This chapter has been published in the book The Art of Gentle Living. For ordering information, please click here.
Having discussed how we as individuals may work on ourselves by developing spiritual awareness, conscious self-mastery, understanding of feelings, and clear thinking, we turn now more directly to our relationships with other people. Communication is an important way of sharing awareness with other people, both in learning from others and in conveying our own needs, feelings, aspirations, ideas, intentions, motives, wishes, concerns, and so on. Communication is the process that enables people to live together as a community. As more human beings live on this Earth, the challenges of learning how to get along with each other continue to increase. Even rural people tend to live in families and towns, while the growing urban populations are having more interactions. Many people have noticed that those living in small towns tend to be friendlier than the residents of big cities who see so many people every day that it is difficult to relate personally to each of them. Yet even in metropolitan areas people can have harmonious relations by learning how to respect everyone and by practicing courtesy even with strangers.
In relating to human beings I believe that respect is a good way to begin. As humans we each have our own dignity and sensitivities. Surely everyone wants to be respected as a person, and no one wants to be mistreated. The golden rule teaches that if we would like to be respected, then we should respect others in the same way. Some believe that respect needs to be earned, and therefore they only respect certain people. Although some people may deserve special considerations, I suggest that treating every person as worthy of respect lifts humanity to a finer level. Besides, it is rather obvious that those who do not treat others with respect will often not be respected in return.
Courtesy has been found to make encounters with other people more pleasant and considerate. We help children learn how to respect people by teaching them the value and importance of using such magic words as "please" and "thank you." Even before memorizing the alphabet, children can begin to learn how to be considerate of others and how to share. Usually when most people interact in public they are modest and courteous toward people they meet. People normally wait their turn in lines, and often they are too shy to even strike up a conversation, which may make standing in line an interesting and possibly even an educational experience. The recent introduction of cell phones has enabled people to have conversations with someone at a distance without being limited by a wire. Yet what used to be private conversations can now sometimes be overheard in public and may be irritating to other people. Politeness in this and other personal conflicts is part of gentle living.
When people are in the privacy of their own automobile, they are insulated from personal contact with other drivers. This makes communication difficult, and the options such as using the horn or altering one's driving pattern are crude and can also be dangerous. Driving a heavy car or truck at high speeds is a very dangerous activity and needs to be done with supreme caution. Defensive driving is recommended as being much more safe than aggressive driving. The wise driver will leave enough space in front of the car in order to be able to see and in an emergency to stop or adjust. The gentle or courteous driver respects the rights of pedestrians, bicyclers, and other cars and trucks. Following speed limits is safer, and at higher speeds it conserves fuel as well. Certainly it is better for slower drivers to use the right lanes, but that does not give the law-breakers who are exceeding the speed limit the right to intimidate other drivers who may be traveling at the speed limit.
Communication begins when we give our attention to another person. We can show respect by looking at the person who is attempting to communicate with us and by listening with our undivided attention. Maintaining direct eye contact is a very effective way of developing a close connection. This is actually one of the fastest paths to intimacy, and for that reason many people are leery of extended eye contact and will often look away. We can be sensitive to people's feelings and concerns, respecting the conscious and subconscious wishes of others. For those who do wish to develop intimate communication quickly, being in close proximity with much eye contact are effective ways of opening oneself to the other person.
Listening skills vary. Some people may let their minds wander off on other ideas or may immediately react with moral judgments and then begin planning how one intends to respond. The good listener clears one's mind in order to absorb what the other person is saying and expressing nonverbally also. Instead of setting up one's own independent view, try to see the perspective of the person who is talking. By observing as neutrally as we can without forming any judgments we can begin to understand what the speaker is saying. Empathy means feeling for other people without having any judgmental attitudes. If we use our imagination to put ourselves in their situation, we may better understand the feelings they are expressing.
