I used to say that I thought excellent conversation was better than sex. Now I hadn’t had much sex at the time, so…
Still, excellent conversation, discussion, discourse, even archaically called “intercourse”—is a beautiful, beautiful thing. There are so many splendid pieces of conversations: The listening, the speaking, expressing one’s own sense of the truth, and perhaps most lovely, being open to change as the result of other’s words and energy and thoughts and feelings.
Over the past week, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with some of you about Fire and its creative and destructive powers, and the gentle wisdom of the candle flame. What a joy!
And I’ve been thinking about the various ways that people have found to speak to one another with respect and care. The Imago Technique, Nonviolent Communication, Radical Honesty. We clearly need help in this department.
Hurting Each Other
So what is it that we’re missing? What is it that we do to each other that is so hurtful?
I can’t say that I know. I’m hardly an expert. What I can speak to, though, like any of us, is my own experience in intimate conversation.
I feel hurt when I am misunderstood. I feel hurt when people characterize me or tell me how I feel. (That, in particular, drives me batshit crazy.) I feel hurt when people “put words in my mouth,” say things I’ve said that I didn’t say.
I hurt other people when I misunderstand them. I hurt other people when I interrupt them or speak before they’ve finished a thought. (This is particularly true in my many relationships with introverts.) I hurt other people when I move too quickly to a new topic, when they aren’t finished with their own thoughts, feelings, and needs. I hurt other people when I don’t actively embody empathy and deep listening.
Some Small Assistance
That last one, empathy and deep listening, is especially important. It’s something I really focused on in my chaplaincy training. On empathy. On patience. On waiting and just be-ing with someone until and if they want to speak. I can be really impatient, and even find myself just waiting for my turn.
That’s not empathy. Waiting for my turn is not empathy. Empathy, what Judy Harrow calls, “listening into,” in her book Spiritual Mentoring can only happen when I suspend my own judgments, opinions, and desire to speak. It happens when we are fully open to our conversational partner’s words, nonverbal cues, and experiences.
And then, in my case, at least, I need to give myself time, just a few moments, but time, to take in what my partner has said. I need to allow myself the space to reflect and then decide what I need to say. I need to remember that my feelings and reactions are about me, and that reacting quickly is likely to be a mistake.
Pema Chödrön talks about “the pause.” And a Zen teacher of a dear friend advises his students to “mix it with space,” when they are feeling churned up or in conflict. Space. Pause. These techniques help avoid escalation, especially if I tell my partner, “I need just to take a second to take that in before I respond.” It lets them know I’m not checked out, but still fully engaged, even though I’m not talking. They allow space, patience, and calm to pervade conversations, even really hard ones.
Another tool I’ve found helpful is reflection, sometimes called mirroring. I find it really helpful, especially in conflict. If we’re in conflict with someone, it can be good to slow the conversation way down. And one way to do that is for one person to speak, and then for the other person just to reflect in their own words just exactly what the first person said.
This practice may seem odd, but I know that it’s helped me. It’s helped me feel heard and understood. When I feel heard and understood, I feel able to go forward with trust and safety. I can begin to truly hear my partner because I feel safe in knowing I’m being understood.
It doesn’t feel that way to everyone, but it works for me. For some folks, the awkwardness overpowers the benefits, and I understand that. It may be that it requires practice, or it may be that it’s just not appropriate for everyone.
I mention these musings because just as Madeleine L’Engle described herself not a “Christian writer,” but rather “a struggling Christian,” I am a struggling conversationalist. Someone who loves to talk and to listen, both, but who does each imperfectly.
Elemental Wisdom of Fire Full Course Coming Up!
Coming up on Thursday the 22nd—that’s this coming Thursday—the Fire continues to burn!
My paid, four-week course in the Elemental Wisdom of Fire begins, and we will delve even more deeply into various individual aspects of Fire.
This exploration will include physical manifestations of Fire, yes, and each class will begin there. But we will go further and deeper. Further into metaphorical, meditative, and magical experiences of Fire. And we’ll also discuss how different cultures have deified forces of the flame, lightning, and the sun.
We’ll cover safety and home, anger and fruitful conflict manifested in fire, creation and destruction, and our own interior flames of love and justice, held and supported by community. Go to https://thewayoftheriver.com/elemental-wisdom-of-fire/ for more information!