Joni Mitchell: An Inspiration for People with Chronic Illness

Legendary singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell has been an inspiration to millions of people and particularly those who suffer from chronic illness or experience long-term disability.  You only have to look at comments on YouTube about her Blue Album to see how Joni has impacted the lives of so many people – people suffering from loss, grief, pain and stress and recalling the joyful moments and the feelings of hope when they heard her sing.   She has the ability to positively touch the lives of people of all ages, as evidenced by her triumphant performance of Both Sides Now at the 2024 Grammy Awards.  The recognition of her stellar career was reflected in her 10th Grammy Award that night and her earlier (2002) Recording Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Joni’s health challenges and courage

The story of Joni’s health challenges and her positive approach to overcoming them is a source of inspiration in itself.  She had to learn to walk again after being diagnosed with polio in 1952 when she was 9 years old.  She suffered the painful and crippling effects of polio for 40 years, initially overcoming the disease in 1995, only to then experience “post-polio syndrome”.  If Joni had accepted the mantra of many medical practitioners about aging, she could have taken their advice “to lie down and die”, accepting one of the myths of aging.  Instead, she chose to seek alternative medicine options and to fight on.

On a number of occasions, Joni spoke about her experience of Morgellons disease which she described in 2010 as a “weird, incurable disease”.   The Mayo Clinic describes the disease as creating “a belief that parasites or fibers are emerging from the skin” and involving  an “intense itching and sores”.  The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in their 2012 report stated that the “skin lesions and/or disturbing skin sensations” along with “multi-system complaints” can result in a “significantly reduced health-related quality of life”.   Health problems reported by respondents to the research included chronic fatigue, overall poor health and cognitive deficits.   

Joni herself reported in 2014 that her immune system was severely taxed by the Morgellons disease which restricted her ability to fly and made touring impossible.  Her response to this debilitating disease was to say that she was not regretful about her condition but was enjoying the creative process away from singing – “painting, revisiting her music, prepping a four-act ballet or an upcoming collection of stories”.   This clearly reflects her indomitable spirit and her ability to focus on what she did have, not what she had lost.

Her resilience was again severely tested in 2015 when she suffered a brain aneurysm.   In an interview with Cameron Crowe in 2020, Joni stated that the aneurysm took more away from her than her polio – it “took away my speech and my ability to walk”.   Her ability to talk returned relatively quickly, but even at the time of this interview she still struggled to walk.  Doctors had advised her that she would “never walk again” but she stated categorically that she would walk again.  She indicated at the time, “I’m a fighter” (with Irish blood) and told herself, “Here I go again, another battle”.   

The aneurysm appeared to rob Joni of her singing voice, but in 2018 when some musical friends, including Elton John, turned up at her house for what had been famously called a “Joni Jam”, everyone was surprised and delighted when Joni joined in the singing with her “warm and familiar voice”.   Joni indicated that she was moved by the spirit of the group and stated that “I forgave myself for my lack of talent” (having “lost her soprano voice” and only being able to sing “a low alto”).  

Joni continued her fight against her chronic illnesses and, in 2023, made a triumphant return to concert singing in a three-hour Joni Jam organised by American singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile and involving friends such as Annie Lennox and Sarah McLachlan.   Joni’s life journey can be revisited through BBC Radio 4 Legend’s Podcast – seven episodes of the Joni Mitchell story.   Her journey into singing and songwriting can be reviewed through the Joni Jams Podcast which “goes album by album through Joni Mitchell’s entire discography”.

Reflection

During the most recent Creative Meetup, participants engaged in healing storytelling (in writing and orally) partly stimulated by Joni Mitchell’s song, Both Sides Now.  Joni’s emphasis on “I really don’t know clouds [music, love, life] at all” resonated with participants who shared their experiences of unintentional exclusion by others.

For some, the metaphors that we commonly used can exclude others whose experience differs, e.g., for people who are extremely “light sensitive”, metaphors such as “silver lining” or “let the bright side in” can contribute to their sense of isolation and exclusion.  For people who experience food sensitivity or allergies, metaphors such as “sweet as a mango” can be alienating.  For others, established traditions or practices such as enforced prayers as a child or Australia Day Celebrations can trigger memories of terror and/or loss.  As one participant noted, “Unless you are in my shoes, you don’t really know”.

The Creative Meetup hosted by the Health Story Collaborative provided ample evidence of the healing power of storytelling and the energy and insight generated by compassionate listeningJennifer Harris, the facilitator of the Meetup session on Zoom, introduced Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Hope” is the thing with feathers, and this led to a participant’s comment that “hope emerges from dark places” – sometimes, when there appears to be “no hope”.  As all participants in the HSC Meetup are people who are living with illness or disability or are carers, they were able to draw comfort, support and inspiration from Joni Mitchell’s struggle with ill-health.

My reflection on our Meetup is captured in the following Compassionate Listening poem that I wrote after our meeting:

Compassionate Listening

What you see is not what I see.

What you hear is not what I hear.

Your world is not my world.

Your feelings are your own.

I can’t know your reality.

I can only listen with compassion

… and openness to what is different for you.

I can learn to adopt a “don’t know” mindset.

As we grow in mindfulness through compassionate listening, reflection and sharing our story, we can deepen our self-awareness, cultivate openness and build resilience.

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Image by xiSerge from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site and the resources to support the blog.

Recovering from the Shock of a Relationship Breakup

Dr. Michael Acton, psychologist and relationship expert, spoke about the shock of a relationship breakup at the 2023 Mental Health Super Summit.  He suggested that a relationship breakup is like a car wreck – there is not only shock but also confusion. 

The natural and common reaction is to leap into another relationship for comfort and support.  Loss of a relationship can be very disorientating and incredibly disturbing.  People lose a sense of who they are while others in their relationship circle no longer know how to relate to them (particularly when they only knew the individual as part of a couple).    Some people in the circle choose avoidance, a few offer emotional support.

Michael likens the impact of a relationship breakup to being “lost in a dark tunnel”.  He suggests that disorientating shock occurs even for a person initiating a breakup.  The initiator can be frozen by indecision, alternating between “staying’ and “leaving”.  Indecision can then permeate every aspect of their life and especially their work environment and work tasks.

Michael provides specific advice for people in a toxic and narcissistic relationship in his book, Learning How to Leave: A Practical Guide.  The book is designed to empower sufferers of abuse from toxic relationships whether they are in an intimate relationship, a business relationship or in a family where domestic violence or coercive control exists.

