Effective Communication - Your Stuff My Stuff
by Suma Varughese
What are the rules behind harmonious and successful interaction that can help us build bridges, resolve differences, solder relationships and arrive at mutually acceptable solutions? How do we discover communication that works.
Communication is without question the most important skill in life," says Stephen Covey, the world-renowned author and motivational trainer.
Can any of us doubt it?
Amla Reddy, 43, lives with her mother and is living testimony to the toll of dysfunctional relationships. "My mother has never once acknowledged all I do for her and is only looking for ways to pull me down. We don't speak any more. We are two strangers living in one house."
Bipin, 18, is a young college student who feels badly let down by his parents. Unwise investments have reduced the once wealthy family to a hand-to-mouth existence. A bright student who dreamt of studying abroad, he will soon have to look for a livelihood. "I don't want to say anything because it will hurt them, but it's so unfair that my life has been ruined because they couldn't manage their money."
All of us have relationships that do not work in our lives, issues we cannot resolve, feelings we cannot express, people we don't get along with, bonds that have broken or died. Human relationships may be the source of our greatest joy but they can also be the source of our greatest misery and frustration. Unless we learn to communicate.
"Communication is the lifeblood of any relationship," observes Bharati Nirmal, a former businesswoman and active seeker.
Minnu Bhonsle, a personal and marriage counselor, adds, "Relationships have to be managed like a mini organisation. Or they will cease to work."
Communication can be seen as the channels that connect the separate, individual worlds in which each of us live. Unless these channels are kept open and functioning to receive each other's life-giving energies, we are doomed to loneliness, alienation and suffering.
Communication skills are vital for a joyous, successful and healthy life. And yet, let's face it, we just don't know how. We are unskilled at this most crucial of tasks. We blunder along, venting, reacting, insisting, dominating, manipulating, blaming, withdrawing. With little or no awareness, we fail to register the other, or our own inner world, for that matter.
So why is communication so hard to do? We can only communicate appropriately when we are in control over ourselves. To do this we must free ourselves of our fears and inhibitions; our assumptions and prejudices; our needs and desires; our past history. Says psychotherapist Uma Ranganathan, who also conducts communication workshops, "Fear is one of the main factors. We are afraid of looking inside of ourselves and of becoming aware of what is wrong with us."
Abhishek Thakore, corporate trainer, adds, "Preoccupation with ourselves and running away from the present stops us from effective communication. Communication is a very present-centric activity - you need to be present to what the other person is saying."
From the spiritual perspective, the bogey behind all communication glitches is the ever-present ego, which traps us within the self-centered concerns of our self. Observes Paramahamsa Nithyananda, founder of the Bangalore-based Dhyanapeetam, "First, every person is centered in his own ego every moment. Whatever we talk comes from this ego center, and whatever words we receive, are also received by this."
Because our communication style directly stems from who we are, most communication gurus would advocate that the place to begin learning the art of communicating is within.
As Stephen Covey writes in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families, "All true and lasting change occurs from the inside out."
Step 1: Cultivate Self-Esteem
All inner work begins with developing sound self-esteem. Without self-esteem it is virtually impossible to look within and contain what we see. In Healing the Shame that Binds You, John Bradshaw writes, "Because we experience ourselves as flawed and defective, we cannot look at ourselves without pain. Therefore, we must create a false self." Without self-esteem, we cannot interact with people on an equal basis. We will not be able to establish boundaries, and we will look so strongly for the love, appreciation and endorsement we should get from our self, in others, that we will give away all our power to them.
Low self-esteem makes us vulnerable to manipulation and therefore we will operate from positions of weakness and helplessness. Lack of acceptance of ourselves will also prevent us from accepting others, making us reactive and judgmental.
In his adventure parable, The Celestine Prophecy, James Redfield describes communication dynamics in the form of energy acquisition. He explains that most of us grow up with poor self-images that we attempt to make up through getting energy from others. Depending on our temperament, we do it in four different ways for which he gives the names of Intimidator, Interrogator, Aloof and Poor me. Aggressive people will choose the first two qualities and
passive people the last two. Each of these are ways of manipulating and controlling others. For Redfield, healing lies in plugging into the universe's infinite energies and freeing ourselves of the other. In other words, by finding our own center through inner acceptance.
Indu Kohli, behavioral trainer, says, "Acceptance of the self, and through it, acceptance of the other, is crucial to keep communication channels open." She adds, "My family has a strong opinion about Americans and I work with Americans. Earlier, I used to argue with them,
but now I say, 'Maybe that's your experience. My experience is different.'"
