Helping Nonprofit Leaders Transform Conflict

Leadership Coach and Mediator

How my toilet visit at La Palma can help you with conflict resolution

Habits are hard to break. And when they have been cultivated over the years, your body will execute those habits without your mind ever having to think about it.

Driving our car is an example. Brushing our teeth. Chopping the veggies. And throwing toilet paper in the toilet bowl after wiping our butt.

Usually, that’s not a problem. But here on La Palma, it is. The sewer system can’t handle more than a few sheets a day. In each and every bathroom, there is a friendly reminder to throw your paper in the wastebasket.

Of course, I’m all for keeping the sewer system unclogged, so I am adamant about complying with the request.

Unfortunately, I fail more than 70% of the time. No matter how mindful I’m breathing while on the potty, how much I use the tools for building new habits, and bang myself on the head when I fail: my hand automatically drops the paper in the loo.

Since I’m not willing to drag them out, I regretfully have to flush them away, keeping my fingers crossed that the sewer system doesn’t spill over on my bathroom floor.

As yucky as all of this might sound, it can be a good image to keep in mind, the next time you react to anger and criticism.

If building new toilet habits is hard, building new conflict resolution skills is even harder because our needs for respect, self-worth, and emotional safety are on the line.

We need to pay attention to the friendly reminders for mindfulness, or we end up seeing those needs float in a yucky interaction.

Worse, the communication channel gets clogged with enemy images and future interactions will be contaminated with the residues of this one.

There is a better response: empathy. When we listen to the precious needs behind the tragic expression of unmet needs, we can drop our judgments and evaluations and decrease the risk that we have to get down on our hands and knees to clean up the distasteful remains of our relationship.

How important would that be to you? Which relationships could benefit from your ability to stop your habitual reflex to conflict and instead choose a mindful response? How would your life be different?

If you imagine life would be yummier, you might enjoy signing up for my free webinar “Mindful Conflict Resolution”.

Not only will you hear how to empathize skillfully but you will also get two other tools to help to transform conflict into collaboration. Make sure you reserve your spot: I only have a few left.

This is what Charlie Rice says about the webinar:

“I appreciated that you kept the discussions pretty brief and spent most of the time going over your material. These strategies will really help me going forward and it is so nice to have a framework to practice.” – Charlie Rice, Austin

Sign up here.

“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.


“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

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.

Making requests is NOT about getting what you want. It is about building relationships.

Making requests is NOT about getting what you want.

Making requests is about collaboration. More precisely, it is about building relationships. It is about turning to your friend, and engaging them in a creative process to support all needs, yours, theirs, and those who are impacted by your strategy, even those in future or far away places. (After all, you don’t want to walk away happily with your solution, if others suffer the consequences of your choices).

Image courtesy to everydaylife.globalpost.comI believe it takes honesty and empathy to build relationships.

Honesty, so you can share your feelings and needs, and where you are coming from. Empathy, so you can listen wholeheartedly to what comes up for them as they hear more about your inner world.

Imagine a friends tells you -in a moment of disconnect- that you’re full of yourself.


That hit you unexpectedly hard. You wait with responding, till you received enough empathy for your pain. Then you invite your friend for tea. You remember Thich Nhat Hanh’s invitation to start with appreciation, so you start by telling your friend how she contributed to your needs. This first step immediately conveys you’re invested in the relationship, that you care about her, and that you’re talking about her behavior, not her as a person. It helps your friend to open up to your request for help, and not close down in anticipation of an attack on her as a person. This is about connecting, not criticizing.

The second step is sharing a regret, something you wished you had done differently. This shows you acknowledge you are in this relationship together, that you are co-responsible for the dynamic.

Then, finally: the request. Simply observation, feelings, needs. “When I heard you say I was full of myself, I felt hurt, upset and anxious. I want to be seen for my sincere intention and efforts to contribute to joy. I want acceptance and understanding when I fail to do so. What did you hear me say?”

I LOVE that question! Just checking how your message was heard. Did they hear blame? ‘I feel, because you did.’ Or did they hear self-responsibility? ‘I feel, because I need.’

The second question? “How does that land for you?”

After all, you want to build the relationship, so you want to understand what is going on for them, before you continue with a solution request. You want to establish connection, before you try to resolve the situation. You want to bring your relationship to the next level.

Honesty and empathy it is all you ever need.


You want help to be honest and empathic in your relationships? Contact me for a free, discovery session. I would be delighted to help, 512-589-0482.

Everything always starts with connection

You want to ask for a raise. You have been working in this job for several years, and you feel confident that you add value. You want appreciation for the unique qualities you bring to your clients, acknowledgment for the results you’ve accomplished, and support for your financial sustainability.

You feel anxious even thinking about it. Expressing yourself vulnerably, is just not something you’re good at. You have some shame around your feelings and needs, and you fear rejection, ridicule or simple lack of interest. How can you ask for support for your needs?

It starts with connection.

Everything always starts with connection:

Sharing your feelings and needs. Your fear, your anxiety, your vulnerability. Your needs for acceptance and support. Maybe just your needs, if your boss is not a touchy-feely person.

You can ask for a reflection to make sure that the message intended is the message received. The other person might hear blame, or that you’re playing the victim, or a demand, even if that was not your message. Asking for a reflection allows you to clarify your message.

You can also ask for a response. Maybe she feels irritated, upset, or embarrassed. Maybe she needs understanding, connection, or acceptance. Giving her space to tell what’s going on for her deepens the connection.

This connection creates a context for your request.

Well. That’s easier said than done!

At least for me. I so often struggle with asking for what I want, that I often don’t even try.

The Mediate Your Life Intensive helped me.

We did a neat exercise: ‘the need behind the no’. You share your need for appreciation, acknowledgment, and support. You share your vulnerability and anxiety. You make a present-tense, action-oriented, positive-language request: “I want to earn $20 an hour starting next week.”

Your practice partner says ‘no’.

Hum? That’s not what you want! You’re stuck… Now what?

Well, the simple next step is to ask your partner which needs would be unfulfilled if he would say ‘yes’! Invite him to think of something that would support his needs and your needs!

To you it probably sounds as simple as 1+1=2. For me it was an eye-opener.

Engage your partner in a collaborative effort to brainstorm solutions that nurture ALL needs.

Not just his, not just yours, but everyone’s.

I’m gonna practice this right now with you, hoping to support your need for choice, and my needs for connection, acceptance and support.

It’s about my blog. I feel tender, excited and honored when I imagine you subscribe to my blog, because you find it funny, interesting, and encouraging. More subscriptions help me build an ‘author platform’ and -eventually- publish my book. Are you willing to decide today if you want to subscribe? I post five blogs a week, it is free, and you can always and easily end it. And if not, are you willing to share in one sentence why not? To support our need for understanding, and hopefully connection?