A Meditation Center in the Theravada Buddhist Tradition

Mindful Speech: Columns By Miriam Komaramy

 

In my work as a member of the sangha’s Conflict Management Resource, I have had the opportunity to reflect on ways that we can work on improving our oral and written communications with each other. I thought it might be useful to write down some of these reflections, in case they can be helpful to others. I hope to offer these thoughts as occasional columns in the Sangha’s weekly newsletter. I also welcome discussion of these ideas, as many of you may have more developed thoughts and skills in these areas. 

 

June 2, 2018

Step Forward/Step Back

Group discussions can be enjoyable and interesting because we tend to build on each other’s ideas, and often come up with understanding and solutions that seem greater than the sum of the parts. However, the experiences of such a discussion by different members of the same group may be very different. Depending on personal factors (shyness, confidence, anxiety, associations of meaning with various topics) and factors that influence our social roles (age, skin color, gender, ethnicity, size, sexual orientation), one person may experience a discussion as pleasurable and collaborative while another experiences the same conversation as stifling, frustrating, or intimidating. What can we each do to increase the likelihood that everyone in the group will have a positive experience?

The concept of “step forward/step back,” which I learned from teachers in an online course offered by Ranier Beach Yoga (www.rainierbeachyoga.com), is a helpful guide.

Stepping back

Are you someone who loves to jump into a conversation, and has many ideas that you are eager to share? Do you find yourself waiting for a break in the conversation so that you can jump in, or maybe even talking at the same time that someone else is talking because you are so eager to contribute? You are often a person who suggests many creative and valuable ideas to a group discussion. However, you may be unaware how much your behavior interferes with others sharing their own views. This may be particularly true if you are a person who others perceive as having personal or social hallmarks of authority (such as being a teacher, being white, being tall, having a loud or deep voice, speaking rapidly, being a man, being an officer, a doctor, a lawyer). When one person or a few people “fill the conversational space” and leave few pauses for others to join in, or to pull together their thoughts and decide to speak, this can inadvertently prevent others from joining the discussion. When we are having this kind of impact it can sometimes be hard for us to recognize, because it is not our intention.

Do you think this could describe your behavior, and if so, what could you do about it?

The concept of “step back” involves actively monitoring our behavior and our impact during group discussions. For instance, if there are 12 people in the group, am I talking more than 1/12 of the time? When a question is asked, am I often the one to answer? Am I allowing pauses to develop in the conversation, or do I jump in with my views and suggestions? Do I tell stories in which I am the star or I provide the solution? And maybe it’s also important to ask: On some level do I think that my contributions are more valuable or important than others’? What conditioning, status, or privilege leads me to believe that?

It is also helpful to observe what is happening with the rest of the group. Have most others spoken up, or is there a large fraction of the group that is sitting silently?

This is a great opportunity to step back from the discussion. It can be helpful to do this literally, by moving your chair back from the table, and also figuratively, by resolving not to talk. It may help to set a rule for yourself, such as: I won’t talk until 4 other people have spoken; or: I have spoken enough and so I won’t say anything else unless I am asked; or: the only thing I will say is to invite others to join in.

By stepping back you allow and encourage others to speak, and you signal that you value other people’s contributions. This can also be a useful practice for developing humility, because it involves a recognition that the things we have to say are simply our views; they are not permanent, and they are not necessarily more accurate or important than the views of others. It also allows us a chance to observe that we learn more by being silent and listening to what others have to say than we do by promoting our own views.

Stepping forward

What if, instead, you are someone who tends to say little in group conversations? Perhaps you find yourself hanging back and waiting for an opportunity to jump into the conversation. Or maybe you wish to learn from others, and prefer to hear what they have to say, rather than taking the time to share your views. Another possibility is that you feel uncertain or shy, and are worried that what you have to say will not be valued or even heard. Or maybe you do not want to make the effort or take the risk involved in expressing yourself in a group setting.

In these situations your behavior is not preventing anyone else from engaging in the discussion. You may be learning from what you hear. You may also feel that the assertive behavior of others in the group “lets you off the hook” and you may even feel like their behavior prevents you from joining the discussion. However, you are also not contributing to the discussion or helping others to learn from insights that you may have.

