Coaching for Nonprofit Leaders

Transform Conflict into Collaboration

Honor Culture and Conflict Coaching

On the day my neighbors move out, I hang out with the kids while they pack their car. At the end of their final check through the house, they turn off the air conditioner.

A few days later, a handyman paints the kitchen cabinets and turns it back on. This makes sense, it is 86 degrees outside.

The next day I still hear the air conditioner running. Since I know there is no one in the house, I get triggered by thoughts around the waste of energy. But, maybe I am mistaken and there are folks back working in the house today.

Three days later, I still haven’t seen any cars on the driveway or heard any sounds in the house. I get upset enough to go over and see why the AC is running 18 hours a day while no one benefits from it.

I ring the doorbell. No one answers. I walk around the house. No one there either.

I do see a leaking hose and washed-off paint on the lawn. And a completely open kitchen window. A freezing air greets me as I walk toward it.

Thoughts about global warming and polar bears losing their habitat race through my mind.

I owe it to them to do something about it. I climb through the window and turn off the air conditioner. It was set at 68 Fahrenheit. No wonder it’s running day and night.

I only think of the Texas Castle Doctrine when I climb back outside. It’s a law that allows Texan homeowners to use deadly force to protect themselves against an armed intruder. I think of myself as an innocent, albeit somewhat weird, lady, but how would they know I wasn’t carrying a weapon?

It’s something I never, ever was afraid of in the Netherlands. Not that climbing through windows was my habit, but walking around the house or peeking inside when looking for your neighbor is quite normal over there.

And I certainly was never afraid of someone pointing a shotgun at me.

That’s because the Netherlands is primarily a dignity culture while Texas is mainly an honor culture.

This is what Ryan Brown, a Social Psychologist and Managing Director for Measurement at Rice University writes on his website about honor cultures:

“Social scientists say that a society exhibits an honor culture when the defense of reputation plays an incredibly important role in social life (in more technical terms, reputation maintenance is a “central organizing theme” in that society). For men in a typical honor culture, the kind of reputation that is highly prized is a reputation for toughness and bravery. Men in honor cultures want to be known as someone that others ought not to take lightly.

Because of the importance placed on reputation maintenance, honor cultures allow or even expect people to defend themselves aggressively when threatened, even if the threat is not a physical one. So, when men in an honor culture are insulted or their honorable qualities are called into question, they often go to extremes to prove their mettle.”

Honor culture impacts how vulnerable populations are treated. People who can’t protect life and stock might be loved, but they are not respected as members of society. Often suicide rates among older men are high, mental health issues are not addressed, and sharing your feelings and needs is seen as a weakness.

In such a culture, it can be hard to get support for your organization’s mission around dignity for those at the bottom of societies’ hierarchy, racial justice, and ecological concern.

Schedule a coaching package with me, if you want to explore how to navigate the influence of culture on your impact.

You get 10% off if you enter “honor2021” in the coupon field. So that is $810, instead of $900.

The coupon expires on Juneteenth 19, 2021.

Read more about honor culture.

Read more about Texas “Stand your Ground-Castle Doctrine”.

“Actually, this one”

Eddie, my 2-year old neighbor kid, is fascinated by anything garbage. Garbage trucks, garbage men, garbage bins.

Every Friday he puts on his “I love garbage” t-shirt, his “garbage fan” baseball cap, and follows the garbage truck with his dad.

Sadly my neighbors are moving out today. I am hanging out with Eddie, while they pack.

Since it is garbage pick-up day, we walk around the block, looking for the garbage trucks. They haven’t come yet.

Eddie doesn’t care, garbage bins are just as exciting. He stops at every bin, points at them, and says “Actually, this one”. Maybe a bit more like “Ashually, cis one.”

“You want to see what’s inside it?”

He looks at me stunned, clearly not expecting his dream to come true.

“Yeah.”

“Step back a little, so your face doesn’t touch the bin. I think it’s dirty.”

He happily obliges, knowing that he won’t get to see the treasures inside unless he does. With his hands behind his back, he looks at it for more than 10 seconds. Mesmerized with the white trash bag that’s in it.

“Actually, this one.”

He runs off and points at a compost bin. Same instructions, same mesmerized look. He carefully examines the leaves, grass, orange peels, and rotting kale. It is clearly the most interesting thing he has ever seen.

