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How History Impacts Today's Conflicts with Susan Clarke

Updated: Nov 18, 2019

We’re doing something special on the podcast this week…

This week Susan is being interviewed!

For those of you that don’t know, Susan has an incredibly powerful story, one that we think really shows the beauty of conflict, and we wanted to be sure that you heard her story so you could see how we relate to the topics we cover and you can too.

So today Susan is sharing why the beauty of conflict- what does that really mean? And how does our history, and hers in particular, impact how we show up today in conflict?

She lets us in on what she learned about conflict growing up and how camp played a role in that, why she spent so much of her life telling people what they wanted to hear, and the story of how her cancer diagnosis eventually led to the root of our beauty of vulnerability and curiosity in conflict model.

We hope you will enjoy the emotional and powerful stories she shares with us and find ways you can relate this to your life story as well.

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Full Transcript:

CrisMarie: Hello. Today we have a special episode where I'm going to interview Susan to talk about why The Beauty of Conflict—like, what does that mean? And also to talk about how our history impacts how we show up today in conflict. So, welcome, Susan.

Susan: Oh, I'm so excited to be on the show. We've been having so much fun interviewing people, and we wanted to interview each other.

CrisMarie: Yes!

Susan: Today is that day.

CrisMarie: So Susan, what does it mean, The Beauty of Conflict, and why The Beauty of Conflict?

Susan: Well, really The Beauty of Conflict comes from this idea that, generally speaking, most people think of conflict as painful and difficult, and avoid it. I believe conflict is beautiful. And when I think of beauty, I don't think of it as joyful or comfortable or fun. I think of beauty as something that's rich and deep and has a lot of texture to it. So sometimes that can mean that it can be uncomfortable, but sometimes it can be fun. Sometimes it can be lighter, sometimes it's heavier, sometimes it's that combination of all those textures that makes conflict beautiful. And we, in our fear of the pain of it, lose the potential beauty of it. And that's what we want people to reconnect to. It's to see conflict as something that's very natural and inherent to who we are, and actually is the root of all transformation and creativity.

CrisMarie: Well, you know, you were probably going to get back to this, but you bring up a good point that most people think conflict is bad. They weren't trained in it. They work to avoid it, they want to diffuse it. And that's a lot to do with how we grew up and seeing conflict modeled, learning how these big people around us deal with conflict. So can you tell our listeners what you learned about conflict growing up?

Susan: Well, that's an interesting question. You would think over the years I would have had a great response, a simple story about that. But it's not quite that simple. I sort of equate it to the story of two dinner tables.

When I was young, I went to summer camp. There was a camp director and there was my mother, who was the nurse. And we sat out on the porch. There was the camp director’s table, and then there was my mother's table. I could usually choose between the two, and most anyone who came out to the porch got to choose between the two. And what I will say is over at the camp director’s table, everything was fairly quiet and measured.

If anyone was talking it was usually him, and he might be sharing a story. He was very charismatic, but you could feel a bit of the tension at that table. Not much was really being said about anything, you know? Versus at my mother's table, a lot of times the camp counselors and people would come out and they would have these debates about issues going on in the world, about religion, and they would be very passionate about their opinions. And I always thought it was interesting the tone of the two tables. Now I'll be clear, neither table was really talking too much about anything relevant to each


CrisMarie: You mean like interpersonal?

Susan: Interpersonal. On the one table it was just mostly quiet, him holding court, and at the other table there was this rich ideological debate about politics and issues, which was way more energizing. But also, not too much to do with the people involved, although I guess you could learn a lot about them from the stories they told. I can remember some of those camp counselors and who they were because of how they showed up at our dinner table.

CrisMarie: How did that context inform how you show up in conflict today?

Susan: Well, one thing about that was I did learn our belief that it was okay to tell a good story, because that was what would happen at the camp director’s table. He would tell a good story and mesmerize people with his kind of charismatic personality. Everyone else would just listen. And I also learned that it's really okay to wrestle about politics and religion as long as it doesn't get too personal. And that those two things are a way to sort of mask a lot of what else is going on.

