Conflict and discomfort are inevitable–in all areas of our work and life.
Now, most of us carry some kind of relational or betrayal trauma.
And these burdens impact how we lead and move through conflict, discomfort, and difference.
So when a rupture happens, there is often a rush to find comfort with some kind of a bid for repair. But if we do not do the work to reflect on our own systems’ needs first, we can end up doing more harm and continue to feel hooked by a situation.
Without this internal reflection, we can often default to actions that result in the opposite of our desired intention.
But this work gives us more choices and when we have more choices, we are less likely to feel trapped, panicked, and stuck.
And when we feel like we have more agency in our relationships, we feel more connected and close to those we lead and love.
Toni Herbine-Blank is the founder and director of the Intimacy from the Inside Out© training programs. She is a senior trainer for IFS-I and has been developing curriculum for the application of IFS to couples therapy for many years. She teaches nationally and internationally, delivering workshops and trainings for therapists interested in using IFS with multiple systems. She has co-authored two books on her methodology and enjoys time with her partner and her animals in the mountains of Durango, Colorado where she lives.
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Toni Herbine-Blank: Conflict is a natural part in any close relationship, and as we know with children, it’s not the conflict that’s the problem; it’s the repair. Taking responsibility for the person that did the behavior that caused the impact. Can you slow down, take a pause, and be willing to recognize the impact that you've had on the other person and being willing to listen about it. If you’re shame-based, just slowing down, listening, and taking responsibility for your impact is brutal for some parts of some people.
Rebecca Ching: How do you respond to conflict when it comes up? How do you navigate difference and the discomfort it brings up? And what practices do you lean on when ruptures happen in relationships and repairs are needed? Three years ago, at the end of May of 2020, I launched this podcast during a time of immense conflict, discomfort, and rupture. Little did I know when I first met with my producers in the fall of 2019 we would end up dropping the first episodes of The Unburdened Leader days after George Floyd’s murder while we were sheltering in place because of a global pandemic, bringing to light the depth of the ruptures in relationships within ourselves, with our institutions, and within our communities.
Now, how we choose to address ruptures is at the heart of so much pain and struggle we still face today in our own lives and in the spaces we live and work. Based on the conversations I have every day with leaders or just sitting in the stands during my son’s baseball games, we still have a long way to go on how we navigate the intersection of conflict, difference, and discomfort.
And before we dig into today’s three-year anniversary episode, I’d be honored if you took a moment to rate, review, and share this podcast with someone you may think may benefit from it. Your support over the last three years has been invaluable, and these types of ratings and reviews help more people hear about the show. Thank you so much.
I'm Rebecca Ching, and you're listening to The Unburdened Leader, the show that goes deep with humans who navigate life’s challenges and lead in their own ways. Our goal is to learn how they address the burdens they carry, how they learn from them and become better and more impactful leaders of themselves and others.
Conflict and discomfort are inevitable in all areas of work and life. Now, most of us carry some kind of relational or betrayal trauma, and these burdens impact how we lead and move through conflict, discomfort, and difference. So, when a rupture happens there’s often a rush to find comfort with some kind of bid for repair or a deep avoidance. But if we don't do the work to reflect on our own system’s needs first, we can end up doing more harm and continue to feel hooked by a situation.
Now, I recently chatted with a very successful business owner who shared with me a conflict she’s working through with a fellow business owner. They planned a really cool collaboration, but after some reflection she shared how they decided to pause the event. But the aftermath led to confusion, miscommunication, anger, and blame.
Now, this business owner is also a survivor of multiple relational traumas, and she has worked so hard on her boundaries and her communication and her support systems. She was curious about what she was feeling while sitting with a lot of discomfort because she felt awful. She noted how she hates disappointing people and also felt really good about honoring her boundaries in the discussion, yet it also felt really uncomfortable while it felt very true. As she continued to share her experience, she said something that caused me to pause, and it reminded me of something I hear from many business owners who share a similar history of relational trauma and betrayal trauma.
She said, “Parts of me want those involved to know my perspective and to understand my experience. I want them to know my side,” and I shared how this is so common and how starting by first doing what we call an Internal Family Systems YOU-turn and reflecting on those parts who want others to see her a certain way and to understand her perspective is crucial to start there. Because when you do a YOU-turn, you develop a practice of learning to turn your attention towards yourself and away from the external environments and the need for validation.
I noted that no matter what others do, this desire to be understood and to make others see their part in the conflict needs to start with a YOU-turn. I also added how important it is that she’s solid with her inner team first and foremost, no matter what others end up understanding. And I loved how she reflected that if she decided to do a return to the relationship after spending some time getting clear on what her inner system needed from her, first and foremost, was key, and she knew that if she did not take the steps, she would stay hooked with the other individual involved with this situation leaving her with the sense that she’ll only feel safe and at peace if others changed.
Now, my hope was that our YOU-turn would help her navigate the conflicts and discomforts within, and then after some clarity she’d make a decision on how she wants to return to the relationship without giving up her power and peace. When I shared that, as a trauma survivor, this landed with her and she did not want to stay hooked in this situation, and she made the commitment to sit with the discomfort of things not being settled for a minute and to take some time being with her inner system before deciding when and how to do a return to the ruptured relationship. Shoot, I personally experience whiplash from all the YOU-turns and the subsequent returns to those I’m in relationship within my life.
This is hard work, but without this internal reflection, we can often default to actions that result in the opposite of our desired intention. But this work gives us more choices, and when we have more choices, we’re less likely to feel trapped, panicked, and stuck. When we feel like we have more agency in our relationships, we feel more connected and close to those we lead and love. The YOU-turn/return dance helps us lead ourselves through our reactivity and vulnerabilities, especially when the stakes are high, and it also helps us have more compassion towards ourselves and others instead of moving to the common defaults of shame, blame, or disconnection.
Now, when we speak of our inner experiences in a self-led way, we increase the chances of others staying open so we can be heard, and my guest today is the master of the YOU-turn/return process and expanded the Internal Family Systems model to help us experience more connection and intimacy in all of our relationships.
Toni Herbine-Blank is the founder and director of the Intimacy from the Inside Out training programs. She’s a senior trainer for the IFS-I institute and has been developing curriculum for the application of IFS to couples therapy for many years. She teaches nationally and internationally, delivering workshops and trainings for therapists interested in using IFS with multiple systems. She’s co-authored two books on her methodology and enjoys time with her partner and her animals in the mountains of Durango, Colorado where she lives.
