An Interview with LaShelle Lowe-Chardé of Wise Heart
Today I’m interviewing LaShelle Lowe-Chardé. LaShelle is the founder of Wise Heart. Through in-person classes and workshops and a variety of online resources, Wise Heart has helped thousands of people gain the skills and understanding they need to create honest, healthy, and caring relationships with partners, family, friends, and coworkers. LaShelle worked as a school psychologist for many years before becoming certified as a Nonviolent Communication (NVC) trainer. She’s also pursued extensive training in body-centered therapies and is a dedicated meditation practitioner.
You can learn more about LaShelle and her offerings at https://www.wiseheartpdx.org/.
We talk here about LaShelle’s vision for building and maintaining thriving relationships for all, how this vision evolved, common places of stuckness for couples (including misconceptions between needs and strategies and trauma- and attachment-based reactivity), regulation and resourcing, differentiation, and self-validated intimacy.
The following resources were mentioned in the interview:
- Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and Marshall B. Rosenberg
- Body-centered Psychotherapy by Ron Kurtz
- Experiential Psychotherapy with Couples by Rob Fisher
- Passionate Marriage by David Schnarch
You can also learn more about these ideas in the Modalities and Handouts sections of my resources page.
Ryan: Well, thanks again, LaShelle, for taking this time to talk about your work.
LaShelle: Sure. Thank you.
Ryan: So why don’t you tell anyone that’s listening and that hasn’t had a chance to visit your site or take a workshop or class, just what it is that you do.
LaShelle: My name is LaShelle Lowe-Charde. My business is WiseHeart: wiseheartpdx.org is my website. And I teach online and around Portland, Oregon, and around the state of Oregon. And I teach to help people become relationship masters. That’s my dream for the world – that we begin as a global community to really aspire to be nuanced and subtle and skillful when it comes to relating to ourselves and other people. And so I offer classes and workshops. And I teach based on a system that I’ve created from over 20 years of doing training with folks that combines Hakomi body-centered therapy, mindfulness from various modalities, and Nonviolent Communication (NVC), also called compassionate communication.
And so the framework, the system that I’ve created, I call Mindful Compassionate Dialogue (MCD). And I chose that title because I’m really emphasizing the quality of attention, and directing that quality of attention to the interaction in a relationship. So thus the word dialogue. And compassionate. Just an understanding that when we bring that care and compassion to any relationship, it gives us better access to our skills and towards moving together in a way that really works for all.
Ryan: So, it’s a really broad vision, and a really strong one. I’m just wondering what got you started in that direction in the first place. How did you become passionate about that as an organization, and as a way of spending your time?
LaShelle: Growing up in my family where there was a lot of rage and abuse and disruption, I still had a very, very grounded sense of love and of – you know, I think we all have that – an intuitive sense of “this isn’t quite what we’re meant to do. There is something more, there’s a better way to go through life.” And so seeing that my parents didn’t have a handle on that, and many of my siblings didn’t have that, I was motivated to find that. And so really that started as a little kid – even 11, 12 years old – reading, getting books from the library – in the simple way I could at the time. And then going through formal education – psychology, school psychology, and then training in body-centered therapy modalities. And, of course, becoming a certified trainer in Nonviolent Communication. Lots of stuff there as far as training goes. But that inspiration really leading me in this vision of: people can do better. We can relate with skillfulness and compassion. We can find a different way through all that.
Ryan: And so as you started to study Marshall Rosenberg’s work, just picking up skills along the way, you were seeing changes in your personal life that inspired you to keep going with it and then start sharing it with others.
LaShelle: Yeah. I would say the most dramatic change came when I was a teenager. And that really had me turn from environmental sciences, which is what I thought I might do as a teenager, towards working with people and finding a therapist who really just opened my eyes to the way things could be. And really showed me, like, this isn’t that mysterious. Like there’s some basic truths and some basic skills here that if everybody had them, life could be a whole lot better. And so that therapeutic work, and then Nonviolent Communication – and doing that with myself, right? Like creating this internal compassionate relationship, self-empathy, and awareness and presence with myself.
Ryan: So discovering that there were learnable skills that you could break down into pieces and start finding a better way?
