Why do some conversations seem to flow easily, while others careen off the cliff faster than we can intercede? So much of what feels satisfying or isolating, empowering or troubling in life seems to me to be related to the positive or negative emotions resulting from our conversations with each other. It seems to be harder and harder to talk even in families, especially about sensitive topics, two important examples being politics and religion. The phrase, “words matter,” is no doubt true, but effective, satisfying communication is much more complicated than that. If what we want from our conversations with each other is a true sense of being heard and understood, a sharing of feelings and experiences from the heart, and an opportunity to evolve in our thinking through the ideas of another, then we must search for the essential qualities of this kind of conversation – a conversation which stays open and fluid, even as, or especially when, the conversation concerns subjects we feel deeply about.
When I came across this quote from Rumi, I knew it held wisdom for me. It speaks of “three gates,” three clarifications of the quality of the words we use, which when understood and implemented, offer true “communion,” a true meeting of the minds, which we are seeking in effective communication.
Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates:
Is it true?
Is it necessary?
Is it kind?
Each of these attributes of our words – true, necessary and kind – is essential to every communication – particularly difficult, emotionally charged ones. One or two of these qualities may exist without the others, but having all three together seals the deal. It is a dance between the ego (my perceived personal needs) and the soul (our collective needs), which when we examine these needs honestly, offers each of us a deepening of our consciousness in how we relate to each other. This deeper, more conscious communication arises equally from love and compassion and from a recognition of and honoring of our interconnectedness.
It is essential to recognize and acknowledge, as we examine each of these qualities, that there is a flow to conversation and that we are able to “control” only our part of it. What our increasing awareness can offer is that the more consciously we engage, the more consciously our conversation partner may engage, as the trust between us deepens. We must also recognize that there is an ebb and a flow to our ability to hold to the high standards Rumi is suggesting, while we are engaged in conversation and struggling to not be triggered and become reactive to what we are hearing. Even the best of conversations can at some point run amok, as we each walk away, wondering if we were understood, whether our intentions were clear, whether we were inadvertently unkind, unfeeling or harsh.
As we examine each of these qualities, we find that with each quality we move more and more deeply into the interior of our being.
Is it true?
“Is it true appeals” to the factual mind. Something either is or isn’t true, right? The dictionary defines “true” in the following ways. Something is “true” if it is,
- in accordance with fact or reality, verifiable, literal
- unelaborated, unvarnished
That would seem to settle it. What’s true is true. But, is what is true for you, true for me, and vice versa?
For something to be true for both of us, must we both be coming from an identical set of experiences? Would that be enough? Have you ever been on a jury, or observed an accident and found yourself in conflict with the other eyewitnesses? Did it cause you to question whether what you thought you saw and heard was “true?”
Another question to ask is what part is my ego playing? What does my ego want from this conversation? My guess is that my ego wants to be “right,” which consequently makes you – “the other” – wrong, if we disagree. This type of action by the ego insures, in effect, a closed gate.
What would be our definition of “true” in the context of love and compassion? What is true for each of us is a combination of facts (as we perceive them through our senses, in effect what a video camera might record) and our interpretation of those facts, which takes place subsequently in our brains and is the product of all of our previous experiences. To keep the gate open, we must acknowledge that differences might exist in our perceptions and our interpretations, and explore those differences through thoughtful listening, in a conversation that respects the thinking of both parties.
Is it necessary?
“Is it necessary” appeals to an even deeper degree to the ego than does “Is it true?” “Is it necessary?” asks whether what I am saying to you needs to be said. Someone (you) must decide. Again the dictionary provides guidelines. Something is necessary if it is,
- absolutely needed; essential
- mandatory, required to be done
What is my motivation in offering this opinion/piece of information?
Will we both benefit from the transmission of this opinion/piece of information?
Have I stopped listening and shifted the focus to myself, to what my ego needs? Is the information I am offering more about me than the concerns of the person with whom I am speaking?
Do I perhaps want to share what I know, in order to be “one up” on the person with whom I am speaking?
What will change, if I don’t offer this opinion/piece of information? Will the conversation continue to flow?
What will change, if I do offer this opinion/piece of information? Will the conversation shut down?
Do I really need to say/share this? Will it hurt or diminish the other person in some way?
When I consciously hold back information, what is going on in my mind to cause me to do that? That is, am I starting to think more deeply, more consciously about the conversation?
Is it kind?
This question which is the essence of heartfelt conversation is the last, great hope of the ego to sabotage and come out on top. Here is the dictionary description of kind,
- helpful, caring, gentle and loving
- does not injure or wound
Has the conversation become such that, it is difficult to be kind? Is the conversation emotionally charged? Am I ready for “fight or flight?”
Or, perhaps, I feel like I am “giving up” and/or “not making my point” if I am kind?
Is my ego resistant to being kind? Why? Perhaps I feel that I’ve been hurt by this person in conversation before and feel the need to protect myself?
But then, if we are listening, if we have accepted seeing the conversation from both persons’ points of view, there is a moment of awareness, when grace enters into the conversation and opens the door to compassion, engaging the heart. Am I now willing to acknowledge the harm I may be causing, can I empathize with the other person, can I be gentle and loving with comfort and ease?
The importance of good listening
As we experience conversations, we recognize pretty quickly that the words we use tell only part of the story. What we hear is as important as what we say and the same three qualities Rumi suggests apply to good listening as well.
In relation to whether something is true, we must ask ourselves, “Have I come into this conversation with expectations and preconceived notions of what the other person thinks?” If so, am I still capable of hearing his/her truth?
In relation to the question of whether or not what is transpiring is necessary, am I able to discern what is necessary from his/her point of view? Am I hearing and internalizing what he/she feels is most important about what he/she is saying and feeling?
And, finally, in relation to the quality of being kind, am I respectful of the other person, of his/her ideas and needs? Do I embrace him/her as an equal, a potential teacher, an example of divinity’s manifestation on Earth, as am I?
Good listening is accomplished through a laser-like focus on the other person, in order to be sure to maximize my understanding of what he/she is communicating. Focusing in this way allows little room for my individual ego to interject its needs and widen the “perceived” separateness that divides us. The focus is both auditory and visual. A person’s body language, the engagement with the eyes, the sound of the voice are often equal, if not better, indicators of what the other person is saying or feeling.
At its very best, through good conversation we can deepen our relationships, heal old wounds and experience first-hand the vital interconnectedness we share with each other. It can be a mystical experience. What we are seeking is a win-win conversation, a “we should do this more often” feeling, an empowerment of both individuals, an opening of the conduits of “communion,” of unity and a healing of the separateness that plagues us.