Being Responsible for Our Feelings

It is easy to blame other people for our emotions.  “He makes me so angry!  Why can’t he just pick up his shoes from the walkway!”  “She disappointed me; I thought she was going to be more understanding.”  When we say these kinds of things, then we don’t have to take responsibility for how we’re feeling.  It’s the other person’s fault, not ours!  They’re the bad person, they’re the ones doing it wrong, and if they could just get their act together then there wouldn’t be any problems, I wouldn’t be upset or hurt, and I wouldn’t have to yell at them or get upset with them or withdraw.

Do you see how that mindset makes other people responsible for our feelings?  It can even go so far as to cast other people as responsible for our actions.  “I know I can get upset and start yelling, but I can’t help myself!  She’s just so infuriating!”

Blaming others, making them the responsible ones, means we’re off the hook.  I don’t have to change, they do.  But while that may look like freedom, it is actually a trap.  If I am waiting for this other person to change so that I can be happy, I may be waiting a long time.  In fact, that day may never come.  They may never change.  Will I be content with being miserable for a long time, or even forever?  Is my only recourse to “fixing” this problem to leave and find someone else to make responsible for my emotions?

No.  You are responsible for your emotions.  No one else is.  “I am angry because I want to get into the house safely without tripping, and I am feeling tired of having to talk to my partner about their shoes.”  When we take responsibility for our own emotions then we have the power of choice.  What can I do about this situation?  Can I enter through a different door?  Can I ask my partner to enter by a different door?  Can I take an extra second each time I come into the house to slow down, look and see if there are shoes in the way, and if so, simply kick them out of the way?

If you want to feel differently, you can’t wait till someone else behaves in a new way.  You need to change what you’re doing.  You have so much more control and power over your own actions and behaviors.  You have zero control and power over other people’s actions and behaviors.  What can you change in yourself to change how you are feeling?

March 5, 2018Permalink

Reflective Listening

Almost every time I introduce reflective listening to couples, they groan.  “Why do I need to repeat back to my partner what they just said??  It’s so, patronizing/cumbersome/annoying.”  And yet, at least 50% of the time when I get them to try it out, that same partner cannot actually repeat back what the other person said.  They didn’t hear their partner because they were too busy either thinking of their response, in other words getting into reactive mode instead of listening.  And it takes all the self-control I have to not say “see!! That’s why you need to engage in reflective listening.”

Reflective listening is a tool where we repeat back a summary of what we heard our partner say.  We don’t regurgitate what they said word for word (that’s called parroting, and it’s annoying), but rather we reflect back our summary, our synthesis, of their key thoughts, feelings, and needs.  So for example, if my wife came home and told me in detail, for 10 minutes, about all the annoying, frustrating, and obnoxious interruptions and obstacles to getting work done today, I might reflect back something like:

“Wow, it sounds like you had a really frustrating day.  I’m sorry that every time you tried to get your work done someone came in and interrupted you.  I imagine it was so frustrating because you really wanted to accomplish a bunch of things today so tomorrow you wouldn’t be so behind?”

So you see, reflective listening does not need to be long, patronizing, or complex.  It is not a test to see if you heard 100% of your partner’s words.  What this tool does is it shows your partner that you care.  It lets your partner know what you heard (so they can compare that to what they thought they said).  And during a fight, it is a tool that helps us slow down the action, and lower the energy in the room, so that we can have a healthy conversation about conflict.

Reflective listening is one of the key tools to compassionate communication.  It is also one of the most powerful communication tools I know.  When we’re able to accurately reflect back the other person’s thoughts, feelings, and needs they can have this experience of feeling heard, understood, and cared for.  It can be medicine for our souls.  The number one thing I see escalating conflict into a fight is one or both partners not feeling heard, understood, or cared for.  When one or both partners think they aren’t being heard or understood, trust quickly evaporates.  And without trust, we instinctually become defensive, we want to protect ourselves.  And it is these defensive behaviors which escalate conflict.

