Reflection (Wise Speech 4)

The Leader by Roger Mcgough

I wanna be the leader I wanna be the leader Can I be the leader? Can I? I can? Promise? Promise? Yippee I'm the leader I'm the leader OK what shall we do?

How do we take the lead in conversations without controlling them? What shall we do?

We want our conversations to follow our lead but often things go awry. There’s a gap between how we think we come across and how others’ hear us but often we don’t know how to do it differently. Wise Speech is central to Buddhism and gives a broad idea of what not to do and a guide for what’s better but doesn’t go into the specifics. What we need are practical techniques for how to respond to a person when the conversation gets tough.

Don’t know about you but I like to imagine I’m a kind and good person. It’s other people who is difficult, not me. Also, I always want to be thought of well though somehow it doesn’t always come together and perhaps you’re the same. In relationships the gap between our imagination and reality is often in our words. My sense is it’s not from lack of want but lack of knowing what works.

Our early life sets a precedent and let’s face it, at home, there are strong power dynamics and a lot of ordering about (do this, get that, hurry up, stop it, be quiet, go to bed). At school, it’s hardly better – who hasn’t been bullied in the playground?

There are a few people who are fantastic at building rapport but most of us could benefit from a few practical suggestions for how to speak wisely.

Wise or Right Speech is one of the 8 aspects for a happy life. Access to Insight, a reliable source for English translations of the Buddha’s words, describe the theory of speaking wisely ( He said “And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, & from idle chatter: This is called right speech.” Another time he stated five keys to right speech: “It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will.”

This is pretty stock-standard stuff. We know what to do but there’s an undoubted gap. What happens in the workplace and with our family and friends isn’t what comes out of our mouths and the negative impact can be profound – the loss of a good friend, a child shuts us out, our colleagues gossip about us, we lose our job due to a misunderstanding or find ourselves in the HR team unsure why our words are racist or sexist.

Rapport is built through conversation and dialogue. The etymologies of Conversation and Dialogue are con means together and verse means to turn with. Dia means to speak and logue means to gather. That said, our conversations often don’t feel there's much turning, gathering or togetherness. More like jousting where each person's trying to convince the other who's better.

So, how does a conversation become a flowing process? Undoubtedly, there has to be a mix of statements and questions. It's useful to observe how many questions are asked in a day. As you go through a day, notice how often a person asks a question and when they are, what was the opening word, the syntax and context ? And what was the outcome in those conversations? Of course the body language, silence, voice tone and whether it’s in person or through a device adds a few more layers of complexity but this is beyond the scope of this blog.

This blog is the fourth in a series on Wise Speech (the others were Honesty, Empathy and Autonomy and this blog is Reflection – together they spell HEAR – Hear isn’t an accidental acronym). The Honesty blog explored how to build trust. The Empathy blog was how to gain understanding and Autonomy raised a few ideas of to give freedom of choice. Reflection shows the other person you hear, see and understand them, and combined with honesty, empathy and autonomy, building rapport fosters good quality conversations.

Before I continue, I’ll give a brief overview of the blog so far. Our relationships can be negatively impacted by speaking unwisely. Unwise speech includes lying, bitching, speaking harshly and gossiping while wise speech is speaking with candor at the right time. When our conversations go wrong, it’s seldom intentional but rather that we are unaware of other ways of speaking and how few questions we ask and the form of these questions.

As much as Buddhism talks about Wise Speech, there are surprisingly few courses in centers about how to speak wisely. Unwise Speech has been a lifelong problem for me so I’m always looking for practical solutions. For this reason, below are clear instructions for what to listen to, the types of questions to ask and when, and how to reflect to the other person that you’ve understood in order to keep conversations flowing no matter how difficult. It’s a framework from the book Rapport by Laurence and Emily Alison based on their work into how to gain credible information from terrorists, criminals and violent perpetrators.

The essence of rapport is to build a respectful relationship and I figure if this technique works with hostile frightened people, it’ll probably work with everyone else.

To reflect to the other person that you've really understood where they're at, try one of the 5 reflections in SONAR.

SONAR is an acronym for Simple reflections, On the one hand, No arguing, Affirmations and Reframing.

Simple reflections. There are 2 key elements to track in simple reflections. What does this person care about? What does this person feel?

Example: “It was so busy today I didn’t get to the post office to collect the solicitor’s letter”.

Option 1 reply (standard): ‘Not to worry, I’ll collect it tomorrow’

Option 2 reply (better): ‘I hear that care if not collecting the letter caused a problem. Also, I wondered if you felt frustrated today?’.

On the one hand. Seeking two sides to an interpretation.

Example. “I’ve been taking it pretty lightly at the moment to restore myself so I haven’t been productive”.

Option 1 (standard): “So, you’ve been taking a breather.”

Option 2 (better): “On the one hand, you’re producing less but on the other you’re having time to restore the body and have space to think more deeply.”

No arguing (good for power dynamics and someone picking a fight). Don’t get into the argument, instead ask for information. I personally find it the hardest because my mind goes blank and shuts down.

Example: “You haven’t finished the report yet.”

Option 1 (standard): “I’ll do my best to get it done today:

Option 2 (better): “Just so I’ve properly understood the issue, can you tell me more?” or “What I’m hearing is that you care about is getting the report done well and on time.”

Affirmation. When someone presents a difficult situation.

Example: “I hate my job!”

Option 1 (standard) : “Maybe it’s time to look for another”

Option 2 (better): “Tell me what’s good about it”. However, to avoid toxic positivity (being a Pollyanna) follow up with a question to discuss the challenges for instance, “Sounds like there are positives but something is making it unpleasant – what else is going on?”

Reframing. Listening for a preferred situation.

Example: “This report looks messy”

Option 1 (standard): “It's not so bad.”

Option 2 (better): “What I’m hearing is that presentation is important to you” and follow it with a question focused on the content “How do we reorganize it?”.

In conclusion, reflection is one of 4 parts for building rapport. The others are honesty, empathy and autonomy. The function of reflection is to show you’ve understood to keep the conversation moving in a useful direction. It’s not always easy to stay in a tense conversation but picking the appropriate response from SONAR will keep the conversation flowing. It's also important to maintain an honest, empathic open spirit to allow relationships to remain connected.

Rapport is about being kinder, and as the Dalai Lama says, “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”

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