CrisMarie: Now help people understand what it is, masking. What are you talking about, with masking? Because it sounds like, well, gosh, that table is talking about politics. So what are you looking at? Like what do you mean, masking?

Susan: The thing that no one paid attention to or talked about was why the other table was so silent. This table had a lot of stuff going on, but no one was actually talking about what was happening. And why that's important to me is because of my experience at camp. That truly was a wonderful place of freedom for me where I learned to be outdoors. I learned to love the summers and some of the people I met as camp counselors. So that's the surface. That's the two tables. But beneath the surface of the camp, there were some pretty horrendous things going on.

This camp director was not the charismatic, powerhouse community service leader that people thought he was. There was a lot of really horrible things that were happening. Some of them directly to me as a young child. And the way that I made it all okay was this overplay of everything. Not talking about what was actually going on—kind of like I am now. Like I'm probably not being fully explicit. I'm giving you this metaphor of the two tables. But what you need to know is that in my childhood there was this violent, sexual, crazy stuff going on related to this particular camp director. And no one was talking about that. No one said anything about it. We all just imagined him to be this great charismatic leader. And the discrepancy there was huge, but you would never talk about that.

CrisMarie: So that was under the table.

Susan: Yes.

CrisMarie: They're both tables.

Susan: Yes. You know, you could talk about politics and some of the things going on that weren't quite right in the world, but not at the camp. So that's how in some respects this ideological debate was just as much a cover for the real issues as was the silence.

CrisMarie: Now, as you grew up you found another camp called The Haven. You got there because you were facing a cancer diagnosis. Can you talk about that, the six months to live? Because that's pretty powerful.

Susan: Well, in my early twenties I was sort of pursuing going off and living my life more fully. And I had done a really good job of compartmentalizing that history.

CrisMarie: Meaning that you didn't even remember it?

Susan: I did not remember it directly. I knew there were some things I covered up. Let's just say that I'd gotten so good at telling the good stories that I could avoid ever having to address the real things. So I might have had some memory of it but I wasn't going to talk about it. And I spent so much time not talking about it, that it eventually just became buried. Then when I suddenly was in a situation where I was invited to be more real and relational and showing up, I actually started to get sick.

CrisMarie: Now this was when you started a job, right?

Susan: Yes, I was teaching—and I love teaching—down in Augusta, Georgia. I taught K-7, health and physical education. And there were things about teaching that I just love.

At that point in my life, I was not very trusting of adults, but I loved kids and I really enjoyed my experience. Especially health and physical education, because they'd come out for gym class and just be in their bodies playing. There'd be so much genuine authenticity in the way they showed up. And I could show up with them like that, which I really loved. So I really thought it was awesome.

I also was meeting people in the adult world that I worked with and was trying to develop relationships with. And this was the first time that I realized there are a lot of things about me that I avoid ever letting anyone see. And that was really a challenge at that point in my life, because I was actually trying to create more intimacy and closer relationships. And I realized, whoa, there's lots that is keeping me from doing that.

And and even as I got closer, I started to get sick.

CrisMarie: And they didn't really know what was going on.

Susan: They had no idea. And they'd ask me questions because I presented with some very clear scars, indicators that there was something inherently not too healthy about my inside from scar tissue and various things.

CrisMarie: Like in your sexual region, like from sexual abuse?

Susan: Yes. And also you know, pretty much any scar that they would find. Like I had a scar from some sort of head injury, but I didn't have a clear story that fit what they were seeing. Now, I didn't know that. They would ask me and I would give them some answer to the best of my ability and they would then just kind of make a note of it.

And I think they decided, as I understand from talking to my medical team later, that I presented like I had an eating disorder. And they just figured there was some sort of trauma in my past or something that had gone on in my adult life that I wasn't willing to talk about.

CrisMarie: Because you were losing weight.

