We often see assertions about what good leadership entails.  Recently I got a marketing email from someone claiming to help leaders develop “mindfulness, selflessness, and compassion.”  These are certainly good qualities, but leaders may also have to be, depending on the situation, perceptive, astute about whom to trust and for what, strategic in prioritizing initiatives, decisive, and in some ways ruthless.  

What such claims about essentials in leadership miss is that leadership doesn’t operate in a vacuum.  A leader creates a culture, or comes into a culture that already exists, in an environment in which the group or organization has to survive and accomplish goals.  The success of the leader will depend on her or his ability to configure or reconfigure the group or organization’s culture around the dynamics, characteristics, relationships and economics that are relevant to its current challenges, opportunities, and necessities.  The leader exercises leadership on the fly; while the group or organization is doing whatever it’s doing.  And in the action of leadership there is a moral dimension; the question of which value priorities the leader expresses in goal-setting and decision-making.

This is so fundamental that I would expect it to be widely acknowledged in theories and discussions about leadership, but I don’t find that it is.  Instead, people tend to talk about leadership as if it were a single ability or skill set.  The great psychologist George Kelly, back in the 1950’s, noted that different kinds of groups and situations require different kinds of leaders, but I don’t find that insight to be widely acknowledged, even today.  

What, for example, about being “mindful, selfless and compassionate?”  

Sometimes leaders have to be more mindful, sometimes less.  It depends on what they have to be mindful about, in the current situation of the organization.  If they are mindful about the wrong things, the focus won’t be where it needs to be.  A lot of leadership coaching (and therapy for that matter) is about helping people to be more mindful about some things and less mindful about others.  

Sometimes leaders have to be more selfless, sometimes more selfish.  The narrowly selfish leader needs to be more selfless, to identify with the organization’s well-being rather than seeing it as serving himself (or herself).  The leader who is so selfless that necessary goals are lost sight of will not be effective.  As psychologist Robert Ornstein said, the mystical-minded person who, upon being approached by a man-eating tiger, thinks “Here’s one of God’s creatures about to eat another of God’s creatures,” will probably not contribute to the gene pool.   

Sometimes leaders need to be more compassionate, more aware of the experience of people around her and of those whom the organization comes into contact with.  But sometimes leaders need to be less compassionate; for example, avoiding difficult conversations and personnel decisions out of compassion for people who may be hurt by them can result in weakening and undermining the organization. 

In his “Reflections,” the Sufi author Idries Shah wrote:  “Right time, right place, right people equals success.  Wrong time, wrong place, wrong people, equals most of the real human story.”  If we look at leadership from this perspective, we  may be able to see more of what is really happening.

On Real Maple Syrup, and My Interest in the Sufi Writing of Idries Shah

Someone asked me about how I became interested in the Sufi writing of Idries Shah, back in the 1970s.  Here’s what I wrote:

I don’t have a comprehensive, or even coherent, narrative about my interest in Sufism (as presented by Idries Shah), but here are some parts.

First, a metaphor from life.  I grew up in a home in New Haven in which the “maple syrup” on the table for pancakes was actually mostly corn syrup with a small percentage of maple syrup or flavoring, sometimes with butter flavoring.  When I went to Vermont for college, I had real maple syrup.  It was then that I realized what real maple syrup was, and that what I had been introduced to as “maple syrup” was an imitation; and also how to tell, by taste, the difference between the imitation and the real thing.  Thus with Shah’s Sufi writings and activities, and what I had formerly been introduced to as “religion” and “spirituality.”

Second, as I read Shah’s books, along with books by other authors in various traditions, the situations and behavior described in Shah’s writings made more sense to me.  They described human behavior as I experienced it better than other sources.  The foibles and mistakes that they described in people seeking knowledge or claiming to represent knowledge traditions and authority seemed to describe the academic and professional psychologists and mental health specialists I was reading and studying among better than their own materials.  Stupid psychologist and “expert” behavior was well described in the Sufi materials, albeit in the religious/spiritual context, rather than in the psychological materials I was reading, but the application was often obvious.  And the characteristics of people who attained some access to deeper/higher perception/perspective were also better described in the Sufi materials than in psychological ones.

