In all communication, there is one thing that each and every one us requires. We all want to be appreciated, honoured, and respected. None of us want to feel criticized, rejected, ignored, or manipulated. To reduce it to its simplest terms, we each want to feel loved. I do not mean love in a romantic sense, or some outpouring of emotion, but simple caring. This is the universal bottom line of every human relationship. We all want to feel cared for.
If each of us would like to be treated with care and respect, then it should be our intent to do so for others. But what often happens is the exact opposite. Instead of trying to ensure that the other person feels loved and appreciated, we end up in a vicious circle of recrimination and attack.
It usually starts by our feelings hurt over something someone said or did. Whether they intended to hurt us or whether it is all our own creation does not matter. The fact is we feel hurt, and if we are not fully conscious of our own inner processes, we are likely to defend ourselves by attacking back in some way. It’s not the most noble or wisest response, nevertheless that is the way us less-than-enlightened folk sometimes react.
We may respond with a cutting remark or criticism, a resentful tone of voice, a shift in body language, or simply by making no response at all. Whatever form it takes, the underlying intention is that the other person should feel just a little hurt—not much, not enough to disrupt the relationship, but sufficient that the other person should not feel totally, one hundred per cent, loved.
But if the other person is also less than enlightened, their response to a perceived attack will probably be similar to ours. They will probably attack back, and do or say something intended to make us feel a little hurt and not totally loved.
So the vicious circle begins. It may not always be that obvious. On the surface it often looks as if the relationship is going well; both people are friendly, with no open hostility. But underneath, a sad game is being played out. Each person, in their attempts to have the other person behave in a more loving manner, is actually withholding love from the other. It is little wonder that many couples end up in therapy.
The vicious circle can be broken if two people start from the recognition that each wants to feel loved and at ease. The question then becomes: How can I communicate so that this requirement is satisfied? This is the essence of a high quality relationship—the intent that others should feel cared for and respected.
The Buddha called this the principle of “right speech.” If you cannot say something in such a way that the other person feels good on hearing it, then it is better to retain noble silence.
This should not be interpreted as a cop-out. “I have something difficult to say, and I don’t know how to say it in such a way that you won’t feel hurt, so I shall just keep quiet.” We need to get our feelings out, but we need to do so in a way that does not initiate the vicious circle of mutual attack. So we should retain noble silence only so long as we need to, while we work out how to say what we have to say in a kind and caring manner.
How can we do this? There are several things that can help:
- Become vigilant against attacking thoughts. Filtering out these less than noble intentions can remove much of the problem at the source. Simply the intent not to be attacking can be a major help.
- Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Avoid expressions or examples that might “push their buttons” or which they might construe as attacking, even though no attack is intended.
- Speaking the truth is one thing. How you speak it is quite another. Consider how you might shape your communication so that the other person does feel appreciated. When you have something difficult to say, preface it with the reason why you want to say it, letting the person know it comes from an attitude of caring rather than attack. To start by saying: “I value our professional relationship, and want to see it grow, but for that to happen, I need to discuss an issue that is difficult for me,” sets a very different tone than simply blurting out whatever you have to say.
- Express your fears. They are also part of the truth, and expressing your fear of rejection, of being misunderstood, or of looking foolish, helps others appreciate your own concerns, and can put them more at ease—which, remember, is the goal of this exercise. Such fears are part of the truth, and expressing them as that—simply the truth of how you are feeling about the conversation—can do a lot to ease communication.
- Learn what works. If, despite your best intentions, a colleague feels attacked or resented from something you said, ask for suggestions as to how you could have said it better. You will be surprised by how much you can learn.
- When this practice slips, as it surely will from time to time, and the attacking mode creeps in, there is nothing like a genuine apology to set things back on track. Own up to your mistake (we are all human after all), and try to express yourself again with a more caring intention.
The essence of this approach is simple kindness—respect and care for the feelings and inner well-being of another. This is the Golden Rule that is to be found at the heart of the world’s spiritual traditions. In the Bible it is said,
All things whatsoever that ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.
Similarly, in the Koran we find,
No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.
The contemporary sage Ram Dass once remarked that “Relationships are the yoga of the West.” This does not mean our relationships should have us sitting or standing in strange positions, but that they can be a path to spiritual awakening. They can be our greatest teachers. They give us the opportunity to practice not only kindness, but also compassion, forgiveness, and respect—qualities that are surely needed in the world today.
The more that we raise the quality of our relationships at home, at work, and in life generally, the more that we lubricate the wheels of life, and the more that everything else we have to do becomes that much easier and more enjoyable.
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