Now, I want you all to pay attention to when Toni talks about the power of the YOU-turn and the power of the pause when triggered, so you can speak to the other person in a relational way but what’s going on with you. Notice when Toni talks about the impact of our shame wounds and how we navigate difference. And listen for Toni’s desire for all of us around conflict and how we handle ruptures. Now, please welcome Toni Herbine-Blank to The Unburdened Leader podcast.
Toni, welcome to the podcast!
Toni Herbine-Blank: Thank you so much for having me!
Rebecca Ching: There’s so much I want to cover with you today, but I thought I would just start hearing a little bit more about your journey. Just share with us what got you interested in the field of psychiatric nursing.
Toni Herbine-Blank: Well, that is an interesting question because I never was interested in psychiatric nursing. So, my story is that I was in women’s health and starting to embark on a midwifery program. So, I was a nurse originally, a labor and delivery nurse, and then I was going back to graduate school for midwifery, and I took a Family Systems Therapy course. A long story and sometime later I decided that I wanted to be a different kind of midwife and work in the field of mental health, if you were. And so, rather than going back and getting a whole other degree in a whole nother area, like psychology or social work, I just stayed with nursing. So, then I decided that I was gonna get to be a therapist through my degree in psychiatric nursing. So, that is how I ended up there.
Rebecca Ching: Okay, thank you for that. I appreciate that. I didn't know that about your story. I’m curious then, you went from that segue into midwifery and labor and delivery to then doing clinical psychotherapy work to developing a relational model.
Toni Herbine-Blank: [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: And so, tell me a little bit about that transition from getting into the field to then developing one of the most well-studied and beloved models of relational therapy.
Toni Herbine-Blank: Well, and as you know, this is an offshoot of IFS.
Rebecca Ching: Yep.
Toni Herbine-Blank: Internal Family Systems Therapy.
Rebecca Ching: Yep.
Toni Herbine-Blank: So, I’m imagining you've done other interviews with other IFS trainers. You know, lots and lots of credit, of course, to Dick Schwartz who had some ways of working with couples, which I learned when I was in my IFS basic training and already a pretty well-established couples therapist at that time, and a couple things.
One is that I was in a practice where therapists were sending couples to me who were really suffering and really struggling. The models of therapy that I was working with at the time didn't do everything that needed to happen in those sessions because of the level of, what we would say in IFS is blending or affect dysregulation or trauma, and I was looking for something, I was on the surge for something that would help people anchor inside of themselves because so much self-loathing and shame was getting projected onto the partnership and we couldn't really get any work done that would stick. That was my experience.
So, I tootled around and did different trainings and by accident fell into IFS, very much by accident, and was very taken with it eventually (not right away). I was not one of those people that said, “Oh, my gosh! Here it is!” I was one of those people that said, “What the heck,” you know?
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]
Toni Herbine-Blank: So, then during that training, and Dick was very involved in those trainings back in the day, and again, he had this way of working with couples.
And so, I started thinking how can we make this more accessible for therapists, for IFS therapists? How can we develop these protocols, add more protocols, create a training?
And so, little by little, that’s how I started on that journey. So, it started as an idea and then has, over the many years, just snowballed into what it is today. That’s the journey there, and what I found was that in couples therapy being learning how to differentiate internally and hold onto themselves in very difficult conversations and very stressful dilemmas and situations really improved that work that I was already doing.
Rebecca Ching: I intuitively know what it means to hold onto myself, but can you unpack that a little bit more? Can I go operationalize that a little bit? How I hold onto myself in a hard conversation. What do you mean by that?
Toni Herbine-Blank: So, Intimacy from the Inside Out is a model of differentiation, and how I define that is I’m a separate individual human being that can stay connected to another human being simultaneously. So, in other words, a lot of what I hear people in relationship say is, “I can't be myself with you.” That’s a big thing, you know? “I can't be myself with you,” so part of the journey is can you be yourself and be able to be present to a different self, and when those differences begin to trigger us, as they always do in close relationships, can I not lose myself or lose you, you know? I think this is a big dilemma for people in relationship. “I can either have myself or I can be loved by you, but I can't have both.”
Our message is absolutely you can have both and you need to learn about yourself first, you know?
So, the invitation is what happens to you that you lose contact with what you believe, what you need, what you want, what your hopes are, what your fears are, who you are as a fully-developed individual. What happens that you lose that when the people closest to you are different?
Rebecca Ching: Mm, I’m just thinking of conversations that I’ve been having on repeat lately of people saying things like, “I can't show up as my true self. I can't. I’ll lose my job. I’ll lose this friendship,” you know? Or “It’ll escalate tensions in my marriage.” So, I’m thinking not just in a romantic couple, per se, but all relationships, and I’ve been hearing this and then people saying, “But I don't know who I am. How do I even know who I am?” Is this something that IFIO works with people on discovering who the heck they are and what it feels like when -- where they end and someone else begins?
Toni Herbine-Blank: Absolutely. That’s the number one step. What’s coming up inside of you in relationship to this other person, whether it’s a partnership or a work situation or a friendship, and how you’re going to express yourself is going to be different based on those relationships, you know? I mean, you also have to take into consideration what is safe to self-disclose and how do I self-disclose.
Rebecca Ching: It’s bringing me back to even this kind of epiphany I had in my twenties where I realized I was one way at work, I was one way with people at my church, I was one way with my roommates, I was one way with my family, and I thought that was normal. And then I fell in love.
Toni Herbine-Blank: [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: And then all of a sudden it was all shook up and I realized oh, my gosh, I always thought that was kind of what you were supposed to do.
Toni Herbine-Blank: Right.
Rebecca Ching: And that’s just from my own story and the chaos at home. I learned how to adapt to each environment. So yeah, I’m just thinking through that. I want to make sure folks have a really good foundation of IFIO. I have not taken your training, but of course I’ve read a lot about it. Walk me through, and I think you touched on it a little bit, first, your thought process in developing this model. I know there are some phases in it, so maybe just take us through the foundational kind of approach, the model, the ideology of this approach.
