capacity to feel? What pain could you let go of if you could truly grieve? What would you no longer need to depend on for aliveness if the energy of your emotions was your fuel for inspiration? What adventures await you when you walk toward your fear? What stories will you tell about your life?
25. Get to Know Your Unconscious Mind
Getting to know your unconscious mind will help you have better relationships with others and with yourself. A great way to get to know your unconscious mind, particularly the relational stuff in your unconscious mind, is to read my book. One of my motivations for writing my book was to help people understand how their childhood experience of relationships is carried into their adult relationships, how it is stored and recalled through a type of memory known as implicit memory. Implicit memory goes into the unconscious mind and comes out of the unconscious mind when we experience things that are roughly similar to past experiences.
The more you know about your unconscious, the better you’ll be able to heal it and find the appropriate support. Best, of all, you and your partner (or close friend, family member, etc.) can support each other to heal what you carry in your unconscious minds. There are many tools in my book for working with the unconscious mind.
Each of us is responsible for the wounds we carry. However, if we want to have a successful relationship, we need to support each other to work through our wounds. Perhaps there wasn’t a lot of emotional intimacy in your family, and now emotional intimacy is challenging for you. Let your partner know this and explain to them what it was like in your childhood. Tell them that they are not responsible for your wounds. Then, let them know how they can help. Here are some possibilities:
- If I feel pressured to open up, it’s really hard for me. Inviting me and allowing me to have choice about how and how much I open up really helps. Sometimes I don’t want to and I need that to be OK.
- Please check with me first when you are seeking emotional intimacy. I may not be in the right state for it.
- Please let me know what you’d like from me when you are opening up and looking for emotional intimacy. I get that you don’t want advice, but I’m not clear about what you do want.
24. Shine a Light on Your Shadow: Projection Detection and Reclaiming Disowned Parts
How do you know when you’re projecting disowned parts or replaying old relationship dynamics? It’s hard to know for sure, but if you find yourself upset or shutting down and unable to have a dialogue in which you can speak clearly about your feelings and needs and empathize with the other’s feelings and needs, there is likely a projection. The stronger your reaction, the more likely you are projecting.
You’ll know you are no longer projecting when you feel more compassion toward the other person and view the person and event/conflict in a different light. If the conflict was due to a particular behaviour, dissolving a projection may leave you still wanting to address the behaviour (although sometimes that’s no longer necessary). Dissolving your projection will allow you to have an empathic dialogue with the person about both of your needs, without strong emotional and judgmental reactions.
A disowned part is any aspect of you—positive/golden or negative/dark— that wasn’t acceptable to express when you were a child. Disowned parts include
- Emotions: anger, sadness, excitement, sexual arousal, or joy.
- Characteristics or traits: competitiveness, shyness, empowerment, playfulness, vulnerability, beauty, adventurousness, introversion, or extroversion.
- Needs that were not acknowledged and supported: acceptance, nurturing, support, intimacy, autonomy, empathy, or self-worth
- Finding your projection.
- Receive empathy from an empathy buddy or from yourself for your challenges with a particular person—someone who provokes strong reactions in you.
- What is it about the person that stimulates strong reactions—judgments or emotions or both—for you?
- What emotion is this person expressing? Is this an emotion that was acceptable for you to express as a child? Is this an emotion that you allow yourself to have now?
- What personality trait is this person expressing? Was this characteristic acceptable for you to express as a child? Is this a characteristic you allow yourself to have now?
- What need is alive for this person? (Remember that all expressions and actions are attempts to fulfill needs.) Was this need acknowledged and fulfilled for you as a child? Are you able to fulfill this need now, either by yourself or by reaching out to others (not including this person)?
- Owning your Projection
- When have you behaved in similar ways to the person you are projecting onto. Don’t get caught in comparison—“I do that much less often or harmfully than he does.” The point is to acknowledge that you too act in a similar way.
If you can’t find any of your behaviours that are similar, look at the need that the person is trying meet with their behavior and then look for ways that you have met that need in harmful, disconnecting, or unhealthy ways.
- Reflect on your childhood and why you had to disown that trait/behavior/emotion/need. Acknowledge to yourself that you had to disown that part in order to cope/be accepted/belong/survive during your childhood.
- How did it benefit you to disown that part? What needs were met?
- What price have you paid for disowning that part? What needs were not met?
- Reclaiming a Disowned Part (DP)
- Sit comfortably and notice your breath. Bring your Inner Leader (IL) to mind and have it scan your body, welcoming whatever it notices.
- Now shift into the Disowned Part (DP) you want to reclaim. Let your body go into the posture or movement that expresses the state or energy of this part, and speak whatever words are there for the DP, if it has words to share.
- Based on the body posture or words of the DP, have your IL make feelings and needs guesses for this part, “Are you feeling scared? Do you need trust? Is that what is going on for you?”
- Allow your DP to respond authentically and have your IL empathize.
- Continue cycling through steps b, c, d until the DP no longer needs empathy.
- Have your IL express from the heart to the DP. For example, “I feel so sad that you’ve been alone and lost for so long. I’m so glad I found you. You’re an important part of me and we were never meant to be apart.”
- Let the DP respond, if it has a response, and have the IL give more empathy.
- When the DP and the IL have no more to say, have the Il ask the DP
- What is your gift for me and the world?
- How can I help you feel safe expressing yourself in the world?
- What are healthy ways for you to express yourself in the world?
The above process can be done using an empathy buddy in place of your IL, or by using both your IL and an empathy buddy together to empathize with your DP.
23. Resources for Building Successful Relationships
This Tip for the Road is a list of some of my favourite Books, Articles, and Videos related to building successful relationships.
- Meet Me In Hard to Love Places, E. Bowers
- Nonviolent Communication, M. Rosenberg
- Mindsight, D Siegel
- The Dark Side of the Light Chasers, D. Ford
- Soulcraft, B. Plotkin. And Wild Mind, B. Plotkin
- In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, G. Maté
- Romancing the Shadow, C. Zweig and S. Wolf
- The Neuroscience of Human Relationships, L. Cozolino
- Hold On To Your Kids, G. Neufeld and G. Maté
- Stay tuned for Sarah Peyton’s book, empathybrain.com
- I’m new to his work, but I believe Rick Hanson has much to offer, rickhanson.net
1. The Long Shadow: Bruce Perry On The Lingering Effects Of Childhood Trauma
2. The Geography Of Sorrow: Francis Weller On Navigating Our Losses
3. What Ails Us: Gabor Maté Challenges The Way We Think About Chronic Illness, Drug Addiction, And Attention-Deficit Disorder thesunmagazine.org/issues/440/what_ails_us
1. Getting the Love You Want, H. Hendrix and H. L. Hunt
2. The Power of Addiction and The Addiction of Power, G. Maté
3. The Divided Brain, I. McGilchrist
4. The Secret to Desire in a Long-Term Relationship, E. Perel
22. Lead Yourself with Compassion
Substitute Inner Leader—the term I use below—with whatever term works best for you: Inner Parent; Inner Grandmother; Inner Elder; Compassionate Companion; Highest Self; etc.
A. Spend some time each day (even a few minutes helps, more is better) giving yourself nurturing attention from the position of your Inner Leader. Welcome all the parts of yourself, give them empathy, send them love, acceptance, and compassion and tell them nurturing messages (see below).
