Posts Tagged ‘transformation’


I recently spoke to a friend who complained to me about his habit of impatience and the impact it was having on his new position as a team leader.   He sketched workplace scenarios that had everyone cowering in fear of his lightening judgement and his verbal dexterity and was unequivocal about the fact that he seriously disliked this aspect of himself.   But with a shrug, a sigh and a fatalistic “I wish I could change…” he reached out for his coffee cup and moved onto another topic.


The encounter left me wondering what it is it that keeps us from taking that crucial next step towards change despite apparent self-knowledge and the realisation that change is needed or is in fact long overdue?  And what is it that allows us to repeatedly commit to change but to fall back into old behaviours sooner rather than later?


It is commonly assumed that entrenched habit, fear of the unknown or the discomfort that change brings are what holds us back from breaking with unhelpful behavioural patterns or causes us to fail in following through on change.   But there is in fact an overlooked and yet absolutely essential prior step that must be taken before we can even consider braving the waters of change. Missing out on this first step is what has us failing time and again and belabouring the ears of friends with “if only…” tales.


To clients who say  “I wish I could…”, “How I’d love to…” or “If only I were…”   I ask permission to pose one question that always comes as a surprise, catches them off-guard and even ruffles and occasionally offends: “What benefit do you gain from not changing?” or “What’s the win in holding onto your pain?” The reply is always the same: “Holding onto pain? to a bad relationship? to an abusive partnership? to an overweight body or to ever-increasing personal debt?  How on earth could that benefit me?”


And yet,  that is exactly the question that has to be answered before we can consider committing to change for as long as we are reaping some benefit from our old pain, we will stay with it and its familiarity and resist all change.



The truth is that we remain trapped in unhealthy or unhelpful behaviours because in doing so, we find some of our deepest and often unacknowledged needs met. Yes, eating too much feels good in the moment of wolfing it down because it provides a primal sense of comfort that is more important than your waistline when loneliness and poor self-image overwhelm. Maxing out your credit-card limit satisfies a need for status and acknowledgement when self-esteem is low and impatience and perfectionism allow one to appear competent, in control and superior when in fact one is often plagued by feelings of inadequacy.


Acknowledging the benefits that we gain from holding onto bad habits, helps us to identify the deep needs that repeatedly draw us back into the “if only…” that we so wish we could cast off.   It is however, only through facing up to and acknowledging these needs that we can develop strategies to escape the black holes that await us during the process of change and to support us as we strive towards our desired goals.


So, with our new year’s resolutions still fresh in mind, the key to forming really strong intentions and to staying the course of change is to ask oneself where the benefit lies in not changing.  It’s never too late to change but it’s a waste of time trying if you’re not prepared to be honest about what it is you’re holding onto and what it is that’s holding you.   


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Don’t you just love the eternal optimists, hell-bent at making you see the bright side of things when all you want is a willing ear and good old moan?  And yet, they have a point that makes a lot of sense:  conflict research agrees that optimists fare a lot better than pessimists when it comes to coping with conflict.  (more…)

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When it comes to saving a marriage, forget the great boudoir secrets of the world or all your mother ever told you about the way to a man’s heart being through his stomach  –  US marriage guru Dr. John Gottmann predicts the success or downfall of relationships with astonishing 90% accuracy by simply observing couples argue.

How well we fight and how we deal with conflict even at the very early stages of a relationship is apparently the best indicator yet of how likely we are to be together five years down the line.

From his vast collection of empirical data, Gottmann has identified what he calls the  Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – four conflict habits that, if allowed to develop, are a sure-fire indicator that you’re on your way to a sorry end sooner rather than later.

1.  Criticism

This is the personality or character-type criticism (not to be confused with constructive criticism) that usually serves to allocate blame and by which we feel fundamentally set upon by our partners.  The usual text begins with generalisations like “you always…”, “you never…”, or specific assertions like “why are you so…?”

2. Defensiveness

This conflict response serves to block off communication, to score against the other through counter-attack or to launch a pre-emptive strike by slipping into the role of the victim.  Typical texts here are “yes, but…”, “its not my fault…its yours”, “I didn’t…you did”.  Out of the victim’s corner one might hear “you’re always picking on me” or “I can’t do anything right”.

3. Contempt

In Gottmann’s view, this is the relationship’s red card and the surest indicator of impending disaster.  Contempt attacks the partner’s sense of self and includes put-down tactics designed to expose or belittle the other, showing one’s superiority, pulling rank, flaunting  status or being openly insulting.  Expressions of contempt include verbal abuse, sarcasm, scorn, humiliation or “jokes” at the other’s expense.

4.  Stonewalling

This conflict response comes in the form of body language:  the partner withdraws from the conflict encounter by turning away physically, avoiding eye contact and withholding the natural signs of communication such as nodding, repeating phrases or words used or making the little noises that indicate that we’re still on track and following the interaction.  It also includes waiting impatiently for the other to get done, walking out on discussions, blanking or ignoring the other, maintaining an icy distance or living in stony silence.

