Finding Riverlogic in Conflict and Communication: Interview with Denise Blanc, MA

Riverlogic book cover
Denise Blanc, MA

Denise Blanc, MA teaches, coaches, and writes at the intersection of mindfulness, emotional intelligence, and conflict transformation. Her new book is Riverlogic: Tools to Transform Resistance and Create Flow in all of our Relationships.

In this interview, Denise discusses how she drew inspiration from Pema Chödrön, other Buddhist teachers, and her diverse professional training in writing Riverlogic, and how we can bring openness and fluidity into our communication, relationships, and lives.

What inspired you to write Riverlogic?

My inspiration to write Riverlogic began several years after having named my consulting practice “River Logic Partners.” The name originated from something Pema Chödrön said in a talk she gave many years back. She had described how we sometimes operate with that she called “rock logic” where we become rigid, righteous, and fundamentalist in our thinking. We are immoveable – kind of like a rock. She contrasted this with what she called “water logic,” where we become more open, adaptable, and fluid. I played with water words and decided to name my newly formed business “River Logic Partners.”

Pema Chödrön contrasted rigid, righteous “rock logic” with open, adaptable, and fluide “water logic.”

Upon taking the name “Riverlogic,” I felt I needed to unpack what river logic meant for me and my work. The power of the metaphor was an invitation to explore interpersonal communication, leadership, which have been my primary work throughout my career as a coach, facilitator, and mediator – but now through the lens of the river metaphor.

Since I wanted to explore how we can make the shift from being rigid to being open and adaptable, the metaphor of the river provided a provocative and powerful model since the river overcomes endless obstacles, adapting to whatever route proves possible to reach their destination – and then rivers are motivated to flow!

My exploration led into me to write about 20 blog articles, which I unrealistically had thought could just easily become a book. It was not that easy and took me about five more years! My goal was to write a small, pithy book which was practical, and that provided tools and practices but also inspiration.

I looked to mindfulness practices, studies in neuroscience, emotional intelligence, and master communicators.

In my search for how we can move from rigid (rocklogic) to open and adaptable (riverlogic), I looked to mindfulness practices, studies in neuroscience, and emotional intelligence for answers. I was also on the lookout for master communicators who modeled the qualities of Riverlogic – those people who could communicate across wide differences, and who were open, fluid, and adaptable – even when they disagreed. I found them from listening to podcasts like On Being, powerful teachers like Nelson
Mandela, but also people in my life who impressed me with their skills and who I chose to interview for the book. (Several were senior Buddhist teachers.) I began to feel a sense of urgency while writing this book given the increased polarization and interpersonal toxicity that was metastasizing in our culture.

So much of this book is the interface with what I have learned about communication throughout my career, and the beautiful metaphor of the river which provided the inspiration and instruction to explore these communication and relationship challenges in a new way – a much more invitational and natural way. The river words such as eddies, rapids, undercurrents just don’t hold the baggage associated with the word “conflict,” and the river words flow, currents, and confluence encourage us to take a breath.

How did meditation and the Buddhist teachings play a role in what Riverlogic became?

The more I explored the river and the qualities of water, the more resonance I began to see with Buddhist teachings of impermanence, and the meditation practices of presence. Even the word “current,” which defines the movement of water, also means “now.” It is this quality of presence that I understood to be the foundation for Riverlogic – and of Buddhist practice. The famous ancient Greek quote that I share in my book, “You can never step in the same river twice,” has Buddhist undertones and resembles Pema Chödrön’s quote that “Each moment is an opportunity to take a fresh start.”

The quality of our communication is only equal to the quality of our presence.

I make a radical statement in my book, “The quality of our communication is only equal to the quality of our presence.” By holding presence, we become stronger listeners and more able to lean into hard conversations. With the quality of presence, we learn to listen underneath the words for feeling, values, and fears. Our presence also allows us to listen internally and notice what it is going on within our body – our sensations, our feelings. And it is this quality of presence that allows us to hold space for people who are suffering – to hold empathy and practice compassion – which is the essence of the Buddhist path. Having a meditation practice, supports our ability with inner listening and tracking.

None of this is easy, so having a regular practice is helpful – along with a practice of self-compassion. With presence we can interrogate our biases and judgments which interfere with our ability to listen. Although our meditation practice can provide a solid foundation to develop deep listening skills and presence, we will also need strong intention and the willingness to take this on. And we will need to be gentle with ourselves – since all of this is hard, especially when we become triggered, and our nervous system is dysregulated.

None of this is easy, so having a regular meditation practice is helpful – along with a practice of self-compassion.

Several of the people I chose to interview in my book are Buddhist teachers, chosen because they model so beautifully the qualities of presence and listening. I also provide Buddhist teachings throughout to instruct how to be in healthy relationship. I share the Buddha’s instructions to the lute player who came to him for meditation instruction. He was instructed to string his lute “not too tight and not too loose but, instead, find the middle path.” I share this practical wisdom when discussing the importance of boundaries. And also encouragement from Zen Roshi Joan Halifax to hold a “strong back and a soft front” which becomes a helpful metaphor in being able to soften to others without letting go of your values. I write in my book, “In order to be open to influence, we don’t need to give up what is intrinsic to who or what we are. We do, however, require strong enough boundaries that are both grounded and fluid in order to listen to another person’s point of view, without letting go of what is most intrinsic to us. This means being open-minded and willing to take a stand.”

