Hurt people hurt people. That’s how pain patterns gets passed on, generation after generation after generation. Break the chain today. Meet anger with sympathy, contempt with compassion, cruelty with kindness. Greet grimaces with smiles. Forgive and forget about finding fault. Love is the weapon of the future.
It has been my tradition to mark Remembrance Day here on my blog. This year is no exception.
I want to start by mentioning an experience I had recently and by talking through the learning that has been unfolding for me in the days and weeks that have followed.
One Monday morning, a few weeks ago, I found a response amongst my e-mails to something I had said to a colleague. It was clear from her response that my words had not landed well with her.
I wanted to reach out and open up the opportunity for connection, so I let her know that I was open to discussion if she wanted to talk things through.
A few days later, I reached out again. I sent her a personal message and asked her how she was. We had some exchanges. I asked her if she wanted to talk things through.
I wondered what to do next when the answer seemed to be nothing. I was not at peace.
On the end of a coercive style
I knew my colleague was unhappy with something I’d said and I didn’t know what. Equally, in the course of our conversations, my correspondent said and did a number of things that I found difficult. I experienced them as attempting to control my behaviour – to coerce.
If ever you’ve been on the receiving end of someone else’s attempts to coerce you, you may know how challenging it can be. Whereas some people make requests of you, the person who coerces does so from a place of believing he or she is right. You are told what you should do or should have done or, indeed, should not have done. Requests are made (or orders given) by implication. (Why ask “Would you mind doing…?” when you believe the other person ought to do something because it’s the right thing to do?)
You may also receive feedback from your correspondent to support his or her case. He or she uses labels, for example, to describe you or your behaviour. These are not used with the awareness that they are labels or constructs of the imagination. No, the speaker believes that they are an accurate description. Descriptions of behaviour are not neutral. The other person does not repeat the words that you said or accurately describe what you did. No, he or she tells you that you “spoke out of turn” or “deliberately crossed someone”. “You offended someone”. “You made a fool of yourself”. Anything that you did or said is lost in the midst of holding you responsible for somebody else’s response or beneath layers of judgement about whether or not you should have done what you did.
The fact that none of these descriptions accurately described what you said or did doesn’t matter to the person who is addressing you: his or her map is the territory. You may see that the other person has made assumptions and is treating them as if they were true. At the same time, the confidence of your correspondent that he or she is right is such that he or she has no reason to listen to anything you may have to say. Unless you can talk things through, it’s hard to correct misunderstandings.
How do you feel when this happens and especially when these behaviours are sustained (whether from time to time or on an ongoing basis)? For many people, they can trigger fear, anger, anxiety. Over time, they can undermine your confidence and make you question yourself. Perhaps you resist, asserting your right to choose your own behavour – and you do. You can even use some labels of your own to describe the person whose behaviour you have found so difficult.
Even so, it can be hard to feel at peace.
Good bye to bad rubbish
If you have read this far, you may think I am going to talk about the limitations of coercion. Regular readers already know I am a fan of research summed up by Daniel Goleman (in the article Leadership That Gets Results) which shows that when used inappropriately and excessively, the coercive style can have a negative impact on the way people experience their workplace and, in turn, on their productivity at work.
I promised to talk about my learnings in the midst of my experiences and this is what I am going to do.
I want to start with a path I chose not to take.
In the vernacular, there’s a phrase that is often used to describe one possible response when we are experiencing difficulties in our relationships with others: “say goodbye to bad rubbish”. This is the kind of phrase friends use to comfort loved ones after a relationship break-up, for example.
In the workplace, we may not have the option to walk away from a relationship and still, covertly, we say goodbye to bad rubbish by holding to our view that our colleague is out of line, has values that stink, is totally incompetent and more.
On a global scale, we look at our neighbours – neighbouring countries, religious groups and more – through the eyes of judgement and disbelief. This is the kind of disbelief that asks “How could they possibly do X?” without ever really seeking to know the answer. It may even be the kind of disbelief which asks this question of others whilst overlooking the times when we, too, have reacted in haste and, in doing so, have behaved in ways we would rather forget.
