Sometimes life feels hard. And sure enough, sometimes circumstances are muddy, mucky and real rough. Especially with our closest relationships, things can be intensely challenging.
Sometimes though, we make our own lives more difficult — usually without realizing we’re doing it. Each of us has much more power to influence our lives than we accept.
The good news is that this is changing.
Every time one of us steps up to sharpen our communication skills, we bring more skillfulness and humility to our relationships. And every time that happens, the world becomes a place that is more loving, safe and kind.
Whenever I discover a simple tool that helps bring about this kind of world, I share it. Reflective Listening is a widely known skill in the world of interpersonal communication, coaching and couples therapy. It is exceptionally simple and I’ve detailed it below so you can practice. All humans would benefit from communication classes starting at a young age, with this exercise being practiced starting around age 10.
If you’re in a committed partnership with someone who’s open to learning new things and wants to see the relationship become more fulfilling over time — someone who’s willing to do their part and not just expect things to improve on their own — you are fortunate. Practice with them. I am extremely thankful my husband is willing to use these tools with me. Reflective Listening has been transformative for our our marriage.
Otherwise, ask a good friend or family member to practice with you. It doesn’t have to be deep or intense -- you can talk about ice cream or travel if you want.
For a short taste of what it’s like, you can take 10 minutes, five each, trading places halfway through. For a fuller experience that might be more rewarding, set aside a whole hour and each take 30 minutes. Or, you can have your turn today as Sharer, or Listener, and switch places tomorrow.
Benefits of Reflective Listening often include:
Ready for some of that sweetness?
Reflective Listening: The Basics
Try it, let me know how it goes for you, send me an email if you want to share what worked and what didn't. Be gentle with yourself. Even a simple exercise can be challenging, especially when it has the potential to bring about so many positive changes.
And if you find yourself all jazzed up about the power of Reflective Listening, share this link with a friend who’s struggling in relationship. Or if you have the spirit of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street running through your veins like I do, and being a good friend is enormously important to you in life, call a friend on the phone today and tell them you want to gift them 20 minutes of your time, as Listener in this exercise. Lead them through it.
It feels really, really good to have someone truly listen.
Of the hundreds of people I’ve met and had conversations with, there are probably 10 who I consider to be masterful listeners. To those people, thank you. I’m not there — yet. I am definitely on my way. To all of us who are heading that direction, kudos, it is good to be in your company!
Anyone who’s been in a committed relationship knows it’s not easy. Down the line, divorce and affairs are common. Couples begin with starry-eyed mutual adoration and eventually find themselves facing some of their toughest life’s work.
Those who are a good match, with shared values and vision, who are willing to do the work presented by the relationship, can end up in an extremely satisfying place with an expanded sense of what’s possible in life. Maybe you know a couple who has made it this far.
There’s no right or wrong — in my book — about whether you have or haven’t made it through huge bumps and reached the other side. It doesn't make you more worthy of love, just because you have done the work partnership has presented to you, and come to a place of discovering you are both “new” people with grown spiritual and emotional muscle.
Whether we do this or that, whether we show the face of fear or love more often, we are all equally worthy of love. Still, it is very impressive and worthy of applause when two people do reach the "other side" in relationship.
If you are someone who’s done the work of long term intimate partnership, I commend you. I applaud you. Please share your insights with others, however it feels natural for you. People all over the world are longing for more satisfying relationships, and sadly, many are not willing to ask for help.
One of the big dying myths of our time is the myth that we don’t need each other.
Why stand at the wedding altar and ask that all all our guests be witnesses and help us out when things get tough, if we aren’t willing to ask them for help when we need it?
Friends, cousins, peers, coaches, many people in our lives would be happy to offer wisdom or a listening ear when we face relationship challenges. I am outrageously fortunate to have worked with a masterful relationship coach for 13 years. There are countless mediocre coaches out there, yet there are great ones too and there is one who’s a match for every one of us. And in asking for help, from whoever you ask, there is deep sweetness awaiting your soul. That place within you that values yourself enough to feel worthy of support, is a very sweet place.
If you’ve got one really good friend, or a sister or father or neighbor who genuinely cares for you, ask for help, alright?
There is no need to struggle in relationship.
Let us not wait for hurricanes, wildfires and war to teach us that Love is the way. Giving it, receiving it, any way you look at it... Love is the light.
