How to expand your views by changing how you converse
One of the most evocative ways to be truly mindful of the different ways of conversing and communicating is by using the archetypes of the four elements (Earth, Water Air and Fire). The attributes of each elements strongly resonate with the four forms (Informational, Discussion, Conversation and Dialogue) of communicating and help us to visualise the limitations and appropriateness of each mode. When we are conscious and aware of the conversation we are holding in relation to the elements there can be necessary preparation that enables groups to maximise the benefits of each type of communication and have the skills to transition between these. This is mindfulness in action.
This elemental framework can be used as a diagnostic tool, helping to identify entrenched communication patterns, while providing a practical set of exercises and principles upon which these patterns can be shifted towards a style of communicating that is more appropriate to the goal of the particular situation. When the elemental framework is used consciously by a group, it can provide a powerful tool for regulating dialogue when situations arise in which communication might normally get stuck, move too fast, or leave participants feeling disempowered or frustrated.
The Elements of communication
Earth communication corresponds to a completely objective consciousness, where any received content simply becomes a ‘that’, a fact, to be manipulated, dodged, ignored, and so forth. It does not take the other party into account at all, except as another fact to be assimilated. Water communication corresponds to an Imaginative consciousness, in which we form inner pictures of the movements of the other’s speech, but these pictures are still heavily tinged with our own personal associations and assumptions. Air communication corresponds to Inspirative consciousness, in which, through silencing our own expressive tendencies, we create an inner space in which the gesture of the other can speak, in a spiritual sense by breathing into our own soul something of itself. In Fire communication, this process takes on the form of the even more unitive process of Intuition, where it is possible to have the experience that the normal duality separating ‘me’ from ‘you’ is burned away, so that I feel as if something essential of you is living inside.
Earth communication (Informational)
When we think of the element earth we can imagine definite boundaries to the substances; the mountain top is precisely here, the rock occupies just this specific space. We could therefore describe earth elements as definite, shaped, and located. Earth elements also have the tendency to be rigid and resistant to change – that is, to maintain their shape and position.
The Earth mode of communication is dominantly content‐based, comprised of statements of fact which strongly indicate ‘how things are’. The primary goal of Earth communication is to clarify the facts of a situation, to provide information, and to create a shared foundation upon which the further stages of communication develop. As there is little need for any kind of actual back-and-forth when communicating there is a lack of flow. It may in fact feel like no interaction is occurring at all, or that you have no recourse or ability to respond as information seems to move in one way only. The language of Earth communications can often take an impersonal form even when everyone knows it is coming from a real person, for example, “A decision has been reached” rather than “We have all come to a decision”, or “Company policy states…” instead of “I would love to help you but I have to adhere to company policy” and so forth.
Earth communication can be extremely efficient, direct, and clear, as well as the least emotionally charged way of communicating. In order to have healthy Earth communication, the task of the speaker is to be straightforward, impartial, complete, and precise. The task of the hearer in Earth communication is to simply recognize the presented facts without reaction or judgment, but with distinction, and to request clarifying information if needed.
Earth communication works best when it follows established channels and when the participants – specifically the receivers – are properly prepared and conscious of the purpose and appropriateness of this mode of communication.
Water Communication (Discussion)
Water has no intrinsic form – its form is given entirely by its context. And still being greatly under the influence of gravity, will seek the lowest local position, where it will gather and form itself into an exact complementary shape to its surroundings; it is conforming (it forms‐together). Water also penetrates its surroundings, moving into objects as much as possible (permeation).
Water communication is a back and forth type discussion that takes the form of a debate. It is the way in which the facts work together to create a stream of meaning that forms the basis of Water communication. It is a higher level of communicating than can occur in a purely Earth situation, but as such it creates both new problems and opportunities.
When we are in a Water mode of communication we constantly relate what is said based on our own personal worldviews or meanings. Thus, if not conducted with awareness we risk creating heated discussions. Most conflict that occurs evolves out of the unhealthy Water mode of communicating. There is no attempt to see things from the other perspective but to convince the other of being right. When a speaker is unaware of such personal aspects creeping into their communication, they risk alienating, offending, or simply losing their audience. If a speaker is conscious of these aspects when communicating, then it becomes much easier to avoid the potential pitfalls, both because the assumptions can be made public to begin with, and because any unwanted ripples can be addressed directly and without the feeling for needing a defence on the part of the speaker. Needless to say, this task is quite a difficult one to accomplish, but can become something with practice.
For healthy Water communication, the task of the speaker is to mindfully bring to the surface any assumptions, implicit associations, and logical gaps present in their own speech, making sure that each fact is properly connected to the previous and the next. The task of the hearer in Water communication is to become sensitised to the way meaning flows through the speaker’s speech while ‘testing’ that flow against the hearer’s own flow of meaning, so as to gain better insight into the hidden elements of both the speaker’s and hearer’s perspective.
Air Communication (Conversation)
Communication at the Air level takes the form of making verses together: conversation.32 What was primarily lacking in Water – the ability to get beyond one’s own personal set of associations, train of thought, assumed meanings, and unquestioned assumptions – becomes a central feature in Air, where it is precisely these aspects which are consciously put ‘on hold’. The hallmark of Air communication is the ability for participants to not simply hear the words spoken by the other for purposes of discussion, but to really listen to them. This means that a listener creates an expanded, empty space within, which is kept free from the Water tendency to relate everything to “me”.
By drying out the rhythmic impulse to associate everything that we hear to our own default assumptions and experiences, we open up the possibility that a completely new set of experiences be made available to us, as if blown on the wind of the other’s words. If the exchange seems to wander and diverge from any specific aim, or lots of tangents are taken that are not then connected back to an original thread, you are probably in an Air conversation.
Air questions give themselves up to the possibility of any outcome. When you end a conversation, and feel like you have really connected with someone, expressed yourself, or felt like you saw a new side of thing, but nothing specific was accomplished and no decisions or new steps were taken, then you probably had an Air conversation.
The highest form of communication can be called dialogue. A skilfully hosted group Dialogue can achieve this sense of oneness and knowing that is beyond the individual.
In Fire dialogue, we can have the feeling that, in truth, we are all connected, and that a higher principle has, as it were, come down to take part in the exchange, filling it with something completely beyond what any individual is capable of bringing, but only because of the work done by the participants.
In this sense, a true dialogue transcends every individual while bringing each individual along a transformative ride. Indeed, having the experience of dialogue is almost always transformative, providing a foundation for an understanding that leads directly to action.
In dialogue, there is as often as much silence as speaking because the meaning of an exchange is no longer bound to the actual words. In Earth, meaning is absolute, independent of the speaker. In Water, meaning arises from the personal trail of connections and associations of the individual, who defends, justifies, and pushes for its acceptance with great attachment. In Air, each individual’s meaning is allowed to live together with all the other’s meanings simultaneously, but is still experienced personally through oscillation between active and passive roles. In Fire, meaning cannot be attributed to any individual, but seems to be spontaneously generated out of the combined will of the group (or pair) as a whole.