Personal relationships touch our core every day. Like a dozen kids wriggling on both sides of a teeter totter, our relationships with our children, friends and lovers continually contend to pull our human spirit either up or down. They are some of the primary spiritual arenas of life. Human interactions deeply feed and shape the soul, from crib to casket.
Of course spiritual skills, like music or athletic skills, can never control the outcome of our issues and concerns. But they do powerfully influence our human spirit. Our facility with specific behaviors with which to initiate, develop and repair relationships, make the difference between a mostly joyful life on the one hand, and the dead ends of entrenchment in resentment, regret and bitterness on the other. The twenty-seven skills described below help us fashion and enrich the relationships that are the most significant to us. They are taken from experiences with addiction recovery, counseling psychology, classic religious teachings, and hospice dying. Look at these 27, not as mere personal characteristics, but as actual skills that can be learned or improved by most anyone.
1. PERSONAL LISTENING - Carefully attending to the meaning of what people are trying to communicate, using insight, intuition, and recognition of specific emotions. How well a person listens personally to other people, especially those with whom he wants to maintain close relationships, almost single-handedly determines the quality of those relationships. Not that all one needs to do is listen, but rather that if one doesn't listen care-fully, whatever else one does matters little in terms of intimate interaction. It is like water to life. Alone it is not enough, but without it life will be limited. Quality clinicians listen well, diagnostically but often limp with the skill of personal listening. While diagnostic listening considers emotions minor clues in the assessment process, personal listening focuses on them first. What feelings are motivating this other person right now is the first question, whether patient, family member, or your own wife or daughter. Watching facial expressions, tuning in to voice tones, recognizing communication patterns and changes in them, requires skill and practice at gaining it.
2. CONVEYING EMPATHY – Clearly showing that you feel some of what another person is feelingA primary key to all careful listening, this skill particularly involves catching a person feelings something and then finding words to communicate that you understand at least some of those feelings, in words that are not pedantic, stilted, artificial, or patterned. Helping a person feel understood is far more complex than telling them bare facts about their medical situation or anything else. What used to be a skill of counselors and psychotherapists has become a common expectation of all health care professionals. Satisfaction probably depends on this skill more than anything else.
3. AFFIRMING -Supporting another by noticing strengths and validating them with authentic words, while avoiding innocuous flattery Beyond adolescent cynicism is the capacity to notice what you like about a colleague, friend, or family member, and find focused words to name it. Flattery stands on one excessive side of affirming people, and tight lipped, stubborn negativism on the other. You can generate good feelings almost anywhere with genuine positive words commenting on what you notice about them. 4. TOLERATING -- Making useful, magnanimous decisions about what to ignore in other peopleThe ability to take most of the limitations of people lightly and allow the extreme differences that pervade humanity to “be”, is precursor to other skills. Knowing what to ignore, what to excuse, and what to validate in these differences and what to ponder and perhaps confront, comes from personal reflection and experience. At times, finding words to demonstrate to a person with timing and clarity, that you are “ok” with their limitations, deepens that skill. It stands on the pathway towards acceptance, appreciation, and treasuring the richness of people and human characteristics that are far different from your own.5. APOLOGIZING -- Verbally acknowledging your part in causing hurt to another person, group or society itself. Mistakes are the way of humanity in all walks of life. Apologizing well, even once,brings a sense of relief, peace, and sometimes even a brief taste of bliss. Most would-be apologies are not aplogies at all. True apologies contain only a few esential elements mixed artfully and baked in spoken words like an exquisite cookie. Authentic regret, eye contact if possible, and an emotionally open admission of some kind of feeling bad about what one has done, neglected or avoided that unnecessarily caused displeasure to someone. sometimes a single word, if well expressed, is enough—“sorry”.6. ASKING FOR HELP – Requesting assistance you actually need, but not what you don’tMany of us self-sufficient humans avoid acknowledging need, loneliness, or failure, and the desire for help to assuage the pain as long as we can. The key persisting skill of addiction recovery is acquiring the capacity to ask for help whenever the drive to drink or use occurs, rather than going it alone into the powerlessness of resisting a first drink. Asking for serious help for your own person, in counseling, spiritual advice or therapy constitutes the same basic skill.exponential dimensions. Isn’t it common to observe that a given patient needs a form of personal assistance they don’t understand, have the courage to seek, or simply don’t know how to get that help they so desperately need. Dealing with people who so easily rely on others in dependent malaise constitutes the other end of this spectrum.
