Five Ways to Improve Communication

Zen Master Robert Althouse offers communication tips that critique the myth of the American cowboy

A common mythology in American culture continues to be the myth of the cowboy–the rugged individual who goes it alone. Cowboys don’t need to know what they are feeling or needing, because they spend all their time identifying and exposing bad guys who need to either be killed or punished. Once you’ve completed the job, then you can ride triumphantly off into the sunset on your horse–alone.

So it may come as a shock to discover that this underlying myth is impairing your ability to communicate in a healthy and proactive way with others. And this diminished communication is reducing the amount of trust you could otherwise have with the people you work and live with every day.

There are skills you can learn to help you improve the quality of your communication with others. I’d like to give you a few suggestions about ways to begin doing this:

1. Learn how to Listen There is nothing more important than listening. And listening is not something we generally do very well. We are often distracted, or we are busy thinking of what we are going to say next, before the other person has finished speaking themselves. That means we really don’t hear what they’ve said at all. This kind of deep listening is something you can practice and improve. You get a chance to do this many times each day. Notice what a difference it can make in your relationships when you really listen to others sincerely and wholeheartedly.

2. Cultivate a Needs Awareness At the Zen Life and Meditation Center I operate (just outside Chicago), I teach a practice called “Nonviolent Communication” (NVC). NVC is a way of communicating more proactively with others. This happens as you develop an awareness of the importance of needs. And this seemingly simple step is revolutionary. Most likely, if you reflect on what you learned about needs growing up as a child, you learned some negative things about needs. You really shouldn’t have them because that was considered selfish. And if it was OK to have them, it probably wasn’t OK to speak about them openly. This negative bias in our culture regarding needs is a consequence of the unspoken cowboy mythology which still rules our lives.

Needs in NVC are understood as anything which supports your life. So they are basic and fundamental to living. We have many needs such as needs for shelter, clothing, food, understanding, to be heard, fairness and many more. And needs are at the heart of how you can begin communicating more proactively. Being aware of needs can help you shift from hanging on to judgments to a more empathic awareness, both for yourself and for others.

3. Stand Your Ground Healthy relationships arise when you are able to stand in your own experience without surrendering to a impulsive desire to please or be liked by others. When you don’t stand your ground, you cave in and fuse with the other, which means that you’ve gone missing in action. Standing your ground may mean you have to step outside your comfort zone and that knee-jerk reaction to please others. But when you learn how to do this, you’ll find that the quality and depth of your relationship with others improves.

4. Learn How to Ask for Help Who ever heard a cowboy ask for help? That would be beneath them. It would be ridiculous–a sign of weakness. So take a good look at this one. If you’ve taken on a task that you can’t complete for whatever reason, learn to ask for help. It requires some humility to do this. It requires being able to trust others. You might be surprised that often people are grateful to be asked, because you’ve placed your trust in them. You’ll giving them an opportunity express their generosity by working together with you on a common task.

5. Let Go of Your Agenda It’s hard to listen to another when you’re busy preparing and rehearsing what you’re going to say next before they’ve finished speaking. Enter into conversation in the spirit of learning something new from the other person. By letting go of your attachment to the outcome, you free yourself to open to the person. The space between you becomes respected. It’s a bridge that can carry you across to the other’s experience. You may be surprised at what you discover on the other side.

This post originally appeared on the Zen Life Blog.

Photo by puuikibeach

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About Robert Althouse

Roshi Robert Althouse is a fully empowered Zen teacher in the White Plum lineage and a fully ordained Zen Buddhist Priest. Roshi and his wife, Rev. June Ryushin Tanoue, co-founded the Zen Life & Meditation Center.

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