Retirement Looms: June 30, 2018

It is with mixed emotions that I announce my last day in the office will be June 30, 2018, just before my 66th birthday. This means I’m no longer accepting new clients; existing clients (past and present) will have access to me until June 30.

It’s been a privilege and honor to serve as coach, conflict mediator, and counselor to so many teens, individuals, couples, and families these past twenty years. What started as an uncertain adventure grew into a career that I’ve dearly loved. My clients have been my teachers in so many ways. Their resilience, fortitude, courage, and willingness to do hard personal work has never ceased to inspire and encourage me.

My guy friends and I often joke about how we’ll spend our “third third,” that is, the years from sixty to ninety. Should I be blessed to live that long, that means I’ve only got 24 years to complete my 124 year “to do” list. That list includes literary and artistic pursuits, spiffing up my blog, nailing this Mail Chimp program once and for all, making two decades of informational hand outs available on line (about 400 pages), drawing, and being an active grandpa.

I think it was Erik Erickson who talked about “generativity” in one’s old age. This is reflected in one’s passion to generate positive changes that help others. Even though I won’t be seeing clients face to face I hope to generate (and share on line) helpful books, posters, graphic novels, cartoons, caricatures, and other products that foster peace on earth and good will toward all.

I don’t golf, have no plans to travel, but do have a zillion projects I’m eager to give myself to. Please stay tuned for what’s to come in my “third third.”





Active Listening Responses

It is far easier to make judgments and sneak in your own viewpoint than to listen. The following comments show that in an emotional moment either person can turn conflict into true communication.

Speaker’s Comment Listener’s Rephrase Listener Label Feelings

Listener Validates

“How can I ever trust you to work out our problems when you left for two days?” “You think if things get tense again, I won’t be able to handle it and I’ll leave?” “The idea of trusting me seems to make you feel more worried and anxious.” “I can see why you would not trust me until I show you that I can be different.”
 “I left because our argument was so bad, I thought it would get physical.” “You thought the wisest thing to do was leave and not chance the possibility of a fight?” “The idea that we might physically fight must have been really scary for you.” “It makes sense that when I pushed you, you were afraid you might strike back.”
 “If you think I’m going to do my homework now, you’re nuts.” “You think that this is a very poor time to do your assignment?” “Are you resentful that I’m asking you to do homework when we have company?” “I can see why you would feel left out when everyone else is having a good time.”
 “You never listen to me-You just try to fix me.” “What do you mean when you say I try to ”  fix” you?” “You get frustrated when I think for you and give you solutions.” “It makes sense that you want me to hear your ideas instead of giving you mine.”
 “I have to do something to help you when you complain so much!” “You think that if you don’t help me, I’ll never feel better?” “You must feel a lot of pressure when I get upset.” “People have always counted on you, so I can see why you take over.”

Although these examples demonstrate the tremendous improvement that can take place in communication with active listening, they may bring up some concerns:

  • Active listening sounds so artificial! This is true. Feeding back, labeling feelings, and validating are learned responses. Reassuring, explaining, and insulting come from animal instinct and do not have to be taught. They are generally the worst thing to do during an emotional moment.
  • Am I supposed to start repeating everything I hear? You do not have to use active listening every time someone talks to you. Disagreeing and advising can make everyday banter fun and challenging. It is only during emotional moments, when you notice tension, that it is essential to switch gears and become an active listener.
  • Will I ever get a chance to speak? When you carefully listen without inserting your views, other people become curious about where you stand. Surprisingly, you will remember your own issues even though you’ve just put them out of your mind. However, your concerns may diminish when you thoroughly understand others.

Trying to get your point across without thoroughly understanding other people is like venturing into enemy territory without first doing reconnaissance work. Your power comes from understanding others-not from being understood!


The Art of Understanding


An example of good, clear communication.

Active listening, or showing others that you understand them, is the most important step in the dance of communication. Generally, during an emotional moment, two people are desperately trying to get their points across to each other and neither is actually listening. Or one person is going on and the other is tuning him or her out. The way out of this dilemma is the listening paradox: When you most want someone to hear you, it helps to listen first!

