One Christmas I hiked down into the Grand Canyon, whose bottom lay a vertical mile below the rim. Its walls were layered like a cake, and a foot-high stripe of red or gray rock indicated a million-plus years of erosion by the Colorado river. Think of water -- so soft and gentle -- gradually carving through the hardest stone to reveal great beauty. Sometimes what seems weakest is actually most powerful.
In the same way, speaking from an open heart can seem so vulnerable yet be the strongest move of all. Naming the truth -- in particular the facts of one's experience, which no one can disprove -- with simplicity and sincerity, and without contentiousness or blame, has great moral force. You can see the effects writ small and large, from a child telling her parents "I feel bad when you fight" to the profound impact of people describing the atrocities they suffered in Kosovo or Rwanda.
I recently met with a man whose marriage is being smothered by the weight of everything unsaid. What's unnamed is all normal-range stuff -- like wishing his wife were less irritable with their children, and more affectionate with him -- but there's been a kind of fear about facing it, as if it could blow up the relationship. But not talking is what's actually blowing up their relationship - and in fact, when people do communicate in a heartfelt way, it's dignified and compelling, and it usually evokes support and open-heartedness from others.
This week, look for one or more opportunities to speak from your heart. Pick a topic, a person, and a moment that's likely to go well.
Before you talk:
- Ground yourself in good intentions. To discover and express the truth, whatever it is. To help yourself and the other person.
- Get a basic sense of what you want to say. Focus on your experience: thoughts, feelings, body sensations, wants, memories, images, the dynamic flow through awareness; it's hard to argue with your experience, but easy to get into wrangles about situations, events, the past, or problem-solving.
- Be confident. Have faith in your sincerity, and in the truth itself. Recognize that others may not like what you have to say, but you have a right to say it without needing to justify it; and that saying it is probably good for your relationship.
- Take a breath and settle into your body.
- Recall being with people who care about you. (This will help deepen your sense of inner strength, and warm up the neural circuits of wholeheartedness.)
- Soften your throat, eyes, chest, and heart. Try to find a sense of goodwill, even compassion for the other person.
- Bring to mind what you want to say.
- Take another breath, and start speaking.
- Try to stay in touch with your experience as you express it. Don't get into any sense of persuasion, justification, defensiveness, or problem-solving. (That's for later, if at all.) Be direct and to the point; when people truly speak from the heart, they often say what needs to be said in a few minutes or less; it's the "case" wrapped around the heart of the matter that takes all those extra words.
- Keep coming back to the essential point for you, whatever it is (especially if the other person gets reactive or tries to shift the topic). And feel free to disengage if the other person is just not ready to hear you; maybe another time would be better. "Success" here is not getting the other person to change, but you expressing yourself.
- As appropriate, open to and encourage the other person speaking from the heart, too.
And afterwards: know that whatever happened, you did a good thing. It's brave and it's hard (especially at first) to speak from the heart. But so necessary to make this world a better place.
Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist and founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom. His work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Consumer Reports Health, U.S. News and World Report, and Huffington Post, and he is the author of the best-selling Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom. He writes a weekly newsletter - Just One Thing - that suggests a simple practice each week that will bring you more joy, more fulfilling relationships, and more peace of mind and heart. If you wish, you can subscribe to Just One Thing here.