Perhaps, in these situations, it would be worth considering “stepping forward.” If you make a strong effort to speak up and share your ideas you may be surprised by other people’s receptiveness. And because you are probably a keen observer of others, you may have contributions that help the group process, defuse tensions, or understand important issues. By consciously stepping forward you can help the discussion and the group.

Stepping forward can be a form of generosity. For instance, after a dharma talk it helps the whole group if a few people are willing to share their personal reflections and responses to the talk. By initiating the conversation, you can make it easier for others to engage and share their responses. You are also responding to the generosity of the teacher by offering your own heartfelt response.

In conclusion, it can be a wonderful practice to play with the options of stepping forward/stepping back. How does it feel? What do you learn? What is the impact on the group discussion?

I would love to hear your views and experience with this.

Miriam


June 11, 2018

How to Apologize

Have you ever apologized to someone and then been disappointed that your apology did not have the intended impact? This can occur when the recipient of the apology is not ready to hear or respond to the apology, but it can also occur if we apologize in a way that sends unintended messages, or does not feel like a “real” apology.

When I act as a mediator I often see the healing power of apology. Apologies can calm, soothe, and help to heal the person who has been hurt by our actions. Sometimes apologies can also “re-set” a relationship that has been damaged.

How does apologizing relate to Buddhist teachings?

Many of our modern notions of apology and forgiveness are rooted in Christian traditions, and did not necessarily arise directly from the teachings of the Buddha. The concepts of repentance and forgiveness, or healing granted through God’s Grace, are not reflected by similar concepts in Buddhism (see, for example, “Forgiveness Is Not Buddhist” by Ken McLeod, Tricycle, Winter 2017).

Nevertheless, apologies can play an important role in human interactions, and can manifest important Buddhist principles. Issuing an apology cannot change the karma that I generated by my unskillful action, but the apology can play a role in my own efforts to create a new relationship with the experiences that created my unskillful action, thereby changing the karma that I will generate in the future. Apology can also be a form of generosity, when I make a sincere effort to help the person whom I have harmed to experience some relief from the harm that I caused.

What is the role of forgiveness?

Forgiving someone who has harmed me may help me to abandon thoughts of victimhood, resentment, or even a desire for revenge that I may have had in response to the other person’s action. Perhaps I could make these internal changes even without an apology, but the apology offers an opportunity to heal the relationship and to change the way that I think and feel about the person who harmed me.

As Thanissaro Bikkhu says, “So in a world where we’ve all been harmed in one way or another, and where we could always find old scores to avenge if we wanted to, the only way to find a truly safe victory in life is to start with thoughts of forgiveness: that you want to pose no danger to anyone at all, regardless of the wrong they’ve done. This is why forgiveness is not only compatible with the practice of the Buddha’s teachings, it’s a necessary first step.” (“Three Tactics from the Buddha to Forgive without Feeling Defeated”, Tricycle, Feb 17, 2018)

What makes an apology effective

So, how can we make an apology in a way that has the greatest likelihood of being effective? Probably the first, and most important step occurs prior to the apology. It is important to examine our own motives for apologizing. Is our goal to relieve suffering and avoid causing further suffering? Or are there other motives mixed in, such as wanting people to see us in a positive light, or hoping to gain some kind of advantage by apologizing? If our motives veer away from right intention then we are unlikely to be able to provide an apology that feels sincere and resolves difficulties.

In his book On Apology, Aaron Lazare (Oxford University Press, 2014) lays out the essential elements of an apology, and suggests the order in which they should occur.

  1. Acknowledge the offense
  2. Communicate remorse
  3. Explain your actions
  4. Offer remediation or reparation

Acknowledging the offense is an essential first step in an apology. It is important that we are apologizing for our behavior, not just for the impact that it had on the other person. By starting out with a frank recognition of what I did, I make it clear that I am apologizing for my actions. For example, “In our meeting yesterday I unfairly belittled your ideas about how to raise money for our sangha. I am so sorry.” Compare this with: “I realize your feelings were hurt by what I said yesterday. I am so sorry.” In the first case I am taking responsibility for what I did; in the second case I am subtly implying that you may have been overly sensitive or misinterpreted what I said… but it’s a shame that your feelings were hurt.

