All posts by Carol Williams

Forgiving Ourselves

Every single one of us has experiences we wish we could relive and “get right” on the second go-round. Lacking the second chance, we may find ourselves wishing for a self-forgiveness wand, but it’s important we don’t rush to that too quickly. If we do we may miss valuable lessons that might come our way from our guilty feelings.

First of all it’s critical to distinguish Real Guilt from Vague Guilt.

Real Guilt is connected with unethical behaviour and we feel it when we have stepped out of line with our truth and have upset the balance between ourselves and others.

Vague Guilt is much more complicated, hangs around a LONG time and it is created either in our own memory or by the warnings of others. Vague Guilt is the response of the scared child inside of us and it carries the heavy burden of blame. You will know that is the type of guilt you are carrying if you answer “yes” to any of the following questions:

Do I feel afraid of taking a strong action?

Am I afraid of being punished, or of being known in a new way as a result of my strong action?

Am I refusing to take responsibility?

Am I feeling angry, but also feel it’s wrong to feel this way or to express my anger?

Am I doubting myself and denying a truth in an attempt to please others?

The solution then is to acknowledge the Vague Guilt as a signal that you are avoiding something, and then, with kindness towards that scared child inside of you address the excitement that lies under the guilt. Then, in the words of David Richo, in “How to Be an Adult”, “the guilt becomes a belief, not a verdict.”

The beauty of Real Guilt is that when it is dealt with in a clean way we are able to forgive ourselves and live free of the self-repudiating blame that clings to Vague Guilt. Here are the steps, that again come from David Richo’s book:

  1. Admission – Admit directly to the person involved that you hurt them or acted irresponsibly or neglectfully. Ask to hear about the pain they feel and take it in. This allows you to take full responsibility and is the only way to create genuine relationships.
  2. Amendment – Cease the behaviour that created the harm and make it up to the person. (If you broke their window, replace it. If you didn’t keep your word, take an action that follows through as you initially promised.) If for whatever reason, the original person isn’t available or open, provide the same follow-up with another person or a charity.
  3. Affirmations – 1. Repeat lines to yourself such as “I make new and wiser choices”, “I lighten up on myself and others”.   2. Congratulate yourself for the adult-choice and follow-through that will ultimately free you and those around you.

With compassion and accountability we are able to forgive ourselves and be the authentic people we were always meant to be! In the words of Mary Jo Leddy, “By sensing what we have done wrong we can begin to reclaim our potential to do good.” There is nothing more powerful! Trust me on this one.

Delicate Words for Your Feelings

Expressing our vulnerability goes a long way to solving conflicts, but in order to do that we need to have a good breadth of “feeling words”.  

I’ll get to that in a minute, but first be mindful of using the word “feel” in place of “think”. “I feel that you should know better” would be more accurately expressed as “I think you should know better” – which is a judgement which won’t get you what you want!  Notice how different it sounds to “…I feel suspicious or withdrawn or angry…” With this last statement you know exactly where the person is at.

So what are “feeling words”? Again, I encourage you to go to www.cupofempathy where you’ll find a whole down-loadable list. In the meanwhile here’s a super short list which can be refined to exactly what you are experiencing: Happy, Sad, Disgusted, Angry, Afraid, Surprised.

Again, any time someone irritates you, pull out that handy list and see if you can nail the exact tone of the feelings coursing through your blood or theirs!

Delicate Words for Your Needs

In the last two installments we talked about how determining our needs can go a long way to…well…getting our needs met! Go figure.

Lots of people grow up believing that they either don’t have many needs or their needs don’t deserve to be met. But think about that – you wouldn’t look at a cat and say “they have no needs”. Even a guppy, lower down on the evolutionary totem pole, has needs, so why wouldn’t we?

In addition to our basic needs for food, water, touch, shelter and security we need to be loved and feel as though we belong. We need respect and freedom and the opportunity to choose our own dreams and values as well as a whole lot of other things. I encourage you to go to www.cupofempathy for a full downloadable list of needs, but in the meanwhile, here is a list of the categories of human needs: Physical well-being, Harmony, Autonomy, Power, Pleasure, Connection, Liveliness, Authenticity, Meaning and Love, and Attention. Then, any time someone irritates you, pull out that handy list and see if you can nail the need behind your gritted teeth or clenched fist.

How to Take In Delicate Things Others Have to Say to Us

I really hate sending students to the office for misbehaviour*. I feel defeated and I know the student feels even worse, yet sometimes it seems like the only way to rein things in. Gulp. One day, I painted myself into a corner where I thought the only option was to send a particularly disruptive boy to the office. As he stormed out of the room I had a better idea; I instructed him to go to Rm 24, a quiet room where he could continue with his work and not disrupt the class I was teaching. (It would also prevent the Vice Principal from knowing of our mutual failings!) Harmony descended on the sunlit room.

