Let’s Talk communication column

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Laura Dafoe is a retired teacher who is dedicated to cultivating peace through the study and practice of compassionate communication. Her Let’s Talk column appears regularly in print in the Gulf Islands Driftwood newspaper. They are posted in sequence below.

  1. Communication: Are you ready to listen?

“The quieter you become, the more you can hear.” — Ram Dass

Climate change, money, politics and religion are some of the most influential and divisive topics throughout the world.

Many of us avoid these controversial issues in favour of being polite because we fear the discussion will turn into an argument and relationships will suffer damage. Or, we might think it’s pointless because other people rarely listen to our opinions anyway. The opposite also takes place when we voice our views strongly, sometimes taking extreme stances or making heated demands. Most of these discussions end in a hurtful conflict and matters of importance go unresolved. 

Today’s tip will be helpful in any conversation but it is most important when there is a tension-filled disagreement.

The first thing to do is stop talking and prepare yourself to listen attentively while being open-minded and curious. The incredible thing is . . . the conversation will go well even if only one of you listens in this fashion.

“Seek first to understand and then be understood.” — Steve Covey

Choose to put your ideas on the shelf for now and focus on what the other person is saying. Always remember that the beliefs and opinions of others have come from their very real life experiences, as have yours. Your opinions and values are of equal importance and you will get your chance to voice them. The likelihood of being heard yourself will increase if you listen to the other person first. 

To prepare for listening, put yourself in a state of calmness by breathing deeply into your belly. Taking in fresh oxygen can lower your blood pressure and relax your mind, body, and spirit. It can also lay a foundation of mindfulness that will enable you to truly listen. Be confident in your ability to listen wholeheartedly.

Preparing yourself to listen is the beginning of a solid foundation for effective communication. The other person will sense your genuine interest and start to feel more at ease. During the next week, notice the difference in your conversations when you apply this basic tip.

Next: Beware of blocks to listening.

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2. Why does communication fail?

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” George Bernard Shaw

There are some subtle habits we often fall into that prevent us from understanding each other when we communicate. These habits are recognized as being barriers or blocks to effective listening. As we become aware of them, we are able to use our listening skills rather than default to their use. This allows the person speaking the space to express thoughts more clearly and fully. As the listener, you will feel the ease of simply being present and you will really hear what they have to say.

Be aware of the following common communication blocks:

Advising: We think we know the nature of the problem the person is describing and then we jump in quickly to offer advice. We may say things like “If I were you I would…” or “You should …” While we usually have the best intentions, the speaker often just wants to be heard. As a rule of thumb, give advice only when you are asked.

Judging: This occurs so naturally that as listeners we are often unaware of making judgments. We may find ourselves making judgments based on previous interactions with that individual. “I have heard this a hundred times.”

Mind Reading: When we hear ourselves saying, “I know what they really mean,” it’s a clue that we are over-thinking and not listening.

Rehearsing: We find ourselves rehearsing in our mind what we are going to say next in order to demonstrate our own knowledge of the topic.

Story Telling: When we share a similar experience, we believe we are demonstrating effective listening technique. In fact the opposite is true. “I remember when I …” is better left out of active listening.

Other impediments to active listening include comparing, consoling, dismissing, derailing, downplaying, educating, fixing, joking and sympathizing.

In the coming weeks, be mindful of your own listening habits, try letting the blocks go, and appreciate a shift in the quality of your communication and connection.

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3. Empathy

“The greatest gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy.” — Meryl Streep

Empathy is the key to communication. When we truly feel what the other person is feeling, and do our best to understand their point of view, an important connection is made. This is the power of empathy and the framework from which communication can flourish.

When our feelings are acknowledged, and our thoughts understood, we experience a sense of calm. Science has shown that, in these moments, a biochemical reaction takes place that soothes neuron activity, helping us to relax. From this place of stillness we are able to think more clearly and express our thoughts with composure. 

It is important to remember that empathy is not the same as agreement. We can let someone know we hear what they are thinking and feeling, without agreeing with their opinion.

As listeners we also benefit from empathic listening. Our perspectives are widened and our thinking becomes more flexible and open to new ideas. A relationship of trust and caring develops as we get to know the other person better.

Even though empathy comes naturally to us, sustaining it can be a challenge. As with all skills, we get better with practice. There is no particular way to “do” empathy other than having the intention to be truly present with the other person and letting them know you are there with them.

Examples of empathic responses:

Would you like some acknowledgement for how hard you work?

I’m guessing you might have felt embarrassed or uncomfortable.

Is there anything I can do to help?

Let me see if I’m understanding you?

“Empathy is patiently and sincerely seeing the world through the other person’s eyes. It is cultivated over a lifetime.” —  Albert Einstein

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4. Observation: A starting point for dialogue

An accurate observation is an important pillar for successful communication. When we describe what we see or hear in simple, truthful ways, we maintain the human connection essential for communication.

Too often our observations are tainted by what we perceive to be happening and they are usually based on past experiences. Our perceptions can lead us to make evaluations that may not be accurate. With these “observations” the other person will often hear criticism, become defensive and may resist listening.

Observations are communicated effectively when we focus only on concrete events and actions. You may find it useful to direct your attention as if you were a video camera. As a general rule, it is best to avoid using words such as “always, never and every time.”

For example, rather than saying, “Your room is such a mess,” say, “I see that your bed is not made and there are clothes on the floor.” Rather than saying, “You never put the remote back where it belongs,” say, “I notice the remote is not where we usually keep it.”

Making accurate, specific observations without assumptions and judgments enables us to clearly state what we want to express.

In the following weeks, pay attention to the quality of your observations and enjoy the resulting dialogue.