Susan: I was losing weight. I had classic signs of an eating disorder. So they sent me to see a psychiatrist to get therapy. And in the course of that therapy, things started to emerge. Well, finally—I did my best to cover that up for a long time, too. And my therapist was like, I don't know what your deal is, but there's something you're not saying. And eventually, what came out of my mouth was, “I don't actually know.”

Reality is, I don't really know. I get that I'm not telling you what you want to hear. And I very rarely tell anyone what they want to hear. But I've done this so long, I don't know the answer to your questions. And I figure it's better to come up with some good story. That's what I've learned about the past. Tell a good story and keep everybody engaged and then you don't have to talk about anything else.

CrisMarie: So you really were leading your life by avoiding what was under the table—we'll stay with that metaphor—and entertaining or giving people what you thought they wanted to hear.

Susan: Yeah, either talking about political world events or making up a good story that would cover up something else. I was very good at those two things.

So, needless to say, I finally popped that bubble and told someone that I don't know about my own life, I'm not trying to cover it up, I don't really remember too much. And as that came out, I began to have a lot more sort of bubbling memories and remembering some things. And I went to my medical team and said, okay, you've asked me these questions and I thought I gave you answers, but to be honest, I just made things up to help you carry on. And they were like, well, here's what we see. We see this scar tissue, and clearly you have had some sort of sexual trauma, but you're telling us you know nothing.

So I started to go back, because I knew there was nothing in my current life. I hadn't been in any kind of relationship, so I knew what they were seeing had nothing to do with anything that had happened recently. And so I started to ask questions about my past and it kind of blew up in my face, because I started to realize that people didn't want to answer these questions and there weren’t any clear answers to them. And some of the stuff I learned didn't make any sense, either.

CrisMarie: And is this to your family, you're going back?

Susan: Initially I went to my family, and then I tried to draw upon some medical records from the past, from when I was much younger. And there was something about me falling on a tree, which seemed like an odd thing to be in the medical records.

But when I got who had brought me into the hospital and who had told that story, it was the camp director. I could figure out exactly how some story like that could be believed and interpreted. And so it sort of spiraled into something that was way bigger and much more catastrophic than I was anticipating, to the point where at one point I was trying to get information and it was sort of, you'd be better off dead. So I really got that whatever I’m bubbling up is of huge angst to a lot of people.

CrisMarie: And what was going on with your health?

Susan: Well at the time that I started to uncover and talk about these stories and finally said to my doctors, here's the truth, they started looking deeper themselves and they found out that I actually had this advanced cancer process.

They hadn't been looking for that because I'm not in the category age frame for the type of cancer had—it was a non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and that’s generally in a much older population.

CrisMarie: And you were 24 at the time?

Susan: Yeah, I think it was 23. And so that was big. For the first time ever they had something medically to address and try to treat. And it was pretty advanced by that point, because it had been a long time coming to the surface from underground. That, too, presented a lot of different issues because that was also when I found out I had a different blood type.

CrisMarie: Than your father.

Susan: Than my father. So it was very convoluted in terms of the information.

CrisMarie: A lot of mysteries, too . . .

Susan: Yes, and I think we kind of went down this path because of the simple question, how did I come to this thing about the beauty of conflict? Because if you're listening to this right now, you might be thinking, Whoa, this does not sound beautiful. And at the time it really was not beautiful. And as I said, beauty has actually got a lot of textures to it. On the one hand it was a nightmare. I was terrified by what was presenting in my body as kind of killing me. And I was presented by talking, getting some clarity on my health, and that was also beginning to feel like it was going to kill me.

CrisMarie: So you had conflict inside your body and you had conflict as soon as you brought that out, you had conflict in all your relationships.

Susan: Yes. And you asked me this because it eventually took me to The Haven.

CrisMarie: Well, and the cliffhanger, though, is when did you wind up making that decision? The doctor's told you they're trying to treat your non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, right?