7. EYE CONTACT - Respecting personal differences of looking people in the eye, and avoiding it when it might be oppressive, intimidating or culturally insultingIntentionally holding your eyes on those of another person and knowing when it is better to look away remains a subtle skill powerful for parenting, intimate loving, and person oriented patient care. The fact that none of us does this perfectly only says that, like other things spiritual, it remains beyond us while continuing to invite us to engage it. We embrace a solid identity with eye contact, in the hospital hall, at home, and when being reviewed by an authority, as well as with specific patients whose ethnic culture or abusive past does not forbid it. 8. WAITING - Slowing your natural pace for the sake of collaborating, communicating or partnering Perhaps the most important five seconds in any person oriented care giving is those while lingering in silence during a significant conversation. A vital aspect of any kind of listening, the allowing of time for the inner processes of another person to take their own pace remains an elemental component of respect, genuine care, and inviting depth of response. Without such emotional connection there will be little if any satisfaction felt by the one in need. What one loses in minutes of a patient care day by taking time to connect, one gains in hours of clarifying later, as well as healing misunderstandings, facing staff conflicts and even law suits. 9. HURRYING - Accelerating your natural pace for the sake of partnering and efficiency Professionals beleaguered by feeling pushed by any authorityto do more and more, can develop a resistance to anything that adds to that load. Medical education and crisis care have taught a hurry-up style that may not when accelerating the pace of one case over another is advisable. Hurrying at times to join another person's pace is, however, a sign of care and actually essential to any human partnering.
10. DROPPING RESENTMENTS - Dealing directly with hurt feelings without clinging to costly persisting negatives Since religious organizations have drained the word "forgiving" of its richer juices, addiction recovery communities substituted the words "letting go of resentments" to emphasize the benefit for the forgiver not the rightness of the action or the good of the offended. Health care settings are characteristicly rife with bad feelings among staff members that are never, ever processed. Learning how to let go of the resentments that result is a major component of staying clean and sober in recovery, and to maintaining satisfaction about one's health care work.
11. HUGGING – Expressing warmth bodily when you mean it and when it is asked for; asking for supporive embrace when you need it; and refraining from violating personal boundaries by impulsive, insensitive hugging.
Holding a body affectionately close to yours, while maintaining a relationship that allows that warmth at least once daily, may be the peak of human success. While we all could use more hugs, there looms the ubiquitous societal suspicion of sexual impropriety. Discerning when to hug a patient, a family member, or even a sibling or child, ought to be a clinical decision that includes and assesses the feelings involved, not one overarching decision to meet all situations by the same internal rules, such as “never”.
12. COMMITTING - Persistently and consistently investing energy in people, groups and causes that are important to you
Even the "renaissance man" cannot do everything. One eventually has to choose where her or his energy will be invested, including the infamous conflict of necessary juggling of work and home to vigorously honor both. A best definition of a value is "that for which you are willing to spend time or money". Recovery circles tend to cal promises "mostly manipulation". But intentionally confirming your firm intention to a specific value, without empty promises, and then holding to that plan as carefully as possible, is the skill of committing.
13. SHARING “STUFF”- Overcoming human selfishness effectively enough to truly hold and use material things in common
How we learn to hold sandbox toys in common with siblings and friends becomes a consistent pattern, until we change it in response to the unspoken demands of friendship, co-workers and intimate loving. Two people with one bank account either learn to talk or eventually wade through conflict that threatens continuance of their relationship. The primitive "more for me" preoccuation has pestered humanity all the way to war and beyond, and continues to do so in the current "one percent verses the 99". Sharing resources in a health care practice, facility, or treatment unit, and the priority hierarchy of the privilege to use them, can spur the learning of how to communicate for justice and peace in that small corner of the world.
