Join Sunitha and Damianne in this conversation about unconditional friendship and how to find points of connection and kindness in every relationship.
Sunitha cares deeply about the greatest good for all. This purpose drives all her work because she believes our stories are connected. She is respectfully and genuinely curious how each of us uses courage, vulnerability, resiliency, hope, and difficulty to build a life full of promise.
Sunitha coaches using a wholehearted approach using Maitri (unconditional friendship) as the focus. Her work helps clients recognize how they are getting in the way of the work and impact they wish to create. With this awareness, her clients build sustainable practices to create a life of significance and success for themselves and in service to others.
We recorded this episode as a LinkedIn Live on Nov 2, 2021.
Contact and follow Sunitha at firstname.lastname@example.org or on LinkedIn.
Slow down; bring curiosity.Tweet
Timeline of the Chat
What phrases open you up?Tweet
What phrases trigger you or shut you down?
How to Show up Wholeheartedly in Conversations
No practice is foolproof.Tweet
Transcript of the Episode
[01:54] What does it mean to be wholehearted in conversation
[01:54] Damianne President: To start, let’s define the scope of our conversation. When we talk about showing up wholeheartedly in conversation, what does that mean, and which relationships does it apply to?
[02:04] Sunitha Narayanan: I think it applies to all relationships because what we are trying to create in a conversation is heart connectedness, to truly lean in with 10% at least of willingness to say, I am going to enjoy this conversation. I am going to learn something new in this conversation. That way we have 90% to disagree with.
So when we come in with the attitude that I’m happy to be in this conversation, it gentles our intent or our hard-wired push to disagree right away, to stop that yes, but. Today, especially, we’re going into conversations with so much unpractice almost. We’re going in because our values are being pushed against. We are going in with the intention to disagree. We are going in absolutely completely perplexed as how can you think this way? So if we enter a conversation saying that equally, just like me, someone else has a strongly held opinion, then we create a little softness. We create a softness within ourselves.
We release endorphins and reduce the stress that each of us seems to be carrying within us today because of the health crisis, the global crisis, all this seems should be ongoing. So we are carrying a lot of anxiety within ourselves. The moment we show up that willingness, it gentles the moment, doesn’t matter which conversation you’re in.
[03:50] Damianne President: What I’m hearing you say is that really it’s a bit of a switch from what we typically do, which is we often focus or hyper-focus on those points of disconnection between us. And I rather like how you talk about just finding that 10% of similarity because that makes it seem, oh, there is a space that’s open. We don’t have to agree on everything, but we can come in together in that space where there is alignment between the two of us.
[04:19] Sunitha Narayanan: I think we are rushing to solutions. We somehow have to pause, slow down the conversation. So the similarity thing is for me to truly recognize just like me, you care about your family, just like me, you care about results. We are disagreeing probably on the how, on the process. We are really not disagreeing on the overall goal of what we want to build toward. And if we can recognize that and bring that into the conversation first to say, what are we in agreement on, without even looking at the problem we are wanting to solve, what are we in agreement with each other?
I can guarantee you people, even if they don’t know the answer, they stop. And they say, oh, Okay, I can see where we actually agree; we both want the good for XYZ. We both want this project to go ahead. We both want our marriage to work. For me, it’s all about the pause; the pause gentles and then you change your mindset because for every opinion, there’s always going to be a violently opposing opinion. So give it equal time is all I’m asking.
[05:48] The Elements of Whole Heartedness
05:48] Damianne President: When I want to show up wholeheartedly in a relationship, or if somebody wants to show up wholeheartedly in relationship, what are the elements if we were to break it down, I can already pull some from what you just said. So you talked about slowing down and you talked about being open, so maybe being curious. How do you think about those components?
[06:08] Sunitha Narayanan: For me, everything starts within myself. It’s really not about the other person. So I need to figure out how to take ownership within myself and first think about how my ego is getting in my way, how the stories that I’m making up about the other person, because either I don’t have trust in them or I don’t like them, or my experience with them has not been positive or I’m demonizing something that is not a preferred value for me. So I first have to really sit down and ask myself how many shoulds am I bringing into this conversation? She should do this. I can’t believe that person did this. I don’t know whether I can trust this person.
