Joyce Lynn Elder of ‘Conflict Options’: “We don’t look at what we can’t do”

PERFORMANCE: Take some small step every day, then celebrate! This is important! It doesn’t have to be a big step, and you don’t have to set off fireworks to celebrate, but you do need to get into motion and acknowledge it. This step isn’t about perfection — it’s about momentum. As a part of our “Unstoppable” series, […]

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PERFORMANCE: Take some small step every day, then celebrate! This is important! It doesn’t have to be a big step, and you don’t have to set off fireworks to celebrate, but you do need to get into motion and acknowledge it. This step isn’t about perfection — it’s about momentum.

As a part of our “Unstoppable” series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joyce Lynn Elder.

Joyce Lynn Elder, JD, the Founder of Conflict Options LLC and Creator of the Confident Communication System (TM) and 1Decision (TM), inspires and empowers leaders to overcome the limitations and devastation of conflict and crisis.

After barely surviving a bone marrow transplant and subsequent complications, her career path changed several times. She was, for example, involved in nursing, law, social services, banking, nonprofit leadership, and real estate, to name a few. Despite being recognized for her success and expertise in de-escalation, communication, and conflict, it wasn’t until she became a hostage and resolved the incident that she chose conflict and crisis strategy as a career and business. Today, she helps leaders use the Unexpected Advantage (TM) so they can make their greatest difference.

Joyce has spoken about conflict and communication at regional professional conferences for attorneys, mediators, association managers, and property managers. She’s been a guest on several podcasts, and she’s also been interviewed on KCTS about one of her passion projects — raising service dogs.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is really an honor. Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

It all started with an experience that was sort of like camping in some ways. I was in a small space and had no running water. No toilet, and no shower. In fact, I couldn’t even use toothpaste — I used saline soaked gauze pads. I did have electricity, though. And while I wasn’t able to leave or have visitors, it wasn’t prison, though it felt like it at times.

I was in a laminar flow unit of a major hospital.

About a year before, I’d been scheduled for oral surgery, but I caught a cold. I was a nursing major, so when the nurse started playing with my fingernails, I thought it was strange, but what did I know — I’d only finished my first year of college, and I’d been a remarkably healthy child so I hadn’t seen many doctors. That was about to change, though.

The doctor’s office called a few days later to say I was “slightly anemic” and needed more tests. Soon, I was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, a bone marrow failure syndrome for which a bone marrow transplant was the treatment of choice. But when I was also diagnosed another even more rare bone marrow failure syndrome, PNH, the transplant was no longer the treatment of choice — It was the only treatment.

Over the next year, I continued with school and other activities, gradually adding in more doctor appointments and lab tests. I was doing okay, though. I mostly noticed some bruising, and if I was very active, my heart rate and breathing increased, leaving me feeling out of shape. The biggest change was going home from college every Friday to see the doctor.

I studied the lab test results carefully each week. It became a joke between my dad and me that my numbers were clearly dropping, but the local hematologist kept saying my counts were, “pretty much the same.” After a year of results that were, “pretty much the same,” I was admitted for the transplant.

With bone marrow transplants, as with other organ transplants, the body could reject the new bone marrow. But unlike other organs, bone marrow grafts, because they carry the immune system, could also attack my body, the host. That’s called Graft versus Host Disease (GvHD). So, an intense chemotherapy protocol was used to crash my entire immune system. In the absence of an immune system, the laminar flow unit was necessary to protect me from germs.

Since I had been otherwise healthy, doctors told me they expected me to come through it with minimal complications. Apparently, they didn’t knock on wood when they said that…

My expected 6 week stay in the hospital ended up being extended to 3 months. At Day 15 post transplant, I remember one of the doctors coming in, dressed in clean scrubs, sterile gowns, booties, bonnet, mask, 2 layers of sterile gowns, and 3 pairs of gloves. (Kind of sounds like a bad version of “The 12 Days of Christmas,” right?)

The next thing I knew, I’d been there for months. GvHD had manifested as scar tissue in the liver, kidneys, lungs, skin, and eyes, causing blindness, excessive weight gain, and constant, severe pain. Although some doctors didn’t expect me to survive, the attending hematologist saw my strength and determination, and decided on continued treatment rather than hospice.

