Subtle Communication Can Hurt Too
The most obvious stressors are those that are overt: people yelling at me, people saying hurtful things, or people physically harming me. Because they are overt, it’s fairly easy to identify the stressful thoughts to question using the process known as The Work of Byron Katie.
But there can be a whole host of stressors that are much less overt. For example, passive-aggressive communication, sarcasm, insincerity, condescension, or just feeling unsafe around someone. These are sometimes described as more energetic stressors, and they are subtle. But they are nonetheless stressful situations and they deserve as much careful consideration and inquiry as the overt situations.
At First Glance, The Work Seems to Deal Only with Discursive Thought
This seems limiting at first because there are levels to communication beyond discursive thought/speech, including energetic communication. How do you do The Work on these types of situations? And what if the energetic communication leaves you with only a feeling, not a thought, to question? Can you use The Work of Byron Katie for these types of situations?
Yes, in my experience, these types of more subtle stressors can be handled by The Work just as well. With The Work, we use actual sentences to write out explicit thoughts to question, but those sentences are just the closest words we can find that connect to the emotional experience. The words don’t have to be perfect. Close counts. By working with the words, we are able to work with the emotions.
Here’s How to Do It
It doesn’t matter what the source of the stress is. It can be gross or subtle, loud or almost imperceptible. The actual stressor doesn’t affect how you do The Work. Different stressors, whether energetic or verbal, are simply the situations that trigger me.
To do The Work, I start with a situation, in this case, it may be someone making a subtle, passive-aggressive remark that I pick up on and get triggered by. What is important when doing The Work is to identify MY thoughts about how I’m experiencing it.
It doesn’t matter how they deliver the jab at me. When I want to do The Work, I look at my own inner experience and identify my own emotional interpretation of what they did.
For example, if the grocery store checker says, “Hey bud, why don’t you enter your pin number for me?” and I pick up on a condescending tone, I may get triggered. If I experience stress in any way, that’s my reminder to do The Work.
The Situation Is Just the Initiator
When I want to do The Work, I find a quiet place and I meditate on the stressful situation that triggered me. I start to make a list of my emotional interpretations of the grocery store checker’s remark. I ask myself, “In my interpretation, what was he actually doing to me when he made that remark?” And I make a list.
He is manipulating me.
He is treating me with disrespect.
He thinks I’m stupid.
He is treating me like a two-year-old.
These are my thoughts, my emotional interpretations of what he was doing there. This is what I responded to internally. And this is what I do The Work on. It doesn’t matter that he did not say anything overtly, my interpretation of his actions is what I write down. Then I choose one to question for example, “He is treating me with disrespect.”
It’s a Meditation
I then go through the four questions and the turnarounds of The Work to see what I find when I question, “He is treating me with disrespect.” This is the process I use on any stressful thought.
When I do The Work on it, I notice that it is stressful to think, “He is treating me with disrespect.” I react as if he is doing something really mean and I feel hurt by it, maybe even shut down by it.
In question 4, I imagine what it would be like to hear those same words, “Hey bud, why don’t you enter your pin number for me?” without my emotional interpretation, “He is treating me with disrespect.” This is a radical question. I hear the same words, even the same energetic tone, but if I’m not interpreting it as him treating me with disrespect, I become really curious about what is going on for him. I start to wonder if he is stressed for other reasons, or if he uses language differently than I do. It becomes a curiosity, not a shut down for me.
Turning My Interpretation Around
When I try on the turnaround, “He is not treating me with disrespect,” I look for alternative interpretations of what could have been going on for him.
Maybe, he calls everyone “bud” and he doesn’t think about it, or mean anything by it. Maybe he is afraid to use a direct command such as “Enter your pin number!” because he thinks it sounds too controlling or forceful so he turns his command into a question in an attempt to soften it. It looks like manipulation, but it could actually be his attempt to be kind.
And maybe the slightly aggressive tone is coming from fatigue, or hunger, or a bad boss, or wishing he had a different job, or some family stress. I don’t know for sure what is going on for him, but seeing these possibilities softens my original interpretation that he was treating me with disrespect. I start seeing that it may have less to do with me than I was thinking.
In doing this work, I’m not looking for clever new ways to speak to the cashier next time. I’m not looking for techniques of conversation. Instead, I’m just looking for new ways of seeing the situation so that it becomes less triggering to me. Words come naturally when my vision shifts.
When I really do see it in a new way, I become immune to that particular kind of remark in the future. That’s why I love to do The Work on anything that triggers me. These little immunities add up over time.
You Can’t Do This Work Intellectually
This process is a meditation, and it only works when I allow the part of me that is triggered to answer the questions, not the part of me that “gets it” or “wants to be over it.” I have to allow time for the stuck part of me to find answers that satisfy it. And when I do, it is a shift of experience, not just an intellectual understanding.
It Doesn’t Matter if You’re Dealing with Something Energetic
The process of The Work is the same whether you are dealing with passive aggression or active aggression. Identify your emotional interpretations of the stressful event and question them. When You question your thinking, it allows new possibilities—new interpretations—to come in, and these can be very liberating.
Get Into the Nitty Gritty: Join Us a Weekend Zoom Retreat June 26-27
It’s one thing to talk about these ideas, and it is a very different thing to experience this process first-hand. If you want an intensive experience of doing this kind of inquiry over a weekend, join me for our next retreat. I will be there to answer every question that comes up for you as you dive into the practice of The Work.
I look forward to exploring the unknown with you during this Virtual Retreat June 26-27.
Have a great week,
“There is no thought or situation that you can’t put up against inquiry. Every thought, every person, every apparent problem is here for the sake of your freedom. When you experience anything as separate or unacceptable, inquiry can bring you back to the peace you felt before you believed that thought.” Byron Katie, Loving What Is
Further reading: How to Find the Offense Within the Offense