Michael also maintains that grief models such as that of Elisabeth Kubler Ross are not adequate to describe the shock of a relationship breakup.  Unlike the loss of a loved one through death, a relationship breakup means that the other party still retains “agency” and can continue or initiate abuse physically, emotionally and/or financially. 

Physical violence can be threatened by well-meaning relatives of the separated partner.  The separated partner can also control mutual funds, or “take them (their former partner) to the cleaners”. One of the more emotionally exacting and potentially damaging action the separated partner can take is to withhold access to their jointly conceived children.

Michael is currently working on a book with a new model to address relationship breakups, Fork in the Road (available in 2024). 

Jelena Dokic’s relationship breakup

In a previous post, I discussed the physical abuse Jelena suffered at the hands of her father and the coercive control he exercised over her and her mother.  What was the greatest shock for Jelena was the sudden breakup of her relationship with her partner of 19 years, Tin Bilic.   In 2021, Tin, who was with his father in Croatia at the time, announced by a FaceTime call just before Christmas Day that, “We are done”.  Jelena describes the shock, pain and hurt she suffered as a result in her second memoir, Fearless: Finding the Power to Thrive

The shock of the breakup with Tin left Jelena in disbelief – she could not comprehend why the breakup occurred (no explanation was given).  There were no precursor major fights.  The shock of the relationship breakup was intensified because Tin had been “her rock” since 2002 – he stood by her at her lowest point in 2005 when she was “overweight, depressed, bankrupt and on the verge of ending her life”.

Jelena described Tin as the kindest person she had ever known (taking after his mother who had been a real support for Jelena with her kindness, respect, belief and model behaviour).  The permanent separation occurred after five months of temporary separation occasioned by Tin having to support his father who was in grief following the death of his wife Slavia in 2019.  The  uncertainty and trauma being experienced by Jelena at the time were compounded by the extended COVID lockdown in Melbourne..

Recovery from trauma: Jelena Dokic

Jelena acknowledges that she is still a “work-in-progress” following the multiple traumatic events she experienced in her life.  However, she has been able to overcome the disabling effects of trauma and has established herself in a new career as an international Tennis Commentator, author and public speaker. 

Jelena has been proactive in dealing with her trauma.  Following her relationship breakup with Tin, she sought therapy from a psychologist and he has proven to be a “lifesaver”.  Additionally, she identified a range of factors that helped her on her healing journey:

  • Supportive people – In Jelena’s early years as a junior tennis player, Lesley Bowrey was a tremendous support showing her kindness, belief and respect (while sharing a strong “work ethic”).  Tin himself and his mother, Slavia, were kindness personified and helped Jelena restore her self-belief.  Tom Woodbridge provided tireless support for her transition to author and Commentator and provided emotional support following her breakup with Tin.  Jelena frequently acknowledges the positive influence on her healing of the supportive people in her life.
  • Daily morning routine –  Jelena described the “mindful pause” that she takes for 45 minutes each morning. This routine involves stopping, savouring a cup of coffee, and admiring nature, especially the sunrises.  She learnt from Slavia to savour the “simple things in life”. 
  • Expressing gratitude – Jelena is very conscious of the research that demonstrates the healing effects of gratitude.  She writes in her gratitude journal on a weekly basis about the things in her life that she is grateful for (and re-reads the journal daily to remind herself of these blessings).  She also writes on a post-it note each week identifying three things that she is grateful for (and displays the note on her fridge as a reminder).  Jelena maintains that “practising gratitude brings calmness and joy to my mind and my life”.
  • Writing and public speaking – Jelena reiterates the healing power of storytelling and credits her storytelling in her memoirs as a major factor in her trauma recovery.  She notes in her memoirs that her storytelling in her public talks and presentations is not only healing for her but also for others who are experiencing trauma. This vicarious benefit is reinforced every time she meets people in public who have read her memoirs or listened to her talks.
  • Practising kindness – Jelena has a whole section in her Fearless memoir on “happiness, healing and kindness”.  She emphasises the power of kindness to “change lives and the world”.  Jelena acknowledges that she has had to teach herself how to be kind to others and to herself (given the family violence she experienced and the devastating impact on her self-esteem and self-love).
  • Empathy – Jelena in her generosity has used her resources and contacts to advocate for sufferers-survivors who have experienced what she has gone through – child abuse, body-shaming, family violence, social media trolling, eating disorders, and mental health issues.
  • Meditation and mindfulness – Jelena indicated that she practices meditation to achieve calmness and overcome anxiety.  Her other practices such as her “morning pause”, walking in nature, connecting to animals in a sanctuary, all contribute to her capacity to grow in mindfulness.  In many ways, Jelena puts into practice the principles for happiness and resilience promulgated by Hugh Van Cuylenburg in The Resilience Project: Finding Happiness Through Gratitude, Empathy and Mindfulness (G.E.M.).

Reflection

Jelena provides a source of inspiration for many people through her storytelling and her courage to work on her healing from trauma.  She demonstrates that as we grow in mindfulness we can shed our negative self-image, develop compassion and overcome life’s challenges.   We can learn to overcome our maladaptive responses and restore our self-image. 

The Health Story Collaborative provides the resources, encouragement and support to help you to write and share your health story.  I have found the free, monthly Creative Meetups (Writing for Expression and Healing) to be a very supportive and inspiring group who are proactive in oral and written storytelling to improve their health and overall wellbeing.  The group is non-hierarchical involving people with different levels of writing ability and a variety of health issues (including trauma-related illnesses and Long-COVID induced disabilities).

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Image by Avi Chomotovski from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site and the resources to support the blog.

The Demeaning Power of Coercive Control

During the recent 2023 Mental Health Super Summit Dr. Richard Hill explained the concept of “coercive control”, how it manifests and its devastating effects on children and adults.  This is a form of insidious, creeping control over another by a perpetrator (usually a parent or partner) that Richard describes as “a slow whittle”.  He drew on the definition of Dr. Emma Katz, a world authority in the area, to explain that coercive control involves the progressive “controlling of somebody else’s whole life”.   It takes away their normal autonomy and sense of freedom.  The control that is exercised is “wide-ranging and persistent”.  If the controlled person resists or refuses to conform they are punished.  The net result is that the controlled person lives a constrained way of life to avoid punishment.  

In her book, Coercive Control in Children’s and Mother’s Lives, Emma explains that children and adult survivors even after they are able to break free from the perpetrator must engage in a “sustained battle for safety and recovery”.  Through her research with many victims-survivors, she has become convinced that support and “professional Interventions” are needed to facilitate healing and recovery.