Susan: Yes. And I was on a particular protocol that was experimental. A clinical trial type of situation. And I had gone in for my checkup nine months into this and my physician was coming back to me saying, you know, this isn't working. And actually said we don’t really have another option at this point, so you probably have about six months to live. Which was a moment in my life where I was like, you know, this inner conflict and the outer conflict clash big time because I was like, wow, I am going to die.

On the one hand, it kind of gave me the fortitude to keep looking at things, because it was like, I am going to die, so whatever I turn up here, how bad can it be?

CrisMarie: And you don’t have to live with it that long.

Susan: And I don’t have to live with it that long. And I mean that sounds kind of crazy, but there was something to that. And I also realized there were things I wanted to accomplish, like to reconnect to my family. I just wanted to live differently.

CrisMarie: I know a little bit about your history. Didn't you see a flyer for death, dying and transitions by Kubler-Ross?

Susan: The day that I got that particular piece of news, when I walked out of my doctor's office there was a flyer about life, death and transitions. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. I had no idea who she was.

CrisMarie: And for those of you that don't know, she wrote about the stages of death and dying.

Susan: She was a very prominent woman in the world of death and dying. And I saw the flyer and I decided I had no money, no nothing, because I was in my early twenties and lost my healthcare, and various other things.

CrisMarie: And you weren't working.

Susan: Right. I'd had to leave my job because of the treatments I was getting. And I wrote her and said, you know, I don't have any money and I really don't know who you are, but I've been told I should think about dying and it seems like a concept that you’re presenting.

And I actually got a response back from her that I could get a scholarship and come to her program. And what was fascinating about that was there were 92 people at this retreat; two of us had cancer and the other 90 worked with people with cancer. So that tells you a little bit about the range of who she was in the world. It was much more working with professional health care providers than directly with people with cancer.

But I had a very profound moment with her at one point, because she does a lot of cathartic work. She actually believes that if you get in touch with your emotions and feel your emotions more deeply, that is the key trigger to health and wellbeing. And she had a process she used to get you into that.

And at one point when I was in this particular thing, working with some emotions, I guess I kind of dissociated. I don't, you know . . .

CrisMarie: Since you were dissociated, you probably don't remember exactly.

Susan: But I do remember her sitting in front of me, this little Swedish woman kind of yelling at me, “Get back here, you need to come talk to me!” And then she sat me down at a table and she said, “Here's the deal. You have been told you're dying and given a date and now you're off on the dying mission. And I could die tomorrow, but I haven't been dulled. So I am living. And so the thing you have to do, you have to quit listening to the clock ticking and do what you need to do to take care of yourself, but then get on with living. Don't choose to die now. You're not dead yet.”

So it always struck me as pretty profound, you know: you're not dead now, so live. And so that was a significant moment for me going into this process of three-to-six months. And so I decided to take it to heart and live more fully. And I had an invitation from my sister to go across the country and do a program called Come Alive, of all things.

CrisMarie: Weren’t you two going to take a vacation together, but then somebody said, wait a minute, you two don't really know each other that well?

Susan: Exactly. So she had met my sister at another program and said, I would encourage you two to go do this program called Come Alive. And so my sister invited me to come, and we drove up to Canada to do this program on a little gulf island called Gabriola.

CrisMarie: Up in British Columbia, right?

Susan: In British Columbia. And that five days for me was transformative. My moment with Kubler-Ross kicked my ass, but Come Alive is what brought me back to life.

CrisMarie: And this is three months into your six month (I'm doing air quotes) “death sentence.”

Susan: Yes. Because we were on a waitlist for Come Alive at that time.

CrisMarie: You didn't tell anybody you were dying, right?

Susan: Yeah. I mean I think I did. As a matter of fact, Diane knew when I arrived. But when they put me on a waitlist, I'm sure I didn't say that. And it was a good thing because I went to talk to my doctor. They were not happy that I was not going to continue doing some sort of treatments.