Third, the teaching stories provided access to insight like no other tool or method I experienced.  Sometimes I would find a person or situation exactly described in a story.  At other times, meanings in stories would unfold, sometimes at considerable length after reading them, when prompted by experience, and I began to see my own behavior in them, as well as that of others.  Reading and listening to teaching stories with the attitude that I would find what I could in them now, and more later, was a method that worked for me, and tended to confirm the validity of the materials.

I saw Shah only once, I think in 1975, when he came to New York for a conference, where Bob Ornstein, Peter Brent, and  Rene Dubos also presented.  Shah made sense; was informative, ironic, occasionally wryly funny, not trying to recruit; challenging, not for its own sake but to point out our culture’s foibles when it came to seeking and trying to understand spirituality, and inviting us to be more knowledgable in our approach; and every presenter was informative and impressive, each in his own way.  Reading the materials, listening to Shah at the time and then to the lectures on cassette, there was a sense of widening of horizons of information about human nature, pitfalls on the path of life, ways to avoid them by being aware of them, attitudes from which we could reach higher; and, just as importantly, not fall lower.

Over the years, the materials have continued to be a kind of touchstone and lifeline, a collection of windows and doorways (to mix metaphors!) into wider perceptions, which have helped to support and sustain my aspirations; and also provided some needed balance and ballast in life.  Among the perceptions which the stories support is the recognition that society is much more primitive than we are taught to believe as we come up in it, and recognizing that disillusionment is a necessary part of the learning.

And the fact that, notwithstanding that Sufi materials hold the most discerning mirror up to human shortcomings, they come from, represent, and call something in us toward a higher level of being, from which such perceptions emanate; so they are both a hopeful message and part of the path toward that perception.  I have had occasion to remind myself that it was Bahaudin Naqshband, no less, who said that someday everyone would have the perceptive capacities of Sufis.  That has been something to hold onto, at times.

Shah advised people who were interested in Sufi materials to learn about conditioning, indoctrination and brainwashing, in order not to approach Sufi learning as if it were a cult.  And I savored the economy, precision and fluidity of language in Shah’s writings, the way he expresses complex ideas simply, and the humor, the bite, and the insistence that humor and bite are necessary in this learning process.

A Special Kind of Reading Experience: “The Sufis,” by Idries Shah

Until 1964, when “The Sufis” was published, Sufism was mostly the preserve of scholars, at least in the West.  “The Sufis” began a new era, opening a window on Sufi activity, history and influence.   Shah presents new information in an accessible way, and many readers feel that it’s a book they’ve been looking for.  Stories, history, unusually lucid perspectives on human nature and spirituality, and challenges to assumptions and established ways of thinking, are intertwined throughout, eventually combining to produce a special kind of reading experience.

“The Sufis” begins with the story of “The Islanders.”  This is a “teaching story;” Shah’s name for a form of literature whose internal structure and dynamics can support and provoke experience in the reader (a Sufi speciality).  Sometimes the learning happens at the time of reading, when the story helps us make sense of perceptions and experiences.  Often, as Desmond Morris, author of “The Naked Ape” and The Human Zoo” observed, it’s a delayed effect that happens when we encounter situations in life that evoke a story.  Morris is one of the leading observers of human nature who has commented on Shah’s work; others include author Doris Lessing, psychiatrist and author Arthur Deikman, and psychologist and author Robert Ornstein.

After “The Islanders” sets the stage, “The Travelers and the Grapes”—another teaching story—opens a discussion of the contextual background.  Here we start to look at the history of interaction of cultures; often concealed because spiritual practices not sanctioned by the authorities could have brought severe penalties over the last thousand years or so.  Here we also begin to see the Sufi approach to spiritual development; which I’ve found to be unparalleled in lucidity about human nature.

The chapter on “The Elephant in the Dark,” based on Rumi’s story, continues the intertwining of narrative, perspectives on human nature, and intercultural history.  Then we meet the joke-figure Mulla Nasrudin, “one of the strangest achievements in the history of metaphysics,” whose antics illustrate “situations in which certain states of mind are made clear;” usually when he’s acting the idiot.  Subsequent chapters introduce classical Sufis, including Rumi, Attar, Omar Khayyam, ibn el-Arabi, and el-Ghazzali, and trace the influence of Sufi thought and action on Western figures (such as Chaucer and St. Francis) and groups.  We also meet the work of Western Sufis, such as Richard Burton (whose “Kasidah,” a remarkable poem of great depth, is reviewed), and are introduced to The Dervish Orders, The Creed of Love, Magic and Miracles, and more.

