How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist - Andrew B. Newberg, Mark Robert Waldman (2009)
TRANSFORMING YOUR INNER REALITY
10. COMPASSIONATE COMMUNICATION
Dialogue, Intimacy, and Conflict
Meditation is good for your brain, and it can bring you closer to God. But we discovered that it can also be used to rapidly establish intimacy with others. “Intimacy,” as we are using it here, does not refer to sexual closeness, but to those qualities associated with friendship, trust, and compassion. When we feel intimate toward another, we willingly suspend self-protective attitudes that we normally use when closely interacting with others. Intimacy fosters acceptance, and greater degrees of intimacy are correlated with greater personal health.1
In this chapter we'll discuss how you can build on the meditation exercises in the previous chapter and apply them directly to the process of communication with family members and friends. The technique that Mark and I designed was specifically created for working with spouses and partners, but we will show you how to adapt the exercise when interacting with colleagues, distant acquaintances, and even strangers. When you do so, you can turn an ordinary conversation into an extraordinary event in less than fifteen minutes, because it will neurologically undermine defensive behaviors inherent in any dialogue. This creates an environment in which conflicts can be more easily resolved.
You can even use this meditation technique to teach groups of people with opposing perspectives how to be more accepting of each other's systems of beliefs. We call this exercise “Compassionate Communication” because it helps individuals express vulnerable thoughts while maintaining mutual sensitivity and respect for each other. Here, we define compassion as the neurological ability to resonate to the emotional feelings of others, to share their suffering and their joy. Our ability to be compassionate is part of our biological makeup, but every human brain has a different degree of emotional sensitivity when it comes to reading the inner feelings of others.2 From the research we've accumulated, we believe that anyone can strengthen his or her neurological capacity to feel greater compassion toward others.
In fact, we view the overall concept of compassionate communication as essential to all forms of interpersonal exchange. Compassion is a fundamental tenet of nearly every spiritual tradition, and it is especially critical when considering the larger issues of interfaith dialogue, discussions between atheists and religious individuals, and communication within the science and religion debates.
Compassion also implies the neurological ability to express kindness, empathy, and forgiveness.3 Like intimacy, compassion is associated with greater emotional and psychological health.4 From a neurological perspective, it is generated and regulated by the anterior cingulate,5 and as we have explained in prior chapters, this unique part of the human brain enhances social awareness, recognizes the feeling states of others, and decreases our propensity to express anger and react with fear. The anterior cingulate is also one of the core neural mechanisms responsible for our deepest feelings of romantic love.6 It allows us to feel emotionally connected and attached, but if it functions poorly, a person's ability to resonate to the feelings of someone else will be impaired.7
P254: MEDITATION, COMPASSION,
AND MIRROR-NEURON THEORY
In psychological, anthropological, and neuroscientific communities, there is much excitement about the potential discovery of a human mirror-neuron system that would explain how our brains come to “know” what is going on in the brains of other human beings. These unique neurons are located in areas directly affected by meditation and appear to be intimately involved in the processes of facial recognition, compassion, communication, and self/other consciousness. The rapidly expanding research in this area suggests that mindfulness-based spiritual practices may be ideally suited for enhancing social empathy and communication with others. For an excellent overview of how meditation affects the mirror-neuron system of the brain (which, in turn, helps us to become more emotionally attuned to others), see Daniel Siegel's The Mindful Brain.
COMMUNICATION WITH STRANGERS
Mark first introduced a version of Compassionate Communication to members of the Association for Transpersonal Psychology in 1992,8 but we recently modified the technique so we could monitor the neurological changes taking place in the brain. In conjunction with Stephanie Newberg, a licensed clinical social worker and assistant director at the Council for Relationships in Philadelphia (the oldest counseling center in America), we are currently training therapists to use this exercise to improve dialogue and intimacy with conflicted couples. Research also shows that when therapists practice awareness-based and mindfulness-based meditations, they have better results with their patients.9
We are expanding the program to include other university counseling centers and conflict-resolution organizations around the country, and have begun conducting research in churches and public schools to measure the improvements made according to various empathy and intimacy scales. The results so far are surprising and positive.
When we introduce Compassionate Communication in a group setting, we ask participants to pair themselves up with a person they do not know. We specifically request that couples and spouses do not work together because, in a group situation, couples converse with greater defensiveness than when they practice Compassionate Communication with a stranger. At first this may sound counterintuitive, but many long-term studies have shown that the complex demands of marriage increase the degree of stress between couples.10 An intimate conversation can easily bump up against unaddressed conflicts, so a natural reaction is to avoid those issues—and specifically, those conversations—that may threaten marital attachment. However, when you experiment with Compassionate Communication in a group situation, where there is less at stake, participants can take the positive experiences home with them, where they can practice with greater willingness and comfort.
Let's return to our workshop participants. After they paired up with a stranger, we gave them a modified version of the Miller Social Intimacy Scale—a well-established tool for measuring social friendship, closeness, and defensiveness11—and asked them to respond to the questions as they related to the person they were sitting with. Then we guided them through a seven-minute exercise (which I'll introduce to you shortly) that used a combination of the relaxation exercises we described in Chapter 9.
Next, we asked them to hold a compassionate thought about the person with whom they were sitting. This turns out to be an important step, and it reflects the principles in the forgiveness meditation we discussed in the previous chapter. We instructed them to imagine an intimate conversation with the stranger they were sitting with because visualization enables the brain to more easily put into practice whatever goal one wishes to accomplish. In this case, the goal was to stimulate the neural circuits involved with empathy, social awareness, and communication.