As I laid in bed yesterday, the left side of my head ripping apart from the inside with constant pressing pain, it felt like the end of a burning softball bat was pressing against my blood vessels. Migraine #8 has been an acutely painful dance. Life from here on out must look different. I cannot live with this kind of pain. I must hear the message it is meant to bring. I surrender.
Have you been in pain like this? Are you among the 19% of women with migraines or chronic back pain, or some other bodily agony? What about your child – are you a mother whose child lives with Crohn’s Disease, another autoimmune disorder, a vaccine related injury or some other kind of pain?
Pain is, above all things, a messenger. Suffering does not need to happen as long as we listen to the message that pain brings and tune in to what is being asked of us – we are, in pain, always being asked… something.
On the very bright side, there is unlimited love right at our very own fingertips. We can speak sweet words to ourselves in our own minds. This nurtures our hearts. We can tend to our physical pain with massage, acupuncture, plant medicine. This nurtures our body. We can take time for ourselves to be spacious, rather than planning too much. This tends to our soul. We can tend to our own body, heart, and soul in many ways and this is always available to us at no cost, with no delay, and with no limits.
How rich we are, that we can love ourselves like this! That we can model for our children what it means to care for the self. That we can create a reality, by “being the change we wish to see in the world” as Gandhi said – a world that is more gentle, more kind, more delightful than before we found it.
Beyond the riches of our own capacity for self-love, there lies an oceanic swell of love felt for us by others. Whether or not we see it, it is absolutely there.
As my most painful migraine thus far carried on, the option of caring for it “all by myself” disappeared. There was no way I could function; I had to call for help. At 6:30am one morning, a neighbor went out into the world to buy medicine and bring it to my doorstep, while my brain felt as if it were about to explode. What was going on in my head? I didn’t know. But I did know I needed help, and he rose to the occasion before the sun came up.
That was when it became clear this was no time to pretend I was independent. We need each other.
A chorus of compassion started singing in my head. I thought of all the other women in the world who experience painful migraines. I thought of the men who do, too. Many of those women and men don’t have friendly neighbors who’ll run errands at the crack of dawn – or worse yet, they don’t have the inner self worth to ask for the help in the first place. My heart swelled with compassion for the emptiness, the hole, the sad state of being so many people live in while living with pain. My life is full of soulfully rich relationships. Many people’s lives are not. And even with rich relationships, life presents significant, sometimes lengthy and seemingly insurmountable challenges. How tough must it be for those people who don’t have this kind of relationship wealth in their lives?
Sidled up to my compassion for others who experience migraines is a batch of compassion for mothers who wanted to give birth vaginally and ended up with a C-section. Some mothers truly mourn the loss of the labor they dreamed of; others are fine with whatever turned out. I feel for the ones who felt a loss, as I too experienced labor-related trauma, even though it was after a vaginal home birth.
Sidled up next to these compassion wells is a deep bay of feeling for those who struggle with emotional eating, overindulging in sugary foods, and deep loneliness. I have faced these dark valleys, and they are not sweetened by the breath of spring lilacs. There is charcoal lining the way. What I would give – I’d give a lot – to soothe the aches and sorrows of anyone suffering along these painful trails.
That’s a lot of compassion. And it’s only my own.
I thought of all the friends and family who offered – from the abundant goodness in their hearts – acupuncture and massage and magnesium in the mail and child care, care packages at my doorstep and fiercely empowering text messages to my very soul. The mountain of compassion embodied in these hearts astounded me.
How sad it is that anyone on Earth ever feels alone in their pain. How unnecessary and inappropriate this is, when every woman, man and child on this planet has access to this riveting chorus of kindness, love, compassion.
There is only the space of one single thought in between any single person – you, your partner, your child, your mother, your neighbor or best friend, or the homeless person on the city sidewalk – and this chorus of compassion that can soothe all the pain in the world. Sit with this. If your child lives with pain, if you live with pain, stop pretending this is not available to you.
All the love in the world belongs to all of us; it is no one’s alone and could never be.
Let us teach our children, first by modeling ourselves, the importance of self-care for a life well lived. That their mother and father are worth all the asking for help, all the affirming mantras, all the pauses and song that are needed to fill up one precious human soul in the busyness of life lived these days.
When our child is in pain, let us show them how to treat it like a friend – to listen to it, to love it like it has something important to say. It does. And our children, energetic masters of feeling and presence, will be glad to step up into seeing their pain as the messenger it is. Let us remind them of the compassion-filled universe awaiting their requests, their calling, their ask. Let us help them lead the way.
