Words and intentions

Daniel’s comment on the last post got me thinking more deeply about expressing and receiving appreciation in a way that connects rather than separates us.

One thing Marshall Rosenberg points out (see previous post) is that often we aren’t aware of our own motives and intentions. Even when we think we are being nice, we may be setting ourselves apart from others. Some people feel “above” everyone else, some feel “below”; most of us feel “above” some people and “below” others. As a result, we approve or disapprove the actions of others whom we feel free to judge, and we look with different eyes (possibly hoping for acceptance or approval) on those we feel are our peers or betters.

These categories may be entirely subconscious. A sense of inferiority could show itself as frustration or resentment or envy, or something else. A sense of superiority might be our normal mode of interaction with the world. Even if we don’t recognize it, others do.

We can ask ourselves: are we connecting, person-to-person, or are we creating a barrier? Are we dismissing or protecting ourselves from another person by judging her, even if we’re judging her as “OK”?

Words of the Buddha:
Bhikkhus, there are these three discriminations. What three? The discrimination ‘I am superior’, the discrimination ‘I am equal’, the discrimination ‘I am inferior’. These are the three discriminations. The Noble Eightfold Path is to be developed for direct knowledge of these three discriminations, for the full understanding of them, for their utter destruction, for their abandoning.
from AN 45.162, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi

This sense of “I am superior” or “I am inferior” is deep and difficult to dislodge. The development of the eightfold path is one way that the Buddha says we can uproot the tendency to compare ourselves to others, consciously or subconsciously. The “discriminations” are ways in which we set ourselves apart from others, and in so doing, form and harden the boundaries of our sense of self. By practicing with the eight-fold path, we may start to see the fluidity of the self, its rise and fall.

Meanwhile, when we are able to acknowledge that each of us is a bundle of (only partially knowable) virtues and flaws, we will understand that that there is no reasonable ranking system, and that judging others is an unwholesome way to interact. We can strive to meet every person, even people we know well, as a new experience, greeting them with fresh eyes and an open heart.

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Expressing appreciation

Yet another important area of Marshall Rosenberg’s teaching on Nonviolent Communication is an examination of how we express appreciation.

It’s long been my practice to give positive feedback to others at every opportunity. Most people like to hear positive things about themselves or their actions. So I was a little taken aback when Rosenberg identified what I thought were lovely statements of praise as “life-alienating”. He went on to say that if compliments are offered as judgments, then the speaker is sitting “over” the listener, which is why he called such words life-alienating. His point was that judgments of others, whether positive or negative, put distance between people rather than connecting us. Suddenly, the difference between “It’s great you’re doing that!” (judgment) and “I’m so happy for you.” (Yay!) became clear.

This challenges us to dig deeply into our own motivations when we speak to others.

One potential problem is that we tend to notice what’s wrong more often than what’s right. Many of us are constantly in “fix-it” mode, which can make us overlook the fact that a majority of things are going fine. For example, every now and then, we could marvel at the fact that the vast majority of drivers observe the rules of the road and drive courteously.

This tendency to notice what’s wrong can be most painful within the home. Those with whom we interact most often, and with whom we feel less of a need to soften our words, are sometimes the recipients of our most poorly considered speech. Yet these are our most important relationships! They deserve more, not less, care. One study showed that the ratio of positive to negative words we speak to our spouses/partners is the primary determinant of whether or not our relationship will last. As a practice, it’s remarkably effective to consider our words before speaking, and just NOT SAYING things that aren’t helpful or kind. Most of us have many thoughts that are better left unexpressed. I’m not arguing for suppression, but I do think that most of our critical comments are unnecessary and unhelpful, and just feed our own dissatisfactions.

Sometimes we may be reluctant to offer specific praise or appreciation. We may feel that we’re making ourselves vulnerable, or that our words will not be welcomed. But if our appreciation is sincere and we can identify the other person’s particular words or actions and the specific rewards they brought us, then our praise has a very good chance of being received with shared joy.

One of our tasks before dying is to recognize those who have given us important gifts (mostly non-material) and find ways to express our honest appreciation to them, including what they did for us, how they made us feel, and what important need they helped us address.

In summation, the more closely we examine our intentions before we speak, the more likely we are to produce beneficial results when we speak.

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Working with our anger

It’s important to recognize and respond wisely when anger (or other forms of aversion) arise in us, because these are the situations in which we have the potential to do lasting damage to ourselves and our relationships.

Marshall Rosenberg outlines a wholesome response to anger. He says we should:
1. Stop. Breathe.
2. Identify our judgmental thoughts.
3. Connect with our needs.
4. Express our feelings and unmet needs.