So first to really work out within ourselves where we are with our preparation and our willingness. Capacity exists in each one of us; what we have to figure out is what’s the practice that we want to claim, and what do we need to unlearn so that we can show up. That probably is the biggest piece for me, that I do work within myself and I help other people do that.
[07:31] Sunitha Narayanan: Before we can go into actually talking tools, slow down, bring curiosity. What are some questions you can ask? How can you expand a conversation? What’s shrinking a conversation for you? The tools appear once you figure out where are you struggling the most with showing up with intention, and how do you align that intention with your behavior, your words, your emotions, and your general demeanor.
[08:03] Damianne President: That makes sense, because it starts from paying attention and setting an intention. But then everyone needs to think about how to align their intention with the way they show up with their actual demeanor. How do we do that?
[08:17] One game changing tool to prepare for conversations
[08:17] Sunitha Narayanan: I think that takes some preparation and practice and willingness to risk, willingness to be not perfect, much like how, when we started this conversation and you worked through the technology pieces of it. I think the willingness to try is very important. The actual tool that is really very game-changing is to script out things, to have a conversational tool kit. Have three or four phrases.
You go into a conversation, all you can do is say something like, huh That’s enough. You can say hmm. You can say, tell me more. You can say, imagine that, I would have never thought about that. Or you can say, you know, what makes me curious is this, or you can say I can see this as really important to you and it’s not as important to me, so where does that leave us?
[09:17] The often missing piece in conversations
[09:17] Sunitha Narayanan: So you can very gently, kindly, with a lot of friendship, bring up and ask for what you need. That’s the other piece that we are missing going into conversations. We are not pausing to think, what do I personally need in this conversation? And for that to happen, how might I ask for what I need?
So I could, for example, tell my husband, because he analyzes pitfalls he’ll right away say yes, but, so I can say to him Narayanan I have an idea that I’d like to run by you. Could you set aside analyzing pitfalls for 10 minute? I value the fact that you analyze pitfalls because I don’t; I just go headlong into things and then get into trouble. So can you hold onto that while I finish my thought?
So one is figuring out what you want to ask for so that you can keep the conversation open, even a difficult conversation. The second part is to truly ask yourself, how are you personally going to shut down before identifying how somebody else shuts down, so that we can recognize phrases that people say to us.
When someone says to me to be honest, right away I’m thinking, are you not honest with me in other times. Or when someone says to me, I don’t care, I’m wondering why don’t you care? So think about phrases that shut you down. Think about phrases that open you up. Every conversation is physiological.
Emotions are present in every conversation. We shut down with some emotions; we open up with other emotions. It’s a very creative and fun, playful process to have a few phrases, phrases that allow somebody to expand on their thinking. Because the biggest thing we’re helping people do in a conversation, we’re helping them think. The first thoughts that come out of my head or my mouth, even if I’m a very reflective thinker are not my complete ideas.
So in a conversation, we are working out ideas; we are not working out solutions. So that’s another mindset shift that we can go into and take a few phrases with you because when we become our emotions, we’re always going to get into trouble and say things that we don’t mean.
[11:54] Building your toolkit
[11:54] Damianne President: You’ve just given us a variety of different examples of phrases. Are those phrases that you find can be used in all different sorts of situations, or how do you suggest people come up with phrases that feel is right for them in different scenarios.
[12:11] Sunitha Narayanan: When I work with a conversational toolkit, there are broad pieces, categories to it. So you can have phrases to get agreement. You can have phrases to highlight a disagreement. You can have phrases to get buy-in. So that’s the other distinction to make in our minds, that for something to happen mutually, there need not always be agreement, but there must be buy-in.
So I can say to you that I do not agree with you on this idea or this project. However, I’m willing to give you my buy-in. Or as a supervisor, I can go to someone and say, I’ve listened to you. I see that we are far apart. I want you to know that I care about your ideas and this project is going to go through. So what can I personally do to get your buy-in?
This is about really getting to that heart connection. Once you know, where you’re struggling the most, then you start crafting your phrases for that particular situation. If you’re hardwired to give solutions, then you can give the other person permission and ask for help.
I can say to you, you know, I’m hardwired to solve. I see the outcome very clearly; I’m hardwired to solve. If you see me, or when you see me do this in our conversation, alert me. Tell me to stop. So figuring out how to ask and give permission to the other person, it’s not easy.
