Helping Nonprofit Leaders Transform Conflict

Leadership Coach and Mediator

NEW! The conflict translation app

My neighbor Jing walks around the block every night around 7:00 pm. She loves talking with the neighbors and uses a translation app to improve her rudimentary English. It’s a slow process, but I enjoy chatting with her and contributing to her fluency.

Today, I only have time for some simple greetings. It turns out her English is worse than I thought. She looks at me in bewilderment when I tell her, “Nice to see you.” She doesn’t answer my question, “How are you?” And when I say, “See you later,” she waves at me in confusion.

As I’m biking off, I realize that I wasn’t saying any of these things. Instead, I said, “Goed om je te zien.”, “Hoe gaat die met jou?”, and “Tot ziens!”

Without realizing it, I was speaking Dutch. Given that I had just come back from two weeks of taking care of my parents 24/7, with my sleep deficit and jetlag, it’s not surprising that my brain is foggy and doesn’t realize it’s back in the States.

Had I paused and checked if she understood me, I would have known that what I wanted to say was not what she was hearing.

Fortunately, our connection is positive enough that my blunder doesn’t have much of a negative impact.

But when relationships are under stress, misunderstandings aren’t brushed off lightly. Every interaction gets filtered through the lens of emotional baggage and enemy images, distorting confusion into malicious intent.

You don’t hear what the other person is saying as a tragic expression of unmet needs. You hear it as blame, defensiveness, criticism, contempt. Left to your own devices, you spiral down into mistrust.

Mediators have known this for a long time and have designed processes to help people resolve their conflicts in constructive ways. A mediator’s calming presence and firm leadership reduce the risk that conflicts turn into a screaming match.

As a credentialed mediator with the Texas Mediator Credentialing Association, I know the process and have improved it with the insights of Nonviolent Communication and Thich Nhat Hanh.

The result is a facilitated dialogue that nurtures mutual respect, dignity, and emotional safety and supports participants to find solutions that meet as many needs as possible.

As Catherine said:

“Working with you was pivotal for me. It helped me get over the enormous hurdle of really feeling heard and seen by my ex-husband, and helped me to finally feel forgiveness in my heart. I’m happy to report that my relationship with him is in a really good space, and also that our daughter is doing very well.

I will forever treasure you and the gift you gave me, of a framework for knowing and naming needs and feelings, and for making all the difference in what many people thought was an impossible situation for me. For that, I am profoundly grateful.”

Contact me if you want to know how my services can help you transform your conflict into collaboration.

You can’t wipe a butt on Zoom

Some things you just can’t do on Zoom. Like holding your friends’ hands while saying grace for food. Tucking your baby in at night and singing him a lullaby. Taking out the trash for your elderly neighbor.

So when my dad gets hospitalized in June, I fly out to support him and my mom. Calling him on the phone won’t get his hair brushed. Seeing my mom on Zoom won’t get her to the hospital. Empathy won’t help with cooking dinner. I need to be there in person.

Zoom is great, but not for everything.

The same is true for email. Wonderful if you want to appreciate what your colleague did. Use it to inform others of your upcoming travel plans. Very practical for sending your team the agenda of the meeting.

But don’t use it to express frustration or resolve conflict. Then the ‘enter’ button is your enemy. With just one click on a button, you risk ruining a relationship that probably already is challenging.

“Message sent, is not always message received” is true for any communication. But even more so with email. You cannot check the facial reactions as you talk, you don’t see the shift in body posture as you deliver your message, and you can’t notice the change in breathing as you share your frustration.

So it is very hard to know that your message is received the way you intended, not even if you ask them to email back a summary of your key points. How do you know they didn’t just copy and paste your text, let alone have true empathy for the underlying issue?

But resolving conflict by phone isn’t necessarily a good alternative either. Even though it has the immediacy of the interaction and the nonverbal cues of your voice, you don’t know if their silence means that they are reflecting on what you said or have put the phone down to do something else.

The best way to resolve conflict is to meet in person. Especially if you use Thich Nhat Hanh’s “Beginning Anew.” It is a sequence of sharing appreciation, regret, and then requests. The focus is on improving the relationship by nurturing honesty and empathy so that your requests are true requests, not camouflaged demands.

