Thursday, October 27, 2005

Witnessing and Sharing

In this article, I’d like to share my thoughts on what I believe to be the two most important components of effective communication. These attributes, witnessing and sharing, are also crucial elements in our understanding of ourselves in our relationship to the world around us. We’ll discuss them in sequence.


Witnessing, as it applies to our communication with others, means bringing awareness to our inner state, our sensations and our thoughts. In previous articles, I’ve described the position we take in witnessing as one of “being backstage.” We notice our thoughts and feelings, but we don’t identify with them. We recognize them for what they are, but we don’t judge them. We apply the formula of awareness plus equanimity, or acceptance.

In the case of monitoring our interactive presence, it means noticing when we’re not being appropriately attentive and noticing what it is that’s drawing our attention away. It could be a random, unrelated thought. It could be a judgment of ourselves or of the other person. It could be a sensation in our body that’s distracting us.

Regardless of what it is, we momentarily allow ourselves to withdraw attention from the other person and from within our current thought stream in order to stand on the river bank and see what’s flowing by. We stop thinking what we were thinking and start noticing what we were thinking. We become curious scientists, studying the workings of our unruly minds. Then, having discovered the pattern of our thoughts and sensations as a result of witnessing, we proceed to the second tool, which is sharing.


By sharing, I mean that we literally expose what we’ve just discovered about our present experience and, then, we either recommit to bringing back our attention, resolve whatever the issue is that’s caused the distraction, or we extricate ourselves from the conversation until we’re in a position to become more present.

Here are a few examples of what I’m saying:

“You know, let me stop you for a moment. I just noticed my mind wandering. I was thinking about this fishing trip I planned, and I was having trouble keeping my attention on what you were saying. Would you mind repeating it? I’ll be more attentive this time. Sorry.”

“Hey, before you go on, I have to admit that my mind got caught up with an earlier point you made, and I started getting silently argumentative. It’s possible that I completely misunderstood what you were saying, but I don’t want to stay caught in silent judgment. So could we revisit that point?”

“I don’t want to be rude, but for some reason this conversation is pushing my buttons, and I’m getting caught in my head. I don’t feel like I’m being fair to you because I want to be really present and open, but right now I don’t feel like I can do that. Let me take a couple hours to wind down and figure out what I need to say, and then we can revisit this topic. How’s eleven o’clock, back here?”

Nothing of value is as poorly taught in our society as the art of sharing. This is ironic because we are naturally drawn to those who do it well. We have so many negative, fear-based messages floating around in our heads about keeping our problems to ourselves that the notion of sharing automatically evokes a level of defensiveness in almost everyone with whom it’s discussed. We flee from showing our vulnerability. We blanch at admitting our errors, and we become apoplectic at the thought of exposing our pain.

What a profound irony! Because it is the very act of sharing honestly that makes us most admirable to others. People would far prefer an imperfect individual who admits his imperfections over a person whose actions seem well-executed, but who is unlikely to expose any of his foibles. With regard to our pain, it is helpful to remember the saying:

“When we share our pain, we become more truly human.”

With regard to our errors, admission usually brings about far more admiration for our honesty than disdain for our mistakes. With regard to our vulnerability, nothing so quickly mobilizes the compassion of others as the admission of our emotional fragility. Such an admission is not a self-condemnation. We’re not saying that we’re fundamentally flawed, only that we’re currently tender and sensitive. These are feelings to which everyone can relate, and if we communicate them clearly and properly, we’ll evoke from others an instant shift into careful, loving presence.

There are a few important rules to keep in mind when sharing your reality at a deep level.

1. Take complete responsibility for your thoughts and feelings. If you imply in any way that the other person is responsible, you’ll evoke defensiveness not empathy.

2. Remove any self-deprecation from your communication. Whatever you feel is normal and OK. You needn’t apologize for feelings.

3. Be as specific as you can about what you’re feeling or thinking and about whatever evoked it.

4. Admit the exact nature of your mistakes. People will much more readily admit theirs if you admit yours first.

5. State your intentions. People tend to receive communication much more willingly when they know what you’re trying to accomplish by sending it.

Using those rules, a helpful share might look something like this:

“I’m feeling nervous.” (Saying “I’m feeling…” and not “You’re making me feel…” keeps the responsibility on you.)
“So I wanted to share it with you.” (No apology for feelings)
“My gut started to tighten when you brought up our trip.” (What you feel specifically, and what specifically evoked it)
“I should have brought it up sooner, so I could have been more attentive.” (Admitting the exact nature of your mistake)
“I really want to talk about what part of this is making me nervous, so we can both be excited about the trip.” (Stating your intention for resolution)

By applying the tools of witnessing and sharing, we bring greater consciousness to our relationships and maximize the likelihood that we’ll be received with love and appreciation, rather than resentment and defensiveness. We also give the greatest gift possible to those with whom we interact on a daily basis; the gift of honesty. As we grow in the attributes of courage and compassion which such honesty requires, we also inspire others to do the same. The result is that we succeed in surrounding ourselves with the energy of respect, safety, and understanding.


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