Do your beliefs get in the way of compassionate communication?
Some years ago I completed counsellor training and took a step back to consider how I really wanted to use this experience. The practical and theoretical learning had deepened my clinical understanding (as Speech Pathologist and communication practitioner) and deeply supported my own transition through the sometimes craziness of midlife. As I reflected where the “juice” was for me, I realised I wanted to contribute to supporting others (outside the therapy room) to develop nimble skills in communicating compassionately while getting things done… and I love the playfulness and energy of doing both.
As I speak with clients, colleagues and friends I hear 4 common beliefs about how listening with compassion is a great aspiration, but is all too hard. This is how I respond to those valid concerns.
1. It’s too draining to feel what others are feeling
It sure is! I believe it’s a recipe for burn-out. No matter how hard I try, it is impossible for me to to feel what you feel. You and I are separate beings – with our own particular experience of feelings (or sensations, or images) that arise as our response to life’s triggers!
I can, however, create space to listen for what’s going on for you, and acknowledge you in such a way that you know I’ve heard you. I can choose to be curious and inquire about what you might want or long for. I can grow my awareness of what emotions and needs come up in me as I’m listening to you, and I can choose whether to place them in the conversation, or leave them on hold until I’ve fully listened to you.
By staying present to you while holding my own separateness I support connection between us. It may be a deep connection if we are intimate partners or close friends or, if you are a work colleague, ‘enough’ connection to enable us both to collaborate from a place of mutual respect and care.
2. I don’t have what it takes to fix their problem
What a relief that you don’t have to! For some of us it’s a reflex reaction to jump in and try and fix a problem that someone tells us about. It can be a strategy we use to meet our own need for acknowledgement, connection, contribution, or more… when more often than not the other person just wants to be heard. (Unless we’re talking a medical emergency or safety issue!).
Here’s some questions to consider:
- When you share how things are for you and the other person jumps in with advice or their solution, what feelings arise in you?
- Are you aware that you offer advice or solutions, or do you do it without thinking?
- How easy is it for you to consciously not offer advice, and just let the person know you’ve heard them?
- What bubbles up for you when you feel the urge to offer advice and choose not too?
We humans are very resourceful. In the daily flow of life, I believe we demonstrate our respect for others when we support them with two qualities: Firstly, offering a listening presence so they know they’ve been truly heard and secondly, trusing their resourcefulness to create the solutions best for them. So much is possible in our personal and community relationships the more we take time to listen as equal participants in conversations.
3. Nice ideal but I don’t have time
This belief often comes up in work contexts and can seem like a real dilemma. How do I bring compassion on the one hand and get my work done on the other? Compassion is often viewed as the optional “soft and fluffy stuff”.
It can take some awareness building and practice to become nimble in owning my own “stuff”, staying separate to the other person and their issues and yet holding the space and remaining present to them. And – it’s a skill that we can learn.
There is a wonderful opportunity for researchers to more formally examine the outcomes that result when we communicate from a place of separateness with compassion. (Masters or PhD anyone?) My own experience of working with individuals and groups over many years is that when people are fully heard they experience less need to gain attention or push their own viewpoint. They more readily and spontaneously come up with (shared) solutions. The time it takes to get work done, dramatically shrinks.
I recall facilitating a team of ten in heavy industry who could not reach agreement on the particular software solution for a need the company had. Firstly we agreed to give each person uninterrupted space to present their particular solution. Next we discussed, agreed and documented the underlying company need, and the qualities that the solution needed to address. After a break we went back around the room. In twenty minutes the groups had agreed on a shared solution. They agreed that having the uninterrupted space to be fully heard melted their resistance and they were better able to hear the pros and cons of each other’s solutions. What had kept them stuck in protracted dispute for months quickly became a non-issue.
4. I don’t have anything significant to offer
How easily we underestimate the gift of our presence – perhaps the most significant gift we can give to another person!
Here are some suggestions I use for this ongoing path of nurturing authentic and compassionate presence with others:
- Get comfortable with moments of silence. Give time for the other person’s words to “sit” – in shared acknowledgement, e.g.
Me: “I’m really hearing your frustration …. (silence)”.
Other: “I’m so frustrated… but I’m also scared… because I need to keep my job and I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing by my child. It’s so hard.”
- Reflect back to the other what I am hearing (with the sense of “checking” with them – rather than dictating), e.g.
“So… you’re really upset because it’s tough trying to balance your sick child’s needs with the deadlines you’ve agreed to?”
- Listen for the feelings that might be present for the other – as feelings often point to underlying needs and longings.
- Listen to hear rather than interpret.
- Be aware of what’s bubbling up within me and choose to put that on hold until I can deal with it later.
- Consciously choose whether I can be fully available to listen to another and communicate that honestly. I may not be available now (due to other commitments, needing to deal with my own strong emotion etc), but may be at another time.
- Once the person knows I have fully heard them, I might ask questions that support them to come up with their own solutions, e.g.
“How can you care for your child and meet your need for income?” or
“Who can you call on for support as you work this through?”
People start to heal the moment they feel heard