Communication — Friend or Foe

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I was 21 and living in the bush of Alaska. Home was a rustic log cabin at Mile 50 on the Seward Highway, leased from the Forest Service for $40 per year. That winter, money was scarce, so I decided to go to town for a couple of months to remedy the situation.

I found a simple, little house for rent and made arrangements to meet the landlord. He asked the usual questions to determine whether or not I was good for the rent. I had no job, no prospects, and no apparent means of support. I had nothing to prove and nothing to lose, so I told him how it was with no embellishments. I had an old guitar and played him a song or two. I told him it was only a matter of time until I figured out how my music would provide a living. We shot the breeze for quite awhile until he finally told me I could rent the house.

Before he left the key with me, he looked right at me with a peculiar twinkle in his eye and said . . .

“Clear understanding makes lifetime friends.”

I had never met anyone before who spoke casually in quotable phrases, so this really made an impression on me. I was so surprised to hear such a profound idea so unexpectedly, I probably replied with something stupid like, “Yeah, you too . . . Okay, see ya later.”

But, I have never forgotten what he said. We had a good conversation, and yes, we had a clear understanding, and yes, he got his rent on time for the two months I was visiting town. Unfortunately, I don’t remember his name and never saw him again, although his idea about clear understanding has remained a good friend through the years.

“A friend should be one in whose understanding and virtue we can equally confide, and whose opinion we can value at once for its justness and its sincerity.” – Robert Hall

Friends Communicate

A friend could be anyone with whom you have a clear understanding. And how do you do that? Communication.

A friend cares enough about you to let you in on what they think and how they feel. And you do the same. You like them, and you enjoy sharing your thoughts and feelings with them too.

“This communicating of a man’s self to his friend works two contrary effects; for it redoubleth joys, and cutteth griefs in half.” – Aristotle (384-322 BC)

This kind of clear communication comes naturally between any two people interested in developing and maintaining a friendship. Without the benefit of this clear understanding, it would be difficult to grow a friendship of any real depth.

Enemies Don’t Communicate

At the other end of the spectrum from friends, what about enemies? Do you communicate well with them? Rarely. Do you have a clear understanding of one another? Hardly.

“The best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend.” – Abraham Lincoln (1809-65)

Do you speak your mind and heart? Do you encourage them to do the same and then, really listen? Can you put yourself in their shoes and really empathize with where they are coming from? Or, do you keep your ideas and feelings to yourself because it’s easier?

“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.” – Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-68)

Universal Principles of Friendship

These questions are equally relevant between acquaintances, family members, tribes, races, or countries. (And maybe someday, planets.) The same principles hold true whether it’s two strangers considering becoming friends or two super-powers sitting down at the bargaining table.

Communication is key, and clear understanding makes more than lifetime friends — it makes all things possible between intelligent beings.

A Poison Tree

I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I watered it in fears,
Night and morning with my tears;
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore and apple bright;
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine.

And into my garden stole
When the night had veiled the pole:
In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

- William Blake (1757-1827)

The first verse describes something all of us have experienced . . . probably many times. Think back to the last disagreement you had with someone. When the exchange made you feel uneasy, did you get it off your chest by talking it over?

If so, did that make you feel better?

Or, did you choose the silent treatment instead and internalize your wrath? If so, how did that feel? If you chose not to communicate how you were feeling, that choice probably made the other person feel more like a foe to you than a friend, right?

If you were sincerely interested in staying on friendly terms, you would have made the effort to communicate how you were feeling . . . and that would have probably been the end of it.

“Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.” – Aesop (620-560 BC)

Wrath with a Life of Its Own

But, whenever you keep it to yourself, your wrath begins to grow inside, as described in Blake’s second verse. It continues to bounce around in your mind as you turn it this way and that and re-examine the entire situation from every angle. You chew on it before you drop off to sleep at night and when you wake up in the morning, there it is, right where you left it, so you can gnaw on it some more.

