From an early age, I wanted to be an authentic peacemaker, to truly be able to walk my talk. However, as I grew up, I saw myself making choices that didn’t reflect peace and I couldn’t listen inside long enough to come up with better decisions. My culture and my parents had programmed me to be externally focused, to just “get things done.” The longer I lived, the more negative consequences I suffered from this way of being. I yearned to be completely connected inside and out so I could model the peace I believed was possible.
But I didn’t know how to break the pattern. I tried meditating but couldn’t settle down to it. Events would trigger my feelings; then my thoughts would go round in circles.
Now as I speak throughout the U.S, I find the majority of people struggle with this same dynamic but often haven’t articulated the problem: How do we move from an external locus of control to an internal one? My greatest aha was when I discovered how to do that. Finally, I have a consistently rich, rewarding inner life that guides my responses to whatever comes my way. I haven’t reached perfection as it’s not about that; it’s about connection.
The essence of my aha was: Empathy + Insight = Connection. Let me explain how I came up with that equation.
I hadn’t realized I was out of touch with my feelings and needs until a method called Nonviolent Communication (NVC) taught me to name them. Later I learned of a study that showed naming our feelings reduces the reaction of the amygdala, the part of the brain that often reacts irrationally when we are triggered. Another study determined that when we have a context for understanding needs, it enhances our empathic responses. So it’s not surprising that naming my feelings and needs led me quickly to self-empathy and guessing the feelings and needs of other people gave me more empathy for them.
Prior to my exposure to NVC, I’d learned how to bring the heart and brain into sync as a way to de-stress. I used the Quick Coherence Technique, a HeartMath Institute tool, which involves focusing on the heart, breathing as if through the heart, and feeling appreciation. These steps brought me into coherence, a state where the heart, mind and emotions are in energetic alignment and cooperation. When I practiced coherence, I was delighted to find I was regularly accessing insights. This outcome is explained in a study that found when we’re in a good mood, such as when we feel appreciation, we experience an increase in insights.
In the past, when my thoughts and feelings were spinning, I couldn’t find the willingness to get coherent. But after learning how to connect with my feelings and needs, and the feelings and needs of others, I could reduce the charge on an issue, move into coherence and access my best idea for resolving the problem. Identifying my feelings and needs was the fast track to my empathy, and coherence was the fast track to my insights. By connecting to both empathy and insight when working on an issue, the inner and outer peace I’d longed for was achieved. I’d found the way out of reacting to external stimuli by creating a solid, inner locus of control.
Soon I began teaching this method to others and we started a program in public schools in Costa Rica, where it boosted the social and emotional intelligence of over 40,000 students. By 2005, our project won the Ashoka Changemakers Innovation Award: Building a More Ethical Society, chosen from 79 projects in 32 countries.
Now years later, we teach the practice in the U.S. as BePeace in faith-based settings and as the Connection Practice in secular settings such as schools, addiction recovery centers, domestic violence centers, other nonprofits and businesses. Currently, there are 110 trainers certified to teach the practice in the U.S and six other countries.
I recently published a book, Completely Connected, that shares the impact of this practice on people of all ages and walks of life, and I’ve been on a book tour that includes workshops. Asking for a volunteer to do the practice with me onstage at a workshop can sometimes be tricky. I never know what the issue will be. And sometimes the challenges seem insurmountable.
Take, for example, an 87-year-old woman who came forward in a workshop last month. Mary shared:
“I’ve been friends with a man named Joe for 22 years. Now he is in assisted living and he depends on me for everything. I take him shopping, to the movies and whatever else he needs. He has dementia and I have to remind him several times of our plans. This is a lot to handle but I don’t mind doing it. What bothers me is that in 22 years, he’s never said ‘Thank you.'”
Mary was visibly upset. The participants, with feelings and needs lists in hand, began guessing what she was feeling while my assistant wrote the words on a flip chart. Then I asked Mary to identify the three feelings that resonated most for her. She pointed to “hurt,” “resentful” and “frustrated.”
Then the participants used their lists to guess her needs as they were written on the flip chart. The guesses that landed for Mary included “communication”, “love” and “appreciation.”
Then Mary said, “I thought my main need would be appreciation, but it’s not. This is about love – just love exchanged between friends.”
Can you see it? This woman wants love from a man who hasn’t expressed it in 22 years and now has dementia.
I asked everyone to move into coherence and then radiate it to Mary. Her job was to close her eyes and get coherent, ask herself, “What do I need to know?” and listen for an insight.
Before long, Mary opened her eyes and said, “What came to me is that my daughter was telling me about something called eye-gazing, where you look into someone’s eyes for a long time. I think Joe would be willing to do that with me and, if we did, I think I could feel the love.”
There was a collective gasp of awe among the audience as they saw how Mary had shifted from an angry, resentful state to a centered, creative state in 15 minutes. We had witnessed how powerful it is when we collectively give empathy, then join together in coherence and intention for one person to find an insight.
This practice makes it possible to live peacefully and creatively each day. The certified trainers and I teach this six-step method in courses. Now, as a way to reach out globally, it’s offered in a teleseminar, called the Connection Experience, which includes personal coaching.
With this skill, we can be the change we want to see in the world. Lasting peace will be achieved when people practice the art of connection and pass this gift on to the next generation.
Educator, bestselling author, speaker, and award-winning innovator Rita Marie Johnson has been sharing her method worldwide for over a decade. In 2010, Johnson began teaching her peace practice at the United Nations-mandated University for Peace, a graduate school for international leaders. She serves as CEO of Rasur Foundation International. Her latest book, Completely Connected: Uniting Our Empathy and Insight for Extraordinary Results, was released in March 2015. Her method has been endorsed by Nobel Peace Prize laureate President Oscar Arias. The next Connection Experience teleseminar begins August 4. www.rasurinternational.org.