Finally, we asked the participants to smile and make eye contact∗1 with their partners as they continued to imagine the possibility of an ensuing compassionate dialogue. They were given seven minutes to talk to each other, but had to stay focused on their breathing and only speak briefly, taking turns talking about whatever came to mind, without censoring anything. They were specifically instructed not to make a conversation happen; instead, they were to simply allow a spontaneous dialogue to flow wherever it wanted to go. When we do this in workshop situations, it's not surprising to see many pairs sharing personal stories they would normally reserve for a close friend.
Participants were invited to share their experiences with the group, and after the exchange, we asked them to pair themselves up with a new partner—again, with someone they did not know. They practiced Compassionate Communication for another five to ten minutes, and then we paired them with another person. But this time we didn't have them talk. Instead, we again gave them the modified Miller Social Intimacy Scale to see if there was any change in their willingness to feel empathy or affection toward a stranger.
When we analyzed the data, we found an 11 percent improvement on the intimacy scale. Now, 11 percent might not sound like much, but in scientific research it's an impressive change, especially considering the brief amount of time that was spent. Certain areas of intimacy had even greater changes. For example, there was a 20 percent increase in participants’ willingness to feel close and spend time with an unfamiliar individual. We also found that men showed as much improvement as women and that race did not play a factor in creating intimacy with others. People over the age of forty showed a slightly greater improvement in their willingness to be open toward others, which suggests that compassion, empathy, and intimacy improves with greater life experiences and maturity.
We were also able to measure the “baseline” intimacy levels of the participants before they practiced Compassionate Communication. Although women had slightly higher levels, the difference between women and men was not statistically significant, thus contradicting the popular opinion that women have a greater capacity for closeness. Other studies also show mixed results when searching for gender differences. For example, women may exhibit greater degrees of empathy, but men tend to be more forgiving.12 On the other hand, women tend to express more compassion than men toward people who have treated them unfairly.13 Overall, the research suggests that we must be cautious when comparing men's and women's capacities for closeness.
After practicing Compassionate Communication with strangers, both men and women were more likely to share personal information and were more willing to listen to personal disclosures. They felt closer to each other and were more willing to be emotionally supportive and socially affectionate. Thus, Compassionate Communication appears to be an effective strategy for generating interpersonal understanding and peace.
COMPASSIONATE COMMUNICATION WITH COUPLES
The therapists we're training are introducing the technique to selected couples who are struggling with different levels of conflict in their relationship. The patients take a battery of tests to evaluate their psychological state and level of intimacy, and in the first counseling session are guided through the steps of the meditation by the therapist. Then, with minimal supervision—which is usually a reminder to speak briefly and return to focusing on one's inner state of relaxation—they practice the exercise by allowing a spontaneous conversation to emerge. Later, when they become more proficient, they'll use the exercise to address specific issues and problems.
We send them home with a CD that guides them through the instructions, and we ask them to practice with each other for approximately fifteen minutes each day. From week to week the therapists observe the changes in their intimacy level, and at the end of four weeks the participants are again given a battery of tests.
Compassionate Communication integrates an awareness-based meditation directly into the dialogue process, something that to our knowledge has not been researched or tested until now. In fact, at a recent conference on spirituality and health, I spoke with several well-known scholars who were lamenting that there were no meditation programs that actively engaged people in dialogue. They were surprised and excited when I told them about the research we'd begun, and we are currently working on developing protocols with several universities. Over the next few years we plan to initiate a number of inter disciplinary studies to expand upon the data we are currently collecting.
Evidence from university research has demonstrated that couples who use a mindfulness-based meditation separately are more likely to respond empathically toward each other.14 In another study, those who practiced mindfulness meditation showed “improved levels of relationship happiness, relationship stress, stress-coping efficacy, and overall stress.”15 Other awareness and mindfulness-based meditations have been integrated into psychotherapy to foster relationship empathy16 and improve parenting skills.17
But all of these meditations are conducted in privacy and silence. This is why the Compassionate Communication technique can be so effective. It builds on the existing evidence that meditation enhances interpersonal relationships, but adds the component of actively engaging two individuals in a dialogue. Our preliminary evidence also suggests that Compassionate Communication helps deepen spiritual bonds within relationships, which is why we are training ministers and their congregations in ways that integrate dialogue into their religious rituals and beliefs.
Bringing meditation into any conversation is surprisingly simple. All you have to do is maintain consistent eye contact and stay physically relaxed and mindful of your responses as you participate in a flow of spontaneous conversation. You say a few sentences slowly, then return to your breathing awareness while the other person responds. The unstructured conversation that follows will quickly move into surprisingly intimate areas. And, like the walking meditation we discussed in the previous chapter, the more you practice, the easier it becomes.
Soon you'll find yourself bringing serenity and awareness into every conversation you have—even with those who do not engage in contemplative or spiritual practices. After all, it doesn't matter if the other person is consciously meditating with you, because your own state of awareness and relaxation will influence the other person's mood. Human brains are designed to resonate to the inner emotional states of others, so as long as one of you maintains a posture of openness and serenity, the other person will unconsciously respond in kind. It might not be as much as you desire, but when it comes to something as complicated as personal relationships, every little bit helps.
