Helping Nonprofit Leaders Transform Conflict

Leadership Coach and Mediator

You would never make this mistake 15 times

As you might know, in September David and I moved to the Netherlands to be closer to my parents. To travel lightly, we sold and gave away most of our furniture. Now that our container has arrived with all our boxes, it’s time to replace some of that furniture.

I find a nice wardrobe on Marktplaats and rent a car to pick it up. The car has a manual transmission. The last time I drove a stick shift, I struggled so miserably to drive up a steep slope, that I burned the rubber of the tires. We could smell it weeks later.

Fortunately, there are plenty of YouTube videos that show you how to drive a manual, which I watch zealously. And successfully. I drive away without fail, succeed at shifting to second gear, and stop before the traffic light at the busiest intersection in Bilthoven.

I am first in line and see a slew of cars behind me, eager to finish their Saturday shopping. When the traffic light turns green, I implement what I learned from the videos.

I inch four feet forward, then the engine turns off. I restart the car. Three feet forward, engine off. A third time. After 15 failed attempts to clear the now utterly chaotic intersection, I am about to give up.

That’s when someone knocks at my window. I expect an infuriated car driver yelling at me about how stupid I am. Instead, I see a friendly face: “Can I help you?”.

He’s a professional car instructor. He gets in the car and sees that I am trying to start up in the wrong gear. With some embarrassment, I thank him from the bottom of my heart and succeed in finishing my trip.

This would probably never happen to you. Repeating the same mistake 15 times without getting professional feedback. It seems kind of dumb. And it causes stress and chaos.

But when it comes to conflicts we often do just that. We watch some John Gottman videos. Work through Byron Katie’s Judge-Your-Neighbor worksheet. But as soon as our colleague, partner, or neighbor opens their mouth, we are triggered and fall into the trap of the harsh start-up.

That is one of the biggest communication killers that cause relationships to fall apart. And even though it seems an easy issue to solve, it takes skillful awareness to put the theory into practice.

To resolve that problem, I offer facilitated dialogues. In these dialogues, you learn three simple steps to transform conflict into collaboration. You can practice them till you are a master, and move your relationship forward.

We can work on Zoom or meet in person. Contact me if you want to explore how these dialogues can help you.

And I won’t yell at you, not even if you make the same mistake 15 times. I will just gently show you that you’re trying to start the conversation in the wrong gear.

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.

Big pitbull rolling over my shoes

It’s early in the morning and I’m out on my daily walk. A big pitbull walks up to me, then crouches down on the ground as if she’s ready to attack me. Her jaws look incredibly big and I imagine her biggest aspiration is to grind her teeth in my juicy calves.

But the dog lady seems friendly enough and tells me that her dog is super sweet. Her calm confidence reassures me that she can manage the dog if it becomes aggressive.

I need that reassurance, especially after I was chased by a pitbull for more than 10 minutes a few years ago. Fortunately, I biked faster than he ran, but only barely. I’m just saying, there is some reality behind my assumption that pitbulls are aggressive.

But I also know that one experience is too small a sample to make any valid statistical inferences, so I’m willing to challenge my assumption and let this pitbull walk up to me.

I am happy I did. She pees on the ground out of excitement and her wagging tail shakes her body left to right. Then she rolls over on her back and offers her belly to be petted.

When the dog lady is ready to leave, the dog nests herself against my calves, unwilling to go anywhere. ”You have a forever friend in her”.

And so does she in me. Not only did she give me a big booster in positive emotions, but she also shattered my assumptions about pitbulls.

Challenging our assumptions is a key element of learning according to Chris Argyris. And it is super hard because we are unaware of them by default. We can only become aware of them when they bump into our current reality and leave us clueless about what’s going on.

When that happens, coaching can be very helpful. In that safe and accepting environment, you can explore your assumptions without being judged, criticized, or shamed for your biases.

With the help of an outside, neutral perspective, you might realize that what you always believed to be true, is not true at all. Maybe your filter for the world stops you from pursuing more meaningful goals and seeing new opportunities.

One of them could be a big pitbull rolling over your feet to be petted. Another is to experience more freedom, fulfillment, and joy in the work you do.

Schedule a discovery session if you want to see how coaching might help you.

P.S. In the attachment you can read a short introduction to the work of Chris Argyris on Organizational Learning. I believe this can be one of the most meaningful contributions to your effectiveness as a leader.

One sure way to harm your close relationships

Everything in our new rental is nice, shiny, and white. It is so brand new that I hardly dare sit on the couch, scared that my garden feet might stain the cover, even after I have washed them.

