Helping Nonprofit Leaders Transform Conflict

Leadership Coach and Mediator

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.

The ridiculous imposter

Thich Nhat Hanh, my favorite Buddhist teacher, established the Order of Interbeing in the mid-sixties.

It is a community of monastics and laypeople who commit their lives to supporting the mindfulness community and the teachings of non-attachment from views, interbeing, happiness, and impermanence. They vow to relieve all suffering: within themselves and others.

To join the Order of Interbeing, members commit themselves to live their lives following the 14 Mindfulness Trainings. These include abstaining from alcohol, not speaking when angry, resolving conflict however small, and conscious consumption of media.

I have always wanted to be a member of the Order of Interbeing, but many of these commitments seemed too big of a hurdle for me. It’s a combination of fear of failure and laziness, not wanting to give up habits that have brought me so much comfort.

It was a typical example of my Inner Saboteur, the Judge, preventing me from living the life that has true meaning to me.

But last Sunday, I finally read my letter to my mindfulness community, asking them to accept me as an aspirant in the Order of Interbeing. I feel proud and happy to share it with you:

“Dear respected Thich Nhat Hanh, beloved Thay, Sangha, and friends,

Nine years ago I wrote my first application letter to be accepted as an aspirant in the Order of Interbeing.

At least seven followed. Four years ago, I even submitted a whole application package to Terry Cortes, our beloved Dharma teacher.

Until now, I have not followed through, because my perfectionism did not deem my efforts good enough. That was enough fodder for my inner critic to also deem myself not good enough. It didn’t think I was good enough, to begin with, and the thought that I could be an aspirant and bring forth Thay’s work was outright ridiculous.

Which Sangha would be so blind that they could not see through my smiles, hugs, and cheerful disposition and see my dark, ugly sides of jealousy, competition, judgment, yelling, anger, and blame?

And even if that Sangha was wise enough and did see positive qualities in me, how on earth could I possibly make any meaningful contribution to a community that is so precious and sacred to me?

Now, thanks to Thay’s teachings and my mindfulness community, I believe I can.

When I heard Terry speak at our retreat about listening to ourselves, I knew that my self-criticism was just an inheritance handed to me by the struggles of my ancestors. And like any inheritance, I can choose what to do with it. I don’t have to schlep it around and carry it on my back wherever I go.

I can take the contents and hold them close to my heart, and mindfully feel whether I want to keep them, recycle them, or donate them to Goodwill for someone else to use. Perhaps my mud can nourish someone else’s lotus.

Today, I ask you to accept me as an aspirant to support our Sangha. I bring my not-so-good traits, my flakiness, and my propensity to stress.

And I bring a deep, sincere love for Thay and endless gratitude for our Sangha. I can literally say that I owe my life to his teachings and community.

I love you all so much and promise that I will do what I can to help carry the raft to the other shore and bring as many beings with us.

May the fruit of my aspirancy benefit all beings.”

You too might have aspirations that you keep pushing to the back burner because your Inner Saboteur is busy running your life.

Or you don’t have clarity about what your deepest goals and aspirations are and you wished you knew what your North Star value is.

And maybe you just want some support to take the first step on your journey toward manifesting your vision.

P.S. In honor of my favorite Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, I invite you to donate to the TNH Foundation to support his teachings.

Cancelling my mindfulness subscription

Thich Nhat Hanh has been my spiritual teacher from the moment I saw him in 2008 at his mindfulness retreat in Nottingham, England.

I had bowed out of the program to spend some quiet time by myself. I wandered around the estate when he passed me by while he led the Sangha in mindful walking. His loving energy, radiant smile, and calm presence touched my self-criticism, shame, and low self-worth. They melted away in his presence.

When I came home, I immediately signed up for his online monthly newsletter “The Raft”. And when I started my own business in 2016, I signed up again with my business email to ensure that I wouldn’t miss any of them.

Now I get the same newsletter on two different email accounts. I faithfully open both of them, knowing any email provider will mark your emails as spam if the open rate is below a certain percentage.

It’s a useless action that’s a bit of a hassle for me, but I can’t get myself to unsubscribe from the one sent to my personal email. I don’t want to hurt the feelings of the editors and I am afraid that they would feel sad to see that they lost a reader, wondering what they have done wrong.

