By Jay Butler
Mepkin invited the Chapman Foundation for Caring Communities to the abbey on February 16-19, 2023, to provide a workshop on interpersonal communications. The monks in formation were away on another retreat, but the solemnly professed monks attended together with three men at Mepkin discerning whether they have a monastic vocation. I attended the conference with several other lay members of a committee planning a new Mepkin Institute for Contemplative Leadership. Having attended more than one communication workshop before, I admit to having some skepticism about whether I would learn anything new in this one. But the Chapman Foundation presentation combined with the monastic setting of this workshop quickly swept away that skepticism.
The Chapman Foundation’s motto became the leading theme of the workshop: “I am the message.” Communication, the presenters stressed, is a mix of verbal, nonverbal, and tonal elements. How we present ourselves to those we interact with is as much—perhaps more—of the message we convey as what we say. One of the monks observed that this theme is familiar in the monastic setting where it is taught that through word and deed we are each the messenger of Christ in the world. The workshop provided a toolbox of skills to help participants be the message they want to convey. An important initial tool is self-awareness of communication tendencies. To assist with this self-awareness, each participant took a personality test that provided a personalized communication profile. Another important tool is awareness of what mode of messaging our listener might be most comfortable with. To develop that skill, we learned how we might get a sense of the communication preferences of those around us so that we can communicate more constructively with others. Besides awareness of communication styles, the workshop focused on awareness of non-verbal skills and pitfalls, and we practiced some of those skills that foster effective communication.
Equally important to being the message is receiving the message of others through compassionate listening. This is again familiar in the monastic setting. The prologue to the Rule of St. Benedict advises monks to “listen … with the ear of your heart.” One of the monks observed that monastics are taught to be the receiver of Christ in others as well as the messenger. Compassionate listening is often easier said than done, however, so the workshop taught five reflective listening skills: attending behavior (presence), acknowledgments, door openers, silence (very familiar at Mepkin), and responses that reflected what had been said. All of these tools can assist participants become the effective listeners they want to be.
Most important, the presenters stressed, is that empathy needs to underlie all of these listening skills. The workshop then moved into an area that compassionate people may find difficult: confrontation. We learned that the kind of ordinary confrontation involved in asking another to make a change can be an opportunity for mutual growth. It should be approached with open hands identifying the primary feelings we are having, the specific behavior we would like to see changed, and the impact that behavior is having on us. We also learned that we need to reflectively listen to any response received and may need to respectfully repeat our message, keeping underlying empathy for the other person’s position. We then practiced these skills.
The Chapman Foundation presenters were infectiously passionate in their belief that improving communication skills on a person-to-person level can make the world as well as our own lives more compassionate and harmonious. From the monastic viewpoint, those skills can help the monks and others spread and receive Christ in the world. From any point of view, they can help foster the caring community we want to build. After attending this workshop, I found it hard not to be passionate about all these goals and about learning the skills to achieve them. Mepkin Abbey proved to be the perfect setting for this workshop. Mepkin has long provided me a path to a deeper spiritual life and going there to attend a communications workshop that resonated so well with the principles of monastic life led me to realize how important caring communication is to my being the person God is leading me to be.