Misunderstandings are bound to happen in any relationship. With your partner. With your kids. With your family and friends. With your colleagues. This is normal and natural.
Sometimes, we might let a slew of small irritations build up, which only triggers resentment and negative feelings over time. It leads us to withdraw from our loved ones, and be less present in our relationships.
Other times we might blurt out our frustration in the heat of the moment, screaming words we might later regret. Neither approach is helpful and can chip away at our relationships.
In her book Beginning Anew: Four Steps to Restoring CommunicationSister Chan Khong, a Buddhist nun, counselor and teacher, lays out a four-step practice to help us clear up misunderstandings and refresh our relationships. Here’s a snippet.
Step One: Flower watering. Step one is all about showing appreciation for the other person. According to Sister Chan Khong, “when we don’t ‘water the flowers’ in the other person, they will wither. But if you water them appropriately, you’ll have lovely flowers to enjoy.”
She suggests keeping a list of the qualities, talents and actions of your loved one, which bring you happiness. Write this in a notebook, or keep a file on your computer (labeled “Happiness”). Every evening, make a note of what you appreciated about your loved one.
Every week dedicate one day — like a Friday night — to a “mutual flower watering session,” where you express your appreciation to your loved one.
Step Two: Expressing regret. In the second step, express regret or apologize for anything you would’ve wanted to do differently. Sister Chan Khong suggests first asking the person to forgive you for what she calls “unskillfulness.” Expressing genuine regret, she writes, is a powerful way to refresh your relationship.
Step Three: Asking for more information.
This is about understanding what’s happening in the other person’s mind and heart. For instance, she suggests asking: “Did I hurt you through my unskillfulness? Do I understand you enough? Can you share with me what is deep in your heart?”
Because little hurts add up, according to Sister Chan Khong, it’s important to check in with our loved ones regularly. Often we don’t even realize that we’ve hurt our loved ones and how. For instance, maybe you didn’t listen to your spouse when they were trying to tell you about their rough day. Maybe your child was upset because you were too busy to look at their new drawing. Maybe your sister was frustrated that you showed up late to your lunch yet again.
This also gives us the opportunity not to repeat these hurts, and shows our loved ones we truly care.
Step Four: Expressing hurt or disagreement. This is about letting the other person know that you’re upset because of something they did or said. The key, though, is making sure that you’re calm enough to have this conversation. For instance, you can calm yourself by taking deep, slow breaths, and focusing on your breathing. When you’re calmer, try to see how you might’ve contributed to the problem. Maybe you lost your temper, or made a rude comment. Maybe you unwittingly hurt their feelings.
Also, reconsider your interpretation of the situation. For instance, maybe you expected the other person to know how you feel (which, of course, they really can’t).
When you’re talking to the other person, try to speak humbly. Try to remain open and acknowledge that your perceptions are limited.
If both of you feel comfortable, there is a fifth step, which is a hugging meditation. According to Thich Nhat Hanh, this includes taking several moments to look at your loved one and realizing how much they mean to you. Take three breaths, while looking at them and feeling their true presence.
Hug them with your entire body. You can say to yourself: “Breathing in, I know my dear one is here in my arms, alive. Breathing out, he is so precious to me.”
Relationships are multilayered and complex. And misunderstandings are inevitable. Being honest with your loved one about how you might have contributed to the problem and the things that hurt you can help.