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“Eat your peas” and Conflict Resolution


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I was recently asked about my background in conflict management/resolution, and specifically, how many years’ experience I have in the field.

I help people with all sorts of conflict –

  • The inner conflict you have when you should have stood your ground but didn’t, which you still regret after all these years;
  • The insidious conflict in the workplace where a person specializes in creating cliques of in- and out-groups through gossiping, ‘sharing’ strategic corporate information with their select group in a way that suggests a strong power base vs. a bunch of naïve drones who are the members of the ‘out’ group; and
  • The open warfare of strongly held opposing positions where neither side will budge and important decisions fail to be taken, typically to the detriment of employees and the organization.

This is all workplace oriented though.

I also help people with the conflicts in their personal lives:

  • The family that cannot agree on ‘what to do with mom’ as frailty and reduced mental acuity takes their toll on someone who may previously have been the key decision-maker and controller of resources in the family;
  • The siblings that carry years of relationship baggage that makes every Christmas a nightmare;
  • The disagreement with the neighbor about blocking your driveway with his car,
  • and so on.

My response to the question about my experience was spontaneous and not part of what I’d prepared as a succinct and compelling professional representation of my marketable skills.  I said “It all started at the dinner table when I was the little girl who refused to eat her peas”.  The audience laughed and I carried on with the more professional version of who I am.  Yet, afterwards, I had all sorts of people coming over, wanting to find out more and asking for my business card.  Several made reference to the peas story.

As I said that thing about the peas I immediately regretted it: I thought I’d got it wrong because offering  my childhood stubbornness as a credential in my service as a conflict resolution guru would signal the wrong thing.  I was concerned that I’d created the impression of someone who likes quarrelling and winning. But no, apparently I had discovered a new rule about public speaking:  Not only giving the folks something to laugh about because they can relate so personally to what you said; but also peak their curiosity by not telling them the whole story. No pontification about the message or credentials.

Many of the people who came to speak to me wanted to know how the pea story ended and THEN asked for my business card.




Get Beyond the Bad of Stress. But you Must Want To.

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Stress is a natural part of life.  In limited doses it is good for you – for your brain and for your body. When your brain grabs hold of some old unresolved quarrel, though, and it simply won’t let go, you can end up in a chronic state of stress which is not good for you at all.

In my conflict management coaching practice I often work with clients who have been harbouring the pain and stress of long-ago conflicts that remain unresolved.  It’s very gratifying to see a client shift in their relationship with that long-ago conflict, how they develop clear intention about the way forward and then go ahead and change things.

Recently, in a webinar on mindfulness, the facilitator used the term ‘adventitious suffering’. I had never heard of ‘adventitious’ yet my intuition, applied in context, suggested to me that that’s the suffering I help my clients with.  And so it makes sense to look at it more closely than I have, thus far.

I’m starting you off with the quote below, from the Washington Post article “To Survive Stress, Keep It Brief” by Cecilia Capuzzi Simon.  (Dec 13, 2005):

The body makes no distinction between immediate, in-your-face stressors and chronic, in-your-imagination ones, Sapolsky said. Faced with either kind of threat, the body reacts, and when the threat is sustained psychologically, the physically destructive stress response continues.”

To me it is a bit like tinnitus then – it is in your head, and your head keeps it alive by revisiting it. Your brain looks for it; and in looking, creates it.  If your brain would stop looking it would stop creating and there would be no tinnitus, or, no adventitious suffering.

It isn’t pleasant to be stuck in a perpetual conversation with yourself about an old conflict.

You’re inclined to do the ‘what if/if only’ thing which does what? Stimulates stress hormones.  Long term exposure to stress hormones is not a good thing, the doctors tell us.  There’s no reason not to believe them. So what to do about it?

In conflict management coaching we drill into that stressful thinking pattern in your head – figuratively speaking. We expose it and we poke around until we know its full nature and dimension.  We see the assumptions that led to things being said or not said.  We see the values that were violated when a line was crossed. The client realizes that assumptions by the other person may also have steered things off course.  As the picture becomes clearer and the noise in their head simmers down, the client, with the coach’s help, considers their options in getting rid that adventitious suffering.

Sometimes forgiving the other person does the trick; often forgiving yourself works. Sometimes there’s more action – like inviting the other person to a mediation meeting, for some exploration – chances are they’re also in the adventitous suffering bull pen.  Having a common goal of getting rid of the pain is a good place to start. Achieving it is always a great cause for celebration – especially when the pain is replaced by mutual respect and agreement to ‘let’s not do that again’.

For Ms. Simon’s full article, click here.

If you recognize yourself in some of this, consider that the timing of this blog is perfect – you can start your process of getting rid of that circular pain saw in your head right now.   Who’re you going to call?  Me. Call me, of course.