Popular culture sees intimacy as exclusive to romantic relationships. But anyone who’s done deep human work knows intimacy can happen between any two people, even strangers -- and even with yourself.
Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase “into-me-see,” referring to how, when we share intimacy with another, we can see into that person’s inner landscape, and they can see into us. Being with someone where they’re at -- not where you wish they would be -- creates intimacy, closeness, a deeper bond.
Sounds great, I’ll take it! Right?
Ha! But there’s this. When someone asks, “Where do you work?” you’re likely to answer with what you do for income, your paid job, your career work.
Yet, as a lifelong student of what “makes life tick” for human fulfillment, I would assert that “work” is most appropriately tied to the deepest, most essential work: the work of intimacy, the work of relationships.
This is The Work. It is far from easy. It is work.
Last week I asked friends for insights about their experiences with intimacy. A handful of the wisest women I know responded. Here are some jewels from the conversation. I asked:
For those who have high levels of intimacy with your closest friends, peers, immediate family members and spouse/partner... What is your secret? How would you point others to find this same depth and richness in life?
“Being vulnerable with others and being curious about them.” Straightforward wisdom from former schoolteacher, outdoor enthusiast and supermama, Meno Reiner, who’s been a friend of mine for 19 blessed years. Her words pretty much sum it up!
Remembering whose shoulders she stands on, "grain-to-glass spirits" entrepreneur, former bike racer & schoolteacher, and supermama Jenny Daly Griffo said, “I feel that somehow finding a genuine interest in people drives a lot of my intimacy. I try so hard to emulate my grandpa who formed rich relationships everywhere he went. What I saw in him, was a genuine belief that people were interesting (beautiful humility) and a desire to hear their stories. Such a high bar!”
Even after years of developing intimacy and communication skills, I notice many women share the experience of still being challenged, and most challenged, by intimacy with oneself.
Lisa Kiehn, Supermama Extraordinaire of five children, massage therapist, psychic healer and birth doula, has been dedicated to intimacy development for many years. She says, “As I looked at my own issues of communication and a desire to hide or be shy, I pushed myself to come forward more because I desire intimacy. It was difficult in the early years but I would force myself to stay put, open myself to bravery and focus on their eyes. Honestly, this has been a lifelong journey. It takes bravery and a willingness to accept all that is present in the moment or many moments. I am willing to share, I am willing to be present, and my latest piece these many years is being open to receive myself.”
One of my “big sister” mentors of many years echoed this challenge with the Self.
She said, “The edge I've been exploring in intimacy this past year is with myself. Some aspects of my own experience are more difficult for me to be with. For example, I've spent an entire lifetime not-allowing myself to feel jealous or insecure or needy. I've been unwilling to love those experiences or the aspects of me who have them and have been extending myself this past year more courageously toward my own most hurting parts. Intimacy with me means loving all of me, being brave enough and compassionate enough to sit still and stay present for all of it, not just the fun and interesting parts. This is way easier for me to do with others than with myself.”
Does that resonate for anyone else? Easier to love other people where they are, with all their human “imperfections” than it is to love yourself in this way?
As the jewels of wisdom streamed in from these women, I was curious to hear from a man, too. So on one of our weekly collaboration calls, I stepped into Beginner’s Mind and got curious with my coach of 12 years, who is now my collaborator, Master Relationship Coach Charles Zook, CPCC. He’s coached 1,000s of couples and is considered a wizard in the world of relationship coaching.
Here’s what Charles had to say: “The word intimacy is not code for sex, it’s not code for a Hallmark card kind of moment -- a candlelit dinner -- it’s not code for holding hands walking on the beach.
"The definition we’re working with (in Leaning into Light’s Relationship Series workshops) is not those cultural connotations of intimacy.
"Intimacy means sharing human experience. If my partner is gone at work today, and I’m looking forward to having a fun, sexy evening with her after she gets home tonight, if I want to be intimate with her, I’m gonna have to be intimate with the experience she is having. There is no ‘fun, sexy’ that’s available right now.
"If I want to be intimate with her I have to meet her where she is, because that’s really the only place to be with her. In a Yoda kind of way, it’s the only place to be with someone: where they’re at.”
In other words, if you really want intimacy, you’re gonna have to be here now, as the famous Ram Dass book is titled. And that’s not easy; we’re culturally trained to want to be somewhere else, to want something else, and to just-wish for things rather than step up to create them.