B. Build your awareness of when an activated inner part is taking over—a wounded child part; a victim part; an inner critic; an inner monster part; etc. What do you feel and how do you act when any given part is taking over?
C. It can be challenging to be nurturing toward every inner part, and it can be challenging to be nurturing toward yourself each time an inner part tries to take over. Turn to support—counsellor, empathy buddy, etc.—whenever you have trouble holding yourself compassionately.
- When you notice an inner part taking over, find some space to yourself as soon as you can. Call forth your Inner Leader (IL).
- Have your IL welcome whatever part is activated. Offer it some nurturing messages (see below).
- Have your IL welcome whatever sensations and feelings you find in your body.
- Have your IL offer empathy to the activated part—make needs guesses.
- Have your IL validate the activated part’s feelings and needs, “Of course you’re feeling angry, you need______(trust, respect, etc.). And you’ve experienced many times when you didn’t get respect, so no wonder you’re so angry.” Offer more nurturing messages.
- Continue empathizing and validating until you feel a shift for the activated part. Give it empathy for past memories that arise.
- Ask it what gift is has to give you now. How can it contribute to your life now? If there is a specific thing you would like to work toward, ask it if it would be willing to help you with that and how it could use its gifts toward that goal.
- If you are having difficulty calming an inner part, bring to mind a time when the needs of this inner part were fully met and breathe your gratitude for that experience into your heart. Or, find anything from your life that you are grateful for and breathe that gratitude into your heart. Keep acknowledging the inner part and keep generating the feeling of gratitude.
- I love you.
- I’ve got you.
- I’m with you. I’m right here with you.
- You are special to me.
- I see you and I hear you.
- You can trust me.
- You can trust your inner voice.
- I love you for who you are, not what you do.
- You don’t have to be alone anymore.
- You don’t have to be afraid anymore.
- You belong with me.
- I welcome all your feelings.
- I care very much about your needs.
21. Share Your Courageous Honesty
My book Meet Me In Hard-to-Love Places makes the argument that ongoing development of both linking and differentiation is essential for building successful relationships. Linking involves doing the things that bring two people closer together, and differentiation involves doing the things that help each person develop greater autonomy and self-connection. Conflict in relationships is often partly due to the inability to navigate and attend to both linking and differentiation. In other words, below the issues that seem to be the cause of a conflict there are often elements of differentiation or linking that need to be addressed.
The closer we get to someone and the more commitment there is, the harder it is to continue developing our capacity to link and differentiate. This is because the development of linking and differentiation requires that we heal our relationship issues and move beyond the unhealthy patterns of linking and differentiation we learned in childhood.
Truly attending to differentiation and linking usually requires that you are courageously honest with yourself, that you take a deeper look and ask yourself questions such as: Am I spending too much time with my partner and not enough with myself or with others? Am I doing the things I love to do and that are meaningful and purposeful to me? Am I cultivating my talents and gifts? Am I speaking up for my feelings and needs? Am I attending to my old wounds? Am I pulling away from or avoiding my partner? Am I avoiding conflict? Am I learning how to open more deeply and vulnerably with my partner? Am I attending to the needs that I want my partner to meet for me? Am I packing my life full of work and distractions so that I don’t have to look more closely at myself or my relationships?
Navigating linking and differentiation with a partner also requires expressing courageous honesty? If you aren’t able to access courageous honesty or aren’t aware of the underlying needs for differentiation and linking, then you will likely slip into unhealthy patterns and express yourself using judgments, blame, demands or with silence and withdrawal. Following are some examples of courageous honesty. You’ll notice that each example includes some words of care for the other or the relationship and ends with a question that invites the other to respond. Both help maintain connection when sharing courageous honesty. What is also very helpful is to offer some empathy or other type of connected listening after you hear the response to your courageous honesty (see my blog post Listening Options that Support Connection for more about empathy).
Examples of Courageous Honesty
- “I love spending time with you, and I need time to connect more deeply with myself. How is it for you to hear this from me?”
- “I really care about our relationship, and I’ve been noticing an inclination to withdraw or push you away, which I believe is due to my fear of losing my freedom and independence. I’d like to slow things down somehow and get some support. How is it for you to hear this from me?”
- “I want you to have the autonomy and space you need in our relationship, and I’ve been noticing fears coming up for me related to trust and commitment. How is it for you to hear this from me?”
- I admire your commitment to yourself and want you to follow your dreams, and I feel nervous when I hear you talking about going back to school (following a dream, connecting more with friends, etc.) There is a part of me that is afraid you won’t have time for me anymore. How is it for you to hear this from me?”
Helpful tips to remember when expressing courageous honesty:
- Include some words of care for the other person or for the relationship;
- Keep it as simple and concise as possible—don’t go into long explanations or analysis;
- Talk about your needs and emotions;
- Aim for a balance of vulnerability and empowerment—share about your deeper fears and old wounds, if you know they are a part of the picture (they usually are), not to engender pity or establish a victim position but as part of shifting old patterns and taking full responsibility;
- Ask the other person how it is for him to hear your courageous honesty;
- Offer empathy or some type of connected listening after they have responded to your courageous honesty;
- Aim to build understanding and connection with the other person before finding concrete solutions and next steps.
Finally, attending to differentiation and linking in relationships can bring up some of our deepest wounds and strongest emotions. It is some of the most challenging terrain lovers travel through. I’ve never met a couple who hasn’t struggled with the development of linking and differentiation, even those who are therapists themselves. Receiving skillful support can make a huge difference. I don’t believe we’re meant to navigate that terrain alone.
20. Find the Gold in Your Shadow
One of the key elements of differentiation is reclaiming the disowned parts in your shadow (find more about disowned parts and the shadow in my blog post).
Reclaiming disowned parts can be very difficult. We disowned parts of ourselves in order to be loved or accepted or safe. Why would we want to reclaim parts of ourselves that once weren’t safe or acceptable to have and express? Because they have treasures inside that are essential to our wholeness and to realizing our full potential.
In order to reclaim a disowned part and find it’s gold, you need to uncover it, feel it, acknowledge its needs, build a relationship with it, and embrace it. If you don’t uncover a disowned part, you will project your judgement of it onto others. If you uncover it but are not able to get to a place where you can embrace it, you will judge yourself (and likely continue to judge others too) and not discover its gold.
A friend once asked me what gold could possibly found be in a victim part (many of us have disowned our inner victim). I told her that through reclaiming my victim part I’ve found a variety of golden treasures, such as a deep understanding that I do need others, more capacity to receive support from others, more compassion for myself and others, and more strength and power. My friend didn’t believe me. All she could see in the victim was weakness, depression, a black hole that sucked away positive energy. I didn’t try to convince her of the gold I’d found because I knew she would only understand by building a relationship with her victim and by coming to a place where she could embrace it. It’s not something you can think through. It is a full-body journey.
19. Working Successfully Through Difficult Issues:
A Structured Dialogue Process for Working Through Challenging Issues
This process is designed to build understanding and collaboration while working through important or difficult issues. Practice it with easier issues so that it is easier to learn. This process works best when you are as interested in the other’s needs as you are in your own.
- Schedule a time that works for both of you to give your full attention to each other. Talking through difficult things is an essential part of building successful relationships, so make it a priority. A great deal of trust, resilience, security and collaboration is built from working through difficult things. Avoiding difficult issues weakens relationships.