Active Listening Tools

True listening occurs when you clear your mind of your own thoughts and put your attention entirely on another person. The following steps help build the concentration necessary for active listening:

  • Make eye contact, nods of understanding, and listening noises: “Uh huh. . . . hmm. . . .” When you appear disinterested, people talk on and on, desperately trying to gain your attention. Focusing on the speaker shortens monologues by helping the speaker realize you are listening.
  • Rephrase: “Are you saying . . . ?” It is better to restate in other words what has been said than to simply repeat. This helps clarify the other person’s point. Ask questions if you don’t fully understand what has been said: “What do you mean by . . . ?” Your paraphrases don’t have to be 100% correct as long as you ask, “What percent of that did I understand?” Keep rephrasing until the other person feels completely understood. This is often signified by a nod.
  • Label feelings: “Do you feel . . . ? You seem to feel. . . .” Until emotions are recognized, people tend to hang on to them. Once feelings are identified, people can let them go. Highly accurate responses can draw out tears. Releasing such emotions deepens the connection between two people and takes communication to an intimate level (especially when accompanied by a touch, pat, or hug). When people are mad, identify any hurt their anger may be masking. It is generally better to overstate distress than to minimize it.
  • Validate feelings: “It makes sense that you feel . . . because. . . .” Validating the factors that contribute to a feeling requires curiosity. The more irrational an emotion seems, the more fascinating it is to discover the cause. When you understand the “emotional logic” behind a feeling, it starts to make sense: “I can see why you are disappointed in me, since you don’t approve of women wearing short skirts.” Feelings are not right or wrong, but are the result of helpful or harmful beliefs. Validating shows that you are not making judgments and helps others be less defensive or attacking.

Tomorrow: Active Listening Examples


Unexpected Challenges in a Remarriage (1 of 9)


Looking forward to a second marriage? Yippee, another shot at marital bliss!

Before you take the plunge it will be helpful to have some pre-remarriage conversations. This is especially true if you’ve ever said,

• “My first spouse was a monster; I won’t have any problems with my second spouse.”
• “I learned from my first marriage; I won’t make any mistakes this time around.”
• “Love conquers all, love is blind, love covers a multitude of sins.”
• “I was married before so I know what to expect.”

Remarriages pose several challenges that first time marriages never face, particularly the thorny question, “How will the new person fit into existing family dynamics?”

As a public service this blog series will call attention to the specific challenges remarrying couples face. We’ll raise the questions; it’s up to each couple how they answer them. We encourage couples to discuss them before a remarriage takes place.

2. How Second Marriages Differ from First Marriages
3. Remarriage and Money
4. Remarriage and Family intimacy
5. Remarriage and Routines
6. Remarriage and Insider/Outsider Dynamics
7. Remarriage and Parenting
8. Remarriage and Exes
9. Remarriage and Seven Stages of Blending

How To Manage Your Half Empty Bucket (5 of 7)

Green Eyed Funnies.5

In no particular order here are six “managing your empty bucket” strategies.

1. As motivation to do serious personal bucket work, recognize how insecurity can become a self fulfilling prophecy. Neediness drives others away which reinforces your belief that you’re unlovable which only further drives others away.
2. Build your life around things that are stable and unshakable. For many this includes a spiritual approach. Healthy and stable persons are attractive persons.
3. Deal with past abandonment issues. Turn past traumas into a narrative and integrate them into your present reality.
4. Examine a possible insecure attachment style. Don’t blame yourself if you had negligent parents. It’s not your fault they were incompetent. You can unlearn bad lessons and learn new lessons about your lovability and others’ trustworthiness.
5. Develop an internal switch for happiness. Do not base your happiness on circumstances.
6. Look at yourself as a keeper. If you do all in your power to woo a partner and they aren’t wooed it may not be you that is broken. It may be them.

NEXT: Plug Your Leaky Bucket

What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage by Amy Sutherland (NYT, 6/26/2006)

Art by David Chelsea

Guest post by Amy Sutherland (first appeared in the New York Times, 2006)

AS I wash dishes at the kitchen sink, my husband paces behind me, irritated. “Have you seen my keys?” he snarls, then huffs out a loud sigh and stomps from the room with our dog, Dixie, at his heels, anxious over her favorite human’s upset.