What does resilience really look like, anyway?

From Wikipedia on Indian Ocean Cyclones 1993/4

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And, I’ve added a link at the bottom of this blog to a very informative article on resilience that appeared in the New Yorker in Feb 2016. More on the science of….

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Do any of these words sound like things you already do?    Are you working on becoming more resilient? Which of these words and phrases make sense to you in that context, or in other words, do they sound like descriptors of what you consider resilience to be?

One of the dangers of adopting popularized words for the things we deem important is that we try to be things we are not, because the fullness of the concept unclear.  We talk about them as things we must have, and if we don’t have them, or if we are not like that, somehow we are deficient and need to work harder.

In thinking about resilience of course I explored what the Internet had to offer – all the words in that picture come from sites that talk about what resilience is or what you should do to get it.

  1. From a website, a definition: Resilient people are able to utilize their skills and strengths to cope and recover from problems and challenges. These problems may include job loss, financial problems, illness, natural disasters, medical emergencies, divorce, or the death of a loved one.”
  2. The human mind is a remarkable organ – we will each reframe what we read to suit our understanding of ourselves and the world. And so some of us will believe we’re following the good and well-intentioned advice while, in reality, we pursue a glorious path towards self-sabotage. It’s like reading about a weight-loss diet and then trying it on your own, without understanding anything about nutrition, metabolism or habits.

I’m not a resilience guru, but I AM a resilience practitioner.

There’s a fine line between being resilient and being an Adrenalin junkie.   I think I’m on the resilient side of the line, fortunately. There’s an equally fine line between being resilient and being numb.

I was an Adrenalin junkie many years ago, when I was engaged in warfare with an alcoholic partner and some rebellious teenage sons.   I claimed to be drained by it all and wishing for peace, but I sought the fights with my adrenal glands in overdrive, until I burnt out and had to retreat. I retreated so thoroughly that I changed continents, and then moved into the numb quadrant.

Numbness is where you claim, and/or believe, that you are strong and you can overcome any adverse conditions that may come your way, which can cause survival but not personal growth.

In truth, numbness is where you avoid engagement – you are emotionally detached; you pretend to lack ambition; you pretend to have ‘moved beyond’ looking for love or sex.  You are able to achieve great things, ironically, in a state of numbness, I found.  I did well in the job I acquired on the other continent, made new friendships, and reconnected with my family of origin (vs. my own family of my own loins and loves).  Because I avoided the highs I also succeeded in avoiding the lows. My expectations were managed; my emotions regulated; I had a great sense of control; I saw myself as a survivor and not a victim – all the stuff the resilience gurus on the Internet advocate. I believed I had great self-awareness. I once told my ex-husband, during this time that “I’m the sanest person either of us knows.”  I truly believed it.

And so I viewed myself as resilient through those years of my life, and in many ways I was, but it was not the resilience that I now believe is the real thing.  I’ve moved on way beyond being numb. I can even tell you when it happened.

I was in Tanzania, in 1993/94, working as a labour relations consultant to the expat management team at the Tanzania Breweries.

One Sunday the Dar es Salaam-based expat group decided to go to a beach south of the Dar harbour, for a braai (BBQ) and an afternoon on the beach. Fathers, mothers, kids, beet salad, steak, beer – the works. Loaded into a convoy of 4X4s, it was a mini African adventure.  It was a great afternoon and the group members did various things collectively and separately.  Some took the kids to the beach to play cricket, some stayed in the shelter of the boma and drank beer and chatted.  The waves looked great for body surfing and so I headed into the Indian Ocean.

I’d never swum there before and the other folks in the group weren’t much into swimming, so there was little knowledge to draw on about where it might be the safest to swim.   I learnt many things from my father, and watching and reading the ocean was one of those things. I could see from the pattern of the long curl of the waves, the crash, and the fizzling roll onto the beach, the back wash, that it was fine and safe.  They were great surfing waves.

The surfing was wonderful.  Never had I surfed in such warm water.  But gradually the size of the rollers was getting bigger. And bigger. I realized I was spending more time diving under great big breakers just before they broke, to avoid being tumbled, than I was surfing. In fact, it was no longer possible to surf. The waves came in a short-wave pattern – I hardly had time to come up for air before I had to duck under again.

When I looked back at the beach, briefly, risking being tumbled as I turned my head away from the waves, I      found to my horror that the cricketers on the beach had reduced in size to no more than large ants.  There was no point in shouting – my voice would not have carried.  I attempted waving but no-one was watching, and without binoculars it was unlikely that they’d even realize that I was in trouble.  It was a remote, desolate, African beach – no life guards, no rescue boats.  I had to get myself back.

