by Berenice Boxler
We communicate countless times every day. Face to face or in writing by mail, SMS or otherwise. People share what they have experienced or what matters to them, be it just with their best friend or an anonymous crowd of followers. Without our ability to communicate, social interaction is difficult to imagine.
The question of why
Why would I like to tell my relatives that I am spending a wonderful holiday in a grandiose winter residence? Why do I call a friend and pour out my love broken heart? Why do I ask my children every day what their day was like?
The question of the „why“ of a communication or a conversation leads into our inner being, into our inner landscape. There are innumerable reasons why we would want to communicate: to be heard, to feel the other‘s compassion or compassionate joy, to be understood, liked or recognized, to feel better than others (need for superiority), community, closeness, etc. Every action has at its core one or more needs that need to be met – even if we are often unaware of this.
This is where mindfulness comes into play: recognizing why I want to talk. Am I lonely? Do I burst with pride and joy and want to let it out? Do I need understanding? This awareness of the inner state of emotions and thoughts (and physical well-being) can greatly affect how and with whom we speak – and if now is the right time.
Sometimes the needs of some people will oppose our own core values. Do you know people who like to brag about their accomplishments or always put themselves in the best light? Also, it is not easy to hear harsh criticism of one‘s own behaviour or work. But even these individuals fulfil an inner need: to uphold recognition, self-esteem, personal perfectionism, or something completely different. With a mindful attitude, we can easily observe this without judging it.
The conscious recognition of the inner landscape in the present moment holds the great opportunity to be more awake for our speaking and to be more skilful in our choice of time, listener and content.
The content: what do we say?
There is a story of Socrates asking another person to first send his story through three strainers: truth – kindness – necessity. When the story fails the test, Socrates says, „Well, if it is neither true nor good nor necessary, let it be buried and burden you and me not with it.“
There are other traditions with contemplations about „wise speech“. When we check our speech habits to see if what we want to communicate is true, friendly, and indeed necessary to tell, then there is simply no need for gossip, accusation, and meaningless talk. That may not be easy to implement in practice. This question („Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?“) has often helped me not to talk about others only by hearsay, impulsively express the harsh word or to gab when the other simply wants some quiet.
Where are we coming from: How do we speak?
The way we speak is no less important than the content. If I speak out of a state of anger or disappointment, then people won’t like listening to me. The other gets into a fight-or-flight mode and is hurt, ashamed or annoyed – and I achieve nothing, certainly not understanding or cooperation. A meaningful communication is not possible and distance is created.
Especially the children have the finest antennas for how we are. Our body language and our tone of voice tell them directly. My lesson („Now clean up your room!“) will fizzle out and be met with resistance. But if I‘m aware of my mood and I have the strong intention not to speak out of anger, then I‘ll wait – and apply some self-care and self-compassion – until I‘m able to combine clarity and friendliness. That might look like this: „Wow, what a creative play! Do you want to take so many suitcases on your trip? Where are you going? … When you‘re done playing, please put the suitcases back, otherwise the room can not be cleaned tomorrow.“
It is not easy – but very worthwhile – to commit yourself never to speak when you are angry. At most something like „I am very upset and need some time for me now. We‘ll talk about this when I am calm again.“ is helpful, but everything else does not help us to what we need. A proverb says, „Anger is like burning coals: it burns us and the other“ – when we throw the coals to the other with our words or deeds, we burn ourselves with our rage.
Mindful communication needs practice
Our communication is characterized by habits, conditioning and thought patterns. But we can learn to slowly but surely navigate this huge ship of speech into a calmer sea, where there are not so many icebergs and pirates. It takes time and practice, but it‘s worth it.