September 25, 2015

Namaste: Tone, Words, Intent All Matter

The divine in me bows to the divine in you.”

Perhaps you’ve spoken these words at the end of a yoga class.

Usually spoken with a slight bow and hands pressed together, with palms touching and fingers pointing upwards. Thumbs are held close to the chest. Namaste is a respectful form of greeting, welcoming, and acknowledging another. 

Recently, I experienced this word as a cudgel.

During our noontime walk and sensing we were about to be overtaken by someone, my friend and I stepped aside. As he passed, the younger man turned, brought hands together, bowed, and said “Namaste.” I smiled at this unexpected greeting, before responding “Namaste,” expecting him to continue down the path.

What happened next caught me off guard. (Perhaps because we did not bow or raise our hands?) Turning, he challenged us, “Do you even know what Namaste means?” Startled more by his tone than the question, a jumbled response tumbled out of our mouths. “You’re wrong,” he thundered, lecturing us on the ‘proper definition,’ before continuing on his way.

Tone matters. Actions matter. When there’s a disconnect between the two – as my friend and I experienced – it can leave you stunned; wondering, “what just happened?”

Later that day, during a webinar, I made a general reference to ‘business practices.’ One of my colleagues challenged me, suggesting I should instead reference ‘not-for-profit’ business practices, while respectfully sharing why he felt the distinction was important. The encounters could not have been more different: This second challenge left me feeling grateful. The difference: Respect.

Tone matters. Whether verbal or written, a carelessly tossed off question, word, or phrase may be received or interpreted in an unintended way.

Several years ago, Scott Gunn wrote about a similar experience for Vestry Papers. In “Tone Matters,”  he shares the story nearly losing one of the congregation’s best lay leaders over a misinterpretation of a needlessly terse email. While, in the end, everything turned out well, the experience led Scott to develop a few principles for communication to minimize misunderstandings and create an environment of truthfulness and love. Read his article here. At the end of his piece Scott notes:

“Inevitably we’ll get it wrong. Words come out differently than we had intended. We misunderstand someone’s meaning. Being ready to apologize, or to share our hurt feelings, can make a world of difference. The church is a great place to practice our reconciliation skills. With time – and hard-won lessons – we can learn to use the right tone to get our message across.”


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