CHANGING OUTER GOALS INTO INNER VALUES
During the summer of 2007, while Mark was collecting data from congregants of a Church of Religious Science, we accidentally discovered that Compassionate Communication could change a person's values, desires, and goals. At that time, a very popular video called The Secret18 had become the focal point at many of these churches, mainly because the concept—that you can obtain whatever you desire by asking the universe to provide—closely coincided with the basic teachings of the organization.∗2
On the survey scale we handed out, Mark decided to add the following question: “What is your ‘secret’ desire?” It turned out to be a fortuitous measure of how meditation can change your relationship with the world. Before doing the exercise, most people responded with a materialistic goal: more money, a better job, a nicer house, a new relationship, a vacation, improved health, etc. But at the end of the hour-long exercise, when asked the same question again, most people changed their desire to a broader range of intrinsic values. Peace, happiness, and contentment were often cited, but here's a sample of changes made by specific individuals:
DESIRE BEFORE PRACTICING
DESIRE AFTER ONE HOUR OF PRACTICE
Sell my paintings
Be a megamillionaire
Live in grace and harmony
Be spiritually fulfilled
Have a happy marriage
My favorite response came from a woman who initially put down the desire to be a writer, but after practicing Compassionate Communication with people she barely knew, she changed her goal to wanting to “run with giraffes.”
We conducted a content analysis, as we did with our online Survey of Spiritual Experiences, and found that after the meditation experience, an interest in financial concerns dropped from 34 to 14 percent. There was a 60 percent increase in a desire for peace, while desires for self-love and interpersonal love nearly tripled.19
The shift in responses confirms my intuition that spiritual practices—even when stripped from their religious components and applied to secular situations—take people inward, where they often realize the importance of compassionate values and humanitarian ideals, qualities that are found at the heart of most religious traditions.
HOW TO PRACTICE COMPASSIONATE COMMUNICATION
Human communication is one of the most complex neural processes in the brain. It involves face and voice recognition, language processing, memory recall, speech coordination, concept recognition, imagery mapping, emotional regulation, deceit and fairness evaluation, strategic planning, and the activation of neural circuits governing volitional activities and behavior.
Any degree of stress will interfere with the integration of these internal processes, so the first step in effective communication—with anyone, friend or foe—is to remain calm and relaxed. But most people do not view conscious relaxation as a social event. Instead, it's something you usually do alone, or with a good bottle of wine and a couple of friends. Yet all of the research we've collected points to the fact that relaxation is an essential key to virtually every aspect of social interaction. If you integrate breathing, awareness, observation, optimism, and emotional neutrality into your conversation, a far more meaningful and constructive dialogue will emerge.
Relaxation heightens our visual and auditory skills, which means we can listen more carefully to others and better ascertain the subtle facial cues that are indispensable to the communication process. Increased attentiveness will positively affect your partner, and this will encourage a greater willingness for him or her to disclose more intimate feelings and thoughts.
But intimacy brings with it vulnerability, and if the other person reacts with anxiety, the conversation will be derailed. Relaxation lowers the neural reactivity in your brain. In addition, when the circuits relating to social awareness and compassion are stimulated, pleasure-enhancing neurochemicals are released, and these also decrease the risk of reacting with anger or fear.
Compassionate Communication is easy to learn. All you need is a willing partner or friend, but you can also do the exercise alone, using your imagination to envision a caring person. You'll receive all the benefits that traditional meditations bestow, and then, when you enter a conversation with another person, you can internally practice the technique. For example, before you speak to someone, take a slow deep breath and consciously relax all of the muscles in your body. Then speak slowly and briefly, letting the other person respond. While he or she talks, stay quietly focused on your state of relaxation. When the other person stops, take a subtle breath and respond.
You might think that your slower talking will attract undue attention, but when you try it, you'll discover that other people will experience your slowness as being more attentive and receptive. If you ask them, they'll probably tell you that they felt you were deeply interested in what they said. And then, if you tell them what you were doing, you'll have the pleasure of passing on a valued technique that someone else can use.
Of course, if you know you'll be walking into a conflict-ridden situation, you should take ten minutes beforehand to rehearse the Compassionate Communication instructions in your imagination. Ideally, both parties would benefit if they practiced this technique together, but we live in a world that is far from ideal.
The instructions that follow are what we use in our workshops and couples therapy, but feel free to modify them to suit your situation. As you read the instructions, perform as many steps as possible in your imagination. Later you can read them to a friend or your partner, guiding the person through each step. Speak slow and gently, using your voice to lull your partner into a state of deep relaxation. Thanks to the innate capacity of human brains to resonate to each other's emotional condition, you will find yourself relaxing as well. If not, ask your friend to read the instructions back to you before you begin the conversation. He or she should be extremely relaxed, which will facilitate the process of creating a deep, shared meditative experience.
If you can, record the instructions, because listening to them makes them easier to follow than reading them. You can also go to markrobertwaldman.com to order a prerecorded CD (see Appendix A for additional information). If you make your own CD, insert the sound of a bell at each place you see an asterisk in the instructions. The bell is used as a reminder to focus on your breathing and relaxation.
We suggest that you do Compassionate Communication once a day, alone or with someone else. You can even try it over the telephone, as some of our patients have. The relaxation induction takes about seven minutes, depending on how slow or fast you read (we recommend slow). On the CD, the induction is followed by another seven minutes of silence, during which you practice with a partner. Every thirty seconds the silence is punctuated by the gentle sound of a bell to remind both people to talk less and relax.
When you are alone, after you have done the relaxation induction, try to have an imaginary conversation with someone about a topic that is causing you concern. Like the “Imaginary Fight” exercise in the previous chapter, this can be an effective way to exercise your tactfulness and predict how another person might respond.