LaShelle: That’s really my passion is to really break things down that people think are mysterious, or require years and years of therapy, or whatever the faraway thought is. And to say “no, these things can be learned bit by bit. Each skill can be broken down. It’s doable. Living our values deeply from the heart is practical. We can make them a practical endeavor. Right?”
Ryan: Yeah. I imagine a lot of folks who come from families that were chaotic, or just not working well for them, develop a belief system that “I just don’t get to have that, that’s not possible.” Or they just define that as normal.
LaShelle: Yeah. Either way.
Ryan: Right. So maybe we can talk about what some of those little building blocks are. When you think about your system of dialogue, what are some of the tools that you’re chunking for your students to take home with them?
LaShelle: Yeah. Just to be clear, Mindful Compassionate Dialogue is a system for personal transformation and learning to become a master of relationship. So to become very, very skillful. And I say master of relationship just because I’m wanting to move out of this mindset, which I think is really changing broadly, but this former mindset of “oh, you work on yourself if you’re really struggling or you work on your marriage if you’re in a crisis or, if you’re broken, you have to fix it.” And really moving away from that model towards “you do this work of personal transformation because you want to evolve, grow, learn, contribute to others in a much more clear way, to be of benefit.”
And so in the system I’ve articulated, I’ve identified nine foundational competencies – well no, I call them the 9 Foundational Supportive Practices – or we could say even essential elements of living, a grounded, healthy, thriving life – and 12 Relationship Competencies. So the 9 Foundations are anything you would expect a doctor, a naturopath, a therapist to name, right? Just these things that we’re always working on. Staying healthy, regulated, increasing our self-awareness, treating ourselves and others with warmth, attuning to caring for each other, having a sense of emotional security and also cultivating these mental faculties of concentration, clarity, equanimity.
And so the 9 Foundations are things that we know that are an important part of how we function. And so, really, we’re diving in with those – how do we cultivate those? How do we notice which ones are strong and which could use a little support? And so for each of those 9 Foundations, I have ten practices. And then for the 12 Competencies, each competency has six skills. So that’s 72 skills. So it sounds like a lot but becoming a master of anything is a lot! It’s a lot to learn to integrate.
Ryan: Right. So, I met you 13 years ago. You were offering a Nonviolent Communication class and I took that class. And at the time this framework hadn’t been fully developed and you were a little bit more focused on the NVC component of your work. What happened for you that you decided that you wanted to broaden or make this a little bit more of your own?
LaShelle: What I noticed is that my students in the Nonviolent Communication classes were hitting plateaus and getting stuck, because while they could do the practices in class with my support and guidance, and maybe even without me there – with a study buddy – they couldn’t find those skills when they really needed them in a conflict at home or work. And so body-centered therapy, and really increasing the sense of awareness, self-awareness and presence with your own experience, is really needed to make use of this amazing framework that Marshall Rosenberg offered us.
Ryan: Right. It’s one thing to really learn the language of feelings and needs, for example, and it’s another to be able to stay regulated, non-reactive, and to have the mental faculties developed that you were talking about just a moment ago.
Ryan: I’ve really seen that in working with couples. It’s this kind of plateau – they’ve studied NVC pretty thoroughly, but they say the same thing: that in the moment when they’re fighting about something, it’s just very difficult to access some of that language, or they feel like it’s just not enough. So can we talk in more detail about some of those places of stuckness? So it might be around reactivity. What else? What kinds of things are you hearing most often in workshops?
LaShelle: Most people are attributing poor communication to their difficulty in a relationship. Another very popular thing I hear is “my partner doesn’t listen” or “I’m not seen” or “I’m not appreciated.” I think those are really the biggest things. Some couples can name that reactivity is in their way, which I think is helpful if they can already name that. But when I go ahead and name what I think really gets couples stuck, it’s more about this misconception between needs and strategies, which is a huge thing that we can dive into if you want. And then reactivity, but maybe more clearly two major sources of reactivity that I think really trigger the most suffering are trauma and attachment wounding. And so if I had only three things to work with couples, then I would choose from those three: (1) working with needs and confusion about needs and reactivity around needs and then (2) checking in with trauma and (3) checking in with attachment stuff.
