My First Time
This is the story of the first time I used what I teach to resolve a conflict of my own…
I was in agony. My partner and I were sitting at the kitchen table. And we were fighting – again.
We were both trying to use the tools we’d been taught – but they weren’t working. I could see us drifting further and further apart – like two people in a vast ocean.
And each word he spoke was like a knife to my heart.
I was desperate. In that moment, I was willing to do anything to stop the pain.
So I tried something I’d never done before…
* * *
The roots of this moment actually began in childhood.
I was four years old. I was standing in another kitchen, and my mother was screaming horrible things at me. I couldn’t move – it was like I had turned into a statue.
The screaming seemed to go on forever, but it was probably just a minute or two.
Then my mother’s face softened, tears came into her eyes. She bent down. She hugged me. And she said, “I’m sorry! I love you! I didn’t mean any of that. I was just mad. It’s okay. It’s okay…”
And, after I’d had a good cry, everything was all right again. Like the sun coming out after the rain.
It was an experience that happened over and over again when I was growing up.
What I learned from this was, no matter how horrible the disconnection seems with someone else, it’s always possible to reconnect.
So I took these lessons out into the world – to school and to work, and with friends.
When things happened that I didn’t like, I’d scream at people, and then I’d feel sorry for what I’d done. I’d apologize, and I’d expect that things would be all right again – like the sun coming out after the rain. Just like with my mom.
And a strange thing happened.
Other people really didn’t like being screamed at.
And, with a lot of them, things were never really all right ever again.
We might be polite to one another, and be able to work with one another. But some special quality of connection had been broken, and we never got it back.
It was a very painful lesson for me.
And unfortunately, it was one that I repeated over and over again.
I spent the next 30 years try to find a different way of handling it when something happened that I didn’t like – a way that was actually doable and worked for me – and that also worked for other people.
- I tried not saying anything when something happened that I didn’t like.
Sometimes, once I cooled off, it didn’t bother me any more, so that was okay.
But with a lot of things, they still bugged me. And the pressure would build up over time, and eventually I’d explode worse than ever.
So not saying anything wasn’t the answer.
- Then I tried avoiding people who triggered me. That worked with some people.
But actually everybody bothers me sometimes.
I wasn’t willing to avoid all my friends.
And I couldn’t totally avoid my neighbours, or the person beside me on the subway. Besides, trying to avoid people felt like I was giving them the power to make decisions about my life. I didn’t want that.
- So I tried not saying anything in the moment and then going away and trying to script a way to bring up the topic with the other person later.
But I could never find an approach that I felt comfortable with.
So I either ended up not saying anything – and then exploding later.
Or I’d screw up my courage and I’d bring up the subject – and then I’d wish I hadn’t – because the conversation went so badly.
While I was doing all these experiments myself, I was also looking to the experts for help.
- I studied psychology.
- I read thousands of self-help books.
- I worked with psychiatrists and counsellors.
- I took assertiveness training classes.
- I did marriage therapy.
- I studied project and change management.
- I got trained and certified as a life coach.
- I took a year-long leadership training program.
- I studied multiple systems of communication, including Nonviolent Communication – also known as Compassionate Communication.
And nothing worked. Until that night at the kitchen table.
In that moment, I truly “got” the first key to how to deal peacefully and successfully with things that don’t work for me – both at work and in my personal life.
In ways that also work for the other person, so the solutions “stick”.
In that moment, in the middle of my own agony, outrage and disappointment, I managed to truly hear what my partner wanted me to understand about what was true for him – in a totally new way.
Not so that I could explain why he was wrong – I’d done lots of that before. And not in a way that I discarded the importance of my truth – I’d done that before too.
But in a way that somehow held both points of view with caring, compassionate acceptance.
It’s hard to describe it if you haven’t experienced it.
Does this sound like a bit of an anti-climax?
That’s not what my clients have told me the first time it happened for them.
I remember one mother saying in amazement “I’ve felt like this after we’ve spent a special day together, like at Wonderland. But never when we started out in conflict…”
She shook her head, unable to find words to describe her pleasure and delight at the resolution of an issue that she and her daughter been fighting about every day for a whole school-year.
Now in her case, we’d employed more than the one key I found that night at the kitchen table with John.
Because, as amazing as that one key felt in the moment, it wasn’t enough.
So I’ve spent the last fourteen years developing a simple and complete step-by-step system for how to deal with situations you want to be different
- From the moment that you start to feel dissatisfied or concerned,
- Through having a conversation with other people involved
- To the moment when you realize that the issue has been fully and completely resolved – because it’s just not an issue any more.
You can read more elsewhere on this site about how I help other parents and couples and workplaces achieve the sense of delight that mother had.
And you can book a time to talk with me about your unique situation and whether what I offer might help you achieve the quality of peace and satisfaction you want at work and at home.