Turn the Tide: Interview with Kathy Obear

Last week I had the opportunity to read an advance copy of Kathy Obear‘s book Turn the Tide: Rise Above Toxic, Difficult Situations in the Workplace.

Turn the Tide is a wholehearted look at what goes on when we are triggered, particularly around issues of oppression, so we can navigate those triggers more effectively to bring about greater understanding, justice, and authenticity in the workplace and in our lives. Kathy brings together positive psychology research, a deep understanding of social justice, and decades of coaching and consulting experience to help connect and be a helpful guide to the reader.

Kathy generously agreed to do an interview ahead of her book launch taking place tomorrow (Tuesday, January 19, 2016). You can sign-up to get info on how to download the book on January 19th here. When you sign-up Kathy will send info for registering for the live stream of the launch as well.


Keith: Your new book, Turn the Tide, expands on your dissertation research, articles, and years of workshops, trainings, and coaching on triggers. I really loved the personal tone and approach you took with this. It definitely helped me to relate and be more open to the reframing and new approaches you suggest. What new ideas or approaches to sharing this idea are in this book that hasn’t been included in your previous articles and chapters on this?

Kathy: I wrote Turn the Tide in hopes that others wouldn’t have to take as long as I did to finally learn to use these tools! My earlier writings focused on preparing social justice educators to use triggering events as teachable moments and navigate their own emotional reactions effectively. In writing this book, I wanted to share these insights and skills with a broad, popular audience so that anyone in a work environment could deepen their capacity to engage effectively in difficult situations.

I think readers will find a few new or expanded areas in Turn the Tide. I shared in far greater depth about the dynamics of how difficult situations can trigger our intrapersonal roots (current life experiences, cumulative impact, old issues and wounds, fear, unmet needs, ego-driven desires, and bias, assumptions, judgments and expectations).

Intrapersonal Roots
From Turn the Tide by Kathy Obear

I used to believe that other people caused my emotional reactions. Now I know that, while another’s behavior may be offensive and inappropriate, how I feel and react may have far more to do with what I am carrying into that moment than their comment or behavior. And if I have an extreme emotional reaction that is disproportionate to the moment, then I have definitely activated some of my roots. When I explore which of my intrapersonal roots are fueling my triggered reaction, I get significant insights about the areas in my life and my past that are getting in my way of being as effective as I can be.

From Turn the Tide by Kathy Obear
From Turn the Tide by Kathy Obear

This relates to the other new area in this book: self-care and healing practices. I hope readers find a wealth of ideas as well as the courage to invest in their self-care and personal healing in order to minimize the chances they will feel deeply triggered and react unproductively in the future.

Keith: You just mentioned that you wish you had learned these strategies years ago and all the headaches, pain, and ineffectiveness it could have saved you. Me too! What has shifted in your being over this time as you have done this learning, not just your doing?

Kathy: I am grateful that I have been able to develop far deeper compassion for others when I feel triggered by what they say and do. The truth is, I have probably said and done something similar in my life OR could easily in the future! And so engaging others out of compassion and relating to their experience has been a far more useful and productive way to respond in difficult situations.

And it is helpful if I remember this core truth: if I feel deeply triggered, it is a gift! And an indication that I have some areas in my life that may need some healing or exploring. Yes, I can still engage and confront others if their behavior crosses a line, but I gain invaluable treasures for my own personal growth and development if I am willing to explore the deeper reasons I feel triggered.

Keith: That’s beautiful. You mention in the book how tempting it can be to “put him in his place” or relish how you “went off on him.” I’ve certainly felt this way as well. What do you think is so tempting about this kind of response? What do you tell yourself when you feel tempted to react in these ways in the moment?

Kathy: I grew up believing people were either right or wrong, good or bad, victim or perpetrator. And so in difficult situations, I definitely didn’t want to be the bad, wrong one! So if I could make the other person a perpetrator and someone who deserved punishment, then I could treat them any way I wanted to. In addition, I got an ego-hit out of being the “good one,” as well as an adrenalin rush from confronting out of a place of urgency and self-righteousness.

The next time I am tempted to “take someone out,” I hope I remember that I am just like them, that I could easily say or do something as triggering later that same day. For me, the intention of engaging others is to build a relationship to better connect, understand, and possibly educate in the short-term. I am also focused on the “long-term” and hoping our interaction will build a bridge for continued conversation and learning. When I shift my focus to these types of intentions, I am far more likely to choose a response that aligns with these goals.

