Transcript: Miles Sherts on Conscious Communication on The Brilliance Within – June 30, 2014
Posted by Steve Beckow on July 5, 2014 /
Photo of Miles Sherts
Graham Dewyea: Hello, and welcome to the Brilliance Within, where we discuss and explore the unfoldment and realization of our greatest potential as humans.
I’m Graham Dewyea.
My guest this week is Miles Sherts. Miles is the author of the book Conscious Communication. He is also a professional mediator and provides trainings and retreats on communication skills and conflict resolution.
Welcome to the show!
Miles Sherts: Hey, Graham. Good to be here.
GD: I so appreciate your work, and that you’ve written this book. It’s a topic that’s near and dear to my heart. And your book speaks to what I feel are some of the key components and tools for successful communication.
Tell us a little bit about your journey for how you came to write it.
MS: Sure. My journey, I would say, started with meditation. So when I was 19 I ended up going on a quest that resulted in me staying in a Buddhist monastery for a month and learning meditation.
And I really found what I was looking for in that practice and started to do it intensively. I lived in some monasteries, and I eventually worked and lived at retreat centers. And, all that while, I realized that, being present and centered and focused in the meditation position ― on the cushion, as we say ― was relatively easy compared with staying present when communicating or in relationship with people.
And what I noticed was that even in these places of intensive meditation, monasteries and retreat centers, and in my case an intentional community, where the intention was really clear ― to be peaceful, to be harmonious, to really care about each other, to try living together in a different way than what most of us saw in the mainstream society; our intention was really good, very clear, but ― the result was often really, really difficult to do that. And there was a lot of conflict, and what I noticed was that none of us really had a clue how to proceed with conflict. So we had the ideal, to get to be harmonious and peaceful and loving, but we didn’t know how to do it.
GD: I appreciate what you’re saying, especially around intentional communities, people recognizing that, boy, there’s got to be a better way of being in community, and really would ― really good intentions coming together to create something that’s pretty powerful and oftentimes quite effective.
And it’s interesting how, if you dig deeper sometimes, you find that people’s ideas might not be as aligned as maybe they thought with others, and while well intentioned ― right, if the tools and the skills aren’t there, and there isn’t the structure in place to help make that effort supportive, it can ― boy, it can go south in a hurry!
MS: Yeah! [laughs] So, my biggest experience with that was a really broad, wonderful experimental community in Washington State in the late 70s, early 80s. About 150 people joined together on this 500 acre piece of land ― it was really epic ― and lived in tipis and yurts and earth houses, whatever we could build or put together, and all with the intention of living together in peace and harmony. I lived there a total of three years, and within those three years, the community splintered and fragmented. By the end of my three years there, there were people living next door to each other that would not talk to each other; many, many people left, and left with hard feelings. And it was really heart-breaking.
GD: What do you think, or what do you feel was the root of the issue there?
MS: To me at the time it was very confusing and hard to sort out, but that’s when I began realizing that we needed to know how to talk, we needed to know how to listen, and we needed to know particularly what to do when we had a different idea, how to deal with conflict. And we had none of that. We had a very simple process called counsel, which was beautiful, but it was not adequate, where we passed a talking stick ― you may have heard of such a thing; it comes from the Native American tradition, I think.
GD: Sure, sure.
MS: And that was a lovely way to kind of get the community started, but once conflict arose, I mean really ordinary things, like nobody owned this land, so where people built their shelters, their houses, was really up to each individual. And as you can imagine, that began conflict. Where are you going to put your house? Where are you going to put your garden? Are you going to have animals? Do you have children?
All that affected each other so much, and we had no way to negotiate. We had no way to really talk about things, and work them out so that everyone’s needs were met. We just didn’t have a clue how to do it.
GD: I appreciate in your book how you speak to that we’re unique, that we’re different, that we ― and I’ll extend this to speak to the fact that we have different backgrounds, we have different orientations, perhaps we come from different cultures, we’ve had different experiences.
And so if we approach relationship with that premise, and also that given that disagreements are going to come up, we look at things differently, and we have an understanding between parties to say, hey, we accept and embrace that challenges may come up Disagreements may come up.
We may not be looking at things the same, and here’s an opportunity to communicate and share, it seems to me that the table, the stage is set for understanding that. And right away it makes it a priority to say, okay, so what are the strategies? What’s the infrastructure? What are the tools we’re going to use to support that when these things happen?
MS: Yeah, that’s the question. That’s what I came to realize in this community, was that we had no tools, we had no structure, no forum for dealing with conflict. All of us were pretty radical, and we rejected the traditional forms. If you think of it, in our society it’s the court system: the judicial system is one way to do it; police is another way to do it. And most of us were opposed to those, because we’d seen them being used to really hurt people and limit people rather than connect people.
So in the book I talk about, we threw all of that overboard, and then we ended up with no means to navigate. We threw the rudder and the sail and the tiller and everything out into the ocean because we’d seen them used in such really terrible ways. And then we had no way to navigate, no way to kind of pull ourselves together once differences started to become apparent.
GD: Well, let’s start talking about some of the skills and some of the pieces, the key pieces to successful communication that you’ve identified over time. You’ve worked with a lot of people around communication and conflict resolution. What are some of the bigger challenges that people are working with? What are the themes?
MS: Sure. Let’s expand where we were just talking, because the foundation theory is really important, and the way I like to express it now is that most of us, no matter how evolved or sort of enlightened or spiritually in tune we believe we are, we still feel threatened by differences. And
I’m talking about a difference of opinion mostly.
You know, a lot of us have gotten over the idea of different color skin or different language means that the other person is somehow a threat, but when someone disagrees with our value, with something we believe in, that’s when it gets really tricky, especially if we’re trying to live with them.
So, for example in this intentional community, as soon as different values came up… one classic was, are we going to hunt… are people going to be allowed to hunt on the land and shoot and kill their own meat? There was a lot of us there that were vegetarian and really didn’t like that idea, but there were also meat eaters there, and they wanted to feed themselves.
So that’s an example of a values difference. And this is applicable to any kind of relationship. Think, for most of the listeners what might be more immediate is your primary relationship, your most intimate partnership, your marriage, perhaps. Now, most of us get together in relationship with someone else, and we connect, or we try to connect, by aligning our values. I’m a vegetarian, you’re a vegetarian; okay, we can live together.
