Perhaps because this year I am teaching a yearlong telecourse (in four independent parts) on The Art and Craft of Dialogue, I’ve been more deeply attuned to the largely unknown power of dialogue to create entirely unexpected results. In those moments, when the veil of separation drops, at least momentarily, and we stand in the magic of finding a path forward that truly works for everyone, I often feel both elated and profoundly sad.
The elation is directly the result of having visceral evidence of the simplicity and elegance of the path. Rosenberg, the man who created the practice of Nonviolent Communication that informs everything I do, says about this phenomenon:
“So many times I have seen that no matter what has happened, if people connect in this certain way that it is inevitable that they will end up enjoying giving to one another. It is inevitable. For me my work is like watching the magic show. It’s too beautiful for words.”
I confess that for years I was dubious – how could it be “inevitable”? I didn’t truly believe it, though I loved hearing it said. Over time, I realized that it is, likely, inevitable. The catch is more in the “if” than in the outcome.
The question, for me, has then become simply about how to create the conditions – both inner and outer – that make it possible for people to connect in this way.
Which brings me to the sadness. I find it so tragic that so many people are likely to live and die without having access to this experience, without knowing it even exists, without trusting that such transformation is so possible and so simple.
Just recently I was talking with a woman who’s had a truly painful experience with another family member. I was trying to invite her to be in dialogue with her brother and mother about the event that had happened, and she kept saying: “What’s the point? They are not going to change. I may as well just accept that and move on.”
She did know that the cost was high: losing the sweet closeness that she’d had with her brother and the comfort of mutual support with her mother.
Still, in the absence of having a roadmap or tangible modeling of successful dialogue in such difficult situations, she couldn’t envision anything other than maintaining cordial and distant relationships with both. I am happy to say that subsequent to our conversation she has shifted and is embracing the option of a facilitated dialogue with them.
Both the joy and grief about the power of dialogue are the ones that led me to choose to make dialogue the focus of my distance teaching this year. My goal and hope is to take apart the mystery and convert it into a series of learnable intentions and tips. It’s a brand new experiment. As part of it, I have committed to myself to identify successful dialogues and be able to show what made them work, so that it becomes more doable for others.
In this post, I am unpacking one such conversation I had that stunned me with its outcome. Of course I don’t remember word for word what anyone said, and, still, the reconstruction still feels meaningful.
Undoing a Layoff
The person I had this conversation with, Emma Lou Jones, gave her permission to be quoted, and has read this part of the piece before it got posted. In fact, she said “I am honored you’d want to share our conversation on your blog. You have my full permission to tell our incredible story.”
I met Emma first when she applied for a job as my personal assistant. I chose someone else for a variety of reasons, and yet I was clear that Emma had a lot of gifts. Soon after hiring the other person, (about whom I have written at another time, also with her permission, when we had another remarkable conversation within our team), I gave Emma a project to work on since the new person didn’t have enough hours. Although the project was canned, all of us were happy with Emma’s work, which meant that when another project arose, and then another, it made intuitive sense to turn to her, even though in the meantime she moved to Canada.
In fact, I was so happy that I told her I could imagine her growing with us and having more work over time. I had assured her of a future. The other project she has been doing for us is a big one – producing all the pieces of my upcoming self-study course – and she has been expertly holding all the relationships and tasks involved.
Then I learned that my assistant ended her other job and was now available to work full time. It made immediate sense to me that the way to go would be to give her the projects that had been assigned to Emma, because having one person is less duplication of effort, especially someone who is fully integrated into the team and knows everything else we do.
It was this conversation that I was then embarking on having with Emma. I waited until returning from Israel, and, with a very heavy and awkward heart, I picked up the phone and called Emma. I had not even a shred of anticipation that anything “positive” could come of this conversation. I explained to Emma what had happened, reaffirmed my total satisfaction with her work, and why it would, nonetheless, make more sense to bring the work back home to Oakland, with one person.
With all the discomfort and awkwardness, I nonetheless knew that this was a dialogue, not an “announcement”. I gathered all my strength, and asked her to tell me what it was like for her to hear this. It was not an easy moment. I know the power of dialogue. I knew that hearing from her might lead me to want to change my mind, and I couldn’t see how I could do it. The money just wasn’t there to have her in addition to increasing the hours locally.
Still, this is the primary and unequivocal intention of dialogue: to be open to being affected by what we hear from another. If we are not willing to be changed, it isn’t really dialogue.