Toni Herbine-Blank: Well, first of all, it really is based in Dick’s work. So, I want to say that IFS is IFIO, and IFIO is IFS. So, people that are interested could read about both actually. IFS, the principles of IFS are that human beings are multiple. Naturally, it’s a non-pathological state, so we have many parts, and as you were talking about all those different adaptations that you did, I was thinking, okay, we have really creative parts, and I think women in this culture do this anyway. We’re raised to adapt, and so, there’s a part that adapted here and a part that adapted there. So, that’s how we see it as well. That’s a basic assumption.
The other assumption, which is where the psychospiritual aspect of IFS comes in is that all human beings have a self, and that word gets tossed around in a lot of different places, in a lot of different traditions, but here it’s an inner resource, inner wisdom, something to connect with internally.
So, you were asking earlier, “Well, how do I hold onto myself?” So, we talk about being able to help people differentiate the difference between an aspect of their personality and their very own well of wisdom. Those are basic assumptions that we carry on from IFS. I also have some beliefs, which are that human beings are growth seeking and that relationship is a way to heal. A little bit different than some of the attachment models because in Intimacy from the Inside Out, we start with a YOU-turn. We start with, “We’re gonna go internally first and help you get to a place where you can know yourself a little bit better, understand how your relational wounding from childhood affects your present-day relationship, do that journey from past to present so that people can work out what’s happening in the present and not have so much history laced in their conversations, which is what I was finding in those early days of being a couples therapist is how it was very difficult for people to differentiate between what’s past and what was present because it all felt present.
So, we have phases of the therapy which start with building a rapport, if you will, with a therapist (creating a container, understanding what people in relationship want and need from us as clinicians), talking about the model (how we work, what we believe is possible), and then we have a set of non-linear protocols that starts with the dance of conflict (understanding what drives that repeated fight, which gets exhausting for people, the dance of conflict, if you will), and then beginning to offer invitations based on that dance that people are doing around communication, healing, working with shame, learning about repair, visioning what kind of relationship do you really want to have.
And then it’s, again, non-linear, so we’re back and forth and back and forth. Coming back to the people we’re working with to find out, “Is this the trajectory you were hoping for? Has that changed? What has healed? Where have you grown? Where are you backsliding?” So, a very collaborative model.
Rebecca Ching: You train predominantly therapists or folks that are helping professionals, and I’m thinking about leaders also who are caring for their teams and their colleagues, and they're the folks that are the problem solvers and how to -- or even parents, too. Your kids have stuff. So, I think this expanded IFS model really helps us in a lot of relationships.
You talk about attachment. You know, in our spaces we all kind of geek out about attachment, and we have all these nerdy conversations, but I feel like there’s almost been -- harm is a strong word, but it doesn't do folks a service just to go, “Oh, this is my attachment style, and you didn't meet that need,” to their partner, their friend, their colleague, “So you failed me.”
Toni Herbine-Blank: Right.
Rebecca Ching: I hear those conversations a lot, and I’m wondering how IFIO kind of differs from some of these other popular relational models and relational approaches.
Toni Herbine-Blank: So again, I’ll use this word differentiation.
Rebecca Ching: Great.
Toni Herbine-Blank: Which implies, for us in this method, understanding yourself and creating an inner attachment, an internal landing place, a love, a connection, a witnessing of one’s own parts, as you will, your own wounding, your own vulnerability.
Being able to be in a healing relationship there is going to help with what you just talked about. It’s going to support you to be able to be there for your partner in ways that you might not have been able to when you were lost on the inside or your own wounding was taking you over all the time, you know?
So, we start inside. We refer to it as a YOU-turn. Lots of people use that expression, but we ask people, when you're triggered, to pause and understand what’s happening in here first so that you can then return to the other person and speak for what’s going on in a relational way that invites people into more curiosity about what’s going on with you because the impulse of the entire protective system is to blame and shame. You know what, it happens everywhere. I am guilty of this in my own intimate relationships. [Laughs] No, not me!
Rebecca Ching: Me too! [Laughs] Me too.
Toni Herbine-Blank: We learn how to speak and listen really differently based on your understanding of yourself, and we see the partner as an incredible source of healing and support but they're not responsible. They're not responsible for that.
You know, I remember one of my trainers once speaking to a group and saying, “You know, your partner is not obligated to meet your needs,” and of course it was a stunning moment because who wants to feel obligated?
That’s not relational. That doesn't feel cozy, you know? But number one, probably the person or people you're living with or close to meet your needs sometimes even if you think that they're not. [Laughs] You know? And then there’s a way to request to have your needs met in a way that invites people into your world as opposed to, “I’m not getting this from you, so therefore --,” fill in the blank, right?
Rebecca Ching: What are some better ways to invite that support versus, “If you loved me, you’d take out the trash,” you know? Or, “If you’ve been listening, you’d know that --,” something, you know? Usually it’s around remote controls or trash or the temperature of the house or something like that. But yeah, what is a way to say, “Gosh, I have this need that keeps getting missed, and I want to let you know without kind of, “You suck as a human because you missed my needs.” [Laughs]
Toni Herbine-Blank: And don't we just have parts that want to do that? You know, which only feels good for about ten seconds, right?
Rebecca Ching: Oh, if that, and then the hangover is worse, yeah.
Toni Herbine-Blank: Well, I’m married to a man, and I will quote my wise husband who once said to me, “You know, I really am on your side, and I really do care about what’s going on with you, and if you’ve got something going on inside of you because I leave the kitchen a mess or whatever, I’m available to help out if you can speak for what’s going on in you. But if it comes in the form of a criticism, then I’m just feeling bad about myself and my protectors are gonna push back on you.” I thought there it is right there in a nutshell.
Can I speak for my need based on myself instead of, “How dare you leave the kitchen like this when I’d been working so hard all day,” right?
Rebecca Ching: Okay, but just to be provocative because I wouldn’t necessarily relate to this sarcasm, of course. But what if I’m trying just to help someone know exactly the roadmap of how I want the kitchen done or the tone that I want things communicated or how I want things organized? If I just am very explicit, parts of me are like, “If they just know the roadmap and follow the roadmap, then all will be well,” right, Toni?
Toni Herbine-Blank: Right! Yes, of course. I have many parts that are in agreement, but I also have many parts that have been a couples therapist for a long time, and I know that doesn't really work.
Rebecca Ching: Dangit!
