Skillful Practice: Caring Communication

This week, I’m sharing some notes on skillful communication as a practice of caring for ourselves and others. Communicating effectively, whether with those near and dear to us or, well- otherwise, holds immense value given that our wiring to connect and rely on others for love and support, or even just cooperation, is a non-negotiable part of our human existence. More simply put, none of us are exempt from the fundamental human need to be in connection with others. And yet, despite how much our well-being therefore relies on being able to connect and communicate with others effectively, we generally lack education in this domain. When discussing the practical and tactical of effective communication, I’ve had clients quip, “Why wasn’t this taught in school?”. At best, we’re left to our own intuitions for navigating our interpersonal lives which, granted, sometimes guide us on course. But more often, those intuitions are muddled by a lack of emotional acuity with ourselves or unconscious conditioning based on former experiences and cultural contexts.  

And so, in the spirit of navigating relationship and connection on which we utterly depend- not in discordance with self-sufficiency but in coherence with it- some notes and guidance on communicating as an act of caring for both ourselves and others:

(1) When expressing a desire or a need within a relationship, begin by validating or acknowledging the experience of the other person. Even if you can only partially see or understand the other person’s perspective, speaking to those parts that you can understand is an effective way for the other person to feel seen, which puts them in a better position to feel safety and therefore to be able to listen and hear your experience too. This is a particularly difficult step when we’re feeling hurt by someone we love, but an important one for laying a foundation for facilitating connection rather than furthering disconnection.  

(2) Share about your experience in the relationship, event, or dynamic while focusing on two key elements:  

(i) The use of “I” language rather than “You” language. This step can sound simple on an intellectual level, but tends to be more challenging than we realize in practice. Awareness of the granularity of our emotions is often lost when we are angry or feeling the charge of an unmet need within a relationship. Anger, for example, tends to be much more obvious to us than feeling something like shame or loneliness, which are far more vulnerable in tone. The predicament is that if we approach someone with our anger (“You are inconsiderate!”), rather than with our vulnerability (“I am feeling alone when…”), it tends to push the other away, rather than bring them toward us. The greater our conscious or unconscious experience of an unmet need, the greater the emotional charge there will be to have that need met, and the greater the likelihood there will be for us to communicate reactively. Communicating responsively with I language rather than reactively with You language frees us from this deadlock, but requires a granular emotional awareness of our experience so that we can share what we’re feeling more deeply and honestly, rather than only what we’re feeling at surface-level. If you find yourself looking to place blame inwardly or outwardly, chances are you are still only in touch with the surface-level of your emotional experience, and that you need more time to cultivate greater emotional awareness and acuity before finding your I language for the conversation at hand.

(ii) When describing your experience, speak to both emotions and the ongoing context, rather than only to the context. When it comes to speaking to context, aim to speak only to the main and relevant clear facts so that the other person can hear the specific scenario(s) to which you are responding. This helps the other to hear that you’re experiencing dissatisfaction about certain behaviours or circumstances in an interpersonal dynamic rather than with who they are as a person.

(3) State a desire, need, or request for change clearly, but also in such a way that brings the other person into the creative problem-solving process. Coming up with solutions together as a team in any relationship not only helps to address the problem at hand, but also helps to build intimacy and connection in and of itself. So often, in conflict with those that are close to us, we forget that we have common underlying goals, such as the desire for well-being both for ourselves and the other person. When we reroot into these shared fundamentals, communication flows from a place of collaboration, rather than from a place of separateness (me vs. you). Given our interdependence, if someone has apparently “won” an argument or disagreement in the short-term, in reality, both have lost in the long-term with unmet needs left unaddressed.

And through the stumbles and missteps, you can lovingly remind yourself of the beauty of any practice- an unrelenting forgiveness and permission to begin anew, again, again, and again.

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