Last time I said that the first step in practicing effective speech is to keep our eyes on the prize – to be constantly mindful of our intentions for speaking in the first place. What do I want in my life? I want to give and receive love. I want relationships with others to be mutually satisfying and fulfilling. For almost all of us, something like these are our deepest needs, and effective speech means making sure that how we speak is likely to bring us closer to meeting them. I also discussed a couple, Rubin and Alan, who have lost sight of what they really want, and who have become diverted instead into protecting their egos, winning arguments, and blaming each other.
One reason this happens with such depressing regularity is that most of us, in our conflicts, have been conditioned to take moralistic stances with each other. We frame the issues in terms of right and wrong, winning and losing. Whenever we do that we lose contact with our intentions, which are always about values, needs, and feelings, and focus instead on trying to defeat the other person.
It’s easy to see why this happens. When we feel unfairly criticized or threatened in any way, an almost automatic response is to close up emotionally. We typically don’t express our hurt, or our needs, because it feels dangerous to show any vulnerability at such a point. Instead, we go into an aggressive/defensive stances, and focus on doing battle. When we do this, even people we love become the Other, the enemy. It’s a natural response, but it should also be obvious that it’s virtually impossible for this stance to result in anything productive.
What can we do instead? I think that an important first step, recognizing that our habitual, self-defeating modes of communication are deeply ingrained, is just to do or say nothing at all. Take a deep breath, take a time-out if you can, let the adrenaline subside, and then ask yourself something like “What unmet need of mine is provoking my anger right now?” Do your best to shift the focus from moralistic judgments of the other person to attention to your own needs and feelings in the situation. This is not always so easy to do, because it means returning to openness and vulnerability, which can feel like a foolhardy thing to do in a conflict situation.
But when we can make that shift, we often find that a perceptible shift also occurs in our bodies. We relax our armor a little, and feelings that we’ve suppressed come welling up – such as sadness, grief, hurt, longing, or frustration. Instead of the disconnection which self-righteous rage engenders, we deepen and make more contact with our own hearts. We access empathy and compassion for ourselves. And once we have accessed these feelings toward ourselves, we find it much easier to access the same empathy and compassion for the other person, too. Then the person we’re arguing with is no longer the adversarial Other, but someone we hold in our hearts with whom we are temporarily having difficulty. We’re empowered to discuss our disagreements with more open-heartedness, asking ourselves and each other what we both need, and exploring how we can cooperate in meeting those needs.
How does this work in practice? Here’s an admittedly oversimplified example. Rubin and Alan, the couple I referred to above, are at each other’s throats about finances. Rubin accuses Alan of being a profligate spendthrift, and Alan accuses Rubin of being a joyless tightwad. When they drop the accusations and start to focus on their needs, Rubin is able to reveal his fear that they’ll run out of money and have nothing for their retirement. He needs safety, and he needs to feel that Alan is protective toward both of them. Alan, on the other hand, wants to give and receive generosity and share joy with Rubin. When they stop “shoulding” all over each other and start focusing instead on what each of them needs, their differences don’t disappear, but they’re much better equipped to discuss them with mutual empathy and respect; and much more likely to find reasonable compromises.
Next time I’ll continue the theme of effective speech with a discussion of five traditional guidelines for avoiding speech that causes harm.