Embedded throughout the book, is the encouragement to be with what is, to feel our emotions, and learn from them, and allow them to transform or be released. These same skills were taught by Chögyam Trungpa who addressed what we now call “emotional intelligence” long before the term was ever coined by psychologist and author Daniel Goleman.

What other resources and traditions are you drawing on?

This book is a distillation from much that I have studied throughout my life. I draw extensively on my training in Conflict Studies and Mediation, Emotional Intelligence, Mindfulness, studies in Neuroscience and my Buddhist practice. I highlight case studies from my leadership and coaching practice to unpack the principles that I teach. I also sought out and highlighted those who modelled the qualities of Riverlogic – specifically those who can listen respectfully across wide differences without letting go of what matters most to them – and who are willing to adapt and change depending on circumstances. These people are often called “bridge-builders,” and provided me inspiration and encouragement that we can build skills to address a changing and challenging world.

Especially in times of intense stress, we need to learn how to self-regulate our nervous system.

Since learning to be open, flexible, and fluid is not intuitive, and is especially difficult in times of intense anger, anxiety, and stress, there is the need for each of us to learn how to self-regulate our nervous system. I share some simple practices from my background in Somatic studies, like focusing on breath, noticing hands – anything that allows us to anchor so that we can keep regaining center whenever we find ourselves thrown off. We can learn to do these things even when the other person is not open or willing.

What is the core message that you are hoping to communicate?

Anyone can make the shift from rocklogic to riverlogic if they hold the intention to do so.

I would emphasize that anyone can make the shift from rocklogic to riverlogic if they hold the intention to do so. And if we wish to build, deepen, and repair our relationships, I believe that making this shift is essential. The skills are available to any of us who would like to live with more civility, openness, and empathy. To make the shift, however, we need self-awareness, new practices, and the willingness to interrupt our unhealthy patterns. We especially need to work on rewiring our nervous system which is wired to defend whenever we feel threatened. Hard conversations, people who challenge our core values feel threatening to our survival – and so we defend. But those who are willing to become self-aware, to self-regulate, and deepen in emotional intelligence we can overcome this ancient conditioning to live with more care, equanimity and skill in our challenging world. This requires commitment and ongoing practice.

What is one teaching or principle from Riverlogic that we can incorporate into our lives right away?

The practice that is most simple and portable is pausing and taking three deep breaths.

The practice that is most simple and portable is the practice of the pause and taking three deep breaths. If we can slow down and interrupt the flood of thoughts, emotions with a pause and by taking three conscious breaths, we have the capacity to interrupt and realign towards our purpose. Slowing down and pausing, allows us to feel and notice. We feel what is going on inside us and we start to notice what is going on around us. Just this simple practice can support us become more aware, empathic, and responsive.

What have you learned through the process of writing Riverlogic and sharing it with the world?

First, it has been helpful to distill what I have learned from my many trainings into one small book. I found the process both challenging and intriguing as I discovered threads that connected across the many disciplines. Discovering the lens of the river, provided me a new way to explore life’s many interpersonal challenges.

I discovered how well the river analogy continues to work in communication and conflict.

Second, I discovered how well the analogy continues to work. It seems immediately accessible to people – to my colleagues sophisticated in the conflict world, and to anyone just challenged by the complexities of the human condition and struggling to communicate. I notice people seem to love to use the river words when describing their challenges to me. I now hear people saying, “when I hit the rapids I …” or “I am noticing some undercurrents between us.” By viewing our beliefs as “eddies,” it somehow makes them more workable. We can all learn to navigate the river, like the river guides I describe in my book – of course though, it will take training.

If we can look at life like a river, we can expect there to be rapids, eddies, undercurrents. Instead of dreading them, we can develop the skills to navigate them.

Since writing my book, I have also learned to work with conflict differently. I feel that the metaphor of the river provides a more natural way to view conflict; language, as mentioned, that is accessible and that normalizes what is typically seen as so aversive. If we can look at life like a river, we can expect there to be rapids, eddies, undercurrents. Instead of dreading them or avoiding them, we can develop the skills to navigate them.

I have also been able to see beyond the incredible difficulties of our times and see glimmers of possibilities. My research has brought me into contact with many inspiring stories. I have discovered that a plethora of bridge building organizations are developing all over the country – and many people are choosing to skill up to become bridge builders in their communities, religious organization, and schools. My hope is that we are moving towards what Buddhist teacher, Joanna Macy, calls the “great turning” where we adapt a more life sustaining approach to living.

Learn more about Riverlogic here:

This article is part of the Community Blog, which offers reflections by Shambhala community members on their individual journeys in meditation and spirituality.

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2024-05-25 21:25:16