I gradually regained eyesight and managed to recover enough that I was released to home. There, while I continued to rebuild my immune system, I could not go into public places except the hospital for follow-up.

Nine months later, I was able to go back out in the world, armed with the intent to pay it forward.

Do you feel comfortable sharing with us the story surrounding how you became disabled or became ill? What mental shift did you make to not let that “stop you”?

The scar tissue (from the GvHD) in my respiratory system significantly reduced my lung function to 29%. The medication used to treat that caused severe osteoporosis, which, in turn, resulted in multiple crushed thoracic vertebrae. That injury reduced my lung function to 24%, and it also greatly reduced my ability to stand, walk, or even hold myself up when sitting.

The biggest need for a mental shift arose when 7 of the lung transplant centers nationwide declined me, citing comorbidity factors, and 1 doctor indicated I’d be better off, “living out the days [I] had left in the comfort of [my] home.” Remembering my commitment to paying it forward, I resolved that I would live to make my contribution. Then, I got all the assistive devices and other things I needed for support while I built myself back up again.

One year later, I went back for another lung transplant evaluation. Although the numbers haven’t improved, my ability to function caused doctors to go from declining me due to not being healthy enough to being deferred because I was too healthy. And that was exactly the result I wanted.

Can you tell our readers about the accomplishments you have been able to make despite your disability or illness ?

I’ve had a lot of successes, not despite the disabilities and illnesses, but because of them. I’ve learned who I am and how I can best present in the world. These circumstances taught me to use my curiosity and creativity to adapt. I also gained a new perspective of strength, perseverance, and courage. That, in turn offered other successes.

After the transplant, for example, I changed majors and colleges, graduating with a 3.87 gpa in social sciences and history with a concentration in psychology. At the time, I didn’t expect to go for further degrees, but the coordinator for the program seeded the idea that the program was so versatile that if my grades were high enough, I could even go to law school. If I’d had anything in my mouth when he said that, I might have ended up spitting it out in disbelief, but the seed was planted.

The next summer, I found myself in law school, which I graduated from 4 years later. While I was there, I had the opportunity to help improve the facility for disabled students and became the first second year part-time law student to have become a finalist in the ATLA moot court intramurals. I also was one of only 2 students in my class who were recommended for law review based on the strength of my writing in first year Legal Writing.

Now, I own a consulting, training, and coaching company that empowers and inspires leaders to overcome the limitations and devastation of conflict and crisis so they can make their greatest contribution. This year, the company became certified for government contracts.

That company exists, in part, because in a previous position, a person known to carry multiple weapons stormed the front desk and made a credible threat while holding some of us hostage. I couldn’t get away from him or fight him. And I also couldn’t hide. So, I used my communication and coaching skills to work with him and resolve the incident safely.

What advice would you give to other people who have disabilities or limitations?

When you’re dealing with disabilities or limitations, there will be peaks and valleys. Lacking a strategy can lead to inconsistency and less-than-ideal outcomes. Whether you’re newly diagnosed, have been facing it for a while, or have been dealing with it long enough that you should have an honorary degree, three things have proven to be my best course of action, which I now call 1Decision (TM):

1) PERSPECTIVE: Making a decision is your first step. Not choosing something that you think would be nice…I mean something that you commit to making happen no matter what. It doesn’t have to be worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize, but meaningful enough that you’ll stay in action for it.

When I’ve been down and hurting enough I wasn’t sure I could do any more, this has kept me going. So, it’s not something you do one time and forget about — it’s something you’ll come back to and use to pull you forward.

2) PERFORMANCE: Take some small step every day, then celebrate! This is important! It doesn’t have to be a big step, and you don’t have to set off fireworks to celebrate, but you do need to get into motion and acknowledge it. This step isn’t about perfection — it’s about momentum.