I am not saying that anyone should seek to make a best friend out of someone they find difficult. Men and women in abusive relationships are well advised to walk away. In organisations, we may want to work effectively with someone whose behaviour we loathe and still, to look after our own wellbeing. At the same time, as much as we want to gravitate towards and hang out with people whose company we enjoy, many times, we will encounter people whose behaviour we find difficult. Do we really want to walk away from them all?
On being human
Synchronicity is a wonderful thing. Just as I was grappling with my experiences, I decided to listen to a recorded conference call with Miki Kashtan (who is a trainer of some repute in the field of Nonviolent Communication) about collaboration in the workplace. I did not expect to take anything from her call which would help me with my colleague, but many things she spoke of landed with me.
Firstly, she described an instinct we have to withdraw when we encounter difficult behaviours. In this way, we protect ourselves from further harm. Even though I was only half listening to her as I did other things, I realised there was a message for me in this. I did want to withdraw and protect myself from more of the same. Yehuda Berg puts it this way: “Hurt people hurt people”. When we meet behaviours from people who are triggered, consciously or unconsciously, we want to protect ourselves from being hurt.
In her discussion, Miki pointed to something else. It can be easy, as we withdraw, to fall into judgement. It’s so easy that we do it without even realising that we are doing it. Their behaviour was difficult. It didn’t meet common professional standards. It clearly wasn’t rational. When we come from a place of wanting to protect ourselves, these judgements escalate a cycle of distance and mistrust so that the people whose behaviour we have found so difficult also want to step back and protect themselves.
This is the escalating cycle of pain to which Yehuda Berg refers and which is present in our most intimate relationships. And because I write this posting on Remembrance Day, I think it worth adding that the same pattern that causes us difficulty in our relationships with friends and family is also present in our relationships with our colleagues. And as much as it’s present in our relationships with colleagues, it is also present on a much larger scale in the relationships between nations or religious groups. If we follow this pattern, take the “goodbye to bad rubbish” approach, we can only look forward to conflict at the local and the global level.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
It happened that, a little while before I had the experience I have described above, my friend and colleague, Tamara Laporte, had a hot date (okay, conducted an interview) with Byron Katie, author of the book Loving What Is. I’d been meaning to watch this interview and I knew that now was the time.
Part way through this interview, Tamara asked Byron Katie about an incident that had taken place in her life, when she found herself face to face with a young man with a gun. Her response in the moment blew me away: she was able to connect with what might be going on for this young man, without in any way losing her composure.
Byron Katie was able to respond with composure because she has worked extensively to catch her own thoughts, to question them and to turn them round. By transforming her thoughts – her “story”, if you like – she is able to transform her emotional experience both in the moment and across her life as a whole. She calls this process of enquiry “the work”.
You could say that Byron Katie’s work is the manifestation of Mahatma Gandhi’s often-repeated invitation to “be the change you want to see in the world”. This small change of focus can bring huge results. It was as a result of her extensive work prior to this experience and of her ability, in the moment, to do her own work that she came away from this experience alive.
The mother of all things I want to learn to do differently
Sometimes, lessons are humbling. Not least because, at times, we have to learn them again and again until they become second nature to us – or perhaps return us to our primary nature. As I sit here and reflect, I wonder what three things I would most like to do going forward.
Rupture and repair
The first thing I take from this experience is a reminder that, in any successful relationship, there is a process which another friend and colleague, Melanya Helene, calls “rupture and repair”.
This is not just what happens in our most difficult relationships.
Rupture and repair is what happens in our most intimate relationships. We experience some misunderstanding and draw away. But we also value the relationship enough to want to reconnect. It is this desire to reconnect that motivates us to do what we need to do to overcome misunderstanding and repair our relationships.
Bringing this desire to overcome difficulties is also what allows us to transform our most difficult relationships into relationships of trust. In her densely-packed teleconference call, Miki Kashtan talks of spreading around goodwill when you most feel distrust. On a much greater scale, the process of truth and reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa came from this intention to repair what was broken.
When rupture happens, in whatever form, on whatever scale, I choose to be open to repair.
You can’t change the others
My experience with my colleague reminded me of another essential truth: the work of repairing difficult relationships begins at home.
It begins at home because we can’t change the others, we can only change ourselves.
It begins at home because our instinct to pull away from difficult relationships, our lack of trust, is itself a barrier to creating positive and healthy relationships, because it causes us to behave in ways which compound the problem.