Despite all this bad news, Gottmann points out that the major feature that distinguishes relationship ‘masters’ from relationship ‘disasters’ is their ability to repair the interaction.  This is where apology and forgiveness come into play and where relationships that are based on strong friendship, shared meaning and purpose are more likely to succeed and recover.

So, if you hear the hooves of one of those apocalyptic stallions charging through your living room, be warned.  It might be time to pull out your conflict toolbox and take a good, hard look at its contents and start on the repairs.  Becoming a relationship ‘master’ is hard work but picking up the pieces after the four horsemen have passed through your life, might cost you years.

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I recently spoke to a man whose life has had its fair share of ups and downs:  a difficult marriage, an arsenic divorce and a run of unsuitable partners the last of whom took him to the cleaners rather ungenerously as she left.  When last I saw him perhaps two or three years ago he was reeling from the blow, was bitter, miserable, depressed and very much aged.  To my surprise,  he now walked towards me looking great,  open, full of life and buzzing with energy.  I immediately told him what I observed and he said it was because he was happy since having consciously forgiven his ex and that forgiving her had helped him to turn his life around and to move on even though he was still paying off the debts she left in her wake.  This made me wonder where I could perhaps use a little bit of forgiveness in my life and in return tank up on some visible rejuvenation and energy.

Forgiveness was long viewed as a spiritual matter belonging squarely in the realm of theology and philosophy.   But in the last fifteen or so years, researchers and health professionals have started turning their attention towards the meaning and significance of forgiveness for mental and emotional well-being.  Since then, a veritable science of forgiveness has developed with institutes, research programmes and studies in abundance bearing witness to the realisation that forgiveness is not only important for our spiritual growth  but essential to our mental and physical health and is a major contributory factor  in longevity.

Indeed the results of this secular interest in forgiveness have been astonishing:  The absence of forgiveness is that state which sees us holding onto injuries and hurt, playing and re-playing them over and over in our minds until they have soaked themselves into the very fabric of our being.  In this unforgiving state we harbour and nurture feelings of hostility, mistrust, cynicism, anger, bitterness, resentment and revenge and are in constant red alert at the mere mention,  sighting, or even thought of the individual who has caused us to suffer.

In response, the  amygdala floods the body with stress hormones in preparation for the fight or flight response and keeps these levels high as long as the thoughts and feelings surrounding unforgiveness persist.

In this state, unforgiveness becomes a consuming negative life force, sapping our energy and our joy as we focus more intensely on the pain of the past.  Studies show that the resultant myriad of health problems range from weak immune systems to major heart disease, high-blood pressure, asthma,  migraine, depression, serious mental illness and premature ageing.

The good news is that forgiveness has the power to break this downward spiral and allows us to heal both emotionally and physically,  reversing the dark tide of destruction that these negative emotions ride on.

To me this seems a good enough reason to embrace forgiveness with open arms and yet we are often very reluctant to do so and struggle with the process when we do decide to forgive.  Why this is and how we can move out of this destructive state is the topic of next week’s blog.

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Thinking back to my childhood and my early experiences of conflict resolution, the response I most associate with this time of life is without a doubt,  compromise:  “Stop fighting and share!” was the plea for playroom harmony, the consequence of which meant that I had to make do with half – half of the doll’s house furniture, half of the plasticine or half of the crayons when what I really  wanted was the whole damn lot, so that I could live out the imaginative potential that those objects held for me.   Sharing down the middle  reduced the magic, the creative buzz lost its zing, my friend wasn’t my friend anymore and I was left with a latent aversion to the well-meant admonishment to “share nicely!” which I can only admit to now, many years later.

Don’t get me wrong – I had no problem sharing  sweets, toys that were in abundance or that in which I had no particular vested interest  but things that held special meaning to me or which I (or my sibling or friend) had an emotional attachment to were indeed a problem.

When it comes to creating fair factual solutions such as dividing goods or allocating time-slots compromise is great but on issues close to one’s heart or in matters affecting ongoing relationships, compromise introduces something that allows dissatisfaction and resentment to rise and linger and leaves one with memories that smack of regret.

If what looks good on paper does not meet the emotional or behavioural needs of ongoing relationships, compromise often results in both parties feeling short-changed and aggrieved and only serves to increase rather than reduce conflict potential.

Compromise is therefore appropriate:

  • When a quick or temporary resolution is sought
  • As a back-up to other conflict resolution modes such as competition or collaboration
  • When the parties are equally powerful and equally committed to opposing views
  • When “splitting the difference” is better than getting nothing at all
  • When the parties “agree to disagree” and to live with the decision
  • When the outcome to the parties is of moderate significance only

And inappropriate:

For conflict theorists compromise is a win-lose situation – one in which both parties get something but not all of what they want.  Being able to hold this middle-ground implies  a certain tension – and therein lies the groundwork for festering ill feelings and dissatisfaction which have the potential to surface as conflict sooner rather than later.