- Stick with one issue at a time—work through one issue to the end of the process before going on to another one.
- Agree on how much time you will take. If it turns out that the agreed-upon length of time is not enough to work through the issue, schedule another time to continue the dialogue.
- Use a timer. This may seem rigid, but I recommend it. A timer will free you from thinking about time, and it will support you to maintain good boundaries.
- Each time you come together to do this process, read over the steps below before you begin, until you have it down pat.
- Stick to the process as outlined below. You may decide, at some point, to alter the process to better suit your needs, but I would wait until you have mastered it as it is before doing that.
- People sometimes like to joke with each other when working through difficult issues, sometimes just for fun, sometimes as a way to ease tension they are feeling, and sometimes as a way to slip in something they want to say. I recommend refraining from joking, unless it is your turn to speak. In other words, while you are in the listener role, I strongly encourage you to stick to saying back what you are hearing from the speaker and not to slip in jokes or humorous things, or anything else. Even though jokes may be lighthearted attempts to ease tension or build connection, they often compromise the trust and ease you build together by sticking to an agreed-upon process.
- Have a copy of this process in front of you—either printed out or open on your computer—so that you can refer to it when you need to. If either of you think you’re lost or getting off track, simply pause the process and refer to the steps. Refrain from judging and blaming each other for getting off track. Instead, say something to the effect of, “I think we’re veering from the process, I’d like to check the handout to see where we are.”
- If one party becomes too triggered to stay with the process, call a pause and do an agreed-upon process for calming. For example, focus on breathing slowing and deeply, name the sensations in your body, name your needs (keep a needs list close by), hug or lean against each other or hold hands. Co-create a pause process that works for both of you. Make sure you are both clear on what your pause process is before you begin. Sometimes, taking physical space and trying again another time is necessary. However, using a pause process helps transform beliefs that conflict leads to or necessitates separation.
The Dialogue Process
Items needed: This handout; a needs list; and a notepad for writing down the action plan.
1. Agree on the issue you will discuss.
2. Someone volunteers to listen first. This person is Listener 1. The other person is Speaker 1.
Round 1: Speaker 1 is Understood by Listener 1.
3. The Speaker tells the Listener what she wants him to know about the issue. Speak two or three sentences at a time. Speak in short chunks so the Listener can take it in and reflect it back.
If the Speaker is saying more than the Listener can take it, the Listener interrupts and says something like, “Hang on a second, I’d like to tell you what I’ve heard so far.”
4.The Listener say back to the Speaker what he has heard so far. Say it as closely as you can to how the Speaker said it. Don’t try to say it in a different way. Don’t worry if you don’t remember it all. When you are done, say, “Is that it?” If you think you missed something, that’s completely fine. Simply say, “Did I miss anything,” and then reflect back whatever the speaker tells you was missed.
Each time the speaker says something, the Listener reflects it back. Don’t leave words un-reflected.
Continue with steps 3 and 4 above until the first Speaker is satisfied she’s been understood. Do not change roles until she is. Once the first Speaker is satisfied she’s been understood, round 1 is complete. If the Listener is truly struggling to wait for his turn, he can say something to the effect of, “I could really use a turn to speak. Are you willing to listen for a while and then we’ll come back to you speaking and me listening?”
Round 2: Speaker 2 Understood by Listener 2.
Repeat steps 3 and 4 in Round 1 with the roles reversed. Once rounds 1 and 2 are complete, check to see if either of you have more you would like to say before moving on to Round 3. If there is more, do another round and follow the same steps.
Round 3. The Action Plan.
Each person refers to a needs list and find the needs you have in regards to the issue.
Each person offers a proposal of what either or both of you could do to meet the needs that both of you have in regards to this issue:
“I have an idea; I could do______________. What do you think?”
“I have an idea; you could do_________________. What do you think?”
“I have an idea, I could do___________and you could do______________. What do you think?”
Be specific! What exactly is going to happen? When is it going to happen? Who is going to be the one to do it?
Write it down and read it together so that there is no disagreeing about what you each thought was going to happen.
Working through difficult dialogues can be extremely challenging. If you are unable to successfully work something through, I suggest finding someone—a counsellor, mediator, NVC trainer or facilitator—to help you.
18. Build a Relationship with Fear
When I reach the end of my life, I want to be able to say that I followed my heart as much as I could. What I have found in my efforts to follow my heart is that it is necessary to build a relationship with fear, mainly because following the heart requires some degree of relinquishing control and stepping into the unknown. My mind likes to be in control and it really prefers to be in the known, so it gets scared when I follow my heart, terrified sometimes.
Building a relationship with fear, or any other emotion, is much like building a relationship with a friend. You need to spend time with it on a regular basis, starting with lighter connection and building toward a deeper intimacy. You need to be curious about fear, ask it about its needs, and show it that you care about its needs. In this way you can follow your heart and bring your fear along for the ride, instead of choosing between the two. In fact, when you stay in relationship with your fear and honour its needs, your fear can contribute to your heart’s dreams by helping you make healthy choices and go at a pace that sets you up for success.
One of the dreams in my heart is to play my music at music festivals. I’m very excited about that dream and I have all kinds of fear about it too–where will I find time and money to record a cd and build up exposure while keeping my workshop business going strong; when will my band mates and I find the time to rehearse and tour when all of us work full time? By staying in relationship with my fear (and my dream), I have come up with different strategies to keep the dream alive and go at a pace that feels good, such as our Small is the New Medium BC Tour.
“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” ~ Howard Thurman
17. Make Time to Grieve
Author and psychotherapist Francis Weller believes that we each carry a heavy load of grief. In his interview in the Oct. 2105 issue of The Sun (The Geography of Sorrow) he explains that through most of human history grieving was communal. There were songs and rituals to support people to grieve and let the energy of grief move through. Without communal rituals or some kind of support for grief, we are left to hold onto our grief and carry it with us, accumulating more and more as we encounter the inevitable losses and painful events in life.
Along with the loss of rituals for communal grieving, many of us learned, in various ways, that grief is sign of weakness, or something to fear, bury away, fight against. The approach to grief modeled for us was to cover grief with greater strength, productivity, positivity, and success. The energy of emotion does not get cleared by covering it up; rather, it moves and clears by being embraced consciously and with compassion. Some people go to extraordinary lengths to bury their grief and convince themselves that they’ve dealt with it. And, tragically, some people never get to grieve, and instead hold it in right to the end.
Often, grief is held in because people are afraid that if they opened to their grief, they would get lost in it. This fear is completely understandable for those who haven’t experienced enough acceptance of or support for their grief. If you weren’t consistently and compassionately supported to grieve and instead learned that being ‘strong’ or ‘positive’ and ‘moving on’ was the answer to grief, then it’s likely that your implicit (subconscious) belief is that grief is something to fear. Children need attuned, compassionate support to become comfortable and confident with feeling their emotions. The less support they receive for any given emotion, the more they will become adults who hide from, resist, shut down, condemn, or deny those unsupported emotions.
It is extremely difficult to reclaim our capacity to grieve without help from others. Support from those who are comfortable with their own emotions is usually necessary. Francis Weller speaks in his interview about a time when he was so cut off from his own grief that he couldn’t even look his clients in the eye. You can be sure that his clients didn’t feel comfortable to grieve in his presence. Weller speaks honestly about how difficult it was for him to regain his capacity to grieve, and how he was finally able to weep with the right support from others.
