On not throwing fuel on a fire

Published by Greg Heffron on

House_on_Fire_Ruin-smOne of the greatest strengths of Mindful Communication is almost impossible to notice. It’s invisible. Silent. Effective. And it comes when things get really difficult.

It’s the power of “Stopping when the Light is Red.” This means one deceptively simple thing: not throwing fuel on a burning fire.

Mindfulness Means Remembering to Notice What is Obvious

The first stage of Mindful Communication is Mindfulness. This is where we train our mind to stay connected to what is happening in each moment. When we lose contact with our experience and fall into sloppy theories and fantasies of what we should have said — mindlessness — we miss essential cues that would otherwise allow us to work more skillfully with the situations we find ourselves in.

[cc_blockquote_right]When the Red Light is on, there is a fire burning. This fire is hot, and often provokes us. We take its heat personally, as if it was a statement about our very being.[/cc_blockquote_right]
Mindfulness isn’t the first option for most of us. We have to be realistic with ourselves. Just a short bit of mindfulness meditation reveals that our minds cannot stay with a simple task — such as paying attention to our breath, or sensations or emotions — for more than a few seconds before we pingpong off into any of a thousand mental directions. The thoughts that follow crowd out our awareness, leaving us lost in a mental world, away from the very real humans we’re interacting with.

In this way, through mindfulness, we might actually notice an obvious truth in difficult situations — that perhaps someone we’re with has moved into a Red Light experience.

The Red Light comes on – the fire begins

Knowing that our conversation partner has entered the Red Light of reactivity is one of the most important things we can notice. The Red Light is a closed state, which takes many forms: reactive blame or hatred, disinterested shut down, desperation to connect (at all costs), brutal competition, arrogance, or any combination thereof.

When the Red Light is on, there is a fire burning. This fire is hot, and often provokes us. We take its heat personally, as if it was a statement about our very being. We ourselves would like to catch fire, to join in. Then, the fire wouldn’t touch us, wouldn’t make us sweat. If we were on fire too, it would be “fair.” It would be “equal!” It’s like the urge to scratch an infected sore — strangely irresistible  even though some part of us knows it will only cause harm, not help and perhaps result in what Susan Chapman calls “a secondary infection” within our communication. These infections can be extreme in their damage, even though the original would was minor. As she says in the Five Keys to Mindful Communication, “It might only keep us awake for a night or two, but without warning it can take a turn and destroy our lifelines: the relationships we depend on.”

So out of habit, we pour fuel on the fire. And on ourselves. We think this will help.

If we “fight fire with fire,” it has to work, right?

Fighting Fire with Fire Burns the Whole World

Of course, we know from history that this isn’t the most effective method for working with others. Even those “enemies” we defeat might later form “sleeper cells” which reemerge in our relationships, at work and in our communities even years later. Suddenly, terrorism arises — we get a surprise email which rocks us, or our romantic partner, child or sibling brings up long forgotten words and conflicts that we thought were “ancient history.”

Mindful Communication isn’t about tracking every issue back to the start. Often, this isn’t possible. And even our retroactive analyses often oversimplify highly complex life experience, in order to come up with a clear answer of who was to blame, or why no one was to blame. Instead, what’s important is happening right now, in the real situations we find ourselves in.

Is our partner in the Red Light? Then communication is already shut down. It’s not a moral issue. It’s not important to blame anyone for this. But it is reality. Or at least what we think is reality. So we need to acknowledge the facts of the matter. We stop. We don’t try to continue making our points. We don’t try to get that person to respond to us who clearly isn’t capable of doing so (in that moment).

What is actually helpful is to recognize what is obvious. We need to “Stop When the Light is Red.”  Not add fuel to the fire. We need to allow the fire to burn it’s fuel and extinguish itself, as all fires do. Here, the red light will transition into the Yellow Light (anxiety and shakiness). Then, with a little luck, even into the Green Light of openness. Perhaps this takes a night. Perhaps ten years. So we wait, knowing that closed communication doesn’t welcome or want our external input.

Once communication opens again, it’s very possible to talk further, to sort through the situation a bit, with the aim of maintaining communication in the Green Light. This leads to actual communication, even around controversy, schisms and poignant material.

No Credit

It sometimes seems hard to Stop When the Light is Red. “No one will give me credit for not causing problems.” This is very true. It’s a rare person who will help without need for external affirmation. If we need a pat on the back to do it, we’ll have to provide it. But the world will be a little better place. Just one person recognizing what is obvious, and not causing further problems, is a triumph for all of us. This is the true meaning of We First.

And for those that practice it, it is its own reward.