Richard explained that the perpetrator of coercive control keeps the controlled person “off balance”, continuously confuses them and progressively isolates them from others (in part, so that they can’t tell others what is happening to them).  He argues that the controlled person can begin to question their own sanity (because of “gaslighting”) and loses both self-esteem and self-determination.  Even when they are able to flee, they may fear for their safety because of stalking by the perpetrator who may continue to engage in “post-separation abuse”.

Even seeking assistance from the law is fraught with risk and difficulty for victims-survivors of perpetrators of coercive control.  In her book, Women, Intimate Partner Violence and the Law, Heather Douglas (drawing on case studies) explains that perpetrators often use the law against their victims, and that victims-survivors require very high levels of “endurance, tenacity and patience” to obtain help and protection through the law.  She highlights “the failure of the legal system to provide safety for women and children” on many occasions.

Jess Hill, Richard’s daughter, in her well-researched book, See What You Made Me Do: Power, Control and Domestic Violence, supports the view that “abuse is often reinforced by the justice system they trust to protect them” as victims-of domestic violence.  She suggests that instead of questioning why a woman didn’t leave her abusive partner, we should be asking, “Why did he do it?”. She offers ways forward to reduce the abuse and fear resulting from domestic violence that is so prevalent in Australian homes.

Jelena Dokic’s experience – a classic example of coercive control by a parent

In a previous post, I spoke of the physical abuse suffered by Jelena Dokic at the hands of her father, Damir Dokic.  Jelena, in her second memoir, Fearless: Finding the Power to Survive, also details what amounts to coercive control by her father – “wide-ranging and persistent control”.  Her father used physical punishment to control her behaviour (e.g. punishing her for not winning).  He restricted her access to people and attempted to isolate her.  He continuously called her demeaning names such as “cow” and “whore” and took control of her money, demanding she sign over her winnings and savings.  Her father also took all her trophies and sold them.  On one occasion, he publicly smashed a crystal runners-up trophy because Jelena did not win the tennis competition.

Jelena escaped from her family in 2002 (aged 19 years).  Despite this break away, she suffered post-separation abuse of her freedom. She was effectively stalked by her father and mother.  They would turn up unannounced at WTA events she was competing in and try to coax her to “return home”.  WTA security protected Jelena and refused entry to her father.  However, during the US Open in 2003, her mother turned up at her hotel and insisted that she sign over the family home in Florida to her father. 

In the previous post, I also described how Jelena was coached and supported by Australian tennis great Lesley Bowrey in her younger years, achieving outstanding success as a junior on the global stage.  Lesley believed in Jelena and what she could achieve and showed her respect and kindness – a stark contrast to the behaviour of her father.  However, eventually, her father insisted that she sack Lesley as her coach which shattered Jelena’s “happy world” and left her devastated. 

The continuous belittling, dismissing her achievements and pervasive control took its toll on Jelena’s mental health and she suffered from a loss of self-esteem and a feeling of “not being good enough”.  She felt trapped by her father despite being physically separated from him.  She experienced “thoughts of suicide” because she could see no way out of her traumatic situation (her “entrapment”).

Coercive Control of Jelena’s mother

Jelena and her mother, Ljiljana Dokic, were estranged because her daughter felt that her mother had failed to help and protect her against her father’s physical abuse and coercive control and the trauma she experienced.  However, in her Fearless memoir, Jelena explained that they had restored their relationship after she found it in herself to forgive her mother for her lack of protection.  She came to understand that her mother too suffered at the hands of her father.  She was also beaten into submission and suffered coercive control. 

Jelena’s father made all the key decisions impacting her mother.  He determined where they lived, controlled all the money (mainly Jelena’s winnings) and forced her to undertake unpleasant tasks against her will.  Jelena’s mother was forced to work to provide herself with some independent income. 

Reflection

In her memoir, Jelena acknowledged that she had not forgiven her father for his physical abuse and coercive control.  She had come to realise that her mother too was controlled by him and Jelena was able to find a level of forgiveness towards her mother following this realisation.

In an earlier post, I provided a reflection process for dealing with resentment and anger. It facilitates looking at what was happening for the other person in a conflict/abuse situation.  Among other things, it asks you to think about what was happening for the other person in terms of self-esteem and identity.  It also requires you to think about the pressures and stresses experienced by the other person, including their life experiences and familial influences.  As Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey suggest, an important question is, “What Happened to You?”.

By adopting the other person’s perspective, you are better able to be empathetic and find forgiveness.  Jelena was able to do this in relation to her mother, but not her father. Understanding and forgiveness may come with an appreciation of the influences that shaped her father’s life, including poverty and living in war-torn Croatia as a parent and partner, becoming a refugee in Australia and being beaten by his parents as a child.  Jelena’s hurt and pain at the hands (and mind) of her father are deep and will take a lifetime to heal.

As we grow in mindfulness, through reflection on our own life and significant formative events, we can appreciate the positive people and events in our life that helped to shape who we are and what we have achieved.  Jelena’s story, recorded in her memoirs, is a great source of inspiration for overcoming life’s challenges and appreciating what we do have.

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Image by Myléne from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site and the resources to support the blog.

Living at the Edge: Empathy

Joan Halifax author, Buddhist teacher, anthropologist and Zen priest has written a profound book on what she calls the “Edge States” – “five internal and interpersonal states” that she maintains are the foundation of compassionate action and living a courageous life.  They are described by her as “Edge States” because they can lead to positive living and constructive social contribution or become harmful and cause damage to others.  Joan describes the Edge States in her book, Standing at the Edge: Finding Freedom Where Fear and Courage Meet.  Her book covers each of the five edge states in detail  – altruism, respect, integrity, engagement and empathy.  In this blog post, I will address Joan’s views on empathy as an Edge State.

Empathy vs Compassion

Joan contends that empathy is not compassion.  In her words, empathy is “feeling into” another – experiencing their pain and suffering.  Compassion, on the other hand, is not only “feeling for” another but aspiring to take some form of action that will be of benefit to the person you are feeling for – this can be any form of compassionate action.   Empathy underpins compassion and is a necessary internal state if we are to avoid becoming totally self-absorbed, small-minded or even narcissistic.

Three forms of empathy – somatic, emotional and cognitive

Joan describes three forms of empathy and illustrates them from her own life experience.  The first of these is somatic empathy – where resonance with another’s suffering or pain is felt in some form of bodily manifestation.  It can take the form of a strong physical sensation such as feeling punched in the stomach, feeling faint or being unsteady.  Joan mentions that  somatic empathy can occur on a regular basis between people who are close or in frequent contact.  She mentions, for example, the uncanny ability of her mountain guide/minder in the Himalayas who became so “physically attuned” to her that he could sense if she was about to fall over and catch her to prevent it happening.  Joan indicated that some people are hypersensitive to the somatic experience of others and she mentioned Dr. Joel Salinas who has what is called “mirror-touch synesthesia” – an extreme form of somatic identification that he has to consciously manage for his own preservation and the benefit of his patients.