So yes, I know reflective listening can be awkward at first.  Yes, I know that no one (or very few people) in your life has modeled this kind of listening and communication.  And yes, I know that at first when you engage in reflective listening you’ll probably make mistakes and it won’t “work right” (just like the first time you use any tool, it takes practice).  But seriously, if every one of my readers learned, practiced, and used this skill in their daily life and especially during conflict, I would be out of a job because all your conflicts would be much healthier, easier, and more peaceful.

February 5, 2018Permalink

Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.

“1963 is not an end, but a beginning…”

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day.  It is a day we celebrate this man’s legacy.  It is said that when Marshall Rosenberg was developing Nonviolent Communication he based his system of communication on how nonviolent leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr spoke and conducted themselves.  But anytime we as a nation lift up prophets from the past as heroes of today we risk closing our ears to the continuing reverberations of their message.  For any prophet who makes a significant mark on history proclaimed a message that was not only for their own time but a message that is relevant to all times and all places.

Please listen to King’s “I have a Dream” Speech…it is only 14 minutes long:

Now, consider this speech in light of facts about our contemporary situation:

  • Roughly half of the 2 million Americans in jail are black, while Blacks are only 12.5 percent of the US population.
  • One in three black men possess a felony record.
  • The main drivers of this mass incarceration of blacks are the War on Drugs and “Get Tough on Crime” laws.
  • In most states those with a felony record are denied housing, work, opportunity to serve on a jury, and the right to vote.

These facts come from a study done by the Chicago Urban League and Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow.  In this book, Alexander argues persuasively that the War on Drugs has effectively created a new racial caste system that has simply replaced the racial caste system that civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr fought against.  As the four facts above illustrate there continues to be an under-class in America, largely along racial lines, where Black men and women still do not have the right to vote, are still discriminated against in terms of housing, and still are unable to find suitable work.  I strongly urge every one of my readers to read Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow.  It is eye opening.

I will leave you with a video of a CNN interview of Michelle Alexander which is only six minutes.  Please watch:

January 15, 2018Permalink

What’s Behind that New Year’s Resolution?

If you are someone who makes New Year’s resolutions, New Year’s intentions, I invite you to ponder what lies behind that resolution?

Let’s take a really common example…”my new year’s resolution is to lose 10, 20, 30, etc pounds.”

For some people I am sure that what lies behind that resolution is simply a desire to be healthier.  And that is great.  If this is your resolution, maybe you are making it because you want to be able to engage in more physical activity without getting so winded.  Or perhaps you really do want to reduce your risk of heart disease.  Or perhaps you are doing it because you know more exercise and a cleaner diet helps promote a more positive outlook on life.

However, I imagine that some people make this resolution because they secretly believe if they can lose that weight then finally they will be “enough.”  They may hope that with losing those pounds they will finally be attractive “enough”, or they will finally be worthy “enough”, or even that they will finally be loveable “enough.”  And if that’s the case, then I’m sorry to say that making a resolution around your weight isn’t going to change things.  Because the problem isn’t your weight.  The problem is your belief that you need to do, or be, different than how you currently are in order to be enough.  The truth, is that you are enough just the way you are right now.

The same goes for all sorts of resolutions:  “In this new year, I am going to be more positive and grateful.”  “In this new year, I am going to go on more adventures.”  “In this new year, I am going to spend more time helping others.”

If you are making these resolutions because you genuinely want to live differently and you can see how that would be a benefit to you then that’s great.  But if we want to change some arbitrary condition of ourselves in order to be “enough”, then the resolution isn’t going to work.  Because the lie that people need to measure up to a specific ideal or standard in order to be “good enough,” “attractive enough,” “worthy enough,” or “loveable enough” will not stop even if you accomplish your resolution.

Say you lose the 10, 20, or 30 pounds.  If you did it because you secretly believe that people who are 10, 20, or 30 pounds lighter are “attractive enough” or “worthy enough” then once you’ve reached that ideal weight you’ll likely still be ever watchful of gaining back weight.  And if you do slip and gain back some of the weight, instead of accepting that life is full of ups and downs, you’ll likely be right back in that state of not feeling “enough.”  And finally, if you do reach that ideal “enough” weight, you’ll likely discover that people at that weight also don’t feel like they are “enough.”  Many of those people also have this hunger, this ache, to be “enough,” but instead of it focusing on weight it is focused on some other arbitrary state or condition.