Ryan: Okay. So there’s a lot there. Let’s start with the first thing that you said and your offer to dive into the distinction between needs and strategies. I’ve seen that also in couples that I work with. There’s confusion about that. What do you mean in terms of that difference?
LaShelle: Yeah. And this is the incredible gift that Marshall Rosenberg brought us. And, of course, he’s leaning on other people who’ve done incredible amount of work. But he really brought together in a clear way, a list of universal human needs. And so we know about the concept of needs relative to thriving or maybe relative to Maslow’s hierarchy. There are little bits of it here and there. But he really looked at what human beings need to thrive and what about that is universal. And so that’s just a game-changer. I don’t find it in any other framework other than what he brought.
And so as we dive into that and get to know our needs, we realize like, oh, some needs we feel really insecure about. So instead of just simply having the need and making requests, then we sneak around to get that need met or we have to move into a big powerful position and demand that we get that need met. So there’s all this reactivity and there’s also this – as long as we don’t understand that universal needs are separate from the way we go about meeting them, then we get stuck. And so couples really get stuck here. As long as you have the thought: “the only way I can get my need met is if …” – fill in the blank with whatever they’re fighting about. “We have sex three times a week” or “you do your parenting this way” or “we do house chores this way.” Those are some of the top three issues couples face. Then we don’t have any room for negotiation.
But if we say “okay, well I really have a need for peace. Let’s talk about chores. I really have a need for peace and when there’s order in the house, oh, I feel so peaceful.” But if we take those needs, order and peace, and we separate them from the house has to look this way or be cleaned this way, then suddenly there’s a lot of possibilities about how the needs for order and peace could be met and suddenly we have space to negotiate. So that confusion of needs and strategies really blocks negotiation. And the other huge thing that confusion of needs and strategies contribute to is this idea that needs are in competition. And that’s this old idea of compromise. Like, okay, I’ll kind of begrudgingly give up what I want because you did last time and I’ll go forward with you in a sort of dissatisfied way thinking this is what relationships are about. You just have to give up things and it builds resentment. And so really understanding that everybody’s needs can be met as long as we’re flexible about the how and the when and the who.
Ryan: Yeah. It really opens up the opportunity to brainstorm: here are all the different ways – now that the needs are on the table and that we’re clear about them – to get those needs met together.
LaShelle: Yeah. Of course, getting [needs] on the table is hard because reactivity is getting in the way. So often it does really require these other tools that we’re identifying in our system of how to manage reactivity, before we can even identify a need, much less negotiate about it.
Ryan: Right. And I just see so often how difficult it is to get to what some of those core needs are. As we go back and forth in a dialogue between partners, there’s just often a lack of clarity around what’s really important to me, and a lot of fear around making it known sometimes – when we’re talking about attachment needs, something much more vulnerable, for instance.
LaShelle: Yeah. And we hide our needs from ourselves, so it’s not even that we’re trying to purposely avoid naming our needs. Yeah.
Ryan: Right. Okay. So you named reactivity there. And earlier you said that there are two sources of reactivity that you’ve identified as most common or primary?
LaShelle: Well, I would say most derailing. The other forms of reactivity people can come in and out of and if they have just enough support in their relationship, they can often move through it okay. But when trauma and attachment reactivity is online – much harder.
Ryan: So what do you mean by trauma and attachment?
LaShelle: I think rather than go with the theoretical definition, I think it’s more helpful to go with an experiential definition and to think of trauma as an experience in which you so dramatically lose access to a sense of perspective, compassion, and your own skills, that damage is done in your life in a somewhat consistent way – a predictable sort of way. And that damage might be neglect of yourself or abusing someone else or – the range is big there. But we have now, thankfully, well-known stuff like fight, flight, and freeze, which I think help people identify trauma. It’s more known.
Ryan: Right. And so one’s [nervous] system is trying to still protect itself in some way, after having had that traumatic or overwhelming experience. And even though the threat is no longer present in the way that it once was, their system is still trying to protect itself against further hurt.
LaShelle: Yeah. So it’s nice when you say that. You just feel the compassion for our poor little un-updated systems, doing the best they can to keep us safe and just like living like little islands in time, not yet knowing that the situation has changed.