They actually wanted to do some surgery to, at that time they called it debulking the tumors that were creating a lot of the pain and difficulty. And I said, no, I'm not going to have the surgery until after I do this program, which really upset my medical team. But I went to Haven, and the profound thing for me about Haven was there was a lot of emphasis on breathing and being in your body. And witnessing other people being more fully who they were and whatever conversations they were having. And a pathway for having real conversations that was like, oh, this is different. And I watched these people be in relationships in a way that I had never witnessed. As a matter of fact, I'll go back to my two tables. Because at one point in Come Alive, they wanted to do a healing circle for me.

And the two doctors who started this, Dr. Bennett Wong and Dr. Jock McKeen, they brought their medical practices and models to this healing circle. And they wanted to bring their friend, Father Jack, who's a Roman Catholic priest, and to do this healing circle. So there are like 24 participants in this program, and the team. And the last morning they brought in Father Jack. And Jack came in with his Catholic robes with holy oil and all hell broke loose in the room. I mean, people had some strong issues with the church.

CrisMarie: I'm Catholic, I know this to be true.

Susan: But I was stunned by just how much, there was just a lot of anger. That one, he was there and two, he was there in his robes. Well, I was sitting up against a wall, kind of like, Whoa, this is very uncomfortable.

CrisMarie: Because of the conflict that was happening.

Susan: Because of the conflict, and I could tell people were really angry, and then he did something that was so different. He said, look, I actually want to hear from you and we don't have to go forward with this healing circle yet. I actually want you to talk straight to me about why you're so angry with the church, and with me because I represent the church. Let's have this conversation.

CrisMarie: Wow, that's powerful.

Susan: And very different than my minister at the table at the camp. So, all of a sudden people were just ripping at him, but he was in the conversation. He'd actually acknowledged that, yeah, we can be quite violent.

There were things he said, it was this very heated but explosive conversation. But at the same time there was stuff getting in, because he stood right there in his own realness—exposed, real vulnerable, willing to hear.

CrisMarie: It sounds like he was actually willing to hear and acknowledge how people could get to their upsetness of the Catholic church.

Susan: Yes, and genuinely curious about what these people had to say and not defending, but listening. And it probably was a 45-minute experience. And then he said, how about we get back to this healing circle.

And I remember at that time I felt such a privilege, in some respects, to have seen these people be so real and raw and open and him to be so real and raw and open. And so the invitation was for me to sit in the circle and breathe and be open to each one of them who wanted to participate to come up and put this holy oil on my forehead, because that was the ritual that Father Jack was offering. Then Jock did some acupuncture, because that was his thing. And Ben was playing this beautiful music.

And I remember having this moment of like, I could be open to this or I could be in my fear and shutting down because it's too much, and I actually felt on a cellular level like, I am going to be open to this. I commit. And I remember sitting there breathing and kind of shaking and trembling and I could feel each person, I can still to this day kind of feel their fingers on my forehead and I don't remember much of what they said, but it wasn't about the religion.

They each had something they wanted to say to me and I let that in and I could feel my body shifting. And I could feel the part of me that wanted to shut down, but also the part of me that was, no, no, this is the time to be open. These people were open, you can be open. And it was such a powerful experience and I walked away from Come Alive. This was on the west coast and where I lived was on the east coast, and I came back home because they had scheduled my surgery two days after Come Alive to make sure that I would get it done. And my doctor came in and said we should probably maybe do a test or two first; she could tell something was different.

But we didn't do that. We did the surgery and they opened me up and there was no evidence of the cancer. So they took out my appendix, you know, good for insurance purposes.

CrisMarie: So slow down, because I think that's pretty powerful. You lived through this, so you kind of scoot by it, but the fact that they opened you up and the tumors were gone . . .

Susan: Yeah. I truly believe that in that moment it was a combination of opening and being willing to connect and be real and relate. And then in that particular moment of the healing circle also, just being as wide open as I could be, there was a transformation. And it occurred for me, and I believe it actually occurred for other people in that room based upon my connections and experience with them over time since then.

