Helping Nonprofit Leaders Transform Conflict

Leadership Coach and Mediator

I am sitting happily in my backyard, writing in my journal. It’s 8 am. The sun is shining. The breeze is fresh, it’s finally cooling off in Texas. It’s quiet and peaceful.

Then I hear hassle and bustle in the tree above my head. I see a squirrel on the branch, maybe 12 feet away. His two beady eyes stare directly down at me. With curiosity. I assume.

I look back with delight at his beauty: his lush tail, dark eyes, brown fur.

As he continues to stare at me, I start to feel uncomfortable. Why is he waving his tail? Why is he gnawing so loudly? And why does he keep staring at me? What if this is not a curious squirrel? What if this is an aggressive squirrel on a mission to protect his territory, whatever it takes? What if he jumps down to plunge his sharp claws into my face, or worse, into my eyes?

I feel scared. I cannot take the risk. I want to keep my eyes. I hiss at him as ferociously as I can. I make enough commotion to scare him, and he runs away.

It reminds me of other moments when I use protective force to make sure my needs are seen and supported.

I use protective force, when I don’t trust the other person has the capacity or willingness to see and support all needs. I take action to keep everyone safe, including me.

For example, I would pull a kid out of the street, when a car is coming. Or I might leave a relationship when I can’t compassionately process the criticism, dismissal, or contempt I experience. I use force to protect my needs for emotional safety, respect, and to be seen.

It is forceful, because I make a choice without dialogue.

I don’t ask the kid: “Hey, do you see that car coming?” If I did that, the car crashes into the kid, before I finish my sentence. The same might be true for a relationship. If the pain I experience in my connection is larger than my capacity to process it, I am risking my physical, emotional and mental health.

Protective use of force is not about punishment.

I don’t need to shoot the squirrel to feel safe. I don’t need to blame or shame him for behaving as he does. He hisses and gnaws to meet his needs. That’s his choice. It doesn’t mean I have to accept it.

We don’t need to demand change, in order to protect needs.

I can protect my needs myself. If I am respectful and take a stand, I can find a solution that supports as many needs as possible. I can do it unilaterally, until the other party is ready to work together from a place of compassion. By protecting ourselves we transform from victim to actor.

Without a victim, there is no perpetrator.

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