Emotional empathy, the second form of empathy described by Joan, involves sharing the emotions being experienced by another person – becoming “inhabited by another’s feelings”.   When emotional empathy is at a healthy level, it can help us to be more caring, more conscious of connectedness to others  and more willing to take compassionate action.  However, if we become too closely identified with the emotions of others we can tip over the edge into personal distress, burnout and “blunting” (a state where we no longer “feel for” others as a way to protect ourselves).

The third form of empathy described by Joan is cognitive empathy.  This is explained in terms of “perspective taking” – in other words inhabiting the mindset or mind view of another, often described as “standing in another’s shoes”.  Again this form of empathy can be enabling for ourselves as well as others or lead to our being captured by another’s way of seeing the world (as in cults or the experience of the German people at the time of Hitler).  People’s propensity to adopt another’s world view can be used as a form of manipulation.  However, when employed positively it involves attunement to another leading to a form of resonance.  Joan illustrates this in describing an experience of being confronted by an angry Algerian soldier at the Algeria-Mali border when she was on an archaeological trip by herself.  Her ability to take on his perspective, instead of “othering” him and viewing herself as a victim, enabled her to gain safe passage.  Joan also recounts the story of Lieutenant Colonel Hughes and his instructions to his troops in Iraq near the holy Imam Ali Mosque to “take a knee” (and point their rifles to the ground) as a form of successful perspective taking that saved many lives when the troops were confronted by an angry crowd (who misunderstood the American’s intentions).

Over the edge – empathic distress

Empathic distress occurs when we become too identified  – somatically, emotionally and/or cognitively – with another person’s suffering or pain.  We lose the capacity to separate ourselves from the other person’s experience and in the process become disoriented and unbalanced.  Joan describes a number of situations where she was on the edge of empathic distress but was able to recognise her response for what it was and pull back from the edge. 

In one situation, involving a young girl with severe burns who had been carried by her father to the Upaya Nomads Medical Clinic in Nepal, Joan found that her own heart rate was racing and dropping, her breath was “shallow and rapid” and her skin became “cold and clammy”.  She was momentarily overwhelmed with her perception of the little girl’s suffering and pain.  Joan indicated that at the time her “hyper-attunement ” with the child was causing her to spiral out of control and into deep distress physically (almost fainting) and emotionally.  Fortunately, through her social engagement activities (including being with the dying), she was able to draw on a process to help her restore her balance and control.

Moving away from the empathic edge – overcoming empathic distress

 Joan was able to draw on a process she had developed to help people move from empathy to compassion, to move away from the edge represented by empathic distress.  Her process involves the mnemonic, GRACE.  This stands for:

  • G – gathering our attention by refocusing on our breath or our feet on the ground (restoring our groundedness)
  • R – recalling (bringing to mind again) our intention for being with the other person in their situation
  • A – attuning to ourself and the other – being fully aware of our own bodily sensations and what the other person is demonstrating (in the case of the little girl, this was resilience). 
  • C – considering how we can serve in the situation without taking control over others or pursuing our own needs
  • E – engagement and disengagement –adopting an appropriate means of engagement (e.g. engaging in a loving-kindness meditation focused on the other’s wellbeing) and being able to end the interaction when desirable to do so.

Joan makes the point that if we learn to identify empathic distress, we will be better able to manage our responses and restore our balance instead of experiencing burnout, with its physical, emotional and moral degradation.  She likens empathic distress to vicarious suffering and highlights the fact that people in the helping professions and caregivers are prone to experiencing this depleted state.

Developing empathy

Joan describes four practices that support the development of empathy – attuning to our bodily sensations, (e.g., body scan), deep listening, stewarding empathy and “rehumanization”.  Her description of deep listening is especially insightful and demonstrates her willingness to be with another person fully.  She maintains that “really hearing another person requires us to listen with body, heart and mind” while being aware of how our personal experiences and recollections can act as filters, thus distorting the message of the other person.  By stewarding empathy, Joan means that we have to be able to cope with the dilemma of our life – that we are both connected to everyone and, at the same time, separate – we cannot become totally identified with the other or we lose ourselves in the process.  This requires practice and the GRACE approach is one way to develop this capacity.  Lastly, rehumanization according to the work of John Paul Lederach, involves adopting a moral stance “to see the other as a person first, to see ourselves in others, and to recognise our common humanity”.

Reflection

I have experienced empathic distress on a number of occasions.  In one particular instance, I was driving across the Story Bridge in Brisbane when I heard a woman on the radio talking about her suffering and grief.  I can’t recall the detail of the story but I became more and more strongly identified with her emotions.  I can clearly recall my somatic empathy in the form of a sense of dizziness and disorientation while driving.  Fortunately, I intuitively knew to turn off the radio and refocus my attention on the act of driving the car and paying attention to the road and traffic.

On other occasions, I have experienced hyper-attunement to someone who is suffering extreme stress from working for a narcissistic manager.  Because I have been involved in directly helping a manager and their unit in such a situation, I have great difficulty stopping myself from taking on another’s distress and suffering when they are in a similar situation.

Joan’s GRACE model will be particularly helpful for me in the future.  As I grow in mindfulness through mindfulness meditation, reflection and mantra meditations, I can increase my self-awareness of when I am experiencing empathic distress and have the insight and courage to adopt the GRACE model so that I do not fall over the empathic edge.

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Image by Mirosław i Joanna Bucholc from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site and the resources to support the blog.

Dealing with Loss and Grief

Previously I have written about the power of storytelling to manage grief.  I drew on the writing of Dr. Annie Brewster and Nick Cave.  Annie published her groundbreaking book, The Healing Power of Storytelling, to share her own story and that of others who have experienced loss, trauma or serious chronic illness.

In his book, Faith, Hope & Carnage, Nick demonstrates how his storytelling through his writing, documentary and his creative endeavours (songwriting, recording and performing) provided him with growth and transformation and enabled him to manage his grief with the loss of his 15 year old son, Arthur. 

Even before his son’s death, Nick felt a strong need for social connection and so he created the website, Red Hand Files, to give his fans an avenue to communicate with him by asking questions of him.  The resultant Red Hand Files moved from a superficial exchange re his songs and their origins to a deeply personal storytelling exchange that Nick described as an “exercise in communal vulnerability and transparency”. 

