Emotional Icebergs and Leaky Roofs

by Charles J. Chamberlain, co-founder Chamberlain Leadership Group LLC

We have worked with many clients over the past 10-11 years who have used our tools to overcome emotional issues, or to simply develop better emotional control and awareness in leadership roles. But as people gain more emotional literacy and increased ability to manage their emotions, the same two frustrating phenomena show up time and time again. Perhaps there are better words to describe these phenomena, but two metaphors do a great job in helping us visualize them.

Emotional icebergs

Due to its buoyancy in denser sea water, an iceberg floats with approximately 10% of its mass showing above the water and 90% submerged. When we embark on a plan to understand behaviors and underlying emotions, we see a similar pattern in ourselves and others. Only 10% of our emotional “mass” is visible as conscious behaviors, vocalizations, and consciously controlled non-verbal expressions.

The remaining 90% of our emotional world is “submerged” beneath our consciousness. But just because an emotion is below the surface doesn’t mean it has no impact on us. To the contrary, because it is submerged, it has even more power over us, especially if we continue to be consciously unaware of it. This 90% carries significant weight as we form and maintain our identities, create relationship habits, develop meaningful motivations, and navigate the challenges of our lives.

The extent of our enjoyment of life and relationships is largely determined by how well we understand and manage the entirety of our emotional iceberg. Whether or not we are at ease in our lives or at “disease” can be a function of how well we are managing the submerged portion of our emotional existence. Submerged emotions can interact with our physical bodies in unexpected and unwanted ways. They can come “out of nowhere” and affect our verbal and non-verbal communication. They can cause illness. They can also cause us to do things that don’t make sense to our rational minds. Have you ever said, “I don’t know why I said that?” Or, “I don’t know why I did that?” Our submerged emotions can be particularly sensitive to triggering stimuli, thrusting us into “mysterious” episodes of despair or confusion, leaving us wondering, “Why am I suddenly so upset, worried, or depressed?”

You could think of the self-directed tools we offer as scuba diving gear, allowing us to dive beneath the surface and explore the submerged 90%. And, like a scuba diver’s equipment, the emotional tools allow us to go as deep as we are comfortable going. No one is there to pressure us to go beyond our comfort level. If we want to stay just a few feet beneath the surface, we can do that. If we want to dive deeper, we can do that too. The tools allow us to gain an appreciation for the extent of our emotions, while at the same time working on specific areas of concern.

Emotional Leaky Roofs

Once we have discovered some tools to work on specific emotional areas, we often face another phenomenon we’ll call the “leaky roof” phenomenon. Anyone who has experienced a leak in the roof can relate to this dilemma: After a hard rain, you notice water coming through a small hole in the corner of your dining room. At first, you place a bucket under the hole to collect the water, then when the storm has subsided, you look for the source of the problem. It is unlikely, however, that the hole in the roof is directly above the hole in the ceiling. Water has a tendency to enter from one hole, travel many feet away along trusses and structures in the attic, and create another hole as it follows gravity. An inexperienced homeowner might patch the drywall in their ceiling, thinking they’ve fixed the problem. A later storm comes along and it becomes clear that the source of the problem is not where it appeared to be.

Likewise, in our work with people who come to us having identified a specific issue, more often than not, “the issue” is not the real issue. For instance, we’ve worked with people who have taken our anger management classes in lieu of jail time. It is tempting to say, “I have a problem with anger,” especially when a judge has confirmed that indeed you do have a problem with anger. But in our anger management approach, we recognize the fact that you probably do NOT have a problem with anger, but you most likely have a problem with fear, guilt, confusion, or an array of other possible emotions.

This “leaky roof” dilemma appears everywhere. A man who can’t control his spending is really struggling with depression. A woman who puts on too much weight is really protecting herself from pain. A combative, rebellious teenager is really overcome with grief. The examples are endless.

Using the tools we provide, a person can quickly test the emotional strength of a particular issue and decide if it is simply in the path of gravity, like water flowing to its lowest point, or if the issue itself is the source of the problem.

A clear understanding of both the extent and complexity of who we are emotionally can help us be happier, more productive people.

For more information about the tools offered by Chamberlain Leadership Group LLC, contact us by clicking here.   

