I've just returned from Dhanakosa, a beautiful retreat centre in wonderfully sunny Scotland. We were leading a retreat with the theme, 'Who's Living your Life?' It made me wonder about communication: 'Who's speaking?' Who chooses to say what, and when? Who's in charge?
Do you ever feel impelled to argue, appease, judge, persuade or please? Are these the voices inside you that shape your conversations? With so much interference on the line - so many pressures from within and without - how can we put across what we (really) want to say, in ways that others are able to hear?
Recognising our choicesLet's begin with our choices. Conversations are made up of choices, moment by moment decisions - each of which affects what happens next. For example, what choice would you make here?
YOU: I'm so sorry I can't manage that. I'm just too busy today.
OTHER: What's so special about you? We're all busy here!
YOU: ... ... ...
Do you speak up, empathise or something else (walk away, perhaps)? And to what extent would that be your conscious choice?
Sometimes, it's hard to acknowledge that we do have a choice:
- "I was forced to walk out - he was so rude to me."
- "She gave me no choice but to shout back."
- "I had to laugh!"
When we say (or imply) that we have 'no choice', it usually means we're doing what comes to mind in the moment. Probably, we don't know what else we can do. Either other options feel beyond us (like de-escalating an angry person, or replying calmly if we are furious); or every choice looks bad. A traditional highwayman offers clear alternatives - 'Your money or your life!' - they just aren't options we care for.
The principle is:
- We always have a choice (even if we don't like, or understand, the alternative)
The more choices we acknowledge, the more options we have in sticky moments; and the more we're able to stay in charge of our conversations.
Three choicesThere are, of course, thousands of ways to create connection - but we can boil them down to just three: we speak, listen - or neither! These choices help us stay grounded and confident in a conversation, because they provide a method for deciding between the different voices inside ourselves, and the different voices in the room.
Expressing ourselves ('on my ground'): We speak from and for ourselves; we express what matters to us. We place our attention on our own ground.
Here, we have the opportunity to be fully heard and understood, and to engage other people's interest, trust and willingness in what we propose. Problems happen when we overemphasise our own concerns by riding roughshod over other people's; or when we understate and undervalue our own, leaving ourselves nowhere to stand. In either case, however loudly we protest, we no longer have an effective voice.
Receiving others ('on their ground'): We engage with others on their ground. We place our attention on them, on what they say or do from their perspective.
Here, we give other people the chance to be heard and understood without judgement. Although they're speaking, we are still an active player in the conversation. We never 'lose control' by listening. The danger lies in thinking we're receiving when we're doing something subtly different; or doing several things at once (such as listening and working out what we'll say next!). This is when we lose our way, and our choice becomes ineffective.
Focusing within ('on either ground'): We turn our attention within. We muse on our issues, or we imaginatively enter into someone else's. This happens away from the interaction itself.
Here, we pause to recover our sense of control. We take a deep breath or count to ten; we doodle, drink tea, take time out, phone a friend... Sometimes we head off for months or years until, older and wiser, we can discuss (or think about) what happened calmly.
People focus within at different rates and in different ways; fast or slow. Difficulties arise when we give ourselves too little time, or too much. Too little time, and we can't process the situation. We feel rushed and blurt out things we don't mean. Too much time, and the issues get covered over by other things. Unresolved for whatever reason, problems which lurk beneath the surface often erupt later on.
Which is the 'best' choice?The best choice is the one which creates most connection. It's something we easily overlook under pressure. Here's an illustration from the animation film Brave. The fairytale queen is agonising about her daughter's forthcoming betrothal:
QUEEN ELINOR: I don't know what to do!
KING FERGUS: Speak to her, dear!
QUEEN ELINOR: I do speak to her - she just doesn't listen!
As the rift widens between them, mother and daughter both continue to 'express' - to no avail:
QUEEN ELINOR: I could make you see if you would just - LISTEN!
MERIDA: I could make you understand, if you would just - LISTEN!
If communication gets stuck, it's wise to review our choices. As a rule of thumb:
- There's no point speaking, if someone can't hear us
- There's no point listening, if we're not prepared to hear
Knowing our choices...Conversation is not a battle for control. Real dialogue is more like a dance. We constantly choose - we mediate - between the different voices inside us and without. Knowing the different options, we become more flexible; we learn to change track. And once we know the three choices, we're never stuck. Why? Because if one choice doesn't work, we can try another!
Knowing this, there's always a way forward, where our responses come freshly-minted and alive.
By Elizabeth English
with Peter Kuklis