This article is the second in a series of three, sharing perspectives from the book Compassionate Conversation: How to Speak and Listen from the Heart, co-authored by Diane Musho Hamilton, Gabriel Menegale Wilson, and Kimberly Myosai Loh.
Read the first article in the series, “What Makes a Successful Conversation?”
Read the third article in the series, “Leading From a Place of Wholeness”
At each stage of our development, we are stretched to accommodate ever-deepening levels of complexity—in regard to our experiences and ways of knowing ourselves as well as our relationships with others and the rest of the natural world. Our conversations are being called to evolve in parallel with our development, which is also playing out in the collective field. All of the global challenges we face today require an evolution of our human consciousness and a significant boost in the skills with which we communicate.
The emergence of new and different perspectives is, in itself, a hallmark of our cultural evolution. We want to talk about the objective world but also include our subjective, lived experience, feelings, and emotions. As we better understand our wider social conditions, conversations about social justice, diversity, equity, inclusion, and power relationships become necessary. Cultivating empathy and compassion for others helps us speak more effectively and process it all together. It’s a tall order.
Our conversations naturally evolve in response, calling on us to hone our skills and develop our capacities. Sometimes it’s difficult, sometimes awkward, and sometimes extremely frustrating. Yet, for those of us who care about our connections with those around us, and the future world we seek to co-create together, practicing our communication skills is worth our time and energy. Through practice, we can gain flexibility to entertain more perspectives, listen attentively to one another, and see truth in our different experiences of life.
What exactly are the skills that can support us in this endeavor?
1. Listen Well
If we could make only one suggestion for improving our conversations, it would be to practice reflective listening skills. Reflective listening is simple and involves just two steps. First, the listener opens up to hear and fully receive the speaker’s message. Second, the listener repeats the message back to the speaker to confirm they were understood accurately.
By taking the time to thoroughly receive the messages of one another, we make room for each other’s versions of reality, without invalidating them, shutting them down, or fighting back. It can be helpful to remember that listening doesn’t mean agreement.
When we can learn to soothe our nervous systems, stay present, and reflect back what we heard them say without distortion or judgment, the other can experience the relief of being heard and respected, which is fundamentally what we all want.
Think of a conversation you had recently in which you struggled to listen to someone else’s point of view. Notice (a) what was happening in your body, and (b) what thoughts or defenses were racing through your mind. Consider what it was that you were resisting. How would the conversation have changed had you been able to let go of your resistance, listen to their point of view, and reflect back what you heard them say?
2. Talk Straight
Talking straight means speaking our truth simply and straightforwardly. Sounds easy but the pitfalls are equally as easy to come by. Sometimes, anxiety about expressing ourselves leads to a tentative or insecure communication style that has us trying to say just the right thing and avoid making any mistakes. On the other hand, we can also overstate our positions and overdo our demands in a way that kills inspiration and discourages others from engaging further.
In conversations we facilitate, we invite participants to speak primarily from the first person perspective. This means using “I messages,” as in “I think . . .,” “I feel . . .,” “I want . . .,” or “I will . . .” By conveying only what is true for us, we don't imply big empirical truths that need to be verified or that invite rejection from others. Nor are we attempting to speak on behalf of a wider group who may or may not fully agree. We’re simply capturing our own direct experience and personal perceptions, and in doing so, we acknowledge that our truths exist in relation to other relevant truths.
Talking straight develops our bravery; it requires us to be forthcoming with our views and it opens us to to receiving feedback or disagreement. Speaking clearly without traces of aggression or negative judgments takes time and practice to accomplish, but through this we learn to trust ourselves and, in turn, to trust others. Eventually we find out how to hear, respect, and integrate our differences.
What patterns do you notice in your way of expressing things that are important to you? Do you tend to downplay their importance or rush over them, or do you make your point repeatedly with greater and greater insistence? Or do you tend to do something else entirely? What would it be like to “own” what is true for you? What is a way of talking to others that would comfortably convey your truth?
3. Give Support and Challenge
Both support and challenge are necessary dimensions for our growth. Safe environments offer the benefits of mutual support, belonging, and rapport between group members. This helps us perform better, take healthy risks, and make mistakes. We create safety in our groups by giving everyone a voice, using listening skills, asking questions, and extending goodwill.
On the other hand, we need challenge in order to grow. Challenges keep groups exciting, dynamic, and creative. When we challenge one another, we expand our perspectives to include new information and learn to tolerate the creative tension of our differences.
Finding just the right combination of these two qualities is key, so as to avoid imbalance. Too much support and safety subdues energy and inhibits creative difference. Too much challenge, however, can quickly lead to power-games, heightened intensity, or even aggression. In these cultures, people often shut down and stay silent for fear of attack or criticism.
When we get the balance just right, our teams evolve through encounters and conversations. People in healthy, dynamic teams have one another’s backs and stand for each other’s well-being, while knowing how to ask each other questions and contrast perspectives with the right level of timing, frequency, and intensity to keep things lively and exciting.
Which do you tend to emphasize—support or challenge? How would you invite more of the other quality into your life? What difference would that make to your growth and development?
Going Forward Together
Incorporating the three skills of Listening Well, Talking Straight, and Giving Support and Challenge can give us a firm foundation as we traverse the growing complexity in our world. By practicing these, we serve our relationships by showing up more wholly as ourselves and inviting others to do the same. Together, we can grow through hearing and integrating our differences. No matter how new or experienced we are, and no matter how well or poorly the conversations go, our efforts to learn and try are in themselves worthy. Learning is itself a form of evolution, and although it’s sometimes hard to believe, we have faith that our conversations are changing us for the better.
Kimberly Myosai Loh is an author, coach, and peace specialist working to foster conflict transformation and ethical leadership. Her work includes international peace research at the United Nations, post-graduate conflict resolution at Columbia University, and individual and group coaching to expand our personal and collective potential.