My journey back to grieving has been long and varied. At different times, I tried to bury or run from my grief and other emotions with TV, video games, alcohol, drugs, travel, work, extreme sports, food, yoga and spiritual practices. I didn’t know I was trying to run from my grief. No one around me was grieving. No one told me that grieving was an important part of life. These days, grieving is an important and profound part of my life, though I still attempt to escape my grief from time to time. With good support, grieving is not only cleansing but is also a fountain of inspiration and creativity (many of my songs have been inspired by my grieving). Grieving reminds us of the preciousness of life, it helps us integrate loss, and it opens us to deeper compassion, inspiration, and joy.
16. Help Others Build Their Own Truth-Finding Neural Pathways
Along with it’s potential for helping others calm their emotions and feel deeply understood, the Nonviolent Communication process of empathetic listening can help someone increase their capacity for finding their own truth. Receiving advice and input from others might seem very helpful when you are going through an emotionally challenging situation. However, receiving advice and input doesn’t empower us to go inside, regulate our emotions, find our needs, and discover our own truth. Listening to advice and input without any space to explore our inner world may train us to look outside ourselves for our truth. Many of us have difficulty accessing our own truth because we didn’t have many people guiding us to feel our emotions and connect inwardly to our needs and our truth. Having difficulty finding your own truth is a key skill for building successful relationships. A heavy price is often paid when we don’t know how to find and speak up for our truth.
I am not against advice and input. I’ve been helped a great deal by advice, and I believe I’ve helped others by giving them advice. Nonetheless, I believe it is much more powerful to help someone find their own truth. It has been for me. And, if I have advice to offer, I wait until after I’ve offered empathy and then ask the other person if they would like to hear it. See Tip for the Road #4 for more on asking before offering advice.
15. Keep Asking for Help
Never in the history of the written word has an author received as much help as I have with writing my first book. Most of my family and many of my friends contributed to this book, some gave a little time, some gave hours. Editing, proof reading, giving input on the title and the cover design, helping me learn about self-publishing, more editing, more proof reading, giving me empathy, picking me up and dusting me off, and believing in me, I’ve never worked so hard on a writing project in my life and have never asked for and received so much help.
Following dreams can be daunting at times. But, please don’t give up. The world needs your dreams now. Call in the troops and harness the horses. Become an artist of asking and a guru of gratitude. Make it easy for others to say no (see my Tip for the Road #5). If you can’t find people to help you, ask the trees, the wind, the stars, just keep flexing the asking bow and the arrow will find a mark.
14. Admit to it Too.
It can be challenging to tell people that you don’t like a certain behaviour or action of theirs. Even with supportive intentions and compassionate language your message might be difficult for someone to receive. Of course, we are not responsible for others’ reactions, but we are responsible to care about each other, and there are effective ways to express ourselves with more care.
One way to add care to your message is to acknowledge that you do the same thing that you don’t like to experience them doing. For example, if you don’t like that someone arrives late, let them know, when you talk to them about their lateness, that you arrive late sometimes too and are working on being more punctual.
If we are willing to look honestly enough, we can almost always find times when we have done the same actions or behaviours that we dislike others doing. We may not do them exactly the same or as much, but the point isn’t to compare; it’s to invite a togetherness in learning and growing, rather than ignite a right/wrong better/worse power struggle.
Sometimes the behaviours are similar rather than the same, but the underlying motivation is no different. For example, I have never taken heroin but I have used many things in my life to avoid my pain and fears. I have never owned an SUV but I have certainly flown many times, owned many cars, and have used much more than my fair share of resources.
When we admit to the same behaviours or motivations we dislike from others, the message can be heard more as let’s learn together, rather than you’re doing it wrong; be more like me.
If I truly can’t find a bridge to a person’s behaviour—murder, pedophilia—I build the bridge by acknowledging that, given the right conditions—growing up with extreme abuse, neglect, and violence, and no love and nurturing care—I would be capable of the same behaviour. Then I can extend compassion to those with such behaviours (even though I abhor and grieve the acts and want them to stop) knowing that they have endured much more trauma than I have.
13. The 8 Most Powerful Things You Can do to Build an Inspired Relationship
This Tip for the Road is my answer to the question: What are the most powerful things I can do to build an inspired relationship? I answered the question with romantic relationships in mind; however, I believe the answer below applies to any important relationship.
- Follow Your Dreams and Find Your Purpose. Keep doing what you love. Keep inspiring yourself. Keep living into your deepest purpose. Lighting yourself up and deepening into your soul’s calling will allow you to bring more and more of your passion and whole-heartedness into relationship with others. It will also reveal disowned parts.
Relationships are a precious and sweet part of life, but no relationship or person can make up for a missing whole-heartedness or sense of purpose. You are the only person who is responsible for living the most rewarding, inspiring, and loving life you can live. If you remain committed to falling more and more in love with yourself and with your life, then you can share more and more or your heart in a relationship and not be utterly devastated if it comes to an end.
- Find or Build Communities that help you meet your relationship needs, needs such as emotional support, intimacy, fun, passion, physical contact, companionship, and being understood, acknowledged and valued. Meeting these needs with others releases the pressure on a relationship to meet them all and will give you great support as you face the difficult things that arise in relationship.
Examples of supportive communities include
- Communities formed around a particular practice or process;
- Meditation groups;
- Co-counseling communities;
- Nonviolent Communication communities;
- Spiritual communities;
- Women’s groups;
- Men’s groups;
- Support groups;
- Cuddle-party communities;
- Dance communities;
- Artistic/creative groups;
- Emotional support groups: groups that practice a particular form of emotional/therapeutic/healing support. One example of an emotional support group that I value is a community of empathy buddies with whom you can practice somatic based resonant empathy. Giving and receiving empathy with empathy buddies will
- Help you face and move through the fears and blocks that surface as you follow your dreams and deepen your relationships with others and with yourself;
- Increase your capacity for differentiation—knowing and trusting yourself and not becoming engulfed by others—and for linking—sharing more of yourself with others, letting others share more of themselves with you, and attuning with and caring for others;
- Increase and strengthen the neural networks for regulating emotions in the right hemisphere of your brain so you can feel your emotions without becoming overwhelmed by them, so you can better connect to your needs, your body, and your intuition, and so you can be more empathic toward others.
- Become Better and Better at Finding, Asking for and Receiving Support. We are designed to thrive through interdependence. We are not meant to heal and grow on our own. Whether it comes from friends, family, therapists, a community or other sources, keep asking for and opening up to as much support as you need or can currently accept. Make requests, not demands. Demands take all the fun out of giving.
- Be Playful and Creative. Healing work and life in general will almost certainly drain you if you don’t find time for play and creativity. Moreover, play and creativity can be incorporated into your healing work and healing work into your play and creativity.
- Take Time to Be With Yourself:
- Make friends with your creativity, your loneliness, your emotions, your body, and all aspects of yourself;
- Develop your capacity for self-nurturing;
- Discover the gifts in solitude;
- Practice self-empathy or other self-attunement processes so you can become more and more unconditionally present and accepting of your thoughts, emotions, needs, and body;
- Turn off the TV, computer, phone, put down the book, the paper, the magazine, and make space in your calendar to learn how to be with just you.