As we are listening, we may want to make sure that we are understanding correctly what the other person is saying. One way to do this when we are not sure is to summarize or paraphrase what we are understanding the person has said and ask if the speaker thinks our comprehension is correct. Then the communicator can clarify the meaning by explaining what one is actually intending to communicate. This process of active listening can be used when both people are comfortable with the technique. It can be cumbersome and time-consuming to try to paraphrase everything, but it is usually helpful in getting the main points and in clearing up possible misunderstandings. After hearing the listener's paraphrase, the speaker can affirm what was understood and make corrections. The point is not to determine whether a misunderstanding was caused by the speaker or the listener but just to come to a good understanding. In this way the speaker learns how to express one's ideas better, and the listener finds out how well one is understanding the messages.
The art of gentle living means being sensitive to others as one is to oneself. Body language will often give us clues as to what the person is feeling and how one may respond appropriately. If the other person seems to be cowering away from us, we may be coming on too strongly and loudly. The listener who is leaning forward and has an expression of struggle on one's face may be straining to hear because we are speaking too softly. If the person seems impatient or uncomfortable, we may simply ask them what it is that might be bothering them. Perhaps they are in a hurry and would rather communicate at another time. Many people would just say this; but some may be too shy, and so we may need to ask. Not interrupting is normally part of courtesy and sensitivity, although in some circumstances one may have a valid reason for interrupting, especially if the person has been speaking for a long time without a break for a response. Interrupting in the middle of a phrase can be disconcerting, but we can be sensitive by being patient and waiting for a pause. We need to be sensitive to our own needs and concerns so that we can communicate them. If the other person is not skilled at communicating wishes, we may want to ask the person directly what they want or perhaps make a tentative suggestion. Being sensitive is often aided by listening to our intuition and our compassion. By communicating gently with respect for others they can feel more safe and able to express their true feelings, concerns, and desires. As previously mentioned, not judging the person is very important, and offering criticism needs to be done with the utmost sensitivity so as not to alienate the person.
We can be sensitive to other people's needs, wishes, and choices by being adaptable and respectful. In expressing our own needs, feelings, and ideas we can be humble and considerate of others. Insisting that others agree or adopt one's own views or proposals often makes minor conflicts worse. We can be sensitive by discerning whether we are standing up for our own rights or attempting to impose our beliefs and values on another. I believe we have a right to insist on our own rights as long as we are not harming others; but if we insist that others do what we want, they may resist in order to defend their own prerogatives.
Most people are more likely to be influenced by the expression of feelings than they are by ideas. Our feelings may become bottled up and explosive or poisonous if we do not allow them to express in healthy ways. Nonetheless we still need to monitor our negative emotions and be sensitive to their possible effects on other people. Thus we need to find ways of expressing them that will not offend or alienate others. We can be very angry about something and yet find a gentle way of communicating why we are so concerned about the situation. However, if we release our negative feelings in ways that appear to be against other people, the reaction is likely to be negative and make the situation worse. Here again empathy is important. We need to consider how we would want to hear our concern. Putting other people down for what we do not like will probably not change their behavior. First it is helpful to find out if the listener is willing to hear your concern. Otherwise by going against their wishes your views may be rejected, and you may feel frustrated.
A common problem is that many blame other people and imply that they are responsible for what one is suffering. Although we may wish to help other people to learn how to be more responsible, that ultimately is going to be their choice. If we begin by taking responsibility for our own feelings by communicating what we are feeling as well as why we feel upset, then the other person may be more open to understanding. When someone attacks another person verbally, the natural reaction is for that person to defend oneself. Instead of projecting our own feelings onto others, we can own our own feelings by making "I" statements instead of accusing other people by saying such things that might begin, "You are " or "You shouldn't " By describing our own feelings consciously we are being responsible for them even though our feelings were in response to the actions of others. In this way we do not seem to be as accusatory of others. When someone understands how their actions may have affected the feelings of another, they then may feel more free to accept some of the responsibility for what they may have done. When explaining how the behavior of others may have triggered our emotional response, we can be factual by stating what we observed happened without making judgments about it except to say how we felt in response. When we have empathy and are sensitive to the feelings of others, they are more likely to respond positively to us.
