Category Archives: Carol Williams

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.



Get Smart Again


Brain HQ has another special on this week so I’ll repeat what I wrote in May and encourage you to consider brightening your brain with this simple tool.

“I will almost never recommend a product on this blog, but here’s one that helped me with the auditory processing and I can’t say enough good things about it. It’s called Brain HQ and it provides 29 online games that help improve attentionbrain speedmemorypeople skillsnavigation, and intelligence! You can sign up for random, free, daily exercises, or you can purchase a year’s subscription that tailors the exercises to match your needs. If you are interested you can try a few exercises this week then, if you like them, take advantage of the Father’s Day special! Honestly, you will thank me if you do. You’ll be able to join the 87% who found their cognitive functioning improved.”

Brain HQ –


Get Smart!


I’ll write more later on ways to handle tension, but today I’d like to share a little on how the brain is able to change when given the right information.


Are you having trouble focusing on the things that matter? Do you watch others gather friends and make people feel comfortable leaving you wondering what they know that you don’t? Do you wish you were just a tad smarter?


There was a time when after listening to a teacher give a lengthy explanation I would think, “I have absolutely no idea what you just told me!” Turns out that people like me with auditory processing difficulties either have trouble taking in verbal information, or they file the information in random places and have trouble retrieving it. The good news is that I am changing that and you can too!


It turns out that there are two distinct periods of “brain plasticity” (when the brain is able to change). The first is called the Infant Critical Period which sets you up for life. The second is Adult Plasticity when teens and adults are able to refine the neural processes of their brains.


I will almost never recommend a product on this blog, but here’s one that helped me with the auditory processing and I can’t say enough good things about it. It’s called Brain HQ and it provides 29 online games that help improve attentionbrain speedmemorypeople skillsnavigation, and intelligence! You can sign up for random, free, daily exercises, or you can purchase a year’s subscription that tailors the exercises to match your needs. If you are interested you can try a few exercises this week then, if you like them, take advantage of the Mother’s Day special! Honestly, you will thank me if you do. You’ll be able to join the 87% who found their cognitive functioning improved.

Brain HQ:

Sometimes you just have to cry.

There isn’t a single one amongst us who doesn’t have a reason to cry right now. I won’t go through the list of things because what I have lost will be different from what you have lost and what you have lost will be different from what your grandparents have lost. And when we lose things we care about, and when we are completely up against a wall of futility, it’s so easy to go off in search of a great distraction. However, that won’t take us where we really do want to be. Feeling soft and tender and like ourselves again is so much better than feeling distracted, and the only way to get there is to let some tears flow. The single best way to do that is to cry in the presence of a family member who totally gets us, but if that isn’t possible right now then writing, painting or dancing out the sadness can often bring just the right number of tears to heal us. I know this for certain. Just before supper one night last week I read a simple story about a woman crying in a grocery store and the tears that had been inside me since the middle of March welled up, spilled over and made me feel a whole lot better!

Here’s a poem by Philomene Kocher that says it best:

rain washes the dust

from the bus window

and I can see

more clearly

what tears do


Want to know some of the science behind this?

I have spoken before about the sympathetic nervous system being activated when we are agitated. When we cry there is a whole host of bodily functions that change as the parasympathetic nervous system takes over and gives us that wonderful relief that comes from a good cry. The emotionally-induced tears we shed are a different chemical composition than the tears that normally keep our eyes moist; they contain hormones that build connection to the person we are crying with, they act as a natural pain reliever and flush the stress hormones from our systems.

Hunkered-down Groundhogs


The last time I wrote about groundhogs it was when they were digging for all they were worth to get away from the madness of the squirrel. Under the circumstances that was a healthy thing for the groundhog to do. However, it is possible for all of us, when day after day is filled with the same old news, same old people, same old boring conversations, to just want to find a good old hole and stay there…forever. It’s the “forever” that’s a problem. Retreating to a nice warm hole is good now and then; it’s when we don’t have an ounce of energy to pull ourselves out of it that it’s a problem.

Fortunately all it takes is a few minutes to give our systems a chance to take in a little comfort that makes it ok enough to poke our little noses out into the afternoon sunshine and smell the breeze wafting over the new shoots of clover.

Option 1 – Ask yourself, “Who in my extended family ‘gets me’ most?” Once you’ve got that person (grandparent, aunt, uncle) in mind give them a call. Yes, a phone call, or better still a video call. That’s so you can have a real, live conversation that will make you feel better than a kazillion texts. Ask them to tell you about a time when they overcame a difficult situation, or just chat.

Option 2 – Here’s an exercise I mentioned for earlier for squirrels. It also works for groundhogs but I’ll explain that in the science section.

Brain Stem Release – This is also a simple exercise. It involves clasping your hands behind the head and then holding your gaze off to both the left and right sides of your body. Please see the following video

Option 3 – Right there in your little hole do some simple stretching. If you think you can do 5 min. of it here’s a link: Don’t let the word “yoga” throw you off. These are just stretches and “yin yoga” is just a form of stretching that is absolutely perfect to start with. If you feel a little better when you finish, go for a walk to the end of your block and back, but only if you want to.


Want to know some of the science behind this?

We’re going back to the Autonomic Nervous System and the Polyvagal Theory in particular. The vagus nerve is the super nerve of the body. It runs from the brain to the intestines and impacts the heart and lungs along the way. “Poly” stands for many, or in this case, the three bundles of fibres playing three different roles in the vagus nerve. The first bundle (Sympathetic) is ready for fight or flight. The second (Dorsal Vagal) activates the immobility response which may include feelings of overwhelm, helplessness and paralysis. The third (Ventral Vagal) is the most recently evolved system which exists only in humans and mammals. It supports our ability to be socially engaged and comfortable in our own skins. When we are hunkered-down groundhogs we have an over abundance of dorsal vagal activity.

Option 1 – By talking with someone in our family who “gets us” we are stimulating our Ventral Vagal nerve. But here’s the kicker – texting doesn’t soothe the system the way talking with a loved one does. One study that supports this had placed teenagers in stressful situations then had one group text their parents, while the other group called their parents on the phone. Only the ones in the group who called had lower levels of stress hormones in their blood.

Option 2 – The Brainstem Release creates better movement in the neck, which improves the circulation of blood to the brainstem. This in turn improves the function of the ventral branch of the vagus nerve.

Option 3 – Movement, especially if it is rapid, activates the sympathetic branch of the vagus nerve. So going for a run is the best way to get out of a hunkered-down groundhog state, but that is an AWFUL LOT to ask when you have zero energy, so just go easy on yourself and stretch just a little to see if that makes you feel a tad better. Then tomorrow stretch just a little more.