Christian Conte: Healing Conflict: Listen, Validate, and Then Explore Options
Tami Simon: Welcome to Insights at the Edge, produced by Sounds True. My name’`s Tami Simon, I’`m the founder of Sounds True, and I’`d love to take a moment to introduce you to the new Sounds True Foundation. The Sounds True Foundation is dedicated to creating a wiser and kinder world by making transformational education widely available. We want everyone to have access to transformational tools such as mindfulness, emotional awareness, and self-compassion, regardless of financial, social, or physical challenges. The Sounds True Foundation is a nonprofit dedicated to providing these transformational tools to communities in need, including at-risk youth, prisoners, veterans, and those in developing countries. If you’`d like to learn more or feel inspired to become a supporter, please visit soundstruefoundation.org.
You’`re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Dr. Christian Conte. Christian is one of the country’`s most accomplished mental health specialists in the field of anger and emotional management. He’`s one of only a handful of people who have a level five anger management certification, which is the highest possible level. Christian currently trains correctional institutions, sports teams, and organizations in the practical application of his Yield Theory anger management program, and with Sound True, Dr. Christian Conte has written a new book called Walking Through Anger.
In this conversation with Christian Conte he explains Yield Theory and the three steps: listen, validate, explore options. It sounds simple, but in my experience, it’`s pretty deep work and hard to master. Here’`s my conversation with a gifted guide, Dr. Christian Conte:
To begin with, Christian, I’`d love if you could share with our listeners how you became an anger management specialist. What led up to that?
Christian Conte: That is a wonderful question, and I wish it could just be a really quick, one-story answer, but the reality is it’`s complex but it’`s beautiful.
TS: Please, tell us the whole thing. Don’`t rush.
CC: Well, so I was reflecting on this very same question when I was going through the process of writing this book, and I thought back to my childhood. There were two incidences that I think really began leading me to where I am today, the first one was this. My dad was a professor of Earth science, and so I was a haughty teenager and I said to him as a teenager, “Hey dad, what’`s the fun in studying rocks?” He said, “Well if you only ever live on one planet in your life, don’`t you think you ought to get to know that planet?” I was like oh, it made a lot of sense.
Later on in college, when I was lost, trying to figure out what to study, I thought about my dad’`s advice and the path he took, but I put a little twist on it. I thought “Well, I’`m only ever going to live with me my whole life, so why not get to know myself?” So I started to study psychology at that time, so that was the first thing that I think really even lead me down this.
Then I went back just even a little bit farther, and I thought about advice my mom gave me. My mom is this incredible person, she was a disciplinarian as a teacher. She was a high school English teacher, and I was going to be attending the high school were she taught. I went to school in the 80s where kids would circle up and fight, just like if young people today don’`t know that, and I hope they don’`t have to know that same kind of stuff that we went through, but they would circle up and fight. And my mom said to when we got to the high school, she said, “Listen, I better never find out that you ever watched a fight, and didn’`t step in and break it up.” Listen, my mom might be small, but I was definitely more afraid of my mom than I was of the kids. I would step in all the time. I’`d be breaking up fights, kids would be mad at me, “Let them fight. Let them go.” “Nah. You want to face my mom? You do that.”
I think that I learned early on, when I see conflict, don’`t run from it, go toward it, and combining that journey of personal growth, going into the depths of my own psyche and learning about myself, focusing constantly on what I can learn about me and then realizing that when something goes wrong, step in and do something, I think that’`s the impetus to get me in the direction I was going.
On the more recent level, when I was a professor, when I first started to be a professor, I sat in on some groups where they were doing anger management, and I went incognito, so I was just in my T-shirt and jeans, and I’`m a 6-foot, 250-pound bald guy with tattoos and a beard, I look like everybody else at a biker bar, and I went and I sat in on this group, and no one knew I was there. They just thought I was part of the group, I was one of the guys in the group. Two things shocked me and really set a fire in me to change things. The first was this, the teacher was extremely pejorative. He was condescending, he would talk down to them. “Some of you guys are psychopaths, you’`re never going to change,” I thought, “My goodness, how’`s somebody supposed to learn and change, do something different if that’`s what they’`re being told?”
Then the other piece was this, some of the guys in this anger management group who had been convicted of a violent crime, were out on parole at this time, but it was outpatient, but they had to be at these groups. Well, in order to get through the group they had to write what was called a letter of accountability. The guys in the back of the room were looking at a guy who was about to graduate the group, and they were looking at his letter, they said, “No, don’`t say these words. Change this, erase this, say this.” He’`s back there scrambling, hurry up, writing exactly what he was supposed to write, and didn’`t care, wasn’`t involved in the class because obviously the teacher’`s shutting him down and others down, and so that’`s what he turned in. Of course it fit the bureaucratic model of give you a piece of paper so I can demonstrate your accountability, and he passed. I thought, “Well, he hasn’`t learned anything different, and he was involved in domestic violence, and the odds are he’`s going to be involved in domestic violence again.”
I started to take over these groups, and I did a study of Yield Theory many years ago and it was effective, and this is really how I got started in it, and I think I resonated a lot with the guys. The reality is, I am a tougher looking guy and definitely have physical strength, and I think guys, when it comes to those anger management groups, where especially many of these men intimidated people in their lives, they respected that at face value at first, so I was able to reach them. What I’`ll share with you today is it’`s nothing about acting intimidating or acting tough, but I also don’`t deny the reality that obviously when I walk in and start it—listen, my first day in this group, I was running the group, my first day running it. Guy comes in he goes, “They’`re forming a line.” I pointed to a guy who was coming in the door, I said, “Go ahead and sign in here,” he said, “No, go ahead. You sign in first.” I said, “No my man, I’`m Dr. Conte. You go ahead and sign in.” He said, “Oh, I’`m Dr. Conte too.” I said, “Well actually, I am actually Dr. Conte, so I’`m going to need you to sign in and go ahead and sit down.”