Of course, over the five decades since its publication, some things have changed.  In his discussion of Sufi orders, which do not need traditional buildings and grounds except as required by local economic and political conditions, Shah mentions that “one Arabic publishing company is a Sufi organization.  In some areas all the industrial and agricultural workers are Sufis.”  This might have changed in the political, economic and military upheavals of the past fifty years, but the principle remains the same; the “order” is in the hearts and networks of people.  The “beautiful tomb,” of the great teacher Data Ganj Bakhsh (Ali el-Hujwiri), in Lahore, “venerated by people of all creeds,” was bombed by terrorists in 2010.  The Idries Shah Foundation print and Kindle editions of “The Sufis” omit the original Introduction by Robert Graves (I like Grave’s commentary but “The Sufis” is complete without it).

Still, five decades after its publication, “The Sufis” continues to be relevant.  At first reading, and later re-readings after intervals, “The Sufis” continues to pack advanced spiritual psychology, eye-opening history, and impacts that both confirm and extend perceptions, and highlight and disconfirm prejudices and assumptions, into a special reading experience.

reviewed by Jay Einhorn, PhD, LCPC, www.psychatlarge.com

Attitudes and Skills for Having Difficult Conversations More Effectively

By Jay Einhorn, © 2013

We all need to be able to have difficult conversations effectively, and there are attitudes and skills that can help us do that. Here’s a summary I wrote, with a pitch at the end for consulting and training work.

Executive Summary

Communication fads come and go, but difficult conversations are here to stay, so information that helps us to have them more productively is welcome. The books, “Difficult Conversations,” and “Crucial Conversations” describe a number of ideas, attitudes and skills to help. I’m using key ideas, mainly from “Difficult Conversations,” in my consultation and therapy, and recommend the book. “Crucial Conversations” looks at the same territory in a somewhat different way, with one very important difference. I introduce ideas from both books, together with information from other sources, in my consultation, training and therapy.

Learning a concept doesn’t necessarily mean knowing it deeply enough to apply it, and there’s a tendency to revert to old habits and “them and us” attitudes in actual situations. So, in addition to presenting the information, I recommend supporting depth learning through experiential methods, including discussion of cases, role playing, and ongoing focus on the issue through a focus on pre- and post- difficult conversation work.

We All Have Difficult Conversations

Communication fads come and go–there’s a new one every few years in the worlds of human relations, education and organizational training–but difficult conversations have always been with us, and always will be. As a student of human nature, a therapist, diagnostician, consulting psychologist, administrator, and–of course–as a person living in this world, I have been in and around many difficult conversations!

Four impressions have become clear:

1. Many difficult conversations that go badly don’t need to be had at all. They occur because of a misunderstanding that could have been cleared up through simple inquiry, or because people acted on feelings and assumptions that they should have taken time and effort to understand and manage rather than “letting them out the door” prematurely.

2. Many difficult conversations that must be had are avoided, because the people who need to initiate and manage them don’t know how to. The result is that bad consequences are allowed to happen because no one is dealing with a problem that needs to be dealt with.

3. When difficult conversations are necessary, there are attitudes and skills that can help them to go better. Potential damage can be avoided or minimized, and relationships preserved and even improved. The participants in the conversation can learn things they need to learn. Such conversations can even be healing.

4. When difficult conversations happen without the necessary attitudes and skill, they can be counterproductive. Relationships can be damaged, people can be hurt–there can be “too much heat and not enough light,” in one of my favorite phrases–necessary learning won’t happen, and the consequences can be injurious to the people having them and their families, organizations, communities, and societies.

The book “Difficult Conversations,” by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen, of the Harvard Negotiation Project, takes an in-depth look at how difficult conversations can go wrong, and describes a set of ideas, attitudes and skills to support having the necessary difficult conversations of life more effectively and productively (http://www.amazon.com/Difficult-Conversations-Discuss-what-Matters). I’ve found it useful in my work in individual and couples therapy and organizational consultation and training.

