How to answer the phone

One day I got home from work and found the electricity was off. I reported it to the power company, which gave me an estimate of 90 minutes or so, but when I called back at that time to check, it wasn't even listed as an outage.

I spoke to a representative, who informed that one of the two circuits in my house was working so I had half power, which was not considered an outage and also was not considered a priority. There was no estimate on restoration.

The thing was, the circuit that wasn't working powered everything important — stove, refrigerator, heat, sump pump. I could sit in my family room and watch TV, but that was about it. What I wanted to do was get warm and cook food. That was impossible.

I did not take it well that my functional outage didn't qualify as an official outage. I expressed that clearly. I suppose you could call it outage outrage. My call was transferred. And my steaming righteousness was met by the kindest customer service representative I've ever encountered. Grace had a musical voice and a soft, pleasant attitude. She empathized. "It's awful, isn't it?" She made typing sounds. She promised to look into it and call me back. I didn't believe her, but my anger was disarmed. My concern was heard and acknowledged.

Remarkably, she did call back, still full of good will and good nature. And she had an estimate. And the power came back on.

My outrage, I saw, was more about having my concerns dismissed than about the lack of electricity. I knew it wasn't urgent and that it might take time, but I wanted the electric company to acknowledge that it was real.

I thought about this while reading the chapter on communication in Sharon Salzberg's "Real Happiness at Work." She writes: How we communicate has everything to do with maintaining well-being and harmony at work.

She suggests using the Buddha's criteria for right speech: Is it true? Is useful at this moment? Can it be said in a kind way?

I work at a newspaper, and part of my job is taking calls from the public — everything from tips on  political corruption or decisions made in secret to questions about a notice of a church supper. At times, it is inconvenient to answer the phone, but you almost always do it because you don't know what information might be offered.

I used to be impatient with people who called about notices for community events. I have bigger fish to fry than your shrimp dinner, I thought.

But then I realized that the people who called me were just as invested in their issue as I was in getting my power back. For a volunteer-run nonprofit, getting a notice in the community newspaper can be the difference between a successful fundraiser and one that doesn't cover costs. People who don't know how accessible we are might be intimidated by making that call. And communicating that I felt they were unimportant was not skillful.

Grace taught me that.

So now, when my phone rings, I take a breath before I answer. I remember that the call is important to the person making it, even if they are from a public relations firm. And I do my best to sound welcoming.

I may not be able to do what you want, but I don't need to try to make you feel worse about that.

Sharon offers three rules for mindful communication: "I" language, body awareness, and listening. All of these help us to be present in the conversation rather than projecting motivations or meanings onto it.

To quote Bill Murray, "I’d like to be just more here all the time, to see what I could do if if I were able to not get distracted and not change channels in my mind and body . . . to be my own channel, really here, and always with you. Like you could look at me and go, 'Okay he’s there, there’s someone there.'" 

Because if you're here, then I can be here. And then we can get something done.