Harmony and Discord: Coughing It Up to Deepen Harmony

Thursday 01.02.18

This is the second in a three-part series on Harmony. You may find it helpful to start with the first.

If there is courage in the heart, there will be beauty in the character.
If there is beauty in the character, there will be harmony in the home.
If there is harmony in the home, there will be order in the nation.
When there is order in the nation, there will peace in the world. ~ Confucius

In the first Harmony blog, I ended with the idea of staying with discomfort. When things get dis-harmonious, or the melody is hard to trace, one of the first practices I’ve found productive is learning to “sit with it.”  

Just like Confucius says, this takes courage. For me it the only way I find my heart. If i want to discern my  true voice–not the one my culture has taught me is the right song to sing–it requires I move slowly. As slowly as a snail on a hot day, sometimes as haltingly as an eight-year-old practicing scales. Staying, listening carefully, and tuning in is key.  

But staying isn’t the only practice I’ve learned. When the music gets dissonant, I have learned this great gift from nature, the “cough it up.”

What is coughing it up? It’s when you listen and speak from your heart. And, boy, does it take courage. The practice of coughing it up not only develops clarity of character but, connecting back to our friend Confucius, it truly creates deep harmony in home, work and play.

Think about that fur ball that a cat needs to get rid of, something that is nagging and unhealthy to hold onto. The “staying with it” practice helps me notice the furball in need of bringing up. That’s the snail rolling over a hot piece of gravel. Coughing it up is the next step which creates space for a new conversation, a new melody.

If it’s so healthy for us why don’t we all do it? For me the desire to be liked, blend in, please authority or be politically correct can keep me from speaking up, even if it would be more genuine, and better for my health.

It’s important to note that there are all kinds of coughing it up. Certainly, there are the “challenging messages” like letting a coworker know that you feel “pinched or pinned in.” Equally stretching for me are the cough-ups that require heart-vulnerability: “I love you” comes to mind. Or genuinely requesting a boundary be honored or expressing admiration. All of these messages, when brought to the fore, create new conversations and melody.

As I reflected on this (very busy) last week, I noticed that the periods of deepest harmony came after coughing it up. At a client’s office, the CEO to the COO. Me to a colleague. A client to her spouse. Only once we lay all cards on the table and are true to ourselves can we move forward. As far as I can tell when we  create the space to be true to our own melodies, we will build resonance for shared harmony.

Coughing it up can be like exhaling: the majority of the exhale is CO2, a gas that is poisonous to our system, but critical to the environment around us. The trees are thirsty for the very thing that is noxious to us! Let it out. The opposite of coughing it up is stuffing it down, and there’s more than enough science about metabolizing stress to acknowledge that stuffing is dangerous. Remember, if you stuff it, you get sick.

At the opposite end of the spectrum: coughing it up and throwing up are two different things. Coughing it up happens in your own space with the desire to gain perspective and create something new with greater workability. It’s a furball. Throwing up leaves little room or desire for inspection. Throwing up can appear in the guise of defensiveness, efficiency, or staying safe, or even screaming, which sadly I have been known to do. This simply leads to a bigger mess, whereas coughing up leads to innovation.

Making it Real: The Power of Discord

The first reason to cough something up is that these things do not belong inside. When a cat has a hairball, he coughs it up. When an owl has a pellet, she coughs it up. Little patches of fur left on the inside can become big problems when left unaddressed. The second reason is that coughing it up can shift you from knowing one small truth to knowing many more in a wider scope. I was recently reminded of this at a c-suite meeting for a company that I help lead.  Here’s how it occurred for me:

The head of sales and marketing (CMO) is a big man with a huge personality. Socially we have a blast together. He’s passionate about his work, intense and funny and energetic. At a recent meeting, we got into a bit of a tussle. The new client revenue year over year, was miniscule, a number that I oversee. The CMO presented it in a purely math-based way, true but those numbers didn’t capture the whole picture of client growth and movement, and I said so. I proclaimed, “we need the story to bring the true picture to light.” It was an intense moment, that passed quickly.

Afterward, this interaction was a burr in my boot. I felt shame for getting heated. I felt disappointment and low-grade anger at what felt like not being heard. These were old hurts surfacing, letting me know they were ready to be addressed. This was not my first rodeo so I was able to pause and recognize my old pattern (suffer and then withdraw). Instead I reached out to the people who had been at the meeting. In individual settings, I shared my shame as well as my anger positioned within a desire to create something better for the future.  

As uncomfortable as these few days were they deepened the harmony on our team. The very person I tussled with gave me a gift of understanding myself in a deeper way. What? Yes!  He helped me understand that my great enthusiasm and passion for projects require that I connect to my projects emotionally, often through story. And he affirmed a desire to help me do that in the future. This was no generic “win-win” moment. It was heart-to-heart, human-to-human harmony. I was also reminded by the way my peers engaged with me that I am an influential member of a team. My voice is heard. Lastly, debate is a good thing and nothing to feel shame over.

Wouldn’t it be sad if I hadn’t coughed up? What if I had kept that little burr in my boot and let it develop into a blister, a sore, a lesion? And not just that, but keeping my eyes on my own understanding allows me only a short-sighted vision of what the world is and how it works. Coughing up is one of the easiest, most tried-and-true tricks to understanding the your unique design and that of the person in front of you, leading us both to bringing value to the world.

Problems and Patterns

An important dimension to the idea of coughing it up is that it can be a way of giving space to problems, but it can also be a way of illuminating patterns. If it’s a problem, the space you give it will remain: a rest in the music so the harmony can grow. If it’s a pattern, the need to cough up will resurface, more substantively, until the deeper pattern is seen, honored, and integrated.

In the example I gave above, there is a pattern that is emerging. I seem to have a skewed perspective about when my voice is heard and honored or not. This is a messy topic, woven with my personal life experiences and a bigger cultural mess. Continuing to be curious about the threads in this hairball has the potential to help me grow while also creating greater harmony in the communities, organizations, and nation we share.

This process is part of creating character and true beauty. Harmony isn’t something to finish and put away. It’s living and breathing: it needs attention to stay alive.

A Tool for Coughing it Up and Identifying Patterns

Coughing it up is a good practice for staying healthy.  Given that I have two regular practices that help me exercise this muscle. One I rely on ever more heavily are my Perspective Partners. A Perspective Partner is someone that you have explicitly set up in your life to help you question, reflect on and understand your thoughts.

We all need encouragement, unconditional love, and advocacy: however, that is not the only or even primary Perspective Partner’s role. By questioning our thoughts, this trusted person helps sort old beliefs that no longer serve from real issues that need to be addressed with others. My Perspective Partners have permission to prod my assumptions and beliefs, which helps me tease out more meaning and harmony in my life and relationships. I have a few different people that I trust in this arena.

The second tool complement’s Perspective Partners in providing a framework for questioning our thinking. I’m a huge fan of Byron Katie’s “The Work,” available free on her website, as one of the most powerful processes for sorting out what really matters and helping us see the “whole picture.” Going through her reflection process is rarely comfortable and yet it’s always rich.  

I’d love to hear what you think.

Where has coughing it up enriched your life?

Which relationship in your life might be a source of transparency, a potential Perspective Partner?

What helps you be kind and courageous in the practice of bringing personal truth forward in the creation of shared truth?

7 Comments | MaryCay Durrant |
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