Die_Eiland_RobbergDuring my summer seaside holidays South African I had learnt a great technique for getting back to shore when the waves became scary  – you take a deep breath and dive under the giant breaker, heading toward the open ocean -into  the path of the next waves. You then stick your legs out as far as you can, pointing to the beach, so that the energy of the breaking wave would pull you closer to the shore, without tumbling and tossing all of you.  I did that for a long time; wave after churning wave.  I gained ground.  I finally made it back.   When I approached my colleagues, drenched; exhausted;  proud and relieved; one of them said “You are REALLY sunburnt – you should be careful with this tropical sun – you swam for far too long.”

That night, as I watched TV in bed in my hotel, the main news report was about the damage that had been caused by a cyclone that had made its way to the Swahili coast from Madagascar. Seven people had been reported drowned on the Kenyan coast…. I believe the featured image to this blog shows the cyclone I rode that day – it is the one that curls onto the African coast and back into the Indian Ocean.

Was that experience  in the cyclone about knowing the ocean; having great swimming skills; or about resilience?

It was then that I discovered how strong my will to survive was.  And where I realized that this had been a far greater threat to my survival than any I had previously experienced, and that I’d remained calm; focused; confident; patient; and that I’d used my entire body to  get back to safety.  Had I experienced fear?  Only in the abstract, somehow, and then I had shut the fear out – there was no time for fear I was too busy. The Adrenalin that must have been pumping was the ‘fight’ secretion, not the ‘flight’ one.  I had migrated well out of the numb-zone, back into the Adrenalin zone.

I realized afterwards that my crisis was relevant only to me, because I had survived and overcome.

Had I not survived, it would have been dreadful for my hosts, my family, my employers and my friends. I would have turned into a lesson about the foolishness of taking risks.  Not only am I thrilled to be alive to tell this story so many years later, but also to know that it was the lesson I needed to learn to get out of the numb zone into true resilience – what I like to think of as the fight to continue the adventure of life.

Resilience is not merely a skill; nor is it a fixed attribute: You only know you have it when you need it.  It is something we can build and then build upon,  even when you have the natural ability.

Some may lean more naturally towards resilience, but I believe it is something that is a beneficial by-product of working consciously on one’s life in all its aspects – whether it is to be a good parent; an influential leader; being a remarkable kite surfer; an unpublished author of a ground-breaking scientific book; or an extreme mountaineer.  It’s a bit like those other parts of being human: intuition and empathy.  You have them, but until you know you have them they aren’t of much use to you or anybody else.  And, until you use them you can’t know you have them.

You have you find your own model of resilience – there is no finite formula.


Set your sail to the winds that buffet you – not merely to survive but to continue the adventure of your life.




PS.  When you’re trying to sort out how to deal with a conflict, much of what is described as resilience is handy to have in your repertoire.   I do, of course, work with people who want to come through and learn from the conflicts in their lives.  SO:  Contact me , and refer your conflict-stressed friends. Conflict management coaching really works.


New Yorker: How people learn to be resilient



In preparation for my previous blog (YOU DO NOT HAVE TO FIRE NEGATIVE FRIENDS) I looked around on the Internet for quotes.  I landed on one of my favourite sites www.businessballs.com where they listed an entertaining elaboration on the theme of whether a glass is half full or half empty.  I enjoyed them so much that I offer a selection for your amusement – copied directly from Businessballs, in the hopes that my readers can add to the discussion there.

is the glass half full or half empty?..

(Most recent last)

This collection continues to grow. If you can extend the debate as to whether the glass is half-full, half-empty, in some other state, or in a different space/time continuum altogether, please send me your contribution. The world needs to know.

Recent additions and names of all contributors appear last. So this collection shows the oldest first and the newest last.

The optimist says the glass is half full…..The pessimist says the glass is half empty.

The project manager says the glass is twice as big as it needs to be.

The realist says the glass contains half the required amount of liquid for it to overflow.

And the cynic… wonders who drank the other half.

The school teacher says it’s not about whether the glass is half empty or half full, it’s whether there is something in the glass at all.


The ground-down mother of a persistently demanding five-year-old says sweetheart it’s whatever you want it to be, just please let mummy have five minutes peace and quiet.


The homebuilder sees the dirty glass, washes and dries it, then puts it away in a custom oak and etched glass cabinet that he built himself using only hand tools.

The worrier frets that the remaining half will evaporate by next morning.

The entrepreneur sees the glass as undervalued by half its potential.

The computer specialist says that next year the glass capacity will double, be half the price, but cost you 50% more for me to give you the answer.

The first engineer says the glass is over-designed for the quantity of water.

The computer programmer says the glass is full-empty.