China’s 70th Anniversary: A Dinner for Foreign Experts

Before getting on the bus, we paused for a picture outside of our university’s main building. Shown above are our fellow CFAU “foreign teachers” and Lynn, our Chinese university liaison (third from right)
Special Invitation to attend the Foreign Expert’s Dinner. Once at the hall, each invitation was scanned and our pictures were displayed to ensure we were the person’s using the invitations.

Along with some of our university colleagues, we were invited by our university to attend a special dinner for foreign experts who are living and working in China. We arrived in buses and, for our benefit, the entire highway was shut down on the way to the dinner, which was held at The Great Hall of the People adjacent to Tiananmen Square. Some 2,000 foreign experts were in attendance and treated to an amazing dinner and speech from Vice Premier Han Zheng. He praised foreign experts for assisting the country of China in reaching its current strength and status on the 70th anniversary of the Communist Party in China.

Standing on Tiananmen Square, waiting to enter The Great Hall of the People behind us.

At our table was a couple from the Ukraine, a woman from Mexico City, a man from the UK, a man from Russia, another American man, and two Chinese hosts. We had a delightful time getting to know them. Unfortunately, cameras and cell phones were not allowed in the hall. We did get pictures of our group at the university and outside the hall.

Incidentally, after the dinner the entire crowd exited the doors to the front of the hall, while I (Chuck) slipped into a restroom at the rear of the hall, behind some heavy curtains. I was there for just a few moments when an entourage of young men in business suits wearing ear buds entered the restroom with the Vice Premier himself. I was surprised and could only think to say, “Hi” to him. Afterwards I exited, holding open the curtain for him as we walked out together. I remember thinking, “Why are these security men allowing me to be so close to the Vice Premier.” Then I remembered the worried looks on their faces. Obviously, this bathroom break was unplanned and worrisome to those whose job it was to keep him safe. I caught them off-guard.

The Problem With Happiness

In early 2020, we plan to release our book, Threads of Resilience: How to Thrive in a Turbulent World. It will come not a moment too soon. This week alone, there has been another mass shooting in Texas, a threatening hurricane in Florida, and escalating tensions in our beloved Hong Kong. We feel a rising need for the many hopeful messages in our book.

The following is one such message–a short excerpt from the book:

. . Jeremy and his dad spent the evening discussing what they soon realized was a foundational concept in dealing with any challenge in life. They discussed an important characteristic of happiness: it comes and goes. In fact, it comes and goes pretty easily. Joy, on the other hand, goes deeper. Joy is slower moving. Joy is always from within, while happiness can so easily depend on things outside of us. People often say, “I’m happy about” something. They don’t say they are “joyful about” something. People might say, “I’m happy about the weather” or “I’m happy about the promotion I got at work.” But they never say they’re joyful about those things.

There is a very subtle, implied insertion of the word, “about,” nearly every time someone expresses their happiness, thus happiness is more fleeting and dependent on external factors. If the situation after the word “about” is negative, then typically the happiness is not even expressed. But joy is different. Where happiness is about the small moments in time, joy is more focused on the big picture. It’s very possible to live a joyful life even when there are unhappy incidences.

Chuck said to his son, “The longer I live, the more I’m able to look back and see the bigger picture unfold. Looking back on a span of several years will give you a different perspective.” Jeremy realized that looking back on his own life, there were certainly unhappy incidences, but through it all, even he could recognize threads of resilience which brought joy. Happiness comes and goes but the lack of it never has to interrupt one’s joy.

In the middle of deep, emotional, even devastating times, continuous threads of resilience not only allow us to survive the difficult times, but to thrive in true abundance. These threads of resilience can literally pull us through momentary trials or even years of unhappy circumstances.

Balinese Family and Faith

Prior to our 7-day sailing cruise, we decided to spend three days in Bali itself. We are so glad we did. Not only did we see some amazing sights, we also learned something about the strength of family and faith. It was a lesson we’ll never forget.

Laraine sitting with the parents of our Bali driver in their “grandparents” pavilion.

While Indonesia as a whole is largely Muslim, the people of Bali are largely Hindu (83%). We arrived at Bali’s Denpasar airport late at night and saw no hint of the magic that awaited us. Our driver drove through non-descript streets for over an hour before arriving at a narrow, unlit alleyway in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere. We exchanged some worried glances at each other, wondering what we had gotten ourselves into. After all, we had not relied on any recommendations to choose our hotel . . only those on Hotels.com.