You think, “I should have said . . .”
“When he said that, I should have replied with . . .”
“Why didn’t I say this, that, and the other? That would have really got him!”

But, here’s what really happened: You did not speak your peace when you felt the need, and so your wrath did not end. Instead, it took on a life of its own and consumed you with “if only’s” and “what if’s” as you continue to feed its ravishing appetite with your attention.

Your Own Private Soap Opera

By now, you may be getting some kind of perverse satisfaction out of wallowing in the overblown scenario in your mind, and privy to you alone. Soon, you are so invested in the intricate drama playing out in your imagination, it’s not easy to just let it go.

Now that your own private mental drama has grown and developed to the point of bearing fruit, what do you do? Somehow, it’s not as easy anymore to just walk up to the person and say, “Hey, our last conversation made me feel weird, so can we talk about it?”

Instead, now you’ve got all this baggage attached to the original incident that has special meaning only to you. Somehow you expect the other person also to be privy to the histrionics of your over-active imagination. But, they’re clueless when it comes to the details cooked up by your boiling wrath. By now, it has borne fruit, and there’s an entire tree growing from it — a poison tree!

Next Time, Don’t Let it Germinate

It’s never too late to “Tell your wrath, so your wrath can end” but in the future, it’s better to do that at the first moment you feel uneasy. Those feelings are a clear message from your internal guidance system that, at this moment, you are entertaining thoughts that are leading you away from what you really want, deep down inside. Don’t let that nasty poison tree take root — just say how you feel at the first opportunity and move on.

Family — the Fast Track to Learning About Relationships

Somehow, this scenario happens all too often between family members. It’s common to see poison trees that have been “Watered in fears with tears” and “Sunned with smiles and soft deceitful wiles” for decades. The original incident of planting the tree may have even been forgotten years ago, but the relationship continues, gathered ’round the poison tree.

“Feelings of worth can flourish only in an atmosphere where individual differences are appreciated, mistakes are tolerated, communication is open, and rules are flexible–the kind of atmosphere that is found in a nurturing family.” – Virginia Satir

You may have experienced a situation when someone in your family tells you, “Oh, we don’t talk about that!” In effect, they are asking you to join them in the cultivation of their poison tree.

You can choose to join them in their destructive game of incommunicado, or you can ignore their request and speak your mind and heart anyway. Either way, you are going to be upsetting the apple cart, so why not minimize the spoilage by speaking your peace, encouraging others to do the same . . . so you can ALL move on.

“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” – Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) – Swiss psychiatrist, founded psychology.

A Timeless Tendency from Anywhere

I have seen this principle at work between family members, business associates, spouses, and people who call themselves friends. My guess is this tendency to grow poison trees is universal – not unique to our time and place. William Blake wrote this poem about 200 years ago in England, so this potential for pettiness is nothing new.

Experienced — Not Immune

Just because I write about these things doesn’t mean I have personally mastered them. Whenever I notice the potential of a poison tree growing, I try to yank it out by the roots as soon as possible. How? By communicating my thoughts and feelings as clearly as possible.

It’s amazing how much better I feel almost instantly, even if nothing has changed. Maybe nothing on the outside has changed (yet), but my inner peace has changed considerably since I am no longer willing to provide a dark, fertile incubation chamber suitable for nurturing poison trees.

Just the awareness of how this poison tree principle works and the willingness to take an honest, objective look at it makes all the difference. Ego may take a hit, but in the overall scheme of things, that’s a small price to pay for peace.

“A friend is someone who sees through you and still enjoys the view.” – Wilma Askinas

Awareness of Potential Poison Trees is a Powerful Detriment

My hope is that you will also be able to recognize these uncomfortable patterns whenever they pop up in your relationships. Just your awareness of them is a huge step forward in reducing their strangle hold. Your simple awareness of the potentially unhealthy, habitual tendency to give someone the silent treatment when an interaction is uncomfortable, allows you to realize you have a choice in the matter. Does your ego really need to be “right” or would you rather be at peace?

“Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding.” – Albert Einstein (1875-1955)

The alternative is not something any caring person would choose to create on purpose. This kind of strained exchange represented by the poison tree has plenty of opportunities to occur between loved ones.

The Silent Treatment Between Loved Ones

The second you choose to shut them out with your silent treatment, you are no longer treating them like a friend (much less, loved one) . . . now you are treating them like a foe.

As you continue allowing the incident to snowball with your over-active inner dialog, you are indeed growing a deadly fruit that has the very real potential of creating an outcome you may not really want . . . “your foe outstretched beneath the tree.” Blinded by anger and wrath, maybe you would be glad to see that, as described in Blake’s fourth verse. But as your emotions cool and you regain some objectivity, is that really what you want?

This is some potent, nasty fruit with the potential of killing the relationship. Is this the price you are willing to pay with your stubbornness?

“Anger and intolerance are the enemies of correct understanding.” – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948)

How Do You Stop It?

The best, quick answer is to say it with love.

“The manner of your speaking is full as important as the matter, as more people have ears to be tickled than understandings to judge.” – Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield (1694-1773)

However you can communicate what you need to say . . . first, pause a moment to find the best way to express it sincerely, in a loving manner. This is not necessarily easy to do in the heat of the moment, but it pays big dividends. If you are sincere, it’s a rare person who won’t respond with love . . . or at least in a reasonable manner.

“Friendship is love with understanding.” – Ancient Proverb

This has nothing to do with manipulation or coercion — real love is irresistible. Real love allows you to connect at a deep level, at that point of pure awareness that we all share. From that viewpoint, we have much more in common than the petty differences clamoring to drive us apart.

“What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies.” – Aristotle (384-322 BC)

You are sending a clear message that you want to remain friends by communicating clearly and sharing your feelings honestly.

So often, these things are simple misunderstandings and your effort to clear the air can bring to light some silly little thing that can easily be fixed. The silent treatment, on the other hand, can grow even a silly misunderstanding into a deal-breaker of a poison tree.

“The verb ‘to love’ in Persian is ‘to have a friend.’ ‘I love you’ translated literally is ‘I have you as a friend,’ and ‘I don’t like you’ simply means ‘I don’t have you as a friend.’” – Shusha Guppy

How Do You Feel?

Once you’ve discovered the best way to say your peace with love, begin with something like, “I feel . . .” This is not argumentative. It is not blaming anyone. It’s not antagonistic. . . just a simple statement of fact. How could anyone take offence at that?

Once you have stated how you feel, express how you would like to find a way to make this uncomfortable feeling go away.

Now, you are asking for teamwork. That’s what friends do. You are demonstrating that you honor your relationship and your friendship. You are sending a clear signal that it’s important to you that your friendship continues unencumbered.

Listening Is The Better Half of True Communication

When the response comes, listen hard and listen deep and keep listening between the lines.

“The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.” – Peter F. Drucker (b. 1909)

Do your best to stay centered in love and remember that the other person likely has ego issues as well. He may not have had as much time as you to reign in his ego. Therefore, his knee-jerk first response may not be what he really wants to say. Be patient and keep listening. Help him “save face” gracefully if that is required to resolve the issue.

If this truly is a friend and a friendship worth continuing, it’s all worth it, even if it’s you who must take a slap on the wrist of your ego.

Happily Ever After

End the guesswork. Quiet the rattling voices in your head that think they must always get in the last word. Nip the poison tree in the bud.

How? Communicate.

When? Now.

Why? Because . . .

“Clear communication makes lifetime friends. ” — Anonymous

While reading, did you choose to hear the relaxing instrumental music linked at the beginning of this article? To learn more about it, click here.

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This is the end of the article entitled Communication — Friend or Foe published by Tupelo Kenyon on May 25, 2007 at 6:00 am | In Awareness, Communication, Relationships - Copyright 2007 - All rights reserved worldwide.

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