So let's begin. In this first trial run, imagine you are sitting in a chair, opposite someone you like. Later you can practice with a person with whom you feel comfortable, and still later, you can try it with someone with whom you are having difficulty. Read slowly, and each time you see an asterisk, stop for five seconds and take a very deep breath. Obviously, you can ignore, for the moment, the suggestion to close your eyes!
Sit down on two chairs placed close together and face your partner. If you are comfortable enough, your knees or hands can touch each other. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths, relaxing all the muscles in your face. Let your forehead relax, and then let the muscles around your eyes relax. Take another deep breath and relax your jaw. Now relax all the muscles in your neck. Take a deep breath and relax your shoulders, and take another breath as you relax the muscles in your arms and your hands. Feel your shoulders drop and relax some more. Each time you hear a bell,* it is a reminder to pause, relax, and breathe. Take another breath, and feel all of the tension draining out of your body as you become more and more relaxed. Now relax all the muscles in your back. Feel your legs relax as they melt into the cushion of your chair. Now relax your feet. Scan your entire body for any excess tension in your muscles, then take a deep breath and let that tension go.*
Now, yawn ten times, because it will make you extraordinarily relaxed and alert. It doesn't matter if you fake it, just try to yawn; by the fourth or fifth one, they'll begin to feel real, and you'll feel yourself becoming more and more relaxed. Yawn again, and listen to your partner yawn, and feel how relaxed you become. Once more, take another deep breath and yawn.*
Still keeping your eyes closed, smile and visualize your partner sitting across from you and smiling. Stay aware of your breathing as you hold a compassionate image or loving thought in mind. Think about something you like about that person, or recall a memory that brought you pleasure or peace. Take a deep breath and continue to relax.*
Imagine having an intimate conversation with your partner. It's a beautiful conversation, filled with compassion and respect. In this conversation, you take turns as each one of you speaks slowly and briefly, less than thirty seconds, saying only a sentence or two—only ten or twenty words. Then stop. After each sentence, come back to your breath, and let all your thoughts melt away, staying present, staying in the moment, and focusing on your relaxation and breath.*
Imagine hearing your partner talk slowly, and no matter what your partner says, you will stay relaxed, smiling and holding a compassionate thought in your mind. As you listen, all your defenses fall away. Remember, all you have to do is talk … breathe … listen … breathe … and relax.*
The conversation that emerges in your imagination is slow, spontaneous, and relaxed. There is no need to rush. All you need to do is talk softly, breathe, listen, breathe, and relax. In your mind let the conversation take any direction it wants. Don't control it. Don't try to make a point, and don't worry if the subject changes. Just stay relaxed as you imagine having a compassionate dialogue: talking, listening, breathing, and relaxing.*
Take one more yawn, and open your eyes. Gaze compassionately into your partner's eyes as you hold a loving thought, and continue to do this for ten seconds. Smile warmly as you hold that thought in your mind.*
In a moment you will begin your conversation by opening up with a compliment and listening to a compliment from your partner. It does not matter if the compliment feels forced at the beginning, because the other person will still respond in a positive way.*
Keep your eyes focused on each other as you let a spontaneous conversation emerge. Speak only a sentence or two, as slowly as you can, for no longer than thirty seconds, and then let your partner speak. Continue for the next five minutes, breathing, talking, breathing, listening, and staying as relaxed as you can.*
After five minutes take the conversation a little deeper by sharing a more intimate thought. Then, after another three minutes have passed, close the conversation by giving each other a compliment.*
Research, by the way, has shown that a person needs to hear five compliments before he or she can listen nondefensively to a criticism. So I highly recommend that you train yourself to deliberately give compliments to different people throughout the day. If you keep a list, you may even notice that after a few weeks more people will compliment you.
Many people feel awkward when they first think about trying Compassionate Communication, so don't be surprised if your friend or partner puts up some defense at first. Even people from our workshops have told us how powerful the experience was, but they still had resistance to practicing it with their partners. However, one woman in her sixties went home and asked her husband (who was unwilling to go to the workshop) if he would do the exercise with her. When it came to the compliment part, he said, “You're really beautiful.” After they dialogued, she asked him if he'd meant it. He said, “Of course!” In their forty years of marriage, he had never told her she was pretty.
But if you and your partner are fighting, you'll both need to make a serious commitment to cooperate with each other, at least throughout the exercise. If you see your partner frown, it may be a sign that he or she has had a strong emotional reaction to something you said, and the defensiveness that follows shuts down the brain's ability to remain consciously attuned.
Another level of resistance comes from a mild discomfort at engaging in an artificially constructed dialogue. “It just doesn't feel real,” some people will say. And of course it's not real. It's training. Whether it's sports, education, or communication, you have to practice a new skill before it feels natural to your body or your mind.
Another problem often arises concerning the limitation of speech. Most people aren't used to it, but in Compassionate Communication it is very important to talk for thirty seconds or less. Why? Because your brain is only capable of consciously holding a handful of concepts—approximately four to seven “chunks” of information20—in its working memory, and it can only hold them for twenty to thirty seconds. If each person takes turns talking for no more than thirty seconds, both individuals will be able to follow every aspect of the communication process and respond to it in a comprehensive way.
In “normal” conversation, most people talk longer than that, so it's not surprising to find out that your partner can only recall—and respond to—the last few things you said. If you engage in an intellectual dialogue for longer than thirty seconds, your frontal lobes may begin to disconnect from the emotional centers in your brain. You'll find yourself getting lost in your words, and that further breaks the empathic bond between you and your partner. Even when you stop talking, your frontal lobes are inclined to keep racing along, and this is where breathing and yawning is needed. It slows down the internal monologue.