No practice is easy by itself. Practice has always slippery. Yet, it’s essential in our life. So faithfulness to whatever practice you pick is important. So once you have the broad categories, then you start thinking about how does it align to the conversation that is causing you the most difficulty.
We seem to always try to put things in all these categories and buckets, but in reality, life is a large movie. We’re constantly moving through work, life, people, relationships. So it’s not very different from what’s going on in our home lives or with friendships or with work relationships.
Basic stuff is still happening: building trust, setting, accountability, uh, getting commitment and solving problems. That is going on, regardless of whether you’re a parent or you’re a spouse, or you are a friend, or you are a supervisor or an employee.
[14:56] Damianne President: I can say that sometimes when I am prepared for our conversation or when I’m having a conversation, I can anticipate what the response will be. And I know maybe what my triggers are or what shuts me down in a conversation, but it has never occurred to me to name that, to notice that out loud and ask for a different sort of reaction or a different sort of response. I don’t really think we’ve been socialized this way. How do people respond when you share, when you ask for what you want. Or in terms of your clients, what’s the response that they receive.
[15:31] Sunitha Narayanan: So, you know, by nature, anything that is a tad different, anything that you’re trying for the first time is going to feel uncomfortable and awkward. When I work with conversational toolkits with my clients, sometimes they will say to me, I don’t know whether this is going to work because their mind is made up that the other person is not going to respond. The key thing in all this is to put it in your own words, in the language that you feel the most comfortable using. So use the words, the phrases. What I can say is we do have the capacity and the ownership to pause a conversation at any time. That is always available to us as a moment of grace.
So any time that I have seen clients, or when I myself stop a conversation, or pause, not stop, pause a conversation to slow it down. And I say to somebody with a lot of just genuineness, saying this is not working for me. I’m not feeling listened to, and I suspect that’s true for you. How can we do this differently? What do you think? I’d like to call a pause before we move on to the next thing. Rarely do I have somebody push back and say, that’s the dumbest thing I’ve heard. Even if they are not prepared, even if they say yes, but, it gentles the cortisol, the amygdala, the part of our brain that is pushing us to either run away or to hide or to fight back. It gentles that a little bit.
Most people will say back to you, I don’t know what you’re talking about. So say that’s the worst case scenario where the person is still shut down with you. You say, well, you know, let’s look at where we are. It seems to me that we have talking about the same thing and I am entrenched in the way I’m thinking and I feel you are entrenched in the way you’re thinking. So when we are looking at the larger project or the goal or whatever the personal pieces, how do we change this? So in a personal relationship, with your family, you can easily ask that question saying that I don’t want to repeat this conversation; I care deeply about our relationship.
So figuring out what kind of vulnerability you’re willing to bring in, without oversharing, without feeling threatened. That is a practice to pause. So for each one of us that is different.
[18:18] Working through resistance
[18:18] Damianne President: I anticipate that in some of those cases, it could raise up some disagreement. So you said earlier that sometimes when we’re trying something new, we might meet with some resistance. How do you work through that?
[18:33] Sunitha Narayanan: So sometimes, you know, you can just tell the person saying, listen, I’m trying out a new practice. I have been really thinking about how I get in my own way and how I shut down in conversations. And I want your help with this. This is a great situation for us. It’s not going to be a surprise to you that we have butt heads before. We have history of not agreeing with each other. So what do you think if we were to change one little variable in this, what might happen? This is very, very powerful.
The moment we decide to take that ownership and truly show up with the sense of who we are, it’s like sprinkling pixie dust in a conversation. I have at least two examples in my work life where, with colleagues, opposite styles, did not like each other, did not trust each other, and over time we work really well together. It’s not as if we have become best friends, but we have high respect. We’re able to tell each other some hard things. She can tell me, you tell too many stories. Remember we are on a timeline. Do not tell more stories. And today I can take that and not feel offended.
The first time she told me that, I was seriously offended. I shut down completely till I had the conversation with her saying, I see your point and I felt hurt with the way you told me that. And that changed. She said, well, I didn’t mean it to hurt you. I was just looking at, you know, the time we have. I said, I get that, but I did not experience it that way.