The Buddhist says don’t worry, remember the glass is already broken.

The logician says that where the glass is in process of being filled then it is half full; where it is in the process of being emptied then it is half empty; and where its status in terms of being filled or emptied is unknown then the glass is one in which a boundary between liquid and gas lies exactly midway between the inside bottom and the upper rim, assuming that the glass has parallel sides and rests on a level surface, and where it does not then the liquid/gas boundary lies exactly midway between the upper and lower equal halves of the available total volume of said glass.


The personal coach knows that the glass goes from full to empty depending on the circumstances, and reminds the drinker that he can always fill the glass when he wishes.

The grammarian says that while the terms half-full and half-empty are colloquially acceptable the glass can technically be neither since both full and empty are absolute states and therefore are incapable of being halved or modified in any way.

The contrarian says: When everyone sees the glass half-empty, I see it half-full, and vice versa.


The physicist says that the glass is not empty at all – it is half-filled with water and half-filled with air – hence, fully filled on the whole!


The person who is no longer trapped in The Matrix (whatever one might call him/her) says: “There is no glass…”

The adolescent student says the glass is just another dirty trick played by the teacher to prove that students are dumb.




The co-dependent hurries to fill your glass, but not so completely that you would spill it and get upset. Because when you get upset…



Schrödinger’s cat doesn’t want anyone to observe the glass to begin with.

The police officer says: “I’ll ask the questions.”


The banker says: “I see an opportunity! Let’s put a couple of options on the full half and leverage it until it’s too big to fail, then sell a tons of it… Heck! While we are at it, let’s do the same to the empty half and sell that too!”


The politician says that under the last government the glass was half-empty, and becoming emptier, but thanks to his own party’s new leadership, the glass is definitely now half-full, and becoming fuller; but if the other party were to return to power, the glass would once again undoubtedly empty rapidly.

The call-centre operator asks if you’d mind holding while she finds out for you. (Your call is important to them…)

The IT support person asks if you’ve tried emptying the glass and then refilling it.



Google would try to find out for you in under 0.48 seconds.




You Do Not Have to Fire Negative Friends

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When you Google ‘negative friends’ it virtually immediately offers up the highest performing results of the 340,000,000 out there.  Of the ones I examined, most offered survival advice – how to cope with or avoid the negative person, and if all else fails,  how to dump them and find a new friend.

In my younger days I was a bit of a monkey-see-monkey-do learner. So, if I was with someone who was negative, I would copy the negativity.  Once I got good at it, I started working on out-negativing them.  That it was contrary to my natural born optimistic and cheerful nature seemed to show how far off course I was. I lacked the self-confidence to be my natural cheerful self.  Negative people were cool: they had the political analysis; they were critical of anything the bosses might come up with; they had intimate knowledge of the patterns of conspiracy; I sat at their feet in avid admiration because they knew so much more than I did.  Positive and optimistic people were naïve. I did not want to be that. It would not be cool.

One negative man I knew was a very good looking trade unionist in a highly volatile sector in a country in deep political crisis.   He was so burdened by his deep appreciation of exactly how bad things were that he virtually walked with a limp.  I invited him to be a guest speaker at a joint labour-management conference once, because I was in awe of how serious and critical he was – try as I might, I could NOT out-negative him.  I had a wake-up call about him when one of the shop stewards in attendance at the conference asked me, privately, why I would ask such a negative man to come and speak at an event where the agreed intent was on finding areas of common interest in order to rebuild relationships.  I said “well, because he’s so high up in the trade union movement and very knowledgeable.”  The shop steward’s response was:

“We’ll never rebuild this country with people like that on the podium.”

That was a long time ago. Nelson Mandela was still in jail.  I found that I struggled to find my feet: if we could not listen to these people with their hyper-critical and humorless analyses, who could we listen to? Who would guide us?  I continued for a time to fall victim to negativity – indeed, I would say that I was bullied by such a person, to the extent that I quit my rather lovely job with the business class seats and the five star hotels.  But it is what I learned afterwards that is of value:

Avoiding negative people isn’t always possible. Moreover, it changes nothing.

Engaging them ON THEIR NEGATIVITY, now THERE is a courageous act.  The first time I tried it was with a very dear friend who had sunken into a negative funk about perpetual frustrating failures in obtaining financing for a project he so firmly believed in.  I had recently undertaken the journey of learning to be a coach, and with that, the art of re-framing and the tactic of ‘holding up the mirror’.

Re-framing is where you see, and then point out, the silver lining around the storm cloud.