Step 2: Operate from Values
Be clear about the important things in life for you. And operate from that. In 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families, Stephen Covey writes about Habit 1: "Be proactive - is the ability to act based on principles and values rather than reacting based on emotion or circumstance."
We can rise above the immediate provocation or our habitual behavior patterns by yoking our commitment to what is deeply important for us. Mithu Basu, head of corporate communications, Leela Palace & Resorts, says, "For me, what is important is to be transparent at all times about what is in your mind. And to do it with sensitivity and grace."
Recently, she was enthused by the idea of returning to her first love, art, and contacted the principal of Shantiniketan to see if she could do a brief refresher course.
The principal told her that she would have to enroll for at least a 1-year period of study.
She responded, "I don't know much about Rabindranath Tagore but I know that his vision for Shantiniketan was of a place free and open to creativity, where the rules of academic
convention did not come in the way of learning. I think he will be very sad to know that there was this one human being who had to go away with an unfulfilled desire to learn art."
Struck by the truth of what she said, the principal opened the doors of Shantiniketan to her and told her to create her own module.
Operating from values allows you to return over and over again to what is important, no matter how often you may fail. When I received a spiritual awakening many years back, I understood vividly that it was the happiness of the other that mattered. During that period of grace, my communication happened effortlessly. I always said the right thing at the right time. Looking back, I recall that before any conversation, I would reiterate to myself that what mattered was the other person's happiness and the furthering of our relationship. That commitment automatically created the trajectory for a successful interaction, for it determined that my attention would be on the other, not on me. This mantra continues to be my lodestar and though I have flubbed it innumerable times since, I return to it each time with ever-stronger determination and commitment.
US-based Reiki Master Meenakshi Suri too prepares herself for interaction by looking at what is important. She says, "To communicate effectively and harmoniously, I try to use several approaches or tools: awareness, perspective, and focus. First, bringing in the awareness of healing light, clearing and centering me, so that a space is created. Second, having a perspective that we are both a part of a game of life, not fighting each other but playing a game of tennis, perhaps, so the other person does have to send thoughts my way that are different from mine, and I need to reply to keep the game going. The times when communication has been achieved, is when I focused on listening to the other person, and then said what came to mind, rather than saying what I had prepared beforehand."
Value awareness creates clarity, and helps us to choose. A crucial factor that hinders effective communication is that we don't often know what we want to achieve in a given interaction. Instead of expressing our true needs, such as, for instance, establishing boundaries, clarifying a misunderstanding or requesting a different approach, we blow our tops, put ourselves in the wrong and sabotage our objectives. Says Bharati Nirmal, "Communication arising from emotionally loaded situations is always cloudy and shrouds both parties in darkness. We need to become sunshine clear in our thinking and then communicate."
Step 3: Take Responsibility
The next step, most would agree, is to take responsibility for our feelings, thoughts, actions and words.
In his book, Love and Survival, Dr Dean Ornish narrates how he once complained to his guru, Swami Satchidananda, about a woman who was driving him crazy. The swami laughed compassionately and said, "Look here, boy. It's not her, it's you. As long as you think the problem is with her, … you're setting yourself up for more suffering."
Ornish writes, "This simple idea - taking responsibility and examining my own issues - was the foundation of a powerful motivational shift that began transforming my life."
Stephen Covey writes, "What we all need is a 'pause button', something that enables us to stop between what happens to us and our response to it, and to choose our own response."
Through suffering the consequences of my reactive communication pattern, I began to recently inquire actively into the laws and principles of effective communication. For me, the overwhelming question was, what was my stuff and what was the other's? What parts of an interaction should I legitimately take responsibility for and what parts should I shrug off?
For me too, my first breakthrough began with the clear realisation that I needed to take responsibility for my feelings, thoughts, and other mental and physical manifestations. I had no business to blame the other for the way he behaved or for what he said or for not taking care of my needs. That was his stuff. The feelings and thoughts that his behavior evoked was my stuff. These two domains were separated by a psychic moat (what Covey calls space between stimulus and response) that safeguarded our integrity. Unfortunately, most of us tend to glue these two domains by our lack of awareness.