Last month, I finally unsubscribe as part of my mental decluttering process. I realize that staying on their email list twice was not a choice from my heart but my people-pleasing habit.

According to Shirzad Chamine, the People Pleaser is one of nine inner saboteurs. It’s the one that tries to keep others happy at all costs and uses love and care as a strategy for acceptance and emotional safety.

Other saboteurs are the Avoider, Stickler, Victim, Controller, Achiever, and the Restless, Hyper-vigilant, and Hyper-rational one. You will find a link to the test at the bottom of this email to see which inner saboteurs are strongest in you. I scored 9.4 for people-pleasing.

There is nothing wrong with inner saboteurs. They are the remnants of patterns we developed in childhood to adjust to and survive our environment when we were younger and more vulnerable.

But as we grow up and become more resourceful, we can see that the messages we heard as a child were not so much about us, but reflections of the unmet needs of those around us.

But seeing them for their function doesn’t necessarily help us realize that they are just an old habit that’s no longer useful. Because they have been with us for such a long time, liberating ourselves from their grip can be a challenge.

In my free webinar “Befriend Your Saboteur”, you will learn three steps to let your values and aspirations guide your actions instead of letting your inner saboteurs run the show. Tuesday, June 7 from 8:00-9:00 am CST.

You can sign up here.

P.S. In honor of my favorite Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, I invite you to donate to the TNH Foundation to support his teachings.

P.P.S. This is the link to the Saboteurs Test.

A car driver shatters my enemy image

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.

How does this land for you? Let me know, I would love to hear from you.

This very moment is the perfect teacher

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.

That night I read Pema Chödrön’s “When Things Fall Apart”:

“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.

Dying and having the rug pulled out

I wrote this blog four days before my beloved ex-husband Rob van Gils died, Thursday November 16, 2017. I’m writing this in his honor and as a reminder of the love we shared:

When I think of my ex-husband dying, I experience intense feelings of fear, grief, and terror. It’s like I’m drawn into a black hole in the vastness of space, a hole around my solar plexis, till I’m stretched out to nothingness and finally annihilated. When I sleep I have nightmares with invasions of Klingon-like monsters, Uruk-hais, and Sauron. And again, an overwhelming, devouring, completely black nothingness of darkness: a void without life and love.

I struggle to be mindful with my feelings. Mindfulness teachers tell me to accept and embrace them, to allow myself to be fully penetrated by them, and surrender into the tenderness of life. I fail in the practice. I struggle. I resist. I barely succeed to stay afloat in an ocean of grief, loss, and terror.

In my search for support, I talk and cry. I take a break from work and spend more time with myself, and I read. I reach for Pema Chödrön who talks about our suffering in “When Things Fall Apart”:

“When things fall apart and we’re on the verge of we know not what, the test for each of us is to stay on that brink and not concretize. The spiritual journey is not about heaven and finally getting to a place that’s really swell. In fact, that way of looking at things is what keeps us miserable. Thinking that we can find some lasting pleasure and avoid pain is what in Buddhism is called samsara, a hopeless cycle that goes round and round endlessly and causes us to suffer greatly. The very first noble truth of the Buddha points out that suffering is inevitable for human beings as long as we believe that things last – that they don’t disintegrate, that they can be counted on to satisfy our hunger for security. From this point of view, the only time we ever know what’s really going on is when the rug’s been pulled out and we can’t find anywhere to land. We use these situations either to wake ourselves up or to put ourselves to sleep. Right now – in the very instant of groundlessness- is the seed of taking care of those who need our care and of discovering our goodness.”

I find something meaningful about letting be. To sit with the terror of losing my best friend, grieving an unhappy ending, overwhelmed by grief.

Am I able to see that this is what life is about? The joy of a sunrise, laughing out loud with my sister, feeling annoyed with a car cutting me off?

And losing my best friend.

I live in an ebb and flow of feelings, thoughts. Nothing to hold on to. Grief, terror, love. Letting it in and letting it out. Being with the groundlessness of our human existence.

How does this land for you? Let me know, I would love to hear from you.