It is quite possible to apply these principles, even if we end up saying nothing in the moment. First, we have to recognize what’s happening: “Anger is arising”; then we turn our awareness towards the anger without flinching or deflecting. We investigate, not the outside stimulus but what’s actually happening within us. What words appear in our minds? What body sensations arise? We try to look beyond the “s/he shouldn’t do that!” feeling. If we are persistent, we can identify feelings (in us) other than anger and start to see what inner need is going unmet.

A need to have things be a certain way (when they’re not), is not an actual need; it’s a wish. Anger in general can be reduced by examining our assumptions and expectations. The more we set those aside and (mindfully) observe exactly what’s going on both inside and outside ourselves, the better chance we have to be at peace.

After we calm down, we can express our feelings and needs in such a way that we retain responsibility for them. “When you say X, I feel Y and my need for safety (or acceptance, or something else) is not being met.” It may be that we need to walk away. But if we start the conversation, we may discover what is behind the other person’s actions or words. There is the possibility of connecting, heart to heart, through allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and expressing our feelings and needs clearly.

Sometimes, the things I get angry about are not directly my problem. When I read that Israel was taking another thousand acres from the Palestinians, my blood boiled at the injustice. But what was really happening? I’d read or heard an account on the news and gone straight to blaming. The only direct engagement was between myself and the radio/magazine; my strong objection that this action should not occur created friction within me. Later, I read a good analytical article explaining why the Israeli leadership was behaving in this way at this time. I could see, when it was pointed out to me, that depending on where one stands, the situation can look entirely different from my point of view. This has changed my framework so I’m not quite as likely to rush to judgment and blaming. There’s still discomfort and an awareness of all the pain and suffering in the world (limitless, really), but there’s also the knowledge that I am only seeing a small part of the full story.

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Dhutanga practice

In the Thai forest tradition (and some others), there are “extra” practices, beyond the 227 monastic rules for monks and 300+ rules for nuns. These additional practices are not for everyone, but are taken on by practitioners who wish to address their deepest attachments, e.g., food, sleep, or comfort. They are called dhutanga practices and are austerities piled atop the austerities of ordinary monastic life.

For laypeople, an analogy to the dhutanga practices might be to choose a major area of clinging (and hence suffering) in our own hearts and find a way to challenge that clinging. For me, this area is anger, and Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication (NVCC) approach includes some lessons on understanding and dealing with our anger which seem almost impossibly challenging. And yet I see how they could (eventually) uproot anger/aversion/resistance entirely.

NVCC says that we have four options when confronted with a message or behavior that we don’t like:
1) blame ourselves
2) blame others
3) sense our own feelings and needs
4) sense others’ feelings and needs

In a chapter called “Expressing Anger Fully”, Rosenberg says that we need to distinguish the stimulus for our anger from its actual cause; that we are never angry because of what others say or do, but because of the way we think about what others say or do. If we go straight to blame or judgment (as is common), then it’s our own thinking we need to focus on, not what the other person is doing.

We can use anger as a wake-up call. Instead of using the energy of anger for blaming and judging, we can use it to investigate our own unmet needs, as well as the feelings and needs of others. Judgments of others, whether right or wrong, contribute to an unproductive cycle of recriminations and entrenchment of positions.
“Violence comes from the belief that other people cause our pain and therefore deserve punishment.”

The steps Rosenberg recommends for expressing anger fully are:
1. Stop. Breathe. (Does this sound familiar?)
2. Identify our judgmental thoughts.
3. Connect with our needs.
4. Express our feelings and unmet needs.

But wait – before the other person is ready to hear about our unmet needs, we have to attempt to figure out what motivated their action or behavior. If we can empathize with even a fraction of the speaker’s motivation (often some form of fear), we have a chance of making a connection. “The more we hear them, the more they’ll hear us.” We need to hear each others’ pain to come through anger to the other side, which is understanding and compassion.

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Choosing our actions

Why do we do the things we do? What motivates us?

Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication method recommends finding an element of play in all we do. To find the fun, it helps to have a clear idea of why we are doing a particular activity. Sometimes we feel resistance to situations or people or commitments we’ve undertaken. We can discover the source of our resistance if we look carefully, and move from “I should” or “I have to” to “I choose to”.

It’s never true that there is no choice; we always have a choice. Even as parents, we learn to balance our own needs with those of our children. Likewise with all our other relationships. We do have to pay taxes, but we can get help with the task, and we can choose whether we resent parting with our money or take joy in sharing what we’ve got.

We can decide to discontinue an activity. Singing in a volunteer choir that is enjoyable less than half the time is a signal to exit that commitment. Working at a job that we have to drag ourselves to every day is not required. Finishing a degree when we are certain we don’t want to work in the relevant field would conflict with our own needs.

Life is full of uncertainty, and one way to cope is to keep track of our feelings and needs as they change. The better we understand ourselves, the more skilfully we can choose our activities (and words).