We needn’t have worried. No, we were not at a major hotel, but we did manage to snag the coziest slice of paradise on Bali. The 11-room Bali Bohemian turned out to be a destination unto itself. The friendly night hostess greeted us with smiles, a cool mint drink, and no urgency to run our credit card or even discuss money. “Let’s just worry about that tomorrow when you’re rested,” she said. Who DOES that? We were very impressed.

The view from our veranda

She walked us around a beautifully lit pool into our villa, an eclectic and authentic Bali experience. As she showed us around, one of the most notable items in our room was a sling-shot. She explained that it was because of the monkeys. If we should ever need the sling-shot, we could simply point it at a monkey and pretend it was loaded. The monkey would scamper off. I smiled, thinking this was a quaint “gimmick” to impress visiting tourists.

The next day, we learned how practical those sling-shots were. The online listing for the villa mentioned a nearby “Monkey Forest” that was within walking distance. In reality, the monkey forest was literally adjacent to our villa and we also learned that monkeys do not care about signs or fences. They were an amusing and sometimes exciting punctuation to our trip.

Our time in Bali was dreamy, to say the least. We thoroughly enjoyed visiting various temples, waterfalls, woodcrafting shops, painting shops, jewelry shops, coffee plantations, and much more. Everywhere we went in residential areas, we noticed very ornate architecture and decorative elements. One day, our driver/guide was driving in an area and said, “I live right over there.” We were impressed with this driver and his gentle spirit. He then asked if we would like to come see his home. We jumped at the chance.

Laraine managed to buy a dress for our driver’s new baby, once he told us that he had a new daughter. We are preparing to enter this Balinese home and look around.
Restaurant staff take a moment to worship in the evening

Every home in Bali consists of a walled compound in which ornate pavilions are carefully placed. The way these structures are laid out is determined by culture and religious conviction. Each home has a pavilion for the grandparents, a sleeping pavilion, a kitchen pavilion and some kind of ceremonial hall. In addition, each home has its own temple. These properties are not simple; they’re extravagant and well-maintained.

Our driver and guide, “Katoot,” with Brandi, Chuck, Laraine and Rob. The family runs a small coconut shop facing the street just outside their home. Coconut water is great on a hot day.

Multiple generations occupy the same property and the strength that comes from participating in daily religious rituals and having strong family support is obvious in Balinese society. Balinese people who are blessed to enjoy these strengths are largely protected from the difficulties we’ve seen in other Asian and western countries. We felt humbled and blessed to have witnessed this strength in action. The abundance felt by all family members seemed much higher than one would expect in a country with meager incomes.

The experience reminded us how faith and family can work together to bring greater abundance and prosperity.     

Inside a Balinese family compound. Absolutely beautiful. Above is the entrance to their family temple and inside the family shrine (temple) area. Rob Kraese is impressed too.

Tiptoe Through the Dragons

Our 7-day Indonesian sailing adventure and additional 10 days visiting southeast Asian countries produced some life lessons about human nature and the difficulties we all face in simply trying to remain safe amid serious threats.

Our clipper ship sailed to within a mile of Komodo Island in Indonesia before anchoring. Briefings by the ship’s officer the night before warned us of the dangers of Komodo Dragons.

Komodo Dragon looking for water

“You can’t out-run them; they can chase down a deer. And guess what? You can’t out-climb them because they are excellent climbers. If you think you can head to water and outswim them, think again. They are excellent swimmers.”

After a nightmare-ish discussion about how they kill using anti-coagulating venom and super-deadly flesh-eating bacteria, we were, to say the least, a bit anxious about our excursion onto Komodo Island, home to approximately 3,000 deadly dinosaur-era leftovers. These 10-foot long creatures are called “perfect killing machines” by some. According to our cruise director, if you are bitten and can get medical help within two hours you have “a chance” at survival.

“The problem,” he explained in his thick German accent, is that “getting medical attention ees difficult because ze island ees wery remote.”