I also shift my “mind chatter” from negative thoughts about others to phrases like: they are doing the best they can; maybe I can help them see what they are missing; I used to think like that, too, before others shared differing perspectives with me; and everything happens for a reason so maybe I am supposed to engage them respectfully and see what I am supposed to learn in this moment. Seeing difficult situations as learning opportunities for me and others helps me engage form a much more productive space.

Keith: You mention that being grounded is so important to responding with intentionality and effectiveness. How do you stay grounded in general and in those moments when you are triggered?

Kathy: Writing the Self Care chapter helped me take a closer look at my own life and make some decisions to create better work-life balance. When I am getting enough sleep, play, rest and meaningful connection I am far less likely to feel deeply triggered. I also need to eat well and exercise regularly to reduce stress and increase my energy. But all these physical and emotional steps are not enough for me. I also need a daily spiritual practice to ground myself so I can be a clear instrument for learning and service. I have to constantly work to get my ego out of the way, and remember that my calling is to be of service to others and create greater healing and true community among us all. When I come out of this place of humility and service, I am a far better instrument for change during difficult situations.

When I feel triggered, I usually need to take a moment to go within and identify why I feel that way and what roots are fueling the “story” I made up about the situation. It is then helpful for me to move into an observer role to scan myself and the surrounding dynamics. This pause usually gives me enough time to interrupt my automatic triggered reactions, change my story and interpretation, and intentionally choose ways to respond that align with my core values.

Keith: One of the things that I notice in myself and see in others who are deeply reflective is that part of us doesn’t want to own our responses. As long as I keep the story about the other person, then I don’t have to take any responsibility for whether this works out well or doesn’t. Of course, that gets in the way of my being effective, actually addressing the issue, and building an authentic relationship. What would you say to someone who, at least at some level, is afraid of taking responsibility and is, again at some level, more comfortable with simply blaming?

Kathy: I spent years blaming others, blaming society, blaming the weather! And I was more often feeling angry, anxious and generally irritated with the world. The “pay-off” often was that I could believe the illusion that I was better than others, smarter and more competent. But the costs, increased isolation and stress, weren’t worth the ego-hit.

I also have come to realize that when I blame others, I am giving away so much of my personal power. I am giving them the power to impact my emotions and my well-being. When I am grounded in the belief that I am responsible for how I make meaning of situations and therefore, how I feel, I experience such freedom and liberation. I may still not appreciate the actions of others and can choose to engage to interrupt or shift them. But I am not the victim or controlled by others. I am responsible for every thought and feeling I have as well as every action I take.

It seems so much easier and safer to not take responsibility and to blame others! The rewards of living fully and embracing our every choice is exciting and thrilling as well as somewhat scary! But I would rather be the captain of my ship than a mere passenger going wherever someone else takes me.

Keith: Most of the book is about when we have been triggered and coming to greater awareness so that we can be more effective. You talk a little bit about when we become aware that we have triggered others. You make a powerful suggestion that by staying present, being open, and honestly reflecting, rather than pulling away, we can deepen our learning and our connection with others. Thank you for this. When we notice that we have triggered someone, how can we stay in that moment and be helpful?

Kathy: It is hard for me to stay present, humble, and willing to engage when someone feels triggered by something I did or said. Often, I feel scared and defensive and am overly concerned about what others will think of me. If I can ground myself in the knowing that triggering events can be amazing learning and healing opportunities for everyone involved, then I am more likely to stay in the room and not swirl in my fears.

As I am speaking, if I notice a shift in the behavior or non-verbals of others, I have paused to ask if people were impacted by something I said or did. Recently, I was leading a large group discussion and someone said they were triggered by a question I had asked. I luckily stopped myself and quickly got off the blame/shame see-saw. When I started to justify my question in my mind or critique this person for feeling triggered, I stopped those thoughts and willed myself to stay present in the moment by thinking, “There is something I can learn here. I know I didn’t intend harm, but clearly some folks were impacted by my comment. Let’s see where this goes.” I looked around at the group and took several deep breaths to get grounded as I listened closely to what others were saying.

At times my behavior has negatively impacted others, I have apologized for my impact and stayed present as the person shared more about the impact. I sometimes have acknowledged what new insights I am having as well as commit to continuing to reflect on the situation and shift my behavior in the future.

I hope that readers continue to deepen their capacity to remember that feeling triggered is not a sign of incompetence or immaturity, but a normal, common reaction in difficult situations. The tools and concepts in Turn The Tide can help all of us more effectively engage and respond in ways that furthers understanding, connection, innovation, and productivity. Together, we can create what we envision!

You can sign-up to get info on how to download the book on January 19th here. When you sign-up Kathy will send info for registering for the live stream of the launch as well.

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