Five minutes later I looked up to see the boy walking back to class and the Vice Principal watching him from his post at the end of the hall.

“He told me to come back,” the boy said.

“Did you not hear me tell you to go to Rm 24?”

“You told me to go to the office!”

Ahhhhh. At this point things could have easily descended into an arguement about who said what, but I had just learned Non-Violent Communication and I stopped myself short. This boy was angry! I was too, but not as much as he was so I knew it was time for me to take that step back and to really try to understand what was going on with him.

“When you hear me now say you were to go to Rm 24 you feel angry because I first told you to go to the office. You would like me to be more clear about what I say?”

“YES!” he said definitively, and in a flash we were like two horses pulling a load in the same direction, not like two rams slamming our heads into one another.

I didn’t know this boy well enough to know if he had trouble with auditory processing, but I do know that he was amped up long before I said anything to him.  Despite that he followed my first instruction. Then when anger and shame welled up in him his brain switched to survival mode. His stress-hormone levels, heart rate and blood pressure would have risen, perhaps enough so that the muscles of his middle ear had turned off and he hadn’t heard my second instruction.

The follow-up steps I used came from the “Non-Violent Communication” method. You can find great instruction on it on the Cup of Empathy website but I’ll give you an overview here:

Say what the other person may be observing in me: “When you (see, hear)…” I had to ask myself, “What is actually going on with him in this moment?” It was apparent that he hadn’t heard me give the second instruction and he was mad that I was making it extra confusing.  (Sometimes you don’t have to make this statement out loud – your actions say it for you.)

Say how the other person may feel (a feeling or sensation): “You feel…” Angry (that was an easy one!)

Say what the other person may need or value that has caused this feeling: “Because you need/value…” I was able to just blend this sentence together with the next one.

Ask for what you think they might want and what you can offer: “Would you like…” Asking him if he needed me to be more clear was taking the pressure off him. (Sometimes the empathy you offer is enough and you don’t have to make this statement either.)

Because I genuinely could see his frustration I suddenly wanted to be of assistance to him. I asked him if he would go to Rm 24 where he could work more easily. He agreed.

I encourage you the next time someone is upset with you to take a step back and try this process. Don’t worry if you don’t get it right the first time. I have often messed up and have gone back to the person saying, “I wished I had said that better. Would you hear me as I try again?” Almost every single time the door was thrown wide open for me! I hope it is for you too!

I strongly encourage you to go to the Cup of Empathy website for much, much more information and guidance on how to use this way of talking with one another!

The next couple of posts I’ll make will be about getting your needs met and how-the-heck to identify what’s going on with the emotions inside you!

*With a lot more experience in Non-Violent Communication my need to do this has almost evaporated.  Thank heavens. In my early days of teaching it happened far too often!

How to Say Delicate Things to Others

Years ago I had a series of encounters with a young woman who repeatedly told me about the harm being heaped upon her by her boyfriend. I listened with empathy; I expressed concern and compassion; I counselled; yet the encounters and the stories of what ensued continued. My head felt as though it would explode. So finally I very deliberately said to her, using the four steps of Non-Violent Communication: “When I hear these stories about your boyfriend my head hurts and I feel angry because I value knowing you are safe. If you aren’t willing to leave your boyfriend would you be willing to not tell me stories about him? I was expecting a torrent of anger, but she just smiled, said, “OK!” and bopped away.

Such moments have been hugely freeing to me. They have allowed me to speak the truth of what is going on with me without blaming or criticizing the other person. I have come away from these encounters knowing that even if I wasn’t fully understood, I expressed what I needed to with respect for both myself and the other person.

Again, it would be best if you could learn this process directly from the Non-Violent Communication work of Marshall Rosenberg , but I will give you an overview so you know how the four steps work and encourage you to pursue it further.

  1. Say what I actually observe about the other person: “When I (see, hear)…” Notice I didn’t say “when you go on and on about your boyfriend”, I just said, “When I hear stories about your boyfriend.”
  2. Say how I feel (a feeling or sensation): “I feel…” Notice rather than making a judgement about how she was behaving I told her exactly what was going on in my body and what emotions I was experiencing.
  3. Say what I need or value that has caused this feeling: “Because I need/value…” Notice I was claiming responsibility for my feelings by stating what need wasn’t being met for me. I didn’t tell her that she was making me angry because she was an idiot to keep returning to this man.
  4. Say what positive and concrete action would enrich my life and ask for a concrete action: “Would you be willing…” Notice I wasn’t telling her to leave her boyfriend. I had only asked her if she would be willing to not tell me of their encounters if she wished to stay connected to him. (I knew the police were involved and there was nothing more I could do.)

