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Gregg's Story: Chapter 1

Updated: May 12

Given that I have invited you to join me in the journey of personal transformation to become a more conscious leader, I wanted to share with you the story of how my own journey began. What follows is something I wrote in 2007. It is the opening chapter of an unpublished piece entitled: Working as Though People Matter: An Experiment in Living Nonviolent Communication in the Workplace …


When I started writing this down, I thought it was a story about a business, about how we resuscitated a business back to life. But I now realize it’s a lot more personal than that. It’s about me, and how I was resuscitated back to life. The business is a major supporting character to this story, though, as are the people within that business, but the story only really makes sense in the context of my own life—my struggles, my choices, my pain & my joy.

It’s a story about how I lost passion for my business, for my work. How it lost its meaning & its relevance to my life, except to bring home a paycheck. For the first eight years, it was vibrantly exciting for me: full of learning, challenge, growth. I was a co-creator of the business in 1985, and I was excited to be in the field of teaching software technology to businesses. The IBM PC had come out only a few years before and the field seemed wide open with possibility—it begged for creativity with few rules of limitation. And it embodied my love for teaching. 

But after about 8 years, I began to feel listless at work, distracted by other things that seemed to hold more energy for me. I felt a tug on me, a call to do other things.

I often dreaded being there, and yet it was terribly difficult to separate myself from it. First because of greed and hope—I wanted to squeeze more money out of it before I sold it so that my family would have more financial resources for whatever was next. Later, I stayed because of fear—I couldn’t imagine how to make the income I was making doing anything else. It was what I knew.

So rather than listen to the call to do other things, I chose to stay in the business for three or four more years, but that turned into 6 years, and then 8 years, and then 10. I have regret over making that choice (or series of choices) to keep going with the business. But at the time, it seemed to make sense. “Success” always seemed to be just another year or two away.

A series of wake-ups calls

Amidst all this, a couple of significant events happened that seemed to wake up that passion again, that began to call me back to life.

In December of 1993 my brother Frank died of cancer at the age of 49. His death, unlike any I had experienced before, caused me to grieve deeply and shattered several of my worldviews. I became much more acutely aware of my own mortality. I wondered, if it had been me who died, would I have celebrated that I lived my life fully? I knew the answer was ‘no.’ 

I empathized deeply for my widowed sister-in-law, imagining what I would want to happen if it had been my wife widowed instead. Grieving with her and her family, and giving support to her was an important part of my own healing. My business, to which I had dedicated so much of my personal energies and emotions, suddenly became less important, less significant.

A couple of years later, another event, small but poignant, shook me. My wife, Lisa, had come by my office briefly to talk, and as she was leaving she paused at the door and turned back to look at me.  I remember vividly the words she spoke at that moment: 

“I don’t like to visit you at work. The person I see here is not the person I know. I don’t like what I see.” 

And then she left.

The words connected me to my own disappointment that when I went to work only a piece of “me” was present. What I valued so much in my life—authenticity, connection, mutuality, compassion, exploring—were not part of my work life. I left them at the door when I entered and put on a costume to fit my role of “President & CEO.” Worst of all, I lived in the costume so much that I began to lose connection with who I was.

These two events stand out as my wake-up call—a poignant awareness that I wasn’t living my values at work. In fact, I wasn’t enjoying work and wasn’t sure what I really did enjoy.

I began to take time away from work to explore what I did think was meaningful, what I was passionate about. And I began to explore how I could live my values at work. The path was ultimately a spiritual path, but there were huge pieces that related to how I wanted to work.

I was distraught with the paternalistic approach that was so common among the business managers/owners that I knew, and from whom I had learned my own management skills. I was never comfortable with the “command and control” approach to manipulating people to get what I wanted using punishments & rewards. I wanted to work with people who were engaged in their work & with each other; I wanted a partnership relationship with those I worked with, not domination over them. Since I had essentially no role models for such an approach, I was continually seeking sources of inspiration and advice. Among those that I turned to were Roger Fisher & William Ury (Getting to Yes), Jon Katzenbach & Douglas K. Smith (The Wisdom of Teams), Robert Greenleaf (Servant Leadership), Peter Block (Stewardship), Sharon Drew (Selling with Integrity), and Thomas Gordon (Leader Effectiveness Training).