For many people, thirty seconds doesn't feel like enough time to articulate a complex feeling or thought, so they forget about the “rule” and continue to talk. That's where the bell on the CD helps. At first it is hard to understand how brief exchanges in dialogue can lead to a meaningful experience, but neurologically, the nonverbal parts of each person's brain are learning how to resonate to each other. This creates a sense of connectedness, and when this state is established, conversations begin to flow more smoothly. And with practice, the slow, limited speech will teach your brain, and your conscious mind, to be more selective with your words. Talking becomes more mindful and direct.
In Compassionate Communication, the purpose is not to make a point. Rather, the goal is to train the mind to watch where a spontaneous conversation leads. If you don't force the conversation in a specific direction, your brain will automatically focus on underlying issues that are often difficult to put in words. This is the true beauty of Compassionate Communication. Like other forms of mindfulness meditation, it quickly takes you into uncharted territories of feelings and thoughts while you remain relaxed and alert.
As you become comfortable with the exercise, which may take two or three practice sessions, you'll find that you can shift the dialogue to a specific issue or problem. As long as you remember to stay relaxed, you'll be able to resolve many issues in less than an hour. That is what we see in the counseling room, but obviously there's a third person present to help you stay on track. When you do this outside of counseling, you and your partner should agree to help each other stay on track. For example, one of you can signal the other to take a deep breath by gently touching him or her on the hand.
In marriages, it's important to have your knees or hands touching. The closeness and the touch is often enough to undermine unconscious defensiveness. Furthermore, a few minutes of partner contact lowers blood pressure, cardiovascular reactivity, and levels of cortisol and nor-epinephrine (our stress chemicals) while raising levels of oxytocin, the brain's “cuddle” chemical.21 But if you find it uncomfortable, I suggest that you make that the topic of conversation while you practice the Compassionate Communication exercise. With friends or colleagues, touching may be uncalled for. Instead, the two of you should consciously decide what the “right” distance should be. Even a conversation on this topic can stimulate deeper intimacy.
Once you become proficient at Compassionate Communication, you can relax the “rules” and allow a more normal dialogue to ensue. However, if you remain in a “dialogical” meditative state for thirty minutes or longer, activity in your parietal lobe will probably decrease, and that can lead to a revelatory experience. When parietal activity goes down, the neurological boundaries between “I” and “you” begin to blur and you'll feel more united with each other. Egotism and narcissism will subside, to be replaced by a sense of mutual connection and trust. “You” and “I” turn into “we,” which is an ideal state to nurture cooperation and interpersonal peace.
AND CORPORATE MINDFULNESS
When interacting with colleagues or distant acquaintances, you can privately use the steps we have outlined above to bring Compassionate Communication into every conversation you have. The other person doesn't even need to know that you are “practicing,” for as we have outlined in previous chapters, human brains are designed to resonate to the cognitive and emotional states of each other.
The next time you are called on to participate in a business conference, try the following experiment. Before the meeting, take five minutes to deeply relax, and then use your imagination to fantasize your “ideal” interaction. Visualize the smiling face of each person with whom you will interact (even if he or she is grump) and spend a minute holding a compassionate thought. Then go into your meeting. Greet everyone with a smile, and then—quietly, to yourself—take a slow breath and deeply relax your arms, legs, and face. When you speak, talk slowly and briefly, and allow the other person to respond. But keep coming back to an awareness of your own state of relaxation. I'm willing to bet that after a couple of times, the people you talk with will begin to respond with greater empathy.
Awareness-based meditations like Compassionate Communication do something different from other forms of therapeutic interventions. They teach you how to accept your underlying faults. The therapeutic importance of acceptance was not recognized until recently, because most people, when addressing a problem, expect to make a change. We go to a doctor because we want to eliminate a symptom, and we consult a counselor to improve the quality of our life. For most people, acceptance is rarely a goal. Change is the goal, along with achievement and success. Acceptance, in fact, is often equated with failure—failure to succeed, failure to improve, and failure to transcend one's old self.
But acceptance is not the same as failure. As we are using it here, it implies an overall trust that things are “good enough.” It also implies tolerance and the ability to respond nonjudgmentally to others or toward ourselves. Thus, when we face a problem, the first step, before changing it, is to watch it. We simply allow the problem to exist for the moment, and in that moment we become more aware of what the problem is. We observe it, we notice it, and we tolerate it as we remain in a calm state of relaxation. Acceptance and mindfulness clearly go hand in hand.
Acceptance is particularly important when dealing with serious emotional problems, and in this sense, acceptance simply means that we lower our expectations. If we don't, perfectionism will take its toll by increasing our sense of failure. If you want to quit smoking but only succeed in reducing a three-pack-a-day habit to one pack, you've made a significant improvement. And improvement is good enough for the brain.
The same is true for love. If our expectations are too high, we'll always end up disappointed. And disappointment will undermine our capacity to think clearly, communicate effectively, and stay emotionally grounded and relaxed.
The solution is found by creating a balance between acceptance and change. This was a big discovery in psychotherapy, and it turns out that acceptance-based therapies provide an excellent solution for dealing with emotional problems.22 By simply observing destructive thoughts and feelings, people feel less anxious about what they feel they can't control, and this actually allows them to have more control over their lives.
When meditation was incorporated into psychotherapy, the results were so successful that they generated a whole new category of treatments, including mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, and dialectical behavioral therapy.23 They have been used to treat depression, anxiety, anger, grief, and a variety of stress-related disorders.24 Mindfulness has even been used to help schizophrenics lower anxiety,25 and acceptance-based therapies are particularly effective in dealing with chronic pain and addictive behavior.26 Because academic and professional interests in these new therapies have burgeoned in recent years, we've included numerous references in the endnotes for those who are interested in looking more closely at the research.