I think the guys were like, “OK, this guy, he’`s here with us,” and my whole philosophy on life has been, my tagline has been, there are two kinds of people in the world, Tami. There are people who have issues, and dead people. If you’`re currently alive, you have issues, so do I, so does everyone. So my approach has always been I’`m with you, I’`m not better than you, I’`m not worse than you, we’`re all in this together. I might have come across some information that is valuable to you and I have an opportunity to share this with you, but of course, we could turn around and you could teach me something in the next moment. I think guys really liked that—and not just guys, the men and women really like this, not this expert top-down, but we’`re here together. Let me just shine light. Let me shine some light on what’`s going on. People really responded to that.
TS: Well, and of course, someone who’`s really angry, that could come in any kind of package. It could be a four-foot tall, skinny person. But in a way, you were kind of built for the work you’`re doing as an anger management specialist, as you describe yourself. I can see that.
CC: I believe with all of me that you are 1000 percent right. It does not matter the size, I just think initially, when I was thinking about why did I get into this, I think it was such a good fit when I was there, that I just kept going deeper and deeper into anger management. However, I always like to say it’`s not just anger management, it’`s emotional management, because so much more goes into anger. So much more.
TS: We’`re going to talk about that. Briefly you mentioned that there was a study done on Yield Theory, and Yield Theory is the approach that you’`ve created that describes emotional management in general, and how you work as a counselor. So all right, Dr. Christian Conte, introduce Yield Theory to our listeners.
CC: OK, wonderful. Yield Theory is an approach to communication that is predicated on meeting people where they are, leading with compassion, and using conscious education to help circumvent the fight-or-flight response. Maybe even more simply it’`s this: it’`s about interacting with people with compassion and conscious education.
It’`s recognizing that you can speak just to speak, and that’`s great, and lots of people do that all the time, but it’`s really about getting around people’`s defensiveness and the heat of emotions, and being able to speak in ways that actually connect with them.
It came to me—you know, in 1998 I had this—I’`ve been an avid meditator for, I’`d say, my whole adult life, and out of a meditation I had this vision that if somebody was in a car and they were going down the highway the wrong way, and you wanted to stop them and you’`re in a car too, and you think, “Well I could have a head-on collision, I would stop them,” sure you’`d stop them, one or both of you might get awfully hurt. Or what if this happened? This is just a hypothetical, just a thought experiment, but what if you were to drive your car and merge with them, kind of at that yield sign and yield with them, merge with them, and you’`re driving along the road in the same direction they’`re going? Side by side. Eventually they start thinking, “Hey listen, this is going to be a long trip, let’`s save some gas,” they invite you into their car. Again, hypothetical. Now you’`re in the passenger seat and you’`re starting to see out of the same windshield they’`re seeing out of. Now you’`re starting to get a little bit better understanding.
Then eventually they get tired of this long journey and they trust you to drive, and in that spot you can help steer them down a different path. That was the initial analogy of really meeting people where they are—not where you want them to be or think they should be, but meeting them where they actually are, and really trying to see the world from their perspective.
I thought of this early, Tami, I thought, listen, I love the idea if I walk a mile in someone else’`s shoes, but this goes deeper than that. I imagine, what if I spent every day as the other person? In other words, not just my cognitive functioning, but their cognitive functioning. Not my ability to experience emotions, but their affective range. What if I had their life experiences? What I’`ve come to is I believe I would have made every single decision that that person made. Of course this is just a hypothetical, and of course we can’`t have a “this is the answer,” but what we can do is this, when you realize that instead of saying, “Well I would have one things differently,” or, “I had a tough life and I didn’`t do this,” we say, “Wait a minute, if I really am that person, how can I say I would have done anything differently?” Just that exercise is about saying, “I’`m going to put aside my own stuff and recognize I don’`t need judgment here, I just need to assess the situation and figure out what I could do from this moment forward.”
This is [a] powerful thing to really grasp because we’`re not saying we condone what they’`re doing—because you have to remember I specialize in working with people convicted of violent crimes. They do things that are so awful I wouldn’`t even talk about it in public to make people have that in their psyches. But how do I do that work? I do it because I imagine if I was them—I never met anyone who woke up and just did things to hurt others, that didn’`t have things happen to them.
TS: Now this idea of meeting people where they are, seeing through their eyes, walking in their shoes, it’`s so, so powerful, Christian. I want to talk about a little bit of why it’`s so hard for people, and quite honestly, I find it hard when people are really emotional. It could be anger, but it could also be something like grief or sadness, and when it’`s so intense, it can be hard for me not to jump directly to wanting to fix their situation. To actually join with them, it’`s unbelievably painful. I want to start there because how do you help people develop that capacity to be with that much intense emotion? Whether it’`s anger, or grief, or whatever it might be.
CC: I just love that question because it comes from a really good place to want to fix other people’`s emotions. It comes from such a beautiful, loving place. But the reality is we don’`t fix other people’`s emotions—all we can do is make ourselves a safe space. We can become a mirror to help them see themselves and help them get them into the position that is best for them, or get them out of what they’`re in, in that suffering.
I talk about these five errors of communication that we make, and one of them is called the error of omnipotence, when we believe we’`re responsible for what others do. This is an error—and it’`s omnipotence, all-powerful, this error, belief that we’`re all-powerful, that we can fix it. I can’`t fix it. I can’`t pull you out of hell, but I can sit in the fires of hell with you.
Compassion is about suffering with the person. It’`s not about fixing the person, but suffering with the person, and in a sense—and I’`ll explain it as we talk, we have things in our brain such as mirror neurons that help us really get to the heart of empathy with watching what’`s going on with others. But I believe the reason why I can sit in that is this, this is really what it is. I believe in the human spirit. I believe people are strong enough to get through what’`s being presented to them. I really, truly believe in people.
More than 20,000 hours of clinical experience, people have asked me, “Have you ever cried with a client?” Now, if I’`m being completely honest, there were times when I was driving home, many times I was driving home from work where the stories were so overwhelming that I burst out then, but I’`ve never cried when I was with clients. The reason is twofold. One, I wanted to be a rock for them, to be able to show them, look, your problems aren’`t so bad that your counselor’`s breaking down. And two, I realized, “Hold on a second, there is a beginning, middle and end to every emotional situation, and I believe in the strength of the person in front of me, that they will get through that beginning, middle and end. I believe in them.”