Some Key Ideas From “Difficult Conversations”

1. Shift from a Conflict Conversation to a “Learning Conversation”

The purpose of applying “Difficult Conversations” methods is to move difficult conversations from being antagonistic or adversarial conversations, in which people are attacking and defending or trying to achieve goals through power or manipulation, to being learning conversations in which both parties are listening to one another as well as saying what they need to say.

2. The “Three Conversations:”

A key idea in “Difficult Conversations: is that every difficult conversation is really three conversations:

1. The “What Happened” conversation, consisting of “3 stories,”

2. The “Feelings” conversation, and

3. The “Identity” conversation.

3. What Happened: The Three Stories

There are three stories about “what happened” in every difficult conversation: each party’s story or narrative of events, and the “third story.” The “third story” is the story which might be told by an impartial third party, such as a mediator, which includes elements of each party’s story without casting any blame.

For example, in a school situation, a parent and teacher might need to have a difficult conversation about a child’s failure to complete his homework.

Let’s say that Johnny, a fifth grader, has stopped handing in his homework and is falling behind in class. The teacher’s story is that she is sending homework home with Johnny but his parents are not following through to make sure that he does it. Johnny’s parents both have demanding jobs and the teacher thinks that they are just too drained when they get home to have the energy to do the difficult work of making Johnny do homework, especially if he doesn’t want to do it. She also thinks Johnny’s parents might feel guilty about spending so much time away from home at work, so they might be overly permissive and allow him to avoid homework.

Johnny’s parents’ story, on the other hand, is that Johnny is being bullied by a bunch of kids at school, and he’s hurt, sad and angry about it, so he doesn’t want to even think about school once he’s out of there. So that’s why they think Johnny isn’t doing his homework. And they think his teacher is either accepting other students bullying him as normal behavior and letting it happen, or else that she is just too careless to even notice that it’s happening.

The “third story” is that Johnny is not doing his homework and falling behind in school, so now his teacher and parents need to look at this together to try to understand why he’s falling behind and see how they can work together to help him get back on track.

The “Difficult Conversations” authors suggest starting a difficult conversation with the “third story.” Johnny’s teacher might do that at the beginning of her meeting with his parents, to start the conversation on a good foundation that she can “reframe” back to if the conversation is in danger of becoming undermined or blown up as it progresses.

4. The “Feelings Conversation”

According to “Difficult Conversations,” every difficult conversation is powered by feelings, which are often not acknowledged. It can be very important to acknowledge these feelings without letting them undermine the conversation. For example, Johnny’s parents may feel angry about Johnny’s being bullied at school, helpless to do anything about it, and let down by his teacher. His teacher may feel let down by Johnny’s parents, and unfairly blamed. It’s important for both parties to acknowledge and respect one another’s feelings, while not letting them derail the conversation. If someone becomes too upset, taking a time out and returning to the conversation in a few minutes, or even rescheduling it to another day, can help to keep it on track.

5. “Reframing”

Reframing is one of the most important “Difficult Conversations” skills. If Johnny’s parents accuse his teacher of not caring about him, she could allow the conversation to get blown off course, by reacting defensively or counterattacking, or she could reframe the conversation by interpreting their comment as an expression of their concern, emphasizing that she is concerned too–that’s why she called the meeting–and getting the conversation back on track.

6. The “Identity Conversation”

The “identity conversation” could be described as the stake that each person’s ego or self has in their personal or professional role in the conversation. For example, if Johnny’s parents accuse his teacher of not caring about Johnny, they are attacking her identity as a teacher. If she then gets stuck in defending herself–”of course I care about him, I’ve been a teaching for a dozen years and I care about every one of my students!”–or gets too upset to remember her agenda for the meeting and keep managing her role as facilitator, the conversation is likely to become useless or counterproductive. And of course the same thing could happen if she counterattacks Johnny’s parents with: “If you cared about him you’d make sure he got his homework done!”

7. Reframe From Blame to Contribution

The “Difficult Conversations” authors regard the establishment of blame as not a useful strategy. Instead, they assert, it’s more useful to think in terms of the relative contribution of each party. In our example, it doesn’t really help anyone for Johnny’s parents blame his teacher or his teacher to blames his parents. But if, as a result of the difficult conversation, Johnny’s parents and teacher can have a learning conversation, the teacher might realize that she’s contributed to the problem by not being aware that Johnny was feeling picked on, and his parents might realize that they’ve contributed by not taking a firmer position with Johnny about doing his homework regardless of how he felt about his day at school.