I like being outside in the garden, you like being outside in the garden; okay, we have the same values.
And we kind of bend our values, especially at the beginning of a romantic relationship. We bend our values to meet the other person’s because it feels good, and we want to be alike in that stage. And then every relationship, community, any sort of relationship, goes through the differentiation stage, where you begin to want to be your own person.
You want to have your own ideas and your own values, and you discover that you don’t think alike, you don’t have the same ideas. And as soon as that happens, most people feel threatened, and we don’t know what to do. So we either try to force the other person to change and agree with us, or we never talk about it, or we separate.
And the foundation premise of conscious communication and a lot of the conflict resolution work I’ve done is that differences do not necessarily have to be threatening, that our challenge as humans, I think, is to understand and accept that we all have different values, all the time. There’s no two of us that share exactly the same values, and to try to align or connect with someone based on values is just simply a mistake. It won’t, it can’t, sustain itself.
And so we need a different way to feel connected to other people, and that’s the process I eventually developed called conscious communication. It focuses more on people’s emotions and people’s needs, which we can talk about more in this interview, so people understand what that means.
And if you change the focus from what you believe, what you think, to your immediate emotion ― what are you feeling right now emotionally, and what’s your most basic need right now? If we can shift the focus to feelings and needs and away from opinions and judgments and ideas, there’s a much greater likelihood that we can connect, and the differences in values aren’t so important then.
GD: I appreciate how you’re speaking to the primary relationships that we have. We have a desire and need to feel safe. And if we cannot see the other person as similar to ourselves, it can feel threatening, especially when values come into play ― and I like how you say in your book how a lot of what we feel threatened by are perceived [perceptions].
MS: Yes! So, I’m glad you’re bringing up the topic of safety. The thing I think that helps all of us feel safest when we’re in relationship with someone else is knowing that we’re not being judged. I think that’s the key. And, because most of our conversation, normal conversation, is all about our judgments, we share opinions and we compare opinions, that’s mostly what we talk about. Judgments are there. And if we have the same judgments, then we feel connected. But as soon as our judgments differ, or the other person’s judging us in a negative way, that’s when it becomes very unsettling.
So, if you switch the focus to emotions and needs… Think about this: if you tell me that you feel afraid or that you feel hurt or that you feel angry, I can relate to that, even if I don’t agree with or relate to what made you angry or what made you hurt. But I know what it’s like to feel angry, I know what it’s like to feel hurt, I know what it’s like to feel scared, and that’s a much more solid common ground for us.
So if we’re talking about our raw emotions, the very primary kind of feelings that we have, that’s grounds for connection always, because we can always relate to those basic emotions. And…
GD: Or you get to that place of vulnerability. You can say, Here I am. I am human. I am soul. And that’s where we can, to your point, really connect. And we can soften, we can let our guard down, and we can say, geez, okay you’re just like me. You have feelings, you’re scared of things just like I am, you want to feel safe, you have needs…. right. So that’s where we can really connect.
So what I’m hearing you say is that that’s the foundational support for being able to enhance that connection and communicate more successfully.
MS: Yes. And that’s where a lot of us have trouble. I mean, the skills are very simple ― and we’ll get to those soon in this interview so people know what we’re talking about, but ― they’re so simple I’ve taught them to first graders, and they can understand how to use them. The difficulty we have is that we default to our judgments and opinions, and it’s very hard to stay focused on emotions and needs because we’re not familiar with them.
GD: So that’s where the consciousness piece comes in, right?
MS: That’s exactly right. It’s becoming, allowing your emotions to the surface so you can feel them. And because it makes us vulnerable, which is exactly what you just said, because it makes us vulnerable, that’s why we’re so reluctant to do it. And we live in a culture, a society ― and I find this true in many cultures that I’ve experienced ― where feelings and emotions are just not okay to talk about. It’s too risky, or we don’t have the means, we don’t have the vocabulary. So we don’t even think about them.
GD: I want to name that when we’re in an environment where ― back to what you were saying ― if the culture or the norm is not to share feelings readily, or not to speak to feelings and needs, it takes courage to do that, right?
GD: It takes courage to take that initiative. And I’ve found, for me, it’s been a process. It’s been a lot of practicing over time. But when I’ve done that, it’s felt a little scarey, it’s felt a little intimidating, but when I’ve done that, then other people start to relax; they start to soften. And then we can connect. And so it makes the ground fertile for greater connection and communication. So I really appreciate you speaking to that.
And Miles, I also want to acknowledge ― and you mentioned our culture; pretty… I don’t want to say unusual, because it’s becoming more and more the norm, but it’s pretty great that more and more men are recognizing that. It took me years to be able to even access my feelings, let alone name them, to say, geez,this doesn’t feel good. And then to speak it, and to acknowledge it myself, be aware of it ― there’s the consciousness piece again ― and then to say it out loud to someone, that, that… it’s taken a while for me to get there. And now, I’m still working on it, but it’s much more commonplace. And I get the sense that’s the case with you, too.
MS: It is. I like to tell the story, when I first went to therapy. I was in my twenties, and I’d never been to therapy, but I met this therapist, I thought it was a good idea. And, our first meeting, she said, “Tell me what you’re feeling emotionally,” and I said, “Well, I’m not feeling anything. I don’t feel anything.” And the truth was I was feeling things, of course, but I had no way to express it.
And she said, “Let’s start with numb. Can you relate to feeling numb?” And I said, “Yes, I can. I feel numb.” And from there she helped me expand both my vocabulary and my awareness of my own emotional states. And it’s really important to say at this point, I think, for listeners that this isn’t about just kind of immersing ourselves in emotion, this is about self-care. If I know that I’m angry, I can take better care of myself. If I know that I’m hurt, emotionally hurt, I can take better care of myself. In the language of conscious communication ― and this is [true?] with many of the communication skills models and the meditation models that are out there now ― one of the basic premises is that an emotional charge, a strong, usually negative emotion indicates an unmet need. It’s a very simple formula that most of us have never heard before, that when you’re upset it’s because one of your basic needs isn’t being met.