With practice, this process becomes second nature. But you do need to know that you are practicing the right way. That’s where coaching with a mindfulness coach comes in.

Since 2011, I have practiced with Thich Nhat Hanh’s community and taught many of my clients how to use this process. If you want to see if working with me would help you too, you can schedule a free discovery session with me.

It could help you wipe off the yuck of even the most contaminated relationships!

Use this link to schedule your free session.

Don’t worry, your unpleasant feelings are here to stay

Fun fact one, at least for me, since I love gardening: St. Augustine grass grows well in the shade.

Fun fact two: St. Augustine spreads by stolons, also known as runners: “mother” clones that form “daughter” sprouts which spread and weave soft, thick mats of greenness.

Fun fact three: these stolons put out thin, almost invisible roots that grow at least 10 inches into the ground.

St. Augustine grass is here to stay. That would be great if I want to see my water consumption triple in July and August. And not so great since I want to be eco-conscious and want to make my yard drought-tolerant.

Since I am crazy about attracting butterflies, birds, and bees, I decide to replace part of our lawn with a bed for native plants that attract them. After the heavy rainfall this weekend, the soil is soft enough to dig up the grass in a spot more or less 6 by 12 feet.

I start super enthusiastically. Halfway through and covered in mud, I am totally discouraged, At 6:30 pm and 3 hours into the project, I only removed half of the grass.

Since my goal is to end up with flowers and wildlife and not perfection, I change strategies to “good enough”.  I remove enough grass to help the native plants establish themselves but not more. I will defer to pulling out grass if it comes back.

This change in strategy reminds me of facilitated dialogues.

In this work, the goal is to create enough compassion and understanding to help you find solutions for your issues.

You don’t have to dig up every trauma when you want to tell your teammate that you have gotten triggered when he talks more than 80% of the time in a meeting with 13 other team members. Instead, you can focus on how to meet his need for respect for his expertise and the need for respect for other team members.

When you want to tell your colleague that you rather work on a grant application than chat about what she did over the weekend, you don’t have to go into the details of how your pregnancy is impacting your attention. You can just agree to start your meetings with 2 minutes of appreciation to build trust and understanding.

You don’t have to share how your ex-partner’s angry outbursts got you to file for a divorce. It is already a win if you can talk constructively about how much time your daughter can be on social media when she is with him.

This is what a few happy clients wrote me:

“For me, the biggest thing is that we’re both trying so hard, and I think that is making the biggest difference. We’re both really committed to making it work. I have way more trust in A. than I did before. I’m hopeful, and I feel good about where this is going.”, S.B., Team leader, Foundation Communities

“I agree 100 percent. Last month was extremely hard to where I was taking it home, and I was replaying conversations, and it was stressful and almost to the point of me not wanting to work here anymore. So I feel like now we both can come in and do our jobs successfully since we both have huge responsibilities. We’re going through so much right now that for us to come in and be the best that we could be, something had to give with the tension that was in the air. I’m really grateful for our time with Elly, and I feel like we both can be more productive in our jobs through this process.”, A.O., Team leader, Foundation Communities

“The facilitated dialogues are very, very helpful and give me the promise of and the felt experience of an alternate way of interacting. One thing I have really appreciated about Elly is her neutral stance. Because I had very, very little sympathy for my ex-husband. In her neutral stance and giving equal time to paraphrasing him and me, she has helped me develop compassion for him. There have been times when I said: “You need to do this with him, You need not do this with him, You need to speak up.” I think I’ve tried to be directive with her because I know him well. I appreciate that she has resisted any temptation. She has not shown me or him a preference for one of us over the other. That’s a very new experience for me, which benefits me.”, C.M., Organization Development Consultant, Austin

Do you want to see if a facilitated dialogue can help you with your issue? Comment on this post.

Cockroach in a bookcase

I am on a book binge. I borrow one book after another from the Austin Public Library. Books about bias, behavioral economics, positive psychology, decision making, and coaching.

I like them so much that I order them from my favorite local bookstore so I can reread them whenever I want.

When I pick them up, I can’t help skimming through my new treasures. It takes minutes before I am ready to bike home. I spend the 4.3 miles thinking about the puzzle of how to fit them in my limited shelf space.

