In her comment on one of my entries the other day, my friend, the painter, Cynda Valle told me she was reading one of the essays in "Mind Work" that describes a pretty common, head-to-head marital spat between myself and Ellie, and was a bit puzzled by the meaning of the word "unskillful" that I used to describe our woeful lack of communication. She hopes, she wrote, that I would "clarify the meaning of 'unskillful'; unskillful at what? Arguing, loving, seeing the other side? Would love it if you could elaborate a little..."
As I understand the teachings of the dharma, the "skillfulness" of an action or a word is measured by its outcome. Is the result of my action or my speech a good one, or is it a hurtful or harmful one--whether to myself or others? In the dispute in question, the words my wife and I kept coming up with were causing each other unnecessary pain. Unskillful, then, at arguing and loving, both. And seeing the other side. Skillfulness in communication is determined by my ability to recognize in advance what the impact of my words will be, how they will be heard, and choosing them with care. Which does not mean hiding even an unpalatable truth, when it needs to be told, but rather owning that truth and telling it with compassion and care for whoever needs to hear it.
By "owning" a truth, I mean to recognize that it's only the truth as I happen to see it. It has taken me years, but I believe I have come to understand something of the process of "projection": when I have negative thoughts or reactions to others, it's most frequently because I see them as a mirror, in which I am offered a glimpse of what it is I dislike about myself. When I hear myself insisting that my wife is not listening to me, for example, it behooves me to step back for a moment and contemplate the possibility that it's me who is not listening. This, if I manage to do it (too often not!) is what I would consider "skillful" strategy.
There's a double benefit to skillfulness of this kind. It is helpful to me, because I see myself more clearly in the broader perspective, and the trigger that could burst out into needless anger is defused. At the same time, if I manage to convey to the other person my understanding that my projection says more about me than about them, what could be insulting or hurtful loses its objective, accusatory tone. The negative thoughts or feelings are not bottled up and saved for a later date, then, but aired in a healthy, unhurtful kind of way.
I hope this clarifies things a little. Or maybe it has just made them more confusing? I trust that my friend will let me know.