Our plan was to get onto the island early in the day because the dragons are more active in the cool of the morning. We also learned it was mating season and dragons would be busy and unlikely to be as visible to us along the pathways through the forest. We would be traveling in groups of 10-12, guarded by “armed” park rangers and we were warned to stay close to them (I didn’t think that would be a problem for any of us. I was wrong).

Landing on Komodo Island was a “dry landing” as compared to the “wet landings” we had experienced. There was a well-built dock, welcoming visitors to Komodo National Park. We were anxious and nervous to begin our trek through the flora and fauna of the park, home to numerous birds, snakes, wild boar, fruit bats, deer, and of course—dragons!

Our “armed guards” consisted of three young men holding long forked sticks. They again briefed us in broken English about what to expect and how to stay safe by staying behind the guide. The quote of the day came after one woman in our group asked, “Could dragons sneak up from behind our group and attack?”

The guide’s answer: “Yes, of course. That’s why it’s important to stay behind your guide.”

The implications of that uncorrected answer echoed in our skulls as we moved forward along the narrow dirt path. But thankfully, one of the guards (or guides) positioned himself behind our group, one in the middle and one in front. As long as we stayed with the group and with these local experts who knew the disposition of the dragons and how to deal with them, we would be safe.

Our 90-minute walk began quietly, as we were urged to keep our voices low. Occasionally, the lead guide would stop and point out a tree or animal. We soon saw a wild boar, dangerous in its own right, rummaging in the trees to our right. It seemed uninterested in us. There were occasional deer sightings, but no dragons. Eventually, however, our lead guide whispered quietly, “dragon!” and we all scampered ahead to join him, both to see what he was looking at and to take advantage of his superior dragon-fighting skills.  

Coming straight towards us was a 6-foot female in search of water, and we were standing next to a watering hole. The creature seemed deceptively slow and plodding, it’s long forked tongue periodically “sniffing” the air for our scent. It seemed oblivious to the gawking tourists respectfully clearing the path ahead of it. Its manner of movement seemed odd: right front paw and left rear paw moving first in unison, then left front paw and right front paw moving together to catch up. This gave it a strange waddling gait that seemed alien. Clearly, it was not searching for prey, but only for water, so we did not see it shift into running, hunting mode, which would have been a frightening prospect.

Having sighted our first dragon, we were all more at ease. After all, these animals didn’t always have food on their minds. In fact, they seemed pretty harmless. In fact, after our group stopped a short distance away to look at a poisonous snake, one young mother and her two small children continued walking the path ahead, in front of the lead guide.

After snapping pictures of the snake, we were shocked to look up and see this mother continuing ahead with her children. We yelled to her and fortunately the mother realized what she had done and returned to the group. She and her youngsters were fortunate. With thousands of unseen dragons in the area, however, we couldn’t understand what had happened in her mind to think it was safe to proceed without a guide. It could have been a deadly choice.

The next dragon was much larger, but nearly motionless. This 10-foot male was basking in the sun and made very little movement to show it was aware of us. The rising heat probably had an impact on the dragon’s activity level.

As we concluded our trek, unharmed, we couldn’t help but recall the young mother and her children. How often do we ignorantly wade through dangers, naively thinking, “I’ve made it this far; certainly nothing bad could happen”? With some dangers there are no second chances. As parents living in the modern world, we are aware of this when it comes to playing on busy streets. When it comes to other, less obvious or foreign dangers, however, we can be just as naïve as our children.

It was a lesson in humility. We need to admit that we don’t know much about most of the world. There are those, however, who have specialized knowledge and expertise . . particularly those who have lived and survived dangers we can’t imagine. Each of us has a piece of the puzzle and we need to share our piece to help others navigate the world more safely. As we get ready to launch our new book about surviving and thriving in turbulent times, we recognize the fact that others are much more knowledgeable than we are, but we have had a unique set of experiences we hope to share with the world. 

Two of our “armed” guards
All distances in this picture were photo-deceptive! Yes, this was a sleeping dragon, but NO we weren’t really that close to it.
Photo taken from Komodo Island, Indonesia. Our clipper ship, Star Clipper, is in the distance.
Survived the dragons, now waiting for our “tender” to get us back on the ship.