Nick maintains that that through the Red Hand Files his past debilitating filters ‘have been dismantled over time” and wonder and awe have been restored in his life.  He indicates that the experience of the Red Hand Files, involving mutual storytelling, has enabled him to slowly develop self-awareness and transparency by “prising” him open – moving him to progressively disclose himself and the depth of his feelings.  He asserts that the process of such mutual vulnerability caused him to change as a person, songwriter and performer.

Nick’s interviewer for his book, Sean O’Hagan, comments that the letters people wrote to Nick as part of the Red Hand Files were very powerful in transforming people’s lives and served to fulfill their need for connection “by articulating their particular story for somebody else to hear”.  The online files enabled people to reach out and find a way to voice their own grief.  Tiffany Barton’s story is an illustration of the power of such sharing through storytelling.

Tiffany Barton’s story of loss and grief

Tiffany recently shared her story of loss and grief, and her healing interaction with Nick, in her story, “Into My Arms”, in The Weekend Australian Magazine, June 10-11 (pp.15-19).  Tiffany lost her 22 year old, gifted son, Cosmo, through suicide.  It is only after his death that she began to realise that Cosmo showed signs of being on the autism spectrum.   For example, he had a phenomenal memory, being able to recite the 230 digits of Pi.  He was also readily able to memorise Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn when learning music and performing.

Cosmo had a totally absorbing passion for the fortepiano, an instrument like a piano but based on instruments developed before 1930 (and differing from the modern piano in tone, touch and appearance).  Cosmo was mesmerized by the fortepiano often talking passionately about its history, mechanics and technique and developing a unique skill in tuning the instrument.  His passion led him to study the fortepiano at the Western Australia Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) where he hoped to eventually complete a PhD.  His last performance on the fortepiano was described by Tiffany as “a stunning final concert at WAAPA”.  Cosmo suffered terribly from sclerosis which led him to seek relief from a drug purchased online, that ultimately led to his death.

In her article, Tiffany describes her grief as being “like a mosquito smashed on the window of a ten-tonne truck”.  She drew on Nick’s words to describe the “vastness” of grief, reducing us to “trembling clusters of atoms subsumed within grief’s awesome presence”.   Tiffany became aware of Nick’s writings on grief through his Red Hand Files and was particularly moved by his “Letter to Cynthia” that he turned into a song.  She wrote a poem “young death” about the night Cosmo died which helped her “purge some of the trauma and change” she carried.

Tiffany reached out to Nick by writing a letter to him and including her poem. Nick was incredibly moved by Tiffany’s courage and clarity in articulating her grief and asked her permission to publish her letter and poem in his Faith, Hope & Carnage book (which he duly did).  He also asked her to record them for his audiobook.

Nick subsequently contacted Tiffany and spoke in his usual “patient” and “loving” way.  Besides checking-in on her welfare, he inquired about her meditation practice.  She explained that she uses meditation to communicate with Cosmo.  In her discussion with Nick she spoke of Cosmo’s drug use and the impact of intergenerational trauma on her family.  Tiffany explained that Nick’s ability to articulate his “grief, loss, love, art and spiritual awakening” in his book soothed her and “offered her respite from her horror”.

Reflection

Nick found that there was “freedom in grief” and indicated that the words of Kris Kristofferson song, Bobby McGee, resonated with him – “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose”.  Nick came to reconcile with the reality of the human condition and the “acute jeopardy of life”.    He strongly urges us to appreciate all aspects of our life and savour “the time we have together in this world”.

It’s in facing our challenging emotions that we can break free of their hold over us and realise true freedom.  Storytelling and sharing with others can open us up to the depths of our feelings and release us from the hold of our own expectations and those of others.  As we grow in mindfulness through openness, curiosity and non-judgmental attention, we can deepen our self-awareness and develop the courage to share our story of loss and grief for our own healing and transformation. 

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Image by Lars Barstad from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.

Moving from Trauma in a Relationship to Trust

Dr. Aimie Apigian recently offered a Trauma to Trust Masterclass in which she discussed the body’s response to trauma, ways to recognise if a relationship is causing trauma and ways to move from trauma in a relationship to trust.  Aimie is a Preventative Medicine physician with Masters in Public Health and Biochemistry.  She specialises as an addiction, trauma and attachment physician – a career that resulted from her desire to heal from own traumatic life experiences and attachment issues and to help other people to achieve healing and recovery.  She shares her career story and her work with Guy Macpherson on the Trauma Therapist Project podcast.  Her experience with foster-parenting led to her consuming interest in helping children experiencing pain and suffering from trauma.

On her YouTube© channel, Aimie provides videos where she discusses topics like addiction, trauma, nervous system, negative thinking, inflammation and emotional regulation.  She draws heavily on her personal experience of adopting a son from her foster care – a child who was traumatised by his insecurity, constant mobility and uncertain future.  She found that love and nurture and time together by themselves did not help to heal him – the manifestations of love themselves became a trigger for his trauma response. 

The day Aimie’s six-year old adopted son told her that he would kill her the following day was the catalyst for a lifetime of study, research and specialisation in helping children and adults recover from trauma.  To help her son, she researched multiple modalities including nutrition, somatic experiencing (developed by Dr. Peter Levine), and Neuro-Affective Touch.  For other parents in a similar situation with a traumatised child, she created the not-for-profit organisation, Family Challenge Camps, that are designed to help families deal with trauma and attachment issues.

3 steps to the trauma response

Aimie drew on her training in the Instinctual Trauma Response Model to explain how the body responds to trauma.  Initially when the body experiences a perceived threat (including a “trigger”), it goes into a startle response (envisage a deer in the wild hearing or smelling the presence of a lion).  This is followed by the stress response which energises the fight/flight response

When the stressor(s) are perceived as overwhelm (we sense we are unable to cope), the body adopts the freeze response which constitutes the “lowest energy state” (in comparison to the “high energy state” of the fight/flight response).

Recognising trauma created in a relationship

Aimie provides three ways to recognise if a relationship (that we are part of) is a source of trauma for us.  At the foundational level, the early indicators relate to a lack of energy.  So the first step is to check our bodily sensations – is the relationship energising or depleting us?  This can be an early indicator of trauma in an emerging Controlling Relationship.

On the second level, is exploration of our thoughts about our relationship. Do we perceive that being in the relationship is too much and beyond us?  Do we feel safe and supported?  Are we wondering why we have built up a dependency in the relationship to make up for some personal deficiency?

The third indicator is how we feel health wise – are we constantly feeling sick in the relationship? Does the relationship “make us sick” (with worry, anxiety or fear, for example).  Aimie reminds us that sometimes we can delude ourselves when our mind says “I love them” but our body gives us away through constant sickness.