In the words of Calvin and Hobbs ,  “A good compromise leaves everybody mad”. And for Calvin, one that requires relinquishing a favourite marble or a treasured fishing-fly definitely would: certain things in life just cannot be compromised!

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The first step in any change process is assessment.  Whether it is a business proposition, a lifestyle choice, a career move or the purchase of a new home, we take stock and measure the viability of staying with the old as against the implications of taking on the new.

But how often do we assess our own lives that carefully?  How often do we take stock of where we are and question whether we are really serving ourselves well with the choices we have made?  Self-assessment is the path to self-awareness and the portal to transformation. Knowing yourself is the precondition for effective change.

In conflict coaching, self-awareness forms the lion’s share of the coaching process.  Becoming aware of how one responds, why one responds as one does and how well one’s conflict responses and habits serve one is the unconditional groundwork for change.   There are various tools and formal assessments available to assist in the process but these only make sense if they are supported by self-awareness inquiries on the part of the client as regards far more fundamental issues in life.   I like to ask my clients to start the self-awareness process by assessing their lives on a scale of 1 – 10 (1 being at the negative and 10 at the positive ends of the scale) according to a number of  statements.  Here are a handful of those I think are most useful to start the personal stocktaking process:

(1) I know my personal values and they guide my life

(2) I know myself and like who I am

(3) I have a set of standards for my life by which I live

(4) I have no unresolved issues in my past

(5) I don’t let people take advantage of me

(6) I tolerate very little

(7) I easily find pleasure in simple things

(8) I know that my life is a result of my choices

(9) I am  not driven or  motivated by unmet needs

(10) I have a life plan and am working on it

Sitting down to answer these is often an eye-opening experience that marks the beginning of the self-awareness process and gives the client a first reading of where change is needed or where growth has been stagnant.

So in much the same way as a business would justify stocktaking – to give true value to the profit and loss reading at the end of the balance sheet, so too do we profit from personal stocktaking:  through heightened self-awareness and a conscious assessment of where we stand in our lives are we able to determine what the next steps have to be to reach greater fulfilment.

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I was recently in South Africa, traveling with a keen eye for examples of conflict resolution in this amazing nation.  It was some 15 years ago that this country held the world in awe as it set up the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to provide a forum for perpetrators and victims of Apartheid to confess their transgressions and to ask for and find forgiveness.  The TRC served to heal not only the wounds of individuals involved in violent crimes and transgressions but to heal the nation as a whole. Since then South Africa’s TRC has served as a model for numerous countries coming out of bloody and often prolonged and intractable conflict.

What is it about this country that makes it so naturally suited to reconciliation?  The answer lies firstly in a philosophical concept known as “ubuntu” which forms part of the philosophical fabric of most of sub-Saharan Africa.  Ubuntu is the power of community.   It means as much as “I am because we are” and is the archetypal concept of connectedness.  Speakers of African languages in southern Africa will commonly use the word “we”  rather than “I” when referring to themselves.  An African speaker responding to a ubiquitous “how are you?” is likely to say that he is not well because his mother is ill, his grandfather has died or a relative has lost a job.  This semantic quirk equating “I” with “we”,  reveals a strongly shared sense of community and connectedness so that if one member of the community is ailing, the whole community feels and carries his or her pain.  It follows then that conflict resolution is a community affair since conflict committed by an individual is felt and owned by the community as a whole.

The second reason for this country’s penchant to conflict resolution lies in the conflict resolution traditions of indigenous people in southern Africa like the San and Khoi, also known as the Bushmen.  This nomadic people still practise an elaborate and ancient procedure for resolving conflict which involves not only the direct participants to a conflict but the elders, relatives, friends and even strangers passing by, all of whom are asked their opinion and their thoughts on how best to resolve the matter at hand.   The process is elaborate and can take days of talking, hearing the parties tell and retell their stories, seeking  understanding and providing a space for apology, forgiveness and reconciliation.   In this way conflict is not simply resolved but the individuals and the community in which they live are healed and reinstated with dignity and respect.  This form of deeply layered conflict resolution is considered absolutely essential for survival of the community.

The TRC therefore was built on structures as familiar to its people and as old as this cradle of humanity itself – the concept of “ubuntu” and the skilled traditional practise of conflict resolution amongst people like the Khoisan.

How different would our approach to conflict be if we realised that we were dependent on not only our immediate family and friends but on a far wider community around us?  And how much stronger would our sense of connectedness and self-esteem be if we had an entire community of connected individuals committed to our as well as to their well-being?

Who said there was nothing new to be learned from Africa?

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