Life Without Crippling Regret

Is it possible to get past regrettable acts or conversations? Regret can lead to remorse, an often-useful feeling, especially when we’re trying to become a better person. But there comes a point when our regret and remorse can be taken too far. When our regret about an incident becomes an unproductive obsession, it’s time to fix the problem. But what “fix” could there be?

Take for instance this entirely fictional, hypothetical situation:

Sarah sat quietly on the couch with her head in a book. Across the room, Bob glanced up at her from his laptop. With her head down, the scene reminded him of the conversation nearly five years earlier when he had admitted pursuing another woman. Sarah had seen some questionable evidence and rather than lie, yet again, he finally came clean. Bob grimaced when he recalled the look on her face as she had stared at the floor for what seemed an eternity.  Memories of Sarah’s eventual emotional collapse still pierced his heart. Bob knew it wasn’t just the cheating and “confession” that had caused her so much hurt, it was the way he had rationalized, telling her it was her fault. 

Bob squirmed in his chair as his mind traveled back again and again to the pain he had caused. “How could I have hurt her so badly by cheating on her, and then push more pain on her with my lame excuses? This is the woman I’ve always loved. Sarah is the one I promised to love with my whole heart, and I’ve blown it!”

Over the years since that horrible experience, he had replayed the scene repeatedly in his mind, knowing that he had changed but not knowing how to get past the grief he had caused in the relationship. Sure, they had found a way to continue in the marriage. Sarah seemed every bit in love with him as she had always been, and Bob had proven to Sarah that he could be trusted. Sarah had forgiven him and moved on, but something was holding them back as a couple, and Bob suspected it was his own deep regret.

If only Bob could go back in time. First, he wouldn’t have cheated on Sarah. “Oh, if I could just go back and take a different path,” he would say to himself incessantly. But even if removing that transgression wasn’t possible, he would love to have another chance at the conversation in which his hurt pride and lack of respect pushed him to say things that hurt Sarah even more deeply.

Maybe your regrets are not as serious as Bob’s, or maybe they are worse. Maybe the affected relationship is with a sibling, parent, child, friend, or co-worker. We all have regrettable conversations and actions when we interact with others. When emotions are running high, human beings are notoriously lousy at carrying on productive conversations. The sad reality is that the more important the conversation, the less likely we’ll handle it appropriately.

Zuangzi, an ancient Chinese philosopher once said, “When shooting for himself, an archer has all his skills; when shooting for a brass buckle, he gets nervous. When shooting for a gold prize, he sees two targets.”

There are physiological reasons why we do not think clearly when we’re under stress. Adrenalin gets involved and our bodies literally pull resources away from the higher and more refined parts of our brains.   

In their book, “Crucial Conversations” the authors discuss ways to make future conversations emotionally “safe.” The book states, “If you spot safety risks as they happen, you can step out of the conversation, build safety, and then find a way to talk about just about anything.” (Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler; 2012; Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High, second edition; chapter 5; New York, NY; McGraw-Hill) The concepts in this book are extremely useful in any relationship, which is why we refer to key elements of the book in our leadership development work in China. This is all well and good, but what if the proverbial horse has already left the proverbial barn? What, if anything, can we do after the fact?

If communication isn’t challenging enough, when it comes to poorly executed conversation, sometimes the regret itself can become paralyzing and destructive. When we have deep regret about something, our minds continually access and re-live stored information in our brains. In fact, we develop entrenched pathways to that information, essentially keeping it fresh and ready to go at a moment’s notice. The key to dissolving debilitating regret is to “reframe” the original conversation or action, essentially forming new pathways in our brains. How is it done?

In our brain-science based Creative Journal Expressive Arts (CJEA) work with clients who are experiencing horrible regret, we’ve found a very effective method to reframe prior acts and stop the tortuous, obsessive re-living of prior acts. It involves a simple yet powerful exercise:

Step #1: Preparation:

  1. 2 Large pieces of blank paper (or blank pages in a standard-sized journal)
  2. Colored fine-tip markers, pencils, or crayons
  3. A pen or pencil
  4. A private, secluded location (make sure you won’t be interrupted for an hour)
  5. If possible, play some soothing instrumental music

Step #2: First Drawing

  1. With your dominant (writing) hand, draw a picture of the regrettable incident or conversation including the setting, people who were present, including yourself. Use colors that feel the most comfortable. Stick figures are fine!
  2. If the situation involved conversation, draw captions like what you would see in a Sunday morning cartoon. Draw “dialogue bubbles” for each person who said something. Now fill in the dialogue bubbles with the actual words spoken, using your dominant hand. Then create “thought bubbles” and fill in the feelings you had with your non-dominant hand, even if those feelings contradicted your words. If the dialogue was lengthy, just capture the essence of the painful conversation. It is not necessary to recreate the entire conversation.