Hurray, hurray!

Because this isn’t the way we usually talk with others I find I need to practice it over and over again. Here’s a scenario you could take a stab at:

One of your friends repeatedly pulls their face mask down when the teacher is looking the other way. What could you say to them? Come up with your own answer to the four questions listed above. I’ve provided one possibility.

“When I see you pull your mask down three times since the start of class I feel uncomfortable because I value knowing everyone of us stays healthy. Would you be willing to leave your mask up for the rest of the period?”

How to Say Delicate Things to Others AND How to Take In Delicate Things Others Have to Say

Confession: I have held off writing these next three blogs because I have messed up in this department lately and felt I shouldn’t be sharing something I haven’t mastered.

But, as I see the opinions of so many people colliding I realize I need to give you a chance to learn about this process that has absolutely astounded me with its power. It has allowed me to step up and say really difficult things to people I consider more powerful and it has allowed me to step back and really try to understand what is behind the intensity of what another person is saying. Yes, I’ve failed, but 95% of the time the results have thrilled me because I could tell both of us left the conversation feeling heard and respected as we moved toward a connection based on truth.

This process which goes by the non-sexy name of “Non-Violent Communication” was developed by Marshall Rosenberg. I first heard about it when a Canadian with black skin explained how he developed a friendship based on mutual respect and understanding with an American member of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK)! It has been used successfully in schools and businesses and between members of opposing ethnic groups. I’ll give you a taste of it here, but encourage you to buy a copy of the book by the same name, or to learn more about it online.

Step One: Do I need to step up and express myself, or step back and really take in what’s going on with the other person?  The first step is to determine who has the most energy in the moment. Is the person you are in conflict with writhing or even simmering with frustration, discouragement, distress, anger, sadness + + or are you? It’s a simple step, but a critical one in helping you determine which action is next required.  

Over the next while I invite you to practice that skill of noticing the different intensity levels between you and the people in your world right now. In the next two blogs I’ll give the overview of how to work the process.

More Upgrades for Lizardly Welcoming

How to we become a more whole person; one who isn’t blown off course by our moods or the comments of others?

It’s not a fast process, but I’m here to tell you it’s entirely possible. There are many paths you can take and I’m certain you’ll find the ways that work best for you. Here is a method that works well for me.

“In solitude I know. In community I am known.”  Parker J. Palmer

Let’s focus a little more on the community part of Parker Palmer’s statement, which is about connecting with others. How do I connect with others, especially if they are different from me or even hostile towards me?

Many years ago I was substituting for a French teacher for a number of days. On the first day a bright, competent, articulate and determined young man asked me if he could work in the hall. I had had enough experience to know that such requests were most often requests to wander the school or wile away the time with friends from other classes. I also knew that once I let one student do this others would want to do the same and that if I “lost control’ of the class on day 1, day 3 would be much worse,  so I said “No”. He was furious, absolutely furious;,and quickly got a number of other students jumping to his defence. He topped it off by writing a letter to his teacher complaining about my actions. Over the subsequent years when I taught this boy I always felt a bit of a sting between us.

Many years later, long after the student had become an adult I found myself on a committee with him. I expected the residue of our introduction to one another to shape our interactions, which I knew would not only impact our work together but it would also be down-right stupid. So I decided to do what works beautifully with creatures of all natures: nervous cows, hostile dogs, anxious babies, ripping-mad teenagers; I focused on what was beautiful about this creature. I thought about how bright he was, how he provided such a youthful and different perspective, how he carried through with everything he said he would. Doing that changed my attitude toward him, but interestingly enough it changed his attitude toward me. Before too long he made the comment to a friend of mine that he thought I could be his friend!

If you want to change the dynamics with a stranger or someone who gets under your skin that’s all you have to do! Just pay close attention to what is great, good or even tolerable about them!

And if you want to share any of your observations about what happens, feel free to leave a comment. Have fun!


Want to know some of the science behind this?

We take in far more information from others than we realize. How they hold themselves, the pitch of their voice, even their smell reveal information we may be totally unaware of on a conscious level, but receive with our spidy senses! When we switch from being critical to being curious or appreciative about others, amongst other things small changes occur in the muscles between the corners of our eyes and the corner of our lips which reveal how socially engaged we are. Our muscles relax and we feel better. Our muscles relax and the other person takes that as acceptance! Isn’t that cool?