If we choose to hide from how we are feeling, we are unlikely to ask for what we need. And more importantly, we are unlikely to recognize what might be going on because there are a lot of things going on in our heads all the time. We’re making up stories all the time. So we’re filling in the stories, and from neuroscience research, it tells us that our brains just need to complete a loop.
The loop does not have to be completed with accurate facts. So when that is completed, there’s a rush of endorphin, the good, the happy hormone. And we go our way, our minds made up and a story made up, thinking I cannot believe she said that. I mean, how could you take that as offense? I never meant that.
So we go around putting these nonsense phrases into conversations that take away the true connection and the meaning, and the promise that lies in our relationships. Because I mean, think about it. Can I share what I truly believe without your help? Or can you get out the message of your work without the help of others? We cannot work unless we are working with and through others.
[21:55] Damianne President: As you’re talking, the ideas that are coming up for me are those of vulnerability and kind of taking ownership. It made me think of a job that I had a few years back. I had one principal who would in one-on-ones ask for my opinion. And he would say, can you tell me honestly your opinion on whatever the issue is?
And I would share my opinion with him or my impression, my perspective on the situation, and then he would start to shout in defense because he felt like maybe it was not fair or he didn’t like what other people were saying. And we really had to have a conversation about if you asked for my opinion, my honest opinion, and I share it with you, it is not helpful for you to then shout at me. If you shout back at me, what happens is that I will not share my honest opinion with you because clearly that’s not what you want if you’re only going to be defensive. But what could work here in this scenario, what would work for me is, if we then discuss the different topics, I could give you my opinion, not just the perspective of other people and we could think about it. Why might people think that? What behaviors are helping or leading to people, making those conclusions? If it’s not necessarily that those things are true about you, but we need to explore how are people experiencing working with you?
[23:24] Agreements on How to Disagree
[23:24] Sunitha Narayanan: Two observations. That is courage in practice. So kudos for having the courage, for saying that to that individual. The second observation is setting agreements with each other. Usually, even with families, as well as work situations, I usually have people set up some agreements of how they are going to disagree with each other.
So pause, three minutes, before starting a team meeting to acknowledge we are discussing a very diversive idea. Here is how we agree to disagree. Here is the language that we agree to use. Here is a behavior that will not be tolerated, that is not part of our culture. This is not how we talk to each other. Because culture really in the most basic of definitions is the way we do things here. It’s as simple as that. There is no big definition out there for culture. It’s unique to every individual team, to then the larger microorganism of the organization. Then when you take it to your families, to society and all of that, it’s just the way how we treat each other, how we do things here.
So setting up permissions upfront allows a process and a structure, especially for where teams are not getting along, or where people are not getting along with each other. I find that extremely powerful and productive
[25:02] Damianne President: Earlier when you were speaking, I was thinking that it is even more important to share your goals of a conversation when it’s a meaningful conversation, or when it’s a difficult conversation, because already it might take away some of the sting, of the flow of the conversation if you just said that out upfront.
[25:20] Sunitha Narayanan: And also that whole vulnerability piece that you shared in your example. I think it’s okay. I mean, because it is true, it’s okay to tell somebody that I’m unable to listen. I’m completely shutting down when I hear your voice being raised. This took me many, many years of marriage to acknowledge and actually say something around that.
So when I get very upset, my voice goes up. I’m not necessarily angry, but it still gets experienced as anger from my husband. So every time we have a very difficult conversation, I have to remind him and myself; I have to say the words aloud to say to him, my voice is going to raise. I mean, no disrespect. I’m trying to regulate that, but that’s a physiological reaction that I’m unable to control. I try, I’m unable to control. Help me stay in this conversation is what I ask for. And you can ask variations of this with vulnerability, with your team as well.
You can certainly say that when I hear the words or the phrases, or when I hear raised voices, I completely shut down. I mean, there are team members who can say that, you know, if one more person tells me this isn’t in our bandwidth, I’m going to smack them. Or I heard somebody say that if I hear another person say, I’m curious, I just shut down. And that made me curious. I mean, I use that a lot.
[27:04] Working Around Triggers that shut down or dampen connections
[27:04] Sunitha Narayanan: So taking the time to really think about the style, alignment and disconnect matters. That much eleven second pause you can do in your life.