“Rather than intimacy being a unicorn that we seek and wish for,” Charles continued, “participants in our next workshop will learn practical tools to generate intimacy and connection with others in your life.” Join me and Charles on Sunday April 24th for our phone workshop, Deepening Connection in Intimate Partnership (10:00-11:30AM PDT). That is, if you’re up for the work, and the rewards, of intimacy.
If there’s one thing I’ve noticed about us humans it’s that we benefit greatly from reminder, reminders, reminders. We don’t make change until we’re ready -- no one can force this kind of choice upon us -- and especially when it comes to life's biggies, we need 100s of reminders before we are ready.
The benefits of being ready?
One is being seen in the light of day. Dabbling chef and mother of two, Juniper Rose shared, “I feel I have deeply intimate relationships. It takes courage to be wholly myself in any given situation as well as openness to growth. Being truly intimate means all those little pieces we hide from ourselves and others will eventually be brought to light.”
Sometimes, perhaps until we’re totally awake and can make decisions from a place of total self-love, as a benefit for All of Life, it can be motivating to know how our actions impact the whole world. If we truly care about life, we can step more fully into it simply because we know our actions affect the whole.
“Intimacy is an investment in our world as a whole,” says Lisa Kiehn. “I believe that once we become intimate and understand the way of intimacy, we will continue to be so with all aspects of our experience. Intimacy is a profound healer. It is proof of life.”
And in case you're wondering, why, YES! All of my mama friends are Supermamas.
I'll just go ahead and call it like I see it. Most people aren't great at dealing with conflict. Name calling, blame, high levels of defensiveness, resentment... It's not easy to remain respectful in the heat of an intense disagreement. We are all unskillful sometimes.
Yet there are people I know who are very good at dealing with conflict, and I'd like to be more like them.
They're not always gracious, they slip up sometimes, but they've courageously faced enough conflict that they've gotten really good at learning from it rather than becoming its victim.
For those who seek to be better communicators until the day we die as I do, who will never stop wanting to love more deeply and show up more powerfully for ourselves and others, I offer this interview. Here are two questions about dealing with conflict in relationship, and their answers from a man who's considered a wizard in the world of coaching, Master Relationship Coach Charles Zook.
How does conflict affect relationships? Is it all bad, or is there a benefit to conflict sometimes?
The impact of conflict depends largely on how we engage conflict.
If done skillfully it can be a huge contribution; if done unskillfully it will likely result in a lot of toes being stepped on, so to speak. The culture and history most of us live in does not support education and modeling regarding skillful approaches to conflict (look around, lots of unskillfulness out there!).
In every moment of our lives, and of our relationships, there is "Glass Half Full" (things that are fulfilling the way they are) and "Glass Half Empty" (things that are not fulfilling the way they are). Conflict generally falls under the Glass Half Empty umbrella.
In our culture we tend to interact with Glass Half Empty with a "what's wrong" conversation. We are well trained and quite experienced with this type of conversation. We can tell you what's wrong with just about anything, especially our partners!
Developing a more constructive relationship with conflict starts with shifting from "what's wrong" to "what is wanting to happen." It is kind of like the shift from movie critic to movie director. A movie critic states, "I did not like this part", but does not have to address, "so what would you do differently to make it better?". To experience benefit from conflict we need to challenge ourselves to move from movie critic, "let me tell you what is wrong with this relationship," to a more challenging conversation, "what are we learning from this and how can we integrate this learning to make our relationship better in the future?"
Learning how to do this is challenging but potentially very rewarding. Yet not learning how to do this is also challenging, and largely lacks any sense of progress, fulfillment, power, or self determination.
How do we tell the difference between projections and other people's work?
Messy question reflecting a reality that is messy.
From a Newtonian world view -- one that sees the future as determined by the past -- we should be able to parse these out. A certain percentage is projection, the rest other people's work, it varies by situation, like that.
From a more Quantum Physics world view -- one that sees the future as TBD/to be determined, full of possibilities -- it is more holographic. Each component is there completely, and depending on what you are looking for, you will find it.
In practical terms this may not be very helpful so far, but we need to establish that there is no measurable reality about this stuff, it is more a discussion about how can we approach this in ways that leads to fulfilling outcomes. The foundational assertion is that "If we tell enough truth, it will sort itself out, we will discover what is wanting to happen, we will reveal next step(s)." Without a specific example, I will address this conceptually.
When dealing with yourself:
Compassionately start with curiosity from the perspective of it is ALL me.
What is my role in this?
What is it I am wanting to learn from this life experience?
What am I feeling?
What do I need?
If I could interact with this situation in a manner that reflects my values and vision, what would that look like?