8. Avoid “Intention Invention”

By “intention invention,” the authors mean that we make up reasons about why we think someone we’re in a conflict with is doing whatever they’re doing, when in fact we don’t really know why they’re doing it.

“Intention Invention” reminds me of two rather complicated ideas, which I’ll mention without going into in depth: “attribution” in cognitive psychology, and “projective identification” in psychoanalytic psychology. I’ve described how these ideas relate to intention invention in my blog, http://psychatlarge.blogspot.com/.

The “Difficult Conversation” authors emphasize that most of what we do has multiple motivational sources. In our school example, Johnny may be falling behind in his homework partly because he’s being picked on, partly because he feels the teacher doesn’t like him, partly because he finds the work difficult and would rather avoid it, partly because there are more enjoyable activities for him to do after school, and partly because he can get his parents to let him; which then makes him feel special and able to control the events in his life, at least at home. His teacher and parents will have similar multiple motivations contributing to their own perceptions, feelings, and attributions. So it’s generally a mistake to think that someone we’re in a conflict with is doing whatever they’re doing for only one reason,; or that we ourselves are. We are almost always operating on the basis of a mixture of motivations.

“Intention invention” is a modern version of the old saying, “Give a dog a bad name and hang it.”

9. Authentic Listening

Authentic listening is a key skill in any difficult conversation. Everyone knows that you’re supposed to listen, but people often just go through the motions of listening, and sooner or later the other person usually gets this.

The Difficult Conversations authors don’t assume equal motivation on the part of both parties at the beginning of the conversation. Whichever party is taking the responsibility to facilitate the difficult conversation has to be ready to authentically listen to what the other party has to say. The purpose of listening is not to defeat the other person in argument, or manipulate them, or wear them out. I would say that authentic listening leads to existential engagement, and that often makes a difference in difficult conversations, because people often know intuitively when someone is, or isn’t, really engaging with them.

“Crucial Conversations” and Truth

Another book that provides insight, attitudes and skills for having difficult conversations effectively is “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes Are High,” by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler (http://www.amazon.com/Crucial-Conversations-Tools-Talking-Stakes). “Crucial Conversations” provides ideas such as “Speaking Persuasively, Not Abrasively” and “Making It Safe” in a conversation, and many others, covering much of the same territory as “Difficult Conversations,” in another way. But one key difference between “Crucial Conversations” and “Difficult Conversations” is in the attitude toward truth.

“Difficult Conversations,” holds that each person has their own truth, but there isn’t necessarily an objective truth per se. “Crucial Conversations,” on the other hand, both sees objective truth as existing in situations, and even sees the goal of conversational skill as to be able to speak the truth about a situation effectively, in a way that doesn’t attack or repel the other person(s) in the conversation, and in a way that they can hear. So, in “Difficult Conversations,” there’s my truth, and your truth, and we have to work it out. In “Crucial Conversations,” there’s the truth, and we have to be able to acknowledge it together.

I believe that there is an objective truth in all situations, but that it’s more important to some difficult conversations than others to acknowledge it explicitly. A related issue is how much truth needs to be acknowledged in a difficult conversation in order for progress to be made. There is, after all, always more truth than we can perceive or absorb at any given time. This has led me to coin the phrase, “the minimum necessary truth.” That means that, in any situation, there is a minimum necessary truth which must be acknowledged by all parties if things are to be made better.

“Them and Us:” Arthur Deikman

Psychiatrist Arthur Deikman (www.Deikman.com) makes an important contribution in his book, “Them and Us: Cult Thinking and the Terrorist Threat” (http://www.amazon.com/Them-Us-Thinking-Terrorist-Threat). Deikman discusses the effect of propaganda and how cult-like thinking can foster the illusion of debate of issues rather than genuine consideration. “In most conflict situations, disagreements are based on differences in interpretation and in the priorities given to different values, but these differences are seldom stated, and, lacking that clarification, we absorb highly selective information, are swayed to one side or the other, but end up no wiser…opposing propagandas do not assist the democratic process but produce partisans, each with the mind-set of a cult member…” It’s easy to see how the same attitudes undermine the necessary difficult conversations of life, when the participants try to win (however they define that) rather than have an actual conversation.