(“It’s raining AGAIN: I can’t stand it” – re-frame about the rain – “Yes, it’s wonderful how the rain is soaking into the forest floor – we’re bound to see lots of Mayflowers the next time we go for a walk.” OR “Yes, can you imagine how the Musquodoboit River is tumbling downstream – do you want to go kayaking down the rapids when the rain stops?”)

Holding up the mirror is where you give the other person honest and respectful feedback:

“When you keep emphasizing the negative it gives me the impression that you’re never satisfied with anything – that you’re stuck in a miserable life. Is that so?”


“I find it really hard to spend time with you when you’re so negative. Is there something we can do to make our time together more fun?”

That friend I mentioned:  He’s lived a difficult life.  He’s had more than his fair share of setbacks. Maybe he’s entitled to be negative? On the other hand, does his negativity not hold him back?  What I do know is that, since I held up the mirror to him, it has become easy to break the negative spell. I just need to say “Hey! You’re doing that negative thing again”, or “this conversation isn’t enjoyable anymore” and he stops. He rethinks and he re-frames. I’m not claiming that his life has turned around as a result of my actions. What I’m telling you is that there’s no way our friendship will ever flounder on the rocks of negativity because we’ve named it and we have moved on.  When it tries to creep back, one of us just has to say ‘it’s B-A-C-K’ and it STOPS. And we laugh, together.

Two little figures in the snow

I believe it is better to take the negativity head-on. It takes courage and curiosity.

Courage because the other person may initially escalate the negativity; curiosity because the potential for positive fallout is huge – wouldn’t you like to see where a relationship can go when you work at it, rather than walking away?

© Delphine du Toit 2016


Syrian Refugees: Who Helps the Helpers?

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The harsh truth about helping Canada’s Syrian refugees is with us now.  The state of their kids’ teeth, our inability to communicate in Arabic, and all that. I’m sure there are many misunderstandings that have the potential to gnaw at the goodwill cloud that swept the Canadian nation when first our new PM announced his commitment to bringing 25,000 Syrian refugees to their new home.

I witnessed a degree of despair in the voice of a volunteer interpreter the other day – the need for his time, to help with all sorts of everyday conversations, like visits to the doctor, is taking its toll. It doesn’t sound at all like he’s about to give up, but it raises the question ‘who cares for the caregivers?’  He said it was fortunate that he’s a business man and not a salaried employee, so he has great flexibility in his time.  What was clear was that he is increasingly unable to attend to his business or his own family because the needs of the refugees, for his support, is so great.

Then there are the frustrated private sponsors who are still waiting. Some have paid rent on apartments for ‘their’ refugees, but no allotment has been made yet and they want the Feds to expedite the screening process.  They’re still stuck with the levels of bureaucracy: they have yet to experience the frustration and bemusement of helping families who have their own huge issues – strangers in a strange land, with no language in common with their Canadian heroes.  The number of Syrian refugees coming in via private sponsorships can easily match the government-sponsored ones.

This initiative has been a great way of getting us to step out of our own comfort zones and to take on collective responsibility for helping.  Those with a strong sense of nationalist pride will say that we got our Canada back – this is who we are.

In cultural competence literature we emphasize that the competency lies in one’s open-minded curiosity and willingness to learn.  In being mindful and learning in the moment; not in judging or in expecting the stranger to learn our ways through sacrificing their own traditions.  The theory is far easier than the reality.

As people get to know each other better, as that first thrill at meeting ‘our’ refugees for the first time recedes in time, and the pressures of  their ongoing needs and our own lives demand attention, friction is bound to surface.  The simple fact is that not all people are easy to get along with.  Some sponsors and hosts are going to find that some refugees are nasty and ungrateful much as others will become life-long friends.  They are as human as we are and as full of issues and history and quirks as we are, except more so because of what they’ve been through; and the goodbyes they had to say in coming.

Chances are there’s more sympathy for their plight as refugees than for their lifelong career as human beings.

I’ve also heard talk, in something bordering on panic or, alternately, disdain, that it is taking them ‘much longer’ to settle in than was anticipated. Anyone who thinks you can settle and integrate in weeks or months hasn’t tried moving to a foreign land. It is an ongoing process – you keep learning. I’ve been a Canadian for 38 years and there are STILL Canadian things that I need to ask explanations about. Only this year, did I finally come to understand why ‘happy Easter’ sounds wrong to me – it is a matter of culture. Where I came from Easter wasn’t a happy time.

I had a long conversation this week with a young woman from Eastern Europe who is in Canada on an academic scholarship. As we meandered in our conversation about the differences in how Germans and  Canadians tend to express themselves (direct vs. wordy. Shortest route vs. scenic) she described a situation to me where her Canadian housemates had objected to something she had done, but instead of speaking to her directly about it, had taken their complaint to the landlord.  She is not a refugee – she is here by choice, to advance her career.  She speaks English well enough that she can find her way around life in our city and her campus.  She has a home, a job, a course of study. Yet, she is vulnerable in her lack of understanding of the Canadian rules of the game.