Toni Herbine-Blank: It doesn't work because there can be an aspect of bullying in something like that. So, in other words, my way or the highway. This is the only way I’m gonna be satisfied, and what I try to help people explore is, one, where did that come from. First of all, where did that belief that there’s only one way to get something done, where did that come from? With a lot of care and curiosity and no shaming because I really do believe that everything is present for a reason, right? I mean, nothing is random. We don't just love a clean kitchen out of nowhere. So, where does the belief that things need to be done this certain way, where did that come from? Lots of validation about that because we learn, as you know, not just about kitchen cleaning but everything, from many generations, passed down beliefs about relationships.
And then to explore what happens if it’s not done the way that you want it or if the need is not being met in the way you would exactly want it, what happens then? And then also to learn how to ask how to have the need met that’s not bullying, that is relational, which says, “I want to invite you into my world, and I could use some help,” and also to know that you're in relationship with somebody who’s different, who has a different mind, who has a different sensibility, who has different needs, and can that become a conversation and a negotiation instead of, “It’s gotta be done my way,” you know, because it creates threat. When it has to be done my way, it causes -- in my experience many times, it invites the other person to get guarded, and that’s not what we want when we’re negotiating getting needs met.
Also, I will say the last thing even though both of our parts are not gonna agree. How someone cleans up the kitchen is not actually an emotional need. What’s underneath that request? For me -- I can't speak for everybody -- it’s an exploration. It’s really about, “I need you, and I need some help.” It’s not really about the dishes, as much as I have parts that want to rebel against that. It’s really deeper than -- you know, and there’s a difference between a want and a need, of course. But if we can learn, if couples can learn or people in relationship can learn about vulnerability as a way to create more intimacy and safety and help people actually be able to speak for that core need which is, I’m feeling alone,” or, “I need some help,” or, “Are you with me,” then in my experience, that conversation goes so much more easily and with more connection because it’s not about, “I’m good; you're bad. I’m right; you're wrong.” It’s not about that anymore. It’s more about how do we stay connected within the context of our differences.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, I’m racing through them because the kitchen analogy is a perfect one for me and my husband too. I’ll say this. I really appreciate this sense of my way or the highway. It really comes to be like a power dynamic. It’s more than just someone saying -- it’s like, “I don't care about your needs.” It’s, “Do it my way or I’m gonna keep lashing out.” Let me tell you, when I did the YOU-turn and kind of had some reflection and listened to what was reflected back to me when I heard how some of what I thought was helpful or at least I was also protecting my system, because my nervous system’s very sensitive to space, and so, having it too chaotic is really unrattling, and my husband -- and I say this not as a criticism. I probably would have years ago -- but he doesn't notice those things, and it’s organized to him if he knows where it’s at. That’s all.
Toni Herbine-Blank: I know. I’m very similar. I’m in the very same relationship.
Rebecca Ching: Oh! [Laughs]
Toni Herbine-Blank: But there is a real stability, you know? There are some of us that are very in tuned to the external space because of what’s going on inside, you know?
Rebecca Ching: Yeah.
Toni Herbine-Blank: I’ve come to find out the more chaos I feel on the inside, the harder it is to deal with the chaos on the outside.
Rebecca Ching: But I think it’s a hard one and realizing what I thought was helping me and helping him help me was actually the exact opposite, had the opposite effect.
Toni Herbine-Blank: Mm-hmm.
Rebecca Ching: And so, I really appreciate that approach versus, “If you just did things my way it’d be better,” which is horrible. Ew! That’s not who I want to be! But there’s also this mantra that I’ve heard. It’s like, “Do I want to be right, or do I want to be in this relationship?”
Toni Herbine-Blank: Right. Exactly.
Rebecca Ching: And so, even if I’m like, “Listen, my way of organizing is better,” or is this relationship more important?
That was a real growth edge for me, and it’s an on repeat thing. It’s a conversation I’ll have with clients too. But the other side of the coin I hear a lot from people is, “I don't want to speak my needs, and if I do, it diminishes that need. They should read my mind. They should know, and if I put myself out there, I’m setting myself up to be disappointed and hurt or attacked.”
Toni Herbine-Blank: Right.
Rebecca Ching: I’m curious how you respond to that.
Toni Herbine-Blank: And I hear it over and over and over again: “I only want to have to ask once.” I have a belief, and maybe there’s some relational neurobiology to back this up. Probably there is, but I do believe that human beings have parts, little young parts, that are seeking perfect attunement.
Rebecca Ching: Ooh.
Toni Herbine-Blank: It’s the thing that we wanted and longed for and often didn't get when we were in that tender, newborn time. And so, those parts are still seeking that, you know? They're young. It’s very young. That voice of, “Can you just feel me? Can you just feel me and just know? I don't want to have to tell you,” because of all the things that you just said. “I’m gonna be shamed if you say no. I’m gonna be attacked. You won't do it anyway.” So, I call this The Need Ball. When I’m working in trainings, I call it The Need Ball.
Rebecca Ching: Okay.
Toni Herbine-Blank: Most of us in this culture -- and I don't know all the cultures everywhere, but I will say it has been my experience that people develop ways to try to get needs met that don't land.
It doesn't land, so that’s what I call it, The Need Ball. It’s like a bowling ball. I’m highly skilled at this or I was. I mean, things have definitely changed over the years. [Laughs] I’ve been married a long, long time.
But I had a lot of shame about my emotional needs from my history and etcetera, etcetera. So, I would maybe roll The Need Ball in my husband’s direction hoping that he would get what it was, but it would be covert, or it wouldn't be clear. There wasn't clarity around it because of all the things that you expressed. And so, on a good day, the ball comes rolling toward him, and he picks it up, and he says, “I know exactly what’s going on,” and on other days, he’s in his own process and he’s like, “There’s a ball in the middle of the floor. What the heck am I supposed to do with this,” you know? So, it is part of the process of couples therapy, in my office, to help people get clear because we’re not clear (that has been my experience over and over again) because we feel shamed about what we -- you know, we have been shamed about what we need. And so, it gets very convoluted with parts of us trying to express those needs in ways that sometimes -- sometimes I’ve heard in my office, “I have no idea what you're talking about right now.” It’s like a different language, right?
Rebecca Ching: Yeah. [Laughs]
Toni Herbine-Blank: So, a lot of people could use help with it, actually, to learn how to speak differently and also how to receive the request differently.
Rebecca Ching: Mm.
Toni Herbine-Blank: So, that is work that can happen in therapy so people can begin to have similar language and understand inside of themselves what makes it so challenging to be clear.
