Coaching for Nonprofit Leaders

Transform Conflict into Collaboration

Walking my dogs and my anxiety, and becoming emotionally liberated

I walk my friend’s dogs Luna and Sol, my pack for the last ten months. I still have anxiety walking them. Whether it’s around the block or in the park: I feel stress. I believe it is my job as the pack leader to be “calm-assertive”, so they can trust that I will take care of our needs for safety. If I am not calm-assertive, I blame myself for failing to stay calm: I believe they pick up on my anxiety and get more aggressive toward other dogs. Before I know it, I’m in a self-feeding cycle of fear and failure.

And that’s when it hits me.

Nonviolent Communication tells us that every behavior is an attempt to meet needs, and that needs are universal throughout space and time. Feelings arise from our needs: feelings we enjoy, when our needs are met, feelings we don’t enjoy that much, when our needs are not met. According to Marshall Rosenberg emotional slavery is the stage where “we believe ourselves responsible for the feelings of others. We think we must constantly strive to keep everyone happy.” We avoid conflict and focus on making others (including dogs) happy, even at the expense of our own needs.

So that’s what’s happening. I’m so focused on keeping the dogs happy, that I forget about my own need for safety. Instead of accepting my anxiety as a messenger of an unmet need, I try to push my anxiety away and force myself to be happy with whatever is going on: dogs running away, attacking other dogs, chasing squirrels and cats.

If I want to transform my fear into calm, I need to include the need behind my anxiety.

So the next time we arrive at the dog park, I imagine I’m walking three dogs: Sol, Luna, and my anxiety. If I want to move out of emotional slavery, I need to balance their needs with mine.

My solution? Sol gets 10 minutes playtime with other dogs, before I put him on leash. Luna walks off leash, till we approach the car. I walk as fast as I can, so they have to follow me as their pack leader, reinforcing that I am in charge.

It works. They get playtime, exercise, and trust that I can protect the pack. I get the support I’m looking for from them. When we get home, we are all satisfied. The dogs sleep three hours, I get to work refreshed and relieved.

I’m not only walking the dogs, I’m working to become emotionally liberated.

“At the third stage, emotional liberation, we respond to the needs of others out of compassion, never out of fear, guilt or shame. Our actions are therefore fulfilling to us, as well as to those who receive our efforts.” Marshall Rosenberg, ‘Nonviolent Communication, a Language of Life’

Let me know how this lands for you.

(This is a repost from June 22, 2017. Since then, with a lot of concerted effort, Sol hasn’t been on leash in the park: he waits for us, and Luna hasn’t charged at other dogs. Big celebration for all of us.)

Understanding My Dog’s Tragic Expression of Unmet Needs

You remember the two dogs I wrote about a week ago? Luna and Sol? Well, Sol is not the only one triggering anxiety. Luna does too.

Usually, she is a sweetie. Super mellow, listens to me, doesn’t disappear in the fields.

So this morning when we get at the dog park, I let her off leash. We walk up to the field where other dogs are playing with each other, happy to have found playmates for Sol and Luna.

Then out of the blue, Luna charges at another dog. Like really charge: her neck hair up straight, her teeth in a grimace, her posture in complete attack pose. I feel terrified.

I’ve seen enough dog aggression, and it all ended in a hospital visit: my baby sister got caught in a dogfight, my older brother was bitten in the throat by a Dalmatian, I got bit when I was caught between Luna and Sol, trying to disentangle Sol’s collar.

So teaching Luna to calm down or stop her from charging at other dogs, is not only a challenging task for me – it’s really scary. Being afraid, I’m nowhere close to call upon my calm-assertive Alpha-dog leadership quality.

And as I imagine the potential for violence, I perceive urgency, and yep: my anxiety spills over into anger and frustration. My calm-assertive energy becomes anxious-angry-confused energy and I start teaching Luna the wrong lesson: Fear! Anger!

Of course it doesn’t work. My anxiety doesn’t invite her calm: it triggers her anxiety, reinforcing this sense that we are in danger and that she has to be aggressive to protect us.

It takes a lot of self-acceptance and self-compassion, before I reach a place where I can focus on Luna’s needs and understand that Luna’s behavior is a tragic expression of unmet needs.

Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of Nonviolent Communication, offers that “Everything we say and do is an attempt to meet universal, human needs, and some behavior is a tragic expression of unmet needs.”