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5. Feelings and needs: where communication begins

In the last column we discussed how making careful observations will improve your communication skills.

It is quite common for these observations to coincide with physical sensations. For instance, if you are the recipient of a good deed, you may feel a sense of gratitude and warmth; if something scares you, you might break into a sweat or even start to shake. These body sensations are responses to underlying instinctual needs that can be emotional or physical. Pleasant feelings like joy and contentment arise when these needs are met, and unpleasant feelings such as anger and frustration occur when these needs are not met. For example, you may feel frightened when you see a car speeding down the street because of your need for safety. Or, you’ve lost your wallet and feel anxious because you have a need for security. When a Good Samaritan returns your wallet, you feel relief and joy as your trust in humanity has been restored.

Human beings everywhere have the same feelings and needs. It is this understanding that helps us see ourselves in one another and develop compassion. The better you know yourself, the easier it is to express your thoughts. When you speak from your heart, others will recognize these same feelings and needs within themselves. This is where we find connection and have more meaningful conversations.

“We may have different religions, different languages, different coloured skin, but we all belong to one human race. We all share the same basic values.” — Kofi Annan

During the following weeks, notice your feelings and connect them with your underlying needs. For lists of feelings and needs go to: www.cnvc.org/Training/feelings-inventory.

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6. Needs: Our Common Ground

“Understanding human needs is half the job of meeting them.” Adlai Stevenson

Having our needs met allows us to thrive as human beings. An awareness of how needs drive our behaviour is essential for understanding ourselves and others. When we are clear about our need for acceptance, equality, freedom, love, and safety, and we have the ability to fulfill these needs, our lives are enriched. Confusion about our needs can lead to lives hampered with conflict. For example, many teenagers who may not yet recognize their growing need for independence become rebellious. Parents, out of concern for safety, enforce greater restrictions, only making matters worse with no one getting their needs met. When parents understand that anger and frustration are expressions of unmet needs, they will reflect on their own teenage years and remember how the drive for independence affected their own behaviour. With this insight, a dialogue can take place where teenagers learn to express themselves in ways that will increase the likelihood of meeting their needs.

Other important aspects of needs:

• We all have the same needs but may differ in how we go about trying to fulfill them.

• Needs vary in importance depending on a number of factors, including age, time of day and current culture.

• It’s important to value everyone’s needs equally.

When we focus on needs, we shift from divisive, judgmental thinking toward connection in our common humanity. Compassion comes with remembering that we are all doing the best we can in our attempts to meet our needs.

During the following weeks refer to Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and reflect upon the needs you are trying to meet with all you say and do.

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” Rumi

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7. Feelings: Connecting the Heart to the Mind

“Educating the mind, without educating the heart, is no education at all.” — Aristotle

Over 2,000 years ago, the Greek thinker Aristotle recognized and made clear that there is great power in speaking from the heart. Today, we are rediscovering the positive effects of engaging the heart along with the mind. When we speak from our emotions it stirs the same feelings that reside in others, creating a vital energetic connection. This is where we can bridge the gap between different perspectives and move toward mutual understanding.

We know that sharing our feelings connects us to one another yet often our attempts go sideways. Confusion arises when we use the words “I feel,” followed by words that describe a thought, rather than an emotion. For example, “I feel ignored” or “I feel like that’s unfair” sound as if we’re expressing a feeling, but we’re really stating a thought. These thoughts are described as pseudo-feelings.

Pseudo-feelings usually begin with phrases such as:

-“I feel you…” or “I feel that they…”

-“I feel like…” or “I feel as if…”

Comments expressed this way often cause the listener to react defensively, creating conflict and distance. Recognizing the distinction between our thoughts and feelings shifts us toward taking responsibility for our feelings and articulating them in ways the listener will understand. For example, “I feel ignored” becomes “I feel sad because I think you’re ignoring me.” And, “I think that’s unfair” becomes “I’m frustrated because I think there’s a more equitable way.” Whether a discussion is personal or professional, connecting our minds with the wisdom of the heart eases the process of working together toward solutions. 

Using words to articulate our emotions takes practice. During the following weeks, take some time to reflect on your feelings and see how clearly you can define them. Word lists of feelings are helpful and available online.

For more information on head-heart coherence refer to heartmath.org

“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” — Aristotle

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8. The Art of Making Requests 

“The clearer we are about what we want, the more likely it is that we will get it.” — Marshall Rosenberg

In our day-to-day lives we often make requests. Asking for something is one step we can take toward having our needs met. Requests can be simple, like asking for help with the dishes, or more complex ones in our various relationships. Above all we want to express our requests clearly and specifically. Rather than making a general request for something such as more help around the house, ask for what you need in concrete terms.  For example, “Would you be willing to make dinner on Mondays and Wednesdays?” This lets the listener know exactly what it is you are asking for. Besides being specific, we want to frame our requests in a positive way. In other words, ask for what we want, instead of what we don’t want. For instance, “I don’t want you spending so much time on the computer.” could be “I’d like to watch a movie together tonight,” which is now something possible to do.

Mutual respect and equality are maintained when our requests are genuine.  A true request is one in which we are willing to hear a “no” when someone is reluctant in their response. During these times it’s important to listen, and try to remain empathetic, as they express their needs. A phrase such as the following is useful, “What is it that stops you from (agreeing to this request)?” Understanding the needs of everyone involved is essential as you progress to definitive actions or solutions.

We want others to honour our requests only if they can do so willingly and perhaps even with pleasure. It is our true nature to contribute to each other’s wellbeing.

During the following weeks pay attention to the quality of your requests and the way in which they are received.

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