Rebecca Ching: You know, I hadn’t thought about that. That’s a Captain Obvious one, but yeah, for folks who aren't clear with their needs or have fears about that, probably when we do the flow back it’s to being shamed at such a young age for having needs --
Toni Herbine-Blank: One hundred percent.
Rebecca Ching: -- basic needs of, probably, connection and community or just validation, all of those things that little kids want. That makes a lot of sense. To see that as a data point, if it feels scary, to say, “I need this,” to get curious about where that fear comes from first almost, to get clear on what’s going on internally so that you can hold space for the vulnerability of, then, returning to the relationship you're in and saying, “Hey, I really do this, and whether it’s a boundary or just communicating an invitation for feeling love and connection or whatever that may be.
Toni Herbine-Blank: And it’s also a piece of exploration for the person on the receiving end.
Rebecca Ching: Mm. Tell me more.
Toni Herbine-Blank: Well, what are you actually hearing because, you know, it gets distorted in both directions, and then the person receiving the request, if it’s unclear or unkind, is scrambling on the inside, number one, to figure out what this is and to stay with a little self-esteem, because if it’s coming in, “I shouldn't have to ask you,” and, “What’s the matter with you,” and, “I told you this already,” then you have someone who’s now scrambling for, “Am I still a worthwhile human being,” you know, deep down.
Rebecca Ching: Oh.
Toni Herbine-Blank: So, how to receive the request and then be able to either say yes or no in a loving way as opposed to, “I’m gonna do this because if I don't, there’s gonna be hell to pay,” or, “Get out of my face! I’ve already done this for you. I’m not doing it anymore.” So, it’s really a change in conversation big time, I believe.
Rebecca Ching: It almost slows (like super, super slow motion, right) down to, “I have a need. Oh, what’s coming up internally about wanting to communicate that need,” attending to that, then communicating the need, and then hearing how that was heard, clarifying if that needs to be, and then having the space to have that dance and having that normalized.
It doesn't feel very efficient, Toni. This feels just like this therapy thing. I can just hear some other people out of my clinical bubble or the helping-professionals bubble like, “Oh, my gosh. Y’all people are weird. Just be human.” But it really is the most efficient way, yes?
Toni Herbine-Blank: In the end, because what I say to people is, “This can feel very formulaic, and that doesn't feel spontaneous or good,” but how has the other way been working? That’s the question is if it’s working, fine, great, fantastic. Some people do this just fine, and there are other issues that are coming with. That’s not my experience much, but if you can get yourself on a little bit of a roadmap and create a little bit more safety and kindness and goodwill around the differences in needs, over time then it will be, “Hey, I’m feeling a little out of control. Would you be available to just do this,” and then the partner is not receiving an attack, and it could be either, “Sure,” or, “I’ll get to it when I can,” and it doesn't create that young, “I’m never gonna get my needs met. I can't do this.” So, I really do believe that slow is fast. I really do.
Rebecca Ching: I’m with you.
Toni Herbine-Blank: But if you can set some things in place for a while and practice a different strategy, after a while, just like anything that you practice, the competency will grow quickly. But it’s a great question to ask yourself, “Well, I don't really want to be in this kind of --,” you know, “It takes too long,” or, “It takes too much time,” or, “I don't have the time,” or whatever, but has the other way been effective for getting your needs met.
Rebecca Ching: And this is kind of where my nerdy psychotherapy parts are like there are folks who just don't want to do this, because if they really took a pause and checked in, there’s just a ton there. There are probably parts invested to not slowing down because it’s a pressure cooker inside, yeah?
Toni Herbine-Blank: Absolutely, and sadly to say, a pressure cooker doesn't open its own lid. If we just leave it on the stove, it’s gonna blow at some point, which is -- you know, when I was talking about the kind of suffering I was seeing in my office all those years ago, that was it. That was two pressure cookers who had exploded and now they're trying to stuff everything back inside the pots, and there was so much damage. So, letting things brew, which I think we do as human beings. I just think we do that.
Rebecca Ching: Mm-hmm.
Toni Herbine-Blank: And I also think that you're correct, that slowing down to feel can feel bad.
Rebecca Ching: It’s dangerous to a lot of people.
Toni Herbine-Blank: It’s scary.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, it’s like, “What are you asking me to do, Rebecca? Are you kidding me? I’ve built a life so I don't have to do this.”
Toni Herbine-Blank: Exactly.
Rebecca Ching: I’m like, “But what brought you to me is going to require this, so let’s scaffold it so we don't have to firehose you.”
Toni Herbine-Blank: Right.
Rebecca Ching: But yeah, the damage to self and others when that pressure cooker blows.
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Circling back a little bit, and you touched on this, but I’d like to get more specific on the most common reasons for relationship ruptures. When you look back at your body of work, in your office, and in what you’ve heard from the therapists you train, what are the top handful of most common reasons for relationship ruptures?
Toni Herbine-Blank: In a word I would say shame. [Laughs]
You know, the cycles of internal shaming and shamefulness and then how that gets projected. How the wounding from childhood -- you know, whether overt or covert, children don't get out of childhood unscathed. You have children. You know that. There’s incoming all the time, and then what we do with our shame wounds and how they get repaired or not, I believe, plays a huge role. I also think -- and this may also be related to differences. I think that it is. We live in a culture where same is good, different is bad. You see this everywhere. I know you do. That people that look different, that act different, that have a different sensibility, who have different needs, it’s become incredibly threatening to people. I do believe that this happens in relationship, that early in a romantic relationship, we’re all good because we’re programmed to be meeting the other person’s needs, feeling them. It feels so good, it feels so delicious, and after a certain amount of time we start to recognize, “Hold on a second, where is that person I fell in love with?” Because the differences start to emerge. Our needs become more important than the other person’s needs, you know, la dee da dee da. Lots is written on this, not just by me. We don't know how to negotiate differences. Many human beings don't, and so, we either fight or we flee. We numb. Our nervous system starts to unconsciously say, “Oh, okay, we’re back in childhood. This is no good.”
Rebecca Ching: Mm-hmm.
