I Like this Book for…

Learning to lead when you feel like a follower: “Watership Down” by Richard Adams (2000, 480 pages).

Making marriage better: “Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversation for a Lifetime of Love” by Sue Johnson (2008, 277 pages).

What it is to be male: “The Male Brain: A Breakthrough Understanding of How Men and Boys Think” by Louann Brizendine (2010, 177 pages).

Figuring out feelings: “Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy” by David Burns (1999, 136 pages).

A marriage break up: “Rebuilding When Your Relationship Ends” by Bruce Fisher and Robert Alberti (2006, 290 pages).

Ruminating: “Rituals of Surgery: Taking the World In for Repairs” by Richard Selzer (1974, 193 pages).

What Jesus meant: “The Parables of Grace” by Robert Farrar Capon (1988, 184 pages).

Learning to parent your kids: “Kids are Worth It: Giving Your Child the Gift of Inner Discipline” by Barbara Coloroso (1995, 243 pages).

People who are afraid to confront: “Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life, One Conversation at a Time” by Susan Scott (2004, 286 pages).

Of course, there are lots more. Let me know what you like.

Ever Been Stuck?

Of course you have been.

Family Systems Theory considers three indicators of “stuckness.” The first indicator is like tire-spinning, the trying experience when you (or a committee) keep trying harder and predictably producing banal results. Trying to stand up is a lot more difficult than standing up.

A second stuckness is when one thinks in either / or categories, like “I win, you lose.” Binary belief systems produce teeter-totter relationships where if someone is “in” then the other is “out.” Reminds me of couples in conflict. Religions do binary thinking a lot, as do political parties. Makes quitters of even the most faithful. In marriage its called divorce.

The third stuckness is cramping answers into predictable questions, rather than recasting questions in fresh contexts and perspectives. “Business as usual” is all about this — thinking we know the questions, so our task, we figure, is to find answers that fit, rather than “appreciatively inquire.” (Appreciative Inquiry is a great way to focus on new questions.) Of course, its usually more about the question than the answer.

For more Family Systems Theory wisdom see, Edwin Friedman in “A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix” (pp. 40-46).

Falling Upward

For those who know me, know that I think of perfectionism as an insidious disease infecting families, the work place and the church place, as well as political life, and anywhere people congregate. I think that “failing in the right direction” is the only sure way for people to grow and to become who they long to be.

Yes, you read that right. I believe in failing, planfully, playfully and purposefully. (Can you see the intended error in the last sentence?) The question about failure is more “what direction will you fail?” It is not about not failing. It is about choosing how you will fail in anticipation of a greater success, a better thing.

Trying to be perfect is doomed before the work has been initiated. And it is the least likely motivation to reach excellence (“You do know that excellence and perfection are quite different things, don’t you?”). And perfectionism is ethically questionable as well — like “cheating in the pursuit of excellence.”

Have I confused you sufficiently? Read from Richard Rohr who says much more and much more clearly than I can.

We grow spiritually much more by doing it wrong than by doing it right. That might just be the central message of how spiritual growth happens; yet nothing in us wants to believe it….

If there is such a thing as human perfection, it seems to emerge precisely from how we handle the imperfection that is everywhere, especially our own. What a clever place for God to hide holiness, so that only the humble and earnest will find it! A “perfect” person ends up being one who can consciously forgive and include imperfection rather than one who thinks he or she is totally above and beyond imperfection.

It becomes sort of obvious once you say it out loud. In fact, I would say that the demand for the perfect is the greatest enemy of the good. Perfection is a mathematical or divine concept, goodness is a beautiful human concept that includes us all.

To read more of Richard Rohr, see the “Center for Action and Contemplation.”

Building a Home Where Kids Can Live

No childhood is perfect but some are sure better than others. In my conversations with people who are hurt and harmed by parents and other adults (often by ignorance and neglect, but unhelpful just the same), I have figured out a few things that I would want every young parent to know.

1. In the movie “Avitar,” when the Na’vi meet, they greet each other with, “I see you.” This is validation that the person “is.” A child needs to be seen, validated, heard, respected. Then (s)he can see others too.

2. LOL means “laugh out loud” (as I am sure you know, though I just found this out a few months back). Homes need to be LOL places for both parents and kids. It helps make the family a “safe place.”

3. I think that “rules that relate” is an important idea. Not rules that are arbitrary or made up as life goes on, but connected to family held values and beliefs. Rules that make sense; this make sense to me.

4. I like families where adults and kids are free to dream. When my son was young he would dream about playing hockey with the Canucks. Tucking him into bed with this dream ensured sound sleeps and dreams of success.

5. Kids need respect like anyone else. So doing everything for a child reduces self-respect. Allowing a child to succeed at an age-appropriate task helps the child respect herself and the home to function like a team.

6. Atmosphere is important. An atmosphere where a child can fail and not feel the fool – I like that. This “creeping perfectionism thing” that so many parents hold over their kids hurts way more than it helps.

7. Families that celebrate a child’s success is great place for a child to grow up in. And a great place for a parent to re-parent himself / herself.

8. Families need other healthy adults (warm, understanding and non-possessive people) other than parents (like grandparents, church friends, neighbours), whom the child watches, enjoys and trusts.

How Talk to Your Counsellor about Sexual Brokenness (Guest Blog)

One of my client-friends read my last blog about “How to Talk to Your Kids About Sex” and she commented, “There is lots of information about this topic in books and on the web. The harder one is “how to talk to your counsellor about sexual brokenness.”

My comment? “You’re on!” Here is what she wrote.

Like much else, sexual healing can begin with the decision to become well, based on the belief we are intended to be so.  Once the decision is made we have a foundation. Healing can be built. Progress can be measured.

The next step can be a hard one to take — speaking.