I think it’`s only our egos that really want to truly fix it, because then we’`re like, “Hey look, I helped you.” For me, whether or not I help you or not, what matters is, can I shine light and can I be a space of compassion for you?
TS: Do you think that if somebody is not at home, cannot hold this space for the depth of their own anger or sadness, or whatever the emotion is, that that’`s what is the impediment to suffer with another person, that we have to be able to hold that space for ourself?
CC: Yes. That’`s why for me, I say all the time, in Yield Theory the focus is on you controlling the only person over whom you actually have control, and that’`s you. If you can get to know yourself well enough, you’`ll start to understand what you’`re projecting on others, how your defense mechanisms are kicking in, what’`s getting in the way? What are the obstacles? The more you can clean on yourself and get yourself in a space of clarity, the more reflective you’`re going to be able to be that mirror for others.
TS: Because you mentioned that you work with violent criminals, and how in your own upbringing, your mother said to you at a young age, “When there’`s conflict, you step in. You be the peacemaker.” But I think for a lot of people, they grew up in environments where conflict was something to be avoided. A lot of people are conflict avoidant. I’`m conflict avoidant, I go the other way. Now, if somebody’`s really angry, the last thing such people may want to do is hold the space for someone’`s anger. They’`re not used to that.
CC: Right. This is why I said there are two different kind of people. I think there are two worlds we live in. One is what I call the cartoon world. The cartoon world is our world of “shoulds.” People shouldn’`t be responding like that. People shouldn’`t take that perspective. People should see the word the way I do. Then we look at what I call the real world, which is how the world actually is. As long as we align our expectations with the cartoon world, we’`re let down. Why aren’`t they doing—they should be doing this! But when we can learn to align our expectations with the reality of the way the world is, then we can be more prepared to enter it.
So, not dealing with conflict doesn’`t necessarily make it go away. In fact, it rarely does. It usually makes it build up. It’`s not a matter of not addressing it, but I think the reason why people tend to shy away from conflict is, on the deepest neurological level, conflict can lead to anger and violence, and ultimately, as self-preserving beings, when we know that something might lead to violence that could threaten our existence. I think it’`s a continuum. We trace it all the way back and say, “Wait a minute, now we’`re in this present moment, and something says as soon as there’`s conflict, I don’`t want this conflict. It’`s going to be uncomfortable. I’`m not going to like it.”
But yet—I would ask you this and I would like to ask other out there listening, would you say that part of why you are who you are today is because you were able to overcome conflict?
CC: Like there were things in your life that you had obstacles, and you didn’`t become who you are by having everything fall into place for you.
CC: So if we know that we didn’`t just have everything handed to us on a platter, we had to [inaudible] and we had to overcome that stuff, then I say why not practice how we can approach people in those situations without feeling so vulnerable?
This is what I feel like I arm people with in Walking Through Anger, because here’`s a way to communicate with someone who’`s angry; it doesn’`t mean it’`s going to be easy if you don’`t like the anger and other stuff, because it’`s not about saying I like yelling or the anger, especially if it’`s directed at me, but I understand that it’`s not personal. It’`s that person. It’`s what that person’`s experiencing on the deepest level. It’`s not personal toward me, because people can’`t give you what’`s not inside them.
TS: OK. Take us through the Yield Theory in action. Maybe you could give us an example of how you would apply it in a real-life situation, working with someone who’`s really angry about something.
CC: OK. The core of Yield Theory, I’`ll give you just a real-life example first and then I’`ll break down what the core of it is. Again, it’`s about meeting people where they are, and let me just say the core, fundamental actions are listen, validate, and explore options.
One day I was in a maximum-security prison, it was actually a super max, and an inmate got sent to the hole because he threatened a teacher’`s life. He’`s down there in the hole, he’`s furious, I mean enraged. He’`s screaming, banging, and they asked me to talk to him. I went over, he called me down to come to this unit, so I come down to this unit and I hear him yelling and screaming, so I said, “Well tell me what happened.” He said, “The teacher took my paper and ripped it up in front of everyone, in front of the class.”
Now I don’`t know whether or not the teacher picked it up and ripped up his paper in front of everyone. I have no idea if it happened exactly like this or not. I know that in this moment, this is his perception. I said to him, “That’`s so messed up. Jeez, if someone—” Remember, listen, watch how I say this, “If someone picked up my paper and ripped it, that would be awful.” He said, “It was. It’`s so messed up that she did it.” I said, “Yes, I can’`t imagine what you’`re experiencing are now or what you’`re going through. So what did I you do? Because I know personally if I put effort into something and someone ripped it up, and I felt foolish, I would certainly feel some sort of way.”
He said, “Well, I might have said something like, ’`Lucky I take medicine and stuff like that.’` It’`s just something like that.” I said, “Wait a minute, so did you tell her that she’`s lucky you take medicine because of what you’`ll do, like alluding to you could hurt her then?” He was like, “Something like that.” I said, “Something like that, or is that what you said?” He goes, “Yes, that’`s what I said.” I said, “OK, OK. You’`re angry. You were angry.”
Yielding is about push-pull philosophy. Aikido’`s about if I push you, instead of you pushing me back, you would pull me and then I’`d go flying. Or if I try to pull you, instead of resisting, you’`d push me and I’`d go—so you’`re going to watch this flow as we’`re talking. I said to him, “OK, so let me ask you a question. You’`re not a father, are you?” He said, “Oh yes, I have two kids.” I said, “You don’`t have girls, do you?” He said, “Oh yes, I’`ve got two girls.” I said, “Oh, my man, I have a daughter and she’`s my life. I love my little girl more than anything in this world.” He said, “Oh man, me too.”
