Buddhism in business: compassionate communication

Earlier this year, I read a book called The Art of Communicating, by Buddhist author and activist Thich Nhat Hanh. It was an insightful read on a compassionate, mindful approach to everyday communication at home and at work.The goal of communication is to be understood by others and understand what others are seeking to communicate. But it’s so easy for this simple idea to be derailed. 

Firstly, technology often gets in the way. I’ve been guilty many times of flipping open a laptop to check or respond to quick email, or receiving and responding to texts and IMs on a mobile device. Not only to these interruptions immediately rip you out of the present moment & break the communication flow, but they also signal to the communicator that ‘I have more important things to do than be in this conversation right now’. If this is really the case, there’s little point in speaking in the first place! Every worthwhile conversation deserves full attention. I try to take technology out of my meetings and conversations entirely, unless I am in the midst of an urgent situation that requires me to be on standby. 

Secondly, in conversation we have the tendency to compose our own responses in our heads while someone else is talking, or for our minds to wander off topic completely. This tendency is completely normal and human - however it also stands in the way of the goal of a conversation. It also isn’t the kind of empathy you’d want extended when you are speaking. Borrowing a trick from meditation, when this happens I try to recognize that its happening, and bring my mind back to the conversation. I also bring my attention to my breathing.

Deep listening and right speech

Nhat Hanh talks about the two key elements to compassionate communication: deep listening, and right speech. 

Deep listening

Deep listening is listening to the other person with the only intention of relieving the other person’s suffering & making them feel better (suffering is a very Buddhist word but the principle behind it is what matters). This means listening fully, not interrupting and suspending judgement - not wanting to inject our own views or point out where the other person is misguided. Only then are we in a position to respond fully to the other person. If this idea seems a little too Buddhist for the workplace, or not every quick exchanges don’t allow for this kind of patient communication, I still find it to be an empathetic method for framing the right way to listen vs. respond in a particular situation. 

Right speech

Nhat Hanh talks about 4 guidelines to right speech, derived from Bodhisattva teachings: tell the truth, don’t exaggerate, be consistent / no double talk, and use peaceful language: 

Tell the truth - at a basic level, being truthful establishes an irrefutable pattern of trust with others, which is a fundamental building block of any healthy relationship at work or home. As soon as any doubt exists in a truthful relationship, everything is in doubt. 

However, telling the truth for me goes beyond its straightforward definition. As Kim Scott talks about in her article ‘Radical Candor’, I consider telling the truth being truthful to the point of entering into sometimes uncomfortable territory of saying what needs to be said in order to make the individual or team better. This includes pointing out areas of development on the spot (if you are thinking it, you should figure out how to say it). 

However, its important to always maintain empathy and have a ‘radically candid’ discussion from a place of trust - as Nhat Hanh says, if the truth is shocking we need to find a skillful and loving way to say what needs to be said. For this reason, real truth telling requires a lot of practice. 

Don’t exaggerate - there’s a tendency to exaggerate in the workplace, where emotions can run high and data is often ambiguous. So, in order to make our point sound more credible or win the argument, we sprinkle in something that isn’t quite true, or at least we don’t know for sure that it is. Exaggeration erodes trust and stands in the way of effective communication. It’s okay to feel things and not only speak from fact - however this means labelling feelings and ideas rather than presenting them as facts. 

Mike McCue also talks about critical decision making from a position of fact in ‘The Most Powerful Lesson I’ve Ever Learned In Business’. Slightly off topic, but worth a read. 

Be consistent / no double speak - this refers to communicating different things to different members of the team about the same topic as a way to try and control the situation (or maintain some sort of information advantage). Double speak is both taxing on the individual as well as the organization. For the individual, maintaining multiple versions of who we told what to takes up brain power than can be used for more productive activities. For the organization, this can cause division in the ranks (e.g. this person tells me things he doesn’t tell you). Of course, this needs to be appropriately balanced when it comes to sensitive items, but for the majority of organizational information should be equally accessible across the team. 

Use peaceful language - any speech that is ‘violent, condemning, abusive, humiliating, accusing or judgmental’ absolutely has no place at work. As Nhat Hanh says, when we speak in a way that causes tension and anger, we are nourishing violence and suffering. I would add trying to tone down strong or overly assertive tendencies in communication, as if any member of the team feels intimidated, its an environment where not all facts will be shared freely and openly. 

For anyone interested in good introductory books on Buddhism - with a surprising amount of wisdom that can be applied in the workplace, I’d recommend this book as well as Pema Chodron’s ‘When Things Fall Apart’.