Skillful Communication Behind the Walls

“…this class was about cutting through those habitual patterns most of us have.” 

Last night we went into the prison for Class 8 in the Path of Freedom curriculum. This class was about working with skillful communication. As most of you who have spent time inside or those of you who go in to volunteer or work know, it’s always quite a situation to be inside a prison.

If it’s not the muted blocks of concrete that we call walls, or the overhead lights full of excited mercury vapor, it’s the reflective metal barbed wire that immediately brings me into their day to day reality. It’s quite a situation in there.

So there we are, three women sitting up in the front of a class of over 40 men (including two new guys who joined us from the recently closed facility).

And so begins the topic of empathic, skillful and effective communication. Rebecca opened us up to a listening meditation for a few moments, stressing the point that the first step in effective communication is learning to listen. Like for real listen…not the “Oh my God, would he shut up already so I can talk about how the guard pissed me off too.” It’s common how easily we all can get caught up in our own mind and not be able to genuinely listen to another. It’s a skill we have to learn and this class was about cutting through those habitual patterns most of us have. 

During the first part of the class we passed out some sheets of paper and asked the guys to write down a complaint. Unsuspectingly, a common theme was the food inside. “We don’t get enough food here,” “the food in here sucks”, etc. Afterward we collected all the papers and asked what the needs under some some of the complaints could possibly be. “I miss my daughter” was quickly identified as a need for connection, affection and love. Can you think of what the common need would be for better food?

Even in a place called prison there was an opening. Something shifted when we were able to take another’s complaint and turn it into a more universal thing. Something was more accessible around empathy when we were able to take the focus off a certain person and just identify what is going on underneath it all.

The other really powerful thing was when Kate introduced the idea of using words like “always” or “never” when we start a conversation. Statements like, “You never write me” or “you always talk shit” creates an immediate defensive mechanism. This defense stagnates any sort of organic unfolding process between two (or more) people of genuine and empathic communication to take place. 

This somehow led us to a gate of discussion around the idea of ‘evil’.  I brought up Hitler’s real time horror story quoting Marshall Rosenberg’s “Anything anyone does is to make their lives more wonderful” – not always the easiest concept to get. “Hitler did not plan to take over the world and mass murder millions of people to make his life worse!” I exclaimed after about 5 minutes of questions and discussion.  A lot of the guy shook their heads in agreement and seemed to ponder this possibility of basic goodness. (Something so simple yet, it took me going to Auschwitz to really get this for myself).

Even in a place where there is a seemingly infinite stream of “NO’S!” there was a deep sense of possibility blossoming in that concrete bloc room last night. There was a recognition in seeing the humanity in your younger cellmate who mocks you by calling you an ‘old man.’ There was a clear collective seeing, through this process; of together discovering the possibility that your younger cellmate is really just trying to fulfill his need for connection or humor or power or any of the other needs we ALL have. This realization seemed to hold the potential to change the way that one prisoner might respond next time he’s called ‘old man.’ It’s likely that he may see the need, not the words, and find a healthier place within himself to respond more skillfully.

It was a meaningful class. I feel deeply privileged to be able to bear witness to and share in such a transformational time and space with those living behind the margins of our culture.

Until next time,

Madrone, PDN Staff

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