Why is this hard? Our culture’s obsession with all things sexual creates the illusion that we are all experts. We are not. Understanding our own sexuality remains challenging. For some, the effort to speak of the sexual pain woven into personal history is daunting, even near impossible.

We may  feel that as adults we should know how to speak the language of sexual confidence and identity. But when that confidence and identity is exactly what has been so deeply hurt, we find ourselves without words.

Conversations that build a language rich in affirmation of our decision to become well are initially more important than conversations disclosing the details of “what happened.”  Speaking too soon about “what happened” can potentially repeat, or even increase, the hurt we carry. Having words to describe our goal of wellness for all parts of our life and being gives us hope, and hope protects us.

Once this language of sexual wellness is learned, there can be greater confidence of being seen in the light of the sexual identity we are aiming for. If I can say what I want, perhaps I can be what I want. This new language can ease the grip that sexual pain from the past has on self image. It seems a slow process, but our hunger for affirmation quickly renders words of hope familiar and we find ourselves becoming comfortable in the foreign land of healthy sexual identity long before we arrive.

How to Talk to Your Kids About Sex

My advice is “earlier than you think you should” and “more often than you think you ought.” Thankfully there are better informed people than me.

Eryn-Faye Frans is a sex educator and a long-standing friend (I have known her since she was born!). Formerly from Vancouver, Texas, Scotland, back to Texas and then Vancouver and now in Toronto — its been hard to keep up with her — Eryn-Faye is a great parent, a loyal church-type (though not at all “religious” in the stuffy meaning of that) and provides thoughtful and thorough advice and hope to couples who are finding their sex life less than lovely. (I actually don’t know how a sex educator could possibly be stuffy.)

And she knows about parenting. Her recent blog reports some recent research that advises:

* Spread out the conversations
* Use anatomically correct terms
* Don’t lie
* Don’t assume
* Don’t judge
* Pass it on

I found this advice helpful. I hope you do as well. And sign up for Eryn-Faye’s  blog — you will learn lots of interesting stuff.

The Ways of a Listener

“I can’t speak with you right now. I am in the middle of a sentence.”

“You know, you don’t have to say everything you know.”

I learn great things from my client friends. The first comment came from a couple interchange that was lively, funny, heated, pointed – good conflict, in other words. The second comment was reported by a man who discovered that he didn’t have to win every argument, position himself in every discussion or make a comment on the wary ways of his teenagers.

There are thought to be three basic styles of listening, one better than the other two.

1) The first is “listening to be right.” Competitive listening happens when we are more interested in winning a verbal war or promoting your own point of view, than in understanding somebody else or their thoughts. It is the communication style of the arrogant (“Knowing it all, why would I waste time understanding someone else?”).

2) In “hearing” (“I heard what you said!”) the listener is passive, meandering in and out of the verbal stream, not engaged enough to make a comment, not passionate enough to disagree, and not thoughtful enough to carry the conversation further. Weak and wimpy or, at best, distracted and dismissive, less a communication style than a communication impairment.

3) Participative listening creates a partnership, a team activity with all the cooperation and friction this implies. Engagement is high because you are interested, expressing interest and inviting interest. It is interesting conversation and it goes somewhere and with some panache (a word my Dad used which still sounds wonderfully soul-ish to me).

It might be helpful to know the ways of a listener. I feel myself irritated with me when I listen to prove my rightness; and I feel even more miserable when I sense someone is waiting to find my logical fault. But I love talking when there is an interchange of meaning and (e)motion. It feels to me like being a member of a motorcycle gang (the friendly kind), all of us moving in the same direction, creating lots of lovely Harley noise, and with élan (another word my Dad used to use).

Suck the Marrow Out of Life

You may remember this quote from Thoreau read by Robin Williams as the professor in “Dead Poet’s Society.” If there ever was a definition of “self-differentiation” or just vectoring your life, this would be it.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.” (from “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau and popularized in “Dead Poet’s Society”)

Strikes me as fresh and real as I grade graduate essays and theses, look forward to seawall walking with my grandson later today, reflect on the revolutions in Egypt (Mubarak just resigned) and Thailand (just beginning their Facebook / Twitter inspired insurrection), that I had better get to doing with my life what I want to do with it.

Creating Space — Loneliness

“When we feel lonely we keep looking for a person or persons who can take our loneliness away. Our lonely hearts cry out, ‘Please hold me, touch me, speak to me, pay attention to me.’ But soon we discover that the person we expect to take our loneliness away cannot give us what we ask for. Often that person feels oppressed by our demands and runs away, leaving us in despair. As long as we approach another person from our loneliness, no mature human relationship can develop. Clinging to one another in loneliness is suffocating and eventually becomes destructive. For love to be possible we need the courage to create space between us and to trust that this space allows us to dance together.” (Henri Nouwen)

Different and Differentiated

Leaders are odd in lots of ways. They usually think about what you and I think about but they do so in different ways. They handle feelings peculiarly to most others too — somehow they seem less interrupted by them. They self-define more, that is, they seem to operate out of some kind of inner value system. And that is why they are leaders and we follow them.

Leadership is not so much about books read, the charisma of your presence, your vast and varied resume. Leadership is more about how you handle “the buzz,” that angst that operates between people that makes some people merge or fuse (e.g. gossip), or run or retreat.

Lots of us lead and we lead best when we observe what is going on between people rather than trying to be smarter, have the last word, support the growing consensus, etc. Focusing less on issues or presenting problems and more on observing the emotional process, helps leaders lead.

Murray Bowen (the originator of Family Systems Theory) and Edwin Friedman (author of “Failure of Nerve“) believe that the key to leadership success is emotional self-differentiation. So what the heck is that?

The following You Tube is a simple and delightful definition about this concept. It is called The Differentiated Leader — Key to the Kingdom. Enjoy.