- Connect With the Wilderness. The natural world can be a very healing place to work through grief, anger, fear, loss, and other difficult emotions, as well as to feel vital, inspired, and expansive. The wilderness reflects back to us our beauty and wildness and reminds us that we belong to something greater. And nature shows us that all forms, realms, and qualities are needed to make up an interdependent whole—the muck and the manure, the flowers and the birds, the fire and the water, the stillness in the meadow and the explosive volcano, the depths of the ocean and the stars above.
- Be Patient, Kind, and Curious With Yourself. Reclaiming disowned parts, healing wounds, following dreams, finding your purpose, and building inspiring relationships take time and courage. For healing work and growth to be successful and sustainable, self-compassion needs to be your home base. And don’t assume that you know everything about yourself or have all of your answers. Stay curious and open to discover more and more about who you are and why you act the way you do and how you might want to explore, experiement, and grow.
My # 1 Tip for Building an Inspiring Relationship:
Fall in Love with Your Shadow
When inner healing work is done deeply and consistently enough, it leads you to the beauty in your shadow, and you become smitten with the treasures found therein. But beware; the courtship of your shadow is not to be taken lightly. It requires a romance like no other, one in which you are called to turn toward fears and dark places, face the unknown, fall apart, crack open, and feel it all. It is the love affair of a lifetime in which there is always more to discover, pursue, and allure.
The more you learn to love your shadow, the more you discover that darkness is not a place of annihilation or despair; rather, it is a wellspring of creativity, energy, and inspiration. Many of the songs I’ve written (and all of the ones I love the most) were inspired directly from falling in love with my shadow. Also, my singing voice is becoming stronger and less inhibited. And then there’s the dancing! Seducing the shadow frees up all kinds of energy and unleashes all kinds of crazy moves as the body explores the expression of the reclaimed parts of the shadow. (Writing, singing, and dancing are only a few of the many ways that the released energy and inspiration of the shadow can be expressed.)
Each time a disowned part is reclaimed another barrier to love comes down, another step toward earned secure attachment is taken, and more ground is gained for building an inspiring relationship with another.
Open the door it’s your true nature knocking
Howling love in wolf’s clothing
Offer up your underbelly
And lean into the longing
Relax into the freefall
Trust the unknown it will see you through
And wake up where everything is possible
Like falling in love with the darkness
Become curious about what parts of yourself—what ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ emotions, needs, characteristics, and traits—you had to disown into your shadow as a child in order to be loved or accepted. When you find a disowned part, build a relationship with it in which it learns to trust that it is safe to feel what it feels and need what it needs. Give it lots of acknowledgement and empathy, and experiment with different ways to embrace and inhabit it. Often, when I allow myself to really drop into the feelings needs of a disowned part, there is a release of creative energy and inspiration. More than once I’ve begun the writing of a song with tears in my eyes or a growl in my throat. Experiment with expressing your shadow parts through music, pictures, acting/inhabiting the part, poetry, dance, movement, and more.
Be patient with reclaiming your disowned parts. You disowned them for good reasons, and it takes time to trust that it is safe to embrace and express them again. Sometimes it takes several years for a disowned part to be fully reclaimed.
Reclaiming disowned parts is crucial for relationships. If you don’t make peace with your disowned parts, they will do battle with you and with others, fighting to be acknowledged, heard and valued, and blocking your path to inspired relationships with yourself and others. Without embracing and valuing your disowned parts, you will project your fears, judgements, contempt, or admiration, adoration, and longing of them onto others.
12. Connect to the Living Energy of Your Needs
For many the word “need” is associated with lack, neediness, attachment, and scarcity. These associations are the opposite of the meaning of needs in Nonviolent Communication (NVC). In NVC needs are motivational energy connected to our innate wholeness and our desire to grow, like the energy of a plant pushing it through the soil and reaching for the sun. The conditioning most of us grew up with has tricked us into thinking that we are less than whole and that our wholeness can only be filled from outside of ourselves. When we believe this conditioning, consciously or unconsciously, we act from a place of scarcity and neediness and may suffer greatly while waiting for things outside of ourselves to change.
Any time we find our way back to our needs there is an opportunity to connect to our wholeness. Once you find your need, you can connect to the energy of your wholeness by bringing to mind a time when that need was fully met for you, as well as the feelings you felt at that time. Bring the memory and feelings into your heart (it does not work to think your way into the living energy of needs). Similar to the Heart Math approach (http://www.heartmath.com/about/) imagining breathing in and out of your heart is a good way to bring your attention to your heart. If you cannot think of a time when that need was met for you, then bring to mind a person or thing—such as a pet or a place in nature—that contributes to that need, and feel the gratitude you have for that person or thing.
In order to connect to needs as a living energy and quality of wholeness it is important to get to the level of a need as an abstract quality such as acceptance, to matter, or love (find a list of NVC Needs here).
Sometimes there is a great deal of sadness when connecting to a need, perhaps because there have been painful events related to this need. Sometimes sadness needs to be fully felt before connecting to the living energy of the need. Often, when grieving is embraced and connected to needs it carries us right into our wholeness and the living energy of those needs.
11. Catching Hearts
When we take a leap in life and put our hearts out into the world in new or bigger ways—sharing a song, dance, or poem, writing a book, competing at a sporting event, giving a speech, and so on—there is greater potential for aliveness but also for shame and pain. It is thrilling to follow our dreams and share our authenticity, creativity, and inspiration. But it is also risky because the parts of our psyches that want to keep us small (sometimes known as our Loyal Soldiers) do all they can to stop us. Our Loyal Soldiers developed in our psyches because we live in a culture where it is not often safe and acceptable to be powerful, exuberant, inspired, bold and passionate. Until our Loyal Soldiers get the empathy, appreciation and trust they need, they will fight our inspirations and dreams all the way, judging us mercilessly no matter how well we perform, holding us back, holding us down, and, if necessary, sending us into a vortexes of shame, self-loathing or deep discouragement.
We can help others from falling into those painful vortexes by catching their hearts with lots of feedback about what we liked after a their vulnerable sharing.
Furthermore, our feedback will be more believable, supportive and valuable if it is specific. For example, instead of using praise and compliments—“that was brilliant; it was amazing; you were awesome; you were fantastic”—give specific examples, such as the ones below:
- “I loved the line you sang/wrote/said ______________.” Fill in the blank with whatever the line was that you loved.
- “The colours you use in your picture and the way you combined them really meet my need for creativity, and the textures add a lot of depth for me.”
- “When you acted the part of a child whose parents divorced, it really touched into some of my own experiences and helped me understand and accept them more.”
Along with the fact that praise and compliments do not give any useful information about what worked and why, they also may not match the performer’s own evaluation of his performance or of himself, thus making your “positive” feedback confusing or unbelievable. (Read more about the problems of praise and compliments in Alfie Kohn’s book Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes.)
Of course we often also have feedback about what could have been done differently, and that kind of feedback can be helpful. But if we start with that feedback, we’ll be adding to the chorus of criticism from their Loyal Soldiers that is likely already bombarding them, making it even harder for them not to fall into a painful vortex of shame and self-doubt.
If you have the time and energy, you can really catch others’ hearts by offering them empathy before or after you have shared your feedback about what you liked and why. You can simply ask them if there is anything about their performance they are having unhappy about. Then give them empathy if they do.
