My 5 1/2 year old granddaughter, Sadie made this sign for her front window for the people walking by
Translation: You can do it.
“The way we live now finds us forming and sharing opinions at the speed of light, and sometimes we get hardened into those opinions, and express them forcefully—and with certainty.” Bryan Welch, CEO, Mindful
In this day of information proliferation and polarized information sources, it is easy to become rigid in our opinions. Afterall we don’t read anything that disputes our opinion, we only seek out information sources that confirm what we already think. We become righteous about our opinions. Our conversations turn into debates; trying to prove our point of view.
“We cannot listen to be right and listen to connect with an open heart at the same time.” David Emerald
We all like to be right. I grew up with praise for being smart. I thought being right was the way to connect with others. Being right got me ahead at work for a while, but it did not get me to connect with my co-workers. In the long run, being right was my glass ceiling. I thought I had to project certainty. So much so that I didn’t listen to others. I had no curiosity about their ideas or concerns. At work it was pretty much my way or the highway. I looked down on people who did not agree with me. Because of that I missed the opportunity to connect with some wonderful people.
A friend I have known since high school has a very different point of view than me. He reads different information sources that I have never heard of. And he shares contrary points of view with me. My first instinct was to tell him not to share information with me. But I said it in a way that communicated that I don’t want to see that garbage. Much of the time I would not even look at it.
After listening to a podcast on Ten Percent Happier where Dan Harris interviews Bill Doherty from Braver Angels, I decided to try a different strategy. I listened to the video he sent me. Then instead of firing off an unskillful response, I practiced noticing and considered some of the other practices discussed below. My response was more skillful: “This could be true and it could be false. You and I don’t have access to the facts to make that determination. While he (the speaker on the video) stated his allegations as facts, he did not provide any facts to prove his case.”
My friend’s response was a heart emoji. Now instead of being irritated with him for sending me videos that I do not agree with, I see him as he really is. Someone I can trust to always have my back.
The way we speak to others can bring them much joy, happiness, self-confidence, hope and trust. Or it can make them feel separate, unworthy, dumb or unnecessary. Only we can choose how we want to communicate with others. We can communicate to show how smart we are, or we can communicate to show we care and to connect. We can’t do both at the same time. Speaking to connect takes intention and practice. If our intention is to connect, we begin by listening deeply.
“When we think we already know what there is to hear, we are simply moving a little too fast to really listen—That’s where meditation comes in.” Mirabai Bush
To listen deeply, start by listening to how you listen. Unless we look deeply into ourselves, deep listening will not be easy. It requires us to give up preconceived ideas, judgments, and desires. Being good at listening requires the ability to listen to yourself. If you can’t recognize your own beliefs and opinions, needs and fears, you won’t have enough inner space to really hear anyone else.
“Like mindfulness itself, listening takes a combination of intention and attention. The intention part is having a genuine interest in the other person—their experiences, views, feelings, and needs. The attention part is being able to stay present, open, and unbiased as we receive the other’s words—even when they don’t line up with our own ideas or desires.” David Rome
To listen deeply, your intention cannot be to judge, criticize, condemn, evaluate or respond. Instead, you listen with the purpose of understanding the other person, reducing their suffering, or connecting. You listen with an openness to be changed by what you hear.
Some intentions draw us away from deep listening: wanting the person to perceive us in a certain way, wanting the conversation to go in a specific direction, or wanting to fix or control the other person.
Attention is a willingness just to be there and share stories. It is not listening while doing something else. We can’t pay attention when we are preoccupied with our own struggles. Wanting something also keeps us from paying attention. Sometimes what we want has nothing to do with the person. We can want to get back to work or to go get something to eat.
Listening in a non-judgmental way opens the space, allows us to hear what needs to be said or done in that moment. It also allows us to hear when it is better not to speak, which is sometimes a hard message to receive, especially for me when it is my children I am communicating with.
It is not until after we have listened with the intent to understand that we can respond skillfully. There are five questions to ask yourself before you open your mouth to speak.
- Is it true?
- Is it kind?
- Is it beneficial?
- Is it necessary?
- Is it the right time?
Speaking skillfully means telling the truth without embellishment. It’s important to remember that what you think is the truth could be your own incomplete or erroneous perception. Most of us don’t have access to the actual facts, so we need to be careful not to spread news that we do not know to be certain.
If you are speaking skillfully, toxic words will not escape from your lips. We have to be aware of our habit energies to say something poisonous. Watch those eye rolls or the sharp sigh that means “Duh-oh, that was kind of dumb.” Take a moment to see if there is a way to say what you want to say without pouring gasoline on the fire.
“When people shift away from being snippy, curt, snarky, derisive, or contentious, they usually become stronger communicators.” Rick Hanson
Rick Hanson also says not to squander interpersonal capital on the short-term gratifications of harsh tone. By using a gentler tone, it reduces the chance that the other person will avoid dealing with what you say by shifting attention to how you say it. Focus on presenting it in a way that makes it easy for others to accept.
When emotions are roiling, that is not the right time to try to get your point across. If it is your emotions, you probably won’t speak skillfully. And if it is your conversation partner’s emotions, they will not be in a position to listen.
All of this is a lot easier said than done. Here are some tips I have found to help with my communication skills.
Self-awareness is an important aspect of skillful communication. Practice noticing:
- When you have left a conversation, your mind has wandered off
- When you have an agenda, you want or don’t want something
- What you are feeling inside, the energy of irritation, anger or other negative feelings pulls our attention away from listening
- What is triggering you, it may not be what the person is saying, but simply baggage from your past
- When you want to be somewhere else
- When you feel you don’t have enough time for this conversation
“Be mindful of what’s called “priming”: feeling already mistreated or annoyed irritated – or already in a critical frame of mind. Little things can land on this priming like a match on a pile of firecrackers, setting them off.” Rick Hanson
Once you have practiced noticing, there are a myriad of skills that you can practice:
- Silently noting your own reactions as they arise—thoughts, feelings, judgments, memories. Then return your full attention to the speaker.
- Listening to understand instead of to respond.
- Not taking things personally.
- Being with uncomfortable feelings.
- Finding common ground, finding something you agree with before you disagree.
- Using I statements instead of “truth statements.” Truth statements often come with a comma, “,dummy.” Remember, most of us do not have direct access to policy relevant facts.
- Pivoting – signaling that you want to share your own perspective and are looking for verbal or nonverbal agreement to do so.
- Planning in advance so you are not starting out triggered.
- Replacing certainty with curiosity.
We all know it is in our best interest to connect instead of divide. It takes an intention to connect, noticing what is truly happening in the present moment, and practicing skills that make us more skillful speakers. Remember you can’t connect with an intention to show that you are right. But you can communicate to connect. As my 5 ½ year old granddaughter Sadie wrote as a sign for her front window, “YU KIN DU IT.”