3 step approach to releasing stored trauma

Aimie has developed a 3 step approach to assist people to release stored trauma.  She argues that the release process requires certain actions completed in the right order.  In fact, from her own experience and research, she has found that the order of the required steps is the reverse of the trauma creation process described in the previous section (startle, fight/flight/, freeze).

Aimie argues that the trauma release process involves (1) developing a personal sense of safety, (2) building a sense of support and (3) expansion where we begin to lead “the life we’ve always wanted”.   She provides an explanation of the 3 step process in her publication, The Essential Sequence Guide: How to release stored trauma, that is available as a free e-book from her website, Trauma Healing Accelerated™.

Aimie offers specialised training for individuals who want to deal with trauma in a relationship in the form of a 21 Day Journey that provides a somatically-based process of addressing stored trauma in the body.  Each of the three steps of trauma release are addressed by providing seven somatic exercises for each step (safety, support, expansion).  Aimie and an online community provide the supportive relationships necessary to enable people to heal and recover.  During the Trauma to Trust Masterclass, Aimie provided an experience of one of the somatic exercises designed to develop a sense of safety.  It involved linking the stomach to the heart by placing one hand on each body part and exploring the nature of the felt connection (e.g., rejection, resistance, warmth, welcoming, disrupted, undulating).

Aimie provides other experiential and educational workshops, a certification program for practitioners and one-on-one coaching by a certified trauma-informed health coach.  She is also the Creator and Host of the Biology of Trauma Summit

Reflection

Each of us have had our own experience of personal trauma from challenging life events – whether a car accident; death of a child, spouse or parent; a relationship breakdown/breakup and/or divorce; loss of work through redundancy; chronic illness or cancer; loss of a home through fire or flood; adverse childhood experiences or a combination of these (or any other traumatising event).

Aimie and her colleagues provide a clear pathway for trauma release by focusing on the body and providing somatic healing.  Her dedication to releasing trauma in others (whether parents, children or professionals) is a lifetime and whole-hearted commitment.  She offers insights from her own traumatic life journey and in-depth study and research.   

As we grow in mindfulness through somatic experiencing, meditation, connecting with nature and other mindfulness practices, we can develop greater self-awareness, a stronger sense of safety and support and build the confidence and creativity to explore our potential and life purpose.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.

Relational Resilience through Bodily Awareness

Christina Dohr presented on the topic of “Relational Resilience” during the recent Embodiment Festival.  Christina is a qualified somatic educator and embodiment coach, who aims to help people through bodily awareness (of breath, sensations, posture and movement) to achieve self-awareness and authentic connection and relationships.  She is a strong advocate of movement as a way to tap into the mind-body connection and emotions – her background includes dance, improvisation and a black belt in Aikido.

Relational resilience is a concept typically employed in research literature especially in relation to the development of girls and women and often refers to the capacity to bounce back in the face of trauma, difficulties and health issues.  The concept is also employed in the context of parenting and dependent child development.  In her presentation, Christina used the idea of relational resilience to refer to any relationship, intimate or friendship relationship.  She focused on sustainability of relationships in the face of life challenges and the role of deepening connection to facilitate mutual growth.  Christina also reinforced the research-based evidence that demonstrates the key role that supportive relationships play in healing from trauma and coping with personal difficulties.

Bodily Awareness

Christina, being an embodiment coach, offered bodily awareness as a way into relational resilience.  She highlighted the fact that the way we visualise and use our bodies impacts our relationships.  Throughout her presentation she introduced a range of embodiment practices designed to build bodily awareness and the messages we communicate in our interactions.  We can concur with Bessel van der Kolk’s concept that The Body Keeps the Score – not only in relation to traumatic experiences but also everyday interactions.

Christina focused on a number of areas that either sustain or dimmish relationships such as listening.  She suggests that we explore how we listen and whether or not we bring openness, curiosity and genuine interest to our intimate relationships.  Christina offered an embodiment practice to look at the relative give and take in a relationship – a key determinant of sustainability and resilience.  She suggested that participants in the Zoom workshop joined their hands together and visualise the balance occurring in their relationship by moving their joined hands towards themselves or away from themselves. At the same time, participants were encouraged to tap into their bodily sensations as they experienced this movement to or away from themselves.

Another key area that Christina covered is “ownership” in a relationship – the degree to which we own our words and action and their outcomes, intended and unintended.  She stressed the need “to take responsibility” and not deflect or deny when we make a mistake or “stuff up” in a relationship.  This could mean simply acknowledging that we didn’t listen properly or that we were not paying attention.  This genuineness and honesty contribute to trustworthiness which, in turn, develops relational resilience.  We can notice our bodily reactions/sensations when confronted with the challenge to “own responsibility” for our words, actions, inactions or omissions in a relationship.

Christina indicated that there are times when we tend to own responsibility when its is not appropriate – we might overcompensate, overdo giving (trying to anticipate a partner’s every need) or try to read another person’s mind.  She offered a simple embodiment exercise to illustrate this point.  If your shape your hands “to hug a tree”, the inner circle (or the imaginary tree) represents your area of responsibility – outside the circle is someone else’s responsibility.  She suggests that you can also embody this concept of responsibility boundaries (and experience it through accompanying bodily sensations) by facing one palm in towards yourself (your responsibility) and the other palm facing away from you (the other person’s responsibility).  Being conscious of how you feel as you do this can increase your bodily and emotional awareness.

Reflection

Christina encourages us to use our body as a mirror to our “inner landscape”.  There is so much we can overlook or ignore, but our bodies are registering everything – the way others look at us, avoid us or attend to what we say.  Our bodies are continuously sensing and reacting, often at an unconscious level.  One of Christina’s goals is to assist us to “uncover unconscious embodiment patterns” and help us to change what no longer serves our relationships and its resilience.  To this end she offers embodiment coaching and workshops to help people gain bodily awareness and develop mature and resilient relationships.

We can grow in mindfulness and self-awareness as we explore embodiment practices and pay attention to our bodily sensations and reactions in our daily interactions.  Christina’s presentation gives us some relationship areas to think about, focus on and experience bodily.  Other presentations at the Embodiment Festival can advance our personal insight by offering a variety of embodiment practices.

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Image by Holger Schué from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.