So if you can begin with acknowledging the feeling, the upset ― I’m upset, I’m irritated, I’m frustrated ― it doesn’t so much matter the exact word, but that’s it pointing to something that’s happening now inside of you, and it’s indicating that one of your basic needs isn’t being met. And if you can get there, you can begin to get your need met; you can actually take care of yourself.
And that’s simple, but really basic to our own happiness, and it turns out to have a huge impact on our communication with other people.
GD: You were talking about how you were in your twenties and you were experiencing therapy for the first time. And you also mentioned in your book when you were young, and of course that therapeutic practice helped raise your own awareness about your own process and about what was going on for you in accessing your feelings and emotions and needs. And when you were young, you also share in your book that you had an experience with your father that I really appreciated you sharing.
By the way, I want to acknowledge you for your willingness to be transparent and vulnerable and open, because it helps all of us have the courage. And we can see that there’s a model out there for doing that more and more and more. And so thank you for that.
This was a challenging relationship that you had with your dad. And you went on a trip with your sister, and initially it was very challenging. Can you share a little bit about that conversation and what you took away from it?
MS: Sure. The background was that my dad was a pretty hard person and fairly judgmental, I thought, of me. And I took a very radical lifestyle turn in my youth. And he just couldn’t relate, and disapprove a lot. And it came to a head one evening. I was on the phone with him and my sister and I had been planning for months a long, extended traveling in Asia, backpacking through Thailand and Indonesia. And my father called me to say he didn’t want me to go, and he wouldn’t let me take my sister. And keep in mind, I was in my mid-thirties, and my sister was in her early thirties. And we’d both done this before.
So I got furious with my dad. I really expressed strong anger and frustration with him, and we ended up hanging up the phone with each pother. And then the next morning [we] had a much different phone call in which he ended up apologizing to me. And he realized that he had been overstepping his boundaries as a dad, but the key thing was that he told me in that phone call the next morning that the reason he didn’t want me to go traveling with my sister was because when I went on these extended trips he couldn’t help me if something went wrong.
Which was absolutely true. These were the days before cell phones, before the internet. I would go away for months, and my parents didn’t know where I was. They knew what country I was in, but they wouldn’t have been able to reach me or find me. And my dad said, “If something bad happened to you, I wouldn’t be able to help you.”
And as soon as he said that, I welled up with tears. And in a few minutes I found myself really crying deeply, because I understood then that his actions were coming from a place of simply caring about me. And what I learned from the conversation was that I hadn’t known that. He hadn’t expressed it clearly, and I hadn’t taken the time to really listen to him to understand why he didn’t want me to go traveling. And once I did understand his motivation, it changed the whole relationship. It entirely changed the way I felt about him and the way he felt about me.
GD: We’ll get back to the feelings and needs and, what you were saying earlier, the upset. For him, it was probably challenging a very basic need and desire for him to be a daddy…
GD: … a protective, caring, loving father that he wanted to be for you. And so, wow, that’s beautiful. I’m sure that was highly transformative for you.
MS: I go on in the book to describe how that evolved, because it’s fairly powerful. Within a few months of that phone call ― and, by the way, as that second phone call ended the next morning, he told me how much he loved me, I told him how much I loved him. He had never said that to me, that I remember, in words. So it was a very meaningful connection. And a few months later he was diagnosed with bone cancer, and a year later he died.
And I was able to feel very connected to him that last year of his life and was able to sit beside him on his bedside as he was dying and really just be there with my heart open. And that would not have happened if I hadn’t understood what was behind his asking me not to go traveling. If I didn’t know what was really going on, I wouldn’t have felt that connected with him.
GD: Well, that’s a beautiful story. Thanks for sharing that. It’s a really great segue for us to roll up our sleeves some more and get into the skills that you’ve identified that are so important.
And so, getting to a place of understanding of another is part of that, I’m sure. Obviously we can’t speak to the entire book and work in this short interview today, but what are some of the key… like the real key skill pieces that rise to the forefront when you think about conscious communication?
MS: Yeah, that’s a great question. And I’ll boil it down to the two main skills just to keep this simple so people can begin to understand the framework.
The two main skills that I teach are called listening, I call it supportive listening, and assertion. Supportive listening has also been called things like ‘reflective listening’ or ‘active listening,’ and assertion has also been known by some people calling it ‘I messages.’ And I’ll explain both of them in a moment.
But that’s the two sides, if you will, the yin and the yang. And I like to start with that frame, because most people can understand that.
If, to have what I would consider a healthy c0onversation, a healthy interaction and eventually a healthy relationship, I think it’s fairly common-sense that you need two sides. You need a receiving… someone receiving, listening, really including the other person, and I call it listening to understand. So not just listening, which a lot of us do waiting our turn to talk. It’s not that kind of listening. It’s not just simply being politely quiet while the other person talks. It’s actively listening to understand what’s going on for them.
I have a little template for how to do that, which I’ll share in a moment. So that’s one side, is listening to understand, receiving. Another term I use for that is making space for the other person. And if you think about it, a conversation, a relationship is like a dance. And in a dance, you have to go backward as well as forward. You have to receive and give. You have to make room for the other person and then direct the other person as you’re dancing.
So it, the listening is the receiving, and the assertion is when you try to get your message across. You try to be understood. You try to get the other person to listen and understand you. Because we all have a need for both being understood, and a need to understand. So the two skills, listening and assertion, meet those needs. And they form a balanced relationship, a balanced conversation.
GD: Well said. Tell me about the template.
MS: Okay. So the listening template, it’s the same template as the assertion, in the model that I’ve developed. It’s very simple, and it has three parts. When you’re listening to another person talk, you first listen for the emotional charge. We’ve already talked about emotions and why I believe they’re so valuable. They go right to the core of what’s actually going on for the other person. They cut through a lot of the superficial ideas or values or thoughts, and they connect us. If I know that you’re feeling sad, for example, and I care about you, I feel connected to you. There’s a sense that I know what’s going on for you.
So, listening for an emotion ― sad, hurt, scared, angry; could be a positive emotion, excited. When someone’s sharing with us verbally, it’s often because they want to be understood and there’s often some emotional content. These skills, by the way, are specifically designed to deal with emotional content, what I call emotional charges. And they may not be necessary or useful when there’s a neutral conversation. But as soon as there’s an emotional charge, listen for what the other person’s feeling on the level of raw emotion.
