It’s 3:00 am. I am woken up by the sound of a bee. I feel tired, and turn on a light to see if the bee is inside and I need to take it out.
Nope, it is outside, hovering in front of its hive.
My fatigue turns into sadness. An outcast is desperately trying to get back in. Bees are sensitive, smart, and social, so I am sure they have a kind of mechanism to punish members. Ostracizing could certainly be one of them. It’s effective for humans, why wouldn’t it be for bees?
Hanging out on the porch
At 7:00 am no buzz. I feel relieved. Thank God, maybe the bee was accepted back in.
When I tell my husband, he laughs. He tells me that Texan beehives get hot in summer, and sometimes bees hover in front of it to cool off, especially right before dawn. Like hanging out on the porch, before we had air conditioning.
Empathy and Sympathy
With a mixture of amusement and embarrassment, I realize I confused empathy with sympathy.
I thought I was respectfully understanding what the bee was experiencing, as if I was walking in its shoes (flying in its wings?). Instead, I was sympathizing: not walking in its shoes, but running away with them, and thinking they were mine. I was superimposing my experience of fitting in, as a lens to look at its experience. Because I was ostracized as a six-year-old, and stood apart, doesn’t mean that others who stand apart, are being ostracized. Probably not this particular bee.
Empathy is not better than sympathy
It’s just different. Empathy helps to respectfully understand someone else’s experience. Sympathy is more about creating closeness by sharing our own experience: “I think I know what you’re talking about since I think I’ve been in a similar situation.”
And since our situation can be different from theirs, sympathy can create as much confusion as understanding. It shifts the focus to us, instead of maintaining it on our partner. It’s more about being understood than understanding.
If you want to understand your team members, empathy is your tool. When you listen for and accept their reality as is, without imposing your lens on it, you can more effectively help (or empower) them resolve whatever issue they’re talking about.
With empathy I could have provided shade for the beehive. With sympathy I would try to mediate between the bee community and this single bee (if there is even such a thing as bee mediation).
Empathy can be learned
For some of us empathy may not be our go-to strategy when we listen. We may “react, before reflect”. If you want to learn to “reflect, before react”, I’m your girl. We can work on specific tools and skills to support you be the team leader you want to be. I’m sure you can learn to be more effective, create better results, and go home fulfilled and satisfied.
Get these fun, max-500-words stories directly in your mail box! Just sit back, relax and wait for them to appear. Read them in your bathroom, while waiting for the bus, or standing in line. Sign up here.
Don’t think you know what people are talking about
Even if you’re absolutely sure you understand the words they’re saying, those words can have a very different meaning to them than to you. “Well, how is that important?”, you might ask. Let me tell you a short story.
Last week, I was camping. When I checked in, I received a green reservation card “to clip on the pole”. I felt confused about how to do that. The poles of my tent are round and on the inside of the outside layer, so I how can I clip that card on the pole?
Eventually, I decide to shove the card under my ground cloth and trust they will find it, if they want to check my reservation.
The next day, new campers arrive. As I walk to my tent, I see those same green reservation cards. Clipped on the pole. But not the pole I thought the registration lady was talking about. Nope. The pole at the entrance of their camping spot. With two clippers. And the number of their site. Never even thought of looking at that pole. Let alone check how to clip my card on it.
Same word, different meaning
It dawns on me that even a simple word like pole, has a different meaning to the registration lady than to me. And because the meaning seemed so obvious to me, it never occurred to me to ask questions what she meant with it. As a result, I got confused and couldn’t implement what she was asking me to do.
This was a pretty innocuous misunderstanding with no consequences. And we can all think of situations, where the consequences can be more harmful.
When someone is calling you a jerk, you’ll probably get defensive. You either withdraw or turn against them. You disconnect or you call them names, or worse. As a result, conflict lies around the corner.
Reflect, before react
The solution is to reflect, before we react. You either literally use their words, or ask about their meaning. “You want me to clip this card to my tent pole?” (“du-uh, no, silly, the pole at the entrance of your tent spot”). “What do you mean when you say I’m a jerk?”.
In the reflection of their words they have a chance to self-connect and check if they’re expressing themselves in the way they want to be heard. Sometimes people realize they mean something different, when they hear their words reflected back.
