What follows are various notes and writings from our teaching of authentic communication, which is the basis for the proposed book, Speaking Truth from the Heart: A Little Manual of Authentic Communication.
Attuned Presence as the Foundation of Authentic Communication
The development of our psychological and spiritual maturity is characterized by, among other things, a quality that we may call “presence.” In the absence of mental and emotional reactivity, the cognitive and the affective domains are able to join together in a state of unity, openness, receptivity, non-projection, simple availability to the present moment, and a subjective sense of fullness or sufficiency in the present moment that add up to the quality of “presence.” This “presence” is our natural human capacity that makes possible our optimal healthy functioning in the present, but which is frequently overwhelmed by our acquired reactive patterns and conditioning.
The state of presence is characterized by a sense of “wholeness” of self, and an availability to our own feelings and perceptions, simultaneously with a simple receptivity and availability to the presence of others, and a capacity to appreciate and support their wholeness and integrity. “Presence” is our inherent and organic boundary system; and also the foundation for truly authentic and functional communication.
I define authentic communication as that communication that is able to arise between people to the extent that each is able to remain in a state of presence. The different therapeutic approaches to teaching “boundaries” that have arisen over the years are somewhat artificial but necessary attempts to compensate for the loss of this organic boundary system; and various remedial approaches to healthy communication, nonviolent communication, etc., are attempting to instill what would largely arise organically from a state of “presence.”
As it turns out, presence can be learned, practiced, and taught. There are easy and systematic ways of helping to awaken, or tease out, our natural capacity for presence from the less conscious domain of reactivity and conditioned response. The foundations and guidelines of authentic communication can be taught as an extension of the practice of presence. Conversely, the practice of authentic communication contributes to the growth of presence. This is the ideal win-win of human relationships.
Understanding the Communication Cycle
The capacity for fully attuned and authentic communication – communication that has no other agenda than the genuine exchange of information with another, or the desire to know or be known by another (as opposed to the agendas of attack, defense, judgment, manipulation, and distortion) – entails the capacity for integrated and receptive heart-mind awareness that is mediated by the prefrontal cortex of the brain. The optimal development of the aware and integrative functioning of the prefrontal cortex is initially promoted by secure and attuned attachment relationships from birth, and will be further encouraged or discouraged by cultural and familial modeling. The failure of our culture or of our families to provide optimal healthy models of communication can be remediated in maturity through cognitive and behavioral remodeling. The following steps appear to be essential to promoting the reciprocal conditions that allow authentic communication between two people.
Stages of a Healthy Communication Cycle
The optimal communication cycle begins with an invitation by the listener that indicates he or she is fully available and receptive to the communication coming from another. If communication has simply been initiated by the speaker, it is best not to proceed without the listener acknowledging his or her readiness to receive the communication and thus inviting the communicator to proceed. This sets the stage for functional communication.
Second, authentic communication requires that the communicator take time and attention to open up to, or attune with, the truth of his or her own actual experience, and what in truth needs to be communicated.
Third, the communicator must be willing to convey that truth honestly and accurately to the listening partner. This truth must be expressed in terms of the communicator’s own experience rather than as a judgment or as a projection upon others.
Fourth, the listener must be able to open up to receiving the communicating partner exactly as s/he presents her/himself, without agenda, defense, projection, distraction, or interruption.
Fifth, the listener should acknowledge to the communicator that the communication has been received. This can be simply with a “thank you” or “I understand.”
These may sound like a very basic prescription for healthy communication, but the littlest observation will reveal how rarely these conditions are all met, even within our relatively functional lives. Even when we are speaking about everyday practical issues, or communicating simple information, we discover how often inattention or projection leads to distortion and error. When we are dealing with deeper issues of relationship, problem-solving, or conflict resolution, the gap and the dysfunction becomes even more obvious.
How often do we make ourselves consciously available to receive the communication from another with whole heart and whole attention?
Secondly, how often do we as communicators function at a mechanical or unconscious level, consciously or unconsciously suppress the truth of our experience, or feel unfree or unsafe to look within, and thus not be in touch with our own truth?
Thirdly, how hard will it be to speak truly if the environment is not supportive, or if we are fearful of being attacked, judged, hurried, or are unsure of our own boundaries; or are unable to own our experiences without projection?
Finally, if we as listeners are in an unconscious or distracted mode, fixated upon our own agenda or point of view, or are fearful of being attacked or judged, and are not feeling safe boundaries, how will we be able to simply receive and acknowledge the communication coming from another without shutdown, reactivity or defense?
The authentic communication process using the dyad structure, whether with an individual partner or in a group context, enables our own capacities and supports our instinctive desire for healthy and effective communication. It provides clear guidelines and safe boundaries for supporting each of the stages of a healthy communication cycle, for opening our attunement pathways within ourselves and with each other, and for bringing consciousness and receptivity to the communication process.
We sometimes refer to this structured communication exercise as the “dyadic integration process,” because what we are supporting is the ability to better integrate the reality of ourselves (to have all the parts of ourselves) in the context of relationship with another in which the other is also supported in having all the parts of his or her self. Hence the relationship has acquired more integrative characteristics and value by virtue of being able to include and support the self-integration of each. And integration is the essence of health.
The habits that are reinforced in the dyadic integration process are intended to become guidelines and habits of awareness that we bring to our communication in the more spontaneous or casual interactions of daily life. They are also clearly the habits of receptivity and attunement that we as therapists would choose to bring to our healing interaction with clients to best support their process of self-integration.
Paradigms of Attuned Communication
|Honesty / Integrity||vs.||Distortion or Suppression|
“Heart-interest,” which we might also refer to as feelingful attention or appreciative awareness, is my name for a natural faculty associated with presence and attunement. It is the attuned awareness of the prefrontal cortex acting in consort with the natural energy field of the heart. What we are learning from the emerging fields of neurocardiology and heart energetics is that the electromagnetic field of the heart has a naturally harmonizing function, and that its natural or undistorted energy is experienced as “appreciation.” What we are learning from developing brain science is that the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain capable of nonjudgmental or attuned awareness, as well as the part of the brain capable of attuning with the energy field of the heart. This mutual function is experienced as the faculty of “presence,” an integrated heart-brain faculty which has the characteristics of self-integration, receptive or non-projective awareness, and heart-interest, or appreciation. Its foundation is in the earliest developmental attunement between mother and child and it may be more consciously developed in maturity as a spiritual faculty.
Honesty and integrity in communication means we take responsibility for the actual data arising within us rather than distorting or suppressing it. That does not mean that we act out or that we cannot select what we choose to say in accordance with our own boundary system; but we take conscious responsibility for those boundaries and for making a truthful representation of ourselves.
These capacities – for natural and healthy boundaries, for authenticity and integrity of awareness and communication – are our natural human capacities. But it is easy to see how a developing consciousness coming into the world and having to negotiate a sea of material and emotional needs in an environment of material limitation and emotional limitation would be hard put to emerge into adulthood with all these faculties optimally developed or functionally intact. An integrated brain-heart model of authentic communication is a very direct contribution to the remediation and restoration of these essential faculties.