Integrating Kindness with Mindfulness Meditation

In a recent guided meditation podcast, Radiating Kindness Practice, Diana Winston reinforced the view that kindness is integral to mindfulness – kindness to ourselves and others.  She maintained that being kinder to ourselves (e.g. overcoming negative self-evaluation) and to others (loving kindness towards both people we love and those we dislike), is embedded in meditation.  In the guided meditation, she integrates kindness with the meditation process by incorporating three different loving kindness practices that she describes as:

  1. “Dry loving kindness”
  2. “Wet loving Kindness”
  3. “Radiating loving kindness”

At the start of the meditation, Diana encourages us to adopt a comfortable position that will aid relaxed breathing and assist us to express kindness to ourselves and others.  She begins with taking slow breaths before engaging in a brief body scan to identify points of tension or tightness.  After encouraging us to release the tension/tightness by softening the point in our body, she moves onto undertaking the different kindness practices in the order indicated above.

Dry loving kindness

Diana explains that the idea behind dry loving kindness is repetition of words that supplant any negative thoughts.  The idea is to stop ourselves from engaging in unflattering comparisons, negative self-evaluations, caustic critiques or cycles of worry and anxiety.  The concept is simple and is easy to undertake.  Basically, you can repeat words like, May I be happy, may you be happy, may we all be happy.  The approach adopts the intention to change our inner dialogue from negative to positive, from denigrating ourselves and others to empowering each of us through the repeated expression of kind thoughts.   Karen Drucker, in her song Gentle with Myself, expresses this form of loving kindness when she sings, I will be easy on myself, I will be kinder with my heart.

Wet loving kindness

Wet loving kindness”, in contrast to the previous approach, focuses on feelings rather than thoughts.  Thus it involves a systemic approach whereby we extend feelings of loving kindness towards people closest to us and then to others from those we love to those we may ignore or actually resent.  Reflection on resentment that we carry towards another person could be a useful prelude to this meditation to free us up to express understanding and kindness towards the person we resent.  Diana suggests a series of expressions that could be used as part of this wet loving kindness practice, such as:

May you be safe and protected

May you experience peace and contentment

May you feel strong and healthy

May you experience ease and equanimity.

Diana suggests that you substitute your own expression of kind feelings as you work from envisaging the people you love to others who may present a challenge to you.  She provides some ways of expressing kindness to others by way of example, not as a prescription.

Radiating loving kindness

The idea here is to radiate kindness beyond ourselves to the broader world.  In the guided meditation on radiating kindness, Diana begins with asking us to envisage a glow or sense of warmth emanating from our heart.  Initially, we can envisage it extending within our room – to the left, right, below and above. As we capture the essence of this approach, we can expand our vision to envisaging our heart’s glow/warmth filling our house (and household) and extending to our immediate neighbourhood and beyond.  I found it useful in this radiating kindness practice, to envisage wrapping people in Ukraine with warmth, care and kindness, embracing Ukrainian refugees as well.

Diana suggests that you can radiate kindness to areas of conflict, disease, natural disaster (e.g. floods, fire or hurricanes) or alternatively to individuals or groups who may be in need of kindness and thoughtfulness.  For example, I focused too on extending warmth and kindness to the relatives of the Australian soldier, known as “Ninja” who died fighting as a volunteer for Ukraine in the current war.  “Heart-focused breathing™” promoted in the online Heart Science Course could be a useful prelude to the radiating kindness practice as it helps us to recognise and appreciate the energy field that emanates from our heart.

Reflection

I have previously written about barriers to expressing loving kindness, including self-absorption, disconnection from the outside world, distorted view of “love” and inability to recognise that compassion requires external expression, even in the form of loving kindness meditation.  An additional barrier can be the inability to understand and value the intelligence and energy of the heart which has been demonstrated in research and documented in the Science of the Heart (free book).

As we grow in mindfulness through different loving kindness practices, we can become more open to the needs of others, better able to express gratitude and appreciation, more willing to take compassionate action, and more ready to accept things as they are for us.

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Image by Elias from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.

How to Develop Authenticity

Jeff Brown spoke recently at the Surrender Summit on the topic, The Power of Authenticity.  Jeff is an author, expert in personal transformation and a lifetime seeker of his own authenticity.  He does not only talk about authenticity; he pursues it relentlessly and tirelessly in his own life and work. Jeff experienced adverse childhood experiences but has explored his inner landscape mainly through writing to  enable him to take his place in the world and to pursue his unfolding life purpose.  He maintains that writing is therapeutic and a tool for developing authenticity. 

To this end, Jeff has created his online writing course to make his personal lessons and insights available to anyone.  The course,  Writing Your Way Home: Answering the Soul’s Call, is available as a six-week audio course that incorporates inspiration and encouragement along with practical writing and publishing tips.  Jeff describes this course and its intent to help the participant find their “deepest and truest expression” in his short video where he encourages others to undertake the “transformative journey” of writing.

In his book, Love it Forward, he recounts how he had a turning point in his life when he stopped to give some money to a homeless person in the street.  He realised that this was a token action so he found out the contact details of the homeless person involved and arranged to send payments to him each week.  This felt more authentic and heartfelt

In an earlier book, Soulshaping: A Journey of Self-Creation, he explored the traumas and successes of his life in search of his inner authenticity – what he describes as alignment with his “soul purpose”.   He was able to set aside external achievements such as becoming a criminal lawyer and move towards his life calling as a writer.  He established the Soulshaping Institute: A Center for Authentic Transformation to assist others to make this personal journey to authenticity – to identify and pursue their life purpose.

Ways to develop authenticity

In Love it Forward, Jeff provides a series of quotes and insights into what authenticity means in daily life.  His book is a call to authenticity through overcoming any “emotional debris” and setting out on the path to our “soul purpose”.  His written words identify ways to be authentic in our actions and interactions:

  • Learn to live in the present moment – not the future or the past
  • Have the courage to break the hold of our “comfort zone” which prevents us from realising our true potential – we tend to avoid new beginnings for fear of the pain of endings
  • Avoid connecting with people who diminish us, distract us from our path, or try to dissuade us from realizing our potential
  • Savour life, love, breathing, being-in-relationship, and the ability to see, talk, walk and run
  • Acknowledge that giving in service to others is reciprocal – they are giving in return by accepting our generosity and enabling us to honour our life purpose (it is not a one-way street)
  • Accept that chaos precedes clarity and that without confusion there is no movement forward beyond the present understanding
  • Recognize that when we actualize our gifts to serve others in need, we are paying-it-forward and backward (to the people before us who have not had the skills or opportunity to serve others or those who come behind who can walk in our footsteps).
  • Don’t take things personally – create a mental boundary between ourselves and the behaviour of others (it is not about us)
  • Let love blossom as we age – open our heart to everything and everyone (we will no longer have time for avoidance or envy).
  • Express gratitude for our mentors and elders who have helped us realize our potential and our calling
  • Acknowledge that sometimes people have to experience and express victimhood to be able to move to well-being
  • Develop a self-care plan that acknowledges our intrinsic value and worth
  • Measure our success not in terms of externalities but inner victories over unresolved traumas and our “inner critic”
  • Treat negative self-talk as a culturally-induced, false story
  • Maintain a vision of our purpose and its realisation so that we actualize it “when the time is right”
  • Value the success of others (avoid envy of other’s  achievements).