And reflecting gives you a chance to take a deep breath, calm yourself down, and connect to your values, before you react.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Well, I can tell you from more than 11 years of practice it isn’t. We need sincere dedication and perseverance to make this a daily habit.
I handed off the parenting group to Kayla Rose Yoder, one of my students in Nonviolent Communication and a dedicated mom who I deeply admire for the level of unconditional respect for and support of her three year old.
She starts Tuesday, April 23. She asks $195 for the whole series. Contact Kayla with any questions.
It is Jugglefest and Noah offers a workshop big-ball-balancing. I’m curious enough to watch others do it, but too terrified to try it myself. At age 12, I do a head roll and land on my neck. I can’t breathe or move for minutes and think I am gonna die. I don’t, but I never completely overcome the fear for acrobatic stunts.
But now Noah is here. He tells me how to get up on the ball and extends his hand. His presence helps me take a risk and go way beyond my comfort zone. I trust that even though I might hurt myself, I won’t harm myself.
I realize that when we have the support we need, we can do things we never thought ourselves capable of.We can expand our self-limiting beliefs and do things that fear keeps pushing off to the back burner of our aspirations. Those Big Hairy Audacious Goals come within arms reach with enough support.
We might fail at reaching them -even more than once- but we learn from the failure, not die from it.
Having needs doesn’t mean we’re needy
The challenge for many of us is to ask for support in the first place. We belief that having needs, means we’re needy. That asking for help, means we’re weak. Making a request, shows we’re incompetent. And some of us have come to believe that we’re unworthy to ask for anything to begin with, that our needs come second place to everyone else’s.
We struggle to see our needs as beautiful, human, and universal. We don’t realize that getting support for our needs, means we’ll be happier. And that when we are happier, we are so much more giving and less self-centered. We see asking for support as an expense to others, not an investment in our community.
Seeing needs as beautiful, human, and universal
Imagine a gardener who takes care of a bougainvillea. She doesn’t criticize the bougainvillea for needing eight hours of sun, or very specific amounts of watering, or severe trimming right after the last frost. The gardener supports the bougainvillea with delight, because she knows that if she takes care of the bougainvillea’s needs, it will bloom exuberantly.
We are not bougainvillea’s. We are human beings with a rich, sometimes painful, history. Some of us need support to see our needs as beautiful.
How to find support to see our needs as beautiful
Search for people, communities, and living beings that you feel safe with. It might be your aunt, your mindfulness community, your therapist, God, your dog.
Bring awareness of the acceptance, support, and respect you’re receiving and let this restorative healing experience sink in. Connect to your physical sensations, feelings, needs and take a deep breath.
Once you have experienced that your needs matter, ask someone you trust for help, even if it is just for a simple ask.
Celebrate that you did! Whether or not your request got support, you took a step to live the life you really want, with yourself and others.
I’m biking on Duval Street. It is a busy two-lane street, where cars drive 40 miles per hour on average. Since there are no separate bike lanes, I choose to bike on the sidewalk, to keep me safe. As always, I am alert and careful. Especially for cars backing out.
But this one I didn’t see coming. Out of the blue, a black pick-up truck backs out of it’s parking spot at at least 20 miles an hour.
I hardly have enough time to turn my handlebars, jump off my bike, and land on knees and palms on the gravel surface. I feel a bruise growing on my right thigh.
The truck driver probably doesn’t notice me and keeps backing out. “What an idiot! He didn’t look over his shoulder and blind spot! He’s incompetent and a danger to other cyclists!” Infuriated I jump up and bang on his window. “What?” “You almost hit me as you were backing out!” “Are you okay?” “Hardly.” “I’m sorry” and he drives off.
When I tell my friend about this incident, she asks incredulously “I thought you were practicing Nonviolent Communication?” “Yes, but this is screaming in giraffe.”
Now I realize I was not. I was just screaming.
Four steps to get support for unmet needs
Screaming in giraffe means we use force to draw attention and support to our needs. Usually we sense urgency about this. I believe there are four elements of successfully screaming in giraffe (versus just screaming):
Awareness of our needs being unmet.
Enough self-acceptance and compassion to see our needs as beautiful(instead of a deficit, as if there is something wrong with us for having those needs, as if we’re ‘needy’).