Step #3: Process Emotions

  1. Around the picture you just drew, with your dominant hand, write ALL the thoughts and words you say to yourself now about that situation. (Use whatever writing tool feels comfortable)
  2. With your NON-dominant hand, write the feelings you continue to have about yourself and about the incident. Do this around the picture you’ve drawn. Be open to any new feelings that have propped up. (Use whatever writing tool feels comfortable)
  3. Sit for a few moments with the drawing and words that you’ve created. Recognize that you’ve gotten all these feelings out of your head and onto paper. If you need to do more drawing and more writing, do so now.

Step #4: Second Drawing

Using your dominant hand, draw the situation again with the same setting and same people. This time, however, draw and write what YOU WOULD HAVE LIKED to have said or done. What might you change if you could do it over again? What might you have done differently or said differently? With your non-dominant hand, write the feelings you would have had in the “thought bubbles.”   

Step #5: Process Emotions

Around the second drawing, with your non-dominant hand, write the feelings you now have about the situation as you’ve just re-framed it.

Step #6 (Optional): Share

It is possible that by simply putting your regret out of your head and onto paper, then re-framing the incident in your mind you can move forward in life without debilitating regret. However, if after some cooling off period following this exercise you decide you want to share your drawings with an injured party, you might find additional benefit in doing so. Only consider doing this if you are certain it will not bring further hurt to that person. Be mindful that others have not been bothered by your regret; it has been entirely yours. They may be indifferent or worse, antagonistic towards your efforts to reduce your regret. You must decide if sharing this information with an injured party is beneficial or potentially troublesome.

Our God-given, powerful brains can assist us in healing from past mistakes. We have the ability to re-shape the way we think in order move forward with more energy and confidence as we learn how to have more fulfilling relationships.

If you have any questions after working on this exercise, feel free to contact us at:

laraine@chamberlainleadership.com

chuck@chamberlainleadership.com

Buried Secrets

While working with clients in a court-mandated anger management course, one of the surprising things we learned, (as some volunteered to share with us) was the fact that so many of them had experienced the same family characteristic– secrets! We were shocked to see this apparent connection between family secrets and dangerous anger.

We recently completed a 2-day trip from Beijing to Xi’an where we saw the 2,200 year-old terracotta warriors with our son, Jeremy, and his wife Rozana. We were amazed to learn the lengths to which China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang went in order to keep a big secret– that he had built an extensive underground world, a massive tomb mirroring his above-ground world.

How did he keep the site secret? He killed anyone who knew about it! Workers who brought the life-sized army, horses, chariots and weapons to the site were tragically buried alive with them. Thousands of concubines, those failing to produce children for the young emperor, were also buried alive and the entire site was buried many meters deep.

In 1974, farmers in the area were digging a well and came across some pieces of the buried army. Today, a massive archaeological effort is still underway, and apparently most of the site is still buried.

It makes one wonder: Who and what do we sacrifice in order to keep secrets? The motivation for most family secrets is “protection.” In our experience, when we try to protect those whose actions should not be condoned, we end up violating or betraying others. At the risk of sounding overly dramatic: when we bury our secrets we need to ask ourselves who is being buried alive with them.

Pit #1 of 3. A very small section of the massive first pit.
An actual hospital bed is used to perform “surgery” on broken terracotta warriors.
archaeologists working on the terracotta horses
Terracotta horses with carriage
Even the age lines are showing on this warrior. Every warrior was hand-crafted and unique.

Stop Working on Your Marriage!

A friend of mine is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. In a recent Facebook post, he included the statement: “The truth is . . healthy marriages require work.”