Expressing positive feelings can also be very helpful so that others may understand what is working well. By disclosing to others what we like about their behavior they may feel affirmed, improving the relationship. Also such positive feelings can help to prepare the way if some other concerns may need to be expressed. Usually most people do not want to hear anything negative from someone with whom they do not feel any connection. We can also establish mutual empathy by being willing to admit our feelings of sadness, fear, guilt, anger, or jealousy. We need to make sure that we are expressing our authentic feelings honestly. If someone tries to manipulate others by pretending to have feelings that are not real, this is likely to backfire when people realize that the person was not sincere.
One of the greatest things about spontaneous conversations is that we can ask each other direct questions. This may be a more gentle way of getting into a topic of concern than by expressing opinions or complaining. We may want to know the motives and intentions of the other person so that we can better understand their behavior and attitudes. We may also encourage others to ask us questions so that we can better respond to their needs and interests. Asking a question implies that the other person can choose how to answer, and one may even choose not to answer a particular question. Also asking a question shows that we are interested in learning what the other person has to say about that. By this process we can learn much from each other about all kinds of things. The opportunity to ask questions of a knowledgeable person can be of tremendous value. In developing relationship two people can get to know each other very well by asking each other questions as well as by sharing experiences and discussing various issues. Although Socrates and some lawyers were skilled at asking a series of leading questions in order to demonstrate certain points, generally it is better to ask open-ended questions that are not simply answered by yes or no. Or, when asked a yes-or-no question, the person is free to explain one's answer.
Being open to people is an important aspect of compassionate communication. People who ask questions usually have an open mind to receive new information and viewpoints. Just as we are open to the feelings of others by being empathetic we can be open to their ideas and beliefs by being inquiring and even curious. Also when we give our own opinions in answering questions, we can avoid being authoritative and dogmatic by being willing to consider other possibilities as well. This openness enables us to receive spiritual guidance from within and from others. Life is continually changing, and we know so little that it is best to be humble and realize that much is beyond us. Just as we allow our own authority to be questioned, we also have a right to question the authority of others. Yet this can be dangerous if it is not done diplomatically. Thus in questioning we can learn how to avoid having a belligerent or arrogant attitude.
In compassionate communication we are respecting the freedom and dignity of people. Although we may want other people to act in specific ways, we can realize that it is always their choice. Thus instead of giving orders or making demands, gentle communicators make requests, suggestions, or offers. Each person has the right to make their own decisions about their own affairs. If someone wants to do something that directly affects someone else, then one may ask permission. Surely we expect as much if someone is aiming to do something that may affect our lives. Decisions involving mutual cooperation thus can greatly benefit by good communication so that the needs and wishes of each person may be harmonized in the best way possible. Sometimes this may result in compromises in order to be able to achieve a working partnership. The choice of not cooperating is always possible, but one may decide that this is worse than a compromise.
Sometimes communication becomes negotiation. Those whose negotiating style does not allow compromise may end up with some horrendous results. For example, if a leader of a powerful country tells the leaders of another country that they must do what he (or she) says or military force will be used, this is really coercion or bullying on a major scale. This approach was taken by the US presidents H. W. Bush against Iraq in 1990, by Bill Clinton against Yugoslavia in 1999, and by George W. Bush against Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Employers may also abuse their authority by demanding that an employee obey their orders or be fired. In relationship this is known as "my way or the highway." Although these are choices (because people always have a choice), they may not really be fair or considerate choices. Those who present people with such brutal choices are likely to end up with nothing or a bad situation. Thus when we offer other people choices, we need to be as open as possible. We can listen with empathy to their needs and interests so that we can find what is truly best for everyone. Nonetheless we each have our own integrity, and it is important to communicate to others the ethical standards we will not violate. For many this would include such basic precepts as not killing, not stealing, not lying, not cheating, and so on.