I said, “I have a question for you. If somebody came up to one of your little girls and said, ’`Man, you’`re lucky I take meds, or else,’` and it was a man no less, that was a lot bigger than they are, what would you do?” He said, “Me and that guy got a problem.” I said, “You understand where I’`m going?” He said, “I see where you’`re going, doc.” I said, “Listen, in your intentions, you might very well have not intended to mean what you said, but people see your actions, not your intentions, and that teacher, she didn’`t know whether you were going to or not going to—all she could go on is the actual threat.”
By this time, this guy’`s ridiculously calm. He’`s shaking his head like, “Yes, you’`re right. Great.” I said, “I have a question,” because when I first got there it was like, “I’`m not supposed to be down here. This is messed up.” I said, “Do you think you’`re where you’`re supposed to be right now?” He goes, “Yes, I should be here for this.” I said, “Do you see what I’`m getting at right now?” He said, “I do.”
I said, “At the end of the day, you could get through this situation and you could say the old things you used to say, maybe try to get out of it, fight a case, this and that. All I’`m asking you to do, for your own growth, is look at it. Is this, was this the best reflection of you? And if it wasn’`t, can you really be ready to take feedback? Because that’`s what growth is about,” he said, “Man, doc, I definitely want to show I have growth.” I said, “It sounds like you’`ve got a good answer for you.”
TS: Wow. Very masterful. That was so masterful.
CC: I like that you used that word, and first of all, thank you a lot because I believe that we master what we practice, and I’`ve been practicing joining with people. Now when I join with them and try to see from their eyes, I’`m thinking I do it instantly. A lot of times when I train officers or corrections officers, they’`ll say, “Well I don’`t have time to go into all—” I say, “Listen. It takes no more time. It’`s actually faster, because the faster I see things from someone else’`s perspective, when we’`re angry we want to be heard, we want to be understood, or at least people trying to understand us. When you can create the space for someone to feel understood, what they do is they move from the emotional center, their limbic system in the center of their brain, and they move to the frontal cortex, the higher-level thinking and decision-making area.”
TS: I’`m going to read a quote from Walking Through Anger that describes what you’`re talking about here. Here’`s the quote. “People don’`t calm down because you tell them to, they calm down because you’`ve given them the opportunity to express what was in their limbic system. They calm down because you’`ve validated them enough to help drain the limbic system, which allows them to move from their emotional center to their higher-level thinking center.” Explain this idea of draining the limbic system and how the actions of Yield Theory do that.
CC: Yes. I love this. As you’`ll see with Walking Through Anger, I definitely teach in parables, I use tons of analogies, metaphors. One day I was trying to really think in a really simple way—and trust me, I love to study neurology, but I know neurologists out there could be cringing any time someone tries to simplify it too much because the brain is so complex. But when we think about the limbic system, which involves areas of the brain that are involved with emotions, even things like the hypothalamus, like when you’`re hungry, when you’`re overly hungry, tired, overheated, this is in this center. This is in your emotional center.
Well, if we were to look at the brain and we do a brain imaging, there are areas of the brain—now the whole brain is always active, but there are areas that are more active at times. So if someone is highly emotional, there are areas in the limbic system that the going to be more lighted up than the frontal cortex, the higher-level thinking. What I said with drain the limbic system, this is just a metaphor—so I don’`t want people thinking I’`m out there saying there’`s water in the brain, but here’`s my metaphor. Imagine that the limbic system was filled up with water and that water represented the anger, the emotion. Let’`s say you had a drain there, and so you turn on the nozzle and the water starts to leak out, but then you just hurry up and turn it right back off, so you just let a tiny bit if that water out. Well, there’`s still a whole lot of energy right there in that limbic system.
But when I say drain the limbic system, what I mean is you open up that valve until all the water comes out, and once the water’`s out of that area—and again, I’`m not saying there’`s water on the brain for real—now it can go to the other areas where it’`s needed, such as your frontal cortex. But we can’`t simultaneously be calm and angry; we’`re going to be either in a spot where we’`re making good decisions or more emotional. So I try to help people drain that limbic system, so now they’`re ready, they’`re more prepared.
Honestly, Tami, it’`s one of the reasons why when I talk about parenting, I say I literally have never yelled at or spanked my daughter ever. She’`s 14, she’`s the most beautiful, incredible human being I’`ve ever met, but one of the reasons why I say not to yell is if we’`re trying to teach children, and we know they learn in the front part of their brain, then yelling at them is going to activate a part of their brain that we don’`t want to be listening. In other words, parents will come to me all the time in therapy and say, “Well I screamed at them 100 times, they still don’`t listen,” I’`m like, “Well, maybe the method you’`re using to get this message across is not working.”
TS: Yes, so then how so you engage in a disciplinary when it’`s needed?
CC: Definitely. Discipline, absolutely essential. Absolutely essential. You know we live in this world where enantiodromia is just in the foreground: we go from one extreme to the other. So people have a tendency to think well if you don’`t yell and scream and hit, then you must not discipline them, and that’`s not even remotely true.
My four Cs that drive this are choices, consequences, consistency, and compassion. In other words, there’`s a choice, we all have a choice, so if we’`re talking about this with parenting, your children always have a choice. Sometimes parents say, “No they don’`t, they have to listen to me.” Nah, they still have a choice. Now, there’`s a consequence if they don’`t listen. If that’`s what you’`re getting at, absolutely. There’`s a consequence, but there’`s a consequence either way. Whatever choice they make, there’`s a consequence, and if you’`re enforcing the rules, whether you’`re a guard, whether you’`re an officer, whether you’`re a parent, then you’`re going to want to be consistent. If you say something, you’`re going to want to follow through because you’`re teaching people how to treat you.
Then what I emphasize the most is compassion. In other words, you can do all of that with compassion. If I recognize, and I’`ve made this the most important thing in my life to do, that every interaction with my daughter, I’`m teaching, my job is to teach. Children aren’`t born into this world knowing everything, our job is to teach them and guide them, and if they mess up, if they don’`t know, then we want to guide them. I just think time and again, what’`s the most effective way to teach? Is it screaming and yelling, or is it shining light and helping them be internally motivated to learn it?