Ryan: Right. And in therapy, I think there’s a way in which we can zoom in on that self-protective response and try to sort out or uncouple the response that’s happening in the moment from what’s actually in front of them. To start to update the system. But I wonder in a class or a workshop, how are you helping folks learn about that reactivity or at least do that on their own when they’re not with you?
LaShelle: I really emphasize regulation and resourcing in a classroom setting. Because I’m not able to do the work that I know you do a lot of, which is incredibly skilled, one-on-one healing of trauma and shifting and integration stuff. So what I want to do is have people have this experience of: “This is what it feels like when I’m really, really grounded and regulated. When I have access to my skills and I’m facing a challenge.” So in that realm of a workshop or classroom setting, I really have the opportunity to strengthen that network of: “there’s a different way to go through life.” And so then when the trauma response comes up, there’s hopefully a little greater perspective. Like “oh, this is different. This isn’t who I want to be. This isn’t actually true in a certain way. This is just a reaction.” Not “just” in that it’s small, but in that it’s not the truth of their world. They believe that less and less the more they can have this experience of groundedness and strengthening – that sense of self.
Ryan: Right. And perhaps they’re more likely to catch it next time.
LaShelle: Yeah. We want to increase those opportunities for catching it earlier before reactivity has been going on for days or hours.
Ryan: Okay. Now obviously trauma can happen in the context of attachment also. But we placed that in a little bit of a separate category a moment ago. So what do you mean by attachment-based reactivity – what is that about?
LaShelle: Well, I think I like to say that because I really want my students to understand that the attachment system is like its own thing and that it’s so, so powerful. Now once it’s up and running, it’s just hugely influential towards how we think and behave. And so the attachment system is just the system designed for our wellbeing and our survival that says: it’s important that we have these deeply secure emotional bonds with others. It’s important for our survival that we don’t get thrown out of the cave, kind of thing. And so if we have an insecure relationship to that sense of “I can form a solid, secure emotional bond with others,” then we’re constantly activated into anxiety, or if the anxiety is too much, then shut down completely. And it blocks the intimacy that we naturally long for as human beings.
Ryan: So it may end up creating these kinds of imbalances or dynamics where, for instance, one partner is always coming towards and the other is going away, or something like that?
LaShelle: Yeah. Real predictable dynamics for couples that we can recognize and name.
Ryan: And I guess that brings us back to the needs-based framework, in that we can start to identify some of the underlying needs that maybe we’re disconnected from in moments of being reactivated.
LaShelle: Yeah. I think in the attachment work that I do in the classroom setting, I’m really trying to do two things. One is help folks identify “oh, this is my attachment system. That’s what’s happening. It’s just reactivity. I don’t have to believe my thoughts right now.” And really having a lot of compassion for “oh, this is what human beings go through. This is okay. This is a part of being human.” And then the second part is to say, “okay, I need love and I need emotional security and I have trouble relaxing into it. And so I continuously block meeting that need. So how am I blocking that relaxing into and being fulfilled in that way?” And so that brings us to “what are the requests I need to make or the actions I need to take so that I can experience fulfillment and security in a relationship?”
Ryan: If I’m remembering right, there was a time that you offered a series on character strategies, and since we’re talking a bit about couples’ dynamics here, I wonder if you’ve noticed ways in which the character strategies that each partner is carrying start to collide in ways that create more dysfunctional or really dissatisfying cycles? Are there really common ones that couples should be on the lookout for or learning to identify?
LaShelle: Yeah. And character strategy, in my work I call that chronic patterns of reactivity. I don’t like the word ‘character’, because I really want to teach from a process language and ‘character’ kind of implies a certain solidifying of habits. I really use character theory or chronic reactive patterns to – when I’m on the side of the therapist or the trainer – to more quickly make guesses about what might be going on. So it’s very efficient for that. And for couples, I would really – if they want to get into this, there’s a course on my website, a prerecorded course that they can take, or they can pick up Ron Kurtz’s book. Though it’s not as detailed as one really needs. Rob Fisher has a book, a really long title that no one can ever remember.
