Helping Nonprofit Leaders Transform Conflict

Leadership Coach and Mediator

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.

My dentist inspires me to transform my enemy image

I am at my dentist. I like her. She has an effervescent energy, a big smile, and bouncing red curls, and she explains what she’s gonna do. And, I get a heated cherry pit pillow in my neck and a bright pink blanket over my legs, every time I’m in the chair.

This time the procedure takes two hours. It is more complicated than she anticipated. In the middle of working with me, she walks away to work on someone else. I can hear them chatting cheerfully through the wall. She didn’t tell me she would be gone for half an hour, and she didn’t ask what she could do for me so I would feel comfortable in her absence.

I am left alone, confused and lost about what’s going on.

Soon, I need to go to the bathroom. I don’t know how to do that.  I’m hooked up to something and I can’t call for help to untie me, because there is a divider jammed in my jaw. All I can do is make a muttering sound. I can tell my mumbling doesn’t draw her attention: her chatter continues cheerfully.

After half an hour, she comes back, finishes up, and presents me the bill.

Ouch. Financially, physically, and emotionally: I wanted more care and consideration.

I am too exhausted to complain. Instead — I build an enemy image of her. “She is incompetent. She is an idiot. She doesn’t care. And I certainly should never, ever go back.”

It takes several days, before I find the compassion to unwind it. Nonviolent Communication offers the following advice to shift enemy images:

  1. notice your unmet needs and any feelings they bring
  2. guess the needs the “enemy” was trying to meet by their behavior
  3. acknowledge that their behavior left your needs unmet
  4. distinguish between who they are and what they do

This last step of distinguishing person and behavior is essential. The fact that my dentist acted in a way that didn’t meet my needs for consideration and care doesn’t make her an inconsiderate person. There is a difference between what someone does (specific in space and time) and who someone is (generalized and ongoing). Compare “I am a thief” and “Last Monday, I took a $10 bill from the desk of my employer, and I knew it wasn’t mine.”

Sure, there were things she could have done differently, but that doesn’t make her an idiot or an incompetent dentist. It makes her someone who didn’t have the spaciousness, awareness or creativity to figure out how to meet all needs. If anything, she needs help to succeed at that, not criticism or judgment.

I do want my needs to be seen and valued.  So my work is to receive enough empathy to know what I could ask of her at my next appointment. A request that’s about my experience, not her character.

Let me know how this lands for you.

What’s wrong with cockroaches?

I really don’t know. I’ve seen a dead one in our house, and I didn’t notice any negative impact on me, my husband, my health, my sense of well-being.

Image courtesy Fiep Westendorp: Zaza in “Pluk van de Petteflet” by Annie M.G. Schmidt

Yet, I do want to exterminate them immediately. I want to call pest control, and make sure they never, ever walk around in our house again.

How’s that?

I have an enemy image of cockroaches. I have a fixed set of negative ideas about them. I believe there is something inherently wrong with them. I fail to distinguish between their behavior and the beautiful living being, worthy of having their needs for safety, autonomy, appreciation met.

I know so little about the species in general, and this unique individual in specific, that my disgust easily leads me to think I have the right, maybe even the obligation, to exterminate them.

Disgust easily leads to enemy images. Disgust leads to disconnection, to withdrawal, to turning away. No one likes the feeling of disgust. Rather than turning toward the object that triggers this feeling, we try to make sure the object itself gets annihilated.

Who feels delighted when you smell the stench of puke? Who feels excited to clean up a floor flooded with poop and pee with their bare hands?

I guess no one. I certainly don’t.

That’s why I practice Phadhampa Sangye’s invitation to “approach what you find repulsive”. So that I can open up to all that life has to offer, and accept every little piece within myself, even the ones I find disgusting.

How so?

To prevent I cause harm out of my enemy image. I never forget that Paul Ekman and the Dalai Lama write about disgust as the main feeling that fueled the nazis to destroy the Jews. Had the feeling been fear or anger, some Jews might have survived. Because you can make amends for fear and anger. Iran can dismantle their nuclear installations and allow inspections of their sites. The policeman who shot an innocent victim can acknowledge the harm he contributed to and apologize.

There are hardly amendments for disgust.

At best, we can try to approach and embrace it, so we can transform any enemy image that arises from our disgust.

Do you want help to approach what you find repulsive? Contact me 512-589-0482 for a free discovery session to see if and how I can help you.