Sunday, August 4, 2013 ~ Red Light Communication
This week we’ll dive into scenarios, chewing on fodder from our lives (utilizing the “iGiraffe”), when we (or others) “see red”…
Heartless and Mindless patterns:
Red Light Communication
“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.” (The Five Keys to Mindful Communication, p. 3)
*The photos circulating around the Internet were of a polar bear and a dog playing together. I first saw them in a National Geographic magazine many years ago and was captivated by the story. A dog named Churchill was tied up to a stake in the ice. His owner spotted a starving bear, just out of hibernation, through the window of his cabin. He watched in horror as the bear approached his dog. Feeling powerless to protect his pet from certain death, he grabbed his camera and snapped pictures of the scene unfolding before his eyes. But to his amazement, what he ended up witnessing was how Churchill saved his own life. As the bear lumbered toward him, Churchill crouched down and wagged his tail. In spite of his ravenous hunger, the bear responded to the signal and switched from predator to playmate. One of the photos shows Churchill and the bear embraced in an affectionate hug as they tumbled and rolled around on the ice. Then the huge polar bear turned and ambled away. Over the next few days, the bear returned to the site several times to play with his new friend. The National Geographic photo essay came into my life at the right moment. I had been preparing to teach a series of workshops on mindful communication, where students would learn practical skills in bringing awareness, insight, compassion, and choice to their communication…”
~ Susan Gillis Chapman
“Here’s a quick summary of these three steps:
Mindful Communication Challeges
Do I want to “get my way” &/or “be right”
Do I want to connect?
Mindful communication challenges #2
The Three Lights
In my mindful-communication workshops, the metaphor we use to notice whether communication is closed, open, or somewhere in-between, is the changing traffic light. When the channel of communication closes down, we imagine the light has turned red. When communications feels open again, we say the light has turned green. When communication feels in between, or on the verge of closing down, we say the light has turned yellow. Participants find that the changing-traffic-light imagery helps them identify their various styles of communication, and to recognize the consequences of each.
We use the green and red lights to highlight open and closed patterns because this isn’t something we normally track. Once those are clear, we zero in on the in-between stage of the yellow light. Following is a brief overview of what the lights mean. The red light indicates that communication has shut down.
If we imagine a conversation to be like a two-way flow of traffic, with a balance of information coming from both directions, the red light signals that traffic has stopped. At least one person is not listening. This shutdown can be brief or prolonged. For example, when we feel misunderstood and say, “Could we stop for a moment to make sure we’re on the same track?” we may be responding to a brief flash of the red light. A prolonged example can occur when we’re in a long-term relationship with someone who is highly defended and opinionated, unable to accept who we are or what we have to say. So the red light can also be used to mark those times when we’re open, but the person we’re trying to communicate with remains closed, sending a “No Trespassing” message. We also use the red-light signal to understand how we ourselves shut down. When our defensive barriers go up, we block the flow of information from our environment and replace it with mental story lines, projections, fears, and reactions. In all cases, the value of the red light is to serve as a reminder to stop when communication has shut down.
The green light symbolizes openness, when the two-way traffic is flowing in a conversation. It is genuine dialogue, when we go beyond our familiar ideas into uncharted new territory. It is also genuine friendship, when we accept, appreciate, and love others for who they are. On our personal journey, the green light marks brief moments of openness that we can remember and use as guidelines for communication. When we’re open, we can listen—to ourselves, to the environment around us, and to other people. Openness shows us three natural gifts that all human beings are born with:
• Awake body, the ability to pay attention
• Tender heart, the ability to empathize with others
• Open mind, the ability to be honest, curious, and insightful.
These three green-light faculties are the basis for mindfulness practice, as we will see in the next chapter. The yellow light describes the period in between the green and red light, the gap of groundlessness that occurs just before communication shuts down. We’ve been caught off guard and we feel embarrassed, irritated, or disappointed by an unexpected event. Below the surface of these reactions, deeper fears and self-doubts are exposed. If we can meet these fears with gentle insight, using mindfulness practice, we can intercept our red-light triggers.
Working with the yellow light is an advanced skill in the practice of mindful communication. Normally we begin by simply noticing the red and green lights—how we open up when we feel emotionally safe, and how we shut down when we feel afraid. Paying attention to these patterns without judging them increases our self-awareness and gives us greater control of our conversations. After we’ve spent some time observing our patterns of opening up and closing down, we can zero in on this most important area, the stage in between. Mindfulness teaches us how to hold steady when we feel hurt or disappointed.
It gives us the power to refrain from making matters worse during those episodes when negative reactions rise up because things aren’t going as we planned. Let’s go back to my relationship with Robert to learn more.
The Red Light: Defensive Reactions
During an important business meeting, or in the middle of a painful argument with our partner, mindful-communication training can help us recognize when the channel of communication has shut down. With that awareness we remain silent instead of blurting out something we’ll later regret. When I let Robert intimidate me, my red light came on. I became defensive and closed down. When we react to fear by shutting down the channel of communication, we’ve put up a defensive barrier that divides us from the world. In our mind, we justify our defensiveness by holding on to unexamined opinions. We tell ourselves that relationships are not that important. We undervalue other people and put our self-interest first. In short, our values shift to “me-first.” Closed communication patterns are controlling and mistrustful. We see others as frozen objects that have importance only if they meet our needs.
The problem with closed communication is that it increases our distress rather than protecting us. Regardless of how self-assured we may feel or appear on the surface, the sense of isolation that our defensive barrier triggers is subconsciously terrifying. If we are indeed isolated individuals, how do we meet our own needs? How do we get our supplies? How do we ward off enemies? Suppressing these inner fears makes us even more rigid and out of touch with the flow of energy in our body, mind, and heart. We tighten our muscles and thoughts; we harden our hearts.
Feeling isolated makes us emotionally hungry, so we look to other people to rescue or entertain us. We manipulate them to get what we need. Because our strategies can’t possibly succeed, we become disappointed with people. We suffer, and we cause others to suffer.
Let’s make sure we’re clear about the difference between healthy self-protection and the fear-based barriers we’re talking about. When the light is red, we confuse the two. Genuine self protection can only be found through openness. When we shift to “me-first,” thinking, it’s in our self-interest to ignore the impact our words have on others, and we fail to notice that things only get worse and that the protection we’re seeking gets farther out of reach.
We’re born with sensitive receptors in our body, heart, and mind that keep us tuned into the flow of energy and life going on around us and within us. Each of us already has this natural communication system that feeds us information all the time.
So when we close down and become defensive—for a few minutes, a few days, months, or even a lifetime—we’re cutting ourselves off, not only from others but also from our natural ability to communicate. Mindful communication trains us to become aware of when we’ve stopped using our innate communication wisdom, a state symbolized by the red light.
Published by Shambala