“Actually, this one.”

He runs over to each bin on the street and looks at its contents with the same delight as if he is looking at the cutest puppy on planet earth.

Even when bin number 19 is topped with fermenting pizza and wriggling maggots, he doesn’t back away with the slightest glimmer of disgust on his face. He looks at it like a professor studying his favorite topic, hands on his back, enthralled with magical bins.

Gosh, if I could have the same earnest wonderment when hearing criticisms, blame, demands, anger.

Just like trash, these are experiences that people dump on the street, maybe in your ears. My instinctual reaction is to back away with disgust. Or annoyance or frustration. Maybe even some righteous indignation that I deserve better than this “verbal abuse”.

But Eddie inspires me to have more openhearted curiosity and listen a little better. Perhaps not take these tragic expressions of unmet needs personally. To understand that they contain a precious request, “Hey, I want to process these painful feelings and unhelpful thoughts. Can you help me to figure out a better way to meet my needs?

In my free webinar “Tragic Expressions of Unmet Needs”, I offer insights and practices to help you be an empathetic listener to anger, blame, demands, and criticisms.

Hopefully, you walk away with:

  • Understanding what a check-engine light has to do with needs
  • A simple trick to translate blame and accusation into requests, without manipulation
  • A neat cheat sheet to put up on your fridge for when you get stuck, so you avoid using words that will make things worse
  • The one thing you need to do whenever you hear criticisms, blame, demands, and anger and have more closeness
  • The fun of failure applause so you feel excited to keep practicing empathy for hard-to-hear messages, even when you fail

Friday, May 21, 2021, from 9:00-10:00 am CST.

Sign-up here.

Listen on Spotify

by Elly van Laar

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.

1 Communication lesson from a kitty

He is skin and bones. He comes up to me meowing as only unhappy cats can do.

When I pet him, I can feel every rib. My heart breaks for his starvation and I feel almost nauseated with grief and upset.

When I look at the porch where I’ve seen him before, I see that the cat bed is gone. Two new cars are parked on the driveway.

I imagine that the people who took care of the kitty moved out and didn’t take the cat with them. The new owners don’t care or haven’t noticed the kitty yet.

I run home, jump on my bike, and buy cat food. In my head, I make a list of everyone who might want to adopt the kitty. My neighbors with their 4- and 2-year old girls. My best friend who already has two cats. Us as a block. The shelter. Post it on the neighborhood app.

When I come back, the kitty is gone. I do see a neighbor unpacking her car with groceries.

“Have you seen the red kitty?”

“Yes. He is ours.”

“Oh… I thought he was abandoned. He came up to me meowing and looked so thin.”

“He likes to wander around and loves being petted. He showed up at our doorstep eight years ago, when he was probably five years old. We feed him every day, but no matter how much we give him, he loses weight. We took him to the vet and had all kinds of tests run on him. We think he is moving to the end of his life.”

“Ah, I feel relieved he’s taken care of. I guess I can return the cat food then.”

“You’re so kind. Yes, you can. We’re watching him day and night.”

I feel relieved to see my understanding was incomplete. The meowing that I took as a request for help was just a bid for connection. A good old-fashioned cat strategy to be petted.


With people, we might miss bids for emotional connection. Especially if we are triggered by how they express their “tragic expression of unmet needs”. 
Rather than seeing the beautiful, precious, universal needs in those bids, we hear blaming, shaming, and complaining. We lose our excitement to connect to them and don’t want to do anything like the human equivalent of petting a kitty.

Instead, we turn away or turn against. We react with stonewalling, defensiveness, criticism, or contempt. What John Gottman calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It is the fastest route to conflict crashing beyond repair.

Trust me, I’ve been there. I learned my lesson the hard way. After my share of failed attempts to repair challenging interactions, I got up to speed with books and videos of inspiring teachers. I experimented with new behavior and gained insights about conflict resolution.

So I developed an online mini-training, “The 5 Secrets to Resolving Conflict that Hardly Anyone Uses”, in which you can learn to respond more constructively to tragic expressions of unmet needs.

You will learn how to prevent turning away or against angry bids for connection. Without being overrun by those horsemen.

Is that something for you?

Then
 sign-up here.

In 10 days you get 5 emails with simple steps to resolve conflicts that hardly anyone uses. For free.

Enjoy more purring kitties around you!