When she is attacked via a third party she doesn’t understand why the woman who has the bedroom next to hers; who shares the stairs, bathroom and kitchen with her every day, would take her complaint to an outsider.  Maybe it is a personality trait of the complainer rather than a characteristic of our society. Maybe it simply reflects abject lack of experience and understanding of communal living.

We worked out a way in which my new friend can deal with the dynamics in the house, in a way that the others will find constructive and instructive.  She certainly has more resources available to her than a non-English speaking refugee family would. That does not mitigate the misery and distress she experienced at the disrespectful way she felt she’d been treated. Imagine the dark confusion that must constantly be present in the minds of refugee families too.

Then I think about the sponsors and caregivers, guides, interpreters and helpers of the Syrian refugees and I ask again, who takes care of the caregivers?  We can’t all volunteer to do supportive things directly for the refugees, but there is a ripple effect – if the refugee family is the pebble that’s tossed into the Canadian lake; and if the sponsors are the first ripple; then the interpreters are the second ripple, and so on; until we get to the waves crashing on the shore – who stands there to bear witness and to help the helpers?

Funny thing is, the people who are in the thick of things: The ones who could direct well-intended secondary levels of support to the right places, are so overwhelmed with coping on a day to day basis that they simply can’t handle further offers of help. Well-wishers – volunteers and others – become another layer of complexity that needs managing. But when you have to engage in triage on an almost hourly basis, they tend to slide to the bottom of the heap.  Understandable, but a pity, for if we could find a way of tapping into this next level of support the entire deck of cards will be more stable and more manageable.   It could even be that we’d have a winning hand if we did that.

But isn’t it a nice problem to have: more help than you can handle? I’m truly awestruck by how Canadians have stepped up to the plate on this one.  And I’m open to suggestions on how to become that extra ripple of support, or offers to work on creating it.


Response to Fear: Fascism or Openness?

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I read Kathy Jourdain’s new blog this morning  on her blog page and ended up writing such a long response that it turned into the blog below.  She starts out with:

“Be afraid. Be very afraid. But not for the reasons you might think. We are living in precipitous times. We are in danger of losing our humanity through fear. Fear of what and who we do not know.”

I agree with her. The greatest weapon in terrorism is the fear it engenders in the target community – fear that triggers behaviours that destroy the fabric of what holds a community together.

I have observed a profound change in Canada and the USA since 9/11.  I was in Africa at the time and my first words after watching the CNN report on the first plane crashing, with the smoke billowing, and then seeing the second plane  crashing, live as it happened, any notion of a lost pilot in a small craft accidentally hitting a tall building GONE ….my words were “the world will never be the same again.”   I couldn’t have foretold how it would be different, but when I returned to North America in 2010 the difference was glaringly obvious.

Fear was palpable all over the place even as people were carrying on with their normal lives.  The cocky arrogance of the Americans was gone, replaced with a nasty “if you’re not for us you’re against us” mentality. And in Canada, we were focusing on being Canadian and developing the tar sands.   Our government was making it more difficult for new Canadians to immigrate here, and even us old immigrants with our bright and shiny Canadian passports felt under threat of losing our right to return to our adopted country if we were out of the country too long.  In Nova Scotia, people from Kentville were astonished that I lived in Halifax because it had become “so dangerous”.

I grew up with fear, as a child of Apartheid in South Africa.

I fully believed that we would one night have to made a mad dash for the airport to avoid being massacred, and always felt safe that my parents had so many friends “overseas” so somebody would take us in. And so I recognise fear when I witness it.

Even my Canadian phone company uses it now – I recently cancelled my landline as a useless and expensive outdated resource – the response was “Reconsider: It’s not safe without a landline.  You can’t rely on your cellphone, because say you have an emergency and there’s a power outage and the phone’s battery is flat.” I named it  and said “selling phone services through fear-mongering is unethical”. It was clearly outside the script. The person didn’t understand, gave up; cancelled my phone, as requested, no doubt getting ready to frighten the next techno-savvy little old lady.

In my conflict management work I often find myself talking about the primitive brain as the source of our survival instincts, and culture as the way we give expression to them. Fear is primordial – it is critical for survival. However….

The fight or flight instinct is strong in this one.

The fight or flight instinct is strong in this one.

Looking at life through a survival lens is a whole lot healthier than looking at it through a fear lens.

Survival is about seeking and pursuing opportunities along with assessing risk and making choices. Fear is about hanging on to what is familiar and what feels safe – sometimes irrationally so, as what was safe a hundred years ago may not be so anymore.