I regularly put my heart out there by facilitating workshops and sharing my music. I have a platoon of well-trained and tenacious Loyal Soldiers, so I know the vortex of self doubt well and am thus extra sensitive when giving feedback to others who are stretching themselves. If someone looks particularly vulnerable, I leave out feedback about what I did not like or what could have been done differently. If I do offer that kind of feedback, it is after I have offered feedback about what I liked, and after I have asked if they want to hear it.
I likely would have given up on my workshops and music long ago if it were not for my cavalry of assistants and friends who keep finding something to appreciate (I don’t know how they do it) and who give me and my loyal soldiers lots of empathy.
10. Take it to the Trees
One of the most important things you can do to live a meaningful and rewarding life filled with vitality is reclaim your emotions. When you reclaim your emotions you rescue yourself from the numb and deadening state of “fine” and from the dependence on alcohol, drugs, food, shopping, and countless other addictions to feel more alive.
Most of us live in a culture cut off from emotions, especially ones like sadness, anger, fear, exuberance and joy. This can make it quite difficult to reclaim them. If you open up to someone who is cut off from or not comfortable with emotions, you are likely to receive judgment, analysis, efforts to cheer you up, or advice, instead of support to simply be with your emotions, feel them, reclaim them as part of your wholeness, and uncover the needs to which they point.
Lately, I’ve been working with reclaiming anger and rage. These are difficult emotions for me to reclaim as I have many implicit memories that associate anger and rage with danger and loss of safety and love. On top of that, though I have several empathy buddies I trust could support me with anger and rage, it is not always easy to have the appropriate container to explore those emotions. So sometimes I take them to the trees.
I find that the forest is a wonderful container for anger and rage. In fact, I have yet to find an emotion that the forest was not able to hold.
It is very powerful for me to be physical and loud with my rage, so I find a place in a forest all to myself. Then, I find a very sturdy tree and push against it as hard as I want to as I say or yell all of the words and sounds I need to express. It is as if my inner child is finally getting freed from holding in so much emotional energy, while still feeling supported and connected to life. Often, this leads into a grieving process, especially when I connect to my needs, and I then hug the tree as I weep away. I believe this process helps me implicitly learn and trust that there is a container big enough for all my emotions and needs.
Sometimes, it is over very quickly; sometimes there are several rounds of pushing with rage or anger and hugging while weeping. I always feel energized and grateful afterwards and love to find different ways to express my gratitude to the forest. Often, a new inspiration or creative idea follows me out of the forest.
This is not the only way to reclaim emotions; it is just one way that I enjoy. If you feel inspired to try it, I recommend taking it in steps that feel right for you. Perhaps you just want to push without any sound or words. Maybe you want to start with pushing with irritation or frustration or some other less intense emotion. Or, you might want to try saying some things you never got to say but always wanted to. Maybe this is not at all the right way for you, and what feels good to you is to have a skilled therapist support you. Regardless of how you go about reclaiming emotions, it is extremely important to do so in a way that feels right and safe for you and for everyone.
9. Cultivate Connection Before Asking for Action
There are two types of requests in the practice of Nonviolent Communication: Action Requests and Connection Requests. Both are important when working through conflict or difficult situations.
As its name suggests, an action request includes a very specific action that someone can perform to meet a need. For example, you might have needs for connection and peace of mind and ask someone, “Would you be willing to call or text me when your plane lands?” Or, you might have a need for support and ask a friend, “Would you be willing to help me move next weekend?”
A connection request is one that puts aside actions in order to first cultivate connection by hearing and acknowledging both parties’ needs. Connection requests are particularly helpful when there are difficult situations to work through.
Let’s say you want to talk to a co-worker about some challenges you have with him. If you simply unload your observations, feelings, needs and action requests on him without cultivating connection, he is much less likely to follow through on your requests because he won’t have a chance to be heard and understood. Or he will do what you request but with resentment or bitterness that will cost both of you. If instead you follow your observations, feelings, and needs with a connecting request, he will get a chance to share what is going on for him and you will have the opportunity to give him empathy and demonstrate that you care about his needs too.
A connection request that I often use is, “What’s going on for you after hearing this from me?” Or some version of that, such as, “How is this landing for you?” or, “How are you feeling about what I’ve shared?”
The full expression to the co-worker could then be, “I notice you’re not replying to all the committee emails and are missing some of the meetings. I’m feeling frustrated because I have needs for reliability and shared responsibility for this project. What is going on for you hearing this from me?”
Next, do your best to empathize, regardless of what the response is. Perhaps the response is, “Well I’ve been given Alberto’s clients as well as the lead on the Madison project, not to mention all the challenges with the new computer systems they’re implementing.” Hearing this from him, your empathy might sound like, “Are you feeling overwhelmed and needing some understanding or some support?”
Once you’ve heard all his needs and have expressed yours, you can both brainstorm solutions that would meet all of them. I like to name all the needs and then invite some brainstorming, “So, you have needs for support and understanding and I have needs for reliability and shared responsibility. Do you have any ideas about what we could do to meet those needs?” Asking him if he has any ideas is a request that forms a bridge from the connection that was cultivated to action requests, and it conveys that you’re interested in collaboration, instead of just pushing your agenda.
8. Slow down and get empathy before making important decisions
Some of the decisions I’ve made that I regret the most are the ones I made in haste, without tuning into my feelings and needs, and without fully considering the feelings and needs of others affected by my decision.
Whenever possible, I suggest you slow down when making important decisions and do NVC self-empathy–connect to your feelings and needs. “Let me think about it,” is a handy response when asked to decide something important. Even better, find someone who knows how to give you NVC empathy. Talking through decisions with someone who can set aside their advice, opinions and stories, and reflect back to you your feelings and needs can bring a great deal of clarity and open up new possibilities. If your friend has suggestions or advice to offer, I recommend waiting until you’ve had all the empathy you need first before hearing them.
Slowing down to feel what is going on in your body and finding your needs helps calm the nervous system and helps you make the most of the intelligence in both hemispheres of your brain. Decisions made under pressure or stress are made mostly or only with the left hemisphere of the brain. Connecting to feelings and needs brings the right hemisphere of the brain online, with it’s capacity to see the bigger picture, to access intuition, and to empathize with the needs of other’s involved.
Finally, if the decision you come to after getting empathy is one in which you won’t be doing what someone has asked of you, I suggest finding something else to offer, if possible. For example, you might say, “I really need more rest and peace right now, so I’m not willing to host the family reunion. However, I am willing to find a caterer.”
7. Make Poetry out of Empathy
Nonviolent Communication includes a practice of empathy that involves listening for feelings and needs no matter how someone expresses himself, and reflecting back the feelings and needs when it’s helpful to do so.
For example, if a friend says, “I hate my job.”
You could reflect back, “are you feeling frustrated because you need more purpose and creativity in your work?”
If you are reflection is not accurate, he will likely let you know and give you more information from which to offer another guess.
He might reply, “No, it’s not that. There is too much to do and too much responsibility.”
Based on that information, you could offer, “Do you feel overwhelmed and need more support?”
Because empathy focuses on the feelings and needs within someone’s expression, it helps the speaker regulate their emotions and get in touch with their needs, two functions of the right hemisphere of the brain. Being understood at the level of feelings and needs is one of the most powerful ways to regulate emotions (by regulate I mean feeling emotions without getting overwhelmed by them, and allowing them to guide you to your needs).
