Little did I know, when I took Parent Effectiveness Training as a young parent, that I was entering into what would become my life work. Gregg Levoy, (Callings: Finding and Following the Authentic Life), asks the question: “What is it you were born to understand?” Now, twenty-eight years later, I can answer his question this way: my calling is about how to create understanding when differences arise in important relationships, and how to share power in deciding what happens. This is no small undertaking, particularly in a culture that values domination and control in conflict. I have been mightily supported by voices that have shared this calling through every century of human existence. from Lao Tzu to Gandhi to Tich Nhat Hanh. It is for the brave of heart.. It is a High Dream. It calls us to expand our humanity, and journey into the authentic life.
As with any High Dream, the more we strive, the more our shadow appears, teaching us that we dwell somewhere between heaven and earth. Teaching this course has been my greatest opportunity to laugh at myself and welcome my imperfections, while never succumbing to the cynicism that the skills don’t work. They do work, like the laws of nature. It is we who break against them, giving up, losing it, blaming someone else. When this is happening, we are in the familiar pattern of needing to be right. I have had to learn to replace that need with what Gandhi called “experiments with truth”, opening to listening and being persuaded by how the other is experiencing what is happening. In welcoming my imperfections; I can choose to be a learner, a beginner, someone willing to go back and do an interaction over again if it didn’t go well. There is a great freedom in no longer needing to be right about anything! One of my favorite teachers, Marshal Rosenberg, said “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.” His compassion supports all of us to press on, bringing a spirit of inquiry and humility to difficult interactions.
These skills have also supported me to contradict my deepest self-esteem wounds. Learning to stand my ground, to stay connected to my own goodness and intent to understand when I am under attack, has been the greatest laboratory for transforming my fear of unworthiness. It has taught me the power of loving myself even in the midst of my imperfections and when someone else is trying to shame me into collapsing. Verbal attacks have become opportunities for me to ground myself, and bring my behavior to choice. Each encounter is like someone going to the gym and picking up heavier weights than they used last week. It is a healthy challenge. I have even been accused of liking conflict! One of my graduates once said “Once I realized the conflict wasn’t about my self worth, my anxiety was gone and I could be in any conflict!” That kind of breakthrough is what has kept me coming back to these skills year after year as the most important work I can be doing.
Another important awareness that has come through years of teaching is to differentiate personal victory from successful outcome of a conflict. Many conflicts are deeply rooted in values that are not open to persuasion. A major part of our identity is rooted in what arouses passion in us. When we find ourselves embroiled in a conflict of values, our victory is not going to be in persuading the other to change, but in how we conduct ourselves. Here the skills give us a clear direction and strategy for how to proceed so that our focus is not on getting the change we want, but on how we are creating understanding, and how we are building relationship with the person we are engaging. Gandhi defined conflict as the art of persuasion. We are practicing the art of human relationships. We may often fall short of the desired outcome, and we can still feel grounded and successful as persons who are making a difference on this planet, one interaction at a time. It has been said that the highest form of human intelligence is to observe without judging. These skills support that ability. They teach us to hold the other person’s best interest at heart while also supporting our own interests. We have the tools to be as effective and influential as we can be. I call this Conscious Communication.
With these skills, we can be a force for love on the planet. We become able to help others be more loving in difficult situations. We can teach these skills to our children through example, so they feel understood, know how much they matter, and hear that their needs are important, even when we as parents or teachers have different needs. They have a chance to grow up unafraid of conflict because they will not be shamed for wanting what they want. Experiencing this change, both with my own children and with hundreds of families over the years, has been one of the deepest sources of satisfaction I have experienced. It has taught me what life is about, what matters most, and what loving looks and sounds like.
Being a teacher of these skills has connected me with people who want to grow. Meeting them at the spiritual level of how they treat themselves and how they treat others is to see them making the choices that shape the course of their lives! These skills build community among the learners, because they are hard to integrate and require a great deal of personal vulnerability. Stories during the first classes are more often about failures to use the skills. We get to laugh at ourselves, go back and try again, and gradually start being able to report successes. That shift is one of the most powerful transformations I ever witness. I can see by the look in the person’s eyes that they have found the key to open their own door to a bigger, more flexible, more loving and accepting humanity. We learn to not be attached to the outcome, and to be fluid like the martial artist who moves around trouble, engaging with it but not being tumbled by it. This ability brings a new sense of freedom and limitless possibility in relationships. There is always a next step we can take; any interaction is never the end of the story. At some point in every class, as people open up to each other and share how they are applying the skills, the wisdom of the skills begins to teach itself, and I just sit back and watch like a proud grandmother.
Stephen Covey says the door of change only opens from the inside. It is a mystery to me why some people visit these skills and leave empty-handed, and others leave bounding with delight. Those who can let that door open, who find the wisdom embedded within the lessons, leave with increased self-esteem, self-confidence, and a sense of empowerment regardless of outcomes. They bring into the world a message of hope, and a way to strengthen families and workplace communities, church fellowships, and every organization they join. They leave with the High Dream of teaching children that they matter and their power is supported. The next generation may well expect to share power in their important relationships.
As we begin this journey together, let us pause to acknowledge all of our teachers, those who inspired us by their example and put their wisdom into words that could be shared across time. Here we are, willing to take up the invitation to extend these skills into the future. Thank you for showing up. I welcome your passion, your energy, your creativity, your persistence, and your special gifts. Your contribution will enrich our collective endeavor and the culture we are together bearing the responsibility to transform.
At all new beginnings, I turn to Rumi for his compassionate guidance:
“Come, come, come, come,
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving,
It does not matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, though you have broken your vows
a thousand times,
Come yet again, come, come.”Sandra Boston de Sylvia