Speaking to my children often reminds me how difficult it is to communicate well. I aspire to be able to express kindness and compassion even in the heat of the moment. In fact, I would love to be a master communicator at all times.
My life is littered with countless awkward, painful conversations and interactions that I could have handled differently. Not long after I graduated from college, I had a boss whom I truly despised. He was hired to replace someone who had been promoted away, and clearly felt that he needed to prove that he was worth his pay. He took the credit for a lot of the work that a colleague and I did, and even took over some of our clients. I gradually became monosyllabic and passive aggressive. Although I never said anything directly, my contempt for him was clear. I did not know how to improve that situation, since expressing my feelings honestly was going to get me fired. I resolved to be unhappy.
Unsurprisingly, my boss could not live with a sulking twenty-something subordinate underfoot. He called me into a meeting one afternoon, and confronted me about my attitude. He claimed that he had never met anyone like me. Why did I not like him? I remember feeling completely panicked and trapped. Here was a man who had usurped our knowledge, and further made us look like idiots as if we did not know how to do our jobs. We had lost all of our respect and good will towards him. We felt so betrayed. My mind raced over all the options of appropriate responses. What could I possibly say? I came up with nothing, so I sat there in complete silence, seething with rage.
In retrospect, there was surely a more graceful way to have managed this. Perhaps I could have been honest without being disrespectful. I don’t know what that would have looked like, but it would not have included a younger version of me, breaking out in a cold sweat in a windowless conference room.
The solution would have been to speak from the heart. It is always elegant but not always easy. First, we need to be free of judgment. We can never fully know the motivations of another person. Resist jumping to conclusions. Second, consider what is, instead of what might have been. Looking for realistic future options trumps fantasizing about an alternative past. Third, be honest about your own foibles, pain, and needs. Taking responsibility for our own actions can be a bitter pill to swallow. And finally, keep the end goal in mind. When I remove myself a little bit from the situation, as if seeing myself in the third person, my choices become clear. Touching the heart of another is now possible. My words convey genuine empathy.
Mastering the art of speaking compassionately with fluency is a daily challenge. Knowing all along that perfection is elusive, we need dedication and courage to hone our craft—like returning to the breath in meditation—and pull back to our central task. Communicate what our heart means to say, so that we are not muddled but clear, and our best intentions are out in the open, announced to the world.