Along with processing emotions and needs, the right hemisphere of the brain also processes metaphors. Therefore, you can add to regulation in the right hemisphere of the brain by using metaphors when empathizing.
Before offering a metaphor reflection for their needs, you can offer a metaphor based on what their experience is like, “is it like you’re trying to steer a ship while running the kitchen and maintaining the engine room at the same time?” Being understood for how painful, stressful, or challenging something is, also adds to regulation in the right hemisphere.
Then you can offer a metaphor of the need that is alive for them, “are you longing for a harbour with a seasoned crew waiting on the dock?”
We are always guessing with empathy, not telling. If the metaphor doesn’t work, they will let you know and perhaps build one of their own, “no, it’s more like juggling precious vases while trying to run a daycare. And I need plastic cups and nap time.” Now, you’re making empathy poetry together.
Not only do metaphors add to regulation, they bring poetry and creativity to empathy.
6. Talk About Conflict When You’re Not In Conflict
Conflict is a normal and natural part of life. To varying degrees, it happens whenever two or more people consistently spend time together. Resolving conflict effectively and peacefully, in a way in which all parties feel respected and valued, is not natural for those of us who grew up with punitive or adversarial approaches to conflict.
When conflict happens, it can be extremely difficult to resolve things peacefully. Cortisol and adrenaline are coursing through brain and body and the vagus nervous system is in fight/flight or freeze. The amygdala—an almond-sized part of the brain that sounds the alarm when there is danger or conflict—is taking over, literally taking up the majority of the brain’s energy. This is a good thing if our physical safety is threatened because we want to have as much energy as possible to protect ourselves or escape if we are in danger. Unfortunately, the amygdala cannot discern the difference between physical danger and emotional or psychological danger.
The more the amygdala takes over, the less access we have to the middle prefrontal cortex (MPFC) of our brain. This is unfortunate because the MPFC is crucial for resolving conflict peacefully and effectively. The MPFC has the capacity for compassion, for soothing emotions, for empathizing with others and understanding their perspectives, and for coherent decision-making (needs-based decision-making) rather than reactive decision-making.
So how do you become better at resolving conflict? One of the most helpful things is the inner work of resolving implicit issues (old wounds) that get activated during conflict. Another effective strategy is to talk about conflict when you’re not in conflict. If there is an ongoing challenge or conflict that comes up between you and another person, find a time when you feel connected with that person and ask for his or her support with creating a more effective response to the ongoing challenge you’ve been having.
It is absolutely crucial that you don’t enter this dialogue with the intention of judging and blaming the other person for how they have contributed to the conflict in the past, and of telling them how they should do things differently. The intention I suggest is one of collaboration—sharing responsibility and working together to create a more peaceful and supportive response to the conflict.
Here are some suggestions for how to begin a dialogue about an ongoing conflict:
“You know that challenge we seem to have with/when___________________” (whatever the challenge is—getting ready for trips; talking about the kids; when I want more connection and you want more space; etc.) I’d love to find a more effective/peaceful/collaborative/cooperative/ fun/creative (whatever word works for you) way to work through that with you.”
Next, you can demonstrate that you really care about their needs and are not simply setting them up for judgment and blame by following the above opening statement with, “What isn’t working for you about that dynamic/challenge/situation?” Or, you could model some courageous self-responsibility and say, “I don’t like how I _______________ (don’t listen to your side of things; try to make you feel guilty; become critical; whatever your part is in the challenge), and I’m guessing that, when I do that, it is difficult for you.” The other person will likely agree and elaborate on how it is difficult or painful. If she simply says yes in response, then you can ask if there is anything else that is difficult for her in regards to the ongoing conflict.
Next, to express more of your care, I highly recommend you tell them back what you’re hearing: “I want to make sure I’m understanding you, can I tell you what I’m hearing from you?” If you can include needs guesses when you tell the other person what you have heard and understood, it will likely add even more to his or her sense of being understood and valued.
For example, if he or she tells you that what isn’t working is that you are too bossy or too demanding, you can say, “What I’m hearing is that you find me too bossy and demanding. So, do you need more choice or consideration?” Instead of arguing about whether or not you are too bossy and demanding, focus on finding the needs.
Once the other person is satisfied that you have understood what isn’t working for her, then ask her what she or he would like to have happen instead. “Is there anything else you’d like me to understand about what isn’t working? No, ok. So, what would you like to have happen instead?” Again, say back what you’re hearing and include needs guesses, if possible.
Once the other person is satisfied you have understood what she or he would like to have happen instead, then ask if she or he would be willing to hear what hasn’t been working for you and what you would like differently. It can be extremely difficult to hold your side of things until the other person is finished. But it is worth the effort as the other person will likely be more willing to hear your side after you have made an effort to really hear and understand her.
Please be gentle with yourself if this dialogue doesn’t go well. Even though the idea is to have this dialogue when you’re feeling connected, painful feelings can arise and judgments can slip out. It is a dialogue that can be difficult for anyone. Sometimes third party support is needed because too much of our unresolved implicit pain gets activated. However, if you can maintain a desire to be on the same team, to work together, to share responsibility for shifting the conflict, instead of blaming each other, then you will have a better chance of having an effective dialogue. You could include a piece about this in the dialogue, “I want to talk to you about this because I’m tired of fighting with you and would rather work together and feel like we’re on the same team.”
If the dialogue goes well and you come up with a plan for how to do things differently, make sure it’s as specific as possible and WRITE IT DOWN and make sure it is accessible later on when conflict arises. Marshall Rosenberg, founder of Nonviolent Communication, tells an inspiring story of a fellow who really wanted to take more responsibility for his anger during conflict. He wrote down on a card very clear and simple steps for self-empathy and then carried that card in his wallet so it was always easy to access when he became angry. Then, whenever he got angry, he would pull out that card and follow the steps. By using this card, he got so good at dealing with his anger that he stopped using the card, at least until a particularly difficult situation in which his anger took over again and his son said, “I think you’d better get that card Dad.”
If the other person tells you, in one way or another that he doesn’t want to talk about the ongoing conflict, you could offer them some needs guess, “Is it hard for you to trust that I will really listen to your side and won’t judge and blame you? Are you worried that this discussion will turn into an argument? I have not always been able to listen to your side very well, so I’m guessing you don’t trust I could do it now. Is that right?”
Whether or not that the empathy helps, you could then ask, “Is there anything you can think of that we could do to have a collaborative/peaceful/effective dialogue about this?” Again, third party support may be the most helpful thing.
If the other person is not willing at all to talk about how to better work through the conflict, then you might choose to interact with her less or not at all. If less interaction is not a viable option, then you can see how much you can shift on your own by really looking at your part of the challenge and what you can do to transform your side of it, and by getting lots of empathy support from others.
The two questions—“What isn’t working for you about our challenging issue/dynamic?” and, “What would you like to have happen instead?”—can also be used to explore how conflict is handled in general (as opposed to a specific ongoing conflict) between you and another or by a group of people. Moreover, you can broaden the dialogue by starting with two other questions: “How do you feel about conflict in general?” and, “What is working for you with how we have worked through conflict in the past?”
The main goals for these questions about conflict
- How do you feel about conflict in general?
- What is working for you with how we have worked through conflict?
