A couple of months ago, my neighbour, let’s call him Elijah, loudly played the comedian Tim Minchen’s song about the Pope. It’s a song liberally peppered with the words Mother fucker.
More recently, Elijah’s doof doof music rattled our windows. As I began my daily run, he was tinkering in the garage. I decided to let him know about our windows and how I found Tim Minchen’s song offensive. He looked at me a bit funny but kindly turned down the music. After the run, I checked with my partner and the music was no longer a problem.
On the weekend as I walked down the driveway, Elijah turned off the mower in the front yard. I apologised for potentially impacting our good relationship. He responded by saying initially he became defensive but in hindsight appreciated the honesty and reflected that he’d been playing music quite a bit lately and maybe he hadn’t been such a good neighbour. He said, It’s good to be told, it’s good to be direct, eh.
I used to be very blunt. Things have improved. During meditation, cringeworthy memories occasionally flash across my mind leading to a cold sweat when recalling the words that emerged from my mouth directed to former friends, partners and colleagues. My only hope is they will forgive me, and if we meet, that I can make amends. A few years ago, a boss requested I not write emails after 3pm because as the day’s fatigue set in, so did my succinctness which was deemed offensive.
Given the tendency for sharpness, I’ve long marvelled at people who know just the right thing to say at just the right time in just the right way. I’m forever confused between being direct, formal, honest, blunt and speaking with candour. It’s no accident the company’s name is Kindly cut the crap. This contrasts with Mike*, a client who’s excellent with highly disagreeable people because his verbal skills are emotionally adept and he gets people to do what he wants and willingly. There are advantages to his style but we’ve conversed for years about his capacity to be manipulative despite being a very caring and ethical person. He was initially skeptical about the idea of being manipulative but has slowly agreed.
Like most children, I wanted to be popular. I tried to be liked by copying the ‘in’ crowd but it didn’t work. They still didn’t like me and worse, I no longer liked me either. The sorrow prompted questioning about who I liked to hang out with. My 10-year-old mind came to the conclusion that people who are themselves are people I can trust, are honest and kind. My emotional skillset was poorly developed but it harnessed a focus to be myself no matter what.
Of course, over the years, many relationships crashed and burned which is the key reason I study Buddhism. The Buddha stated a path of 8 wisdoms to end suffering; the third wisdom practice is Speech. Wise Speech is to avoid the negatives that arise from speaking in ways that cause disharmony such as speaking lies, slanders, abuses and gossip and seeks to encourage harmony with kind, meaningful, gentle and useful words – and if you can’t speak wisely, don’t speak.
For 20 years, I’ve read and attended multiple courses on Wise Speech. A highly practical book about how to form good connections is Rapport by Emily Alison and Laurence Alison based on Emily’s work with domestically violent people and Laurence’s forensic psychology studies into effective techniques for gaining high quality info from terrorists and criminals. It’s refreshing to read a book filled with real-world complex conversations. The authors outline the essential ingredients for building good rapport, HEAR. H-E-A-R – Honesty, Empathy, Autonomy and Reflection. This blog is about honesty.
The difficulty with being honest is not so much about the nuances between being direct, formal, blunt and speaking with candour; although there is much to be learnt about speaking with care. The key issue is being honest with yourself. And that is remarkably difficult to do.
Who wants to own up to being difficult, unkind or manipulative? Who wants to recognise that all those years working towards a dream career have been a mistake? Who wants to face up to seeing that the person you’ve shared your life with isn’t someone you’d like to stay with? Who wants to own up to being wrong or narrow-minded?
It’s surprisingly tricky it is to be self-aware and we need to explore the honesty dimension to get there. What’s the right question to ask? If we ask What’s going wrong here? it doesn’t give useful information because the ego always tells us we’re the good guy. We therefore have to seek a process to avoid the ego becoming defensive and threatened and ask the part of the mind that knows the truth. Along with the ego, the other part of the mind is always there but unlike the ego, it always tells the truth.
This is the process.
Take a couple of breaths, settle the body and begin the inquiry.
First, bring to mind a situation that’s a bit confusing. Nothing overwhelming or majorly challenging. It might be something like an interaction with a stranger that felt a bit odd or a colleague doing something that felt weird. Ponder it a moment.
Then ask yourself What am I not seeing about this?. The answer may come within a moment or maybe longer.
If the mind continues the conversation, gently re-ask What am I not seeing about this? and go about your daily business.
When the answer appears, it will be an honest one. Even if it’s not one you expected.
A meditation with the enquiry process on honesty is on this page.