Inner Courage Instead of Thick Skin

I have a client working with someone who is making his job very difficult. My client’s team is located around the world, so he has to manage them remotely. Not easy.

As he’s talking about this particular individual he says, “I just have to get tougher-skin to handle this person and focus on getting past this deadline.”

His use of the words “tougher-skin” caught my attention because they were out of character for him. His management style and strength as a leader draw as much from his ability to be direct, strong and clear as they do from his compassion, understanding and self-awareness. This is not a guy who looks for short cuts.

I suspected that the term tough-skin was not going to be helpful for my client as a way to manage his employee because it didn’t really fit with who he is as a person. But I didn’t know what to suggest as an alternative. Tough-skin, thick-skinned…etc – most expressions that convey strength are associated with hardness. In other words, extremely limited. What could he focus on to help him deal with this person the way he wanted to, from his best self? I thought about individuals who exemplified strength without hardness or harshness, like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Thich Nhat Hanh. What wInner Wisdomas their metaphor?

And it clicked – focus on what you know about your highest self, that essential quality you understand through mind and heart. That quality that you sometimes feel is both your weakness and your strength. That thing that is a part of your essence.

In my client’s case, a core value for him is compassion. So I said to him, “The world is full of leaders with tough-skin…but a lot of them are a**holes. Then there are others who may not be jerks, but who shrink before real challenges that call for a deeper kind of strength. You don’t strike me as either type. So, how can you draw even more from your compassion to be stronger?”

After a long pause he said, “You’re right, that’s what I want. To lead from who I am.”

“Exactly,” I said, “If you do that, it won’t matter whether or not your skin is tough.”

A Rare Kind of Dialogue

I happened upon the late physicist and author, David Bohm while conducting research for my Master’s thesis. Bohm wrote a ground breaking book called, Wholeness and the Implicate Order in which he introduced his interpretation of Quantum Physics. His writing about the nature of life at the sub-atomic level was lyrical but concrete, rational but intuitive. It captivated my thinking and informed my thesis proposing a non-dualistic way to think about the nature of experience.

Bohm was also actively engaged in applying his insights from Physics to the realm of communication in the form of dialogue groups and conversations with philosophers and spiritual masters. One person in particular with whom Bohm had several dialogues was with the world-renowned spiritual teacher, J. Krishnamurti. Below is one of many of their dialogues, titled “Krishnamurti & David Bohm on The Future of Humanity.”

I watched this and many other videos of his dialogues over and over again each time hearing something new and different than before. Not only did I hear something new with each viewing, but I experienced a change in the quality of my own thinking. I noticed, for example, that in watching Krishnamurti’s and Bohm’s ability to reflect before responding to a question, I began pondering/pausing before responding in a knee-jerk manner to a question.

Watching the two great thinkers interact was refreshing, even inspiring because it seemed to have nothing to do with being nice or polite or smart or better than, (or less than). In other words, nothing typical, in fact, quite atypical. And at the same time, there was something so completely normal and human in the way they conversed.

It planted a seed in me for that a certain kind of dialogue, one focused much more on listening than telling. Or at least, trying to listen more than tell/explain/prove/defend. The challenge I found was not so much to find others with whom I could dialogue, but to experiment and model aspects of Bohmian dialogue myself.

I’ve discovered that at the core of this challenge is the act of listening. It may seem counterintuitive to think of communication in terms of listening, but I’ve experienced it as an essential aspect. And not only that, learning to listen well is an ongoing challenge with infinite learning opportunities. At least it is for me.

 

The Need to Be Right Makes Me Stupid

A Typical Day

It’s 2 in the afternoon on a Sunday when I see Mei-Lian, my landlady’s Gardner, squatting beside the bushes outside my apartment. A quiet 60-something woman from Mainland China, she greets me with a warm, “hay-wo.” She’s holding a pair of long arm plant clippers in one hand and fresh plant cuttings in the other. Over the years, I’ve noticed that she’ll prune a plant that’s not overgrown but ignore the one beside it with dead leaves. I glance at the blooming Bougainvillea just to her right and feel a slight shiver run up my spine. The thought crosses my mind that it could be the next victim of Mei-Lian’s hit-and-miss pruning approach.

I moved into my current apartment from the unit below, despite it being smaller and more expensive, in part because of the view of this Bougainvillea. I loved how its cinnamon-magenta flowers fill the left side of the window, blocking my view of the Hollywood Squares-like apartment complex across the street.

“Hello,” I say back to Mei-Lian with a slightly forced smile. Normally, I’m happy to see her but the thought of my Bougainvillea getting over-pruned triggers a kind of rigidity inside me. I go inside my apartment and pour a glass of chilled green tea, hoping my mood will do the same – chill. But for good measure, decide to cDSC_4811.JPGall my landlord to check that he remembers our agreement that the Bougainvillea not be cut down. Minutes later, after a short but pleasant conversation with him, I’m assured by him our agreement still stands. Relieved, I go take a nap.