Transform any enemy image of those, whom we think are responsible for our needs being unmet, so we can ask for their support to meet our needs (how do you think I did on that count?). Like offering our requests with Santa Claus energy.
Openness to explore strategies to meet as many needs as possible: ours and those of other stakeholders (that’s way harder when you perceive urgency).
Listening to unmet needs
When we hear someone screaming in giraffe, it helps to listen for unmet needs. Rather than focusing on how they express themselves (which might just sound like screaming), we can use empathy to deepen our understanding of their experience, listen for needs, and figure out strategies that meet as many needs as possible.
Live the life you really want, with yourself and others
I believe this process helps us to live the life we really want and create the closeness and authenticity we long for.
Let me know how this landed for you: I would love to hear from you.
All my commitments fly out the window: “I reflect, before I react.” “I see the positive in every person and every situation.” “I accept myself unconditionally, especially when shame arises.”
In a second. I have nothing left but a puddle of shock, fear, shame, and anger.
‘Tragic expression of unmet needs?’ Never heard of it. All I hear are criticisms, demands, evaluations. ‘Seeing our interdependence?’ Not today. I take her remarks personally and my mind races with defenses, counter arguments, attacks. ‘Empathetically guessing: “Are you feeling upset and scared? You want more respect and safety?”’ My mind draws a blank.
All I can do, is stare at her moving video image on my computer screen and desperately (and thanks to my Sangha, moderately successfully) try NOT to express the angry, anxious thoughts clamoring to come out of my mouth.
I barely succeed in saying “I love you” at the end.
After we hang up, I feel deflated, discouraged, hopeless.
My thoughts are: “What a fool I am for believing I could create a warm, extensive community that includes me, my husband, my family, and friends. What an utter idiot I am for having that crazy dream, trying to get my reality closer to my vision.”
The emotional tension is so intense that all I can think is “Give up, give up, give up. Pack your stuff and fly back to the Netherlands.”
“The juxtaposition of vision (what we want) and a clear picture of current reality (where we are relative to what we want) generates what we call ‘creative tension’: a force to bring them together, caused by the natural tendency of tension to seek resolution. The essence of personal mastery is learning how to generate and sustain creative tension in our lives.”
“People often have great difficulty talking about their visions, even when the visions are clear. Why? Because we are acutely aware of the gaps between our vision and reality… These gaps can make a vision seem unrealistic or fanciful. They can discourage us or make us feel hopeless… If we fail to distinguish emotional tension from creative tension, we predispose ourselves to lowering our vision.”
This was a literal and figurative call back to reality. Apparently I am not anywhere close to seeing my vision fulfilled. My reality is very different from where I thought it was. Yes, this is a set-back, and yes, I feel discouraged about it.
And that doesn’t mean that my journey is in vain. It means the difference is a learning opportunity for me. Where am I on the path? How do I work -not fight- with the obstacles I face? How can I be more creative, resourceful, and whole?
How can I make the journey the reward?
And with that inquiry I shift to feeling a little more settled, at peace, and hopeful.
Let me know: how do you work with creative tension? I would love to hear from you.
The camper slowly turns into our driveway, needing all the space we created by moving our cars. I can’t wait to see my brother, sister-in-law, and eight-year old niece. It’s their first visit since I moved from the Netherlands to Austin in 2009. I feel very, very excited to see them.
I baked a carrot cake for them, hung streamers, and spent more than a week tidying and cleaning to make them a warm welcome. I am ready to relax and hang out together. So are they, after more than 17 hours of travel.
While the cake is disappointing, the weather compensates with 80℉, sunshine, and a light breeze.
My niece gets excited when she sees our lawn sprinkler, and imagines jumping through the water spray. Together, we come up with an even better plan: one bucket with water and three plastic cups. My brother, niece, and I spend the next hour throwing water at each other. We team up in various ways: the Netherlands against Texas, the older generation against the younger, girls against boys. We play everyone for themselves, or throw water at whoever is nearest. The most evident theme is that we’re all having a blast, getting soaking wet, laughing, relaxing, and mellowing out.
“I am aware that happiness depends on my mental attitude and not on external conditions, and that I can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that I already have more than enough conditions to be happy.”
