So what if I asked you to share a few kind words about someone else? How hard could that be? What if I asked you to speak uninterrupted for one minute?
A little challenging, but definitely possible.
More importantly, what if I asked you to say something pleasant about someone we might otherwise describe as an irritant? Someone who has a habit of getting under your skin. Perhaps I could give you some steers, find for me the things that you respect in them, or acknowledge what you see as their achievements.
Still so easy?
And then what if I asked to tell what irritated you about them. How long could you talk on that one? Suddenly very easy for most of us. Perhaps a little too easy.
I regularly pose this challenge of sharing a few kind words of attendees on mindfulness workshops and programmes.
At the same time we observe the speakers. Watching for juxtaposition of verbal and physical messages. The second part of the exercise often proves challenging, and in most cases their bodies appear uncomfortable before they speak or at best incongruent when speaking.
Even in their words there is a often a caveating or contextualizing. Often a referral back to the irritation. In debrief, there is a frequent expression of frustration because they really wanted to say how they felt about that person. Often feeling genuinely physically uncomfortable about temporarily shaving to suppress those apparently necessary nuggets of criticism.
When I pose the last question, what if you could talk for 10 minutes about that other persons flaws the room fills with knowing smiles.
The critical expression
Why can a few kind words be so difficult? This exercise is offered as an exercise in compassion and it genuinely challenges most who undertake it.
Criticism or negative judgement of others is much more than our meaning monologues. It is often the little micro cuts, the passive aggressive aside, the sneer or raising, the turning of the back. All of these things express our negatively. It does not take a sentence to offend or hurt. An almost unconscious expression for the expression can linger for the recipient. It is not just what you say. Communication is a whole body practice - both ways.
What is it in the human condition that finds it so much easier to be criticise? And then I think of those “voices in our heads” – how often do they offer us praise? How often do we pat ourselves on the back? More likely we remind ourselves of our shortcomings. We practice criticism on ourselves, we practice hurting ourselves. So much so we normalise it, so sharing a spiteful aside to another or a turning away is OK, regardless of how it impacts.
What’s more, it is less painful to criticise others then always ourselves. Ironically, we feel better about ourselves when we outline someone else’s failings.
The responsibility is ours
What of us as parents, as colleagues, as neighbours ….. the list is endless. We celebrate as humans the power of our critical minds, but perhaps we need to watch it more closely and give less rein to its criticisms.
I do not believe for one minute that we are so motivated by ill will to others. So what do we do then?
I invite us all to develop an awareness of those voices, those tendencies, those harmless, “we didn’t mean it really” barbs. Perhaps we could see them in our speech or learn to spot them on our tongues – or maybe feel their emotion rising within ourselves.
And when we do then we can learn to pause. And in that pause take a breath and consider, do we need to share this observation. Or is there something more appropriate that we might consider - something more positive in terms of feedback. Something helpful, something objective, something kinder.
Stop and THINK for a few kind words
I love the common acronym THINK as a measure for kinder and more compassionate communication.
T - is it true?
H - is it helpful?
I - is it inspiring?
N - is it necessary?
K - is it kind?
Next you are aware of your judgement, stop and THINK. Share a few kind words