Helping Nonprofit Leaders Transform Conflict

Leadership Coach and Mediator

Empathy with my judgments

Remember The Corleones?  Sonny, the hothead, who gets killed in the Five Families War? Fredo, the traitor, who sells out his family to Hyman Roth and is killed for it by Michael’s gunman? Michael, the cold-headed strategist who is willing to order the killing of his older brother to protect his family? And then of course Vito, the first Don, the founder of this mafia empire.

20-corleone-familyWell, just so you know, they are living in my head.

All the time. And if not all the time, a lot of the time. They are ready to take down anyone they judge as a threat to the safety and well-being of the family. They will jump at you, drag you out of your house, roll you in a carpet and bury you under the concrete floor.

If I don’t listen to them and their judgments, if I don’t promise to include the values they stand for, well, heck, all hell breaks loose. At best they dominate all my thoughts and impact all my feelings, leaving me unable to share my truth in a way that supports understanding and collaboration. At worst, they hijack my vocal ability and speak in such unpleasant terms that any chance of understanding and connection evaporates. Most often, I am so scared they will strangle the person I have an issue with, that I withdraw and avoid any dialog.

For the longest time I have tried to pretend I wasn’t part of the Corleone family, that somehow I had nothing to do with their judgments and black-and-white thinking. It worked for a while, sitting on my meditation cushion, bringing my awareness to my breath. Till they found out I had excluded them and broke down the door of my meditation sanctuary.

They don’t take ‘no’ for an answer, and only make offers I can’t refuse.

I have learned my lesson. I have accepted them as family, with their sensitivities for respect and safety. I call them out in a joint meeting, before I even think of addressing an issue with someone else. I sit us in a circle and invite each of them to speak. I listen with respect until they know I get them. And I don’t talk to the person I have an issue with, till they express their trust. Sometimes it is hard and it takes several rounds of empathizing with their perspectives and needs.

It is well worth it. I have clarity and peace of mind when I talk to this other person. I know how to include The Family’s and this other person’s needs.

And isn’t that what life is about: finding ways to support all needs?

I see my family nod in agreement.


You want to listen to the judgments in your head? Contact me 512-589-0482 for a free discovery session to see how I can help.

Do cop killers really exist?

He is a cop killer.

The trial prosecutor wants him dead: “He’s a really bad guy”. And so it is.

We execute Licho Escamilla Wednesday October 14.

Cop killers never get a stay.

But is he a cop killer?

Well, yeah!!!

He shot an officer in the back of his head, three times. That pretty much makes him a cop killer, doesn’t it?

Nonviolent Communication teaches to value observations, as if you are a fly on the wall recording what’s happening, without emotional attachment about what is recorded. NVC distinguishes observations from interpretations, judgments, or evaluations. These judgments include our thoughts about what someone is doing, instead of an objective description of the specific action in this moment, in this place. They often confuse the part for the whole, generalizing the specific action as to the way of being of a person. He is a “thief” versus “someone who took the $50 that I thought was mine off the table this last Saturday”. And when we label people, we divide them into two categories: good and bad. Licho Escamilla is a bad guy, and doesn’t deserve our consideration. Thich Nhat Hanh is a good guy and deserves our care.

Yes. Licho Escamilla killed someone who earned a living as a cop.

All that is true. And it is not complete. No truth is true, as long as it is not complete. Yes, Licho Escamilla shot Christopher K. James to death. And he is also someone wanting to be held, loved and cared for. He is a human being with feelings and needs. He is more than the killing. He shot a cop in a specific place and time. Once. He is not a cop killer. He is someone who had no clue how to support his needs and ours at the same time. Someone who was so stuck in the habit of expressing his unmet needs in tragic ways, that he ended up killing another human being.

As soon as we see Licho Escamilla as more than this action, we see the human being who needs our help. That doesn’t only humanize him, it humanizes us. We get to stop playing God and carry the burden of deciding who is right and who is wrong, who deserves our love and who doesn’t. We return to our human state.

We acknowledge that we are more than our judgments, interpretations, and evaluations.

You want to practice observations? Contact me 512-589-0482 for a free discovery session to see how I can help.

This is the fourth blog around “us-versus-them”. Contact me if you have a topic or issue you would like me to write about.

Judgments, criticism, and blame are tragic expressions of unmet needs

Unfortunately, we usually hear them as a message of wrongness of us, of who we are in our core being. We take the message personally and defend or doubt ourselves, or we withdraw within.

It is often easier to hear criticism, blame, and judgment from a stranger, from someone who is not that close to us. As soon as the message comes from someone who matters to us and the issue is tied to our sense of self-worth, we struggle.

How’s that?

Empathy with a partner, dear friend, or sibling when they express blame, judgment, or criticism is harder, because they are more important than a stranger. Their opinion of us matters more than the opinion of someone we don’t care about. We spend so much time with them, that they become our main strategy to meet our needs for love, acceptance, belonging: essential needs for our human existence.

David Schnarch talks about differentiation as “your ability to maintain your sense of self when you are emotionally and/or physically close to others-especially as they become increasingly important to you.” Differentiation would be very helpful to hear hard-to-hear messages more easily. Unfortunately, differentiation is not something that’s being taught at school.

Image courtesy what?

I offer two tips that can help you reach enough differentiation to hear hard-to-hear messages without too much upset.

Localize the criticism

Translate the negative message about you as a person into an event that is localized in time and place. Transform an evaluation of you as a person, into feedback about something you did. It is about, for example, the fact that you left without saying goodbye yesterday afternoon, instead of being judged as a cold and uncaring person. When you help your loved one distinguish between you and your behavior, it is easier to empathize with what they are trying to say.

Guess feelings and needs

We experience our shared humanity at the level of feelings and needs. We all know what it is like to feel sad, lonely, angry, disappointed, scared, ashamed, embarrassed. We all have needs for acceptance, love, support, understanding, safety, reassurance, connection, belonging, play, autonomy. When we move beyond the details of the story into the depth of feelings and needs, we develop a sense of understanding. We might even ask questions to better understand the other one: “Tell me what saying goodbye means to you?” “What rituals did your family have around saying goodbye?” “In an ideal situation, what would saying goodbye look like?”

Go practice!

I am pretty sure that these two tips help you to hear your spouse, child, co-worker share their hard-to-hear-message with more acceptance, compassion, and understanding.

You want help to listen with empathy to hard-to-hear messages? Contact me 512-589-0482 for a free, discovery session to see how I can help.