TS: Again, very masterful. You have a great knack, Christian, on simplifying things that can seem quite confounding.
CC: Again, that’`s one of the biggest compliments, because I really want to share this with you. When I was young, my parents pushed me academically. I was blessed to have a really high IQ and a lot of expectations come with that, and my parents pushed me to read a lot, which I love and I’`m so grateful for. I’`m so thankful for the parents I have. But I remember the first time I encountered G.W.F. Hegel, he’`s this German philosopher who writes in such a convoluted way that by the time you’`re done with the first paragraph, you think you’`ve spun around in your chair 20 times because you’`re so dizzy. I thought to myself when I read Hegel when I was young, I said, “You know what? When I get older, I’`m never going to make things complicated for people. I’`m going to make things so that I can teach them anyone,” and I truly believe that. If I can’`t share this with a five-year-old, then I don’`t know it well enough. I own the responsibility for that.
TS: Just to keep going here, I think you have a way of explaining it that makes it really easy to understand, but in my own experience, it’`s not easy to do. I’`m going to have to come clean and be a little confessional here for a moment, which is, my wife of 18 years, we have a beautiful marriage, she’`s a very emotional person, and I’`m, I would say, in general, maybe more of a thinking type. When she gets extremely emotional about something, what she wants more than anything is for me to follow some type of Yield Method. She wants me to merge with her and feel what she’`s feeling. And it’`s the last thing I want to do! I think, “Oh my God, she is so freaked out. She’`s crazy right now. I’`m not merging with that, no way.” So I would like more help in understanding how to do that because even though it sounds easy, take her perspective, blah blah blah, I am scared of the intensity of what she’`s feeling.
CC: Well, it’`s actually more intense when you’`re resisting. You just think of anxiety and how resistance impacts anxiety. But let me say it like this: so in your cartoon world you’`re saying, she shouldn’`t be so emotional right now. She shouldn’`t have been that intense about that issue. That’`s your cartoon world. The real world is, she is doing that. And again, as long as you’`re trying to force her into your cartoon world, now you’`re starting to butt heads with her. But if you can just genuinely meet her where she is and say, “You know what? This is, for whatever reason, causing this,” what you’`ll find is, I believe, she will be like, “My goodness, this is so much—” Now she doesn’`t have a need to go that intense.
See, a really powerful lesson from family therapy is this, we—and systems theory—we play a role in every interaction that we have. So every time you and your wife have a disagreement or you’`re in that type of situation, you are playing a role. Even if you come home and she’`s in that spot, and you just walked in the door, you still play a role because you two have a history, you know that there are ways she might respond to things, she knows there are ways you might respond to things. Once we realize, instead of trying to make it linear, as through it’`s just her, it’`s just whatever happened in her life and her, and you realize it’`s circular causality, all of these things merge, now when you go and you go, “Wait a minute, there’`s something I’`m doing to not make her feel comfortable enough and that she feels like she has to go to such an extreme to have me see that she’`s in emotional pain right now.”
Because that’`s one of the reasons why people respond so intensely, is they’`re in pain, and look, if I cut my arm, you can see how big the cut is. You can imagine I’`m in pain, but when it’`s anxiety, depression, fear, how big is that? Nobody knows, so you express it how best you can. If you don’`t feel like you’`re being heard, many times people express it in really intense ways saying, “Please, look. Notice this pain.”
What I love about what I do is I’`m easy to find, so if what I share with people doesn’`t work, believe me, the world will let me know in a hurry, but what I would invite you to do is next time that she’`s struggling in that way, really look at it as she’`s struggling in that way, she doesn’`t have to respond the way your brain would respond to it. She doesn’`t have to respond the way your experiences would teach you to respond to it, she just has to respond the way she is.
Your job is to connect with her in that moment, try to circumvent that fight or flight, and realize being there with her, although it’`s harder for you, remember being tough isn’`t the easy thing, it’`s taking the more challenging road, but the reward lies at the end of that too. If you’`re able to discipline yourself to say “No, she doesn’`t have to come to my cartoon world, let me go meet her where she is,” what you’`ll find is a radical shift in her feeling safe, and my guess is a less of a desire to say things so intensely because she’`ll more likely feel heard.
TS: Now when it comes to these three steps of Yield Theory—listen, validate, explore options—let’`s go into them a little bit. When it comes to listening, I think a lot of people think “Oh, I know how to listen,” but in your book, Walking Through Anger, you really break it down and you talk about listening not just to the verbal dimension of what’`s happening, but how you really presence listening in a multidimensional way. Share some about that, the deeper dimensions of listening to someone.
CC: Yes, yes, I will. The listen, validate, and explore options, I just want to say at the onset, it’`s so easy to be skeptical of others. It’`s so easy for us to go, “Oh—” someone presents something, “That’`s not…” We can pick it apart, but can we really be skeptical of ourselves, of our own egos?
When I was trying to think about what’`s the essence of Yield Theory, I was like, what action is it? I sit in the chair and talk to people or I stand up and talk to people, what do I do? These were the three things I really realized, these are the actions: listen, validate and explore options. I was speaking one time to 500 mental health specialists, and a woman came up to me at the break and she was real condescending, and she looked at me and she goes, “That’`s your big theory, three things?” I said, “Yes. But if you think about it, all Bruce Lee ever did was move, block, and hit. He did pretty well for himself.” We might know—like you say, we might know the word listen and say, “Oh, I know how to listen,” but I think it’`s how you listen, how you validate, and how you explore options.
To go into listening more the way I visualize it, think of a box—think of a big box, maybe the size of a room. If you’`re standing on one side of that box, you can only see one, maybe two sides of that box. If you could visualize that what people are saying to you, they’`re talking to you from another side of the box. Let me go further and say imagine that this box, on each side of the box there are ever-changing images, completely changing constantly, so even if you go around and try to see that person’`s side, there’`s going to be other stuff on another side that you don’`t see. If we can realize every time we listen to people, we are only seeing one or two sides of the box and there is always more, then we move from listening with ego, like “I know what they’`re going to say, I know what this is all about,” and then we start to listen from essence and use what I call, even in the book, “humble curiosity,” like teach me about your side of the box.