MOVING FROM ACCEPTANCE TO COMPASSION
When we accept ourselves for who we are—as people filled with strengths and weaknesses—it's easier to accept the flaws we find in others. Acceptance makes it easier to tolerate differences, and this allows for greater cooperation. Meditation, as we have seen, specifically strengthens the key neural circuit that connects our cognitive skills with our social skills and our emotions, and the end result of a well-functioning brain is the generation of deep compassion and love. And, unlike other animals, we appear to have the only brain that can show compassion toward every living thing on the planet. That, truly, is an amazing neurological feat.
So tomorrow, after you drive home at the end of the day, take a few minutes to relax before you get out of the car. Imagine the people you will soon see, and generate a compassionate thought. Yawn a few times, and think of a compliment you can give. It doesn't have to be large, just genuine, and a small one will do just fine. Even saying something simple, like, “It's good to be home,” can open the doors of compassion. Then, mindfully walk to the front door with a smile on your face, remaining conscious of every step and sound. Even if you say nothing when you stroll through the door, you'll feel better, and that emotional state will resonate in everyone else's brain. By speaking and behaving mindfully toward others, you will have made your relationship an integral part of your personal and spiritual path.
TWENTY-ONE STRATEGIES FOR KEEPING THE PEACE
Compassion sets the stage for conflict resolution, but once a compassionate dialogue begins, other skills are needed to ensure that the conversation stays on track. To help you accomplish this, we're going to suggest twenty-one strategies that have been consolidated from hundreds of studies in the fields of psychology, business management, divorce mediation, and political peace-making strategies. And it all begins with a cardinal rule: When it comes to dialoguing with others, anger never works. This is the consensus of nearly all psychologists, consultants, spiritual leaders, and neuroscientists throughout the world. Anger, hostility, and even a demanding attitude expressed in a dialogue is enough to trigger the release of numerous stress hormones throughout your body and brain.27
Anger may be an unavoidable facet in conflicted relationships, but it always derails the communication process by interrupting the frontal lobe processes of language, logic, and cooperative interaction. Even hearing an underlying angry tone in the other person's voice is enough to shut down a constructive discussion.28 Conflicting emotional cues can also disrupt other cognitive functions.29
Even if the other person disguises a contemptuous feeling behind a smile, the anterior cingulate in your brain can register the discrepancy, letting you know that he or she is being deceitful. Human brains may not be very good at discerning truth, but they are superb at picking out lies. So if you are feeling irritable, it is best to first use the meditation techniques described in Chapter 9 that specifically deal with anger.
First, I recommend that you go over the following strategies with your partner. Do you each agree to each item? If not, revise them to suit your mutual needs. If you want to help keep things on track, sign a piece of paper stating that you will consciously try to adhere to the agreed-upon rules and that you'll compassionately remind each other when one of you has fallen off track.
I've marked the most important strategies with an asterisk, but there are two nonnegotiable items that are essential when dealing with strong emotional issues.
First, confrontations are by appointment only. You can't just barge into a room and expect that your partner (or your employee or boss) will be ready to discuss your issue. Both parties must feel prepared, a process that could take several hours or days. Briefly describe your problem, then ask your partner to pick a time to talk. In some spiritual communities, both partners make a verbal commitment to spend a few days privately reflecting on the problem before they sit down to discuss disturbing issues. Then, when they do talk, they try their best to apply the spiritual principles they most deeply believe in and trust.
There is another nonnegotiable rule: During the conversation, either person may call for a time-out at any time he or she chooses. This is essential for keeping destructive emotions, like anger and fear, in check. If your partner's buttons are pushed, he or she must take all the time that is needed to return to a compassionate state. Otherwise, progress won't be made. A time-out can last for a few minutes or several hours—perhaps even days—but it is the responsibility of the person who calls for the break to suggest a specific time to reconvene.
The strategies fall into four general categories:
· Three Strategies for Beginning a Constructive Dialogue
· Six Strategies to Contain Disruptive Emotions
· Six Strategies to Improve Communication
· Six Strategies for Finding Creative Solutions.
And don't forget the golden rule of neuroscience, which I cannot emphasize enough: Anger never works. It might make you feel good for the moment, but it will seriously disrupt the communication process and damage important parts of your brain.
Again, the asterisks highlight the most essential strategies to adhere to: picking the right time, opening with kindness, avoiding provocative language, softening the tone of your voice, suspending blame, respecting your partner's point of view, equally “sharing” the conversation, closing with kindness, and getting a follow-up progress report.
THREE STRATEGIES FOR BEGINNING A CONSTRUCTIVE DIALOGUE
* 1. Pick the right time. Make an appointment—the first of the two non-negotiable rules—to sit down and talk, and decide how long both of you are willing to set aside. Make sure you give yourself some additional “free” time to reflect on the conversation you will have. But before you request an appointment, ask yourself the following question: “Can my partner hear me and respond to me at this time?” If not, consider waiting for a better time. It's okay to spend several days, or even weeks, waiting for the right moment when your partner can truly listen without judgment. Avoid discussing difficult issues when you first wake up, at meals, before going to work or right afterward, and certainly not before going to sleep.
2. Find the best location. Agree to meet in a place where the two of you won't be disturbed by telephones, business, or kids. Avoid confrontations in the bedroom; always reserve that room for peaceful-ness and rest. Consider having your discussion in the most beautiful, quiet place you can find, perhaps in a garden or at your favorite park. Walking while you talk often takes the edge off particularly sensitive issues. If you think your partner may get angry, you might consider meeting in a restaurant or other public place.