But the kitchen knife is too cool not to use. It screams at me “Pick me! Pick me to cut the onion!”

And so I do. It slices the onion as if it is thin air. No resistance at all. And so it does with the tip of my left middle finger.

Within a second I see blood running on the spic-and-span kitchen tiles like the Niagara falls. It takes almost an entire package of bandages to soak it up. I can’t use my finger for a week.

It would have been so much more practical if I had cut my left pinkie. As much as I love my pinkie, doing daily tasks such as brushing my teeth, making my food, and unpacking our boxes would not have been such a hassle if that had been the one that had a sliver of skin cut off.

But of course, that’s precisely the reason why I didn’t cut my left pinkie. The things we use the least, get harmed the least, precisely because we don’t use them so much.

And conversely, things that we use the most, get scratched, stained, and broken the most. Whether it is our middle finger, our favorite teacup, or our cherished fountain pen. 

Or our closest relationships, the people who are our go-to strategy to meet our interdependent needs.

Life is wonderful when they are available to meet our needs for support, acceptance, understanding, emotional safety, and trust. But it gets messy when they prioritize other commitments over connection with us. Then we easily end up with feelings of anger, sadness, or anxiety.

This is especially true when we are undifferentiated, a term David Schnarch, the author of Passionate Marriage, uses to describe a relationship where we either want to assimilate with the other person or try to keep the other person at arm’s length to prevent being swallowed up.

Either strategy is lose-lose.

He writes “Giving up your individuality to be together is as defeating in the long run as giving up your relationship to maintain your individuality. Either way, you end up being less of a person with less of a relationship.”

One way to get out of this bind is to accept that although they are our favorite strategy to meet our needs, we can find alternative ways to meet them.

But be careful! It’s important to understand the difference between strategies and needs. Otherwise what we think is a bandaid for our relationship, is actually a knife that pokes holes in the boat of our togetherness, dragging us down the Niagara falls of conflict.

If you want to learn more about how to prevent that, you can read my whitepaper “Nonviolent Communication in a Nutshell”. Download it here.

P.S. Read more about the Crucible Institute that David Schnarch established.

P.P.S. We will be at 615 East 48 Street, Austin, TX 78751 till September 1. My phone and email stay the same: 512-589-0482 |

What a prom dress has to do with mental decluttering

After 38 years, I finally donate the prom dress that I made 38 years ago to Austin Creative Reuse. It is a gorgeous dress designed by Nina Ricci. I started tucking it in after I lost weight, but I never finished the project. It is highly unlikely that I ever will.

I also give them the handspun Irish wool that I bought at the Aran Islands in 2004. Three times I unraveled the sweater I had started to knit. I hope that someone else will use it to make their dream sweater.

But I am gonna keep the rest of my yarn and fabric: just looking at them brings me delight. And my crayons and watercolors. My books and precious objects. And of course, practical stuff like clothing and kitchen utensils.

We are packing to move to a rental 60% the size of our current one and I have no excitement to schlepp around stuff that won’t fit in our new space. Let alone pay for storage. So it’s Konmarie time: keep what sparks joy and give away what doesn’t.

Moving is a wonderful opportunity to let go of projects, plans, and intentions that don’t have the excitement they once had. As a result, you end up with only those that do.

Research says that creating order reduces the stress hormone cortisol and helps with focus, self-esteem, relationships, health, and well-being.

But decluttering can be hard, especially when you get older, are a perfectionist who has trouble starting and stopping projects, or a people person who would rather spend time with and for other people.

If decluttering physical possessions is hard, mental decluttering is even harder. We cannot take our unuseful or ugly thoughts out of our head and put them out on the curb. And who would want them anyway?

That’s where cognitive defusion comes in handy, a term coined by Stephen Hayes, the founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. It is a practice to notice our thoughts without being defined by them.

Instead of thinking “I am not enough”, we label it as “I have a thought that I am not enough.” It is much easier to let go of what we have than who we are. 

When we de-identify from our thoughts we can start our mental decluttering. We ask ourselves which of our thoughts bring joy, which don’t, and which needs are being met or unmet by them.

The only tricky thing is that many of us confuse needs with strategies. And then the answer to those questions becomes murky. If you want to read how to stay in the clear, download my whitepaper about needs here.

P.S. Thank you Andrea and Gene, Jill, Jim, Matt, Michael, Miles, and Tom for helping with the schlepping around. We couldn’t have made it without you!

P.P.S. Read more about Stephen Hayes and ACTP.

P.P.P.S Read the New York Times article about Mental Health Benefits of Decluttering.