Friday, June 22, 2012

Review: The Five Keys to Mindful Communication

Susan Gillis Chapman is a therapist with a MA in Buddhist and Western Psychology. Her Buddhist teachers have included Chogyam Trungpa and Pema Chodron. She has worked for ten years with abused women and their children in the field of domestic violence, and is the founder of Greenlight Communications. The Five Keys to Mindful Communication is a book about how to develop better listening skills, inspired by both Buddhist and Western forms of psychology. Chapman sees communication as the essence of human relationships, and this book is therefore as much about relationships as it is about communication skills. She sees an increased ability in listening as the key to better communities and societies, where through really listening to each other, people can learn to appreciate each other's needs as well as their own. At the heart of this process is mindfulness:

"Mindful-communication training isn't directed at intimate relationships alone. It is a personal journey that uses the sensitive emotional ups and downs of everyday conversations as a path of self-discovery. The awakens of our natural communication system is a thread that runs through every moment of our lives. Practicing mindfulness helps us notice this truth. We can observe ourselves opening and closing in small ways throughout the day."
(The Five Keys to Mindful Communication, p.13)

The basic premise of this book is that if a person lives from a "we-first" perspective rather than a "me-first" viewpoint, both that person and those that he or she come into contact with will benefit. In the "me-first" scenario, it's all about the first person, the personality that most of us take ourselves to be. In contrast, the "we-first" way of living is not to mindlessly live from an egocentric perspective, but to live from an open mindfulness. This selfless knowing reduces the sense of self that separates me & you, thereby encouraging a more we-centered attitude. The starting point for this revolution in our lifestyles, Chapman writes, is meditation & reflection. For, when we are able to observe our mental processes and habitual responses, we are in  apposition to change the negative ones for more positive, "we-first" ones.

According to Chapman, the way to mindful communication is what she calls the 'five key elements,' which are silence, mirroring, encouraging, discerning, and responding. These skills enable us to listen more deeply, both to ourselves and to others. This two-way mindfulness is crucial, for as Chapman notes, to be truly open to ourselves is to be more receptive to others as well, for in real openness the barriers of sell and not-self break down, replaced with a genuine heart-to-heart communication. Writing of an experience that was paramount in her own mindful development, Chapman writes:

"First, I realized how I distort my view of other people when I'm reacting defensively. I also saw that when i can open up and see another person in a fresh way, my own self-image transforms. On the surface, these two insights might not seem to be that a big deal. Not as exciting as a dog and a hungry bear rolling in play. But learning how to switch out of defensiveness into a more humorous, receptive state of mind is a big deal - it is the key to happy, harmonious relationships and communities."
(Ibid. p.3)

Useful techniques that the author suggests to help in this process of opening up involve labeling listening as either green-light, red-light or yellow-light patterns. This form of mindfulness involves being aware of the mind and not merely blindly responding to other people with habitual tendencies. The author describes green-light listening as when we are able to hear what the other person is saying clearly, without our own reactions interfering with our understanding. Red-light is when we don't want to listen, or when we are distracted to the point that we cannot hear them. Yellow-light listening is when there is confusion as to whether real listening is taking place or not. One example of this is when we feel we are not being listened to, and then a sense of being rejected can set in. These listening patterns develop over years and help shape our relationships with other people. In the following extracts, firstly Chapman advises us how to use these different kinds of 'lights,' and in the second extract gives an example of the contrast between red-light and green-light listening:
"Here's a quick summary of these three steps:
1. Go with the green light: Reflecting like a mirror, to validate what you hearing by repeating the words back
2. Stop at the red light: Keep a we-first approach by refraining from harming someone's reputation.
3.When the yellow light is flashing, be encouraging: Replay the hidden gold in the story you heard by rewording it with unconditional positive regard."
(Ibid. p.56)
"Red-light Pattern:
Body: When I see you holding the baby,
Interpretation: I think you don't love me anymore.
Red-light emotion: I get angry and want revenge.
Justification: I tell myself that I have the right to equal time
Green-light pattern:
Awake-body: When I see you holding the body,
Tender heart: I feel longing and sadness.
Open mind: I'm curious about the changes in our relationship and afraid of where they may lead."
(Ibid. p.99)

This is a useful book. It has many strategies & techniques to transform negative ways of listening and responding to others into very positive ones. As an experienced marriage and family therapist, Chapman cites many examples of how people have been victims of their own negative listening habits. She illustrates how this causes misunderstanding & conflict between people in the closest of relationships. And, crucially, she suggests practical ways to move out of these destructive patterns of behavior into more creative and truly communicative relationships. It seems doubtful to this reviewer that The Five Keys to Mindful Communication will lead to enlightenment and the deep wisdom of the Buddha, but then this does not appear to be the objective of the book. Rather, it takes certain aspects of traditional Buddhist practice, such as meditation & mindfulness, and presents them in ways that modern, often non-Buddhist people, can use to great fact in their lives. In this sense, this book is more valuable than a work of Buddhist philosophy in the hands of someone that doesn't apply it to their lives. Susan Chapman has, therefore, written a book that we can use in our lives, creating happier relationships not based on me-first, but on we-first.

Title & Author : The Five Keys to Mindful Communication, by Susan Gillis Chapman
Publishers      : Shambhala Publications
Page Count    : 224
Price               : $15.95
ISBN               : 9781590309414
Web Link        : Shambhala Publications

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