But now we have to do this, Tami, not we have to listen, and we have to realize there’`s no way we can ever fully see another person’`s side of the box. I, of course, use the box as a reference to the human psyche. We can never see fully—we can only see our own fully. If you can approach people and begin to listen to them as though they’`re on another side of the box, the only way to understand what’`s happening and that side is to actually listen to them and not think “Well, I’`ve been to all sides of the box, I know it all.” Well, you can’`t know it all because as soon as you’`re on one side, you’`re automatically not seeing what’`s going on on the other side.
This puts people in a vulnerable position if their ego says, “No. I want to prove to people that I have those experiences. I know what you’`re going through. Been there, done that.” Those are all very invalidating statements, like you have their answers, you have not only your experiences, but their experiences too, and that position of arrogance really adds to conflict, it doesn’`t lessen it. I say listen with humility and say imagine someone’`s telling you something and the only way for you to know it is to truly listen. Does that resonate?
TS: Yes. It sounds though what you’`re saying, I want to check this one part out, is that even if you listen really, really carefully, you may be able to see what they’`re seeing, feel what they’`re feeling to some high level of approximation, but it will never be 100 percent because it’`s changing and because it’`s happening to them, and that that’`s part of the deep humility, that you’`ll never fully know it. Is that correct?
CC: Exactly. That’`s it 100 percent. I don’`t say, “Well I understand.” I say, “I understand what you’`re explaining to me.” Because I understand my own sense of the word anxiety, I know my own experience of anxiety, but I would never say to someone who’`s having a panic attack, “I know what you’`re going through,” because I don’`t know what they’`re going through. I know my own experience of experiencing panic attacks, I don’`t know that person’`s experience. That, again, comes back to that humility of setting our ego aside, trying to show others what we know, and as I said, truly being there for them.
TS: You know, it’`s interesting, when I was thinking about these deeper dimensions of listening, I was thinking about different things you reference in Walking Through Anger, like tone of voice is important, so people know that you’`re listening, your body language is important, eye contact. But what’`s interesting is those are all behavioral things. I could do all those things right and miss the point you’`re making right here, which is the humility to not ever presume I have it 100 percent correct. That’`s very powerful.
CC: Thank you, and it’`s beyond validating to hear you articulate it that accurately. That’`s exactly what I had hoped to share is exactly that. Well, our ego loves to convince us we have the answers. Asymmetric insight is the psychological concept that we believe we’`re really deep and mysterious, but other people, especially those who disagree with us, are shallow and predictable.
CC: In other words, we believe when people disagree with us that we see all sides of the box, but they just don’`t see our side. Obviously if they saw our side, obviously they would believe what we believe.
CC: But it’`s such a position of arrogance to think that. The truth is enlightenment comes from anyone, anywhere, at any time, and sometimes that means even in the depth of someone who you perceive to be completely different from the way you’`re churning through life, that person also holds that divine space in them as well.
TS: Now in these three steps, which just for the record, I don’`t think that this is like “Ah, that’`s really simplistic.” Not at all, I think it’`s incredibly deep to become masterful, one thing I learned from your work about the second step of validation, you write, “The primary purpose of validation is connection.” I thought that was really powerful because sometimes I think when I’`m saying things back to people, my primary purpose is to convince them I heard what they said so that we could please move on. I’`m not really interested in validating them, I just want them to say, “I heard what you said. Can we please move on to the part I like, which is fixing the problem?” So that’`s interesting that that’`s really the goal of validation, is to connect with someone.
CC: It really is. That’`s the essence of what we’`re about. I talk a little bit about it in the book, but there was a great theory, hypothesis for why Neanderthals might have died out while Homo Sapiens lived on. They discovered that even though Neanderthals had bigger brains, that because they were bigger, physically bigger, and they really lived in these isolated, mountaintop ranges, they needed to have better eyesight, they were physically—they had a bigger back of their brain area for the eyesight coordination, and a smaller part of their brain devoted to social interaction. The theory, the hypothesis was maybe they died out because—and most of the burial grounds are smaller groups, so maybe they died out because maybe we realized just how much we need each other, whereas that might not have been such a priority for them. This human connection, this might be deeply biological, that we want to connect with others.
TS: Help our listeners understand some of the right ways and maybe the not as skillful ways—we could say skillful, not as skillful ways—of validating someone, like when you’`re having a conflict or in any situation when you’`re trying to meet them.
CC: I think the wrong way is to—and you said it in such a lighthearted way, because I love that you said it perfectly. If your real goal is to listen, is to say, “OK, I’`m going to validate you to shut you up right now basically,” that’`s not the right way to do it. If you’`re validating saying, “Let me see. You’`re seeing something I’`m not seeing.” You see, I look at it that way, if someone disagrees with me, and maybe I feel strongly about a situation and someone disagrees, my brain jumps to, what is it that they’`re seeing that I’`m not seeing? Because it’`s something. I really want to listen and validate, and make sure I’`m hearing accurately what they’`re saying.
Validation, it’`s acknowledgement of what others are going through. So yes, it definitely is that, of what they’`re saying, you’`re acknowledging that you’`re seeing it, but gosh, does it connect you.
TS: Of course many people, and I’`m one of them, are concerned about the growing divisiveness that many of us are experiencing in American culture, whether it’`s political divisiveness or divisiveness around various issues. How do you think Yield Theory and the work that you do could apply to people having discourse around differences of opinion? How would it change discourse?
CC: Well yes, I honestly believe it’`s the key. At least it’`s the key that resonates with me, that if we really listen to other people that we ardently disagree with and say, “You know what? You’`re seeing something I’`m not seeing. Teach me.” But we don’`t. We only listen to what we want to hear, we use confirmation bias—so this is maybe a wrong way to listen with validation, when you’`re using confirmation bias, in other words you’`re looking to hear what I want to hear.