CrisMarie: I can just imagine people listening to this saying, oh, well, you probably never had cancer because I think isn't that kind of . . .

Susan: Yes, my doctors were like, we must have made a mistake. And it's like nine months—yeah. Okay. Well, I'm not so sure I'm going to go along with that belief, but I really have learned. A few years later, a woman was writing a book on spontaneous healing and experiences like that, and she contacted me because she wanted to interview me and I had real hesitation—like, no way. I don't want to be part of the book. And she's like, tell me why. And I said, well, because I know what's going to happen. You're going to talk to my doctors. There was not a pretty scene then. They were not particularly—well, the one woman was actually very supportive, but most of my medical team was like, no, nothing you've done makes any sense and we must've made a mistake and none of this ever happened. And I don't want to drag that up again. And she actually said to me, I just want you to know that of the people I've talked to, that part of the story has been consistent. I'd still love to have you be in the book. This is the thing that each person has said to me, that pulling up all those medical records, going back, is not something they want to do. And I get it.

CrisMarie: So your belief, and tell me if I’m wrong, is that sense of connection and alignment and openness is what transformed that cancer in your body.

Susan: Yeah, I would say that for me is where the root of our model, the concept of vulnerability and curiosity come in. in that moment, in my experience, was one of the most vulnerable things I've ever witnessed and been a part of. And then for me, it was also like that, to stay open and believe that I was worthy of each of these people coming forward and to allow for that.

CrisMarie: Especially since you had done such a lot of work to keep people away and not show up. And so there was almost like this internal alignment from the inside out, to be seen and connect.

Susan: The compartments definitely were coming down.

CrisMarie: Yeah. I've heard you talk about your belief about cancer cells, our own natural energy or cells that have turned against us to try to get her attention. Tell me where I’m wrong.

Susan: Yes, I came to believe like that. The other thing that Haven offered me and that was powerful was this idea of not trying to get rid of cancer, but becoming curious about it and becoming curious about why I had covered things up or why I didn't remember things, instead of being about making myself wrong or fighting it or whatever else, to become genuinely curious about it. So cancer is one of those things that we think of as some kind of foreign element, but it really is our own cells. We all have cancer cells and sometimes they go out of control.

And I'd like to think that that is a mechanism of creativity and explosion of creative expression that we could either listen to and be a part of or just try to get rid of and shove aside. And so I think there's information. I mean I think that about cancer, I think that about any symptom. It's not about I'm responsible for my cancer, it's that I have the ability to respond and be in a relationship to my cancer, as opposed to just shutting it off and getting rid of it. There may be a conversation there that's worth having

CrisMarie: Now, that wasn't the last bout of cancer that you had, right? So, one, you’re probably still in conflict with your family, you've got three months to live, they open you up, that cancer's gone. But what happened? What was the rest of the arc with your family, with your other health issues that happened?

Susan: Well, everything started to erupt. Actually, in terms of the stuff that I've remembered and dealing with things, that actually got worse after that. A lot more of the context of things that had happened when I was younger started to come forward. For me, I started to remember it more directly. I was back in where I grew up and trying in my own best way to confront it in being kind of threatened and all sorts of crazy stuff was going on. And I actually moved . . .

CrisMarie: A lot of conflict.

Susan: A lot of conflict. On the outside, not on the inside any more. And I ended up moving to the west coast. I had the opportunity to come back and be at The Haven and take a whole series of programs. And as I began to work through my own history and unearth it, I also did get three other cancers, following up on that over the next few years.

CrisMarie: These were different ones, right?

Susan: Different, and I had to deal with each of them in different ways. And what I loved about Ben and Jock was they were very much traditional doctors. Get the treatments, do what medical model can do best, which is get rid of these tumors, take them out surgically. Have chemo, do radiation. And then if there's more residual work to be done, that's when you do it.

CrisMarie: So both attaching or going through the western medical model to get your treatments, but also looking at what's the underlying cause and how can I unravel this? Are you willing to share the three other ones that you got?