14. SHARING RESPONSIBILITY - Combining efforts in mutual accountability for success or failure
Nobody ever recovers from serious wounding, addiction, or mental illness fully alone. A bunch of factors must unite in order for that to happen, including the patient’s will to health, the body’s resilience, practitioners’ expertise, and always an unpredictable power beyond us all. When a nephrologist, a cardiologist, a surgeon, a family practice physician and a palliative care practitioner all committ care to a patient, each one needs a well developed capacity to see that patient as a human being who deserves coordinated care. They need to share the responsiiblity for her overall health. One indispensible skill for person oriented care is for all practitioners involved to hold enough of the shared responsibility for that patinet and family to get what they need and deserve.
15. SHARING POWER -- Blending your power with that of someone else in making significant decisions
Sharing material things and personal/professional responsibility both hang on the capacity to share power. Many levels of power flow among the various members and desciplines of an interdisciplinary team in an array that far exceeds the policies and procedures defined by an organizational structure. Honoring the respect that all people deserve from one another regardless of differences in ethnicity, culture, education or personal history hinges on the capacity to perceive human equality as real, and learn how to contribute to the movement towards global community. A clinician who needs to insist, against the emotional onslought of uninformed staff members, is also called to honor the self worth of everyone invollved in conflicts. That makes a team of differently prepared caregivers possible.
16. SPEAKING THE TRUTH – Accurately representing reality as you perceive it vs. hiding behind distortions
That infamous question, “Does this dress make me look fat?” illustrates the quagmire that persists among humanity about “the truth’. In personal matters, “The Truth” almost always nestles between three dodges: 1) creative exaggeration, 2) self-protective image management, and 3) hiding in silence. Gestalt theorist Fritz Perls once described three kinds of shit in avoidance of the authentic: chicken shit (saying nothing); horse shit (confabulating to look good); and elephant shit (theorizing, philosophizing, and theologizing). In difficult professional conversations with patients, families and colleagues, the skill of telling the truth, while always a complex function, carries with it immense consequences, in the form of building a reputation as a practitioner, and being fair to everyone involved. How much to tell whom looms as the central question. Skillful navigation of that hazardous white water is as beautiful a conversation as you will ever observe. It can be learned.
17. OPENNESS – The developed ability to talk reasonably clearly about the primary aspects of your life
Creative psychoanalyst Erik Erikson's second stage of human development, when negotiated well in toddler time, bestows a few fortunate individuals with a life view summarized as "What I do everyone can see". Most of us come only partially to a time in which we can open up virtually all arenas of our lives with courage and detail. Splatting your opinions and personal stories on all who are present is excessive. But people who can share aspects of their lives in some depth when it seems to fit the present situation, infect others with the inclination to share more as well. Generally feelings of wellbeing, connectedness, and self-treasuring follow.
18. FLEXING -- Changing your point of view without stubbornness or mere compliance
Tightness, rigidity, and stridency tend to repel closeness. They non-vebally communicate anxiety and an accompanying excessive need to control things and people around. Flexing when a bit of class is called for, especially when others are not so accommodating, reaps the benefits of magnanimity, the good feelings of granting a sister human being a needed soothing break from the rather intense demands of hectic days.
19. OBSERVING – Accurately perceiving what happens, verbally and non-verbally, in relationship interaction
Intentional focus on details of people’s words and behavior virtually always garners a plethora of clues into the thinking and emotions behind the talk. Fear, shame and resentments hide until the interpersonal context is fertile for unearthing them. Noticing even a hint of any of those nasty emotions can prompt a key question and eventual greater understanding in difficult conversations. Develope this skill of watching closely.
20. LEARNING - Letting yourself be influenced by “the new” and by someone who can introduce you to it
Learning is facing the world from the perspective that everything is always changing and challenging old ways of seeing things. If one hasn't grasped the skil of learning, this kind of world becomes intensely annoying. Learning is willingness to question your previously held assumptions about something for the sake of how, this time, it might be different and somehow better. Learning something means that you can go away from the situation more prepared for tomorrow by letting the scenario affect you and incorporating from it some new aspect of your professional discipline or your practice— or people in general.