Toni Herbine-Blank: So, “What can we do to either try to get the other person to be different,” in many different strategies for trying to get the other person to change back to who they were when we fell in love. Then that doesn't work, so now we say, “Well, maybe I can twist myself up into a pretzel and change myself, so they’ll love me again.” That’s not a good strategy. That doesn't work, talking about not being able to hold onto yourself. Or then we’re just gonna start exiting in different kinds of ways. Sometimes it’s a real, “Okay, bye bye,” which is fine, you know? I don't have a thing about that, but is it a conscious exit or is it, “I’m just shutting down on myself. I’m shutting down on you. We’re gonna disconnect,” and then eventually leave in all different kinds of ways.
So, I don't know if I answered your question, long-winded, but I do think it’s very, very difficult to deal with somebody who’s different, you know?
Rebecca Ching: And the intersection of those differences with shame, right? Because shame shuts down sitting in the vulnerability of that difference, and shame has its own flavors but it’s usually pretty consistent saying, “I suck. I’m not worthy,” and saying, “Who do you think you are,” to myself or to somebody else or both.
Toni Herbine-Blank: Uh-huh.
Rebecca Ching: And then difference comes up when, “Ooh, I don't know how to navigate. I might feel awkward. I might feel unprepared. I might worry what other people think, so I have to shut this down, and then we do that in ways that hurt ourselves, deny ourselves, and of course deny others and them just being who they are. That’s an interesting trailhead of difference. It’s a broad one, but it’s a really good one for us to be thinking about. The reality is we all are our own unique person, you know? We have our own stories. No one’s a monolith.
There are archetypes and we have some things in common like I’m from the Midwest so I can talk to my Midwestern people about certain things, but yeah, we’re looking for that, but difference, phew, I’m just sitting with the intensity of that in our world today, too.
Toni Herbine-Blank: And you were talking about leadership and teams.
Rebecca Ching: Yes.
Toni Herbine-Blank: You know, I feel that the conversations are different when you're in an intimate relationship than when you're on a team, but I do think that we bring our history of relationship into a team as well.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah.
Toni Herbine-Blank: All of this is relevant to a team, how deep a team member is willing to go or even wants to go or whether it’s even safe to go is a whole other conversation, but who am I in relationship is gonna show up in any system that you find yourself in.
Rebecca Ching: And at the heart is understanding. This is what I mean. It’s just a great foundational reminder that shame is just part of the spectrum of all human emotions. We all have the capacity, unless you have a lobotomy or you're a zombie, I always joke. And so, understanding how shame shows up, what our triggers are, that’s gonna be essential for us to be engaged in any relationship so that we can respond in ways that don't turn on ourselves and others. That’s foundational for wherever we show up and lead.
Reality is we all make mistakes in this too and we end up -- shame hijacks us, and we respond to differences in ways that are out of alignment and not true to us, and we do harm. Walk me through a good apology, a good repair, and it’s not a one and done. I know that. [Laughs] Walk me through the stages of a good apology and how it differs from an apology that falls flat when harm is done, when we mess up in relationships.
Toni Herbine-Blank: You know, my wish is that human beings in general would be less afraid of conflict. That’s the first thing. Because conflict is a natural part of any close relationship, and as we know with children, it’s not the conflict that’s the problem. It’s the repair. So, that's just a wish that I would have is that conflict is normal, and people are really afraid of conflict. Many people have parts who are very afraid of conflict because they’ve been on the receiving end of brutality around anger and conflict, so of course they are. But it’s a normal phenomenon.
I would say when I’m talking to people who have felt betrayed, let’s just say that, and there are many different ways to feel betrayed. Rupture in relationship is taking responsibility for the person that did the behavior that caused the impact, can you slow down, take a pause, and be willing to recognize the impact that you’ve had on the other person, and being willing to listen about it and take responsibility for it. Those two things, if you're shame-based, just slowing down, listening, and taking responsibility for your impact is brutal for some parts of some people. You know, it’s really, really difficult.
So, as you said, it’s not a one and done. This is a process that may take a lot of time, and to be able to apologize or make amends and take responsibility for the action that you took takes some self-forgiveness if it’s done well, right?
Rebecca Ching: Yeah.
Toni Herbine-Blank: So, if I’m busy hating myself for being such a little whatever in relationship to somebody else, than my repair is gonna be very insincere because it’s gonna be laced with, “Let me see how fast I can do this and get it over with because I feel so bad about myself.”
So, learning how to recognize yourself as a human being that does make mistakes and that does hurt other people goes a long way I think in repairing rupture. Being able to love yourself through a very different conversation so that you can listen more to the impact, that even though when people do feel betrayed, they have parts that do want to shame the other person. So, it’s a sensitive conversation. But I would say apologizing and making amends without it being shame based is really important.
There was a time in my life where I was gonna create a documentary on how people apologize because it’s a -- what do I want to say? You know, when I listen or I ask people, “How do you apologize,” people are like, “What? I don't apologize! I have nothing to apologize for,” you know? So, this whole idea that you can repair a rupture is news to some people. Some people are, “We just don't talk about it,” but when that happens, I believe that the burden that was created by that rupture now gets another burden. As things are not repaired, the relationship just gets more and more burdened --
Rebecca Ching: Yeah.
Toni Herbine-Blank: -- with unrepaired hurts
Rebecca Ching: Oof. You know, thinking again of another polarity of the person that you identified, like, “Apology? I have nothing to apologize for,” when I get under the hood for folks who hold that protector, it’s, “If I apologize, I’m opening up myself to be too exposed to get hurt.” And then the other side is the folks that are, “I’m so sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn't -- I’m sorry I looked at you that way. I’m sorry. Oh, didn't mean to bump into you. I’m sorry,” and it’s like this over -- because I have to take care of you because things were -- underneath the hood of that is let’s keep everybody happy so they don't blow up on me. [Laughs] That’s a generalization but kind of a general sense of that too.
Toni Herbine-Blank: Right.
Rebecca Ching: I think your documentary is very needed right now. I think we all need to understand. So, I want to hear a little bit more, though. What are some of the apolo -- there’s the refusal of an apology. What are some of the attempts at apologies that fall flat that you hear in your office when people think they're apologizing?
Toni Herbine-Blank: There are two big ones. “If I apologize, I go one down. You now have power over me.”
Rebecca Ching: Yeah.
Toni Herbine-Blank: And this is something that I like to help people understand where did you learn that. You said earlier, “I would rather be in relationship than be right.” This is part of that. Where did you get the message that apologizing for your impact leaves you powerless, because in my mind it’s so empowering to be able to own yourself, you know? You have that little sign back there: “Own it.” “I did this. Yes, I did do this.” So, the backing away: “No, no. I don't apologize. I don't apologize because I’m gonna become -- you're gonna have power over me,” is one of them, or the over-apology to get it over with quickly.