I savor this moment, which ultimately becomes a highlight of their visit. I take a mindful breath, enrich the experience by bringing my attention to my physical and emotional sensations, and see how relevant this experience is to my values of community, love, and play.
When my husband arrives at 4 pm, he sees three elated and joyful family members, resting on the chairs, soaking wet, and a more composed, though just as joyful, sister-in-law.
Let me know: what are your conditions for your happiness? I would love to hear from you.
My husband and I are on our daily walk around the block. We do that twice a day, to connect, listen, and hold hands. It’s always the same circuit, more or less 1.5 miles long. It’s drizzling, so I’m extra worried and aware that cars might not be as attentive as I wish.
And heck, for sure: an SUV backs out of the driveway, straight into us. Being alert, we’re already on the lawn of the opposite house by the time it would have hit us.
I feel annoyed. Mainly scared, but it shows up as annoyance. As a committed commuter cyclist, I have had my fair share of almost being hit by cars who don’t look around enough. For the last three years, at least once a month, I have to jump the curb, swivel around, or do an emergency break to avoid being run over.
I confess, I have thoughts of breaking car windows to teach this damn driver a lesson.
Thank God I don’t.
Once the car is out on the street, the driver rolls down the window. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry…” I see a fifty plus woman with tears in her eyes. “I’m really distracted, … my mom is dying … I’m off to say goodbye to her …”
She stops the car and sits there quietly, I assume to calm herself, before she drives off.
I feel shocked. And embarrassed. Never in the world would I have expected that.
My enemy image of car drivers shatters in a thousand pieces.
I remember Thich Nhat Hanh’s advice to always ask “Are you sure?”. He invites us to write this question down and put it somewhere where we will see it: a bathroom mirror, the fridge, our calendar. And live by it.
As I regret my quick jump to the conclusion that she was inconsiderate of my need for safety, I stutter “I am so sorry for you.”
She drives off. I ask my husband to confirm which house she came from, and I make a promise to myself to drop off a condolence note.
I go home and write the note.
And a sticky note “Are you sure?”.
It’s up on my bathroom mirror to remind me to not jump to conclusions about someone’s intentions and character.
(This is a re-post from January 2018, when it was still cold. I hope this is a refreshing reminder that everything is impermanent, also temperatures)
It is sleeting. The road is getting slippery. It’s also getting dark. And it’s rush hour. Everyone seems anxious to get home, before the road completely freezes up and driving becomes a car balancing act on ice.
I’m on my bike. And I feel scared. I don’t like biking when it sleets. I have had my share of slips and falls growing up in the Netherlands with these road conditions. I have no desire to add one more to my track record.
I have to cross a busy street without stop signs or traffic lights within half a mile. I decide to cross without that support.
I wait and wait and wait till there are no cars in either lane. I cross the first lane as careful as I can. Before I am half way, the cars from the other side have a green light and are coming at me. I have to wait. As I look over my shoulder, I see that the cars behind me also got a green light. They’re speeding up. One truck in particular. In my lane. I see him coming right at me. I feel terrified he will drive into me, but I have nowhere to go. There are cars in either lane and I can’t make myself smaller with my bike. I just have to hope and pray that the truck is gonna spot me, before he hits me.
He does. He swirls around me within six yards, hunks at me, and continues with at least 50 miles per hour. No one gets hurt.
I tremble as I get on my bike to finally cross the street.
In my upset I start to rant blame toward him: “He is f*cking going way too fast on a slippery road, and the idiot was probably texting too. What a moron he is!”
After biking a few blocks, I turn the blame toward myself: “You are an idiot too, not taking the time to walk over to the traffic light and cross when it’s safe. You’re a fool for risking your life for a few minutes efficiency! You’re not competent to ride a bike! (Ouch, that’s very painful for a Dutch woman to hear)”
It’s only when I am home and feel safe, that I start to empathize with myself: “Gosh, Elly, you were terrified that you would be hit and end up with a wrecked bike, broken legs or arms, or… dead. You want to know that car drivers care about your needs for safety and consideration.”
It takes a few more hours, before I start to empathize with the car driver: “He probably didn’t see me at dusk. He probably didn’t expect a cyclist in the middle of the road. Maybe he was tired and anxious to get home safely. Who knows, he might have had to pick up a sick kid.”