Deikman indicates four areas that can usefully be clarified in the discussion of a controversial problem:

“1. The key data. (Are they disputed?)

2. Interpretations of the data.

3. Value conflicts. (Reason for giving one value priority over the other?)

4. Error indicators. (What events or facts would indicate to each side that their belief or strategy should be changed?)”

Clearly these ideas, and the attitudes underlying them, can usefully be included in many difficult conversations.

Application: From Passive to Active Understanding

The attitudes and skills for having difficult conversations more successfully are not easy for most of us to acquire and use. We generally don’t learn them through our professional education, or even our moral, religious, or spiritual education. Doing difficult conversations well requires an enormous amount of cognitive executive functioning–that is, staying on task, not taking criticisms and attacks too personally, continually monitoring the conversation and reframing as necessary.

Psychologists distinguish between different forms of learning, such as semantic and procedural. It’s one thing to know the key ideas about how to have difficult conversations more effectively so that one can define them or answer multiple choice questions about them. It’s entirely another thing to know them deeply enough to apply them in actual situations. In my work with individuals, couples and groups, I’ve often found that people who seem to understand them pretty well when I discuss them, or present them in lecture and Powerpoint, often revert instantly to a “them and us” attitude when applying them in discussion of cases or role playing exercises.

Surely, there are different levels or ways of knowing, and it’s part of human nature that we know information that we don’t apply. One of my favorite teaching stories is about Ibrahim Ben Adhem, a prince who, like the Buddha, left his royal home to seek knowledge. As he was walking down the road he came across a stone on which was written: “Turn me over and read.” Turning the stone over, Ben Adhem read: “Why do you seek more knowledge when you pay no heed to what you already know?” (Retold by Idries Shah in his Caravan of Dreams, within the narrative, “Encounter At A Hermitage.” See listing at http://www.ishkbooks.com/books/books_shah_catalog.html)

There are multiple levels of depth to that story! We often find, as we look back on our mistakes, that we knew better than to do whatever we did. We may have had some sort of inkling that we failed to heed at the time, or maybe there was a principle that we ignored because we wanted to see the situation in some other way than it really was. In psychotherapy and consultation, I often contribute more by helping my clients clarify and apply what they already know, than by introducing new information; though some new information may be necessary to help them understand and use what they already know, like the “stone,” and some effort, like “turning it over.”

Emphasizing the difference between different kinds of learning, British educational psychologist Lawrence Stenhouse, in his, “Introduction to Curriculum Research and Development,” distinguished between “information,” by which he meant what we know passively (for example what we can define on a multiple choice test) and “knowledge,” by which he meant understanding that we can apply in situations in which the correct response can’t be pre-specified. (http://www.amazon.com/Introduction-Curriculum-Research-Development-Stenhouse). American psychologist Robert Ornstein, in his “Mindreal” (http://www.ishkbooks.com/books/MRB.html), refers to his research on both halves of the brain in discussing how the left hemisphere is more involved in understanding words as such, but the right hemisphere is more involved in interpreting what they really mean.

This is why experiential learning is so important when it comes to learning difficult conversation skills (and many other relationship skills!). Discussion of actual case situations, and role playing of actual and simulated situations helps to bring home the meaning of attitudes and skills for difficult conversations. Even participants who just watch can potentially benefit from watching others actually engaged, as cats who watched other cats learn a maze were able to learn it more quickly later than cats who hadn’t.

Accordingly, there are several ways that I’ve been involved in helping people to learn skills for having difficult conversations more effectively:

1. An information presentation of basic ideas, attitudes and skills for having difficult conversations more successfully. This happens on a discussion basis in individual and couples therapy, and is supported by Powerpoint and handouts in group training.

2. Consultation reviewing case studies involving discussion of actual difficult conversations.

3. Experiential learning through role playing.

4. Ongoing consultation and training, including pre-planning before difficult conversations and debriefing afterward, extending over a series of consultations.

5. Actual involvement as a consultant-participant-facilitator in difficult conversations, optimally also including pre-planning and debriefing.