GD: That can’t be underscored enough, right? So if someone is saying to me, “I’m upset, and this is why,” here’s a really great opportunity for me to hear it and then name it, and reflect it back ― “Boy, I really get you’re upset. Boy. Boy. I hear it! I totally get it.”
GD: Or, maybe I don’t get it, but I’m hearing it, and I see you’re upset. So naming that, the other person, to your point, feels heard, they feel understood. That’s really key, isn’t it?
MS: It is key, and the magical, or the powerful piece of this that you can’t really know until you try it and see it in action, is that naming the emotion and receiving it without trying to change it or fix it actually starts the process of it dissipating or dissolving. It starts to go away; it changes. And so we’re not locked into our emotions. They move, they change. But what keeps us stuck in them is that we don’t talk about them. And most of us don’t know how to receive another person’s emotions with neutrality, just with acceptance.
GD: Well, you mentioned judgment earlier. The other approach is, I could say, “What’s the matter with you? What’s the big deal? I mean, come on. Will you relax?” Or, “I mean, give me a break! You’re always so cranky!” Or, “Can you, can you just be happy for one moment?” Or, “Why, why are you upset about that?”
So there’s the judgment piece, and, boy, doesn’t that drive a wedge between that connection and that communication?
MS: Yeah. So, this is where it gets very simple and, for many of us, very difficult: is, can I just accept that the person I’m connecting with right now, the person talking to me is hurt, their feelings are hurt? Can I be okay with that?”
And it turns out you can. Any one of us can, because it’s fairly simple. And what that does, if I’m okay with you feeling hurt, and I get that you feel hurt, it activates empathy. And that’s really the purpose of this whole skill set that I teach, is activating our innate, fairly natural capacity for empathy. Another word for empathy is putting yourself in another person’s shoes for a moment.
We have that capacity, but we rarely use it, because we’re often so much in our head, and empathy comes from the heart. So, listening for emotion ― You sound sad. It sounds like you’re frustrated. ― begins the process of connecting my heart to the other person’s heart and feeling their sadness, not taking it on as my responsibility, but just feeling it as if it were mine for a moment. That’s empathy.
GD: Perfect. And, so, assertion.
MS: Well, that’s just the beginning. Let me do the three parts. So, that’s listening for feelings, and then to go a little deeper in understanding the person it’s often helpful to connect feeling the emotion with a fact, a simple observation of what happened, without getting into a story, a drama, but just a fact. You feel sad about the way your daughter talked to you.
So the person speaking helps them connect the sadness with something that happened to them, but no interpretation, no judgment; and we’re not feeding the story, we’re not making the drama more dramatic.
And then the third part is the impact on them. So it might sound like, It sounds like you feel sad about the way your daughter talked to you because you think she’s not being respectful. Or, Your need for respect wasn’t being met. So, you can connect the feeling with a trigger, a fact that triggered it, and then an impact. How did that actually affect the person?
It takes a little practice to do those three steps, but those are guidelines for what to listen for when you’re being the listener, when you’re trying to understand and make space for another person.
GD: Thanks for teasing that out some more, Miles. I have the challenge of wanting to give this service, and give it the time it deserves. We could do a show on this every day of the week for months, and we … we wouldn’t be covering it all.
And I wanted to speak to the practice piece that you just mentioned. It’s a new language, and you mention this in your book, it’s like taking on a new language. And it can take time. And I just want to speak to the empathy that we can extend to ourselves, especially as we try to let go of old habits or old ways of being, especially if we’re in a relationship and the communication method or theme has been very different; just to go easy on ourselves, and know that we’re probably going to make mistakes. We’re going to mess up, it’s going to take some practice, but it’s worth it.
MS: Absolutely. And I’m really glad you bring that up. As I said earlier, the skill set is fairly straightforward. I just named the three named parts of a listening skill. After a little breathing orgetting the steps down, anybody can do it. The hard part is remembering to do it, because our habit is to go into our heads and evaluate and respond with a judgment. So that’s a real challenge.
And it’s most helpful, I think, to think of this as a practice, something that you’re doing that gradually you’ll get better at, and you’re doing it because it’s a way to be more conscious, a way to be more aware and present in your interactions with other people.
GD: Well, it also is an act of self-love and self-empowerment. Because if the way that we’re associating or communicating or walking in the world, associating with others, is not working, and we say, Geez, this isn’t working for me, I’m going to adopt a different approach of relating, communicating, and also with myself, that’s a really important act of self love. And we deserve that. We deserve harmony and peace and ease, not that disruption won’t occur, but we can create that. That’s available to us.
And when discordant energy or disruptions do occur to have the tools in place to maneuver through that.
Is there anything else you wanted to say on that before going to assertion?
MS: No. This would be good to show assertion and show that the three steps are the same. So remember that … assertion is you expressing your needs, you expressing your emotions and your needs. And it’s good to know sort of when that’s necessary. Usually, if your feelings are hurt, if something’s upset you, think about the two most common ways that you, or most of us, are trained to respond. If something threatens you, if somebody says something or does something that really upsets you or threatens you, or that to ― just think with me out loud here, you might remember from the book ― but what are the two most common instinctive ways of reacting to that?
GD: Well, I think about attacking back, or getting into defensive mode.
GD: Or running!
MS: That’s it. So we either want to fight and get defensive and attack back, or we want to run. And what does that remind you of from our high school biology?
It’s fight or flight. So, it’s really helpful to notice that, because guaranteed, for almost all of us, that’s going to be your initial response. It’s wired into us from our ancient instincts. And the problem with that is that it might have served us well when our life was threatened on a daily basis by our living environment, but for most of us now, that’s just not true. And we’re still reacting as though our life is being threatened. And what those responses do, if you use withdrawal, running, or attacking, blaming on a regular basis in a relationship that you care about, an important relationship, it damages the relationship.
So, what we need is an alternative, and the alternative is called assertion. And assertion, the essence of it is that I care about me, and I’m going to stand up for myself, and I also care about you and I’m not going to try to hurt you in the name of taking care of myself.