I think it’s pretty predictable. You see folks who have this pattern we call burdened-enduring where they’re very insecure about autonomy, hunkering down and kind of establishing an immovability around their autonomy, paired up with folks who have a more industrious or overachieving pattern. And these attractions make sense because the person running the chronic pattern of burdened-enduring has a peacefulness about them because they’re practicing immovability and a settledness, which the person who’s constantly running towards achievement really needs – that peace – really needs that settledness, so they’re attracted to it. And then vice-versa is true – the person running after achievement has this mobile energy, this incredible flow that the other partner is attracted to.
Ryan: It’s almost like they’re each seeking out some aspect of themselves that isn’t fully developed or –
LaShelle: Yeah. Or accessed, yeah.
Ryan: Any others that you find?
LaShelle: Well, the two most common, I think: one is that one partner runs a pattern of overwhelm and withdrawing a lot and playing it small. And the other partner runs this pattern called hurt and invulnerable – of being big and large and in charge. And I will protect you. You can see how these would go together. Also the overwhelmed-withdrawn pattern often includes more vulnerability, and the person who’s trying to big, large, and in charge is longing to be vulnerable and authentic and connected in that way.
Ryan: Okay. And just for the purposes of definition for folks who haven’t been exposed to character strategies or chronic patterns of reactivity: that first word is describing a wounding of something that happened. And the second is more the strategy or the response as a way of dealing with that or coping with that wound.
LaShelle: Yeah, a response that was adaptive at the time.
Ryan: Right. So I was overwhelmed at some point in my life, and so decided that it’s a good idea to withdraw.
LaShelle: Yeah, exactly.
Ryan: One thing I wanted to talk to you about, and we’ve talked about this privately before, is: I was rereading some of [David] Schnarch’s work, and it strikes me as confrontational to some of the tools that you’ve been promoting over the years, especially around empathy, around validation. He’s certainly not dismissing those things, but he has a stronger emphasis on self-validation, on differentiation. So I actually looked up – I wrote down a quote here [from Passionate Marriage] and I just want to run it by you and see if you have any reactions to it? He says “intimacy [seems to] develop through conflict, self-validation and unilateral disclosure” more so than some “accumulation of experiences of mutual trust, acceptance, empathy, validation and reciprocal disclosure.” So it seems to me he’s in a little bit of a different school then some of the other couples’ therapists and trainers like yourself who are really encouraging a lot of reciprocal disclosure, mutual validation and these kinds of things. Maybe it’s a false dichotomy that I’m putting out here, but what do you think about that?
LaShelle: Yeah, I don’t see myself not in alignment with that. So I am on his team as far as the importance of differentiation. I think probably why that perception happens is because it’s much easier to talk about empathy than it is to talk about differentiation in colloquial terms. I really believe the work I do with folks emphasizes both equally. So the work I do with folks on shame is really about: you really can’t have intimacy until the you have a positive sense of self – not positive in, like, you accept that you have a self – not that kind of positive sense of self. Having a sense of your own worth. And so I’m definitely with him on that.
And as long as I’m caught in a loop of: I can’t exist unless you validate me, I can never really choose you as a partner. And if I can’t choose you, there can’t be intimacy. If instead of choosing you as a partner, knowing I could not choose you, I’m leaning into you to get something from you to keep me stable. That’s not intimacy. You’re being used as a device in my life. And so the skills that we teach in MCD at Wise Heart really promote differentiation and honest expression – really being able to make requests for your own needs. I mean, we do have a whole competency just devoted to healthy differentiation. Working with reactivity, owning your own reactivity is a huge differentiation piece that I think Schnarch is a pretty big fan of.
Ryan: They’re not at all exclusive. It’s in addition to being able to empathize with another, to be able to land in another’s experience, to validate that what they’re going through makes sense – to also be able to extend that to oneself.
LaShelle: Or, you can’t really even offer that legitimately to another person if you don’t have a sense of self. So we still teach empathy, regardless of complete and utter differentiation, because it still provides relief, right? Even if we don’t do it perfectly from a completely differentiated sense of self, when couples immediately have empathy and being seen, whether it’s by each other or the therapist, there’s a tension and release in the system and they get a little bit of a break from the reactivity.
Ryan: So you named that typically this is a harder concept to talk about. Can we try and define what then differentiation is and why that might be an important skill within your set of competencies and for couples?
