As Christmas approaches, I am being courageous and communicating about something important to me, even though it’s a bit awkward and out of my comfort zone. Being courageous in communicating about things that are important to her is what I’d want my daughter to do — so shouldn’t I model this courage myself?
In giving myself permission to communicate this with you and others who I care deeply about, I ask that you first and foremost keep in mind that: 1) I love you, 2) I value you and all the ways you are generous with our daughter, and 3) this is nothing personal about any one person, including you. It is simply an expression of our family values — something we genuinely believe in — and I trust that you will receive this in a spirit of curiosity, with an open mind and a warm heart.
Here’s what we’ve noticed.
Whenever our daughter receives a lot of presents, she feels overwhelmed. It’s like her nervous system is frayed, and she can’t seem to appreciate or focus on any one thing. It’s as if she would prefer quality time rather than a lot of presents. It’s as if she is — without words — asking us to “step up our game” and show her how meaningful life can be without material excess.
She is fortunate. We are fortunate. And we’re grateful. So grateful that, in fact, we want to extend our gratitude into a family challenge to focus our time and attention more on laughter, music, conversation, cooking together — rather than having a holiday that is swimming in stuff.
We want this for our daughter, so that her holiday memories are rooted in the sharing of love. Yes, presents are usually given with love. Yet — they can also easily overwhelm children, and there is a growing movement among parents who recognize this overwhelm and want to teach their children how to live with less stuff. And less debt.
We also want our daughter to know that this living planet we call home — Mother Earth — is our life support system, and that we honor her future on it. We want her to know that buying more stuff is not good for the planet we love — which is her home.
My wish for our daughter is that she receive one very special gift from her family at Christmas. When we sit around our tree on Christmas morning, we would like her to revel — with attentiveness, presence and joy — in one very special gift her family has come together to purchase for her. We want her to feel what it's like to thoroughly appreciate and enjoy one gift. The magic of presence.
Trust me, if you want to be part of this gift I will be sure she knows that you are, as is anyone else who contributes to make it happen.
This year, we’re still on the case 😉 investigating what one “big” thing she would like for Christmas. Maybe it’s ice skates or a sled, or a day in the snow with a friend. Maybe handmade doll clothes. If you would like to contribute, please let me know.
If there is something special that you want to give her, let’s do it at a time when we can be with you, outside the holiday rush perhaps over a peaceful dinner, spending quality time enjoying the gift of your generosity and the huge blessing of your love in our lives.
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.
by Jessica Rios
originally published December 2016 in The Natural Parent magazine
When I was in college, I heard about hippies living together on communes. It sounded so wild, so flowery, so free. Midwives, breast milk, raw honey kind of free.
Then my college roommates came along. Our house was nowhere near as clean as my mother had kept ours. Dishes sat stinky in the sink for days. Dust piled up in every corner. Hangovers permeated the air and post-rugby sweat lingered on sofa pillow cushions. Living in a commune with a bunch of pals turned into the last thing I wanted.
Fifteen years later I gave birth to a baby girl at home. Candles were lit in every room. My patient husband and mother were there. Our midwife and her angelic assistants whispered with strength and service as the baby moved lower, down, down.
By then, I’d grown to treat my home like an altar. Home became a space where everything in it was beautiful for my eyes and soothing for my heart, where every single thing either brought me joy to look at or to use, and was well tended to. I didn’t clean once a month for six hours; tending to my space was a practice everywhere I walked. Creating beauty and order was a meditation. Creating home had become a passion — a home that felt capable of holding me in all the ways I’d grown to give and show up in this world.
I liked having my own space, where I could place a turquoise vase of white tulips on any windowsill I chose without having to democratically discuss it with an entire community of cohabitants.
Roaring like a tiger — literally, you know it, mamas — I sat on the birthing stool at the edge of my bed, a volcano about to erupt from my womb, and our daughter emerged. With pneumonia.
We spent the next 10 days and nights in the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit). Her lungs got oxygen pumped into them to grow. I held her little body for only about an hour every day. Her father and I stared at the vitals monitor, hour after hour, our little pink skinned baby laying in her Isolette with tubes in her nose and taped to her belly. My breastmilk supply was insufficient. And five months later, my long time soul mate, a female red Queensland Heeler dog named Lusa, developed lumps near her ribs and passed away as I held her body and she took her last breath.
I was depressed.
Thirteen months later, the fog of depression lifted. But for all those months my head and heart hung low, bathed by the sorrowful waters of life’s rigor.
Did I need more aerobic exercise? Sure. More grieving, to process the trauma? Sure. Yet there was one word that kept repeating itself, an echo of wisdom from deep in my womb, over and over and over again as the months of depression carried on. One word that captured what a solution would feel like. One word that spoke of the medicine a mother like me so painfully needed in these times.