GD: This gets to the speaking honestly with compassion, that you wrote about in your book, that you were on the search for that. Like, how can you speak for your needs, to speak honestly, do it with compassion? And so you’re bringing this all together.
MS: Exactly. Exactly. And that’s really what got me going on this quest, was I wasn’t happy with what I grew up in a society that was fairly superficial, and the idea was to be nice, and not speak about anything that was upsetting. You’d just pretend it wasn’t there, and try to be nice and have everybody like you all the time.
And the limitation of that is that it’s not real. It’s very superficial. And I felt that even as a young child, it’s a sense of isolation. I felt alone, because everything was fine until somebody got upset, and then there was no way to talk about it. So we had to just kind of pretend it wasn’t there.
GD: Oh, I can so relate! And so, this speaks to the invitation for transparency, authenticity, vulnerability, and not expressing these because we don’t want to rock the boat. We can express our needs, we can be authentic, we can be honest and still keep the peace.
MS: That’s the idea. And, that’s the idea, let’s say an,d it’s very doable ― however, not without skills, not without tools. So, in the book I make an image of imagine that you and your partner or you and your community wanted to make a garden, and you had a lawn. And so you went out on your lawn to make a garden. And imagine that you had no tools. You just had to do it with your bare hands.
So, you could do that. It would take a long time, and your garden, in my judgment, probably wouldn’t be very good. Plus you’d really beat up your hands.
And now imagine going out on your lawn to make a garden with simple tools ― a shovel, a rake and a hoe. Now, the project becomes much different, much more workable. You still have to put in hard work. You have to learn how to use the tools. But you can do it in much less time without hurting yourself, and you get a much better result, a much better garden.
So, the metaphor here is that in our relationships we’re trying to meet these new ideals of honesty and vulnerability and equality and intimacy and independence, all these new ideals that have really taken root since the last half of the last century, since the ’60s and beyond. Great ideals, but we don’t have any tools, not yet. So we’re still trying to make this with our bare hands, and it’s not working!
So, honesty often looks like … it’s either we don’t say anything or we’re abrasive. We’re judgmental and harsh and abrasive. And assertion is the idea that we can learn a third way, we can learn the tool of assertion, and it will enable us to be honest and gentle ― honest and understanding of the other person; honest and compassionate.
GD: Can you give us an example of how you have used this assertion model?
MS: Sure. So, when my father and I were on that phone conversation, the next morning after the big blow-out that I described, the first thing I did was I apologized to him, because I said, I shouldn’t have talked to you that way. I didn’t call him names, but I said some things to my father that I didn’t think were respectful, and I apologized and told him that I was really upset and I didn’t mean those things.
Incidentally ― I think I mentioned this ― he apologized to me, which was huge and really beautiful. But then I said to my dad, I wasn’t just letting it go, I was just trying to re-frame it in a more positive way. And I said to my father, Dad, I feel really uncomfortable when you tell me you don’t want me to go traveling with my sister because it seems like you’re trying to control my life.
Now, that’s an example of assertion. I wasn’t blaming him, but I was naming my feeling ― I feel uncomfortable; I was naming the circumstance, the fact or the observation, which is, when you call me up and tell me not to go traveling ― because that’s what happened; and then I named the impact on me, because I think you’re trying to control my life, and it makes me not want to be around you. And that, if you recall from the three steps of listening that I described a few minutes ago, it’s the same three steps. So it’s a feeling, a fact, and an impact.
GD: And that’s much different than saying, You made me feel this, and you’re the root of the problem here, and you need to change, because that just puts up our defenses.
MS: Exactly. And that, just for contrast, is what I call “you messages”. And most of us are conditioned to use “you messages.” When we’re really upset and we finally explode or decide it’s time to communicate, we often start with a you message. So a very basic guideline for this process of assertion is, start with the word I and follow that with a raw emotion. Lead with a feeling ― I feel hurt. I feel sad. With my dad, I think I said, I feel really frustrated. And that gets you into a very different pathway than You did this, or You did that.
GD: I want to speak to how I know that this stuff works…
GD: It’s been transformative in my life. And I also want to speak to when it’s helpful to put up healthy boundaries and step back. And I’m thinking about a situation of a person in my life where I adopted this approach, and it didn’t work. And I recognize that there is a lot of volatility there, and upset, and I recognize that, okay, I’ve given it my best shot here, I’m recognizing that this relationship….
MS: Won’t understand you. [laughs] You’re digging yourself deeper into a hole and you’re alienating that person right off the bat. Whereas if you lead with an I message, I feel really hurt when you don’t seem to want to listen to my point of view, that’s a different kind of message. And if they can’t ultimately hear that ― it may take a little while for them to be able to hear it, and I have a process that I outline in the book of how to do that assertion process, and it includes listening to understand the other person while you’re asserting your feelings and needs.
But if after a little … a few minutes ― it doesn’t have to take hours ― but after five minutes, say, if it’s clear they’re not able to understand you, I recommend just pausing that conversation, perhaps coming back to it at a different time, and possibly learning from that that this is not a relationship that you want to invest in.
So, I worked for 10 years in the field of divorce, and I facilitated, mediated people getting divorced. And I saw the horror of that. And I came away from that experience, those 10 years, really committed to helping couples stay together. So one of the things I do is counsel couples, teach them these skills, how to use the listening and the assertion skill in their current relationship and using live situations from their relationship now.
And I always recommend to people, don’t give up on a relationship until you’ve tried being assertive, because most of us don’t know how to express ourselves without blame or without just withdrawing and not saying anything. And until you express yourself directly, the other person can’t know what you’re feeling and needing. No matter how much they care about you or how close you are, ,nobody else knows what your emotions and what your needs are in this moment unless you tell them.
And that’s a really important point to get. So that I always teach people, use the skill, learn assertion, learn how to identify your emotion, learn how to associate it with an impact and ultimately with a primary need of yours, and then express it in a constructive way using something like a format that I outline in the book, and then evaluate your relationship.
GD: Assertion, especially for women, can feel like a bad word sometimes.
MS: Exactly. A lot of us were trained, and I would say generally women more than men, were conditioned by our culture not to express themselves directly because it was seen as somehow unfeminine. So, for some of us, getting over that is a hurdle. Getting over that hurdle is a challenge, to be able to say I’m upset. But it’s a really important one because if you don’t express it, the other person can’t know.
