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How Is Your Communication Kung Fu?

功夫 - gōng fu - skill; art; merit. In its original meaning, gong fu can refer to any skill achieved through hard work and practice, not necessarily martial arts.(Wikipedia)

How is your Kung Fu of communication? What is the state of your practice? When the chips are down and someone is upset, when there is either explicit or subtle conflict, when there's a "block" in connection or you are just not getting what you want, are you happy with the ways you typically respond?

Many otherwise high functioning people would admit that we are not entirely happy with the way we communicate (or just don't) in these kinds of situations. Of course this is so. We inherited our communication patterns from our family of origin. Some of us have spent considerable energy rewiring those patterns and still fall short of our hopes. Most of us have not spent much at all.

Mastery (hell, even proficiency) of anything takes practice. Especially when it comes to such hard-wired response systems as this. How are you practicing (i.e. cultivating) your communication skills? There seems to be a prevailing assumption that just because we have a certain level of mastery of grammar and syntax, we have that level of mastery of communication. I disagree. Just because you can talk doesn't mean you can communicate.

Communication is one of the most essential arts humans can develop. Try going a day without communicating anything (outside of some silent retreat situation) and you will find out quickly how essential it is. I find Nonviolent Commuication (NVC) to be an incredible Kung Fu in this regard.

Like the Kung Fu of martial arts, NVC is a system of practice aimed at developing a complex fluidity of internal awareness and responsiveness in interpersonal exchanges. Martial arts practice involves repetition and development of certain muscles and reflexive movements that are contrary to the habitual training of the body/mind.

This is often accomplished through choreographed "forms," or complex series of movements memorized and practiced ad infinitum by the artist. Many good arts also include "situational training," in which the Sifu teaches a particular set of responses to most elegantly deal with, say, a choke hold from the rear. Good Kung Fu also involves "sensitivity training," transmitted through partner exercises that support the development of: 1) tactile awareness of the vectors of force involved in physical exchanges, and 2) reflexive responsiveness to such vectors that adhere to principles of flow, economy of energy, and the body's integrity. This is achieved through various games from "push hands," to "sticky hands" to basic sparring.

At the beginning of such a practice there is a lot of thinking and "trying" that goes into getting the body/mind to move in this new way. After many years and countless hours of training, the principles of movement express themselves "effortlessly" through the artist. If a first year student is surprise attacked (heaven forbid), he might "try" some version of one of the situational combinations he learned amidst other habitual responses, but they are not yet reflexive. Nobody would expect him to start performing one of his "forms" against his attacker (except to perhaps scare him away!). But there is no doubt that he will be much better off for the practice he has done! If a 20 year student is attacked, the integrated reflexive dynamics of her practice may be invisible to an onlooker, but the result will be a quickly diffused situation with minimal injury to either party.

As a Kung Fu of communication, NVC includes all these types of training as well. We teach a form which highlights awareness and practice of basic principles. "When I see _____, I feel _____ because I need/value _____. Would you be willing to _____?" We set up "role plays" in which to apply the practice. And we strongly encourage "empathy partner" relationships as an ongoing "sensitivity training" where deep listening can be practiced in a non-threatening environment. This is what we mean by "practice."

This is all aimed at developing the capacity to access these resources when it matters most: during that ragged emotional conflict with a lover, or one of the countless exchanges with our children that are imprinting life-long patterns into them, or that conversation with the CEO, or even in the face of an unexpected assailant or angry police officer whose humanity can almost ALWAYS be leveraged to reduce harm in an escalating situation given the proper Kung Fu.

This kind of communication--the authentically empathic kind that the world is so tragically in need of on every level--is not "habitual" for the vast majority of us. It is only something we cultivate through sincere commitment to practice. But this practice goes far beyond the dojo.

Because this kind of communication is something we bring, in one form or another, as artists, into every interaction we have. It requires the willingness and courage to "break the rules" of common communication and defy the scripts of casual interaction. Every conversation is a new opportunity to "spar" with the aim of true connection and mutual understanding. And let there be no equivocation here: The world needs your empathy, your understanding, and your superlative capacity to convey and attend to your needs in inclusive ways.

So what would it look like to take your Kung Fu to the next level?

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