Living Life With Less Regret: Paul Merrill and the Boston Retreat

Paul MerrillSeven years ago, Paul Merrill completed BayNVC’s Leadership Program and began teaching for Brooklyn NVC, where he was a founding board member. He is now a trainer with NVC Boston and a third-year participant in Mediate Your Life’s yearlong immersion program. I talked with Paul about the retreat content and about who he predicts will be drawn to nonviolent communication. In our interview, Paul also spoke thoughtfully about NVCM’s teaching philosophy, changes in the immersion training, and changes the training has brought to his own life.

Mary Sitze: You teach the principles of NVC and you continue to study them through Mediate Your Life’s immersion program. Why did you re-enroll in a program that you have completed two times already?

Paul Merrill: The program offers me skills to live life with less regret. It has increased my self-connection and awareness rapidly. So I have a greater ability to choose. When I see a reaction coming up, I can say, “I don’t want to amplify that feeling of sadness and despair. I want to amplify this feeling of hope and happiness.” As I increase my mastery of these practices, I also get more clear about where, when and how to apply them. Having these tools at my fingertips makes life more enjoyable, and it’s gratifying to pass on what I’ve learned to other people.

MS: Can you talk a little bit about what it has meant to be in front of the classroom during the trainings?

PM: I’m really enjoying the integrity I experience from John and Ike. I love the way they walk their talk. Last year, they shared their vision of an Mediate Your Life learning community. Now they are providing that opportunity to us. Meanwhile, they are honing the presentation skills of advanced students so that our participants will have the best possible experience. For me to be willing to return for a third year, the opportunity to teach was crucial. I can see that I have something to offer. It’s gratifying to hear first-year participants say that the presence of advanced students improved their experience immeasurably. We’re all working with the same material and yet we’re each coming to it at a different level. Everyone is comfortably challenged.

MS: The weekend retreats are designed to offer a taste of the immersion experience. Who do you expect to sign up for the Boston retreat and what can they expect?

PM: This retreat is for anyone who accepts that conflict is just a part of life and wants a better way to deal with it. There will be parents who want an alternative to the criticism that they’re delivering to their kids, and people who want more closeness in their intimate relationships. It’s ideal training for coaches, therapists and lawyers, but the skills apply to any life situation. For example, are you upset? If yes, you can do the self-connection practice. Are you judging someone else? Time for the enemy image process. Or are you regretting an action you did or did not do? Then it is time to mourn, celebrate and learn. The weekend will increase your capacity for ease when you believe you are being criticized and attacked, even when the critic is yourself.  And you’ll also learn to have more understanding when it is you who is judging. In the retreat, we’ll repeatedly use role-play with a conflict that you choose so you can see it and feel it from multiple sides.

MS: Speaking of roles, how has your Mediate Your Life training affected your role as the father of a 25-year-old son?

PM: The short answer is what my son said: “Dad doesn’t shout anymore.” It’s a bit embarrassing and it’s also true. Now I get less anxious and angry. A few years ago, my son made a choice that created a lot of grief for me. After I brought up this difficult topic—instead of pretending it didn’t matter or hadn’t happened— our relationship got so much better. I had the skills to express myself so that he could hear what was important to me, and also he also knew that I had heard his side of the story.  Since then, he calls. He includes me in what he’s thinking and doing. He wants me in his life. He’s compassionate to me. I believe that my Mediate Your Life skills are “rubbing off” on him even though he’s not the one studying this. You can change the conversation with your kids even if you are the only one changing.

MS: In the past, you’ve spoken of how your training has also “rubbed off” on your relationship with your own father.

PM: My dad typically uses metaphors or ideas to express how he is feeling. This used to annoy me because it was confusing to me. Here’s an example. A couple of years ago I was repairing the family’s summer house. We needed to pour a new concrete floor in the garage. I had the garage emptied so we could do this work. When he saw this, my father exclaimed, “You eviscerated the garage!” as in “you tore the intestines out.” For a  moment I was angry about this exaggeration, but with my trainings I was able to translate his sentence to see the heart of what he was wanting. The “eviscerated” garage was really an expression of how much he enjoys continuity and predictability. I can translate that back to him and then ask, “Is this what you’re saying?”  How sad it would be if I lost any chance for a better connection with my parent because I was stuck waiting for him to change.  In our conversations now, I can translate for myself and empathize with him fluently. He looks so happy to be heard and understood. And it makes me happy to see that I can change our conversation in a way that brings us closer together.

MS: It seems clear that you have undergone some significant personal changes through your training.

PM: I agree. Twelve years after the fact, I still remember how excited I was in my first conversation with someone who had NVC skills. It was so unfamiliar to suddenly understand myself with such clarity, and I liked it a lot. I had a sense it could help me in my intimate relationships. Now I initiate difficult conversations, I bring up things that I’m uneasy about, sometimes even before I understand the core conflict. In the old days, I would have stayed silent, thinking that I shouldn’t express unless I had a solution. These days I like having skills that contribute to connection. I have more hope now about “living life with less regret.” I’m less attached to believing I know the “truth” and I’m less hypnotized by my judgments. Time stuck in judgment is life wasted. When I have more understanding of what’s really happening within me and you, then I’m less likely to wish, years or hours from now, that I’d done something different. Life’s better when we can see more.