Reflection

Jeff reinforces the fact that personal transformation cannot be rushed and that the journey to authenticity is paved with setbacks (lows), as well as joy (highs).  There is excitement and exhilaration in the journey of unfolding and realizing our uniqueness and potential.                                                                                                       

Meditation and other practices can enable us to grow in mindfulness, be fully present and have the courage and resilience to embark on our own journey to authenticity.

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Image by Ke Hugo from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.

Managing Conflict

Recently the First Person Plural: EI and Beyond podcast featured Professor George Hohlrieser (Lausanne, Switzerland) discussing, How Leaders Can Overcome Conflict.  The podcast series involving collaboration between Daniel Goleman (author of Emotional Intelligence), his son Hanuman Goleman and Emotional Intelligence (EI) coach Elizabeth Solomon, is designed to raise listeners’ awareness through stories provided on interview by inspiring people.   The hope is that listeners can grow in mindfulness and resilience in living proactively within the systems that surround them – within their personal, social, natural and global systems.

George works with multiple Fortune 500 companies as a clinical and organisational consultant.  He recounts during the podcast the story of how he became an accidental hostage negotiator while working for the police.  He has continued working in hostage negotiation (sometimes at considerable personal risk), as well as working with people who are suicidal.  George is an internationally renowned speaker and best-selling author.  His widely acclaimed book, Hostage at the Table: How Leaders Can Overcome Conflict, Influence Others, and Raise Performance, is undergoing revision and updating and will be published on 30 November 2022.  In the book, he recounts compelling stories of real hostage situations and draws out the psychological principles that enable hostage negotiators to be successful.

Conflict management principles

During the podcast, George explained some of the principles that underpin his approach to conflict resolution and how they can apply to leaders who are attempting to influence others and develop high performance teams:

  • Don’t be a hostage: people can be a hostage to others – their children, parents, teachers, bosses, clients, suppliers or employees.  A hostage thinks they are powerless and the pandemic generated feelings of helplessness in a lot of people.  Not thinking like a hostage involves, among other things, thinking clearly about a desired outcome and establishing a positive mindset about that outcome.   It also involves establishing a secure personal base, not being hostage to your own emotions.
  • Become a secure base: manage your own fight/flight/freeze response so that you are not caught up in what Daniel Goleman describes as the “amygdala hijack”.  Develop calmness so that you “see opportunities not threats”.  George mentioned that in his leadership development programs he does not use the traditional Harvard case studies but tells participants that the case study is “you” – building self-awareness, developing insight and courage and tapping into personal intuition and creativity.  Being calm and secure builds trust – an essential element for conflict resolution and management.
  • Tell it like it is: George argues that you should not “sugar coat” the unsatisfactory situation, e.g. poor performance or inappropriate behaviour.  He gives the example of telling someone that “you are too aggressive with clients – that needs to change”.    
  • Address the conflict directly: George uses the analogy, “put the fish on the table” – drawing from his experience working with fishermen in Sicily who were scaling and cleaning fish on a table, removing the bloody, smelly bits and preparing the fish for the “great fish dinner a the end of the day”  The analogy means addressing the conflict not ignoring it (“not putting the fish under the table”), dealing up front with the messiness of the issues and looking forward to a positive resolution.
  • The person is not the problem: George maintains that you should not “write off” the person(s) involved, e.g. “they are just argumentative, nasty or thoughtless”.  He argues that there is a real problem underlying a conflict situation, e.g. the person may feel slighted or disrespected; they may feel taken for granted when passed over for a promotion or project; or they could be experiencing distress in a home situation.  He illustrated this principle by telling the story about a father involved in a hostage situation – it was not that he was a “naturally violent person” but that he had been prevented from seeing his child (locked out by unreasonable access rules).  The core problem in this situation was the inability of the father to see his child and the solution lay in finding a way for the father to gain access to his child.
  • Identify the “pain point”: George argued that you make little progress in managing conflict if you focus on “selling points” versus “pain points”.  This requires active listening, not trying to persuade.  The pain point is often related to a loss – past, present, future or anticipated.  He mentioned Warren Bennis’ idea of “hidden grief” – that leaders are often blind to their own underlying sense of grief and can be grieving over things that happened many years earlier.  George illustrated this point by recounting the stories of two CEO’s who committed suicide out of a sense of grief over some situation – economic or workplace related.
  • Be caring: listen for understanding and be willing to be empathetic.  Express the desire for their wellbeing and demonstrate a caring attitude.  George suggests that this creates a bond even with people you might consider your “enemy”.  Bonding helps to dissolve conflict.
  • Be daring: learning a new skill such as conflict management takes you outside your “comfort zone”. Be willing to dare yourself as any new talent you desire to develop requires daring on your part – facing the fear, acknowledging the challenge and preparing yourself.  Daring your employees by presenting them with challenging work or projects, develops and motivates them.
  • Ask questions: George suggests that asking questions empowers the other person, even in a situation where a person is suicidal.  Curiosity can communicate care and concern.  Questioning can help to explore the “pain point(s)” and to work towards a solution that they can accept.
  • Provide choice: avoid a “command and control” approach as this damages bonding and trust.  The command and control approach does not motivate – it disempowers and disables people.  It can lead to compliance, but not sustainable change. Provide choice wherever possible so that the person feels a sense of agency in relation to the underlying issue.

Reflection

George’s approach to conflict resolution has been developed through his experiences as a hostage negotiator and working with people who have suicidal intentions.  He has also refined his approach through working with organisational leaders around the world to help them implement the fundamental conflict management principles he has developed.  He emphasises that conflict management involves both caring and daring – it challenges us to move outside our comfort zone to achieve a resolution.   It requires us to avoid relying on positional power and instead employ the personal power associated with integrity, humility and compassion.

His approach requires us to grow in mindfulness so that we gain the necessary self-awareness and insight into our inner landscape to operate from a calm and secure place.  Mindfulness helps us to achieve the emotional regulation involved in dealing with conflictual situations and working to de-escalate the emotional tension involved.  Reflection on our own resentment(s) can assist us to achieve calm, caring and daring.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.