What to I want to create going forward?
What could I do differently in the future that would contribute to different outcomes?
Look for the gold of what there is to learn by approaching the situation as if there was something for you to learn and do differently in the future.
When dealing with another, compassionately start with curiosity about the whole situation. What was their experience?
What are they feeling?
What do they need?
How was the situation different than how they would like it to have been?
What would they like to create going forward?
What requests do they have?
AND, are they interested and willing to hear your experience?
If we are seeking to be right and avoid being wrong, then the interaction will center around that concern. If we can let go of the need to be right and avoid being wrong, we can listen and learn and problem solve and come up with creative ideas about how to do things differently in the future.
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Thank you to the people who offered questions for this interview. And thank you for your generous sharing and wisdom, Coach Charles.
To everyone reading: Was this helpful? What are YOUR questions about conflict? We're happy to keep offering insights as long as you share questions. You can post your questions anonymously or include your name; it's up to you.
Those wanting a clear and practical tool that works, to deal with conflict, can join Charles and me (Jessica Rios, Founder, Leaning into Light) as we co-lead a 90-minute phone workshop on Sunday March 20th: Dealing with Conflict. Cost is $28pp, limited to the first 20 participants. Sign up here!
I used to think intimate relationships were all about romance. I had watched enough Disney movies and chick flicks, swooning over the guy who constantly dotes on the girl. It seemed dreamy to be in a partnership where "we always get along" and that seemed so very possible based on the movies and fairy tales. Disagreements were a sign of failure, because couples who always got along were the happiest... right?
Well, actually, there's no such thing.
Sure, in the beginning of many relationships, there is a period of time where the waters between you and your partner feel like they're sparkling, when you're so enraptured in the newness of this person, so enamored with the way you feel in their company, that a significant disagreement seems almost impossible.
Arguments have no room here. This time is meant for feeling what it's like to fly together -- because later on, if you stick with it, you'll need to know that this sense of flying is possible. You'll need that early state of ecstasy to keep you rooted in doing the work that long term intimate partnerships are meant to offer.
The truth is, relationships are always mirroring back to us precisely the work we need to do in order to grow spiritually. While companionship is certainly a jewel of committed partnership, the big gift it offers is the deep and brilliant beauty it can illuminate within us. Relationships are the core of life; they present us with the greatest opportunity for spiritual and emotional growth, and for joy.
All my life I've been observing relationships. My own, my friends', my parents'. Real relationships, not the kind in movies. I've watched what makes them thrive, I've watched what deteriorates them, I've watched how people tolerate mediocrity even when their insides are screaming out for something more fulfilling. I've watched the courage that it takes to let them take each partner to a higher level of being.
I've felt suffocated in my own partnership, feeling I'd done everything in my capacity to rise to the occasion and "do the work," finally choosing to end the relationship because it had milked everything out of me. It had served its purpose; it was time to move on. Staying would only be an attempt to force something to work that wasn't working. And damn, I took good notes that time around. One of the notes was that I could only do my own work; I couldn't do somebody else's.
What's become clear now is that if we are to rise to the occasion as a species devoted to advancing our potential spiritually, we have a stellar tool in relationships. (Here's a recent talk on Oprah by Marianne Williamson called The Spiritual Purpose of Relationships.)
Whether you are:
Then, I want to say that all the love in the world is "on your side." The key factor here is your desire. If you are ready to see a shift, even if it involves stepping out of your comfort zone -- and it likely will -- then it is simply a matter of knowing what's true for you, honoring it in word and action, and inviting your partner to step into this place with you.
For me, the rigorous personal and spiritual work of intimate partnership has required stellar support, both from friends and family members, and from mentors and a coach. I have able to stretch myself spiritually only because I've asked for and received help from others who care for me.
Energetic applause goes to anyone doing "the work" of intimate partnership. It is far from easy, and everything you do helps to make this a world with more skillfulness and compassion between people.
P.S. Walt Disney has contributed a lot to the world of family entertainment, but Disney films have not been so good at presenting a guidebook for real life relationships.
Our free recording for November is here! Listen to The Spirit of Waldorf Education and Tips for Parents, our 55-minute interview of Education Director Shannon O'Laughlin, here.
Jessica Rios, Founder of Leaning into Light, is a mother, coach, lifelong letter writer, and eternally a fan of Fred Rogers. This deeply personal blog and our free recorded conversations are devoted to one of her greatest passions: illuminating the beauty of the human spirit.