In the past I would have been right behind Dixie. I would have turned off the faucet and joined the hunt while trying to soothe my husband with bromides like, “Don’t worry, they’ll turn up.” But that only made him angrier, and a simple case of missing keys soon would become a full-blown angst-ridden drama starring the two of us and our poor nervous dog.

Now, I focus on the wet dish in my hands. I don’t turn around. I don’t say a word. I’m using a technique I learned from a dolphin trainer.

I love my husband. He’s well read, adventurous and does a hysterical rendition of a northern Vermont accent that still cracks me up after 12 years of marriage.

But he also tends to be forgetful, and is often tardy and mercurial. He hovers around me in the kitchen asking if I read this or that piece in The New Yorker when I’m trying to concentrate on the simmering pans. He leaves wadded tissues in his wake. He suffers from serious bouts of spousal deafness but never fails to hear me when I mutter to myself on the other side of the house. “What did you say?” he’ll shout.

These minor annoyances are not the stuff of separation and divorce, but in sum they began to dull my love for Scott. I wanted — needed — to nudge him a little closer to perfect, to make him into a mate who might annoy me a little less, who wouldn’t keep me waiting at restaurants, a mate who would be easier to love.

So, like many wives before me, I ignored a library of advice books and set about improving him. By nagging, of course, which only made his behavior worse: he’d drive faster instead of slower; shave less frequently, not more; and leave his reeking bike garb on the bedroom floor longer than ever.

We went to a counselor to smooth the edges off our marriage. She didn’t understand what we were doing there and complimented us repeatedly on how well we communicated. I gave up. I guessed she was right — our union was better than most — and resigned myself to stretches of slow-boil resentment and occasional sarcasm.

Then something magical happened. For a book I was writing about a school for exotic animal trainers, I started commuting from Maine to California, where I spent my days watching students do the seemingly impossible: teaching hyenas to pirouette on command, cougars to offer their paws for a nail clipping, and baboons to skateboard.

I listened, rapt, as professional trainers explained how they taught dolphins to flip and elephants to paint. Eventually it hit me that the same techniques might work on that stubborn but lovable species, the American husband.

The central lesson I learned from exotic animal trainers is that I should reward behavior I like and ignore behavior I don’t. After all, you don’t get a sea lion to balance a ball on the end of its nose by nagging. The same goes for the American husband.

Back in Maine, I began thanking Scott if he threw one dirty shirt into the hamper. If he threw in two, I’d kiss him. Meanwhile, I would step over any soiled clothes on the floor without one sharp word, though I did sometimes kick them under the bed. But as he basked in my appreciation, the piles became smaller.

I was using what trainers call “approximations,” rewarding the small steps toward learning a whole new behavior. You can’t expect a baboon to learn to flip on command in one session, just as you can’t expect an American husband to begin regularly picking up his dirty socks by praising him once for picking up a single sock. With the baboon you first reward a hop, then a bigger hop, then an even bigger hop. With Scott the husband, I began to praise every small act every time: if he drove just a mile an hour slower, tossed one pair of shorts into the hamper, or was on time for anything.

I also began to analyze my husband the way a trainer considers an exotic animal. Enlightened trainers learn all they can about a species, from anatomy to social structure, to understand how it thinks, what it likes and dislikes, what comes easily to it and what doesn’t. For example, an elephant is a herd animal, so it responds to hierarchy. It cannot jump, but can stand on its head. It is a vegetarian.

The exotic animal known as Scott is a loner, but an alpha male. So hierarchy matters, but being in a group doesn’t so much. He has the balance of a gymnast, but moves slowly, especially when getting dressed. Skiing comes naturally, but being on time does not. He’s an omnivore, and what a trainer would call food-driven.

Once I started thinking this way, I couldn’t stop. At the school in California, I’d be scribbling notes on how to walk an emu or have a wolf accept you as a pack member, but I’d be thinking, “I can’t wait to try this on Scott.”

On a field trip with the students, I listened to a professional trainer describe how he had taught African crested cranes to stop landing on his head and shoulders. He did this by training the leggy birds to land on mats on the ground. This, he explained, is what is called an “incompatible behavior,” a simple but brilliant concept.

Rather than teach the cranes to stop landing on him, the trainer taught the birds something else, a behavior that would make the undesirable behavior impossible. The birds couldn’t alight on the mats and his head simultaneously.

