“When you stop controlling, you start communicating.” – Andres Castano
Yesterday evening I was walking my horse along the bridle paths at the barn. The heat of the day had cooled off in the breeze rushing in over the ridgelines of the front range we could see in the distance. We walked side by side. Shoulder to shoulder. Occasionally stopping for a bite of grass, or pausing to take in the view. We were at ease and present with each other.
For me, the art of horsemanship is the art of partnership. The container of the relationship with each horse hones me every day. It’s a practice that makes me a better member of the herd as well as a better human with my human compadres. From what I’ve gathered thus far in my immersive study of ‘all things horse,’ mastery in the realm of partnership involves being present for and with each other, and a big part of getting there is letting go of the stories I tell myself about what this relationship is and who my partner is and how this is all going to work.
As one of my favorite horsemen, Andres Castano, notes: “When you stop controlling, you start communicating.” Yet, how do our ways of interacting or being in relationship keep us from real communication? How can we see things as they are instead of reacting to things based on expectation from past experience? How can our interactions feel more like a dance, where we reach out from the center of ourselves, for each other, and move along together with a sensibility of feel, and with the fullness of who we are intact?
Humans are story-making machines. Our imagination can serve us well and support our healing and transformation, or it can help us weave tales that confirm our biases, our worst suspicions, and our most negative theories about ourselves, the situation, and the world at large. The story we tell ourselves usually has less to do with what’s really happening and tends to be something we make out to be entirely about us. Most often, those stories don’t end well in our imaginative projection screens, and we then operate as if these phantasmagorias are actually at play in real life. We react and respond from the story in our minds versus the reality of what’s in front of us. In relationships, there’s another human in front of us who may or may not be running their own versions of their story while we’re running our story. Whew. With so many potential un-productive imaginal realms for poor-outcome and possibilities and lack of real communication that keep us checked-out of what’s really in front of us, is it any wonder we get anything done together?
When it comes to relationships, it takes a lot of diligence for us to show up for each other on the neutral ground of reality. By ‘neutral’ I’m referring to a place that feels more like Switzerland, where we arrive having laid down any arms and armour at the door. Or, if we haven’t unloaded such protective things before we enter, we at least know what we’re carrying into the space of relating. How can we meet on the ground of reality, so that in that common ground we can move forward together in clarity and grace?
If I’m running a storyline, that storyline may contain names and characters from the reality in front of me, but the meaning and feelings wrapped up in those tales have a lot more to say about me and my projections and fears than the reality of the person or situation in front of me. (This is a good thing to remind yourself of, especially as you listen to yourself reveal your machinations, or if you are listening while someone reveals theirs in the moment.) These stories bear meanings that create more emotions and thoughts that can have us trapped, stuck from being able to traverse back down from them. Such tangled webs we can weave! They are laced with our deepest fears. When the scripts of such are writ large in our minds, we react in the world as an act of self-preservation against them, with all of the defenses we have in our arsenal. All of these tactics usually take the other person in front of us as collateral damage.
But, if we listen closely to these tales, and inquire about them in a safe space, we can lift up and sift out what those very real fears are, or what the emotions we’re having might be telling us, and uncover what’s driving us in this moment (and preventing us from actually connecting). Most often, airing the storylines in a safe space clears the air for everyone, especially in our most important relationships at home, work, and in the world.
We have plenty of other options for the course of relating to one another to run smoothly.
The stories we tell ourselves must be handled with care. We must become aware of them, contain them in a narrative, and put them in quarantine for further inquiry and appreciation. If we decide to share them as we check back into reality, we need to offer that ‘story I am telling myself container’ to the ground of reality and all parties must look at it as if it’s a petri dish that bears compassion for what’s been growing inside of there.
A client of mine once shared how she really felt with a person with whom she was close in her life. She articulated the feelings, we identified the stories she was making up and the fears she had. I asked her if she would ever reveal that to the person by saying, “I’m feeling _________. The story I’m telling myself is ___________. I’m afraid that _________.” She looked at me like I was entirely nuts and exclaimed “No way! I could never let them know that!”
“Then how will he know where you really are?” I countered. I refer to those moments in which we do share what’s going on for us, and what stories we are telling ourselves about the other person or the situation or the rest of what’s captured our myth-making as big reveals.
A big reveal can feel like a big deal, but it’s a proactive way to relate on the ground of reality with another being. Without having the big reveal in your toolbox as a way to come back to the here and now in the presence of another, we may not really be relating from a place of presence at all.
The art of partnership is learning where you are, and where your partner is, and relating to each other from a place of reality versus the myth-making theaters of our minds, which can often enter ‘relationship’ from a place of projection, fear, acting out (asserting power over, active or passive aggression), and other forms of story-making. Partnership is learning the art of being together in full-bodied presence and feeling what’s emerging in the space between us at the interplay of togetherness.
That is not an enmeshed sentiment in which each part in relationship fuses with the other. A healthy model of relationship holds the prerequisites of relationship front and center — that being the relationship you have with yourself. The space you hold for you as you are in relationship to another – in work, in intimacy, in family life – is a space that’s wholly yours. (After all, it is your life that is to be lived out in your body.)
I look to how horses operate with each other in the herd for a great example of being together without losing yourself.
