Monday, February 7, 2011

Bridging Thinkers and Feelers

I had breakfast this morning with my friend, Rowena Conahan, and while I sipped my coffee we did some Monday morning quarterbacking—not about Ben Roethlisberger's weak performance on Pittsburgh's final drive in yesterday's Super Bowl, but about the choices I had made while facilitating a Living Well with Children weekend for her community, Sunward Cohousing. (Luckily, the retreat ended Sunday afternoon and there was plenty of time to eat, grab a beer, and still catch the opening kickoff in Dallas.)

While my conversation with Rowena was free flowing and speculated on a wide range of potential impacts of my work (on the community, on deeply conflicted dyads, on dealing with challenging dynamics) nothing touched my heart more than a story Rowena shared about an impromptu experiment she did last night before dinner.

Rowena is a gentle person who is very relational. While she's not afraid to tackle issues, she tries very hard to not be provocative and to not be demanding. She cares a lot about others and identifies strongly as a "feeling" person on the Myers Briggs scale (as opposed to a "thinking" person). In a nutshell, this is a measure of whether a person focuses first on logic (thinking) or social impact (feeling) when making decisions. Rowena has an eight-year-old daughter, Noe, whom Rowena perceives to be much more thinking oriented, and this has created some special challenges in relating to how Noe navigates the world.

After the retreat ended yesterday afternoon, Rowena went home and found her husband, Paul, already cooking dinner (hurray!). He and Noe, were partway into a dynamic that was a familiar one in the family where Noe was verbally poking at Paul (because he was cooking, he was only able to give his daughter partial attention at the end of a long weekend where both parents had given a lot of focus to the retreat and not as much to their kids). Both Paul and Rowena knew the pattern, and Paul announced that he was likely to lose it if Noe didn't cease her provocative behavior. With that, Noe stomped out of the kitchen and retreated to her room.

Going on instinct, Rowena followed Noe into her room, where, to Rowena's amazement, she found herself trying to engage her daughter in ways that were very un-Rowena-like, and very Laird-like instead! (Having gotten this far into the story, I was holding my breath to find out how this was going to end.) Rowena explained what she meant by behaving differently: she was uncharacteristically direct, specific, and wouldn't let Noe deflect the conversation away from what had been going on in the kitchen with Paul and how Noe was feeling about it. Rowena was not rude or dictatorial, but she was firm and didn't try to sugar coat Noe's emotional experience.

At the end of the conversation with Noe, Rowena reported that she was holding her breath, prepared to have her daughter tell her to get the hell out of her room. To her amazement, Noe didn't do that at all. Instead, she spontaneously crawled into Rowena's lap and they concluded their exchange in loving silence. Wow!

Rowena told me how amazed she was with how well that went; at how well Noe felt seen and understood by her mother in a difficult dynamic. This was a something (Rowena trying to engage her daughter when she was upset) that often didn't go that well, and this time it did. Taking all that in, I exhaled. In fact, I had tingles up my spine.

What an awesome learning! Rowena observed closely what I was doing differently—and effectively—as I facilitated challenging dynamics in the Sunward plenaries and was able to immediately translate that into a different way of communicating with her daughter when Noe was upset. And Noe liked it!

Stories like that are as good as it gets, and will sustain me through all manner of bumps and breakdowns on the road to Utopia. Who knows, maybe we'll all learn how to live well with children, too.

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