BTW – Lizards can’t do this!

Coming up next: “How to say difficult things to others”.

Upgrade Your Lizardly Welcoming



When we feel whole we can’t possibly be racist.


What does it mean to be whole? It’s when we are able to see ourselves, warts and all, greatness and all, clearly and dearly. I was well into adulthood before I could see myself clearly. “Dearly” was even slower in coming, but I can tell you now that seeing myself through both lenses has been the most important task I have ever taken on ( and continue to take on).  I highly recommend starting as soon as you can!

Parker Palmer has a great saying: “In solitude I know. In community I am known.” Every day I make sure I have time alone to figure out some of the truth in the thoughts that tumble around in my head. It’s something I have to do all on my own. But today let’s focus on how we can bring a genuine curiousity to our interactions with others.

The first step is to show up. The second is to expect to be welcomed. The third is to extend welcome to others.

Step one seems obvious. If a photographer shows up she sees things worth photographing. If she stays in her basement, well, it’s a tad tougher! If you show up by putting your phone in your pocket, looking people in the eye, smiling and saying, “Hello”, you are 2/3 there. If doing this isn’t easy for you, or you find yourself slipping (as I have lately), just start over again.

Step two is easy for me so I had to learn the importance of this from someone else. I was involved in a gathering where the larger group broke into smaller groups many times over the course of the day. As soon as the instruction was given to find partners I noticed the woman sitting beside me lowered her head and stared intently at her lap.  Consequently she was always the last one picked. She later lamented that she was always being excluded. Poor thing. If she had only realized, all she had to do was lift her head and meet the gaze of the welcoming people around her.

Step three is to welcome others. I have worked for many years as a substitute teacher and I often think the most important thing I do each day is to greet and say the name of as many students as I can. When I can’t remember a name, then a smile, a gesture, a genuine comment on what we have in common or twinkle in my eye is enough, I hope, to convey that I am glad to see them and help their nervous system settle.

Ah, there IS a step four: practice, practice, practice – especially when you are meeting people who don’t seem to be at all like you.


Want to know some of the science behind this?

When we connect with others we are activating the ventral branch of the vagal nerve. Found only in mammals, the ventral vagal nerve relates to the positive emotions of joy, satisfaction and love. If we approach another with the expectation that welcome will go both ways we are activating the ventral vagal nerve and setting ourselves up for the likelihood that it will! And when we are doing that we are rising above the poor little snakes and lizards, who for lack of a ventral vagal nerve, have strong racist tendencies!

We All Have Racial Biases


We all have racist biases. Please let me explain two reasons for saying that.

  1. Our brains can only take in so much information so they are constantly filtering things: I don’t need to pay attention to the chipped paint on my bedframe or the 64 other brands of shampoo on the shelves of the drugstore. The chip is most likely not going to impact my life and in the drugstore I already know what I want so my eyes are scanning for the familiar colouring and label of shampoo I seek. Likewise, you probably don’t distrust your family’s dog (even if it is of a fierce breed), or the food your parent prepares for you – both have proven track-records. However, when we encounter something foreign like a coyote or meet someone who looks/sounds/acts differently to us the activity in the fear- centres of our brain increases until time and familiarity cause them to settle down.


  1. How we see the world is also shaped by how our parents, family, fellow citizens and our culture see things. Have you ever met a racist baby? Of course you haven’t! As long as people smile and meet the basic needs of a baby they think people with green ears and two heads are great! But I bet you have also met 4 – 8 year olds who think their hockey team is the best in their division, their dad is bigger, stronger and smarter than any other dad and there is no country better than the one they are growing up in. Children who are between 4 and 8 need to feel that way in order to experience a sense of belonging and the only way they can do that is to, while they are still dependent, borrow the values of their family, teachers, ethnic and religious group and nation.


If I grow up amongst people who were once tortured by people who had green skin, or by people with green skin, who once tortured others, I’m going to have some pre-formed thoughts about people with green skin. If I have neither and meet someone with green skin, wariness will most likely be the initial response. Yet, if we give the interaction time and curiousity there is every possibility that familiarity and comfort and even friendship may develop.


It’s time for all of us (and I mean all of us!) to take the best of the beliefs we formed between ages 4 and 8 about people with green skin and everything else and challenge anything that doesn’t create equality, respect for others, cooperation, harmony, peace, care for the earth and a mature relationship with its creator. It’s time for all of us to bring curiousity to our conversations with those who think differently from us. Some of us are masterful at this. Some of us find it hard.

The next entry in this blog will focus on one way to do it.