Build Bridges, Don’t Burn Them: Four Ways to Practice Compassionate Communication

The conversation that changed my life wasn’t about a higher power or the meaning of life. It was an ordinary argument about a local political issue in which I tried to convince a friend that she was wrong. I was proud of how much I knew about the topic, so I barraged my friend with statistics and quotes. She faltered trying to respond, which made her defensive and angry. By the time we ended the conversation, a rift had opened in our friendship.

I didn’t feel victorious after this argument: I felt sad. I was clearly the “winner,” but what had I “won”? Had I changed my friend’s mind? Had I helped her see an alternative viewpoint? Had I created a link between her views and mine? No, no, and no. All I’d done was damage a valued friendship.

That experience, and many like it, led me to think about how I could speak out about important issues without putting down or embarrassing others. I began to think about compassionate communication.

The topic became so important to me, I dedicated several exercises in my book, Writing as a Sacred Path, to it. As I continue to work on the best ways to communicate in my teaching, activism, writing, and personal life, I have learned that compassionate communication isn’t merely nicer, it is also more effective. People are more likely to be influenced, if you communicate in a way that is courteous, respectful, and kind.

Compassionate communication is a lifelong effort, but it isn’t difficult to get started. You can make important strides to becoming a more open—and more effective—communicator by taking these four steps.

  • Stop trying to win. Your goal shouldn’t be to show how smart, virtuous, and right you are. It should be to state your opinion, communicate ideas, learn from others, and reach mutual understanding. As long as you’re focused on winning, you’ll be thinking more about your ego than about finding and sharing truth.
  • Ditch anger. While it can be infuriating when someone doesn’t see your side, anger is a destructive force in communication. Anger  blocks logical, reasoned discussion. It forces your opponent to go on the defensive. It doesn’t make you right, and it doesn’t make you strong: It weakens and undermines you.
  • Stop seeing your opponent as an enemy. It is easy to demonize people who disagree with our cherished opinions. It is important to remember that people with opposing views are not against you. They are just people who see things through a different lens than you. Thinking of others not as enemies, but as fellow truth-seekers will help you empathize with them—and may open your eyes to viewpoints you never considered before.
  • Search for common ground. You can find points of agreement in the most polarized argument if you take time to look for them. Underneath everything, most of us want the same thing: A safer, fairer, kinder world. We may differ in how we think that better world can be created, but we shouldn’t let those differences get in the way of finding unity.

Standing up for what we believe in is essential to living a good life. Too many of us think that means crushing, humiliating, or silencing our opponents. Learning instead to communicate compassionately—with an open mind, empathy, and a healthy dose of respect— will make you a more effective leader and influencer—and make the world a kinder, more unified place. What could be more important at this time in history?

Jill Jepson, Ph.D. is a writer, editor, and professor. She blogs at JillJepson.com.  Find her on Twitter at @Jill_Jepson.

 

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