But it isn’t all bad news.  If you realize that the motivation for your new year’s resolution is this “enough-ness” issue, then consider making this your resolution this year: “In this new year, I am going to accept and love myself exactly the way I am.”

That is a new year’s resolution that will actually change your life.

January 3, 2018Permalink

Giving Thanks

For many of us today, it is too easy to fall into despair, dejection, and pessimism.  Whether it’s the current political climate, struggles with work, or stress with family around the holidays, we can find ourselves focusing our attention on all that is wrong.  And when I let myself do that, I notice that I am more tired, I am less inspired and motivated, and I am grumpier.  When my mind is focused on my stress, anxiety, or problems then I become more lethargic and unhappy.

Now, of course we cannot ignore those things that are causing us stress.  But all too often we use this as an excuse to justify our fixation.  There is a difference between taking the challenges in life seriously and being overwhelmed with the problems in life.  And that difference has to do with perspective.  We lose our perspective on life when we become consumed with our anxieties and stress.  And one of the key ways we restore perspective is to practice gratitude, or thanks giving.

Since reading The Dalai Lama’s & Desmond Tutu’s book The Book of Joy this summer, I have been amazed at the power of gratitude in my own life.  Spending just five minutes noticing five things that I am grateful for this day lifts my mood, gives me energy again, and helps me have more perspective on the issues and problems I am facing.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I’ve still had plenty of days where nothing seems to go right, I’m disappointed in myself, and everything seems insurmountable.  Those are the days I have needed my gratitude practice the most, and of course those are the days that it has been most difficult to maintain that practice.  Isn’t that how it always goes?  The moments we need something the most are the moments where it is the hardest to do.

And so on those days where things feel really out of control, I’ve had to slow down and notice the smallest things.  Maybe it was the delicious meal I had to scarf down between meetings, but it was still delicious.  Or maybe it was that short, brief, smile I got from a colleague that communicated “I know how you feel.”  Or maybe it was just the sound of wind chimes, or the fact that I get to sleep indoors tonight, or the few moments while watching TV that I didn’t have to think about my problems.  While all of these are banal, ordinary, small things, by spending time giving thanks for them they become real sustenance in the struggle to keep addressing my problems and life’s challenges.

You’re not running a 50 meter sprint, you’re running a marathon.  And to do a marathon well you need to pace yourself, and find strength, encouragement, and sustenance along the journey.  Spending time being grateful for even the small things in life will help you keep going.

November 29, 2017Permalink


The most powerful emotion in the human experience is not anger, fear, or joy: its shame.  Shame is the feeling associated with beliefs that I am wrong, broken, or bad.  Physically, shame may feel like a “cold sweat,” or “can’t breathe,” or “nauseous.”  We often have language that tries to soften or hide our emotion of shame.  We say we feel “embarrassed,” or “vulnerable,” or “exposed,” or the vague term “bad.”  Shame is the feeling you have when you can see in the other person’s eyes their disgust with something you’ve said or done.

But shame is not bad.  It is an emotion, like any other emotion.  It serves a purpose.  Shame helps us become of aware of when our actions are jeopardizing our social relationships.  We need social relationships to survive and to be healthy.  And so your experience of shame is trying to alert you to the fact that some action or state may cause you to lose those vital social relationships.  Think about a time when you felt “embarrassed,” did you also feel “alone,” “cut off,” or “singled out”?  That’s that interconnection of shame, a strong physiological and psychological alarm that your social relationships are at risk.

And shame has a destructive side.  Because we rely so much on social connections for survival and our health, we will do almost anything to avoid this experience of shame.  We’ll overeat, or drink, or use drugs to numb ourselves from that pain.  We’ll attack and blame other people as bad, “they should be the one who feels ashamed!”  And while sometimes the other person and the relationship is unhealthy, if the only way we cope with our shame is by cutting ties with others, then we will have a hard time truly discerning and enjoying healthy relationships.  Or we avoid the feeling of shame by blaming and criticizing ourselves.  “I’m so stupid!  I shouldn’t ever do that!”  And we’ll keep saying things like that to ourselves because it is more comfortable to be angry with ourselves than to feel shame.   Lastly we may be so traumatized by our shame that we simply avoid others and avoid the situation that put us in that place of shame.  “I’ll never speak in front of a group/class/office meeting again.”