Even with training, we all learn in our own way and at our own pace, and sometimes we have to have experiences after training for the training we’ve received to actually make sense. But we’re all going to be involved in difficult conversations, so it’s important that we learn attitudes and skills that support having them more effectively. Knowing and using a more productive approach can make a great deal of difference, again and again.

(note: I want to emphasize that I haven’t met the authors of “Difficult Conversations,” haven’t received training from them or their colleagues, and am not an “official vendor” of “Difficult Conversations” training. I’ve been interested in helping people develop attitudes and skills for having difficult conversations and resolving conflicts more successfully for a long time, and “Difficult Conversations” is a valuable resource, as are the other sources mentioned.)

Anxiety and Trust: A Key Emotional Relationship. Part I

During the 1970’s I began to hear about “the age of anxiety.”  Anxiety disorders have emerged as leading causes of mental and emotional distress today, and are one of the leading motivators for people to seek therapy and medication, as well as being one of the main causes of abuse of alcohol and drugs.  Anxiety plays a substantial role in eating disorders, cutting and other forms of self-harm, compulsive disorders, and contributes to overeating and the complications of obesity, such as diabetes.  Anxiety contributes to disorders that have a psychosomatic aspect, including cardiac and gastrointestinal disorders.  And anxiety underlies a widespread behavior pattern that doesn’t really have a clinical name but has to do with either underperforming, as a way of avoiding the risk of failure or the challenges of success, or overperforming, as a way of trying to extend one’s control over life.

But where does all this anxiety come from?  I think that there is a key relationship between anxiety and trust.  We have an excess of anxiety, in my opinion, because have a deficiency of trust.  This is the first of two columns in which I’ll explore that relationship.

As I often say, it’s no accident that psychotherapy evolved just as Europe was running up to the huge transformations of the first Great War, which led to the redrawing of the global political and socioeconomic map.  Psychotherapy, an attempt at a rational approach to understanding unconscious process and healing unconscious rifts, was born more or less at the ending of the great Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian empires, with repercussions that are still being felt today, in Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa.  World War II, a continuation of the first, facilitated the end of the French and English empires, and, reaching to the Far East, led to revolutionary upheavals in the Japanese and Chinese empires, and elsewhere.

Social, political and economic upheaval has affected virtually every family, in ways that are bred into the “DNA,” the behavioral and emotional memes, of family cultures down the generations.  To this instability and insecurity are added the vast changes brought about by technological innovations in industry, agriculture, economics, medicine, and communications, which we can see expressed in the culture and even the language of the “new generation” that emerges among adolescents every 5 years or so.

A key result of all this change and transformation has been the loss of trust in the stability of how things are and how things are done; how we communicate, relate, make a living, what we can expect and take for granted.  During most of human history, people lived in times when conditions were quite stable, and even the dangers of life were familiar.  Things didn’t change much over the generations, let alone during the course of a single lifetime.  Indeed, I’m told that, during most of human history, most people lived their entire lives in groups of 30-50 people, to most or all of whom they were related.  Those days are gone, for nearly everyone on the planet; although the search for new “tribes” is one of the motivators, and sources of anxiety, in modern life.

It is not only empires that were swept away in the abrupt, tumultuous, often bloody transformations of recent history, but the role and authority of institutions upon which populations depended for stability, including the religious, academic, legal, political, and cultural institutions which where the adhesives that glued the old order together.  The resulting psychological challenge of modern life is that we have to learn to trust change rather than stability, which is very hard to do.  In order to trust change, we need to understand it better, and to have the roots of our stability anchored in values, relationships and experiences that are deeper than those which are changing.

A key psychoanalytic insight is that the self can dissociate or split into different parts, which may not recognize, or be “unconscious” of one another.  It’s also possible to think about a model of mind that is inherently multiple, as in the “Multimind” model described by psychologist Robert Ornstein (http://www.ishkbooks.com/books/MULT3.html), and Human Givens therapist Pat Williams (http://www.humangivens.com/publications/publications/Which-you-are-you-CD.html).  In this model, different “selves” come into prominence at different times, rather like actors on a stage; except the director may be absent, and the troupe may be working from an old and fragmentary script.  (By the way, it seems to me that the difference between “psychoanalytic” and “psychodynamic” concepts is that  psychoanalytic ones postulate a single self that has split, in various ways and for various reasons depending on which analytic theory you buy, while “psychodynamic” concepts can include that as well as multiple self and multiple levels-of-consciousness models of mind.)

