The courage to care

– by Duane and Catherine O’Kane –

We aren’t avoiding each other because of the problems. We have problems because we are avoiding each other.

You are standing alone in an elevator, and someone enters. Quick, press a floor number. Avoid. Look up at the numbers. For most of us, these are moments that don’t count. No big deal. Nothing is happening here.

Not true. The messages we are sending to this other person while we watch floor numbers are: “I don’t trust you. You don’t exist. Numbers are more important than you. You make me feel uncomfortable.” Both people will leave the elevator not so elevated. Both will feel slightly worse and not know why.

What happens when you say hello and mean it instead? You feel better – sometimes a lot better. Let’s take a good look at why.

At some level, you are no doubt very aware that we are all connected. But what is now rocking the world of psychology is a new appreciation that connection is active all of the time – including in elevators when we are looking the other way. Connection determines our state of wellbeing and personal happiness.

Like it or not, in every relationship, in every waking moment, whether close or cut off, whether choosing to make contact or choosing not to, silent or speaking, we are connected. We do not get to choose whether we are connected, we only get to choose what we are going to do with that connection. This is good news and bad news, depending on which way we decide to go.

In every communication there is content or a literal message. Underlying that, there is a relationship message that communicates how you feel, conveyed mostly non-verbally through body language, facial expression, and tone of voice. In terms of the impact on the receiver, the content of the message is worth about 20 percent, while the relationship level is responsible for about 80 percent. The relationship message overrides the content and is what’s remembered, even in an elevator.

If you doubt the power of the relationship message, consider commercials for prescription drugs. Regardless of the literal content (which may include dire warnings about the side effects of the medication) the advertisement is delivered in a pleasant tone with smiling, happy faces. These commercials work because the relationship message overrides the content.

Many people assume that the power they have to influence others is attached to their position in their social, familial or organizational hierarchy. But at a relationship message level, everyone has equal power and influence, no matter what the designated power structure. If a boss has a difficult conversation with an employee, both are equally impacted.

Human beings are hardwired to connect with each other, and we do so through emotions. We have evolved not only because we need each other for survival, but because we need to care and be cared for. We have the capacity for profound sentimentality and love. We have formed societies not only to communally provide shelter and weather storms, but also to experience something beyond all of that: love.

The degree to which we avoid wholeheartedly caring for others is equal to the degree we experience stress. It’s that simple. And the world is in the grip of stress and suffering mostly because we are avoiding each other. Disconnection is at the root of much of our pain, including mental and physical illness.

When we feel disconnected, anything goes, and often does. We don’t care about the impact on another because we do not know who the other is. In the absence of knowing who another is, they become a problem instead of a person. If we actually knew the other authentically, we would not treat them the way we do.

We aren’t avoiding each other because of the problems. We have problems because we are avoiding each other. As much as we might imagine feeling better on a tropical island away from the rest of the world, or avoiding others in the elevator, we suffer profoundly in isolation.

When we established Clearmind International in 1996, we had some sense of this truth. We ourselves were driven by caring and a desire to fire up the channels of caring in the human spirit. We have come a long way personally and professionally in our evolutionary journey, particularly in terms of realizing of how all-encompassing our need for connection is, at the core.

We believe that real connection is possible in every relationship, and that it can overcome every human dilemma. Evolution happens through real connection. We offer a professional counsellor training program, training and workshops which endeavour to show others how to care again. We practice this as a professional team for our clients, and in our marriage, at all levels of our human experience.

Most people believe the solution to stress is relaxation. When something triggers fear or anxiety, our nervous system deals with danger via the stress response, a short-term mobilization meant to flee the predator lurking in the bushes. When we remain highly stressed over the long term, a system meant to deal with inescapable life threats kicks in, and the opposite happens: we “freeze” or “shut down”.

From the perspective of the nervous system, the antidote to fear, stress and anxiety is a feeling of safety. Human beings are pack animals and, as such, wired to find safety in connection. When we feel safe, we focus, process information better, engage with others, and perform at our best. We experience safety when the 80 percent relationship message is a caring one, regardless of any 20 percent content issues to be resolved. When we feel valued and cared for, we feel safe – which allows difficult situations to be resolved.

Wholehearted caring requires courage. Investing emotionally is a vulnerable act, whether it be in a partner, friend, a family member, a person at work, or even a stranger in an elevator. Sometimes it feels easy, like when we first fall in love. Sometimes it is harder and requires positive intention when, for example, it becomes apparent that our partner will never remember to pick up their socks.

Caring is the first ingredient of a potentially difficult conversation. Stating a positive relationship intention gives the other person a reason to listen further. When couples argue, they often reflexively withhold their love and do not put it back into the mix until they perceive the issue to be resolved. Issues are resolved more quickly when love is put into the mix from the outset.

Let’s move beyond asking whether you want to have an impact. You don’t get to choose whether you are having an impact. Rather, the question is: What kind of impact do you want to have?  How you answer this will dictate how you manage your relationship message in every conversation, every relationship and every moment, because every moment counts, including now.

Duane and Catherine O’Kane are Registered Clinical Counsellors, workshop facilitators, entertaining public speakers, and authors of best-selling REAL: The Power of Authentic Connection. They practice what they preach in all their relationships (including their marriage), and with passion, humour and vulnerability, share their struggles and wisdom.

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photo by Allison Cordner

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