Maureen Pulhug “Breaking the Assumption Barriers
Ms. Pulhug Puts New Awareness and Clarity To Work


When it seems someone or something is barring your way to new opportunities, it might be worthwhile to look your jailer straight in the eyes. Maybe the person holding you back is you. Sometimes our untested assumptions about what is possible keep us from moving forward.

That’s what Sustainable Resource Development Senior Administrator Maureen Pulhug discovered when she encountered Active Engagement (or alternately the Path of Contemplative Dialogue – PCD). “I have always been a firm believer in being present with people and it is important to me that I am genuine and attentive in my interactions with others. So, when my supervisor Don Harrison described the AE as a training that can help with awareness and skill in nondefensive dialogue, it seemed something that would be of great benefit to me.” But Ms. Pulhug was reluctant; she assumed that such trainings might be only for managers and not administrative staff. Mr. Harrison challenged her assumption and encouraged her to go.

“I was very excited about the four-day training because I thought anything that can help communications would be great. However, when I started to experience the AE process, I was challenged by the slow, reflective pace on the first day. I tend to be one who goes and goes, so it was hard for me to slow down. You feel like you need to talk to fill up space but I recognized early on, if I was going to get anything out of this I needed to quiet myself. So, I just tried to be there. Listen to my thoughts. Be present. Not rush it.”

Ms. Pulhug discovered that the AE process of slowing down and testing assumptions enabled her to speak to her truth without being constrained. “I’ve always been one to worry about the outcome. If I say this, what’s going to happen here? I don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. However, I realized I just needed to say what I needed to say (in a professional and respectful way) and go from there.

“It was actually refreshing and freeing when I realized it was okay to do that. It’s bringing that training experience to reality – the daily work situation where there are fires to put out and everybody’s stressed and overworked that it is hard to bring that focus back. So that’s what I’ve been working on: Staying more present, being more mindful and aware.

“I have been noticing more in my personal and work life. I find I notice when something doesn’t feel right and needs to be addressed. For example, there was a situation I needed to discuss with my supervisor.  For a couple of days, I went back and forth in my head about whether I wanted to talk to him about it. Finally, I realized that I needed to speak to it. He was very good about it and I was glad that we discussed the issue.

“Since I have taken the AE I find myself more comfortable speaking to what I am noticing. I recognize that it is valuable information that can be shared without coming across as negative. I have a very approachable supervisor. Even still, I don’t think I would have been able to express my point of view as well without the skills I gained through the training. I’ve learned to think about what I am going to say and how I am going to say it, to present the information clearly, without emotions taking over. I feel more confident in questioning, testing, to get to the root of the issue.”

Ms. Pulhug says that the AE has helped her in general to be more aware in her interactions with others. When something doesn’t seem right, she is able to slow down and consider what needs to be addressed. “Rather than just reacting defensively and taking everything to heart, I realize that I may be making incorrect assumptions about what another is saying to me. I can check those assumptions out.”

As a senior administrator, responsible for assigning work to, training and mentoring other administrative staff, Ms. Pulhug’s experience with the AE has blazed the trail for others. She notes that support staff are often doing work for and reporting to more than one person. It can seem that everyone’s work is a priority. “The AE helps you to express yourself and let people know when their work might have to wait for other tasks to be completed. Instead of thinking that I am going to look incompetent or uncooperative, I’m able to address the reality of the situation with confidence.

This enables the supervisor and me to work together to find solutions. If it is something that must be done right away, perhaps I can find someone else to do it. Often, in talking it through, we find out that the work doesn’t need to be done immediately.” Ms. Pulhug has also found that the AE helps with the professional approach administrative staff need in dealing with diverse publics – public servants, clients, hotel staff, industry representatives, etc.

Being on the front lines often means bearing the brunt of abrupt approaches fueled by hurry, work pressures or other demands on the supervisors. Good administrators might be inclined just to “take it” and carry on with the bad feelings such interactions inevitably generate. Ms. Pulhug points out that the AE has helped her to address the quality of such interactions.”

I feel more confident slowing the conversation down, saying, ‘Yes, I can do this for you. How much of a priority is it? But you seem upset and I’m wondering about that? Are you okay?’

“It also helps make you more aware when people you’re interacting with aren’t themselves. If their approach seems to be rude or unprofessional, I would normally tend to think, ‘What’s the matter with this person?  I don’t deserve this.’ Automatically, you get your defenses up. Active Engagement skills help give you the freedom to explore the situation, ask the right questions and clarify roles and the task at hand.

It gives you the power to question the situation. By power, I don’t mean power over others but rather the power to voice your opinion and concerns and feel confident that your perceptions matter. This can help you to manage your work more effectively and take on more responsibility.

“I’ve always been genuine but without the AE as a vessel to help strengthen my communication skills, this probably wouldn’t shine through as much. I try to be true to myself and do the best that I can but, before, I might have swallowed my words in certain situations. Now, it doesn’t matter who I am interacting with or the circumstances, if there is a problem, I’m inclined to say, ‘Let’s talk about it.’ We’re all human beings and how we interact with one another is important.

“I have always been an advocate for administrative staff, expressing to my peers, ‘If you don’t speak up, nobody hears you. As women in an organization that is male dominant your voice is important. And in our position, we can sometimes see details of the work that the supervisor hasn’t considered.’ There is more comfort and clearer direction in being able to speak up in a respectful and honest way.”

One of the most amazing aspects of the AE training to Ms. Pulhug is the way that people from all walks of life – different jobs at vari- ous levels, male/female – came to see the benefits of using the skills and capturing the group spirit. She says, “For myself, I think the biggest thing is the slowing down the pace, knowing it’s okay to have quiet time, to step back, to stop and think, be aware and more mindful.

The environment I work in is operational and reactive. We tend to place priority/urgency on everything and take the attitude –‘Get it done’. One minute, you really do have a situation that needs to be dealt with urgently. Then you have something simple but you’re still in that urgent frame of mind so you react to it in that way.  The crisis is over but you’re always in that crisis mode. Let’s figure out what is urgent. When I ask people to do things, I make sure I’m expressing the level of urgency to them.

Ms. Pulhug sees the influence of the Active Engagement training “snowballing” in Sustainable Resource Development. I see those people who have taken the course practicing it. They seem more aware and that encourages others to ask questions. “When I see others who model the practice I am encouraged to do the same.” It’s a great freedom made possible through nondefended, nonviolent communication. It’s a different mindset from just ‘doing’. It enables us to get more information for our peace of mind. Instead of leaving a situation saying, ‘I didn’t really understand what he said but I didn’t want to say anything’, more people are speaking up. Truth is like a magnet. Once it’s out on the table, others are drawn to it and feel safe to speak to their truth.

Ms. Pulhug found herself again hesitating to attend AE practice sessions within the department since she was the only administrative person represented. She overcame her hesitation and, with the AE experience, started to examine the assumptions behind her concerns. “I realized, upon reflection, the influence of hierarchy in our culture and how it might make us hesitate. But after I stepped back, I recognized that in the development of this practice such concerns are rather insignificant. It doesn’t matter who you are. Whatever level you’re at, it’s about open and honest communication and how can you go wrong with that?”

By Deborah Witwicki