Now, here’s where all this comes together.  Anxiety is one reason for the evolution of psychotherapy during these revolutionary planetary changes, and anxiety is related to the untrustworthiness of the key institutions upon which we depend for stability and meaning in our lives.  It may be that there is a natural process of fragmentation of self, and need for subsequent reunification of self, that is just part of the human condition; the ancient stories certainly indicate that.  However, the conditions of modern life encourage fragmentation, without giving much guidance about how to achieve the subsequent unification.  It seems to me that that’s where finding the roots of value deep within ourselves, in our relationships with one another and with humanity as a whole, at a deeper level than such transient institutions as government, temple, school, court, etc. can provide, becomes a key part of healing our inner fragmentation and resolving our anxiety.

The old institutions are not entirely irrelevant, of course.  They continue to provide a kind of social stichting-together function.  In addition, each institution contains, within itself, traditions of access to deeper and higher values.  Religions, beyond their role of  organizing populations and telling people what to do and believe, included access to spirituality through esoteric and mystical affiliates.  Academic institutions, beyond requiring rote learning and preparing students for roles in society, included access to the deeper questions of the meaning of life, especially through philosophy and the humanities (science, a late-comer, is still getting oriented there).  Legal institutions, beyond maintaining laws, enshrined devotion to justice, and sometimes exemplified it.  Government, in addition to administration, aspires to uplift the well-being of all.  Even today, people who feel they can trust their social institutions seem to have less anxiety than others.  But sooner or later something happens to undermine their trust, so they do have to deal with being unanchored in life, one way or another.  The commitment to the fundamental values of spirituality, meaning, and justice, along with their discernment, seems to have diminished in the practice of religion, education, and law–everywhere, as far as I can tell from what I see around me and glean from newspapers and other media.  The result has been that, at a time of great change, when people are in greatest need of connection with perennial human values, the institutions upon which societies have relied to maintain and transmit those values have been less and less up to the job.  There are individual justices, reporters, ministers, teachers, administrators, who exemplify highest values, and some organizations do a better job than others of instilling them into the culture.  But the institutions, on the whole, are a pretty sorry lot, measured against higher values.  They neither embody nor represent such core values, and as a result people are unable to trust them; and, often, one another.

So we can’t trust our social institutions to be what they are supposed to be, and when we ourselves are part of those institutions, we often have to conform, to go along and get along, or else stand against the tide and perhaps get swept away.  The resurgence of fundamentalism in religion, and the fundamentalist variant of strict constructionism in legal and judicial practice, seem to me to reflect the misguided attempt to return to the times when the institutions of religion and law were more closely connected to spirituality and justice, respectively.  However, that’s like focusing on the utensils we ate with years ago, because we are hungry now.  As to education for meaning in life, our academic institutions seem to have pretty much given up on it, except for those which go in for brainwashing, and the odd teachers and schools here and there who persist in trying to help students connect with themes of meaning in life, albeit against the tide of rote learning for high stakes testing, indoctrination in social beliefs, and education for vocational preparation.  The attempt by departments of education across the country to develop a common core curriculum (see my post of April 16th, 2012), is an attempt to establish fundamentals in education, but it focuses on behavioral objectives that can be measured, so it must, of necessity, omit the crucial dimension of meaning of life and connection with the real core values of experience.  And so, in the midst of our busy lives, we are adrift.

As a psychotherapist, I find that issues of spirituality, meaning and justice in life (expressed through family and other personal relationships, as well as relationships with teachers, employers and other institutions) often underlie anxiety, although that is not something you will find in the professional literature, such as the DSM-IV (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diagnostic_and_Statistical_Manual_of_Mental_Disorders).  As the great psychologist Abraham Maslow pointed out, when these issues are identified and clients are able to make progress by establishing or reestablishing their connections with their own spirituality, sense of meaning, and love of justice (what Maslow called the “being-values”), anxiety tends to diminish.  But that is not taught in our therapist training programs today either, since it can’t be reduced to a measurable behavioral objective.