As soon as I shift my perspective on Luna’s behavior from “she’s a scary, uncontrollable dog” to “she needs leadership”, I get curious: which needs is she trying to fulfill? And how I could I help her with them?

She probably needs safety and support: “Hey, Elly, will you be the pack leader? I want to trust you’ll keep us and yourself safe, so I can relax. Show me you’ve got everything under control.”

With that in mind, I feel less scared and more excited to figure out ways to meet all needs: hers and mine. Even without an answer, I feel inspired to work on a solution and I enjoy experimenting with different strategies.

When were you able to receive someone’s behavior as a “tragic expression of unmet needs”? And how did that help you feel excited about brainstorming strategies that meet all needs?

Let me know. I would love to read from you.

My dog runs away with my self-worth

I’m babysitting my friend’s dogs. I find them super sweet: when I wake up in the morning, they greet me with excitement, puppy ears up, tail wagging, head a bit slanting. I can hear them asking: “Are we gonna play? Are we gonna play?”.

​​When we go to the dog park … it becomes, hum … a bit of a challenge … As long as there are other dogs, Sol is fine. He can release his energy by running around with them.

​​But today, there are no other dogs. Sol decides to run off by himself. Into the fields. Chasing whatever he smells on the ground. I can see the tip of his tail happily wagging above the tall grass.

​​Then I see nothing. Nowhere. For five minutes. For ten minutes. I call him. I squeeze his squeaky ball — no sign of Sol. I call louder, squeeze the ball harder. I get anxious. What if he ran to the river stream, apparently home to coyotes? What if he got trapped and dies?

​​My anxiety turns into panic. My calling becomes yelling.

​​A fellow dog owner asks entertained if I lost my soul. I understand the pun.

​​I am not amused.

​​Then I see his wagging tail, followed by his perky ears, and big, brown eyes.  It takes me another five minutes to break his hunting spell and get his attention. When I finally do, he runs up to me.

​​Sure, I feel relieved. But mostly I feel ashamed and deflated, and full of self-critical thoughts about my “shitty” pack leadership qualities.

​​Then I think of Marshall Rosenberg’s teachings about taking things personally. His message is: whatever someone says and does is an attempt to meet their beautiful needs. It is NOT a reflection of who WE are.

​​I look at Sol: whatever he does, it is a reflection of his needs, not a reflection of who I am. He probably needs exercise, or express his innate drive to hunt. He is certainly not trying to demonstrate that I am a shitty pack leader.

​​Sure, I haven’t succeeded yet to channel his energy and innate drives, so he follows me, not a scent. I’m not yet trained to be a pack leader who supports both play and safety of the pack. But that doesn’t mean I’m less worthy of love, acceptance, and belonging. And it certainly doesn’t mean that Sol is in charge of my sense of self-worth. That’s still up to me.

​​When we are aware that any behavior is an attempt to meet needs, we can take things less personally. Without the self-judgment, we can learn to balance all needs as effectively as possible, instead of trying to avoid shame.

​​What helps you to not take things personally?

Let me know. I would love to read from you.

Authenticity and Courage

I am redesigning my website. I want it to look professional, authentic, and inspiring. A colleague asks me what authentic means to me. Me at my most vulnerable, me at my best, me at my worst?

Haha…! Funny question!

Is it? … Maybe not so much. Authentic is not just me at my most cutest, vulnerable, my most delightful.

Authentic is also me in the middle of a fight with my husband, having judgmental thoughts about others, or seeing my poochy belly hanging out of my t-shirt.

I am pretty sure I don’t want any of that on my website. I want the me at my most lovable best. Me worthy of love, acceptance, and belonging.

Certainly not the me that might trigger criticism. Not the me that might prompt people to turn away, or turn against. Certainly not any part of me that might trigger being alone, all by myself.

When I consider the parts of me I want to keep private, I start thinking of the times when fear of rejection stopped me from living my truest dreams: my longing to go to theater school, to tell the first love of my life I had a crush on him, or to pursue publication of my first children’s story.

When I sit with this fear of rejection, I wonder if courage means taking a social risk and still doing what I believe is true? Maybe courage doesn’t mean risking my life to help war victims in Syria, or offering myself to replace the inmate on death row just before his execution.

Maybe my courage lies in holding on to my vegan diet, even if others find it weird. Or calling upon my co-mediators in the lunch meetup to recycle their plastic plates, instead of throwing them away. Or repelling from a cliff with a terrifying fear of heights, with guys I’d never met before.