Another big one is, “Yes, but…”
Rebecca Ching: Oh, the, “Yes, but’s.” Oh, don't even.
Toni Herbine-Blank: “I’m sorry, but…” “I’m sorry but…”
Rebecca Ching: Oh, I mean, yes, I feel that, Toni. I’m having a moment of the, “Yes, but…” apologies. Okay, I’m back. I’m back.
Toni Herbine-Blank: Right, or, “I’m sorry you felt that way.”
Rebecca Ching: Yeah!
Toni Herbine-Blank: That’s one where it first feels okay, and then when you really feel into that, it sounds like, “Okay, you’re blaming me for how I’m feeling.” [Laughs]
So, that doesn't land. For some people it’s like -- they can't even get the words out, and it is because of shame. It’s going to mean something. And I love that exploration with people. What does this mean and to who inside does this mean that and where did they learn that, you know? So, where did they learn it?
Rebecca Ching: Yeah.
Toni Herbine-Blank: A great exploration for people. So, then it becomes more fluid to be able to say, “It doesn't mean anything other than I am taking responsibility for my impact on you, and I love you, and if I had known this, I would not have done that.”
And then the other piece in the IFIO protocol around repair is especially if it’s repeated, these words, and they mean so much to me when my partner says this, “I am gonna take a look at this part of myself, why I keep repeating this thing that hurts you so much.” This, to me, is a very powerful part of repair. “I do this, I do it, I do it for some reason, and I’m gonna get with myself and find out why.” To me, that makes a very big difference.
Rebecca Ching: Ooh, I feel that in my body because if someone were to say that, “Man, if you keep bringing this up, I need to understand.” It’s like a sincere -- that in itself feels like there’s repair just even in that acknowledgement and commitment to change. You can feel when it’s sincere and when it’s not.
I do want to have a caveat that parts of me want -- my integrity and my values want to choose the relationship over being right, but my parts want to say, “We’re still right, even if we’re choosing the relationship.”
I just want to make sure to say that. I have to negotiate with my parts saying, “We’re right, but I know that, but we’re just gonna -- I need some space because this relationship is really important.” It’s a huge rumble. Choose the relationship over being right. I just want to make sure -- I am far from Olympic gold at that, and it’s definitely one of those mantras that I have to choose in relationship because I have such strong parts to being right, and the other part of it is when I hear that repeat of, “Dang, I really keep hurting you this way. I need to take a pause on that,” that’s really, even if it’s not I’m gonna fix it -- because I think that was for a long time like, “How do I make your pain go away? I want to make your pain go away. What do you need right now to make it go away because I’m hurting that you're hurting because I hurt you.”
Toni Herbine-Blank: Mm-hmm. You know what came up for me when you just said that about that part that wants the acknowledge being right is -- and this would be something for you to listen to that part about, but, you know, I just wondered, it just came into my head, if it’s, “I want to be right,” or “I want to be acknowledged for my difference as well.” The relationship is important, but I’m not feeling validated for my perspective. I don't know. It would just be a question for that part at some point, like, if we’re gonna go right to, “The way I asked to have a need met hurt you, and I want to make that repair,” but is there also a need inside of you, or for those of us that have that “right” part. You know, what’s the need there? To also be recognized for this perspective --
Rebecca Ching: Mm-hmm. Yes!
Toni Herbine-Blank: -- that I think is the right one. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: I know for me there are some parts that are like, “Can we just be right without there being a reason?” So, I had that come up right away, but when I just sat with it briefly and then it took me to hearing other people, it’s they have a strong sense of justice. It’s this sense of staying in justice again and again and especially rooted in what they experience is -- I don't like the word fair, so I prefer justice, you know? Being treated well and treated with dignity, so there’s this sense of justice. And then that can tip to self-righteousness, which is so toxic. But yeah, and I think staying curious about when we get those flashes and just understanding what are the fears and concerns of those parts that are puffing up or having to over-function to protect with over-apologizing or whatever. That’s the juicy stuff, and we get to stay curious about someone else if they're in it. “Hey, I’m noticing you're apologizing a lot. What’s going on? What are you worried about?”
Toni Herbine-Blank: Right.
Rebecca Ching: It’s such a gift to give. I’m curious for you, because you run a whole training company.
Toni Herbine-Blank: Sure do!
Rebecca Ching: You have a huge staff. Tell me about a time you addressed a relationship rupture in the training company that you lead and how your IFIO practice helped you and your team move through it.
Toni Herbine-Blank: You know, I have been very lucky so far that there hasn’t been -- there have been any number or series of ruptures, you know, but nothing huge. I was thinking about that question that we have been fortunate to not have had a huge -- I’m even trying to think. My invitation to my trainers is we have a gorgeous model to deal with conflict, and I have an expectation with a lot of love in my heart. I have an amazing group of people that work with and for me that we will use this model to work out conflict, and as best as we can, we do.
Of course I make mistakes. They make mistakes with each other. But I think it’s about the YOU-turn, unblending, being honest with yourself, and speaking for what’s happening for you is the greatest tool that we have, really.
Sometimes people will get into it, and my commitment to them is, “I will help you. I’ll help you work it out.” There is intimacy within these relationships, but it’s not the same as an intimate partnership/marriage/love relationship. So, the expectation is we’re gonna all do the best that we can, but I can't think of one big momentous thing that has happened yet, knock on wood. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] Knock on wood. Probably it’s an interesting sample because of your lens on conflict and the work that you do and the work that people do, so it’s probably skewed, and I suspect being in a lot of IFS trainings, there are often ruptures within a training as participants are working through that and holding space for that. Is there a time you recall where there maybe was a tough experience in a training and how your team banded and supported each other in that that you could speak to?
Toni Herbine-Blank: Many. [Laughs] Many. Zoom has put some added pressure -- I was just talking to one of my trainers this morning about this -- that we’re not connecting face to face in the same way with people, so creating the kind of safety that we need, being able to talk to people one-on-one, to stand at that snack table. I don't know if you've ever done a live IFS training, but snacks everywhere and waiting in line for the bathroom, that kind of thing.