The human propensity and need to form communities and to create rule of behaviour in those communities is also embedded deep in our primitive psyche – maybe even in our DNA. Yet, the nature of the communities we form  differ spectacularly and our values – the rules by which we recognise who’s in and who’s out, vary in puzzling complexity – THAT is culture – our conscious human creations, from our modern human brains.

The culture of “everything is possible”; the pioneer spirit and all that, has, in the 21st Century, thanks to 9/11 and the political responses to it, transformed into fear, mistrust, closing ranks, increased labelling of them/us. There’s an epidemic of young people with anxiety disorders and equally one of otherwise healthy and privileged people on long term stress leave, eating up the insurance monies we so willingly pay. And then there is the increase in bullying behaviour and the insane pattern of drinking hard and fast favoured by so many young college-aged women: drinking to silence that inner voice of fear and despair. All of this reflects the pathology of our society as it is right now.

We’re not all equally afflicted but our lives are all affected.

Building and carrying a protective shell works for some, but it sure does slow them down.

Building and carrying a protective shell works for some, but it sure does slow them down.

I like the admonishments in Kathy’s article of how to push fear back into its proper place.

It takes courage to stick your head out, but hiding in a safe hole is not the way to live.

The people who  are open to seeing the world differently and who want to change will read/hear her message.  Some of us are already doing these things – seeking new experiences, being open to conversations with people from elsewhere,  and travelling further afield. The people who are already in the choke-hold of fear won’t hear the message. Instead, they will find comfort in  following increasingly fascist leadership. They don’t attend motivational talks about gratitude and hope and openness – how do we get through to them? (This is not a rhetorical question – let me know what you think.)

The Elephant in the Room

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I was at a meeting a while back, in a room with a low ceiling, comfortably seating about 8 people around a board room table; plastic water bottles and everything.   During the conversation someone mentioned that there was an elephant in the room – with reference to something we all knew and thought but no-one was saying.  It happens all the time.  There are elephants in rooms all over the English-speaking world.

These elephants have become phantoms of their former selves.  People mention them as if it’s a common occurrence of no great significance. They’re larger than humans but much smaller than real elephants.  They are passive and docile. They just stand there, in the middle of the room, unnoticed. When someone says “there’s an elephant in the room”, there’s a mild acknowledgement that it is so – that there’s something not being said that should be said, or there’s something going on that’s not being acknowledged, and typically the conversation returns to whatever was being talked about before, with no shift in focus.

The elephants of Mfuwe Lodge, South Luangwa, Zambia.

The elephants of Mfuwe Lodge, South Luangwa, Zambia.

Having a real elephant in the room would be an awesome, frightening and probably pretty smelly event. If you’re not used to the smell of elephants, trust me, it is a primordial disturbing odor.  Then, also, real elephants are HUGE.  It would be extremely noticeable – it would be more than redundant to draw attention to it.  It would be the most obvious thing there. It would be hard to talk about anything else.  Also, they are intelligent, they have opinions and great curiosity. When someone says “there’s an elephant in the room” it is a serious matter that requires immediate attention.  In fact, it can be said that it is the only matter to attend to.

In conflict resolution the REAL elephant in the room is the grave danger posed by failure to resolve the conflict.  The danger is never just about the issue: It is about the level of trust and respect that is wrecked when we hold back on offering our best because we’re hoping to win something, rather than to create something.

Perhaps then, a mediator is something like an elephant whisperer.  We are fully aware of the presence of the elephant, in all its wild dimensions. It is our job to create a way for the elephant to exit the room peacefully, leaving everyone with a great sense of relief; and awe. Damage has been averted and we have had first-hand experience of the texture of its skin and the length of its eyelashes.

Elephant walks away

When the elephant leaves the room the mediator’s job is done.

None of us will ever be quite the same again.  We all tread lightly as we move with dignity back into our lives, grateful that we were able to solve the problem between us.  We have all seen the awesome implied power of the elephant in the room.  Next time we might be more careful before we go all-out in a disagreement, and so we don’t need to call in the mediator again.  The elephant in the room teaches us to treat our disagreements with respect so that resolution is possible.



What if I were predisposed to being grateful?

There are those who have a predisposition to entitlement.  They feel that everything they have is theirs because it is their right to have those things.  They typically also feel they’re entitled to things they don’t yet have and will set about causing others to hand over those things, or at least to feel guilty for not sharing.

Then there are those who live a life of gratitude – where nothing is taken for granted and everything is appreciated.

I believe that both of these predispositions are learned.  I don’t think that it is in our DNA to be one or the other.  We take the rules of the game from our environment and fine-tune them to suit our personalities and circumstances.