Communicating regret is the heart of the apology. It can take the form of a simple “I am sorry,” or it can add more information: “I can’t stop thinking about the way that I behaved. I really regret it. I am sorry.” “I’m ashamed that I raised my voice in our conversation. It was inappropriate, and I apologize.” No matter what other information I add, it is helpful to include the actual words “I am sorry,” so that it is really clear to the other person that I am apologizing.

Explaining my actions can sometimes be useful to help the other person understand the context of what was happening to me at the time the events occurred, but it is important that this not come across as an excuse. “I had just had a very difficult meeting with my boss right before I ran into you. I took it out on you, and that was totally inappropriate.” But not, “I had just had a very difficult meeting with my boss right before I ran into you. I was really feeling attacked, and that made me snap at you.” In other words, it is important to avoid an apology that comes across as, “I’m sorry, but…(I was having a terrible day), (I was still mad at you because of…) or (You totally misunderstood what I was saying).

Remediation or reparations can be effective, but it is important to think through the possible impact of what we offer. It is almost always appropriate to state an intention to change the behavior in the future: “In the future, if I have a concern about something that you have said, I will bring it up with you first, rather than bringing it up in a group setting.” Reparations can be effective in some circumstances: A mother may sincerely apologize for making homophobic comments toward her gay son in the past, and may propose to change her behavior and make a donation to a gay-rights organization. At other times, reparations can backfire: Governments may offer reparations for past unjust behavior, but the people who were mistreated may feel that what is offered is inadequate or trivializes the situation. A boss who has been unfairly critical of an employee and offers to take the employee out to lunch may come across as patronizing. One option is for me to ask the person if there is something that I can do that would help them to feel better.

So what would be an example of an effective apology? I will propose an example below, and maybe you can improve on this or have a better example.

“I have realized that I have been unfair to you and have spoken to you in a rude and dismissive way several times in the past few months. I feel very badly about my behavior. I am sorry. I have been having a tough time in my personal life, and I have not been doing a good job of leaving my feelings at home and paying attention to how I am behaving in our group. I am determined to stop being rude and unpleasant. Is there anything else I can do to make up for the way I have behaved?”

 

Editor’s Note: Please feel free to join us on Sangha Chat to discuss these topics further. If you are not yet a member, please join the group by sending an e-mail to . We look forward to chatting with you on the list!


 

June 4, 2018

Effective E-mail Communication

This week I will focus on effective email communication. Email is so convenient and fast, and many of us rely on it in our work and for social communication. However, email communications have a lot of potential to cause hurt and misunderstanding. Developing some guidelines for ourselves on how we use email can be helpful. Here are a few suggestions:

Keep emails brief: Unless you are writing to a lover or intimate friend who knows you really well, limit your emails to 3-4 short paragraphs. For the most part, folks do not want to read long emails and may feel annoyed at being expected to wade through complicated material that they have not requested.

Organize the content of your email in order to help your reader understand your main point. Just as you would organize your thoughts before phoning someone with a request, it helps your reader to feel respected if you are concise and clear about what you are trying to convey.

Attend to the emotional tone of your email: When you write an email, pause before you hit the send button. Have you conveyed warmth and respect for your reader? Because email lacks social cues, you can unintentionally be perceived as uncaring or harsh. Consider editing your email with one or two ways of bringing a warm and personal feel into the communication. You could start your message with a phrase such as, “I hope you are well” or “I hope you’re enjoying the summer.” You could close with a phrase such as “fondly,” “warmly,” “with warmth,” or “looking forward to seeing you soon,” or whatever phrases feel genuine to you to warm up the feeling tone of the message.

Speak in person instead of by email about difficult or emotional issues: If you are trying to convey something that is emotionally charged or complex, it is best not to use email at all. Email communications don’t allow us to use body language, tone of voice, and other cues that help our audience to understand what we are saying. Misunderstanding and bad feelings often result. Instead, pick up the phone; or better yet, talk face-to-face.

Resist the urge to teach or explain Buddhist principles in email unless the purpose of your message is to discuss a particular facet of practice, such as you might on the Sangha Chat. If we try to soften functional emails by adding advice about Buddhist principles or suggestions for practice this can backfire by coming across as condescending, and may annoy your reader.

In closing, email is a great tool that helps us to be efficient. If we are mindful in our email communications we can avoid these and other common problems.

Fondly, warmly, and looking forward to seeing you soon! 🙂

Miriam

 

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