* 3. Open your dialogue with kindness. Begin any confrontation with an expression of respect by giving a compliment, a small gift, or a tender embrace. This is essential because it lets your partner know you are entering the dispute with a willingness to protect the underlying love that you share. You can even hold each other's hand—this makes it difficult for many people to get defensive. And as far as your anterior cingulate is concerned, kindness is its favorite synaptic treat!
SIX STRATEGIES TO CONTAIN DISRUPTIVE EMOTIONS
* 1. Avoid provocative language. No insults. No accusations. No denunciations. No condemnations. No character assassinations. No sarcasm. No swearing. No threats. No yelling. And be careful about using the word “No.” Brain scans show that even seeing this word can stimulate a defensive response. Ask your partner to tell you if your communication feels like an attack—you'll be surprised how often the other person will feel defensive by a communication style you're not even aware of.
* 2. Soften the tone of your voice. Pay close attention to your voice as you speak. Hostility can be communicated through tone as well as words. Your communication will be more effective if you speak slowly, with warmth. Soothing, gentle speech goes a long way in getting your message across. And slow down; fast talking makes it more difficult for the other person to take things in.
* 3. Don't blame. Instead, talk about yourself: Begin sentences as often as possible with “I feel …” rather than “You are …” Don't make the mistake of thinking that you “know” what the other person's problem is; you wouldn't like it either. Talk about what's going on inside you, but be specific: Avoid over-generalities and vague descriptions. For example, instead of saying “I feel hurt when I'm criticized,” identify the specific event and the feelings they brought up for you at the moment: “When I'm told I'm a slob, it makes me feel bad, but it doesn't help us find a solution. Maybe you can ask me instead to clean up my mess.”
4. Be aware of nonverbal communication. Feelings and emotions can be communicated nonverbally through facial expressions and body movements. Looking away, frowning, an exaggerated smile, or rolling your eyes can be easily interpreted as anger, hostility, sarcasm, or disbelief. These cues can stimulate an unwanted reaction from your partner, so ask him or her for feedback about any nonverbal message you may send. Work out a system (raising a finger, for example) where each of you can let the other person know when communication is breaking down.
THE REFEREE IN A BOX
One of the best ways to reduce anger in a conversation is to turn on a tape recorder while you talk. Just the presence of the tape is enough to suppress anger, and if it does erupt, you and your partner can review it to see what triggered the emotional reaction.
5. Monitor your anger and recognize the danger zone. If you find yourself getting more upset as you talk or listen, take a few minutes to calm down. Close your eyes, yawn, take deep breaths, and stretch your arms and legs. Ask your mate for help—the contact of your partner's hand will have a soothing effect. Monitor your pulse rate; if it rises, take a twenty-minute break. Shakiness, increased perspiration, clamminess of the skin, muscle tension, a tight jaw, chest pressure, clenched arms or fists, exaggerated facial expressions, and other intimidating body motions are signs that you may soon lose emotional control. Ask your partner to point out any warning signs that you may fail to notice, and then take a break.
6. Call for a time-out. If you feel stuck or overwhelmed, call for a five-to thirty-minute break—but don't just walk away or suddenly hang up the phone. An abrupt interruption can upset your partner because you have not given her or him enough time to prepare for your time-out. Take a minute to explain why you need to take a break, and then set a time to resume. During the timeout, practice relaxation and the Compassionate Communication exercise in your imagination. If communication breaks down again, consider rescheduling for the next day, or later in the week. Remember: This is a nonnegotiable rule. Time-outs are essential if either one of you loses the ability to compassionately listen or talk.
SIX STRATEGIES TO IMPROVE COMMUNICATION
1. Be specific. Make a list of the issues you want to address, but focus on one problem at a time. If you're talking about a hurtful statement your partner recently made, for example, don't bring up other events from the past. Stay focused on the specific event that occurred. Provide concrete details and complete explanations of the problem and ways in which it can be resolved.
* 2. Show respect for your partner's point of view. It is important to acknowledge your partner's perspectives and criticisms, even if you don't agree, for no two people see a problem in exactly the same way. Let your partner know that you appreciate hearing what he or she thinks: “I really want to know what you think and how you feel about this problem.” Or: “It really helps me understand you better when you explain your perspective.”
3. Take equal responsibility. Learn to think about conflicts as a conjoint problem. Rarely is the problem simply “yours” or “mine.”
* 4. Don't monopolize the conversation. Talk briefly, then let your partner talk. In Compassionate Communication, you deliberately limit your dialogue to thirty-second segments, but in conflict resolution it is sometimes necessary to spend one or two minutes to express a complex idea. But be forewarned, the neurological evidence clearly shows that the other person will have difficulty absorbing the information. If you feel you need more time to talk, ask your partner if he or she would be willing to listen for an extended period. Then make sure you ask for feedback. In specific, ask your partner to summarize what you just said. If he or she can't, assume it was your problem and briefly summarize your points.
5. Ask for clarification. If you're unclear about what your partner is saying, ask him or her to restate the issue: “I'm not sure if I really understand. Can you tell me again, or in a different way?” Ask for more specific details so your partner can illuminate the important points. But do so in a compassionate way.