As long as our focus is on how things should be, for example, we will struggle to deal effectively with how things are. In her conference call, Miki Kashtan describes one thing as under-rated in our society, and I agree: that thing is mourning. She talks about how much we need to experience our grief, our sadness, our disappointment, that this is how the world is – to feel this crushing disappointment all the way. All the thinking we do about how things should be leads us to harden our hearts as a protection from everything we know, deep down, to be true. Mourning helps us to maintain an open heart and it is this open-hearted softness that keeps us open to the other, even when we find their behaviour most difficult.
Both Miki Kashtan and Byron Katie invite us to examine our thinking about the other person. Indeed, Byron Katie’s work is all about examining our thinking. How are we thinking of this other person? (Our friends, our colleagues, our neighbours at local or global level). The biggest story we have to catch is that because there is something we find difficult about this other person, they are somehow, fundamentally, not okay.
The more we can catch ourselves in the midst of this story and question the thoughts we are having, the more we open up new possibilities in our relationships with others. We begin to see that whilst we find some behaviours difficult, other behaviours support us in meeting our needs. This means we can express our appreciation for those behaviours that nurture us and this, in turn, begins to change our experience and the experience of the other.
So, my second choice is this. I want to examine the stories I tell myself about myself and about others, especially when my attachment to that story is strong.
The healing power of empathy
The more we can catch our story, examine and transcend it, the more we can come to a story that opens up the possibility of a different forward path. This requires us to understand that, no matter how others behaved, they acted with positive intentions. Kashtan points to this: that the fact that someone behaved in ways we found difficult probably means that there is something we did or habitually do that they perceive as standing in the way of them fulfilling their needs. Empathy helps us to understand this and to connect with the other person and this opens up the possibility of a dialogue which, in turn, helps us to build a cycle of increasing empathy and mutual understanding.
It’s possible, too, that we need to meet our own experience with great empathy and understanding. Beneath the judgement of the other, for example, there is often a judgement of ourself or, at least, the fear that self-judgement may be justified. For yes, we, too, are human and react, at times, in ways we abhor. When we can bring self-empathy we can hold our positive intentions with great care and mourn, rather than condemn, our own behaviour. This leads us to greater honesty with ourselves, opens up the possibility of transforming our approach over time and, in addition, makes us more forgiving of others.
So, my third commitment is to recognise both my own and others’ need for empathy. I want to bring empathy even to the most difficult of relationships.
Implications for world (and office) peace
Why does any of this matter?
There are those in my life who have encouraged me to step away from any relationships which might be described as abusive, toxic or bullying and I certainly do not seek them out. I’m sure Byron Katie didn’t go looking for the young man with the gun.
At the same time, there are times in our lives when we do have regular contact with someone whose behaviour we don’t enjoy. Perhaps their emotions are frequently triggered. Perhaps their behaviours are unpleasant. He may be a colleague. She may be a family member.
We can, of course, move jobs, change friends, walk away from family. But new jobs bring new people who may also behave at times in ways we don’t enjoy. And it’s my experience that people yearn for a sense of connection with their family members even whilst walking away from situations where they can find no possibility for that connection to occur.
On a much more global scale, condemning “the other”, whether we are talking about men and women of a different political persuasion, national identify or religious group brings us no closer to finding ways forward which support everyone in meeting their needs.
Our relationships at work require us to find ways to connect with the people we most fear or despise, to move beyond our fear and hatred and to come to a place of empathy and understanding.
On Remembrance Day I want to add that this, too, is what is required of us. This requires us to understand that, in war, the most appalling acts are carried out with good intentions. This requires us to recognise that “appalling acts” are not the unique preserve of enemy forces. Looking into our own history, even our recent history, we find that our own countrymen and women have committed appalling acts. We need to recognise that we, too, are capable – as much today as we ever were – of committing appalling acts. Only when we can face this truth can we begin the long walk towards peace.
Hurt people hurt people.
I want to be one of the people who is no longer hurt. And when I feel hurt, I want to respond rather than react.
I offer thanks to my colleague, to Miki Kashtan, to Tamara Laporte and Byron Katie, to Melanya Helene and to many others who have provided the inspiration to write this posting and whose thinking has also informed the content.