How Buddhist Communication Tricks Could Improve Your Relationships

Illustrated By: Tyler Spangler
Cynthia Kane, 35, wasn’t always as happy as she is today. Now a successful writer and mindfulness coach, she bears an easy air of gracious self-possession. But Kane hit a crisis point after a close friend and ex-boyfriend died in 2011. His passing prompted her to start reexamining everything in her life, including how she’d been relating to the people in it. And what she realized left her adamant about changing her ways; she remembers being passive-aggressive, judgmental, and constantly comparing her “insides to others’ outsides.”

As Kane explains from the D.C. home she shares with her husband, “Most of my interactions had been me blaming other people for my own insecurities — all the things that weren’t working out in my life had everything to do with everybody else.”

So she began throwing herself into spiritual books and classes, with the aim of learning to communicate better — not just with the folks around her, but with herself. She eventually adopted a “life-changing” meditation practice, and, thanks to what she calls “self-responsible communication,” learned to own everything she felt and said, dramatically improving her relationships and her overall happiness.

Kane is a devotee of Buddhism’s four principles of right speech: Be honest, don’t exaggerate, don’t gossip, and use helpful language. She expands on those in her new book, How to Communicate Like a Buddhist (out 4/18), laying out how many common, mindless default communication styles — like talking over people, selective listening, acting like we know better, or playing the victim — can quietly harm nearly every aspect of our lives.

But there's no need to take a vow of silence, travel to India, or meditate for 12 hours a day to start speaking in a way that can enhance your life. All you need is to become aware of some techniques to incorporate in your day-to-day. And the more you practice, the more you'll feel happier, healthier, and closer to the people in your life.

The more you work on your own powers of communication, the more you’ll find the world is a friendlier place, and the more your relationships will benefit.

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SEE YOURSELF WITH "FRIENDLY EYES."

If there’s one thing Kane hammers home, it’s that your relationship with yourself sets the precedent for everything else in your life, so it’s imperative that you nurture it first. “If you’re not kind, honest, and helpful to yourself, then it’s hard to be happy for others’ joy,” she says.

Become your own BFF; Kane says listening to yourself and practicing seeing yourself with “friendly eyes” is paramount. How? Start addressing yourself in a way that denotes care and compassion. “When we speak to ourselves in a way that we respect, we show ourselves that we approve of ourselves,” Kane explains.

And keep an eye on the gratingly negative self-talk, which — if you’re like most of us — unconsciously peppers your inner monologue throughout the day. For instance, if you catch yourself thinking, I’m so gross; I really didn’t need that third cookie, you might gently jump in with, I’m not feeling great this minute, but it will pass, and I’m human.

Another aspect of tuning in to yourself, Kane writes, involves learning how to pause during difficult conversations — hell, during any conversation — and making a conscious effort to hone in on what you’re feeling. The goal? To avoid speaking rashly, denying your feelings, and inadvertently hurting yourself or the person you’re talking to. “When you don't know what you feel and can’t pinpoint what you need, you can tell the person you’re with that you need to take a minute,” Kane says.

RESPOND, DON’T REACT.

In a similar vein, Kane advises practicing responding instead of reacting in your everyday life. What’s the difference? Easy: Reacting happens when you don't stop to think, Kane explains. But, “When you respond, there's time for you to actually take stock of the situation and tap into what you need and how to express it.”

When the new person you’ve been dating begins making a regular habit of showing up late for drinks with no heads-up, your first instinct might be to “stew in your emotions,” as Kane puts it, until your boo notices you’re upset. (Hey, we get why you might be afraid of rocking the boat, especially when it’s the Early Days.) Instead, Kane suggests a practice she calls “SIP:” Slow down and take a breath; go Inward and ask yourself how you're feeling; and ground yourself in the Present moment to choose the best way to respond.

If you’re upset, you’re entitled to say you’re upset; just do it carefully and kindly. “We're only responsible for what we say, not the reactions of others,” Kane says. She suggests you try something like, “When you show up late, I feel hurt. I know you're not trying to make me feel this way, but next time we meet, could you try to show up on time?" If you get a “yes,” great. If not, it’s up to you to decide whether perpetual lateness is a deal-breaker for you. Regardless, don’t treat it as something to “go off and gossip about, exaggerate, or ruminate over to use as ammunition later,” Kane says.

AVOID GOSSIP & COMPARISON.

Remember how your 5th-grade algebra teacher used to bark to “keep your eyes on your own paper”? Kane has the same advice, saying, “The more we compare ourselves to other people, the less likely we are to be kind” — and the less self-confident and content we feel as a result. “We get so stuck in what other people are doing that we start to live in all the ‘shoulds,’” Kane says.

It’s difficult to be honest or genuine with people when you’re secretly shooting poison envy-darts out of your eyes the moment they turn around. That friend of a friend who landed the dream job you were gunning for? The ex who’s engaged to a painfully adorable fashion blogger? It might feel tough to avoid succumbing to resentment, but try. Otherwise, “You start trying to prove yourself to the other person, trying to show yourself in a light that's exaggerated,” Kane says. It doesn’t make for a peaceful mindset — or for great relationships.

Same goes for gossiping — about your coworkers, your relatives, even the Kardashians. While it might feel like a harmless guilty pleasure, Kane says gossip, in the end, “just perpetuates pain." She notes that “we're not seeing the other person as an individual who has had their heart broken. We're seeing them as someone to make into an enemy so we feel better about ourselves.”

THINK "WE," NOT "I"

“A lot of times, how we communicate comes from this ‘I’ place — I, me, my,” Kane says. “As opposed to seeing [conversation] as a shared moment to connect with people.”

When you practice treating your daily interactions as an exercise in “we first” instead of “me first,” you’ll probably start feeling a greater sense of empathy and connection, which will help you express yourself more clearly and kindly (and help make your relationships most satisfying in the process).

For example, if you catch yourself planning your response to what your sister is recounting about last night’s awkward family reunion before she’s even finished her story, notice that. Remember you’re in a dual-sided, participatory conversation, not a one-way street. Then, gently refocus and guide yourself back to active listening instead of thinking ahead or interrupting.

If Kane’s experience is any indication, the more you work on your own powers of communication, the more you’ll find the world is a friendlier place, and the more your relationships will benefit.

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