[27:16] Damianne President: It’s interesting thinking about what could be triggers for other people. So for example, from having had some cognitive behavior coaching, I have barriers against the word should. And so when somebody tells me, you should do whatever it is, my first reaction is, oh, should I really?
[27:36] Damianne President: And then I have to often take a step back and realize they’re expressing an opinion. This is a way that we often express an opinion in day-to-day conversation. And I am adding those layers of, meaning to it.
[27:53] Sunitha Narayanan: So again, it’s the expectations, right? So sometimes, and I learned this as a very harsh lesson when my children went off to college. Whenever they would call me, I would get into advice mode. I got better at asking, do you want me to listen? Would you like an opinion? Do you want help?
I think we are all hardwired to help other people. I like to believe that even what we see in the world, I would still like to believe that we are all hardwired to help somebody in need. However, we don’t know how to help because the person is not asking for help the way they need to be helped.
So we can say, what does help look like. When you see me helping you, what do you see me doing? So take them there versus saying, well, why don’t you try this? I think you should do this. Haven’t you thought about this. The other way, you can certainly say if this was your problem, what would you try? That’s another way of getting a perspective.
[29:00] Sitting With Someone as they work through problems
[29:00] Damianne President: I think it’s very important to clarify what is the person looking for in the situation. Because sometimes people do need help and sometimes offering something specific, like, would you like me help you think through this? Would you like me to help you brainstorm this? Would you like me to help you map this out?
I think sometimes when people are stuck in situations, like I had this recently with a colleague, they were not really sure exactly where they were getting stuck. And sometimes we can ask questions to help people figure out what it is that they need help with. I guess it’s not the same as offering a solution, but it’s offering, where can I work with you here?
[29:46] Sunitha Narayanan: The distinction you are making is what I would like everybody to go away with. So the help is offered sitting with the person to figure things out, not to give them a solution that you think will work. Even if you think that, you can lead them there. You can say, what are five things you could try? You put down five things and I put down five things and let’s compare our list. That way you still get to give your solution that you can see clearly.
Sometimes we can see the solution very clearly. Where we get into difficulty is the fact that if the person is not prepared or ready or does not yet have that belief, they’re rarely going to say, oh, such a great solution, Sunita. I’m absolutely going to try this. No one says that because everybody would like to engage, wrestle, think through things for themselves. So that’s the value you give by sitting with somebody and listening with them. There are ways. I think it’s a great way to say, would you like this or what would it look like help to you. Would you like brainstorming? Would mapping it out help you?
[31:10] Damianne President: I think another thing to consider is also the urgency of the situation. One mistake that I made kind of early in my career was somebody was asking me for help and I wanted to kind of use it as a teachable moment of helping them figure out what would you do here to solve this issue? They were like, you know what, I have a class coming in 10 minutes and I need this to get solved. It was a point of tension for us because I so strongly held that belief at the time that the learning journey is as important as the outcome, if not more important. And I really had to get to the point of realizing, okay, there is more to the story sometimes with the circumstances and considering urgency.
[31:54] Sunitha Narayanan: True. So with that, the pause, I would say, is to to look at patterns. If you have a relationship or you have a history, to look at patterns of what is happening with how the person comes to you, is it truly an urgent important piece or is it false urgency, or is it a default pattern? Because you can certainly give the advice or the solution right away saying I see you’re going into class in five minutes so here is what you can do. And I’d like us to talk about this.
[32:33] Timing is Optional
[32:33] Damianne President: I think this connects to another idea that you have about the difference between hearing and listening and how conversations could work. In that instance, when somebody has heightened emotion or when they feel a sense of urgency, this is not really a very effective time to have a meaningful conversation often. So sometimes we might need to delay that conversation for a later time.
[32:58] Sunitha Narayanan: The way I look at that is honesty is not optional; timing is. And kindness is always present. So timing is the kindness. Whether you delay the conversation or you have it upfront, that’s how you bring in that unconditional friendship, that maitri piece, the kindness piece of compassion, by recognizing timing.
[33:23] Damianne President: Talk to us about the difference between listening and hearing and how that works in conversations.
[33:30] Sunitha Narayanan: In the Chinese script, there is a symbol called ting. If you look it up, you’ll see that there are so many different aspects of listening. Hearing is like the outskirts, the edges of a conversation. So you’re hearing quickly, you’re hearing with a lot of distractions, you’re making up your own stories.