At home, I came up with incompatible behaviors for Scott to keep him from crowding me while I cooked. To lure him away from the stove, I piled up parsley for him to chop or cheese for him to grate at the other end of the kitchen island. Or I’d set out a bowl of chips and salsa across the room. Soon I’d done it: no more Scott hovering around me while I cooked.

I followed the students to SeaWorld San Diego, where a dolphin trainer introduced me to least reinforcing syndrome (L. R. S.). When a dolphin does something wrong, the trainer doesn’t respond in any way. He stands still for a few beats, careful not to look at the dolphin, and then returns to work. The idea is that any response, positive or negative, fuels a behavior. If a behavior provokes no response, it typically dies away.

In the margins of my notes I wrote, “Try on Scott!”

It was only a matter of time before he was again tearing around the house searching for his keys, at which point I said nothing and kept at what I was doing. It took a lot of discipline to maintain my calm, but results were immediate and stunning. His temper fell far shy of its usual pitch and then waned like a fast-moving storm. I felt as if I should throw him a mackerel.

Now he’s at it again; I hear him banging a closet door shut, rustling through papers on a chest in the front hall and thumping upstairs. At the sink, I hold steady. Then, sure enough, all goes quiet. A moment later, he walks into the kitchen, keys in hand, and says calmly, “Found them.”

Without turning, I call out, “Great, see you later.”

Off he goes with our much-calmed pup.

After two years of exotic animal training, my marriage is far smoother, my husband much easier to love. I used to take his faults personally; his dirty clothes on the floor were an affront, a symbol of how he didn’t care enough about me. But thinking of my husband as an exotic species gave me the distance I needed to consider our differences more objectively.

I adopted the trainers’ motto: “It’s never the animal’s fault.” When my training attempts failed, I didn’t blame Scott. Rather, I brainstormed new strategies, thought up more incompatible behaviors and used smaller approximations. I dissected my own behavior, considered how my actions might inadvertently fuel his. I also accepted that some behaviors were too entrenched, too instinctive to train away. You can’t stop a badger from digging, and you can’t stop my husband from losing his wallet and keys.

PROFESSIONALS talk of animals that understand training so well they eventually use it back on the trainer. My animal did the same. When the training techniques worked so beautifully, I couldn’t resist telling my husband what I was up to. He wasn’t offended, just amused. As I explained the techniques and terminology, he soaked it up. Far more than I realized.

Last fall, firmly in middle age, I learned that I needed braces. They were not only humiliating, but also excruciating. For weeks my gums, teeth, jaw and sinuses throbbed. I complained frequently and loudly. Scott assured me that I would become used to all the metal in my mouth. I did not.

One morning, as I launched into yet another tirade about how uncomfortable I was, Scott just looked at me blankly. He didn’t say a word or acknowledge my rant in any way, not even with a nod.

I quickly ran out of steam and started to walk away. Then I realized what was happening, and I turned and asked, “Are you giving me an L. R. S.?” Silence. “You are, aren’t you?”

He finally smiled, but his L. R. S. has already done the trick. He’d begun to train me, the American wife.

Amy Sutherland is the author of “Kicked, Bitten and Scratched: Life and Lessons at the Premier School for Exotic Animal Trainers” (Viking, June 2006). She lives in Boston and in Portland, Me.

Lemons Not to Accept (3 of 7)

Lemon Funnies.7

I’m glad the generation which Tom Brokaw called The Greatest Generation, did not accept the spread of fascism 75 years ago. There are times when acceptance is not advised and World War Two was clearly one of those times.

Sometimes we give up in the face of unpleasant situations. Sometimes we put up with stuff we shouldn’t put up with. Sometimes we shut up when we should speak up. “Learned helplessness” leaves us vulnerable, powerless, and in victim mode.

Things we don’t need to accept

  • abuse (ours or others’)
  • bullying (ours or others’)
  • our addictions
  • our negative outlook on life
  • our fears
  • our words (even though our tongue has a mind of its own, we’re the boss, not it)
  • our imperfections (if making improvements is possible and desirable)
  • illness and chronic pain (assuming there are other options to explore)
  • staying stuck in victim mode, pity mode, or complaining mode

Once we distinguish what to accept and what to resist, then what? Tune in tomorrow.

Next: Creative Approaches to Lemons