Interrupted

Thirty minutes later a buz saw wakes me up with a jolt.  It can’t be…I think to myself, rushing outside in a surreal combination of post-nap daze and hyper-alertness.

“What are you doing!!?” I yell, “This bush doesn’t need pruning!!”

Mei-Lian, standing at the top of her ladder, moving the saw through the Bougainvillea from left to right, turns it off to answer me. Smiling she says, “is k, is k…bett now.”

Enraged and a bit nauseas, I can taste the bitterness of adrenaline. “What are you doing!!!!???,” I repeat, in the vain hope that words, if conveyed with intensity, can be as effective as actual physical action to stop her in her tracks.

But it’s no use. With a nervous laugh, she turns on the saw and finishes the job until the once blooming beauty is reduced to a woody nub.

I walk away, feeling betrayed and disrespected. How could this happen? I had an agreement? I went back to my apartment, dropped onto my couch and sobbed, feeling unheard, disrespected and powerless to protect something I cherished. I thought bad things. Hurtful things. I knew that Mei-Lian was not malicious, and that there may well have been a miscommunication between her and the landlord. (In fact, this turned out to be the case).

In thinking about it a short time later, I don’t know what was more painful, not having control to stop someone from doing something that was hurtful, or feeling rage toward a peaceful and gentle person.

Her action, whether wrong or right, brought out the worst in me. I got a taste of the animal within. I think this is what was MOST painful, that the thing that enraged me, Mei-Lian’s unwillingness to stop an action that was causing distress, was the very thing that I did toward her in response.

During our interaction and moments afterward, I continued a verbal assault on Mei-Lian in my mind. At one point, even referring to her as “those kind of people don’t care…”

Thinking further, I realized that by framing our interaction in terms of them/us I felt better about myself.

What an ugly and important thing to see in myself, how easy and convenient it is to  objectify another person so I can feel better. Not a great moment for me, but actually a really useful moment to remember.

Slippery Slope to Intolerance

Isn’t this a kind of slippery slope from indifference to intolerance that can lead to hate and even hurtful action. Slippery because the smallness of it makes it so subtle, as to tell oneself – I’m only human, I have the right to be upset…blah, blah, blah.  And there’s truth to that, a lot of truth. I am only human – we are all only human. Feeling emotions is are part of being human.

It’s what happens after that, the story we tell ourselves and hold on to over time that’s the tricky part. The slippery part.

Have you ever noticed that it’s often victims who speak up against injustice – as they should. But the voice that’s often missing is that of the bully accepting responsibility.

Would that change, I wonder, if more of us saw our part early on?

Time Heals All Wounds If…

They say time heals all wounds. Maybe so. But I think in order for that to happen, we have to be diligent to try and see our part BEFORE and INSTEAD of blaming others. We have to take care to not hold on to the boxes we put others in. It’s our choice whether or not we keep them there in our mind and hearts.

As of today, the Bougainvillea has completely grown back. But as for my pride, I’m working to keep it pruned, not to a woody nub, but not overgrown.

The Power of Presence

 

This video caught my attention because I was curious about the person behind the Mr. Rogers of my childhood memory.

I was irritated at first at Mr. Rogers’ slow pace – I went immediately to judgement, thinking, here we go he’s going to talk the same way he does in his children’s show? I’ll never get through this!

But in just a few minutes of listening to him speak something changed. I found that the more I focused my attention on listening, the more I heard both the words as well as the energy surrounding the words. I heard more, something beyond, or before words. Also, in slowing down to listen, I slowed down. Tension that I wasn’t even aware of, lessened. A different, energy replaced it, helping me not just hear what he was saying, but encounter something calmer inside.

It seems that something shifted for Senator Pastore, the person Mr. Rogers is addressing in the video, as well. The power of presence. What is this quality of presence that inspires us to not just hear but to listen?

Why I Love Oakland

 

Lake MerrittI LOVE Oakland.

It’s not about the Warriors win this past year. Though that’s super wonderful.

It’s not about the recent hipster’ness of this town and it’s (long overdue) overnight popularity.

It’s not because it’s the abused and so-called ugly step sister of the San Francisco.

It’s because when I take my dog out for a walk, I’m asked by a small group of women sitting by the Lake about my opinion on race relations. Specifically, how do I feel when I’m approached by a group of blacks. It’s worth noting that the group asking me this is an inquiring group of African American women.

We had a rich dialogue that I think was good for all involved. I learned something, the woman who initiated the conversation learned something, etc.

That we can have this quality of dialogue between strangers on a topic that is historically and to date, emotionally charged, (rightfully so), is the real gift. The opportunity hidden in the everyday.

THIS is what makes me stay in this country – free speech and it’s potential for quality dialogue. I’m grateful for the leaders who had the foresight to create a structure that could, however imperfectly, create the conditions for encounters of the sort I experienced today.

There is SO much more than consumerism (and being a consumer) possible in this amazing country.

(note: Original post was in Facebook earlier in the year, 2015)