Relationships are notoriously challenging journeys in life; without our conscious awareness we bring into them patterns developed during early childhood experiences and other painful personal events involving feelings of rejections, disappointment shame, etc. Given how loaded the territory is, we can feel threatened during times of tension, holding onto defensive strategies that sabotage safe communication: a desire to be right, avoidance, inflexible beliefs about how others should behave.
And so, if we are to succeed in navigating our interpersonal lives, we need to develop mindful dialogue skills to assist us when communication breaks down. What follows is explanation of how people experiencing an interpersonal conflict can successfully use the core three tools of mindful dialogue—attunement, sympathy/understanding, and empathy—to develop a deeper connection based on the safe exchange of emotionally charged experience.
When a relational conflict or concern arises between two people, a request should be made for a dialogue at a mutually convenient time; the partner should try to prioritize requests and agree to a time to meet no more than 2 days following the request. Note: It's important to use these dialogues not only to convey frustrating experiences, but to communicate positive feelings and important news as well. If we only use dialogues to express disappointments, dialogue will quickly be associated as a negative process and will wind up avoided by one or both partners. Its useful for these dialogues to be in mutually safe and discreet locations; its worth considering finding a place away from triggers and distractions, such as secluded park or riverside benches. The Speaker—the person who initially requested the dialogue—has a responsibility to express clearly and simply what they have experienced, using no more than a couple of sentences: eg. "I felt unheard and unseen when I sent you an email asking to make weekend plans and you didn't reply." It's essential to focus on the subjective feelings, and avoid condemnation. Globalizing statements, such as "You never…" must be avoided, as they immediately create unsafe conditions, and its important to speak from an awareness that all emotional states are subjective.
The speaker should stay focused on a single concern, letting go the desire to use the dialogue as a platform to list all of the listener's perceived defaults; key to the process is remaining focused on expressing the feelings that arise during a specific behavioral event.
The listener's initial duty is to listen quietly without interjecting, refraining from any desire to explain or justify. After the speaker has finished, its the listener's turn to simply and accurately repeat back what has been said, so that the speaker knows they've been heard. The listener should not summarize or paraphrase—which erodes communication and distorts the message—but stick as closely as possible to what's been said: "I heard you say that you felt unheard and unseen when I didn't return your message about the upcoming weekend." If the listener has missed something, the speaker shouldn't criticize, but instead thank them for what they've reflected correctly and patiently add what's been missed.
The more potentially volatile the issue in a relationship—raising children, sex, financial obligations, etc—the more important it is to speak slowly and calmly, avoiding accusations, simply expressing a feeling that results from a perceived behavior.
When we feel ourselves triggered or hurt by what's being said, its important to know that old, personal experiences are attaching themselves to the experience. In other words, one's personal history is flowing in, adding feelings of discomfort (dukkha vedana) and mental agitation (papanca). Acknowledge this is happening. Its important to self soothe: take a moment to locate and extend one's out breaths, then locate the physical stress—often in the abdominal or chest muscles—and relax them.
The next step is for the listener to express sympathy/understanding to the speaker, indicating that the listener "gets" the experience, even if they disagree with what's being said. Remember, people have different perspectives; one should listen as if a close friend has told them the same story about someone else. "Yes, I can see how from your perspective not hearing back from me would make you feel unimportant." or "I get that you feel unheard and that's a difficult experience." If the speaker's experience is beyond understanding it means the listener is not putting aside their point-of-view and hearing from the speaker's perspective; often they're only listening to their inner commentary and self-justifications. Nothing is achieved in such cases. If what's being conveyed isn't clear, the listener should request additional help: "I'm not clear which occasion you're referring to…"
Finally, real understanding is more an intellectual exercise (sympathy/understanding); empathy derives from feeling what has been expressed, as if we've experienced it personally. How would it feel if we sent a message that was important to us and we didn't receive a response. How does it feel to be unseen? Remember, emotional experiences are universal. If we can locate some feeling of the speaker's experience, some facial or bodily mirroring will naturally arise, which the speaker will note.
Eventually there will come a time to change roles, the speaker becoming a listener and vice versa. At this point the one should not contend about the events described, justify or explain, even if there was a very good explanation for one's behavior. Mindful dialogue is not about winning or losing, its about hearing different perspectives. If we have information that the original speaker isn't aware of, we should still strive to sympathize and empathize. "I can see how sending a message and not receiving a response would make you feel unimportant. At the time my friend was ill and all my free time was spent visiting them at the hospital, but I'll definitely keep your experience in mind."
None of the above will be easy at first. It's a challenging process, asking us to sit with uncomfortable feelings, and safety and cooperation aren't easy states to establish quickly. But if we place some effort into our dialogues, we can find a new level of real understanding arising in our relationships: its worth it.
—Josh Korda, dharmapunxnyc, 06/17/14