Of course, we’`re human beings, we operate on a continuum. When it comes to emotions, opinions, thoughts, all that stuff, it’`s a continuum, so when you disagree with others and there’`s discourse, it’`s saying, “Well, you need to see my side of the box,” not, “Let me honestly see your side.” Not, “Let me see your side so I can prove to you your experience is wrong,” but, “Let me see your side.”
There’`s a reason one thing led to another in the story of everyone’`s lives, and when we can lead with compassion and humble, genuine curiosity, I think that would radically shift discourse in America and in the world.
TS: Now I know you also—this is, maybe I don’`t understand enough about how Yield Theory can be applied in a lot of different situations, because I know you also work with athletes, and you help top athletic performers. How does Yield Theory work in a situation like that?
CC: Well I’`ll do what I did with a professional basketball team the other day. I talked to them about how ego can interfere with team functioning. If my ego is, “This is about me and what I can do,” I’`m not going to operate, we’`re not going to operate as a team as effectively as if we can learn to set our egos aside and really operate as one.
When it comes to sports, that’`s a real powerful piece, because a huge part of Yield Theory, one of the fundamental components is conscious education. Conscious education is about teaching. I know for me it was never enough just to listen and validate, it’`s let’`s explore options. Where can we go from here? What can you learn? What insight can you get from this moment forward that could really shift what you’`re experiencing?
I do the same thing with athletes. Athletes are human beings. A huge part of sport psychology is helping people clear away mental clutter, and so yielding with them, helping them feel not judged and safe enough to say what’`s going on, that’`s a huge part of it. But it’`s also teaching them new things.
TS: Can you give me an example from the world of athletics?
CC: Yes. OK, so let’`s say that someone’`s in a, I’`ll just basketball because I was with them the other day, let’`s say someone’`s angry at a ref for not making the call that he thought should have been made.
CC: He’`s living in his cartoon world in that moment, like, “You should have called that foul and you didn’`t.” Now, what do we know about a fast-paced moving game? It’`s already moving down the court, so the more you’`re standing there arguing, not only are you not involved in the present moment and the play that’`s happening, but you’`re also in danger of getting fouls that’`ll hurt not only you, but your team. All because you’`re trying to live in a cartoon world of what should have happened rather than saying, “This did happen, now what’`s the best, most effective way to communicate this to the ref so that should it come up again in the future, it’`ll be helpful to me and my team?” But you have to be able to control that emotion, have that self-discipline.
I tell lots of samurai stories for the guys, and the men and women—with the athletes, I tell lots of the samurai stories because the samurai were extremely self-disciplined in their art. It’`s learning how to learn about yourself. What gets in the way of you really living at one with the essence of who you are? Because the state of flow doesn’`t involve thoughts, the state of flow, it involves being present. In any performance we want to be; we don’`t want to be sitting there thinking about the performance, we want to be doing it.
TS: Can you tell me a samurai story?
CC: Yes. There was a samurai who was—or let me tell you this one. There was a young man who was in a monastery and he was being picked on. He was being picked on by the other people in the monastery. He got so upset, so he goes and he says to the master, he says, “I’`m being picked on by the other people in this monastery. I thought they were all holy and they weren’`t supposed to do this kind of stuff?” Well the master sat there in silence, so he said, “I don’`t think you heard me. I’`m telling you they’`re picking on me. They’`re saying I’`m this, they’`re saying I’`m that, they’`re supposed to be holy.” The master sat there in silence. Now this young monk started thinking well, “Oh, so you’`re taking their side? Oh, I see how it is. You’`re supposed to be so holy, but now you’`re taking their side? Who do you think you are?”
So the master says, “Give me your legs.” The monk says, “What? What are you talking about? I’`m trying to tell you they’`re picking on me.” The master says, “Cut off your legs and give them to me now.” The monk says, “No, no!” The master says, “Why is it that you defend your body so fiercely, but give away your mind so easily?”
I realize I told you a Zen monk story and not a samurai story, but I love this concept of “Give me your legs,” so I talk about this with athletes all the time. In what ways do you give away your legs? In what ways do you give away your mind? It’`s a wonderful starting point, but then we can come back to that time and again—how are you giving away your legs?
I was going to say, let’`s think about that in terms of the discourse, when we talk about things. How often do we give away our power in two seconds if someone disagrees with our thoughts or our beliefs or our politics or our religion? The second something happens, we’`re giving away our legs. We’`re saying, “Oh, I can’`t believe you would see things differently from me.” I think I would much prefer to take the more humble path of saying, “Obviously you’`ve had different life experiences that led you to believe in what you believe, and I’`d love to learn about it.”
What’`s interesting is—and you’`re not doing it just to get others to listen to you, but the byproduct is, people do end up then listening because they’`re like, “OK, you listened, you genuinely listened,” and they feel heard, now they’`re less likely to be defensive and more likely to say, “Tell me your perspective.”
TS: Now it’`s interesting, this point you’`ve made a couple of times about how we get so invested in our “cartoon world,” you call it. The world that we think should be happening versus what’`s actually happening. You know what occurred to me is probably most people are living in a cartoon world all day long about what we think this, that, or the other thing.
CC: Yes. Yes, I really believe. About a month ago, this came out of meditation. I was traveling, I called my wife, I said, “You know what? I honestly think, you know how I try to simplify stuff all the time? I really think it all comes down to cartoon world.” Because think about it. If you really think this shouldn’`t have happened—every “should” that comes in your mind, until you start to practice it enough and then you realize, “This is. This is what’`s happening, this person is responding this way right now.”
And so again, people will say cognitively, “Oh, meet people where they are. That makes sense,” but can you actually do it? Not in your cartoon world, but meet them where they actually are? Because once you can do that, it radically shifts the way you interact.
TS: OK, there’`s one other area I want to talk to you about, Christian, which is your book, Walking Through Anger: A New Design for Confronting Conflict in an Emotionally Charged World, deals mostly with how to help other people when they’`re super angry about something. What do you do? What approach do you take if you’`re a counselor or if you’`re working in the helping professions, or just with people in your life? But I’`m curious, let’`s say someone’`s listening right now and they feel angry about something that’`s happening in the world. Maybe it’`s the environmental crisis we’`re in, they’`re angry about it. In their cartoon world, this should not be happening. They might even be offended that we’`re saying, “In their cartoon world.” It’`s the world where the Earth is respected and loved and cared for, and they’`re angry about this. How can you help that person walk through their anger?
