EXAMINED LIFE As I was walking to class the other night, the sky suddenly changed from picturesque puffed clouds to torrential downpour. I had no rain gear or umbrella, so I picked up the pace to a jog so as not to get drenched. Fully aware that slipping on the pavement moments before I had to teach would be an undesirable occurrence, I began focusing intently and saying to myself, with each step, the words “don’t slip.” Thankfully, I didn’t.
It got me thinking: Imagine how different our important conversations would be if we could take on a similar “don’t slip” mantra while engaging in them. But, we generally do just the opposite. The conversations we’re having—in person, online, in emails, and in texts—are often scatterbrained, agitated, and reactive. During this time of societal chaos and technological distraction, we’re “slipping” a lot. We may have diplomas and driver’s licenses, but when it comes to communication, we’re far from mastery. That’s because we aren’t taught interpersonal communication the way we’re taught soccer, legal arbitration, or physics. In fact, we aren’t taught it at all.
The importance of communicating with intention is an aspect of all major spiritual traditions. Buddhism touts the importance of wise speech. The Ten Commandments tell us: “Thou shalt not lie.” The New Testament states that “In the beginning was the Word … and the Word was God.” Don Miguel Ruiz, the author of the Toltec wisdom book, The Four Agreements, emphasizes being “impeccable with your word.”
But we are not impeccable, not with our speech or our listening. We have more ways to communicate than ever before—which means more ways to miscommunicate, too. What can begin as a small language misstep can quickly escalate into an argument, the end of a relationship, or violence. And language, when misused, is often a major form of systemic oppression. We can do better, but we need some schooling.
What we need to understand is that thought and emotion precede language. Though we’re all familiar with the common use of the expression “I spoke before thinking,” what really happens is we speak too quickly after thinking. For example, when we hear something we don’t like in a conversation, an aversive thought immediately arises about that thing. Then we become fearful or defiant, and our nervous system becomes agitated. Now, chemical changes are occurring in our bodies to assist in fight or flight. And then, in this basically drugged state, we speak.
As babies, it’s natural and fitting to communicate from this place of emotionally-charged safety-seeking. Maybe even cute. As adults, it’s irresponsible at best, and destructive at worst. We become aware only of getting our immediate needs met, like toddlers, though those needs are less about eating and diapering, and more about attaining or maintaining a position of control, righteousness, or status in the dynamic in which we find ourselves. A lot of harm can be done when we communicate from this state. A lot of, well, slipping.
Are You Talking or Listening?
As the practice of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) teaches us, there are two roles in every conversation: Speaker and Listener. You cannot play both roles at once (though if you grew up in New York, like I did, you might try; that’s an unofficial third role called Interrupter). It may feel stuffy or forced to consider your role in every moment of a conversation, but if you practice this over time, it becomes less like a game of chess and more like a relaxed tennis match. Roles will switch multiple times throughout the conversation but that’s always through a shared (sometimes even verbalized) agreement, so that each person feels fully heard.
When you’re in the Speaker role, try to stay rooted in your body, with part of your attention below your neck, even as you talk. In this way, you stay focused and embodied. Speak slowly, when possible. Check for cues from the Listener to see if what you are saying is landing the way you’re intending it, and if it isn’t, try another way. Remember that mindful speaking is not the same as writing a persuasive essay. You’re not in conversation to defend your position (and if you are, it’s a great way to alienate people); you’re in conversation to connect.
If you’re the Listener, try to actually listen. Mindful listening has one intention: to understand the other person. If we listen merely as an obligation while we’re waiting for our turn to talk, or because we think the other person will give us something (a new job, a free drink, or an upgraded social status), we’re consciously or unconsciously trying to manipulate them—but we’re not listening. Learning how to deeply listen is a skill and practice, and has to be done again and again.
Generally speaking, we tend to regret things said in a moment of fear, anger, or contraction. That’s not a surprise. When your emotions are running high, your cognitive and rational abilities are running low; that’s simply a fact of our engineering. It’s kind of a design flaw, but evolution didn’t allow for a species recall, so this is what we’ve got. To make things more inefficient, we often don’t realize when our emotions have taken over because they hijack our brains. Ever notice how you are always 110 percent right when you are angry? Then, when you cool down, you realize you were more like 15 percent right (which is not a lot of right). How right you are didn’t change, but your adrenaline levels did. Some people stay angry all the time just so they don’t have to contend with the come down, but you don’t want that for yourself, and neither do I.
Our emotions are important for connection, but we don’t want them running the whole show. If we make an intention before a conversation starts, to engage with it slowly and with complete awareness, we can be aware when we are flooded by an emotion. For instance, if you’re talking and your face gets really warm or your heart starts racing … stop talking. This is a good moment to take a few breaths and regulate your system until you can speak calmly again. If you can’t calm down, it’s OK—simply tell your conversation partner that you do want to finish the conversation, but need a break because your nervous system is overwhelmed. Meditating (outside of conversation) is a great way to practice feeling emotions, naming them, observing the sensations that arise with them, and learning to regulate the physiological effects they produce. War, by the way, is a product of mass communication between dysregulated nervous systems. So learning how to stabilize your own nervous system is a radical act.
Be Aware of the System We Live In
If you are male, white, hetero, wealthy, cis-gendered, or able-bodied, you may not notice how oppression arises in conversation dynamics. But it does. If you find yourself in a dialogue with someone who faces systemic oppression (even if it doesn’t seem to relate to the topic at hand), be extra aware of how much space you are taking up in the conversation, and how you are taking up that space. The words mansplaining and whitesplaining point to an unconscious attempt by those in positions of societal power to take the reins of a conversation simply because they are used to doing so. You may not think you’re dominating the dynamic, but you might be anyway.
Let’s say a person has come to you to talk about a difficult situation in their lives, like their dog is sick or they had an argument with a co-worker. Look at the below most common responses. Which is closest to your go-to?
- It’ll be OK! It could be so much worse! (insert heart emoji)
- That totally reminds me of the time when I …
- Are you sure that’s what really happened?
- What you should do is …(insert your sage advice)
These may seem like fine responses, but if you look closer, you can see that a) completely dismisses your friend’s emotions, which makes her feel small; b) feels like a way of relating, but in actuality simply reroutes the attention to yourself; c) doubts your friend’s sanity, which is not helpful (unless you really do doubt his sanity and then it’s still not helpful); and d) advises your friend, even though she has not asked for advice—and likely doesn’t want any.
So, if we can’t smooth things over, narcissistically hijack the conversation, interrogate, or advise, what are we supposed to do? Responding to a friend or relative in distress is a privilege. You are not being asked to fix their life. You are being called upon to be present with their suffering. Start by patiently listening until they are at a stopping point. Then, let them know you hear them and can see how hard this is for them. You can also ask caring questions, like “How did this part make you feel?” or “Tell me more, if you like.”
If you want to offer support, ask your friend what kind of support would be helpful. And then make sure your conversation partner feels complete with what they shared before changing the subject. How you respond can dramatically change a person’s experience in the conversation—and in their lives.
If this all sounds like a lot of work just to communicate, that’s because … it is! But consider this: We’re a bunch of animals walking around on a giant rock floating through space, with very little understanding about how anything really works, and the main way we have to make connections with one another is through language. What could be more important than improving how we use it? (Insert rainbow or hug emoji here.)