Shame is also destructive because it can easily become attached to behaviors and states of being that won’t actually lead to losing social connection.  Shame is an emotion that is created by a community.  For example, a boy brings his teddy bear to show and tell.  And if the whole class (or even just the “popular” kids in class) laugh at him and call him a “baby”, this boy is likely to feel shame about his teddy bear, and possibly even shame around anything he does or is that suggests “immaturity.”  He’ll come home crying, throw the teddy bear away or in the closet, screaming “I’m not a baby!”

Or there is a multi-billion dollar industry that portrays a certain kind body as the ideal, sexy type.  And so a teenager moves through the world seeing magazines, tv ads, tv shows, movies, and more that all communicate the same message: “if you don’t have this kind of body, then you’ll never have friends, an attractive partner, and you won’t be very successful in life.”  In other words, if you don’t have the ideal body type then you’ll lose social connection.

And so the remedy to shame that has become attached to irrelevant or banal behaviors or attributes is acceptance and even pride.  Finding our way back to a place where we can see that we are a person deserving of love and connection, and noticing and celebrating the fact that we have social connection and support even with this particular behavior or attribute.

November 13, 2017Permalink

Using NVC In the Workplace

The workplace is rife with conflict, and yet it is an environment that is not conducive to expressing feelings and needs.  Rather than being a place where people are treated with empathy and collaboration, it is a place where we are treated with competition, efficiency, and task driven rather than relationship driven.

And so it makes sense to wonder: “how do I use Nonviolent Communication (NVC) in my workplace?”

I think it is vitally important to find ways to use NVC in the workplace.  The workplace is one of the few places left where we still encounter folks who we would not normally associate with.  People who may never experience another way of communication if we don’t try to show it to them at work.  And since the workplace occupies the majority of people’s time during the week, it is actually one of the main arenas where our wider culture plays itself out, and gets reinforced or changed.  Finding ways to use NVC in the workplace isn’t just about having better relationships at work and resolving conflict more easily, it is an act of cultural activism and subversion.

So I want to lay out three things that I think can help in this struggle of cultural activism.

First, as with any long term struggle, you’ll need to find some way to celebrate and savor the small victories.  There is no quick way to turn around an office’s culture of aggression, task-focus, and power.  Introducing NVC into this kind of culture is going to take time, a lot of time.  And so to keep going and to avoid burning out you’ll need to find some way to savor the small victories and success.  Maybe it’s noticing and celebrating your own behavior.  Whenever you react with empathy before giving advice/direction, whenever you share your own feelings in a meeting or a one-on-one discussion, whenever you make a connection request rather than jumping to an action request, these are all moments to celebrate.

And what does celebrate those small victories look like?  It looks like taking a moment in private to notice what needs those actions met.  Maybe it met your needs for integrity, to make a difference, or your own need for compassion.  Whatever needs those actions met, savor that.  Enjoy the feeling of satisfaction of meeting your own needs to make a difference and live in integrity.  Even if the other person didn’t react to your NVC approach the way you’d wished, still see if you can enjoy the fact that no matter how they behaved, you acted with integrity and compassion.

Second, the key to using NVC in any setting is safety.  Feeling safe enough to share vulnerably and honestly.  And sadly too often our workplaces are not places we feel emotionally safe to do that.  The key to creating safety is empathy.  Now, it doesn’t really work to go around and tell other people they should show more empathy.  Rather we have to show people what empathy looks like.  We need to model empathy.

We can do that by actively empathizing with co-workers or bosses when they’re frustrated or upset.  We can do this in business meetings by asking people to make some empathetic guesses about folks who will be impacted by our decisions.  “How do you think this will impact Bob, the HR person’s job?”  “How do you think this decision will affect our customer’s experience?”

Third, we can model empathy by transforming our judgements into empathetic guesses.