So, when people get distressed in a training, it can be difficult on everyone because the kind of repair that needs to happen would go so much more easily in person, face to face.
That being said, just like IFS, we’re starting to recognize that narrowness of our lens all these years and to really create equitable spaces, much more diverse spaces. There have been some times where there have been microaggressions within the training, and then being willing as leaders to slow everything down and to say, “This is more important than just barreling through with the content,” and giving people room and space to talk about what happened for them, and for people to provide really authentic repair.
So, those are some of the things that just off the top of my head are occurring. Of course we’re doing lots and lots of training around that, but also using this model again. Can leaders listen without collapsing or being defensive. Can leaders receive the information and stay grounded on the inside of themselves. Can they ask stay regulated, ask their own parts to step back so they can really listen to the impact that they're having. It’s a very important value for me, and all of us I think, and it’s not easy as a leader, as you know, to stay really open-hearted in the face of some feedback, maybe some feedback that’s coming from people who are badly hurt.
So, using the model, using the model, using the model. That’s what I would say.
Rebecca Ching: Doing the reps. Listening to Self and others. Yeah, is there anything else that you would add to that on how leaders in general can manage high-stakes conversations, like you mentioned, and polarized divides without defaulting to shame or blame or shutting down.
Toni Herbine-Blank: Right, and when you asked me to have this conversation with you a long time ago, I really started thinking this idea of an unburdened leader actually -- which I wonder if that does exist. [Laughs] Not really.
Rebecca Ching: Nah.
Toni Herbine-Blank: I think that people that choose to take on a leadership role, and I included, need to continually work on themselves. This has to be a continual YOU-turn. This is what it is for me. How to stay in leadership that is -- in my organization there’s a hierarchy, so how can hierarchy and collaboration live together. How can a leader hold the polarizations and believe that those parts of people that are polarized, if we can stay with it long enough, what’s gonna come out of it is better than one position or another position. To understand systems, and I do think that that’s super, super important. How does the system work.
Rebecca Ching: Yes.
Toni Herbine-Blank: And who are the parts in the system and what are they bringing, and to not be afraid of conflict. To be transparent and honest and move into the conflict as opposed to scoot away from it, or to take a power-over position which is, “You're gonna do what I say. Stop it. You're gonna do what I say.”
It’s not collaborative. To continually encourage people to be able to speak their truth in non-wounding ways and help people listen to somebody else’s truth even if it’s different than yours. Here we are, back to differences. Embrace those polarizations. I really think so, you know? That can be hard for a leader. Why would you want to embrace a polarization?
Rebecca Ching: Mm.
Toni Herbine-Blank: Voices are important, right?
Rebecca Ching: Yes, not gonna add anything else to that. It’s powerful. Thank you. As we wrap up, I’m curious about how you view a successful relationship, and what do successful relationships look like to you today, and how is that different from what you were taught?
Toni Herbine-Blank: Well, we could talk about that for an hour or two, but, you know, I would say that it’s not really successful. That’s the question. I know what you're asking, but what I would say is is it satisfying, is it connected, is it what you want. That’s the first question we ask people is rather than, “Here’s our agenda for what a successful or what a connected relationship looks like,” we ask, we don't tell. Then the therapy develops around the wishes of the presenting parts of people. So, what do you want? Because relationships, as you know, are massively changing. Traditional marriage is no longer something that many people in a different generation than I want. There are millions of people who are engaging in polyamorous relationships.
Relationships are changing, so I think that even now for couples therapists, even more important is why are they coming to see you and what do they want, and what would be a satisfying, mutually-satisfying, differentiated relationship. What does that look like? That's where we start, and that can change over the course of the work. It can definitely change.
I can't say, but many people that I have seen over the years, if you ask, “What do you want to create,” what did you want to create? Blank.
Rebecca Ching: Ah.
Toni Herbine-Blank: It’s not a question that people have when they're embarking on a long-term relationship, so I want to know that.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah.
Toni Herbine-Blank: So, I would say mutually-satisfying based on two individual human beings. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: Yeah. Yeah, I think that’s under the context of what is the relationship, and I love the idea of what do we want to create versus this cookie-cutter model that’s been handed down and the shoulds related to it, whether it’s personally or professional. I think it’s just really opening, and there has to be room for that differentiation and difference and mutuality, and successful relationships can also end or realign or recontract.
Toni Herbine-Blank: That’s right! And they do.
Rebecca Ching: And they do, absolutely. Yes, and they do, and just because the relationship as it was is no longer existing today doesn't mean it’s a failure. It’s we are dynamic people that are evolving and coming into our own in many ways too.
Wonderful, Toni. Thank you so much for joining me in this conversation. I want to make sure I’ll be linking to your books that you’ve offered for folks who want to read more about your approach and how they can help become more differentiated and better respecters of those that they're in relationship with, so I’m excited to share that! But thank you so much for joining me in this conversation today. It was a real honor.
Toni Herbine-Blank: Aww. Well, thank you for having me, and it’s great to see you!
Rebecca Ching: Now, before you go, I want to make sure that you take some key points from today’s Unburdened Leader conversation with Toni Herbine-Blank. First, conflict is a part of the gig in relationships. It’s not something to be avoided, but something to normalize in relationships and embrace instead of fearing or judging. Toni also spoke at length about the power of the pause when we get activated. This helps us get clear on what’s going on with us so we can also get clear on what and how we want to communicate our feelings, so when we return to the relationship we can be aligned with our values and still stay connected. She also reminded us the importance of understanding our stories and the burdens of relational trauma and the shame we carry, so we can stay connected within ourselves and with those we’re experiencing conflict.
So, I’m curious. How do you want to change how you respond to conflict? What does support look like so you can increase your practice of pausing before responding when activated? What are the echoes of old burdens from past relational or betrayal wounds that impact your capacity for conflict, discomfort, and difference? When we sign up to lead, we have to learn how to lead ourselves and others well, we’re signing up to do the life-long work of redefining our relationship with conflict and doing the work so we can stay present and connected within and with others no matter how hard things gets, and this is the ongoing work on an Unburdened Leader.
Thank you so much for joining this episode of The Unburdened Leader. I’d be honored if you would go ahead and leave a review, a rating, and share it with someone you think may benefit from it. You can also find this episode, show notes, free Unburdened Leader resources and ways to sign up for the Unburdened Leader weekly, along with ways to work with me at www.rebeccaching.com.