How to Talk It Out

Honest, loving communication is the key to healthy relationships. Sister Chan Khong offers a four-part practice for skillfully sharing our thoughts and feelings with each other.

Sister Chan Khong
29 May 2024
Photo by Etienne Boulanger

Anger doesn’t come up unexpectedly or all at once. Usually, we accumulate a lot of little hurts or annoyances, but we don’t express them until they become so big we explode. To stop things from reaching that point we can use a communication practice called beginning anew.

You can practice beginning anew with just one other person or with your whole family. To begin, set aside a regular, agreed-upon 30 minutes and choose a space where you and the other person or people will be comfortable and not rushed. If you set aside time to communicate in this way each week, then when there is hurt or anger, you can resolve it much more quickly and easily.

The practice of beginning anew has four parts:

Step 1: Flower Watering

Sit together silently for a few moments and follow the breath to calm body and mind. Then start the first step, which is to show appreciation for the other person. This is called flower watering. One person at a time speaks while the others just listen and continue to breathe.

Sometimes we really appreciate someone, but we keep it inside. Then when we disagree about something and speak out, that person thinks we don’t appreciate them. Make sure you express something genuine that you truly appreciate about each person, something specific. Genuine flower watering will keep your relationships healthier, happier, and more resilient when there’s a difficulty to express.

Step 2: Expressing Regret

The second step is expressing regret or apologizing for anything you’d like to have done differently. If you’ve made a mistake, have the courage to apologize before it becomes a knot in your partner, family member, colleague, or friend.

When you truly apologize for something you regret, any hurt the person felt may be completely dissipated by your apology. Expressing regret on your own initiative, before the other person has even let you know that he or she is hurt, is a way to refresh your relationship. Even if you’re apologizing for only part of a situation, if your regret is genuine, the other person will feel some release.

Step 3: Expressing Hurt or Disagreement

Because each of us has perceptions that get in the way of truly seeing, we need to let other people know when we’re hurt. Perhaps we think they already know how we feel, or perhaps we believe that they hurt us intentionally. But often their perceptions are clouded—as ours are—and they don’t know that they’ve hurt us.

If we don’t express our hurt or disagreement, then we retreat and stop being present with the other person. That’s why it’s so important to express our hurt or disagreement. You may be scared to speak, but if you speak from a place of calm and love, you’ll be speaking in a way that the other person can hear.

There are two ways to response when you’re angry. You can speak as if you’re throwing darts, which will only make the other person shut their heart. Or you can speak in a humble way, which will give the other person a chance to open to what you’re saying. If you acknowledge the limits of your own perception, the other person has a chance to explain their point of view. If you can explain things with curiosity and genuine regret for any hurt that you’ve caused, then there never has to be a war.

Step 4: Asking for More Information

The last step of beginning anew is listening to the other person. You ask them to share their perceptions and feelings or any difficulty they might be going through. Perhaps something is bothering the other person that you aren’t aware of. This is a chance for you to learn.

You might ask them, “Did I say or do something to make you annoyed?” Maybe the other person is only a tiny bit bothered and doesn’t want to say anything. But if you ask with genuine interest, then they can share their hurts and you can renew your relationship before the hurts have built up a wall. What the other person says reflects their own perspective, so it may be only partially true. Yet this isn’t the time to correct or argue; this is the time to listen and understand.

When we’re angry and we stuff that anger down, we build a wall inside us. Beginning anew is a tool for helping dismantle the wall, brick by brick. If you start this practice now, before there’s wall between you and the other person—when there are perhaps just one or two bricks in the way—then a wall will never be built. Instead, you and your loved one can enjoy the flower garden you have watered in yourselves and each other.

Sister Chan Khong

Sister Chan Khong

Sister Chan Khong has been Thich Nhat Hanh’s closest collaborator for more than fifty years. She’s the author of Deep Relaxation (Parallax Press).