“The hardest part of communicating well is knowing when to speak, when to be quiet, and when to wait and see.” Susan Chapman
While reading Mindful: Living with Awareness and Compassion, a magazine sponsored by Shambhala Sun, I came across an article written by Susan Chapman. The title of the article was called “Stop. Wait.Go”. It’s a piece focusing on mindful communication. The article caught my attention because I’ve recognized some time ago that my communication needs improvement on both the personal and professional level. While I have no problem engaging in conversation with others there are certain situations where my communication falters. Mindful of this I’ve been on a mission to strengthen this particular weakness.
Chapman’s article talks about how important it is to bring awareness to the way we communicate with others. She points out that the most important aspect of this awareness is when we recognize when the channel of communication has shut down vs. when we feel emotionally safe enough to open up. Once we have an understanding of this we can better control how we communicate–refraining from blurting out things in anger or speaking when it’s not necessary.
Chapman uses the metaphor of a traffic light to describe the changes we experience during communication. When communication closes, the light is red. When communication is open, the light has turned green. When communication is stalled, or in between, the light is yellow. Each stage has its consequences and Chapman offers tips on how to respond to each one
Red Light: Notice when you’ve become defensive and closed off. Be careful. Communication in this zone can lead to difficult and painful reactions.
Yellow Light: Pay attention to the limbo between open and closed. Relax with the uncertainty. Pause, reflect, linger there and let possibilities emerge.
Green Light: When your state of mind is open, feel free to explore your connection with others. Share. Learn. Change. Expand.
After reading the article I took a moment to examine what causes me to shut down communication and what makes me open. I am usually always open to constructive criticisms or when someone is (gently) expressing that they take issue with something I have done to offend them. My level of trust with another person always determines how much I open up to them. My defenses are typically down when I know that the other party is willing to listen to me and is receptive to what I have to say, regardless if they agree with me or not. My “yellow light” kicks in when I am being verbally attacked or when I get the impression that someone is trying to use guilt to manipulate me into doing something. There are certain things that will cause me to slowly shut down over time. For example, when someone has repeatedly shown me that they are not listening to me when I am attempting to communicate something to them, when I have to constantly repeat myself, or when someone twists what I say and uses it against me. Other things will cause me to shut down immediately, such as being dismissed. Minimizing or belittling my feelings will always cause me not to open up. When someone responds to me with sarcasm and condescending statements or outright calls me names, I typically will immediately end the conversation, the walls going up. At that points it’s all but impossible to get me to open back up again.
The thing is, you have to make yourself vulnerable in order to communicate openly and honestly. There is a lot of trust involved in that process. As a result, both parties must take extra precaution in how they receive and express communication. Ask yourself, are you coming off as offensive, on the attack? Are you open to what the other person is telling you? Is there understanding in your response? Is your tone harsh or kind? Your words angry and hurtful? Do you come across as apathetic and uncaring? Are you being sympathetic towards the other person? Is it a proper time to say something or simply listen? What is your intent behind the dialog? There is a lot of power in words, and how those words are received. The source of that power, whether negative or positive, is what essentially defines any relationship. Chapman illustrates this when she says
The in-between state of mind is a critical time for bringing peace into our homes and workplaces. Small acts of kindness that are either shared or withheld when the yellow light is flashing can make or break a relationship. Once we’re in the red zone, it’s too late to engage in acts of kindness–we’re too mistrustful.
The things to always remember when communicating is mindfulness, kindness, and emotional safety.