I respectfully disagreed and posted my comment:

I agree with everything except the word “work.” Great marriages require effort. It may sound the same, but there is a profound difference. No one wants to hear that their spouse will have to work hard to love them, but who wouldn’t want to know their spouse will put a lot of effort into the relationship? We often put as much effort into our vacations as in our vocations, but we call one play and the other work. I don’t want my wife to think it will be so difficult to love her that I will have to work at it every day. My 42-year marriage is a lot of fun and enjoyable effort.

Every time I hear the seemingly common-sense statement that a good marriage requires “work,” I tense up. Words are important. In fact, if it weren’t for a handful of words, none of us would be married. As a lay religious leader a few years back, I was suddenly granted the power in the state of New Jersey to marry people. I felt anxious when, after the first marriage ceremony I performed, a couple went away “believing” they were married. I thought to myself, “Is it something I said?” I couldn’t wrap my mind around it.

By simply saying the words, “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” two people were joined together for the rest of their lives. My words to them were so powerful, they caused the formation of a new family unit. A new “family tree” was planted and generation after generation of posterity would owe their existence to seven little words.

If marriage required “work,” I would need to attach that word and all of its connotations to my experience with my wife. So, let’s see if the word fits:

  • Is it “work” when I look into her bright blue eyes, see my dearest and most intimate friend, companion and lover, and remember those early dates when we would talk late into the night about our dreams and ambitions?
  • Was it “work” when I spent two years away from her, serving overseas, and couldn’t wait to get a letter from her in the mail? How about when we were finally reunited on the sidewalk of a college campus, tearfully running into each other’s arms as her classmates cheered?  
  • On our wedding day, was it “work” when I was unable to catch my breath because she walked into the room dressed as a queen in white, and I knew she would be with me forever?
  • Was it “work” when we joyfully, eagerly and unitedly accepted the challenges of  parenthood and welcomed six children into our home who stretched and expanded our love for each other?
  • Could it have been called “work” when, hand-in-hand, we held each other up to face financial disasters, the life-threatening illness of a child, physical disabilities, a missing child, kidnapped grandchildren, persecution and violence? The trials themselves might have been work but having her by my side to face those challenges certainly was not work.
  • Is it called “work” when I am able to share my deepest fears and struggles with her and she responds with amazing strength, wisdom, and an occasional kick in the pants?

No, it doesn’t fit. From my perspective, the word “work” is not appropriate to describe a healthy marriage. It is true that we need to put forth effort in marriage, but with love in our hearts, that effort can become enjoyable, fun, stress-reducing and even lifesaving.

When a dour college professor taught about the difficulties and hard work of marriage, my wife spoke up. By then she was a 55-year-old student completing her degree in Family Science. Surrounded by marriage-phobic twenty-somethings, she raised her hand and from years of marital experience that far surpassed her professor’s, she confidently stated, “Marriage is NOT hard! LIFE is hard! It can be so much easier when you have someone to share it with.”

Marriage is a force that combines the strengths and cancels out the weaknesses of two people. Marriage is greater than the sum of its parts, and therefore a powerful catalyst for change in a world that desperately needs it.  

Marriage isn’t a liability, it’s an asset. Young people contemplating marriage often think of it as a future drain on their finances, emotional well-being, and freedom. Consequently, they look for the ideal time to get married—a time when they are flush with cash, have accomplished enough of their “fun” goals, own their home, have completed their formal education, and feel ready for the “liability” of marriage. Nothing could be further from that scenario than when two committed people love each other and experience the power of a truly life-affirming marriage. Not only are they more likely to enhance their temporal situation, but also their emotional, spiritual and physical well-being.

When we adjust our words about marriage, we can adjust our thinking, and ultimately access the power of our marriages. Let’s plan to put effort into our marriages, but let’s not mistake it for work. 

But what about those who feel their marriage DOES require work? Maybe they haven’t found their spouse to be the supportive, loving person they had anticipated. We need to remember that a checklist of behavioral “do’s and don’ts” will not a great marriage make. It’s not what you DO, it’s how you feel about what you do that counts. Remember the vocation and vacation analogy. When, in our hearts, we know we’re on vacation, we can expend a great deal of effort while feeling refreshed and exhilarated. If your spouse saw you as a refreshing and exhilarating partner, do you think she/he might exhibit a different attitude and have different feelings about you?

Stay tuned for more articles and helps on how to improve relationships through better emotional literacy. What are some tools you can use to change the way you feel inside?      

