On Skillful Communication

Written by Dan Kaminsky

I hope we can learn to practice dialoguing together about our successes and failures on, and off, the cushion in a respectful, equanimous and loving way.  And considering Goenka has passed, learning how to talk about these issues respectfully now is of extreme importance for the tradition’s future as we become farther and farther removed from his leadership.   

I have been trained as a conflict mediator from the New York Peace institute and the NY Center for Nonviolent Communication.  As such, I would like to offer up a few very simple tools (all aligned with vipassana meditation in my mind) to help navigate the difference in opinions.

The first thing that needs addressing before I approach the tools themselves is the value of these tools. This tradition leans heavily on insight gained from the cushion as the one and only tool used to navigate conflict.  Indeed, approaching people who disagree with you with as equanimous a mind as possible is hugely beneficial in challenging conversations. Yet, there are also a handful of very simple communication techniques that can aid that process as well.  These don’t conflict with the meditation practice in any way but instead help us to communicate in a way that is aligned with what we learn on the cushion. 

I will offer up here two very simple tools.  The first is “I” statements.  We all know the value of looking inward to recognize what is coming up for us.  This is a communication tool to frame the same introspection we all value through our language. Some of the responses I got to my previous blog posts were statements like “you are confusing new students” or “you are doing this for your own amusement” and plenty of other “you” style statements.  A “you” statement can very easily be perceived as an attack, and even the most equanimous among us can have a hard time hearing that without putting up walls or defenses.  Those same statements can be flipped inwards to say something like “these posts make me fearful because….” (or whatever that person was or is feeling). This flips the focus from outward facing to inward facing in a way that feels perfectly aligned with Goenka style vipassana.  It also allows for far healthier communication.  

The second tool is mirroring.  Mirroring is offering a simple reflection of what is being said or discussed without inserting your own judgements. An example of mirroring is a simple statement such as “it sounds like you are saying…” or “it seems to me you’re feeling fearful that these critiques will…is that right?” Responses like this ensure that the person talking feels heard, and also helps put you in the other person’s shoes to fully understand the substance of what they are saying.  Often in disagreements we immediately begin rolling in our own reactions without fully hearing or understanding the other perspective.  Mirroring allows you to ensure your own baggage isn’t getting in the way of truly understanding their perspective.  

Finally, in an attempt to understand other perspectives, I do have some questions.  For folks who want everything to stay as it is, engaging in conversation in and of itself may feel threatening.  For folks who are having this reaction, how can concerns be approached in a non-threatening way?  How can we ensure people that our vision isn’t to recklessly change things but rather to dialogue together about our struggles?  How can we present alternative perspectives on this tradition in ways where the person is seen and heard for their concerns as opposed to responding dismissively? I hope these questions and tools can be of use in the conversations to come.

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