What if authenticity means living your deepest aspirations, even if you might face negative consequences? Would my answer to my colleague be that authenticity means being true to my values, living them in everyday life?

Courage and authenticity seem interrelated, especially if we’re not sure we’ll face an empathetic, accepting response. So my questions to you are:

  • What means authenticity to you?
  • How is courage connected to authenticity?
  • What comes up for you?

Let me know, I would love to read your response.

Holding unmet needs with compassion

Six wasps are actively building a nest for their queen mama above the door to my room.

And I know from last year that these nests can become big. Really big. Lots of wasps coming in and out, feeding their babies.

Even though I don’t experience them as aggressive toward me, I don’t want to take the risk that they fly in and out of my room, each time I open the door. With sadness in my heart, I decide to remove the nest, before I get too stressed about safety for my human visitors. Early in the morning, when I think the six wasps are still asleep, I throw enough water on them, that they finally fly away. I cut down their nest.

The next day, I see the same six wasps on the same spot, huddled close to each other. I’m pretty sure they’re deliberating to rebuild their nest. On the same spot.

And so they do.

With even more pain in my heart, I remove the second nest. Fortunately for all of us, they haven’t returned since.

Sometimes we are not creative enough to meet all needs in every instance. We’re stuck with a strategy of what Marshall Rosenberg calls “protective use of force”. We meet our needs, even though we see that our strategy doesn’t meet the needs of the other party. I met my need for safety, and didn’t meet the wasps’ needs for autonomy, respect, support.

When we’re stuck, the best thing we can do is hold the unmet needs with compassion. Just like we hold a baby crying for her mommy. Even if we can’t bring her mommy back to her, we can hold the baby and show compassion and understanding for how painful that is. We can convey a message that we care about her well-being, even if we don’t know what to do to relieve her suffering.

I didn’t know how to ask the wasps the build their nest a few feet away. So I used protective force (water not poison) to meet my need for safety, while holding their unmet needs with compassion.

When we’re you not creative enough to meet everyone’s needs? And how did you hold the unmet needs with compassion? Let me know. I’d love to read from you.

Appreciation NVC-style (1/3)

“When we use NVC (=Nonviolent Communication) to express appreciation, it is purely to celebrate, not to get something in return. Our sole intention is to celebrate the way our lives have been enriched by others.” (Rosenberg, M, Nonviolent Communication, A Language Of Life, 2003, p. 186)

Appreciation NVC-style inspires us to express ourselves in a way that fully reveals our experience without judging others. We share the specific actions that contributed to our well-being, the needs that have been fulfilled, and the feelings engendered by the fulfillment of those needs. The focus is to create a clear understanding of how our life was enriched. The specifics of our observation and the honesty about our feelings and needs enhance the impact of our communication. The lack of judgement invites a shared acceptance and connection around the purity of the celebration.

12287525_910657528989506_173872630_oWhen our needs are unmet, requests help to ask for what we want.

When our needs are met, appreciation celebrates what worked for us.

Here is an example of what NVC-appreciation can sound like:

“When I saw your FB-message “You can absolutely use my cartoons! I just went to your blog and the cartoon looks so cute and I love your post! I’m thrilled that you like my cartoons enough to put some on your wonderful website.”, I felt excited, happy, and enthralled. It met my needs for support, creativity, and collaboration.”

Or, maybe less formal:

“Wow, I felt excited, happy and enthralled, when I read your FB-message. I so like the support, creativity and collaboration!”

Appreciation NVC-style might take more words. It might even be a bit more vulnerable to share our feelings and needs directly and honestly. I find NVC less gratuitous than praise (“You’re such an awesome person!” “That was a fantastic thing you did”), as it zooms in on the clarity of our experience and not on judging our supporter through praise. Marshall describes all “praise and compliments to be life-alienating;… it establishes the speaker as someone who sits in judgments.” (Rosenberg, M., p. 185)

We don’t want to sit in judgment. We want to be vulnerable and authentic. Appreciation takes us out of playing God. It brings us back to who we are and what we need. Appreciation helps deepen connection between two human beings who both have the power to enrich life and appreciate the contribution.


You want help to appreciate NVC-style? Contact me for a free, discovery session, 512-589-0482.

Thank you, Amy, for allowing me to use your cartoons on my website. I feel real excited to work together on a world with more compassion, empathy, and veganism! Add a link to RedandHowling, if you want to repost this cartoon.