Relationship Premises

dogcatI’ll tell a little story about life here at the kungfu school. Our dormitories are located in a former hospital, in two buildings with a courtyard between. But when I first came here in early 2008, the kungfu school only occupied the front-most  of the two buildings. Shifu acquired the back building shortly before I started studying here full-time.

The rooms of the former hospital had been being used for residence for a while, and there was one occupant who would not leave when the kungfu school took over. In the spirit goodwill, I imagine, no big fuss was made and that man– an older, retired herbal doctor — has continued to live at one end of the dormitory hallway. As a matter of fact, he is my next-door neighbor.

For various reasons, tensions between the kungfu students and my neighbor escalated. Not the least of these was the intrusion of pervasive Chinese culture shock into our ex-patriot stronghold, the one place in China we hoped to call our own. Also, he did not share our training schedule, so when we desperately needed rest he might be having a loud and alcoholic card game with his friends or stomping down the hallway or loudly and revoltingly clearing his throat and spitting on the floor. For a while we even shared a bathroom with the guy, and finding the remains of his having cleaned fish for dinner in your shower drain is never fun. Things bottomed out with multilingual screaming matches in the hallway and hard feelings all around.

But for me there was a significant turning point where my relationship with the guy stopped getting worse and started getting better. That was the moment when I realized he wasn’t going away. I think subconsciously my fellow students acted on the premiss that they could choose not to have this relationship, that if they antagonized him enough, he would move out. When I accepted that he was not going to move out, and that I didn’t want to be the kind of person who would drive him out, the question became not if I was going to have a relationship with this guy, but what kind of relationship ours would be.

There is a degree of satisfaction to be gained just by committing to a thing, that can’t be found while we withhold acceptance of that thing’s actuality. New people or circumstances are like a new piece of furniture that surprises you by appearing in your living room; if you can’t fit it out the door, it is better to rearrange the furniture and make a place for it than to leave it sitting in the middle of the floor.

As for my neighbor, all I really did was smile at him when I saw him in the hallway and compliment him once in a while if I liked his clothes or something. More than my external behavior, my internal behavior changed. When I started acting on the premiss that he was part of my life here in Wudang, his noise, his smelly cooking, his loud TV, it all stopped annoying me because I acknowledged his right to be there.

Empathy: Understanding what is said

It is one thing to feel compassion for another person or situation and quite another to be demonstrate empathy.  I think we all can agree that we like to be listened to when we are speaking and even more important to be heard.  Most of the time we are not looking for someone to solve the problem for us – we want to know that someone understands and more important that they care.

One way of being sure that the other person knows that we heard and understood what they were saying is to repeat back to them what we heard them say, using slightly different words, paraphrasing.  When we do this we are sure then that what we understood them to say and what they meant to convey were the same.  For instance if we ask our child to clean their room for this weekend we may have in mind that it be completed prior to other activities on the weekend.  But the child may have only heard the time frame “weekend”  and may feel that as long as it is done by Sunday night that that fills the requirement.  However if they had paraphrased back to us “So you would like me to have my room cleaned by Sunday on this weekend”, immediately we would know that there was a misunderstanding and could correct the situation before there was conflict.

The same is true for understanding the feelings of others.  We may state back to a person, “So you are upset when …..”   Being able to paraphrase effectively helps us to listen more closely and confirms that we understand each other which allows us to be more empathetic.