I would think, staring at my baby’s perfect face as she slept in my lap, If only I could call a friend to come and make me tea and cry with me. I would wonder, How sweet would it be if we could easily cook dinner with three other families, with no transportation involved… just as a way of life? I yearned for an easier and built-in sort of community, one that seemed so natural, so good for life, so good for mothers.
What I longed for turned out to be something many other mothers longed for too. We felt a sense of loss, as if our ancestors had something we have somehow since forgotten.
One year later in my classic entrepreneurial leadership style, I formed a group to discuss village living. Where would we form a village? What would it look like? How many families, what ages, and what were all the legalities involved? And what kinds of challenges might we face? Knowing the interpersonal dynamics would likely be the most challenging part, the issue I’d always bring to the table was how we would “be” in relationship. What kinds of agreements and other structures would we create to support our village experiment — without running in opposite directions hating each other after all was said and done?
Sure, our ancestors made it work. Men went out hunting while women cared for the children in the caves and tipis.
Yet times are different now. Fences and property lines were about as common for our ancestors as lawnmowers, especially the reality of every single home on a city block having its very own lawnmower. And tool shed. And kitchen to clean. And its very own need for specific arrangements to be made every time the residents go travelling: pet sitters, plant waterers, mail collectors. Its very own mortgage and sprinkler system and electricity bill to file and pay.
(See how heavy this is feeling? There has got to be a better way.)
Eventually, the "Village group" dissolved, but not because there’s not great longing for Village. We dissolved because life in the San Francisco Bay Area is busy, and I felt pulled to let the Village vision simmer awhile as I focused on other things.
What has come clear since then is this: Village is a healthy, fulfilling way of life that would be optimal for women, children, men and most things in between. It’s also clear that going back to how things were for the hippies of the 1960s and ‘70s isn’t quite what’s wanted for those of us yearning for Village today.
What isn’t clear is how we do it, in the modern world. Not every one of us has a Trust that enables the purchase of acreage to form a community based on Village values. And even when we do, the reality is that it’s still not easy to make it work.
Distilling the issue down to what it looks like — and what values are at play — appears to be the most helpful approach for the 1,000s and 1,000s of families who want to create a more community-oriented “Village” lifestyle.
1) Share food.
Whenever possible, invite friends over for meals. Consider an exchange twice a month with one family; you cook once and they cook once. This creates deeper bonds, makes dinnertime more fun, and spices up the routine that can dull long term relationships.
Or how about a dinner coop with eight families who each cook twice a month, and receive three meals cooked for them every other Sunday?
2) Share childcare.
When families share land, children can run out your door without needing to schedule play dates. When we don’t, trading childcare hours is an option.
We’ve never hired a babysitter — not because we think it’s wrong or bad, but — just because it seems more sensible to ask the people who adore our child to hang out with her when we can’t. Our neighbor a few doors down has become a cherished friend and gets along great with our daughter. We look for ways to share our time and love with her; she spends time with our daughter. We don’t pay her; she loves it! And we all build Village in the process. Isn’t life all about relationships, anyway?
3) Share chores and tools.
Instead of always cleaning your own house alone, why not trade with a fellow mama whose company you cherish? You bring wine to her house once a month and clean for three hours together with Fleetwood Mac blasting on the stereo. She does the same for you, only it’s Lila Downs at your casa.
You could set up a Home and Garden Coop using painted popsicle sticks to show credit for how many hours each family has pitched in to the group. Then when you need your laundry room painted Moroccan Orange, you can cash in some sticks and call in a small crew to drink Maghrebi Mint tea and paint with you.
Maybe your man is great at fixing bikes and your bestie’s man is skilled with knife sharpening. They can trade, eh? Just takes a little coordination. As long as too many beers aren’t involved, the dance should go just great.
4) Share your dreams.
As with any longing, when we get obsessed with it, things don’t go so well. But we can hold onto the dream of living Village, keeping it tucked close to our chest and seeing how life shows us it’s listening. Maybe having shared land or co-housing just isn’t in the cards for us, yet we can ask for “this or something better” as is often said by the enchanting Caroline Casey of Coyote Network News.
We can honor our dream for Village living by tending to it as if it’s a dear friend. Listening to it, talking about it, paying attention to it.
By living the values and feelings associated with Village life — and by making our lives look more like the way Village speaks to us through our child-honoring wombs — we can satisfy a deep, deep longing that cannot be denied. As with anything that makes life truly rich, the desire to live a Village life is well worth exploring.
P.S. There is nowhere I would be that's worthy of being, without the loving power and care of my very dear girlfriends. I'm dosing up with joy here, by posting a 'gallery' grid of photos taken with lady loves over the last 10 years or so.