Try this, next time you have a judgmental thought about your boss or co-worker, take a few minutes and try to figure out what feelings and needs might have been motivating their behavior.  Were they feeling anxious because they want accomplishment and efficiency?  Were they feeling tired and wanted freedom from responsibility?  Whatever feelings and needs you think might be driving their “annoying” behavior, open the conversation with that guess, check it out with them, before you explain how you felt and how that behavior left you with unmet needs.

October 24, 2017Permalink

The Stories in Our Heads

Humans are storytelling beings.  The way we make meaning of the world is by telling stories.  We see this on the large cultural scale with things like religion, science, and philosophy.  But we do this on an individual scale as well.  We tell stories like “Bob is a mean jerk and is trying to stop me from helping the company improve.”  Or “my wife is working hard to make sure we can live the lives we want.”  Or “my children are rebelling against me and if I don’t make sure they have proper discipline they’re going to get into a lot of trouble in life.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with storytelling.  In fact, we need it in order to have meaning and purpose in our lives.  But there are two ways in which the stories we tell ourselves about the world, other people, and even ourselves can become problematic.  First, they can become a problem when we think they are objectively true.  That is, they become a problem when we forget that the story is something we have written in our own minds and it doesn’t actually exist in the outer world.

Now sometimes our stories are true.  But there is a big difference between making sure our stories are true and just assuming our stories are true.  For example, if I tell myself this story: “I cannot make any difference on national politics” and assume that is objectively true it’s going to create some problems for me.  When I believe that story as objectively true I feel powerless, I feel stuck, and ultimately I don’t put any effort towards trying to make a difference.  However, if I explore whether that story is true, rather than just assuming it is, I may discover a more nuanced story:  “As one person I cannot make any difference on national politics, but if I committed to helping organization Y then I can contribute to how that organization is influencing national policy.”  This more nuanced story can help me feel more empowered and gives me an option of something to do, rather than believing there is nothing I can do.  But I would never discover this more nuanced story if I just assume that my initial story (“I cannot make any difference”) is objectively true.  What allows me to discover the more nuanced story is an awareness that the initial story is just something I am thinking in my head; it’s not necessarily objectively true.

The second way our stories get us into trouble is when we don’t tell them to other people.  The stories we tell ourselves shape how we act in the world.  If I am telling myself this story about my co-worker: “he doesn’t care about getting this project done” then that is going to shape how I act in the world.  I’m probably going to work on the project alone, come into meetings with my co-worker and lay out my ideas without soliciting his feedback; I may even actively ignore his feedback labeling it as “unconstructive.”  And if I never tell my co-worker that I think he doesn’t really care about this project, he may be confused and hurt by my actions.  Again, my story might be true, but if I assume it is true without actually talking to my co-worker about it then I run the risk of behaving in a way that only further confirms my story.

So we need to be aware that our stores are just that…our stories.  We write them in our own brain, and we seek evidence that supports those stories and we discount evidence which undermines our story.  And if we can be aware that our stories are our own creation, we can be more willing to share them with others and work to figure out whether they are really true or not.

October 11, 2017Permalink

Dangers of Digital Communication

Technology makes communication harder.  I know in a lot of ways technology helps us stay in touch with old friends, or stay connected to family that live elsewhere, or it gives us time to reflect and edit how we communicate.  But in terms of talking about difficult topics, in terms of talking about the stuff that is really hard, technology actually makes those conversations worse.

Regularly I see clients who are struggling with their romantic partner or with friends because they try to process big issues, areas of deep conflict, over text message or e-mail.  And there’s usual a justifying story of how using that medium gives them the space and the time they need to really think through what they want to say.  However, I find that often that is simply a story.  That with the anonymity of writing on a screen they don’t have to look into the eyes of the other person, and see how the words they are saying are in real time impacting the listener.  And when we get an e-mail or text message that is hard to read, I hear from many clients how their first inclination isn’t to breathe and process but fire a message back as quickly as possible.