LaShelle: Well, you can certainly go to my website and see a definition I have there, which may or may not be articulated better than I’m about to do. But in our system at least we’re talking about differentiation as who you are while you’re interacting with someone else. So one thing I’ve came across over the years was one author, when I was researching the concept, who said if you can spend a lot of time alone being very happy and content and doing your thing, you’re alone, you don’t have a primary relationship, then you probably have really cultivated a sense of your uniqueness and your individuality. You really know your preferences. You know what works for you, right? You know yourself in a certain way. But differentiation is saying something more. It’s saying, when I’m faced with this call to intimacy, can I still hold on to a sense of what’s true for me? Can I risk greater intimacy? Can I risk the loss of someone I love? That’s differentiation.
Ryan: Right. Instead of intimacy somehow being a threat to autonomy or individuality. That doesn’t need to somehow go away just because you’re becoming more and more intimate, more and more close.
LaShelle: Yeah. And it’s not fair, right? People are given ideas of intimacy that really are just enmeshment from books and movies and drama or whatever. So we don’t have a lot of good models for what it looks like to be utterly intimate and utterly differentiated and maintaining a sense of self and truth.
Ryan: I was working with a couple yesterday. It was our first session and one of the things they said was: “we find that when things are getting really hard between us, we need to take a few days apart. Is that okay?” And I thought to myself, well, it might be okay for now, but we want the goal to be that we need less and less of that time apart to feel okay. And that time should eventually start to come down to one day, and then eight hours, and eventually, to be able to get to the point where that difficulty that they’re experiencing together can happen in close proximity. That seems to me to be an aspect of what we’re talking about here with differentiation.
LaShelle: Yeah. With differentiation, alone time doesn’t become something you use to find yourself again. It becomes something you do to deepen some aspect of self-knowing. Yeah. It’s not about you needing a break from someone else. It’s about you’re moving towards some deepening of self-knowledge.
Ryan: Yeah. And this is connected to one of the other competencies around regulation, in that we may be very skilled at self-regulation, but as a couple may be really struggling with co-regulation and actually feeling safe together – learning how to actually soothe those anxieties in relationship, as well.
LaShelle: Yeah. And David Schnarch talks a lot about self-soothing, doesn’t he? I can’t remember. It’s been a long time since I – he does. Yeah. And we definitely teach a lot of that. And there’s a list of regulation strategies on my website that you can do just by yourself and also a list for doing with others. Such a critical part.
Ryan: You bet. Is there anything else that you’re thinking has really changed over the years as you’ve – you mentioned that you’ve been at this for 20 years, so I imagine that’s really evolved your understanding of these skills and competencies, and that there have probably been some real pivot points for you over the years, where maybe you’ve carried things in new directions or decided that some other aspect of the work needed to be filled out in a new way. So just curious about that, if anything comes to mind?
LaShelle: I think I’ve been moving right along in my own work with what I think a lot of therapists and trainers are doing, just as a movement in our time, which is towards greater and greater resourcing. So, much less focused on the problem and much more focus on how we strengthen a sense of self, a sense of health, regulation, awareness, and security. And so really diving into the way we strengthen that. And when we’re standing more securely in those things, then we can engage these skills that people work hard to get. It’s so disappointing. They work so hard and then they can’t access them.
Ryan: It also seems to have kind of a counterbalancing effect – the more time we spend in a resourced state as a way of balancing out some of those places of reactivity that keep trying to reassert themselves.
LaShelle: Yeah. We need to use habit energy to our advantage. Practice the good, the helpful.
Ryan: Yes. LaShelle, maybe we’ll end here, and I just want to make sure we get a chance for you to let people know where they can find you – your website address, and anything else about your work that you want folks to be aware of right now.
LaShelle: Yeah, check us out at wiseheartpdx.org. We have lots of free resources. I really want people to be able to dive in and see if the work that we offer at Wise Heart is right for them before they pay for stuff. And I think we have an abundance of opportunities – free handouts. I’ve been writing a weekly article on this work 13 or 14 years now. Not all of them are on the website because we have a new website, but a lot of them are there and we have a YouTube channel and so on. Lots of ways to get engaged.
Ryan: Okay. Thanks again.
LaShelle: Thank you.