21. FLIRTING -- Subtly and courageously communicating your romantic interest in someone
Intimate loving remains one of the crowning glory jewels of any life and it frequently begins with a little fun engagement that results from being at least physically attracted to a particular person. Not allowed ethically in professional practice, flirting nonetheless seems to flow at unpredictable times all through the workplace. The third or so of people with a history of being abused sexually or emotionally may be short of this skill by intentional decision. They’ve learned not to hazard being misunderstood that they are available when they are not. When a therapeutic process has rendered such a person from being a victim to being a survivor, to being a “thriver”, there still may be this skill to learn for a reasonably satisfying love life.
22. INVITING – Offering a place with you in enjoyable or productive endeavor
A classically bad date is the one in which neither person can express any enthusiasm for what they should do, where they should eat, or how they might enjoy and get to know each other. Neither seems capable of that simple term, “Let’s”. A tiny bit of courage is required to simply state what you’d like to do and suggest it as a common venture. Doing that with suavity of appeal and a tad of genuine excitement, without oppressive or manipulative inducement, is the skill of inviting.
23. PASSIONATE LOVEMAKING - Losing control in energetic sex with a treasured and willing partner
Three young men, all popular New York publishing professionals, formed a panel on a popular TV talk show to respond with their “take” on the Fifty Shades of Gray trilogy with the author present. Their humor and perspective was delightful. On a bit more serious note however, one of them quipped, “Well I certainly found out what a poor lover I’ve been.!” There is savvy, learning, and lore to love making that cannot be captured in writing, or even on film. As a celibate priest in my younger years I once asked a married parishioner with 9 children whether sex is as good after ten years of marriage as during the younger years. “Better” he said. “And it’s even better after 20.” Mixing enduring affection with sensitive and passionate sexual engagement must be one of the most difficult and satisfying aspects of human living.
24. CONFRONTING – Verbally inviting honesty and willing to be open yourself, in issues important to you
From the French “standing face to face willing to be honest”, the word confronting refers to placing something clearly in front of a person with powerfully implied expectations of a response that is similarly candid. It is an art without which addiction treatment programs and counselors could not function, leaving addicts to die slowly as they say, “on the installment plan”. An art is only practiced exceptionally with a solid skill basis, gained by 10,000 efforts. The skill of confronting begins with pointing out significant incongruence among a person’s behavior, emotions, and thinking, that have negatively affected, puzzled or hurt you. Then you begin to learn how to do it better.
25. PROTECTING – Finding fortitude to actively intervene when the safety of those you love is challenged
A primary function of a parent is the human instinct to protect the young. In the unique combination of lover, king, magician and warrior that are said to make up every male, it is essential that the warrior always be available to protect what is dear. The “mother bear” archetype parallels that function in the female. Whether in the workplace or at home, the skill of noticing when a “strong-person-on-my-side" is needed by somebody vulnerable, and then skillfully providing whatever is required, lies among the best of one’s capabilities.
26. REQUESTING – Using words to ask for a person’s cooperation in filling your wants and needs
In the opening scene of the theater production of Oliver, one of the near-starving boys in an orphanage run by a greedy, overly stern head master, somehow finds the courage to ask for “more” of the gruel that serves as their only food. That scene reflects what is felt in lesser proportions by many, probably most young children when they want to ask for what they really want or need. Met by a “problem” implied by a busy parent, many of us fail almost completely to ask for what we really desire. Even on Christmas lists many children don’t typically ask for what they really want, contenting themselves with what they hope is acceptable. Thus directly asking for love, support, specific instruction, or a loan remains a skill not well incorporated by many—until we learn it.
27. PARTNER DANCING – Joining another in tandem bodily flow
At the Broken Spoke bar on South Lamar in Austin, Texas, works a veteran, sixty-ish woman dance instructor who is pushy, stern, crisply critiquing and terminally energetic. She teaches only the traditional two-step without embellishments. As one city tour guide quipped, “If you can’t enjoy learning the two step there, you probably need to find another city!” Partner dancing from junior high to Dancing with the Stars forces you to cooperate in the moment, leading and following, continually paying close attention to your partner. It is a great symbol of the partnering that satisfies and flourishes only with skill. Dancing together serves as a rich metaphor for close collaboration in any walk of life, including health care teaming.
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The Spiritual Clinician For workshops on these topics contact Gordon J Hilsman, D.Min. firstname.lastname@example.org