Speaking from Experience
I, You, and We
I wrote this series of notes after reflecting on the point Lila raised about “Speaking from Experience” in relation to discussions at meetings of the London Tantra Discussion Group
There’s a common tendency in English-speaking cultures for individuals to use the second-person (you) in referring to themselves. In fact, it’s so ‘normal’ that it often passes unnoticed that “we” describe our personal experience in the second-person.
It is often difficult to express in the first person (“I feel,” “I think,” “in my opinion”). Why is this so? One thought which strikes me is all those injunctions in magical texts which I’ve come across that imply that to say “I” is egotistical (for example Crowley’s famous razor exercise). Another point I think is worth bearing in mind is that so much of our ‘knowledge’ is expressed as ‘facts’ which are dissociated from personal experience. If knowledge is thought of in terms of ‘facts’, then personal experience is less valued. If I want to appear to be ‘knowledgable’ then, I am probably more likely to (unconsciously) structure my speech in such a way that I am giving forth ‘facts’ rather than just expressing an opinion. After all, opinions can be challenged, can’t they? Another factor could be that overusing “I” can come across as sounding arrogant.
I-statements express self-responsibility and leave room for others’ points of view. I-statements express both feelings & experiences and responsibility for them. So when I say, “I feel …” I am simply reporting how I ‘feel’ rather than making a generalisation or implying that others (should) automatically agree with me.
a) “The Dattatreya rite isn’t any good.” This is a generalised declaration. It is authoritative, and brooks no argument. It only invites agreement or disagreement.
b) “I don’t find the Dattatreya rite to be very useful for me.” This statement is more informative, and at least invites further clarification from others as to “why” this is. Furthermore, by qualifying the statement with “I” the speaker acknowledges that others might have a different perspective on the topic in question. It’s an honest statement about ones’ self which does not devalue other people’s views.
I-statements are related to the process of self-disclosure – revealing to others what you are thinking/feeling right now.
This is something I feel is very apposite to our discussion of the siddhis of the Earth Square – that there are no right or wrong answers, and how I think about the siddhis each time I meditate on them might change – not necessarily drastically, but my relationship to them is one of continual process rather than arriving at a ‘definition’ that once put in place, never changes.
“You” statements seem to come naturally.”You” can be often used to judge, label or control another person. Some examples: “You make me so mad” (blaming), “You don’t know what you are talking about” (arguing), “Of course, you are an expert!” (sarcasm), “You ought to…” (moralising).
Not all you-statements are necessarily bad. For example there’s a big difference in saying to someone “I get the impression that you feel …” and “you are…” The former is a tentative enquiry, the latter an oversimplification – a ‘judgement’ which implies that the other person cannot change, or be different.
We-statements can be tricky. For instance, saying in a group “We all feel that…” can be an appeal to conformity or universality, by implying that ‘everyone’ agrees with what the speaker is saying. “We” is also general, rather than personal. By saying “We”, (also “It”, “They”, “the group” or “People”) a speaker is in effect distancing themselves personally from their statement.
Other points to bear in mind
In any communication (be it verbal or written) assumptions are almost always present. For example, I tend to assume that when I mention a specific technique or idea, the other people I am communicating with will ‘know’ what I am referring to and will share the same meaning that I have. But if I haven’t “checked” then I am making an assumption.
An approach I’ve taken in the past is to “stop and explain” a particular subject – attempting to provide a ‘background context’ for other people who I think might not be familiar with a term or idea. The problem I find with this approach is that it can come across as me “lecturing”, or drifting away from the point I am trying to get across. Asking people if they “know” what I’m referring to also doesn’t feel right, to me – as it puts others “on the spot”. Tricky, isn’t it?
All too often, when someone speaks, we do not actually ‘listen’ to them. We half-listen, and think about something else at the same time. Sometimes we’re too busy formulating a response or answer, and don’t actively engage with what the person is saying. This frequently leads to misunderstandings.
A researcher at the University of Maine, Dr. Marisue Pickering, has identified 4 aspects of empathic listening:
1. The Desire to be other-directed, rather than to project one’s own feelings and ideas onto the other.
2. The Desire to be non-defensive, rather than to protect the self. When the self is being protected, it is difficult to focus on another person.
3. The Desire to imagine the roles, perspectives, or experiences of the other, rather than assuming they are the same as one’s own.
4. The Desire to listen as a receiver, not as a critic, and desire to understand the other person rather than to achieve either agreement from or change in that person.
She also identifies ten discrete skills associated with empathic listening:
- Attending, acknowledging – providing verbal/non-verbal cues to indicate that one is listening – i.e. making eye contact, body language, remaining quiet
- Restating, paraphrasing – responding to the person’s basic verbal message and avoiding ‘topic jumps’
- Reflecting – reflecting feelings, experiences, content that has been heard or perceived
- Interpreting – offering a tentative interpretation about the other’s feelings, desires or meanings
- Summarizing, synthesising – bringing together feelings & experiences, offering or providing a focus
- Probing – Questioning in a supportive way that requests more information or that attempts to clear up confusions
- Giving feedback – Sharing perceptions of the other’s ideas or feelings; disclosing relevant personal information
- Supporting – Showing warmth and caring in one’s own individual way
- Checking perceptions – Finding out if interpretations and perceptions are valid and accurate
- Being quiet – Giving the other time to think as well as to talk
- Practice giving I-messages in daily conversation
- Focus on how others respond to you doing this – and how does it make ‘you’ feel?
- Are some situations easier than others?