GD: And I also like how you express in your book that if you don’t talk about it, it’s not going to likely serve the relationship, and the potential for the relationship dissipating is there. And you balance that with in the moment it can feel really hard to talk about it, and yet it gives you the opportunity to strengthen the relationship.
MS: Exactly. The metaphor in the book comes from a life experience. I bought an old farmhouse. I’m actually sitting in that farmhouse right now. I bought this place 25 years ago and it was a wreck. It was 150 year old, very small, primitive sort of farmhouse, and it had leaks in the roof. I didn’t know that when I bought it. But as soon as I moved in and it rained, it had like six major leaks. I had to put buckets outto collect the water.
GD: [laughs] You can laugh at now, right? But it was really challenging then!
MS: It was very challenging then, and I was young. I was in my early thirties. I had very few carpentry skills, and I was a new home owner. Soit was fairly overwhelming, but it became pretty clear that, okay, I had to get up on the roof. And I bought a can of roofing tar, and I asked the guy at the hardware store how to use it, and I figured, I can handle this. But the problem was that I couldn’t fix the roof while it was raining, right? That’s pretty obvious. So I had to wait ’til the sun came out, it was a warm day and the roof was dry.
Well, as you can imagine, every time the sun was out and the roof was dry, the last thing I thought about was fixing that roof! I wanted to go work in the garden or get some other kind of work done outside, or just relax in the sun. And as you can imagine, that cycle went several times before I finally fixed it. So the next time it rained, the roof leaked, and I remembered, oh, no! I have to get up on the roof! But I can’t do it when it’s raining.
So, the moral of the story is, I finally had to get up there on a sunny day. And I didn’t want to, but I made myself do it. I said, I have to get up there now and fix this roof. And I did it. The next time it rained, I didn’t have leaks.
So, the moral, and how it relates to relationships, is that with assertion, you’re not going to want to give the assertion. There’s very rarely a time when you’re going to say, Oh, good. Now I can go give my assertion message. Most of us are scared to do it. It’s uncomfortable, we don’t want to do it. So when there’s peace and harmony in your relationship, you’re not going to want to give your assertion. But that’s exactly the time when you need to do it, when things are calm. If you wait ’til you’re upset, it’s too late. It’s raining, and you can’t fix the roof then.
GD: Very, very well spoken to. Thank you. We can’t talk about conscious communication if we don’t acknowledge and speak to our own wiring, our own triggers, our own past traumas that we bring into relationship, particularly in significant relationships, oftentimes a love partner, a child, or a family member. So, this is something that I’m continually working on, refining: I’m in a relationship, I’m in a discussion, something comes up, and instead of me saying, This person ― and to myself ― this person is causing me to feel such and such, to acknowledge, oh, oh boy, this is familiar.
Oh, right, this is related to a childhood trauma where I felt abandoned or neglected, or a past relationship where I didn’t feel like I could speak my voice, as opposed to putting it on the present and putting it on that person or that relationship. So that’s a big one, right?
MS: That’s a huge one, Graham. I’m really glad you’re bringing that up. Because as I said earlier, the skills themselves are really simple, but there’s a lot of things that block us from using them, and one of them is exactly what you’re talking about. So, think about your closest relationships, and how they started out really nice, maybe an intimate partnership, and then eventually, especially if you live together and you bump up against each other on a daily basis, they become difficult. And in some cases really difficult. And what’s happening there is that your partner, or the person that you’re intimate with, close with, is bumping your old wounds. And we don’t recognize that at the time as such, so we think they’re causing those wounds.
I love this image because I think a lot of us can understand the physical metaphor for it. My daughter just cut her leg really badly this winter. She was chopping wood and hit her leg with the hatchet, and it went in deep. She had to go to the hospital, get stitches. And she told me yesterday, we were out back working, that whenever something just bumps her knee now ― it healed up nicely, she has a beautiful scar ― but all she has to do is bump it and she gets really hurt, very deep pain.
And that’s how it is for us with emotional wounds. So a lot of us got hurt as children, not anybody’s fault in particular, but that’s what happens as we grow up, is our feelings get hurt, and we didn’t know how to deal with it as children, so we buried it. We kind of covered it over, and we think it’s all healed because maybe the skin isn’t bleeding anymore, but there’s a wound under there and when our partner bumps us in a certain place emotionally ― says something or looks at us a certain way ― it can trigger this deep hurt, anger, sadness, and often we have no idea what’s happening or where it’s coming from.
And the most obvious thing is that that person, our partner, did it to me. She did it to me, she’s responsible, or he’s responsible. And we immediately lash out at them. And that’s totally common and in some way understandable, but it doesn’t help us solve the issue because it’s a much older issue than that.
And if we can accept that a relationship is actually a perfect vehicle for bringing those wounds to the service, those old wounds that we all carry, so that we can heal them, and if we can learn a skill that would help us not immediately blame our partner but rather just express our raw feeling so that our partner might be able to actually help us in that situation, that can make an opportunity forwhen we get our feelings hurt, change it from an opportunity for conflict to an opportunity for healing.
GD: I have a colleague that is very interesting in accessing, identifying, shining the light on those old traumas, old triggers. And he was in a new relationship that started recently, and they were going into, he and his partner were going into a store that he used to go in that same store with a previous partner. And he had these feelings come up, these emotions come up. And the way he expressed it to me, if I’m doing it justice, remember right, he was able to name and see and recognize, oh, oh, I’ve got these feelings come up.
Oh, yeah! I remember going in the store, and there was a controlling element that he experienced from his past partner where, I think she would say, You got to do this, or You got to do that, or You can’t do that, and so, coming into the store, just by virtue of coming into the store, he felt some bodily emotions, and had to sit down. And ― credit to him ― he actually spoke it to his partner and said, I got I’m just feeling seized up here. Oh, this is what’s happening. Oh, I see, yeah, it was connected to my past relationship.
And she was ― to your point, coming back around to what you were saying ― she was able to give him the patience and the presence for him to work through it so that they could actually work through it and enjoy the experience.
