I first started reading The Five Keys to Mindful Communication while waiting for my daughter at the airport. At the same time, a text came in from a young friend, announcing that he was probably going to be indicted by the FBI. It was difficult to keep my mind on the reading at this point, and yet I found solace there too, as one of the main themes in the book is working with fear. Even though most of the advice regarding fear centered around communication with others, I found it very helpful when communicating with myself that evening.
The author, Susan Gillis Chapman, is a marriage and family therapist, who has been teaching mindfulness meditation for over thirty years. She has an MA in Buddhist and Western Psychology and studied under Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Pema Chodron. Students of the Dharma will recognize many foundational concepts throughout the book, such as the illusion of the false self and the pitfalls of craving, which are clearly incorporated in her Five Keys:
- The Key to Mindful Presence: Awake Body, Tender Heart, Open Mind
- The Key to Mindful Listening: Encouragement
- The Key to Mindful Speech: Gentleness
- The Key to Mindful Relationships: Unconditional Friendliness
- The Key to Mindful Responses: Playfulness
These chapter headings seemed very promising to me, and indeed, there were some inspiring passages and engaging anecdotal stories. At times, though, I found the book to be repetitive and somewhat unorganized. Throughout the book, Chapman uses slogans and metaphors to convey her message: Green, Yellow and Red light communication patterns, having a ‘we-first’ versus ‘me-first’ mentality, and open/closed communication. After a while, I became mildly annoyed by the slogans and frequent use of ‘we-first’ as a label for how to communicate; and yet, outside of my reading I did find myself reflecting that I should ‘be careful, because the light is yellow’ when feeling irritated by a friend’s comments.
Another theme is the practice of staying open in communication and not putting up barriers or becoming defensive. For me, this is the essence of mindful communication; staying open and gentle, even in conflict. Chapman provides strategies to accomplish this throughout the book, but they all basically come down to maintaining mindfulness and unconditional positive regard. I appreciated her reminder that these barriers not only cut us off from each other, but from ourselves.
Early on I found the repetition to be reinforcing, because it is sometimes so difficult to remain open and mindful in communication. But I have to admit that, toward the end of the book I was skimming much of the content. Luckily, I did catch a real gem toward the end of the book that lists four progressive steps to compassionate activity when faced with a person who is truly contemptuous, angry, and regards us as the enemy.
Other features of the book include journal exercises (which are embedded in the chapters), a self-reflection guide, a glossary and a section called “Stepping Stones”. This last section was one of my favorite parts of the book, and the one I will most likely return to again. “Stepping Stones” is an overview of the main concepts of the book, structured into seven steps to help the reader avoid mindless communication patterns.
Chapman states in her closing that she is convinced that these keys to mindful communication have the power to restore peace and harmony in our society. Though keeping an awake body, tender heart, and open mind are, in many situations, overwhelmingly challenging, I think she is absolutely right, if only we are able to, “transform fear into love, and to bring that love into our lives for the benefit of others.”