CC: Well, I would say this: oftentimes we have a shared cartoon world. I might say, for instance, I see people who do the most horrific things to others, so for me, the pain that humans cause each other, that probably trumps the physical violence that occurs all over. In my cartoon world I would tend to say, “That shouldn’`t be happening.” The real world is, it is happening, and so if I go in the cartoon world and say, “It shouldn’`t be happening,” what am I really doing? Am I jumping up on a pedestal, a soapbox, and saying, “Hey, you shouldn’`t be being violent right now. You shouldn’`t be torturing and hurting each other. You shouldn’`t”? OK, great. It’`s not actually making a difference. Or do I say, “You know what? The real world is, people do hurt each other. They cause each other a lot of pain. And if I really want to help them change that, I’`ve got to find out where they are and go meet them there.”
If you’`re standing on top of a mountain, I use this analogy in the book, and you scream, so you climb all the way to the top of a mountain, and people in the bottom of the mountain, they’`re lost, they can’`t find their way, you can stand there and scream all day at them, “You should be up here, you should see what I see. You should be in this perspective. You should have gone the way I went.” Great. Guess what? You could say the best things in the world, but if they’`re at the bottom of the mountain, they can’`t even hear you. You have to have the discipline to leave where you are and go meet them where they are.
I know people, when I say that, they will say, “Well, I shouldn’`t have to go meet them there, they should meet me halfway.” That’`s cartoon world. The reality is, you’`re the one who can control you, and if these are the people you’`re encountering, your job is to meet them where they are and see the world from their perspective.
Walking through Anger does help you handle others, but honestly, I used Yield Theory to put this book out there in the universe. I thought, what’`s the easiest way for people to truly learn about what’`s going on with them? Well people, our egos are fragile, and we like to say what other people can fix. When you read these concepts, you say, “Oh yes, other people do this, other people do this. Other people—well, I do this, I do this. Wait a minute, I think this relates to me.” The two kinds of people thing becomes really real for you because you realize you know what? When you really learn that people, they have an entire world that you don’`t see, that impacts how you handle that. When you realize not just teaching others that every emotional experience is going to have a beginning, middle, and end, but now you start to be mindful of that in your own experience of an intense emotion. Now you don’`t have to be as reactive.
Actions can’`t be undone; the emotions are going to come and go, but actions can’`t be undone. So I believe that people will read this book thinking “Oh yes, I can help others with this,” the byproduct is going to be, without their ego recognizing it, they’`re going to be learning about themselves intensely.
There are parts that I just straight up teach that are things that many people don’`t know—and of course hindsight bias, as soon as we hear them and it’`s simple, we go, “Oh, I knew that,” but a minute prior we weren’`t living by that or knowing that.
TS: All right, Christian, to conclude, our program here is called Insights at the Edge, and part of it is I’`m always curious to know what someone’`s growing edge is, even in relationship to the work that they teach. When it comes to Yield Theory and living it in all aspects of your life, what would you say is your edge?
CC: I would say that I recognize—I’`d like to share this, as my daughter shared with me recently the best lesson I ever taught her, and I think I’`m mindful of this a lot. If I were to give you a bucket and say, “What do you want to put in that bucket?” I ask you, “What would you put in there?” Let, me ask you, Tami, what would you put in the bucket if I gave you a bucket?
TS: I could put anything in it?
CC: Anything you want.
TS: Oh, I’`d put like, beautiful stones, diamonds and crystals, and yes, maybe some gold.
CC: Beautiful. Wonderful. OK, so you would have beautiful stones in your bucket then right?
CC: What you put in your bucket will be in your bucket. Well the same is true with your mind. If you fill your mind with anger and violence, if you fill your mind with the things that anger you, you’`re going to be angry. But if you fill your mind with peace, look, we master what we practice, if you fill your mind with peace, you’`re much more likely to have peace.
I think my edge is my self-talk, understanding—you know, I meditate, I do things like I constantly use the phrase “lovingkindness” in my internal dialogue when there’`s chaos, when I encounter chaos, when I encounter things that I don’`t want to be in my psyche, I’`m proactive about the self-talk that I have.
And I recognize, I think, probably the biggest strength that I have is I really don’`t judge people. I really understand that I don’`t know what other people the going through, there’`s always something more. There’`s more to the story. It helps me set my ego aside faster, and I think that’`s very disarming for people to be around. I think that’`s the edge, but it doesn’`t happen because I’`m secretly saying, “Oh, I’`m being nice, but I really do believe I have the answers,” I’`m really thinking I don’`t know. I’`m giving you the best I can in this moment, but I’`m open that in the next second I’`m going to learn something that’`s going to flip my perspective in its edge, and I’`m OK with that.
I’`m curious, and I believe, especially when it comes to the discourse around anger and all these different things, that it become our arrogance that gets in the way. When we can be genuinely curious, like, “Teach me. Teach me about your side. Teach me about it,” I really do want to learn, so I’`m open to feedback when people see things about me, and I’`m really curious about other people and the human psyche.
TS: I’`ve been speaking with Dr. Christian Conte. He’`s the creator of Yield Theory and the author of the new book, Walking Through Anger: A New Design for Confronting Conflict in an Emotionally Charged World. The Yield Theory approach sounds simple, but it’`s really deep and really useful. I recommend it.
Thank you for listening to Insights at the Edge. You can read a full transcript of today’`s interview at SoundsTrue.com/podcast. If you’`re interested, hit the “subscribe” button in your podcast app, and also, if you feel inspired, head to iTunes and leave Insights at the Edge a review. I love getting your feedback, being in connection with you, and learning how we can continue to evolve and improve our program. Working together, I believe we can create a kinder and wiser world. SoundsTrue.com: waking up the world.