Deepest ode, girlfriends. You are my Village!
by Charles Zook, masterful Relationship Coach & co-leader of The Relationship Series
Have you ever tried to resolve a difficult issue, and wondered why you seemed to get nowhere? Still irritated, still angry, still not feeling heard. Chances are you may have been co-processing, rather than using an effective means of communicating in conflict.
Co-processing is a term I use to describe attempting to process more than one person's concerns at the same time.
To illustrate, imagine you're watching a bunch of kids in your backyard and suddenly they all converge on the kitchen, all voicing their individual concerns simultaneously.
Quickly realizing you certainly cannot address ALL of their various concerns at the same time, you say, "Whoa, whoa, hold on. One at a time!" You know that has to be the next step. Until the cacophony settles down and you are able to get them to voice their concerns one at a time, you know there is no way to proceed in any constructive or effective manner. Once you get them to voice their concerns one at a time, you know you will be able to listen and find a solution, one at a time, then the next, and the next, until each concern has been addressed.
I am asserting that a similar sensible approach needs to be put into place when, for example, two people move from a calm discussion to a heated one.
In such a situation, both parties are talking over each other, interrupting, or even if only one person is talking at a time the other person is not really listening. Rather than really trying to understand what the speaker is trying to communicate, the "listener" isn't listening, they are having a strategy discussion in their head about what they are going to say once the other person stops talking. There is no communication (no communing, no understanding), just two people doing their best to "win", to be right, to not be wrong, to be vindicated, to prove their point.
This is what has been modeled for us with most of our families of origin, as well as reinforced by daily doses of media. Generally speaking, we just do not get educated about, or shown models for, effective communication.
In effective communication it is critical to avoid co-processing.
As soon as it is noticed that there is what I refer to as "tender or tense", much less if the situation turns into an argument, nothing good is going to happen unless the parties move to a more constructive approach.
My model would recommend determining who is going to be the speaker and who will be the listener.This is similar to the Native American custom of using a talking stick, except I recommend that the listener employ reflective listening frequently throughout ("what I hear you saying is..."). This gives the listener something challenging to focus on AND confirms in the speaker's mind that the listener is in fact listening to and understanding what is being communicated. Once the speaker feels heard, they can switch roles.
Slowing things down and being effective SEEMS like it will take longer, but in actuality, using an effective method works better and supports finding satisfying outcomes much more expediently than ineffectively talking at the same time.
Give it a try! See what happens. Share your miraculous discoveries here.
We love you,
Jessica and my brilliant collaborator Charles
(that's Charles --> and he's totally rad)
This morning a wise friend shared vulnerable words around a struggle with how we process death. In our culture that is afraid of the dark, the unknown, the mystery, the shadow, we tend to avoid acknowledging these things when somebody has passed away.
Sure, let's focus on their light and their beauty, yet...
Can we also elevate our capacity for holding, and love the whole of them, by giving voice to the parts of them that struggled to face this sad and beautiful human existence? Would this not offer us a greater sense of being seen from "the other side" (post-death of the body)?
Dear friends and family, please, don't just love the light in me.
Once I leave this human body, I sure would appreciate having my humanness honored too. My shadow spots, my struggles, my willingness to be with depression and to grapple with it out loud, my deep down kick-and-scream about feeling confined to a body, my cycles with sugar... I'd like that to be spoken of when my body dies, by my dearest loved ones. I would like to see, from the other side, that people were talking about how they loved me even when I was grumpy, how I was still precious even on my frustrated, crabby and cynical days.
That would feel complete.
To accept that we're in this human experience, and it's OK that we sometimes feel really, really messed up about that.
With great Love for those who've left their bodies, and all of us who someday will too. With deep Love to all who've felt the grief of a loved one's death, and to those who feel it every day for the collective, for all the dying that is happening every single second, of every single day.
May we practice leaning into light while we're here, but not deny that though we're made of light, this plane where we reside sure has its sorrow.
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!
And who's the Jedi? It's Master Relationship Coach Charles Zook. Here's his bio. Charles Zook, MBA, CPCC has been coaching professional and personal relationships for over 20 years and he loves it. He has advanced systems coaching training from the Center for Right Relationship and has worked with for-profits, e.g. Unilever, non-profits, e.g. Stanford Medical Center, and governmental agencies, e.g the State of California. What inspires his work with well over 1,000 couples is not only the impact it has on the couple, it is the impact it has on the children. His work allows clients to create fulfilling relationships and is so effective his only source of clients is referrals. He and his wife, Sandy, consider their relationship a laboratory for how to have challenges in relationship and know how to address them effectively. They have two adult children and a grandchild.
I'm turning to you because you have achieved a level of mastery in relationship, and the world needs what you have to give. As a lifelong letter writer, I extend my heartfelt sharing and asking, in this letter, to you.
Since I was a kid I've noticed that people's lives really seem to be wonderful if their relationships are healthy, and not so fulfilling if there is a lot of struggle in their relationships.