Susan: Well, I can really only tell you there was the non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, there was a brainstem tumor. And there was ovarian cancer and then there was an optic nerve tumor. The optic nerve tumor was 1989 and that was the last.

CrisMarie: So it was from ‘83 to ‘89 that you were really dealing with all these different types of cancers. So what happened in the end with your relationships? Maybe it even took longer with your family?

Susan: Oh, yeah, that took considerably longer. There was definitely a fissure in the planet for me around family and community that started at the point at which, you know, it's like you'd be better off dead. That definitely took me on a trajectory away from my family. Even my sister to some degree, even though she was the one who got me to Haven, so we had some contact. But I think it was really difficult for my family because it really pulled me away from any of them.

I have another sister, and my parents, and I just couldn't deal with them. I actually believed that I would never get back in connection with them. There was about a 10-year span before doing my marriage and family therapy degree—I did go back to get my master's—I was encouraged to do a family conference. They actually gave me permission not to do it because of my history, but I decided to do it and I brought my family to Haven. And my sister who had come to Come Alive and her husband came, my mom and dad came. My other sister did not choose to come to that.

I later learned just how painfully difficult it was. When I separated from my family, I separated from her, too, and I think she did not understand that. We have since reconnected, but I didn't have a clue how painful that was until much later. But when we came together at this family conference—I also knew Ben, jock and Joanne, and you may think they were holding a space for me to show up but they were like, no, we are holding a space for your parents. They're the ones who are taking the biggest risk coming here and we're going to hold you to the fire to show up. I actually had this belief that what would be the most powerful thing about that meeting with my family would be that I would finally get to tell my side of the story and be heard.

And I did. There was room for each of us to share what had happened. But what was most powerful was when I heard my mom tell her side of the story. And for the first time I just felt what it must've been like for her to have me suddenly come up with these things that in her mind were just crazy. You know, it didn't make any sense. And instead of having to figure out who is right or wrong, I just had compassion and empathy for the person I saw sitting in front of me telling me a very different story than my own.

And I think it was because at that point, this wasn't about safety. I wasn't at risk, they weren't at risk. I could hear it from the lens of just another human being who did not seem to know that anything was wrong and what it was like to hear a totally different story. And I was, I was moved by my ability to have empathy. At this point I could really get it. I got that this is what it means to be able to sit with someone and not have to be right or wrong, but to just hear them and hear their story for what it is. And that is when healing occurs. And I had that profound experience. I mean, other people had offered me that, but it was the first time I'd ever been able to offer it in such a contentious place with my mom, where normally I would have fought, and I didn't.

CrisMarie: So that's the beauty.

Susan: That's the beauty of conflict.

CrisMarie: So her willingness to be vulnerable and say the impact of your behavior on her when she couldn't really make sense of what you were doing, and your willingness to be curious and have empathy for her created space for both of you to exist. Not necessarily agree, it sounds like.

Susan: No. You know, Ben and Jack had told me that for years: we’re not invested in whose story is right or wrong. We are invested in you because your story is valid for you. And her story is valid for her. We want to create the space where you guys can hear each other, because if you can get there, this no longer is about right or wrong. When you're thinking safety, maybe you do have to do that with children or whatever. But when we're adults, usually that's not what's happening.

CrisMarie: So often we stay in those little kid roles, though, with those bigger people in our lives.

Susan: And it is like in any given situation, is this really a matter of safety right now? And if it is, then yes, take care of that. But if it's not, then have the capacity to listen to someone.

CrisMarie: Wow. So this is a really powerful story, Susan, and I love that you were willing to, because I don't think you thought you were going to go here. So thank you.

So that happened in the 90s, and now for the last 25 years you've been working with people. Just say a little bit about how you've taken that and helped other people see the beauty in conflict, whether that's working with couples, whether it's working with business teams or even individuals as you coach.