Horses, with their horizontally-oriented bodies, relate to each other in bubbles of space. They feel the best amongst each other knowing and clarifying two points in space:
a.) I’m here, and
b.) You’re there.
Individually they are complete circles that maintain their space for the safety of each other and the safety of the herd. Once the edges of each other’s personal space bubbles are established, they can decide to move together (or not). The stronger the boundary of each individual, the more they know how to connect with each other, and the stronger the bond that can form. The horse’s nervous system can then relax when it has a clear sense of “I’m here” and “You’re there.” That clarity gives them a deep sense of psychological safety (an important catchphrase in conversations on work culture these days). In this way, the horse’s way of being in the world lives out a riff from Brène Brown in that when it comes to boundaries, clarity is kindness.
This boundary setting can seem counterintuitive to many humans namely because we perceive boundaries as points of disconnection versus ways in which to find connection. Yet, the best relationships are those with boundaries that are not only intact but operating such that the relationship is maintained through the sanctity of them. Two whole individuals, each on their own feet. Neither entity is lost in the other. They are not collapsed, divided, or subtracted. As the writer Parker Palmer notes, “The highest form of love is the love that allows for intimacy without the annihilation of difference.”
What makes us collapse ourselves in order to be in relationship? Where does that show up in our leadership? What about ourselves do we often give up? Where do you lose yourself in relation to others at home, work, and in life? What part of us says we can’t be fully ourselves and be safe, or loved, or find belonging, in relationship with each other?
In his book, Passionate Marriage, relationship therapist David Schnarch notes that differentiation in relationship means standing on your own two feet so solidly that reaching out to the other is a choice from that place of fullness. We have to belong to our self first before we can make that reach. “While differentiation allows us to set ourselves apart from others and determines how far apart we sit,” he writes, “it also opens the space for true togetherness. It’s about getting closer and more distinct, rather than more distant.”
Yet so few of us actually know where we are. We become fused to many things in life, not just the people in our herd so to speak, such that our way of being is dependant on whatever we are hooked on emotionally, mentally, and how that may contort our very physiology, reactions, or level of shut down. To reveal what’s happening for us, really happening for us in the theater of our minds (which is a big part of our human experience), even to ourselves much less to the other person we are with, is a big moment of reckoning. Once we take our very self into account, we become internally located again, which can allow us to find our own two feet.
One of the precursors to the Polyvagal Theory inspired Red-Yellow-Green check-in tool that we at Reboot use internally and give to every team we work with is to first check-in with our self: How am I? What is my body doing? What are my thoughts doing? What emotions am I having? What do I need right now? Where am I in relation to this present moment?
(Then, we go around the circle, or table, and each share where we’re at–Red-Yellow-Green. The feeling tone of the meeting changes before it even really starts. It’s as if we all arrive at the present. By checking in on where we’re at, we feel safer about being together. What we discover from each other is a sense of “Here I am. And, I know where you are, too.”)
All too often, we rush over from our ‘circle of space’ (to borrow an image from the horses) to fix, save, advise or somehow make the other person better. In doing so, we’ve lost our own sense of self so to speak as we find ourselves in their ‘circle of space.’
Checking in with yourself first is a form of self-responsibility (and, self-care). In practice, this is one way to begin to breaking habits and expectations in relationships by staying connected to yourself, to where you are right now, how much energy you have, what you need, what you’re available for. It’s a great practice to establish (or re-establish) where you are in relation to, feeling your feet firmly on the ground versus getting caught up on the ‘circle of space’ that the other person is in. Finding this ground sets a clear note for yourself: “This is where I end. Over there, is where you begin. We are not one thing, we are two things in relation to.”
To be self-responsible in relationship is all about clear boundaries. As my therapist wisely says, “Sovereignty is potent.”
When we have established that place for ourselves, we can then be curious about what’s happening in the world of experience for the other person, in hopes that we can meet or connect and possibly converse together on the grounds of reality. We inquire, “Where are you, over there, where you begin at the edges of your meatsuit? I’m curious what’s happening in your worldview.” In doing so, we trust that they are on their own space around their own self-responsibility (which is a big assumption, knowing how hard it can be for us to find out own feet, but we leave that responsibility with them in their circle.).
A simple exchange between two people could look like:
What transpires from this stance is a gentle negotiation and assertion of space that’s based on where you are, right now, and what you’re coming in with, and what you’ve got to give. It’s a way to name the stories you’re telling yourself right now about what may or may not be really happening. It’s a stance that’s clear and relieving. That sovereignty is potent. Clarity is kindness, after all. This way of relating can feel so radically different than anything we’ve done, felt, or seen modeled previously in our lives, and what a difference it makes in the quality of the space between us and what we can accomplish.
As I think about this podcast conversation with Mathias Meyer and Sara Hicks, CTO and CEO, respectively, of ReactionCommerce, I find myself wishing for them that their leadership can have this quality not only for themselves but the whole organization. When it comes to leading together, working together, partnering in life and parenting together, and being in community together, these skills are paramount to successful relating and the ‘getting done’ of things. Standing where we are on our own two feet and taking self-responsibility is the first step in being able to lead shoulder to shoulder and achieve great things together with clarity and grace.