By Jane Powell
“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Harold Whitman
It’s a common belief that meditation is about calming the mind and developing a detached view of life, so that we don’t mind so much when things go wrong. There’s a lot of truth in this, but it certainly isn’t about cultivating an unfeeling tranquillity. Rather, as the surface agitation of the mind settles, we become aware of deeper feelings and become more sensitive. We may say that our heart opens, and we feel connected to other people and the wider world. We become more awake and alive.
Something similar happens in our communications with others. If we try to smooth away the difficulties that so often arise when we share our lives with family, friends and colleagues we can so often end up with a dead and even hostile politeness that is the opposite of what we really want. If on the other hand we talk freely, saying whatever comes into our heads, we run the risk of chaotic and destructive arguments, and worse. So what are we to do?
Just as in meditation, the key to good communication is go deeper inside ourselves and connect to what is alive in us, and to speak from there. We will all be familiar, whether from our own experience or the stories of others, with that switch from fighting to vulnerability. Often it happens when all other possibilities have been exhausted and our clever minds have run out of tactics, so that we are forced to appear as our naked selves.
There are some very inspiring stories of reconciliation in the most desperate of circumstances. If you want to read some words of hope in these times of heartbreaking global conflict, take a look at the Forgiveness Project, which visited Aberystwyth a couple of years ago, and tells of meetings between murderers and the families of their victims and the new life that has sprung from that.
Then there are the small breakthroughs – children making up after a playground fight, colleagues finding a way through with a project that had got stuck, friends clearing up a misunderstanding. These everyday challenges are the training ground for the bigger questions of war and global conflict over resources.
It might seem that these moments of connection are miracles that cannot be contrived, and indeed they are, but there are certain habits of communication which make them much more likely to occur. One formulation of the principles of skilful communication was developed by the American Marshall Rosenberg, who called it Non-Violent Communication (NVC).
Rosenberg identified the common mistakes in speech and writing which lead other peopleto close off from us and resist what we have to say, and pointed out more skilful alternatives. And just as important, he pointed out that there are ways of listening to others (and to ourselves, for that matter) which provide a safe place in which resistance softens, allowing genuine and respectful conversation to take place.
A key insight is to notice that when we criticize others, we are really talking about our own needs, that alive part of ourselves which drives our behaviour. If I say my friend is selfish, what I may really mean is that I am disappointed that she hasn’t given me the support I so badly needed. Here the shift is to stop making her wrong for that, and instead to feel my own fear and sadness, and my need for support. At that point I may already feel better, and maybe I can go on to ask someone else – but it will be a request, not a demand.
The good news is that communication is a skill that can be taught and practised, and indeed people are doing it all over the world, even in schools. You can find out more about courses and training materials at www.nvc-uk.com. There are trainers in Wales, and soon we plan to run events in Aberystwyth, so watch this website for more details.
By Jane Powell