I've seen marriages end, mostly without much dignity or grace, and wondered why it seems so hard to complete with appreciation, when there was once such a shared sense of care. I've seen siblings, who were the best of friends for decades, tensely part ways after a parent dies simply because they didn't know how to handle the big, challenging feelings involved. Shouldn't we be taught this all of our lives?
I have so many questions about intimate relationships... between couples, parents and children, siblings, business partners... you name it. Here are a few I hope you'll share your insights on.
Jessica: Why is it so tough to be in committed partnership?
Charles: In supporting so many couples with this issue, the biggest impediment to creating fulfilling relationship is the idea that it should not be so tough (or challenging, or effortful, or time consuming) to be in a committed relationship. We live in a culture where we are taught that when I meet the "right" person, we will live "happily ever after", as the oft told story goes. When we get in a relationship and inevitably it moves beyond the superficial level, very predictably we encounter not agreeing about something or unskillfulness that results in misunderstandings and hurt feelings.
Without any models or education about how to work with these very understandable challenges, we are left with the mythology of the culture. If I am not "happily ever after," then you must not be the "right" person, so I have three bad choices.
1) Just do what I have seen others do, argue, defend, attack, make wrong, etc., which results in nothing really getting resolved or improved.
2) Get out of the relationship with this person who is obviously not "right" for me, because if my partner was the "right" person, it would not be this hard, and go back out and try and find the "right" person with whom it would be easy to live "happily ever after", and try again. Or,
3) Give up. Give up and stay in relationship, or give up on being in relationship at all, and just live out your days never finding a way to feel loved in this way, or to share your love with another.
The alternative to these options is to realize that contrary to what the culture teaches us, committed relationship, in my opinion, is the most challenging thing humans can undertake. Potentially very rewarding also, if we learn how to do it. Climbing Mount Everest, easier. Starting a successful business or career, easier. Being a Buddhist monk, easier. Committed relationship, constant challenge, constant growth and learning, 24/7/365. Intensely challenging and can be intensely rewarding if we are willing to undertake it as a learning environment on how to love and be loved.
Jessica: In romantic partnerships, few couples seem to maintain a shared spark after years of committed relationship. How do the couples who have this spark keep the fire alive?
Charles: Couples who keep the fire alive keep choosing to do what would keep the fire alive. Instead of continuing to do all of the things that made the relationship special early on, most people let the relationship decline.
In practical terms, when we do not know how to resolve challenges, it becomes harder and harder to choose to do the things that would keep the spark going. Couples who keep the spark going make very intentional choices to do the things that keep the spark going. In simple terms (and it is not simple), they focus on their goal of what can I do to keep the spark going rather than not focusing on those choices. When the relationship is young, we are highly motivated to make sacrifices for what is sacred to us, having our partner feel loved and appreciated, desired, special. As time goes on we are less motivated to make those sacrifices and we lose something sacred, the opportunity to share our love with each other in a way that has our partner feels special and desired. Commonly, we would rather be right than in love, and sadly, when we don't make sacrifices to keep the spark going it becomes the new normal that the spark is gone. This really sets the stage for loneliness and pain, which leads to more "hurt people hurting people", addictive behaviors, affairs, etc. All of which is super poor modeling for the next generation to be left with similarly poor choices.
So what keeps the spark alive? It is very different for each individual and couple and it even evolves over time. You have to want to discover what it takes, which can be an amazing adventure.
Jessica: Whether siblings or business partners, romantic couples or best friends, what does it take to be in a deeply fulfilled relationship? What's their secret?
Charles: BIG BIG question, teeny tiny answer. Tell the truth with yourself and each other that you want it and make it a priority to do what it takes to create it. Be willing to learn and try things and discover what moves you closer to your shared vision of fulfilling relationship. Accept that this is not the same for every relationship, we need to discover what works for us, which is complicated and takes sustained effort. Learn how to do better at building the positivity, the good feelings between the two of you. And, learn how to do better at dealing with the negativity in a constructive and effective way, the miscommunications, the hurt feelings, the incompletions. Be willing to be intentional about making the relationship a priority, especially when it does not feel like your inclination. Compassion, curiosity and intentionality are big pieces. Be learners and learn more about this, IF it is important to you.
I realize these are very partial answers to very complex questions. I hope I have been even the smallest bit helpful. All humans desire to love and be loved. It is hard work to create it and it is very lonely to give up on creating it.
Thank you for being so passionate about relationships, and devoting your life to seeing them thrive, so the people in them are fulfilled and can give more of themselves to create a more love-filled world.
With enormous gratitude,
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.
Jessica Rios, Founder of Leaning into Light, is a lifelong letter writer, a mother, coach, and freelance consultant, and eternally a fan of Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street. This deeply personal blog and our FREE recorded talks and workshops are devoted to one of her great passions: illuminating the beauty of the human spirit.