Years ago, I was participating in a study to determine the effectiveness of a medication that was intended to improve my respiratory condition. Ironically, it turned out that a side effect was that it caused my breathing to get worse. So much worse, in fact, that I ended up calling 911 from the bottom of my stairs. And as I sat on the stairs waiting, I took the small step of breathing in. Then, I used some celebratory self-talk, took the next step of breathing out, and celebrated again. Don’t underestimate the power of a genuine celebration. The smaller your steps are, the more important celebrations become.

3) PERSISTENCE: Setbacks are a normal part of the process. Stay focused, and keep going.

To that end, one thing that helps quickly is humor. [Insert really funny joke here…] And for a longer term solution that builds consistency, keep the cycle going: renew your decision; revise the plan; resume action; and review outcomes.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

It has taken more than a village to support me in making it this far. I’m certainly grateful for my brother, who was the donor, my family and friends who supported me through the transplant and beyond, and my medical teams. I’ve had some great business mentors and coaches along the way as well.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I’ve used struggles and successes to inspire and empower others who are dealing with a conflict or crisis. It seems like someone’s always watching when we’re going through a tough spot. So, when I’m able to succeed, it shows others they can, too. We really can use these situations to get ahead, and that’s a great way to heal. We don’t have to settle for getting back to a normal that we weren’t that fond of. Now, I’m using my experience to support others so they can influence the people in their lives, too, and make their greatest contributions.

To that end, I’ve created the proprietary process called “1Decision”(TM) to help people move through crises, and I’ve also, based on my success in dealing with conflict and a hostage incident, created the Confident Communication System (TM). It’s designed to give the confidence to communicate through conflict and any other conversations. Both of these processes — 1Decision (TM) and the Confident Communication System (TM), are designed to give people the strength of a system and the flexibility of options when they need them most.

Can you share “5 things I wish people understood or knew about people with physical limitations” and why.

1) Just because we have a disability doesn’t mean we are disabled. There’s a difference. When people say someone is disabled, they make it part of the person’s identity, as if we’re completely incapable. Holding that belief is falsely limiting and contributes to the statistics that show people with disabilities unjustifiably earn less and have a more difficult time getting hired.

2) We’re well-qualified and capable. The fact that we have a limitation often means that we develop other skills more in order to compensate. So, we have expertise in working through crises because with live with them every day.

3) We don’t look at what we can’t do; we’re busy looking for ways to do what we intend to do. Every day, we focus on moving forward even when the circumstances aren’t ideal. We do not give up or look for excuses. One friend who was legally blind raised guide puppies for others and showed dogs. I have 24% lung function and still play the trumpet. Another friend of mine was amazing on percussion and could use 4 mallets on keyboard percussion without the full use of his hands or fingers.

4) Physical limitations do not equate to mental limitations or general inability. One of my friends has visual impairment. One day, she stopped to ask for directions, and the person she asked leaned down and gave directions…to my friend’s guide dog. Many of you are using corrective lenses to read this, and you’re still capable of hearing, understanding things, making decisions and more. So are people with other disabilities.

5) You don’t need to feel sorry for us — we don’t. Like everyone, we periodically feel frustrated. Yet, most of us also live with joy and humor. In fact, many of us use humor as a coping strategy and as a way to break the tension when…um… something hits the fan.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?

I have 2 favorites:

1) “The best possible outcome will occur.”

When I act as if it’s true (whether I believe it or not in that moment), I see more options and get better results. I use it to help me let go rather than feel anxious about something that may never happen. And I also use it to heal and move forward when something has happened.

2) “Uncertainty is an invitation to create certainty of positive outcomes.”

I came up with that early during the pandemic, when many of us were in shutdown and I saw people talking about uncertainty as if it’s always bad. But I’ve dealt with a lot of uncertainty and have learned that if the outcome is uncertain, that means the door is open for things to end well. And we tend to go in the direction we look in. So, we might as well look at the nice scenery along the path. That doesn’t mean you ignore other things; you still address those. That’s part of effecting a positive outcome.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this 🙂

The mission for the Obama Foundation is very similar to my company’s mission — to inspire and empower others so they can make their greatest contribution. So, I’d love to talk with President Obama & Michelle Obama. While our companies share a mission, we have somewhat different backgrounds that contribute to it. So, we could have a great conversation that expands ideas and perspectives.

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