As a wise friend once advised me, “Review your activities and see if there are any that no longer serve.” If there’s a regular activity on your calendar that you feel relieved when it’s canceled (or you wish it would be canceled), consider just stopping. If there’s something you’re drawn to but feel nervous about starting, brainstorm with a friend ways you might try it out.

For myself, in retirement, I felt the need to develop my compassion, and I’d long been interested in hospice volunteering. I found an excellent organization locally and have been volunteering there in various capacities for seven years or so. That organization is now in dire straights because of a change in government funding. It’s not clear what will happen, but I may need to search out another channel to continue developing my heart. Deepening my compassion is a felt need for me. Your needs may be very different, but we all would do well to be guided not by passing fancies, but by our deepest human needs.

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Self-compassion

How we treat ourselves is at the root of how we relate to others. To listen to others empathetically, we need to check our own internal talk and know whether our tone is harsh or compassionate.

From Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication:
When we communicate with ourselves on a regular basis through inner judgment, blame, and demand, it’s not surprising that our self-concept [is negative]. A basic premise of NVC is that whenever we imply that someone is wrong or bad, what we are really saying is that he or she is not acting in harmony with our needs. If the person we are judging happens to be ourselves, what we are saying is, “I myself am not behaving in harmony with my own needs.”

So when we’ve made a mistake, or done something we wish we hadn’t, we can examine the decision or action to discover how we were working against our own needs (or best interests). There may be a sense of mourning (and self-forgiveness) if we recognize that we habitually undermine our own needs, but the path to learning starts here. If we can honestly articulate our feelings and needs, and then build an understanding of how our actions support or work against them, we are on the road to deep healing.

Rosenberg’s NVC is a particularly practical guide to building a life of integrity. We start with self-understanding and mindfully attend to the feedback that comes from our relationships and activities. We raise our awareness of our own observations, feelings, and needs and at the same time become more sensitive to the feelings and needs of others.

A mundane situation in which the question of self-compassion comes up is at the end of a dinner party. Everyone is tired, but some people are still having fun. What to do? We can examine our actual feelings and needs in the moment and weigh whether it’s time for us to leave or not. It’s worth taking the time to include contradictory feelings: “I’m enjoying my time with X, and I’m reluctant for it to end”, “If I stay longer, I’m afraid I won’t be alert for my meeting in the morning”, “I don’t want to be a party pooper”, etc. Often enough, the hosts also have a hard time bringing the evening to a close, even when they are slumped over with exhaustion. Sometimes we can say, “This evening has been really enjoyable, but it’s time for me/us to go home. Thank you so much.” Or we can start clearing up or washing dishes, signalling the end of our visit.

Self-compassion is never at the expense of others’ needs. With practice, we can tune in to our own feelings and needs as well as those of the people around us. From this process, our compassion and wisdom can grow.

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Listening

Now we put the shoe on the other foot and consider how to listen, rather than speak, more skilfully. When others are speaking to us, what is our position? What is our frame of mind? The answers will vary depending on situational factors, personal history, emotional habits and more.

In the context of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), when we listen, the goal is to receive another person’s words empathically. Marshall Rosenberg (NVC originator) defines “listening empathically” as “emptying our mind and listening with our whole being”. Listening empathically is the opposite of listening in a defensive or disengaged way; we could say it means listening with our hearts.

In NVC, no matter what words people use to express themselves, we listen for their observations, feelings, needs, and requests.

One way to discover another person’s needs is to reflect back the speaker’s feelings, especially if they are charged. “So you are feeling X?” Even if you’re wrong, the speaker has a chance to correct your perception, and in the process know her own thoughts better.

Sometimes when we think we are being empathetic, we are giving advice or reassurance or explaining our own position or feelings. If we go straight to “fixing” mode, it often ignores the other person’s feelings and blocks a potential connection. We can wait until a specific request for help or advice is made.

Listening empathically takes patience. Our presence can create a safe space in a tense situation, but the process can’t be rushed or short-circuited. When we stay with empathy, we allow speakers to touch deeper levels of themselves. Patience is an important virtue in the Buddha’s teachings. Some say that if we train ourselves in patience, awakening will follow.

A related goal is to know ourselves well enough to see when our own feelings are blocking empathetic listening. This is a point at which we can really look inside: what is our body telling us? Is there fear? Frustration? What are our own observations, feelings, and needs in this moment? We don’t need to say them out loud, but we can use this basic mindfulness practice to understand what is happening right now. Is our resistance to this current situation preventing us from being completely present with it?

So much to learn. And we can start by attempting to listen to others with our full attention, with no agenda other than trying to understand their feelings and needs. Are we willing to start over and over again in developing the ability to listen empathetically?

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