Susan: Well, I think what I walked away with when I got my health and my life back was a commitment to not let a story create so much pain and suffering in my life or someone else's life. And that relationships, our ability to relate and really connect in any kind of way, shape or form depends on our ability to be curious and vulnerable. You know, to show up and expose ourselves potentially to danger, that vulnerability concept, and to be curious, even if the story is radically different than my own. Because that allows me to see the world from a much, much broader perspective.

CrisMarie: Well, and I think even really with that piece you're referencing with your mom, is not just see her story, but feel her pain. That piece I think transcends even the story part to the human connection.

Susan: Yes. I went on to lead programs up at The Haven for years because they're so profound. And why to me they're so profound is because people from all walks of life with very different stories come together and experience that opportunity. And since then I've become even more profoundly interested in helping people—what I call tap back into their mojo. Because that's what I walked away with, my mojo back intact, so to speak. I had my heart and my spark and it wasn't going to go out again.

And I think so many times, life and the world around us takes our heart and spark and dampens it. And so I'm very committed to helping people get back in touch with their heart and spark and be able to have that shine in relationship to another person.

CrisMarie: I think we talk about this in our books, both The Beauty of Conflict for Couples and The Beauty of Conflict. We do two day offsites with corporate teams, but you also do Find Your Mojo in Montana and Couples Mojo. You’ve incorporated horses; can you just say a teeny bit about that?

Susan: When I got the opportunity to work with horses, what was so profound to me about horses, is horses are inherently herd animals. They are relational. They are as vulnerable, more vulnerable. than we are.

CrisMarie: They have no fangs.

Susan: They have no fangs, they're prey. They can run, but that's it. And what really makes them survive over all the years they've survived is the way in which they're the masters of emotional intelligence. They read energy, they pick up energy, they're constantly in natural herds communicating with each other. And so I had the opportunity to do some work with Koelle Simpson, who does Equus coaching. And it was very powerful for me to begin to bring what I had learned from that work into the work that I also had learned from The Haven and incorporate it into my own way of being in the world. And it was so nicely blended. And I love the opportunities now that I get to bring people out to the horses, because sometimes it's just nice. Horses aren't storytellers, so they don't get caught up in the stories. But they are powerful magnets of energy and something happens for someone when they're around a horse. And for me it's been a place to be able to be more openhearted, and I find other people get back into that openhearted place around horses.

CrisMarie: Which is really the magic that you experienced with the Come Alive that helped transform your health.

Susan: Yes. So instead of taking people to two tables, dinner tables, I take people out to the horses.

CrisMarie: Excellent. Well thank you for this interview. Is there anything else that you would like to add on to why the beauty of conflict, or how your history has impacted how you show up today? And I know you've gone through huge transformations around that.

Susan: Well, I love the work that we get to do. And it's kind of interesting, the corporate world sort of reminds me of the camp director’s table—there’s power plays, there's a lot of politics going on, a lot of silence, sometimes. And it reminds me of that particular table. And then we also get to do this deeply personal work with couples and with people about their lives. And it's a little more like the table that my mom sat at. People would show up differently. And I am very excited that I have the opportunity to do this work to change the conversation.

CrisMarie: I think what we do, tell me if you disagree, we take what's under the table and put it on those two tables.

Susan: Yeah, and you still may be able to have a good dinner while you're coming through it.

CrisMarie: Okay. Well, thank you Susan. I really appreciate your willingness to be so vulnerable and share your story—it's powerful.

And we hope you enjoyed it as well. If you have any questions or comments, you can certainly write in and you'll have the show notes. Anything else we should add?

Susan: No, that sounds good.

CrisMarie: Okay. Take care.


CrisMarie Campbell and Susan Clarke

Coaches, Business Consultants, Speakers and Authors of The Beauty of Conflict

CrisMarie and Susan work leaders and teams, couples in business, and professional women.

They help turnaround dysfunctional teams into high performing, cohesive teams who trust each other, deal with differences directly, and have clarity and alignment on their business strategy so they create great results.

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