Chinese Students are Surprised by Leadership Concepts

Statue of former Premier Zhou Enlai and CFAU President Chen Yi in front of CFAU auditorium

Remembering that first class day in September when a new crop of leadership students at China Foreign Affairs University (CFAU) looked up at me expectantly, I could almost see the questions forming behind those beautiful brown eyes.

“Who is this American, and what will we be doing in this ‘leadership’ class?” “Does he really think we need to learn about leadership—something so far into our future?”

On that first day, I looked into their skeptical eyes and got no response when I said, “Raise your hand if you think of yourself as a leader.” Polling the class, I verified what I had already discovered about most students in China: they think of leadership only in terms of positional power.

I then did something unexpected: I showed four short video clips of orchestra conductors leading their orchestras. Each had a unique style. One kept a steady metronome-like beat, showing no emotion on his face. Another closed his eyes while swaying and waving his arms in oversized motions. A third conductor did an exuberant little dance while gesturing with his arms. The fourth was the most unusual. He did nothing with his body and, strangely, kept his arms folded while simply raising his eyebrows occasionally and pursing his lips. This brought some nervous laughter from the class.  

As the music went silent, I looked around the room at puzzled expressions. Breaking the silence, I said, “The true essence of leadership is simply manifesting your most important values. Can you tell what the first conductor valued?”

Getting no response, I continued, “The first conductor valued a regular, steady rhythm.” I then imitated this maestro’s robot-like precision.

“What about the second conductor?” Again, no response. I closed my eyes and made big motions with my arms. “Can you tell this conductor really valued the emotions of his music?”

“What about the third conductor?” I asked. Finally, a timid student piped up, “He likes to dance.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “He seems to value physical movement and expression.” Several students nodded in agreement.

“How about the fourth conductor?” This brought snickers as the students remembered the conductor who seemed to do nothing. “Can you tell what he values?” All heads went down to their desks.

“It might be hard to recognize, but can you see that this conductor valued the musicians’ individual and collective expression and interpretation of the music—even without his involvement? He wants them to come forth with their own expressions. But it doesn’t make him any less a leader, does it?”

As the school year progressed, students became less skeptical, more engaged and more determined to be “values-expressing” leaders. They joined me in exploring leadership through discussion and memorable activities. We went through John C. Maxwell’s 5 Levels of Leadership, examining case studies, working in teams to make critical decisions in simulated conditions, and even analyzing Deputy Barney Fife’s humorous behavior as a “Level 1” leader in the old American sit-com, The Andy Griffith Show. We worked through concepts in Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High (Kerry Patterson et al.) by creating simulated conflicts and allowing students to practice newly learned techniques to resolve those conflicts. We used unusual, right-hand/left-hand writing and drawing methods developed by Dr. Lucia Cappachione (The Power of Your Other Hand, etc.) to become more self-aware in order to more effectively lead others.

Students kept a leadership journal, starting with a list of their most important values. As the year continued, some were able to share from their journal and examine how well they had expressed those important values with others in their class, in their teams, in their community and at home.  

Finally, at the end of the year, we examined Fortune Magazine’s list of the 50 top world leaders. Choosing the top twelve who happened to be leaders in government, business, activism and philanthropy, we discussed what they all had in common. Because the list included male and female, old and young (even a 16-year- old), rich and poor, employers and employees, etc., the common element was obvious. Each leader had been successful in identifying a value within themselves and moving heaven and earth to express and manifest that value. Students’ understanding of leadership and their roles in it had taken a huge jump forward from the first day of class.  

China Foreign Affairs University is the “cradle of diplomacy” for China. All Chinese diplomats must receive training at CFAU, and a large percentage of China’s diplomats have also received undergraduate or graduate degrees at CFAU. It feels good to know this powerful nation’s future is in the hands of those who have a better understanding and passion for leadership.

What might the world reap from the seeds sown in my “leadership crop” this year?

A view of the “new campus” in Sha He area of Beijing
New campus “teaching building” for Freshmen, Sophomores and Juniors
Gate to “Old Campus” in heart of Beijing (Xi Cheng District) Seniors are taught in the main building (shown)
Statue of Founding President Chen Yi in front of Main Building of Old Campus
Lobby of our residence (International Exchange Center)