By Suma Varughese May 2006 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-EsteemAll 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 ValuesBe 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 ResponsibilityThe 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 wh
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