MS: Beautifully said. And just to keep listeners in mind, that’s a difficult thing to do. It’s beautiful to hear about it, because that’s what we are capable of that, and we can learn how to do that. And for most of usit’s a stretch, to be that conscious and aware while something is upsetting us.
I like … to go back to the physical wound metaphor, if you were working in your back yard, say with aa saw, cutting a branch off a tree, and you cut yourself, you know, you would pretty naturally… we’d tend to it. We don’t do that with our emotional wounds. We tend to, we tend to ignore them, because we don’t know how to deal with them; we don’t talk about them because we don’t have a vocabulary to talk about them; and if we do talk about them, we tend to lash out at whoever’s immediately in our vicinity because we think they’re responsible for the that. And all that, if you compare it with a physical wound, it doesn’t really make sense. It’s not good self care.
So, what your friend did is he sat down and he took a moment to check in with himself and say, How am I feeling right now? and Where is this emotion coming from? And that’s … if we were cut physically, of course we would do that.
GD: I like that. Beautifully said, Miles. Yeah, beautifully said. If you look at areas in your own communication process and your development with that, recognizing that the learning is probably infinite, where are you expanding or wanting to expand or improve on?
MS: That’s a great question. One answer I have for that is that it goes back to something we mentioned earlier. As a man, being raised in the fifties and sixties here in the USI had very little access to my emotions. If I expressed emotion when I was a child, I was immediately humiliated, if not beaten up by my friends, my male friends at the time, little boys. And so I learned very early on to not express vulnerable feelings.
And what I notice now with my wife and three daughters is that if I don’t express any vulnerable feelings, they don’t see me as vulnerable, they just see me as angry [laughing] or upset or frustrated, and that is going on now. And I’m realizing I’m still not showing them my hurt. I’m still not showing them that sometimes I get scared. It’s still difficult for me to say the words I feel scared, or I feel hurt, or I feel sad I ― anything that’s vulnerable.
And so that’s one thing that I consciously try to practice now, is when something happens between me and my wife or one of my daughters, I’m trying to practice getting the emotional word out first, and naming it, and then focusing on myself rather than trying to get them to change. And that’s still, even after all these years working with communication skills, it’s really challenging for me.
GD: I so value you speaking to that, and I can identify with that for sure. I mean, the same thing. When I was a child, it didn’t feel safe to share feelings. And I felt isolated and alone oftentimes, and it was really difficult, I didn’t understand this. I didn’t understand this dog-eat-dog, competitive, never-let-them-see-you-sweat kind of culture. And I can see it now, I understand it, I don’t need to be part of it. And I’m still working with that, too.
Because I fall to my old defaults when I feel threatened or feel unsafe, or feel… yeah. I can get to that place as well. Thanks for speaking to that. I think a lot of men are still working with that. The piece that I also appreciate you speaking to in your book, you talk about letting go of being right, which is tied to that, right? So in a competitive culture, it’s about being right, it’s about winning.
And in relationship, in communication, that doesn’t always serve us.
MS: It’s not only that it doesn’t serve us, it’s that it keeps us kind of locked into a very competitive paradigm without realizing we’re doing it. So we can think about it: we get competitive with our spouse, our partner, our children, the exact people that we don’t want that type of relationship with. But it happens almost automatically, without us thinking about it. And it will happen if we don’t challenge the premise that we don’t have to be right, that relationships are not about winning or losing, it’s not a competition. We have to really bring that to the fore and notice our natural impulse, our instinct to want to be right or want to win, want to come out winning.
And what ends up happening in that kind of dynamic is that we really damage the relationship. So, this practice called conscious communication, the language of it, the skill set that I teach has nothing to do with being right or validating a fact. It’s always validating an emotion and a need. And when we focus on emotions and needs, we eliminate the process of being right or wrong.
In other words, if you said to me, “Miles, I’m hurt. My feelings are hurt,” it would be very unusual for me to say, “No, Graham, that’s not true.” [laughs] Or I wouldn’t argue with you, because there’s nothing there to really argue with. You’re just giving me an update on what’s going on with you. So when we stay with raw emotion and just simple facts, and then come back to the impact on us, or the impact on the other person, we eliminate a lot of the grounds for competition. It’s not about agreeing or disagreeing, and nobody has to be right or wrong.
GD: You’ve worked with a lot of people, you’ve worked with a lot of people in different situations, challenging situations. Can you share an example that you held in your heart of a real shift, where people have been in a place of real conflict to a place of understanding and peace?
MS: Sure. I’m thinking of one that’s pretty ordinary, kind of commonplace, I think a lot of people can relate to. It came from one of my students. I used to teach communication skills at the Community College of Vermont. I taught there for 23 years, and that’s a lot of how I developed the… my own technique, my own sort of skill set and then ended up writing the Conscious Communication book to use as a textbook for that class.
And one of my students, one day, I was teaching her the assertion message. I feel; when you; because is the format, the three parts. And the assignment was to go home and use it. And she was living with her children and I think her new husband. So he was, I think, the step-dad of the children.
And he would say to this woman in my class, and the children, he would teach them, after they would come out of the shower, he would teach them how to dry off with a towel. This woman watched her boyfriend do this with her, and then she watched him do it with her children. And they all thought it was really odd, that he was trying to teach them how to dry off with a towel, because she was a grown woman, and I guess her kids were teenagers.
And, so she asserted to him. She said something likeI feel really uncomfortable when you teach us how to dry off with a towel because it seems like you’re treating us like children. It’s a good, direct, honest but not blaming message. And his response, after she listened to him ― which is what I teach people to do; when you give your assertion, then you have to shift and listen to them to understand them. So she did that, and she listened to understand him.
And it turned out that what his problem was that he’d go in the bathroom after someone had taken a shower and there was water all over the floor! And he either got his feet wet, or it was bad for the floor ― I can’t remember which.
GD: Or he took a bad fall.
MS: Or he slipped, maybe it was a safety thing. But that was the issue, and she had no idea that that’s what was going on. Until she gave that assertion message, she and her children thought of him as being a very controlling person because he was trying to teach them how to dry off after a shower. And what he was really trying to do was get the floor not to be wet. And once they understood that, they could work with it.