As soon as I open the glass doors of my bookcase, I see a cockroach scurry behind Fast Thinking, Slow Thinking. I quickly get my cockroach-catch-cup, slowly peel the books away, trap the cockroach, and take it outside. I trust it will thrive there as well as in here.

When I come back, I see some brown granules on the shelf. I wipe them off. Then I see some brown smears against the back of the bookcase. No problem, my soapy water does the trick.

Now I spot more droppings on the shelf below. Getting concerned I take the books off that shelf too. Then the books on the shelf above. Within minutes, all my books are sprawled around my room, on my bed, the table, the bench, stacked on a stool.

I stare at a bookcase fully contaminated by cockroach excrements.

It takes me the rest of my Saturday to clean up the mess. Not exactly my idea of resting and rejuvenating after a week of hard work. And certainly pretty far from the delight I had when I biked home from the bookshop.

But the worst part is the barrage of shame and self-criticism that comes along with the experience.

I had seen some of the evidence months before. I just didn’t want to spend the time cleaning the brown spot inside the glass door. I had seen a cockroach hide behind the bookcase in the previous weeks and didn’t think much of it. I could have explored these signals but I didn’t want to give up my other plans. I had more important commitments and the task of emptying the bookcase seemed overwhelming.

Instead, I ignore the small consistent clues and they turn into this big mess.

Maybe this is a metaphor for team dynamics?

Your colleague makes a remark that doesn’t land well. Since it doesn’t seem like such a big deal, you shrug your shoulders. Yet, you take it home and fret about it.

Or maybe your CEO offers criticism or raises her voice. You feel startled but don’t know how to share it without hurting the relationship. Instead, you start looking at job listings.

Or a team member comes to you with complaints about another member and you spend hours trying to get them to work together, taking time away from your core responsibilities. You take a deep breath, work harder, and hope for the best.

In Dutch we call those responses ‘little clothes for the bleeding’.

They work only to a certain extent.

Meanwhile, the incidents pile up. And over time the whole team gets bogged down with unresolved issues.

Maybe I can help you with that.

Like cleaning, it might be better to have small, regular sweep-ups that keep a fresh workplace, rather than a big yuck that brings everything to a halt. Maybe you need a mediator. Or someone who facilitates a dialogue. You might benefit from a webinar on self-care. Or perhaps coaching for a key manager who could use a boost of support so she is energized again to inspire her team.

Schedule a free discovery session to explore how working with me can help you keep communication open and clean.

Conflict can feel like balancing on a tight rope

One front foot. Pause, maybe 1-2 seconds. A second foot. Pause, 1-2 seconds. Maybe even three. A third foot, an even longer pause.

The tiny squirrel is now nine feet out on a narrow utility line, some 18 feet above the ground. He has to cross another 35 feet to get to the other side of the line into the tree that he wants to get to.

At that moment a mockingbird swoops in and squawks at him. God knows why. Twice he flies in at full-speed right at the baby squirrel. And the squirrel freezes at his feeble spot on the line.

My heart goes boom, boom, boom.

How I wish I could climb up and bring it back into safety. Instead, I am left on the ground 18 feet below hoping and preparing to catch it if it fell.

A few seconds into the freeze, the squirrel manages to turn around and get back into the tree where he came from. When he jumps into it, I think he’s safe and I continue my morning walk.

The event reminds me of what can happen with people in conflict when they don’t feel safe enough to move to the perspective of the other person.

Some freeze when they imagine what the other person might say about them. Scared that they will only hear how fundamentally flawed they are.

Others swoop in with a list of blame, evaluations, and ‘shoulds’ rather than share their more vulnerable feelings and needs, not trusting that they will be heard with compassion and empathy.

Neither one sees their conflict as an opportunity to improve collaboration. It is more a boxing match on a utility line than a chance to explore the values and norms, assumptions, and preferred strategies underlying their respective positions.

I hear many of my clients struggle with conflict these days, as their challenges increase with economic shocks, social changes, isolation, presidential elections, funding stress, and higher demands for their services.

That’s when a neutral facilitator can help. They create a brave space for each participant to share honestly. They model how to listen with empathy. They accept and work with the triggers that come up. And they support each participant to make requests.

As a result, the participants don’t only solve their problems, they actively find solutions to improve their collaboration.