6. Avoid mind-reading. Don't presume that you know what your partner thinks or feels. Ask questions instead. Rather than saying, “You always get defensive when we have company over,” which is an example of mind-reading, turn it into a question: “When we have company over, do you get defensive?” Questions are less threatening than statements. In fact, you can have a profoundly intimate exchange if you continue to inquire deeply about your partner's feelings and thoughts. But beware of questions that are really criticisms: “Can't you see that you're being defensive?” is in fact a critical “you” statement in disguise.
SIX STRATEGIES FOR FINDING CREATIVE SOLUTIONS
1. Search for constructive ideas. Offer specific suggestions and ask your partner for alternative ideas. Write them down on a sheet of paper and talk about them. Search for solutions that include the other person's ideas in your plan.
2. Try brainstorming. Turn on your creativity. Take turns dreaming up the most ridiculous solutions you can: “Let's adopt a pet elephant and bring him with us when we visit my parents.” Be silly and use your imagination, writing down every notion that pops up. When you've done this a dozen times, often an idea is touched upon that works. Half of the products that exist in the world (computers, the Internet, cell phones, new car designs, atomic bombs, even the book you're reading right now) came out of brainstorming sessions, and the technique works just as well when solving personal conflicts.
3. Sit with your problem for a week,. If an effective solution is not found, sit with it for a few days or longer. Don't try to solve it. Instead, use the mindfulness technique of watching your feelings and thoughts. Just be aware that, often by week's end, a new solution will suddenly pop into your mind. If not, ask your friends for some additional ideas and discuss them with your mate.
4. Implement your plan. Play with different solutions: “If we did A, then B could happen, possibly leading us to C …” When you “test-drive” your plans in this way, using your imagination, you can often identify and resolve unrecognized difficulties before they occur. Work out a step-by-step solution to your problem—who will do what, when, where, and how—and write it down.
* 5. Close with kindness. Give supportive remarks (“I really appreciate your willingness to go through this process—I know how hard it is”) and give each other a hug, doing everything possible to generate kindness before your conversation ends.
* 6. Get a progress report. Keep checking in with your partner over the next few days and weeks, requesting feedback: “How do you feel about our plan?” “Do you think we are making progress?” Then evaluate your problem-solving skills: “What did you like the most about the process, and what did you like least?” “What would you do differently the next time a problem occurs?” And, if the two of you fail to resolve the problem, don't wallow in criticism. Instead, meditate on acceptance and the fact that life is beautiful just as it is.
DON'T WAIT: GET STARTED NOW
Twenty-one strategies—plus the first commandment: Thou shalt not get angry when you talk. It's a lot to remember, and you'll certainly need your partner to help you stay on track, but the rewards are great. I recommend that you post these strategies on your refrigerator and review them once a week.
The best time to practice these techniques is before a serious problem erupts. If you wait until underlying irritations build up, it may be too late, because the brain literally can become entrapped by its own production of anger. Remember, ongoing resentment can injure the very mechanisms in the brain that control destructive emotions.30 Fortunately, compassion and forgiveness can heal those damaged structures in the brain.31
So by all means, make meditation, compassion, and acceptance a part of your relational and marital life. It will make you feel more connected, closer, optimistic, and more tolerant of the differences that exist.32And when you train yourself to be present, attentive, and conscientiously sensitive to your inner states of awareness, as well as to those of your partner, you will enhance the neural functioning of both of your brains.
PAY IT FORWARD
In closing this chapter, I would like to make one further suggestion, inspired by the book and movie Pay It Forward.33 In the novel, a high school teacher gives the following assignment to his class: “Think of an idea for world change, and put it into action.” One boy came up with the notion of doing a good deed for three people. In exchange for the help he gave, he asked that each one do a good deed for another three people. He believed that doing something helpful for others would eventually spread throughout the world.
Will such a concept work? I can't say for certain, but similar “pay it forward” strategies have worked. For example, a pastor at a Kansas City Unity Church came up with the idea of encouraging people to go twenty-one days without complaining.34 You wear a rubber bracelet to remind you of your goal, but each time you complain, you have to put the bracelet on the other wrist and begin your twenty-one days anew. The exercise is essentially an acceptance-and-compassion-based meditation, and it may sound easy, but it takes most people four to eight months to go twenty-one days without complaining. To date, more than five million individuals—including children—have participated in the experiment, and that, by any measure, is a positive step toward undermining irritability in the world.
Mark and I would like to ask you to “pay it forward” with Compassionate Communication. Introduce the exercise to three people, and practice it with them for fifteen minutes. That's just forty-five minutes of your time. Try it with a friend, your kid, or a colleague at work, and then ask him or her to pass it along to three others. At the very least, photocopy the instructions and hand them out to a dozen people, asking them to do the same—a legal, compassionate chain letter, so to speak. If you succeed, you will have introduced a little more relaxation, peace, and intimacy into the world. Or create your own exercise to enhance human kindness and acceptance and share it with as many people as you can.
P.S.: You get extra credit if you teach three people to arouse their precuneus by having them yawn ten times in a row. But be forewarned: It's harder than you might expect to get someone to consciously yawn, even though it's one of the most relaxing things you can do.
∗1 Substantial neurological and psychological research has demonstrated the necessity of eye contact and intentional gazing for generating empathy and social responsiveness. Mutual eye contact stimulates the same circuits as meditation and is considered integral to human mirror-neuron theory.
∗2 For example, the central theme of Science of Mind philosophy is that “there is power within you” that “can lift your life to its highest level … change illness into health … bring peace amid turmoil … bring success out of failure, victory out of defeat,” and “bring companionship and happiness out of loneliness.” In the writings and sermons, Religious Science followers see God, the universe, and consciousness as essentially interconnected with their inner selves.