It is difficult to express how much gratitude I feel for all of the wonderful lessons and reminders about human potential and human connection that I have received. Most recently, these lessons have come during my time at the Ridley-Tree Cancer Center in Santa Barbara.

The care I have received there is nothing short of angelic – I get teary whenever I think or talk about it. Although I would not choose to have leukemia, I can honestly say that it has been worth it for the opportunity to witness and learn so much about kindness, love, humility, and commitment from the people who work there. I have many, many stories about grace, warmth, and professionalism from my interactions with the volunteers, the receptionists, the scheduler, the nurses, and the doctors.

There is also something special about the eye contact, smiles, frowns, and nods of recognition between all of us who sit in our padded recliners for hours at a time with plastic tubes connected to beeping machines and bags of cutting edge medication. There is an unspoken kinship that I find heartwarming.

Today’s lesson? Flexibility. My nurse put in my iv and it looked good. And then it didn’t. It just wouldn’t allow fluid to flow. She apologized (unnecessary but appreciated) and then she said “My hypothesis is that it is up against a valve, but I can’t be sure.”

I was immediately struck by how easily she acknowledged the limits of what she could actually know. In a world where rigid, declarative, (and often divisive) statements fill the public dialog, I found it remarkably refreshing to hear this. Isn’t most of our thinking really a hypothesis – a guess about what is going on based on current circumstances and past experience? While acknowledging this might feel like a small thing, my hypothesis is that it can make a huge difference – to our relationships, our quality of life, and even our physical health.

When we adhere rigidly to our thinking and beliefs, we are more likely to engage the self-defensive survival functions of our nervous system. This can lead directly to unnecessary stress and anxiety, conflict with others, and negative impacts on our mood and the way our body functions. On the other hand, psychological flexibility is good for us.

In my workshops, I often ask people “how many of you have done damage to a relationship in an effort to be right?” This is almost always followed by laughter, nodding heads, and many raised hands. I can certainly count myself in this group. It may not be a shock to find out that there is significant research to support the value of flexibility, openness, listening, and compromise in healthy relationships.

 

Some simple methods for practicing flexibility:

My Story Is

You can acknowledge that your perspective is a perspective – that your thinking is your interpretation of what is happening. There are simple phrases you can use to do this:

“my story is…”

“my hypothesis is…”

“I am thinking that…”

“I believe that…”

“I am wondering if…”

 

Tell Me More

You can notice the urge to correct someone else, fix their issues, or shift the conversation back to your perspective. And, instead, you can say “tell me more.” This simple phrase can unearth a lot of information about how the other person sees the world. It is an effective way to create a nice connection with someone in a short period of time.

 

I Get It, And…

The word “but” automatically creates conflict between two perspectives. Using the phrase “I get it, and…” can be a great practice for recognizing someone else’s viewpoint without letting go of your own. It allows you to be both accepting and assertive rather than passive or aggressive.

 

Let’s try it

When someone has a different idea of how to do things, you can notice any resistance you feel, and go with their idea anyway. Unless they are suggesting doing harm to someone, there is a good chance that you will learn something from trying a different approach. In an ongoing relationship, this is a powerful way to build trust and mutual respect.

 

The poem was written in the chair while getting treatment.