When we take responsibility for our feelings and thoughts, needs and desires, in effect we shift the focus from the outside to the inside. We take back our power within ourselves. Says Uma Ranganathan, "Once you take responsibility, you cease to blame the other. Then you are faced with what action to take. You become proactive." Paradoxically, at the same time, a surge of love and concern for others washes over us. Because we no longer fear them or hold ourselves in guard against them, we are free to open up and love them.
In the insightful book, 101 Things I wish I knew when I got married by Linda and Charlie Bloom, Charlie writes, "As I accepted responsibility for meeting the needs of my own well-being instead of expecting Linda to provide for it, the level of trust in our relationship began to climb… I gave myself more of the kindness, respect and appreciation that I had been looking to Linda and others to provide."
Focus happens when we realize that our business is strictly to monitor and become aware of what is going on within us. The rest is not our concern. We cease to agonize over what we can do nothing about - how other people act, what
they say and how they are - to what we can do something about, which is our own response.
Devdas Menon, a professor at IIT, Madras, cites the case of a student who came to him for assistance, furious at having been suspended from the Computer Center for having 'misused' the computer facility at night.
"I sincerely believed his version about not being the culprit on that particular occasion, and sympathized with him. However, the boy admitted that he had misused the facility on several other occasions. My own interpretation was this: The punishment was certainly overdue, although it manifested in an indirect manner. The suffering was made worse by the foolish sense of righteous indignation...
"This line of argument had a remarkable effect and he accepted the punishment quite gracefully."
Step 4: Listen Actively
Listening forms one half of any interaction. It is therefore crucial to get it right.
Says Minnu Bhonsle, "In order to listen actively, we should paraphrase what the other person says, so that he knows that we understand him thoroughly. Normally, we tend to filter out or block certain things either absentmindedly or because of inbuilt prejudices. Active listening also helps us to grow in empathy. When someone expresses how hurt she was by our conduct, it gives us a chance to evaluate our own behavior and learn from it."
She says, " Many people claim to sit in the presence of a realized master and find answers to their problems. This is because they are in a space of deep acceptance and empathy, where they are not judged or put down. In that space, their own defenses go down and they find answers from within."
Stephen Covey writes passionately in The 8th Habit, "To truly listen means to transcend your own autobiography, to get out of your frame of reference, out of your own value system, out of your own history and judging tendencies, and to get deeply into the frame of reference or viewpoint of another person."
Actor Smita Jayakar, who also runs retreats for the Oneness Movement, agrees wholeheartedly. "If you actively listen to someone, healing takes place," she says. She cites the example of a mother and daughter locked in a contentious
relationship, who came to the ashram for help. When they were asked to listen to each other harmony was restored, and the rebellious daughter began to obey her mother.
She also emphasizes the importance of the
non-verbal parts of communication, which count for 80 percent of the message. "Even your eyes should soften. Your hands should reach across with warmth, your smile, your body language, should exude humility."
For Covey, active listening translates into seeking to understand…then to be understood - his 5th Habit. He writes in The 8th Habit, "To understand does not mean to agree with. It just means to be able to see with the other person's eyes, heart, mind and spirit. One of the deepest needs of the human soul is to be understood. Once that need is met, the personal focus can shift to interdependent problem solving."
He adds, "My experience is that if people
really try to understand each other, they will, in most, but not all, cases come to agree with each other. Because over 90 percent of all communication problems are caused by difference in either semantics or perceptions."
Step 5: Express Yourself
It is important to express yourself appropriately. Minnu Bhonsle prescribes the DESC method of communication. D stands for describe. Describe the issue that troubles you briefly. E stands for emotion. Express the emotion that you felt at that time. Suppose for instance, you are upset with your partner for coming half-an-hour late for a movie. Refrain from criticizing her. Tell her instead how you felt: "I felt angry, hurt or disrespected when you came late."
S stand for suggest. Suggest what she could have done instead: "I wish that you had instead called me and let me know."
C stands for consequence. You could say, "If you had done that, I would not have nurtured a grudge or blamed you for being late."
Dean Ornish too, talks about the importance of focusing on feeling and not thought.
He writes, "We tend to hear thoughts as
judgments and criticisms, which close the heart. We tend to hear feelings in a very different way, with an open heart… When we express our feelings, we make ourselves more vulnerable; it becomes safer for the other person to do so as well… When we communicate feelings - as real feelings rather than as thoughts, then we can be authentic and intimate."
He adds that feelings are true, thoughts can be argued about. Telling someone that you are angry cannot be argued with. Telling him he is a jerk can be.