I came across this telling little video this past weekend.  I hope you enjoy it.  It reminded me of a practice I learned more than a decade ago and which I seem to be more capable of following during the bad times.  This is what it is: When it is bedtime, and just as you turn out the light and nestle into the pillows and blankets, make a mental list of ten things you are grateful for.   Simple and obvious things. Like how warm the duvet is on a dark February night. Like that your sons talk to each other.  Like that the roof didn’t blow off during the blizzard even if the power went out.   Like that your sister phoned. That the dog came back….

I don’t know anything about brain chemistry, but what I do know is that such a seemingly insignificant exercise has a remarkable ability to still an uneasy mind that seems to specialize in generating fear.   Such a gratitude list, generated just as you want to go to sleep, is a great soporific.  Much better than counting sheep.

My predisposition to being grateful is more there than it isn’t, but like all good character-building initiatives, it needs more work before it will be an ingrained predisposition.

Tonight I think I’ll resume the practice of the gratitude list because I’ve been taking a few things for granted lately. I’ll start with being grateful that today was a lovely sunny day and that the dog came back.

The adversarial nature of dispute resolution procedures

We can monkey around with rearranging words without changing meaning or intent, or we can be serious and reframe our conflict resolution procedures to truly restore trust, respect and engagement.

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Sometimes I have clients who request coaching with me to revisit experiences they’ve had at work. They feel they had been mislead by the nice sounding language in  harassment and bullying policies, and by the kind encouragement by someone in HR to initiate the complaint procedure.  They then arrive at my office, several years later, still bitter and seething inside for how things had turned out. Someone has finally had enough of them harping on the same old issue again and said “Go talk to someone won’tcha, and get it out of your system.”  Ending up feeling victimized after seeking help against victimization seems to be a not uncommon end result.  Disengagement from the employer, from HR, and certainly from ‘the other party’ and his/her allies, seems to be a fairly common fate.

Then there are my misgivings about the effectiveness of employee engagement surveys in really telling us what’s going on in an organization.  I have had moments of deep frustration when there has been a failure by management to give feedback to employees on such surveys, and high exasperation at management’s failure to consult on ways in which disengagement might be addressed. And I don’t mean consulting with me, as the consultant, I mean consulting with the employees who told them, through the questionnaire responses, what was wrong.

I have also spent many hours thinking about how ineffective and adversarial most grievance and dispute resolutions policies truly are.  Disengagement is as much about the employer’s failure to reduce conflict in the workplace as it is about ensuring that employees have meaningful work lives.   Yet, I don’t fault management for this lack of insight: they are doing the best they can with what they have – I just happen to think that what they have no longer serves the interests of either management or employees, and that it is time we talk about it openly and with a vision of a new way.

Grievance procedures are intrinsically adversarial: ostensibly intended to push the parties to resolve the conflict at the lowest possible level in the organization – closest to where the conflict arose – the procedural steps up the hierarchy suggest that it isn’t necessary to make the effort at level 1, because there’s an escalator that will get you to where the punishment will really hurt (the other person).

Harassment complaints are typically subject to investigation and conclude in a findings of fact: Harassment either occurred or didn’t occur. If the finding is yes, it occurred, the policy then may offer punitive measures all the way to down to dismissal.  If the finding is no, it wasn’t harassment, the complainant is sent back to the office, with loss of face for having spoken out.

Having policies to investigate and ‘fix’ a conflict without paying attention to the fundamental aspects of what people need in their relationships with other people causes more damage than repairing anything. How do we rebuild trust, respect and engagement when our tools push for a win/lose outcome?  Where is the scope to have a conversation about something that’s gone wrong between two people at work?  Where they can be sure that they will be treated with respect; will have the opportunity to be heard; and where they can explore the other person’s perspective, and then co-create an acceptable solution?

When I was trained as a mediator we learnt that mediation is about helping the parties to find the best acceptable solution to the conflict AND about restoring their relationship. If the employer’s policy doesn’t allow for these options then what is the mediator to do? (The answer to this question is that a mediator wouldn’t be called in – an investigator would be briefed, to make a determination of fact. Unfortunate, really, because there are such wonderful benefits to be derived from rebuilding trust, respect and engagement.)

I believe there is a great deal of work to be done in rethinking how labour, management and employees engage.  There are many Canadian employers that now have internal mediators and conflict coaches, but they are outliers – the exceptions.

Today I came across this interview with David Liddle, a mediator in the UK. He says it so well I want to share it with you.  I’d love your feedback on it when you’re done. (I like the way Liddle talks about “dispute escalation policies”, where he describes HR policies as “lacking compassion”, and how he advocates for the remodelling of policies to mirror the values of the organization.)


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