Even in giving advice it is usually wise to give the other person several choices or options so that they will realize they have choices and are making their own decision. Even before giving advice, it is considerate to ask if the person wants to hear your suggestions. Thus respecting the choices of others is a continuous process during communication. This is why it is generally wise not to talk too long without getting a response or asking a question so that others can also help direct the conversation. People may choose different forms of communication. Being compassionate in our communication means that we have empathy for the feelings and choices of other people as well as for our own.
When we are speaking, I believe it is best to be as honest as possible. Deception, unless it is only temporary for humor or surprise and is soon made clear, is likely to make communication very problematic. We may learn how to get along with anyone, but it is most difficult with those who are violent or lie. Violence is excluded from gentle living because it does not allow choices and does not respect persons. Lying or deception in communication may cause people to make choices that are not for their good because they were misled. When the lie or deception is exposed, then trust for the person who deceived is seriously damaged. One begins to doubt what the person says and whether promises will be fulfilled. These make cooperation or partnership very difficult and possibly even chaotic and intolerable. They say you can live with anyone except a liar, because you cannot be sure what is really happening. Of course anyone can make a mistake, and some statements may turn out to be false because one was misinformed or made an error. These things happen but can be more easily cleared up by communicating the truth when it becomes known. People who lie to others often deceive themselves, and so others may have to learn how to deal with these patterns; such experiences may cause people to develop a skepticism that can be healthy in these situations. In some circumstances lying may be understandable. If a person feels threatened, or in an extreme case if one is actually being tortured, then in self-protection one may say what those doing the intimidating want to hear. In such cases those using the coercion or threat of violence may bear more of the responsibility for the resulting falsehood and confusion.
Even as we are being frank and honest, we can still be sensitive to the feelings of others. As with advice, it is wise to ask if someone wants to hear some constructive criticism. If so, then one may gently go into it by affirming the positive things as well as noting what you think may benefit by improvement. By placing the emphasis on the positive alternatives, the criticism may seem more constructive and less of an attack on the person's behavior or attitudes. We can also be honest about our own shortcomings and faults so that others can see that we are not implying that we are better. The honest disclosure of our mistakes and errors, which people may fear to make because they do not want to admit mistakes and so lose trust, often gains more trust from others who are usually wise enough to realize that the person who has admitted a mistake is not as likely to repeat it. Thus the worst mistake a person may make is not admitting a past mistake, because that means the past mistake has not been corrected and is not likely to be corrected. Thus what was a little mistake has become a big mistake.
Another important way of being honest with people is declaring our intentions. This is useful for several reasons. It helps us to focus on our purposes, communicate them to others, and thus makes them more likely to be fulfilled. It also helps others to relate better to us because they know what our goals and objectives are. If we do not declare our intentions for a long time, the other person in a prospective relationship for example, may be developing hopes and wishes that are not based on reality. Then when the intentions eventually become known, great emotional disappointment and hurt may result. This is sometimes called "stringing people along." If the assumed intention is changed, it may be "bait and switch." As humans we are all pursuing various purposes, and communication is an important part of working for our ideals and goals. As we work with other people, these various motives and intentions interact. Thus it is usually helpful for people to know why we are involved in various activities. People with similar intentions may want to work together toward their goals, and so it is useful for them to know what each person's priorities and commitments are.
By being open and honest about our intentions people can relate
to us with more awareness. We can ask people for what we want
while still recognizing their right to say no or do something
else. In intimate relationships especially this open communication
enables each partner to let one's deepest and most sensitive desires
be known to the one who may be able to help fulfill them. The
partner may respond by expressing their preferences in relation
to those desires, and by this process of loving communication
they can find the best ways to relate to each other and the world.
This chapter has been published in the book The Art of Gentle Living. For ordering information, please click here.