GD: You know, isn’t it interesting [laughing]… I see the humor of this dance of this human experience. When situations like that come up. And I don’t wish to suggest that, like in this example, I’m sure it was very difficult. There was some charge there, there was some tension there, it was challenging, and frustration, perhaps on all sides. And then, when these skills and tools were applied, and you got to the other side, you can kind of say ― you can kind of laugh at it a little bit, right?
GD: [laughs] I want to share a … you mentioned that you taught college, on the college level for a lot of years. When I was an undergrad I took a conflict resolution class, and one of my peers, a fellow student ― and I’m going to speak with a very general brush here, just to paint the picture; and I’m offering my own limited observations, and I didn’t have the skills or experiences that I do now. But at the time I saw him as pretty close-minded, young, he was a military guy, and he was very black and white. And he had an edge. And that was challenging.
And so here I am, more open-hearted, really engaged in the subject matter, communicate fairly well, and the teacher loved that. And so looking at it at this point, it created this dynamic that I didn’t expect, actually. But one day I said something, I can’t even remember what it was, and he blew up! He said something really judgmental, which I felt was really judgmental, very difficult to hear, and I just seized up and shut down. I didn’t even know what to say. I was at a loss.
And it was interesting ― and this just speaks to how this is a practice ― the teacher didn’t know what to do. And I approached her later, and I said, “this doesn’t feel safe to me. I mean, this feels really volatile.” And she said, “Yeah. I don’t really know how to handle it.”
This is a conflict resolution teacher, a professional mediator! And what I ended up doing was we made an arrangement where I did some outside study, but the college said no, you can’t do that. You’ve got to come back in. Which was good, because we had to face it. We never face it, though, we never worked through it.
It was a perfect example, looking at it now, where we could have used that, because the whole class witnessed it…
GD: … we could have used it as an opportunity to work through that, to get to the other side. And this… I’m not coming from a place ofcriticism or judgment, I’m just witnessing that it is a practice. It takes practice, and it’s worth it.
Now, you have spoken to society… you talked about the societal level and where we could, can take this. And you had experience years ago where you were teaching non-violence and consensus decision-making for civil disobedience protests. And in your book you talk about the potential or possibilities a little bit on the societal level. What’s your vision for how we can be on a global level?
MS: Yeah. In the book Conscious Communication I have some chapters in the end about democracy and what I call a technology for peace. Let’s talk about world peace. There’s a lot of us that believe that we’re firmly for world peace, and there’s a whole other side of our culture or a whole other side of humanity that doesn’t want peace, that keeps investing in war. And one point I make in the book that I want to make now is that we like to frame that as that we want peace and they want war.
That’s really not the case, and that’s certainly not how the other side sees themselves. And whether it’s just politics or whether it’s being genuine, I don’t know. But I think genuinely people that invest in war see it as the only way to peace. If you talk to anybody who’s behind a war, who’s in favor of it, that’s usually the explanation they’ll give you, is they’ll say, “Well, this is the only way to finally achieve peace.”
So, really, in the end, we … I believe we all want peace, but we have a different idea of how to get there. For me, a different way to find those differences would be to say that peace is something that we have to work at. It’s not something we get to by defeating an enemy. That’s a very temporary kind of a peace. But peace is something that we have to learn how to do. It’s an active process.
And to me, that’s the process that we need to learn as human beings, if we’re going to make it on this planet. Because if we keep reverting to war, we won’t make it. We’re going to destroy each other.
I make a similar point about democracy, that democracy is this ideal that the United States I think made a very valuable contribution to the ideal of democracy by founding a whole nation on it, but then we tend to think that we have democracy and that everybody else should have democracy, and of course it’s the right thing to do.
I think a more realistic and healthy approach is that we’re just learning how to do it. Democracy, in my mind, is the idea that we’re each equal, none of us is more important or less important; and we each deserve to have our basic needs and our basic feelings validated and understood. And the thing with democracy is we don’t know how to do that yet, we’re still learning it.
And I see the tools of something like conscious communication as a way to really further our ability to enact democracy, to make it a reality for us. And to bring that on a personal level, since the sixties, our whole ideal of personal relationships, let’s say intimate family, marriage or family relationships, or even workplace or school relationships have evolved to where we want to be more equals. Students want to have more say. We don’t want relationships anymore where the husband makes all the decisions and the wife just goes along with him.
For most of us, that’s antiquated, and we’re not interested in that. It’s the way things used to be. We don’t know how to do it differently. Husbands and wives these days don’t know how to treat each other as equals. We don’t know how to make decisions together. So that’s where we need the skills, the tools of conscious communication. And as it changes our personal relationships, it will change our community relationships, it will change our national relationships and our international relationships.
GD: You teach retreats. Would you like to talk a little bit about that?
MS: Sure. I live at, and manage with my wife, a retreat center in Vermont in the northeast kingdom called Sky Meadow Retreat. It’s up in the north of Montpelier, Vermont. And we host weekend retreats. And often I teach/lead the retreat, and the retreats I lead here will be some form of conscious communication. So this weekend, for example, I’m leading a conscious communication for couples retreat. Sometimes they’re more open to anybody. Usually it’s just conscious communication as a weekend retreat.
And I also specialize in working with couples, as I mentioned earlier. And couples can come here for individual sessions or a longer private couples retreat. And in those retreats, I teach the basic skills. People get to practice them, which is really key to enacting them in your life. And people get to bring real life circumstances to the workshop, so that I can respond and we can see how the skills might affect, might apply in a very particular situation.
GD: Miles, thank you very much for coming on the show today.
MS: Sure. I’m glad to be here. Let me just mention the book, which you mentioned several times. Conscious Communication is the title. It’s available on Amazon dot com, there’s links it on our website, which is Sky Meadow Retreat dot com, and you can read excerpts from it and so forth. And the power of the book is that all the skills that we’ve touched on today are outlined and described, and it’s a good reference. It’s really just a good book to, if you’re going to try using these skills, you can go back to the book and it can keep reminding you how the process works.
GD: And I’ve attended Sky Meadow Retreat, as you know, and it’s a beautiful, powerful, magical place. You’re doing great work in the world.
MS: Thank you, Graham.
GD: To find out more about Miles and his work and the retreats he offers, visit his website at Sky Meadow Retreat dot com.