I feel super grateful for Marshall Rosenberg’s teachings on our four choices when receiving a hard-to-hear message:
Realizing I can choose how I respond to difficult messages and situations helps feel empowered. I am not in full control about what’s happening around me, but I am in control of how I respond.
How does this land for you? Let me know, I would love to hear from you.
Friday January 5, during Shabbat service, I was formally welcomed into the community of the Jewish people, making myself available to “become a partner with God in the work of creation and in the healing and redemption of the world”.
It is a festive, joyous evening of community and celebration. My husband is there, my stepdaughter, my friends Jen, Margaret, her kids and parents-in-law, and of course my congregation. We sing, we pray, we hug. My stepdaughter and I lit the candles to welcome in the Shabbat and recite the prayer. We are a bit nervous about whether we remember the whole Hebrew blessing. My husband reads one of his poems to express how I have contributed to his life. The congregation president reads one of my blogs. She thought it was the best way to describe how I show up in life. My stepdaughter jumps up and shouts “Yeah, Elly”. The cantor sings a song about being held by the wings of Shechinah (Spirit) and says I am a gift to the congregation.
I feel a bit shy with this shower of appreciation. I think of a quote by Marshall Rosenberg:
“For many of us, it is difficult to receive appreciation gracefully. We fret over whether we deserve it. We worry about what’s being expected of us… Or we’re nervous about living up to the appreciation.”
These people who share their appreciation, do they know that I have lied? That I get angry and yell? That I have people I let down? That I have done things I feel ashamed of? Would they still appreciate me if they know the whole truth about me, and nothing but the truth?
Maybe. Maybe not.
As I sit there and receive congratulation after hug after welcoming, I start to relax. Yes, I have done things in my life I wished I could undo, and I have desisted from doing things that I wished I had done. That’s the truth. And even though that is correct, it is also incomplete. Because I have also helped others, listened to my friend’s suffering, refrained from saying hurtful things, committed to a 95% vegan, eco-friendly, fair-trade diet, tried the best I could.
As I open up to the appreciation and love, I see more clearly that I have contributed to other people’s needs. I see that I have the capacity to make life more wonderful for others. And since I already am aware where I have made life more miserable for others, receiving appreciation helps me better see the whole picture of who I am and how I show up.
How does this land for you? Let me know, I would love to hear from you.
My ex-husband, Rob van Gils, passed away November 16, 2017. His cremation was Thursday November 23.
My visit to the Netherlands for his cremation service was much harder than I anticipated. Rob and I had succeeded in having –what our mediator described as– “the most peaceful, loving, and harmonious divorce.” We had also figured out how to have a caring friendship beyond divorce. While we had moved on, four of his best friends still harbored pain and anger about my decision to leave him nine years ago for my second husband.
The cremation service becomes not only a moment of intense grief and mourning over the loss of my first love, it becomes a startling confrontation with unresolved issues of loss and perceived betrayal in our former circle of friends.
One friend turns away as I approach him. Another can barely say ‘thank you’ when I share my condolences. A third lets me wait for two minutes, before he interrupts his conversation, then looks at me with a face that seems to convey his wish I had died instead of Rob, and says with emphasis, “You better leave. I don’t want you here.”
I leave the service quickly, too overwhelmed with confusion, pain and grief.
“Generally speaking, we regard discomfort in any form as bad news. But for practitioners or spiritual warriors –people who have a certain hunger to know what is true– feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.”
As enemy images of Rob’s friends race through my head, fretting how they should have behaved, how badly I am treated, how not deserving of their wrath I am, I notice I soften. I am open to using this experience as a wake-up call to lean into where I’m stuck. To let it all be, the pain and sorrow, the hatred and shame. I am willing to allow myself to be penetrated by my feelings –to be changed by them. Slowly I relax into my human condition, and experience the vulnerability of being alive.
That evening, I do not reach enlightenment. I do stop myself from becoming frozen in my judging of how life “should” be. Instead, I accept what is: the pain and the hurt triggered by people needing understanding and compassion.
I take another step on the path of the spiritual warrior, facing adversity with dignity and compassion.
How does this land for you? Let me know, I would love to hear from you.