I don’t know if I asked in a way that conveyed my genuine interest and care, or whether it was Emma’s inner strength by itself. However it happened, she rose to the occasion and spoke. It wasn’t at all easy to hear her. I definitely relied on my years of practice, especially in the moment when she said something about how solely because of money she is now dispensable.
It was hard to hear because it is so much not how I know myself to be operating. I still knew and held on to the clarity that explaining myself at a time when she was so shocked and hurt was simply not a wise choice. I also committed to myself that at a later time in the conversation I would express it to her, and that, too, helped me settle into being with her. Knowing I would return to this meant that focusing on listening to her wasn’t at my own expense; that it was my choice for the benefit of the dialogue.
Emma also reminded me of what I had said to her previously, how I had assured her that she had a future with BayNVC, how much that had meant to her, and how painful it was to have that taken away. I began to understand, more and more by the minute, that the loss of money was the really small part of the effect on Emma. She also spoke about the painful irony of the project she was working on, which is managing the pieces of producing my upcoming self-study course called Making Life Work. For You. For Everyone. No Exceptions. Where was she in the “everyone,” she wondered.
That was the beginning of the turning point for me.
I had thought of this irony before, and yet I was so convinced that there was no solution that I had accepted it as a mourning that we aim for the whole, and reach as far as we can go given the distance between the world we live in and the world of our dreams. That was ahead of time. It was entirely different to hear her express it, and I felt a deep ache in my heart in that moment.
That wasn’t all. Emma went on to talk about the meaningful relationships she had started forming with the people who are working on the project, and how hard it would be to be suddenly torn from all of that. It was all about meaning, I realized. Not about money or security. It was about being connected to a project she believed in, doing work that she knew would be a contribution, and being in relationship with people she cared about and respected.
What Emma wanted was to maintain the existing arrangement, which was to have both her and Adriana continue to work part time. I knew this would not work for me, because the value of having Adriana working more hours was immense and provided so much relief for me. I had already settled on having that, and I didn’t see myself going back. I also felt Emma’s anguish, and could see the logic of what she was saying.
I was still stuck, because I was only seeing the either/or version: either I would give up on the enormous relief I would be getting from having Adriana work more hours, close to home, with all that she could accomplish that way, or I would continue with the plan of ending the work relationships with Emma.
Until that conversation Emma didn’t know that all the income that was paying her and everyone else was based on my working as hard as I do. That in order to pay her in addition to Adriana, I would need to find even more work. That it wasn’t some “they” who would be footing the bill of extra hours; it would be me.
I had a sense, then, that she understood me better than before, that my own humanity was clear to her just as much as hers was clear to me.
That was a moment of entirely unprecedented connection between us. Not surprisingly, that was also when the sky opened up, and the solution came to me. So unlikely, so unorthodox, that I was almost embarrassed to present it to Emma. If it wasn’t about money, and it was about connection and meaning, perhaps we could find a way for her to maintain her involvement with us and the project and simply delay the time of payment until after the product was on sale and there was a new income stream?
When I think about this solution outside of the context of that conversation, it sounds like exploitation – “why don’t you work without pay for a while, and then we will pay you some day?” If anyone had proposed it ahead of time, I would have rejected it as disrespectful of Emma and impossible all around. Yet, in the context of what we were trying to hold together, that very same solution was magic. It was a way for me to have financial manageability and for her to have what was so significant for her. We are now both happy!
Then she told me that she had always admired my work, and yet it was only through this conversation that she came to see me as the full human being that I am, and was very touched by what she saw, by my commitment to actually live what I teach.
The remaining piece was to express to her how hard it was to hear what she had said earlier about it all being about money and her being dispensable. At that moment, when trust had been restored between us, when flow and magic were the primary flavor, it was totally easy for her to hear it and see my own anguish about wanting to be seen for the ways that I try to live by the exact opposite of putting money above all else.
The relief was genuine, and we could hold together the intensity of anguish for her and for me at the same time, without making either of us bad for speaking or doing what we did in a moment of stress. Our relationship is more solid than ever.
I hope it was meaningful for you to read and understand how this conversation unfolded. I am so excited about the focus on dialogue, that I am interested in collecting examples of successful dialogues to be able to show what makes them work. If you have such an example, you can post it here as a comment, or you can read our full invitation to share NVC success stories and follow those instructions.
Let’s take on the world with the transformative power of dialogue.
Photo credit: Facilitated dialogue at USIP webpage.