I just finished a facilitated dialogue between two nonprofit team leaders. This is what they say after our third session:

“Last month was extremely hard to where I was taking it home and I was replaying conversations and it was stressful and almost to the point of me not wanting to work here anymore. So I feel like now we both can come in and do our jobs successfully since we both have huge responsibilities. We’re going through so much right now that in order for us to come in and be the best that we could be here, something had to give with the tension that was in the air. I’m really grateful for our time with Elly and I feel like we both can be more productive in our jobs through this process.”

“We’re both trying so hard and I think that is making the biggest difference. We’re both really committed to making it work. I have way more trust in him than I did before. I’m really hopeful and I feel good about where this is going.”

Contact me if you want to see how hiring me as a facilitator can help you.

Tragic Expressions of Unmet Needs

Okay, let’s face it. There is no amount of sitting on our cushion, Nonviolent Communication training, books, and whatever else we are doing around personal development that makes us immune against ‘tragic expressions of unmet needs’.

Even Thich Nhat Hanh, my favorite Buddhist teacher, sometimes feels overwhelmed with feelings of anger. He too suffers when he sees the results of social injustice, fear, discrimination, fanaticism.

The difference between him and me is that he has a solid habit of mindful walking or sitting on his cushion to transform his anger and understand the needs behind those tragic expressions of unmet needs. So when he expresses how those tragic expressions landed for him, he speaks with love and a longing to support the needs of the other person.

And this is exactly my challenge:

  • Accept that the point of my life is not to be peaceful and happy, peppy all the time, but to take a breath, pause, and connect to my values and vision for this world.
  • To transform any enemy image I have of the other person into a deeper understanding and seeing their basic goodness.
  • To take a risk and express myself authentically.
  • To come from a place of nondiscrimination and wanting to support all needs: theirs, mine, and those of the environment.

Maybe you are at Thich Nhat Hanh’s level of mindfulness. Then, please, stop reading and share your magic ingredient for being at his level of integrity.

And maybe you are more at my level and that of many of my clients. Maybe you recognize one of these situations:

  • You are in mid-level management and you are ready to quit your job because the work environment has become too toxic. Instead of building trust and collaboration, the CEO and the directors turn against each other, focusing more on promoting their own careers rather than carrying the organization and your clients through this pandemic and economic downturn.
  • You have a wonderful relationship with your supervisor but you struggle to schedule time with him to discuss long-term strategy. Your supervisor is so overwhelmed with running around putting out fires, both at work and at home, that he has no mental availability to even consider a vision for the next two, three years.
  • Or you see a substantial drop in enrollment for your school. The Board panics that your school won’t survive this academic year and pushes for radical changes in operations. They criticize your focus and decisions. It almost seems that they are actively undermining your reputation with faculty and staff.
  • Your team members knock on your door and complain about each other. Instead of them resolving their conflict themselves, you are spending your time constantly mediating between them. How can you support them in finding their own solutions, so that you can concentrate on the big picture questions?

Situations where your needs aren’t met. And maybe not even the other person’s needs. One set of needs is prioritized over another one, it is either/or. Emotional safety or honesty. Harmony over authenticity. Contribution or rest.

But there is another way. We can engage others to meet all needs, even if they growl at you.

In my free webinar ‘Tragic Expressions of Unmet Needs’, you will learn:

  • Why tragic expressions are requests for help disguised in jackal form;
  • The psychology of empathy that helps transform anger, blame, accusations, defensiveness into emotional intimacy and love;
  • Exactly what to do and not to do when you empathize with tragic expressions of unmet needs;
  • The one phrase that will diffuse any tension, build trust, and help you get to the heart of the matter in a few minutes;
  • A simple, although not easy, exercise to calm down when you feel triggered;
  • The importance of a community that is committed to working on non-judgmental acceptance, self-love, finding peace and equanimity, and using those superpowers to serve others;
  • The four essential ingredients to receive tragic expressions without lashing out or running away.

Sign-up here. For free. Wednesday, September 23, 11:30 am-12:30 pm CST. On Zoom.

P.S. Here is an article about Thich Nhat Hanh’s insight on responding to terrorism with mindfulness.

P.P.S. Do you want to see how we can work together? Visit my website to read some testimonials.