If you’d like to share a post about what you learned about compassion (The First Step), what you’re seeing in your world (The Second Step), self-compassion (The Third Step), empathy (The Fourth Step), mindfulness (The Fifth Step), action (The Sixth Step), how little we know (The Seventh Step), or how to speak to one another (The Eighth Step) use the link list below. Or join the discussion in the comments or on Facebook.
The Eighth Step in Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life is: How Should We Speak to One Another? This builds nicely on the Seventh Step that was all about humility and accepting how little we know. If I accept that I know little about you, how you reached your positions, and what makes you tick, then I’m going to speak to you differently than if I jump to conclusions about all of those things. I’ll be more curious and less judgmental.
Unfortunately, the model of communication that we’ve been taught and that we see modeled around us is about competition. We go into conversations with an attempt to win them — which, of course, makes them debates, not conversation or dialogue.
Spiritual and philosophical teachers suggest that we be more kind and compassionate and take an approach that involves listening as much as speaking. This advice comes from Socrates, the Buddha, Saint Paul, and Gandhi.
Karen Armstrong, a recognized leader in popularizing the scholarship of world religions, shares from her personal experience:
For some years now, I have tried to counter the stereotypical view of Islam that has been current in the West for centuries but has become more prevalent since the atrocities of September 11, 2001. Like any received idea, it is based on what the Buddha called “hearsay” rather than accurate knowledge or understanding. So when politicians or pundits have insisted that Islam is an inherently violent, intolerant faith or inveigh furiously against the practice of veiling, for example, I have written articles, based on my study of Islamic history, to challenge this. But I have recently decided that this is counterproductive. All that happens is that my article is virulently attacked and my assailants rehearse the old ideas again with greater venom. As a result, the intellectual atmosphere becomes even more polluted and people remain entrenched in angry negativity. (pp. 135, 136)
She’s having better luck by starting with where people are and posing Socratic questions for herself and others to answer.
True listening means more than simply hearing the words that are spoken. We have to become alert to the underlying message too and hear what is not uttered aloud. Angry speech in particular requires careful decoding. We should make an effort to hear the pain or fear that surfaces in body language, tone of voice, and choice of imagery. (pp. 136, 137)
She uses fundamentalism, of all stripes, as an example. Fundamentalists fear annihilation. Attacking them, in any way, only proves that the fear is real. Instead, she proposes that we “reflect seriously on the fact that [fundamentalism] often expresses anxieties that no society can safely ignore.” (p. 137) We must understand the context and to do that, we need a charitable approach, one that assumes that the speaker is reasonable and telling the truth as she or he knows it. “If we cannot do that, we will dismiss the speaker as irrational, nonsensical, and basically inhuman.” (pp. 138, 139) That’s the opposite of compassionate!
With this new empathetic understanding of the context, we will find that we can imagine ourselves, in similar circumstances, feeling the same. In other words, we have to see where people are coming from….We can ignore this compassionate imperative only if we do not wish to understand other people–an ethically problematic position. (p. 139)
Of course, she points out that all this work at understanding does not meant the we condone the violent actions of others.
As we develop our compassionate mind, we should feel an increasing sense of responsibility for the suffering of others and form a resolve to do everything we can to free them from their pain. But it is no good responding to injustice with hatred and contempt. This, again, will simply inspire further antagonism and make matters worse. When we speak out in defense of decent values, we must make sure that we understand the context fully and do not dismiss the values of our opponents as barbaric simply because they seem alien to us. We may find that they have the same values but express them in a radically different way. (p. 140)
That’s the part that’s going to be hard for me. I’m not sure how to respond to injustice in ways that aren’t filled with hatred and contempt. That feels, at first glance, like the correct response to injustice.
Karen Armstrong’s advice is First Corinthians, Chapter 13. Practicing “love is kind” and all the rest will prevent impatience, self-righteousness, or rudeness in our words and actions. Even in the face of injustice, my goal is to “beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:7) Not just because it’s the right thing to do but because it’s the basis for more effective communication.
Do you have advice on how to speak to one another?