James Redfield suggests that since people are trying to manipulate us to get energy, we should voluntarily give it to them, by looking deeply into their eyes, listening attentively, and in every way endorsing and validating them. He also suggests that to break the 'control dramas' we enact with each other, we make conscious the other's unconscious motivations. To Intimidators, one can ask, "Why are you so angry?" To Interrogators you can say, "I like you but when I am with you I feel criticized." To the Aloof person, say, "I feel like you are withdrawing and being distant".
And the Poor mes could be given the following response, "It feels like you're making me responsible for what's wrong in your life."
Step 6: Be in the Moment
Paramahamsa Nithyananda sums up a crucial component of effective communication: Being in the moment. "Everything, every person, is fluid and changing every moment. Everything is a part of Existence and Existence itself flows like a river, changing every moment. But we are stuck with our judgments and solid mental setups. We never see the other person as a fresh being; we always see them through our formed judgments. We never live with reality; we live with our idea about it… If we are present totally, without the burden of the past or future, without any notion in our minds, every moment will be so fresh and alive, and we will be so light at the Being level. Then communication will be joyful and fresh, not mundane and stressful."
Step 7: Arrive at Mutually Satisfying Solutions
Thinking and working for the welfare of both is the very soul of the communication process. Is it possible that we can get to a spot where both parties can pull in the same direction? Yes indeed. When we have detached from our egos sufficiently to recognize that we cannot win unless the other wins too, then we will have achieved the mindset for this remarkable feat.
Says Prakash Nayak, 43, a developmental officer with LIC, "Love is the factor. When we understand that we are connected, affection and love naturally flow. We will forgive, accommodate and empathize. That will cause the other to open up and say, 'You understand me.'"
Paramahamsa Nithya-nanda, says, "When we become clear where we have invested in ourselves, where our ego centers are, and become a mere watcher of it, we will automatically
be clear in getting across to people."
Covey calls this ability to forge solutions that work for both, Synergy. He says, "Synergy is the summum bonum - the supreme or highest fruits - of all the habits. It's the magic that happens when one plus one equals three - or more."
He suggests that there are two steps that have to be taken to achieve Synergy.
The first is: "Would you be willing to search for a solution that is better than what either one of you (us) have proposed?"
The second is: "Would you agree to a simple ground rule: No one can make his or her point until they have restated the other person's point to his or her satisfaction."
He adds, "I did this once in a university setting on the subject of abortion, bringing a pro-life person and a pro-choice person up front. Both felt morally committed to their positions. I took them through the two steps in front of over four hundred people, including an entire MBA class, and many faculty and invited guests. ... after about forty minutes of going through the two steps slowly, they both began to talk about prevention, adoption and education. The whole nature of the discussion had changed. The audience was mesmerized. Tears filled the two participants' eyes. To watch minds become open and hearts become softened and positions melt into a higher, synergistic Third Alternative is a thrilling experience."
In the ultimate analysis, all the weighty words about communication can be boiled down to just four letters: love. When we act in love without self-interest, our communication will be of the highest possible level.
Harshada Wagner, a New York-based meditation teacher and occasional writer for Life Positive, shares how he actively used the love principle to resolve an issue with a co-worker. Wagner had a conflicting relationship with his superior and the co-worker had the unhappy task of relaying often contentious messages back and forth. Although he tried to soften the content, Wagner saw through the attempt and resented it. He says, "Ultimately, we were both yogis and we both genuinely loved each other. In our next meeting, as we sat down in the tension of this growing dispute and the doublespeak began, I asked, "Shivaji, do you love me?"
"He was taken aback but responded 'Yes...?' 'Then just love me and speak straight.' I added, 'Don't worry. I love you too. You can speak straight to me and we will have the conversation in Love and it will be fine.' It was kind of awkward, but it worked. He was able to tell me that I was acting like a jerk and how that was influencing the boss' opinion and trust in me. To this day, he and I have a deep bond of trust and have weathered some very tough conversations in a very uplifting way."
Wagner adds, "So the sutra is: Love me and speak straight."
Skilled communication gives us power, influence, joy, success and the deep satisfaction of intimacy. There is little else that opens up the doors of life to us as much as the ability to say the right thing at the right time, in the right way.
"It is important to be transparent at all times about what is in your mind."
"Once you take responsibility, you cease to blame the other and become proactive."
"Active listening helps people drop their defenses and find their own answers."
"If we are present totally, without the burden of past or future, communication will be joyful and fresh."