- What isn’t working for you about our challenging issue/dynamic?
- What would you like to have happen instead?
are to normalize conflict; to invite and inspire shared responsibility for working through conflict and for forming a strategy or system to respond to conflict; and to inspire a collaborative attitude about conflict—let’s work together to make conflict resolution happen in a way in which there is accountability and understanding, honesty and kindness, respect and collaboration.
This Tip for the Road was inspired by the work of Dominic Barter
www.restorativecircles.org/home. The four questions listed above are adapted from questions that Dominic uses in his Restorative Circle work.
5. Invite People to Say No
Support from others is most enjoyably received when it is given from the heart—from a place of joy or delight. When support is given out of obligation or from fear of punishment, rejection, or judgement, or from hope for a reward, then the support is usually not very fun to receive. In order to receive enjoyable support, whenever possible, I suggest you encourage people to say no to your request for support if they don’t feel good or delighted about doing what you’re asking them to do. I like to say something like, “please only say yes to this request if it truly feels good for you to do so.” Or, “I welcome you to say no to this request. I will appreciate (or love) you all the same if it doesn’t work for you to do this.”
Of course, even when inviting people to say no, it might be difficult to hear a no. What helps me hear a no is empathy. It also helps me to remember that when someone says no, they are really saying yes to other needs. In other words, the no is not about me; it’s about that person taking care of other needs.
A needs-based expression of no would be something like, “I care about your needs and would like to help. Unfortunately, I’m not able to do that for you because I have needs for __________(finishing with whatever needs you need to take care of).”
When I give because I truly want to, it’s one of the sweetest pleasures of being alive. Giving from the heart meets some of my most important needs–enriching life for others, making a difference, giving something of myself to the world–and I feel a juicy, expanding flow of energy when I’m meeting those needs.
When I give out of obligation or fear or hope for reward, I’m usually attempting to meet my need for harmony or acceptance or appreciation but not meeting my need for honesty or authenticity, and my energy dwindles and drains.
Asking for support can be difficult (often because of implicit beliefs from past experiences) and some inner work may be necessary in order to feel more comfortable reaching out for help. However, inviting people to say no is a step that can help make it easier to ask. It is worth it to do the inner work involved in getting comfortable with asking for help because receiving help that is joyfully given is another of the sweet pleasures of being alive.
Finally, in difficult situations where I want something to happen and I receive a ‘no’ and am not willing to give up on my needs with that person, I’ll aim for a solution that everyone will at least support. Everyone may not love it, but no one is going to work against it.
I recently received huge support for a trip to China to give a 5-day retreat in Shanghai. Read more about that adventure in my blog post
4. Ask Before Offering Advice or Suggestions or Stories or Hugs or…
When someone is going through a hard time, it is natural to want to help. Contributing to others is one of our strongest needs, and yet, our efforts to help sometimes miss the mark or make things worse. When help is not helpful it is often because the receiver does not want it. The receiver simply may not be ready to fix something or look at solutions or might want to find his own solutions. Even if you have the perfect answer for someone who is struggling, it won’t help if it is not wanted.
So what can you do then? I have two main approaches to supporting others. 1. I offer empathy (resonant NVC-style empathy) before offering advice or solutions. 2. I ask others if they want to hear my advice or ideas before I offer them.
If I can stay present and grounded and empathize first, people can process their pain or stress and further develop their self-regulating neural pathways. Once they processed their feelings and clarified their needs, their brains are in a better state for exploring solutions. I’m not at all against advice and solving things, but it is often more effective and supportive to offer empathy first.
I believe very strongly in people being in charge of themselves as much as possible, but I also believe we thrive in interdependence and have much to offer each other. So, if I do have some ideas or advice to offer, I ask first before I offer advice or suggestions or ideas, etc. I sometimes ask before offering empathy too, especially if I’m not sure the person will be comfortable with empathy. If someone isn’t familiar with empathy, then I’ll say something like, “Can I see if I understand you?” and then reflect back to him his needs and feelings and important content.
Being in charge of ourselves is an important part of differentiation and of making relationships work. When we think we know what is best for others and offer unsolicited help, or when we let others be in charge of us and be our experts, we are not contributing to empowerment, autonomy and self-trust.
If someone doesn’t want empathy or advice, I will then ask him what kind of support they would like.
3. Ask to Understand
Start adding this question to your dialogues and discussions, “Can I see if I’m understanding you?” Most times, people say yes to this question. Who doesn’t want to be understood? However, in some situations it can help to state your intention first, “It might help us work through this if I make sure I’m understanding you. Do you mind if I tell you what I heard so far?” If the answer is yes, then say back the important things you’ve heard and make some needs guesses. Finish with, “Is that it? Am I missing anything? Is there more?”
Saying back to someone what you’ve heard her say and making guesses about her feelings and needs does some important things:
- It demonstrates that you are paying attention and care about what she has to say;
- It helps her organize her thoughts and make sure she is clear and understood;
- It gives her space to process her feelings and needs and calm her nervous system, which often leads to deeper insights or connection.
Once the other person is satisfied you’ve understood them, then share your observations, feelings, needs, and requests, and ask her if she would be willing to tell you what she’s heard you say.
2. Separate Needs from Strategies
When we give our full attention to our needs and the sensations and feelings connected to them, then we better access the right hemisphere of the brain and the nervous system in the body.
Needs are universal abstract qualities such as acceptance, trust, belonging, connection, and fun that are not attached to specific people, actions, or outcomes. Strategizing to meet our needs puts us in the left hemisphere of the brain. The left hemisphere of the brain loves to solve problems. If we first give our full attention to our needs and feelings, we have a more integrated brain and more information from which to problem solve.
Next time you find yourself stuck in fruitless strategizing or rumination, put your attention on the sensations and feelings in your body and the needs they are pointing to. If you find yourself saying or thinking, “I need her to understand me,” or, “I need him to accept me,” set aside the person involved and give your full attention to the need. You could think to yourself, “I have a need to be understood,” or, “I have a need acceptance.” The left hemisphere will likely want to take over and attach that need to a person, action or outcome. Keep returning to just the need and the sensations and feelings in your body. Think of other times when that need has been fulfilled in other ways. If you can accept and embrace your feelings and needs, your nervous system can relax, and you’ll have a more integrated brain from which to find different solutionsx.
1. Practice Self-Empathy with Your Whole Body
In our fast-paced, busy lives it is tempting to practice NVC as an intellectual process, thinking through the steps quickly in the mind. If you keep self-empathy at an intellectual level, you will likely miss an opportunity to integrate the hemispheres of the brain and miss the valuable information from the neuro-networks in the heart and gut (you have roughly the same amount of neuro-networks in your gut as there are in the brain of a cat, and the brain has forty-thousand neurons).
I encourage you to slow down and give your compassionate attention to the sensations and emotions in your body. With curiosity and acceptance just notice what is going on in your body. Then make some needs guesses based on the sensations and emotions you find there. Your body will often relax when your needs guess lands accurately. If you have the privacy to do so, try naming your sensations, emotions, and needs guesses out loud. Naming experiencing helps regulate emotions. Bringing more of your attention down into your body supports more integration and coherence for our brain and nervous system and helps strengthen the self-regulating neuro-networks between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. Connecting to the living energy of your needs will add even more to integration and coherence (see Tip for the Road 12 for more on the living energy of your needs).