Last week I discussed the steps of listening in a solo episode. If you haven’t listened to that you might want to do so later. Also, Sunitha and I talk a bit more about the difference between hearing and listening and you’ll be able to find that on YouTube. That link is in the show notes
[34:13] Showing up with Unconditional Friendship
[34:13] Damianne President: I think the thread that I’m seeing in the responses as we have this conversation is vulnerability and honesty. And you talk about bringing in that quality of friendship as well, whenever we’re approaching each other in this way. So share with us about maitri and how it shows up in your work.
[34:34] Sunitha Narayanan: Maitri is a word from the Sanskrit language, which is the oldest language probably in the world and it means unconditional friendship. So the unconditional friendship has to start with you, within you, because we wake up in the morning and we are already struggling with not feeling enough, not having enough. I don’t have enough time to do this. If I could only clone myself, if only if, only and all the shoulds, I should be doing more, I should be working more, I should be a better parent. I should, should, should, should, whatever the shoulds are. So the more closely you touch your gremlins, you touch the stories that don’t serve you well, you honor that, and you say that I give you my entire friendship.
I personally have a hard time letting go. I like my grudges. I like to sit in my grudges. I mean, why not, right. The thing to remember is nothing of that is rent free. So if you want to build significance and success, we have to approach and know for ourselves that our talent matters. Our talent matters because it connects another story to another story, to another story, to a larger purpose, and that’s okay. And it’s okay to continue to make the mistakes and the failures.
It’s okay to just show up. Sometimes I wonder at how people talk so much about preparation, but when you do that unconditional friendship within you, you allow serendipity, you allow something that just shows up magically. If you can do that for yourself, then your practice outward towards other people will have that seamless piece to it. You will fall. I mean, no practices is foolproof.
The day I think I have a practice in hand is the day I fall the hardest. Stay fateful. So that’s the core value of approaching, because that allows me to go into any conversation, even when I really don’t like the person and there are some people who don’t like me, don’t like my work and who probably I don’t like, I don’t like that work. However, the idea is how do I stay in a conversation with them? And today for me, that is the biggest struggle. So that’s where I look at love and maitri as a practice to remind myself this person is a human being, just like me. This person has an opinion, just like me and I plan to show up 10% with complete commitment to honor the person just as they are.
The maitri piece allows me then not to go in with too many expectations. I think the moment we have expectations, we go into shoulds. So this is owning my own practice for the sake of my whole hearted living. Now, whether it actually changes somebody, I have no idea, but I’m willing to stay faithful to my practice.
Once it starts with that friendship, you are generous. You are willing to overlook, forgive. That’s the other thing, right? In relationships, our capacity to forgive people is very little. We have a very, very hard time forgiving people for transgressions. But if we don’t look at forgiveness as a practice, Then we are missing out the point that we are all in a stage of becoming, we’re not checklist that we do five things and we are this complete human being.
[38:29] It’s a Practice – Invitation
[38:29] Damianne President: There is definitely going to be a future episode on forgiveness. Do you find that you have to remind yourself of this approach?
[38:37] Sunitha Narayanan: My background on Zoom is a thing on my maitri. Every workshop, every conversation I have I spend at least about 11 seconds talking about my three. If I’m approached for work, I give them a clear definition of the foundation of how I will do the work, which is on maitri.
At this point, my children and my husband or people who know me, they just roll their eyes and they’ll say, oh, no, another thing on maitri from mom. That is how ingrained it is in me today.
[39:12] Damianne President: If someone wants to have a conversation that builds heart connection, what can they do? What is one practice, one suggestion that you can invite listeners to do to build this practice?
[39:27] Sunitha Narayanan: I would start with complete friendship within yourself. Become curious, become curious about what shuts you down and what helps you stay open. Start looking at patterns; patterns don’t lie. Look at a lot of different conversations that you go in and out of. Look at what is causing you the most difficulty. So look at it from people, processes, projects, if you’re doing it for work, and start thinking about what is your ownership towards this? How are you getting in your own way? Leave the other person. You can demonize the person after 10% of the work that you do with yourself. You can do it as play and you learn a lot from that, but start with that 10% within you.
In a conversation, we are working out ideas; we are not working out solutions.Tweet
Honesty is not optional; timing is.Tweet