And yet, even with the inherent delay in communication through technology, which could give us time to process and reflect, instead we often dwell.  Dwelling is when we fixate on what someone says, and as we fixate we construct narratives about what it means about them, what it means about us, and how it brings up all our past wounds.  Dwelling is not the same as self-reflection.  Self-reflection involves calming ourselves down rather than getting more amped up. Self-reflection involves trying to understand where the other person’s intentions end and my own stuff begins.  Self-reflection involves owning what is my stuff and not putting it on the other person.  This is the opposite of dwelling.

And even in writing these blog posts, there is a way in which I don’t get to see how my words impact you the reader in real time.  I don’t get to self-edit as I go, rather you as the read have the reaction and thoughts that you have, and if you choose to share them with me I may be able to change what I typed after the fact, or apologize, but I can’t change the fact of that what I wrote impacted you in the way that it did.  It’s a risk I take every time I write a blog post.

So please, next time you’re thinking about sending that text message or e-mail consider if this conversation would be better had over the phone or even better, in person.

September 28, 2017Permalink

Control: The Self-Defeating Myth

Many of us wish we could have more control over our lives.  I know I do.  I do all sorts of things that help me maintain the illusion that I am in control.

And then something happens that shatters that illusion.  A hurricane hits.  We get laid off.  We get into a car accident through no fault of our own.  Or we simply have one of those crappy days where nothing seems to “go the way it was supposed to.”

And if you are like me, when those moments come, whether big or small, that make it clear that we can’t really control what’s going on in our lives, then we feel scared, alone, and deeply uncomfortable.  To really face how much of our lives is determined by chance, chaos, and unpredictability is unsettling.  And the real test comes in how we respond to that awareness.

Many of us, myself included, have the initial response of trying to clamp down with more control.  If my first two clients of the day both spontaneously cancel their appointments, my first reaction is a desire to text all my other clients that day to make sure they are coming.  Or when I’m trying to get something done and there’s a constant barrage of interruptions, I might try to just clamp down inside of myself, clenching all my muscles, and try to just barrel through and ignore everything going on around me.  Or when I try to roll out a new program that isn’t being received the way I expected it to, I might try to ignore the feedback I’m getting and just focus on what’s positive about this new program.

These are all ways we respond to our lack of control by trying to impose more control.  And while some of this, in moderation, can be helpful, ultimately it just makes us more infatuated with the myth of control.  I think some of us, again myself included, truly believe that if we could just get better control over our lives then all the problems would go away.

The seductive myth of control, put simply, is: that if we could just have more control over situations then things would go better.      

However, the dark side of that myth is that then when things don’t go well it’s our fault.  If only we had done better, this wouldn’t have happened.  We are to blame for things going wrong in our lives.  And that brings a lot of shame.

But the other way we can respond to those moments where the illusion of control is dashed is to surrender.  When tragedy strikes, or when things are simply not going the way we had planned, instead of trying to impose more control, we can choose to surrender to what is.

Surrender is not the same thing as giving up.  Surrender is simply accepting the truth that I am not in control of other people, the world I find myself in, or in the events that happen in my life.    

Now of course we can make choices that increase the probability of “success.”  Having a weekly habit of exercise, good diet, and good sleep greatly increases the probability of good health.  But it only increases the probability; it does not make a guarantee.  There’s not only genetic diseases that may not be avoidable, but we also live in environments that have become so polluted that toxins and carcinogens can be found in the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink.

And what surrendering offers you, is it frees you up to make the best choices you can and then to enjoy life no matter what happens.  So when the hurricane hits, or the job gets terminated, or you simply can’t get your to-do list done, you aren’t stuck beating yourself up over it.  You are blaming yourself and shaming yourself.  You aren’t squandering your own joy to feed this myth that if you simply had more control things would be better.  Surrender is not apathy.  Surrender is freedom to enjoy life in the midst of chaos, unpredictability, and chance.

September 11, 2017Permalink
Free Practice Group

Twice a month I lead a free Compassionate Communication Practice Group. Open to those new and advanced students. We meet on the First and Third Monday of the month at 6 pm. We gather at 640 Hawthorn Lane in classroom 8. Classrooms are behind the church and to the left, next to the parking lot. Practice Group sessions usually run for 2 hours.

The next one will be on July 6th at 6 pm.