An experience that changes everything

It was in December 2001 that I discovered Marshall Rosenberg’s book, Nonviolent Communication. Upon reading the book, I resonated with the concepts & experiences presented, and I was eager to experience the process directly from Marshall. So I plunged into the deep end and signed up for a 9-day International Intensive Training (IIT) in Puerto Rico in June 2002. 

I had no idea that this experience would shift the course of my life.

There were three facilitators at the training, led by Marshall, and about 35 participants who lived together for 9 days and focused on learning & living the consciousness of NVC. Other than reading the book, this was my first experience of NVC. While I had been excited by the book, I was awed at witnessing the beauty and the power of the empathic connection. And I was inspired that I had a way of dealing with situations where in the past I thought my only options were to submit, fight or flee.

I was so moved by this experience at the IIT that I arrived home with two clarities: first, I was going to do whatever it took to learn and embody this amazing process (especially empathic listening); and second, I wanted to share this process with others.

It was with the people of my business that I shared it first.

About two weeks after I returned from this 9-day training event, I sent an email announcement to the staff with this message:

“As I mentioned at our last Quarterly Meeting Day, I believe that Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is a tool that can enhance the environment and culture at RRTC, moving us further away from a “dominator” culture and more toward a “partnership” culture.  As most of you know, I recently attended a 9-day training session, and I would like to share with you, first, some of my experiences at that training session, and secondly, some of the basic concepts and skills of NVC.  I think this might be most easily done through a series of lunch-hour presentations.  I’d like to start tomorrow (Wed) from noon to 1pm in the conference room.  Everyone is invited, but come only if you genuinely want to.  I’ll bring a couple of pizzas for those who come.  I’ll also have copies of the book Nonviolent Communication for those who want them.”

Essentially everyone from the office chose to attend the sessions, and it was the beginning of a two-year experiment to integrate needs-based language, structures and consciousness into my business.

As a final note to this opening chapter of my journey of transformation, I want to highlight something that happened during one of these sessions that, for me, illustrates the potency and the possibility that this process can create …

In the midst of a session, I noticed that one of the staff, a man in the sales department who was standing in the back of the room, had tears on his face and his body quietly shook as he cried silently. 

After the meeting, he came up to me and asked if we could talk. We went to my office and closed the door, and he began talking about his life-long struggle to connect with his father. I realized from my recent training that what he needed was simply my presence. So he talked and cried, and I sat with him, occasionally saying what I guessed he might be feeling or the need that mattered to him. 

This went on for 30 minutes or so, and then I noticed him visibly relax in his chair. He started to laugh a little, almost giddy, and said “I can’t believe I’ve been sitting in my boss’ office for I don’t know how long, crying and sharing things about my childhood.” 

I asked him if he’d like to hear how I was feeling. When he said “yes,” I shared with him how grateful I was because I valued his authenticity & openness, and how moved I was at the depth of connection that we were experiencing. I was also touched by the trust that he extended to me, especially as his “boss.” 

We each laughed at the unusualness of the moment, we celebrated the richness of the connection, and ended the encounter with a hug—both of us changed by the event.

Wow! What a radically new experience for me, especially in the workplace. I celebrated having the growing capacity and awareness to meet this moment in such a new way. A way that nurtures human connection, trust and solidarity—qualities that I want in my workplace. 

And I was beginning to discover that there may be benefits of which we are totally unaware of in the moment. In this case, some months later, this employee expressed his gratitude to me. As it turns out, he had been struggling for months with thoughts of suicide, and he said that our encounter had connected him to something very alive within himself and inspired him with hope to deal with the challenges that confronted him.

Coming alive is a beautiful thing!

"Tell me, what is it you plan to do With your one wild and precious life." —Mary Oliver, The Summer Day

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