San Francisco, CA (USA) -- There’s a lot that used to frustrate me about communicating. Well, if I’m honest, it was that I didn’t know how to do it. I knew how to speak and string words together, but no one ever sat me down and taught me the purpose of communication or how to effectively express myself so I was heard and how to listen so I could understand. A lot of times it seemed that because I knew how to talk, that automatically meant I should know how to communicate.
Let’s be honest, communicating effectively is hard to do, especially in heated situations. It’s difficult because rarely do we stop to pay attention to what we’re saying or the purpose of our communication.
What I’ve found to help guide me on my quest is the Buddhist practice of mindfulness, specifically mindful communication.
“Mindfulness means being present with what you are doing, while you are doing it, with a nonjudgmental attitude,” says Sarah McLean, director of McLean Meditation Institute in Sedona, Ariz. “Not only is mindfulness a formal practice of meditation, it can also be the way one is engaged in activity. It is real-time gentle, present-moment, nonjudgmental attention while walking, mindfully eating, mindfully showering, for example.”
So how does this apply to communication? Mindful communication is the practice of bringing our attention to our words. It means we are aware of what we’re saying while we’re saying it. It is a practice of observation and not evaluation. It is paying attention to others on purpose with a moment-to-moment awareness. And because it’s a learned skill ,anyone can apply it to his or her life.
Some would say the goal of Buddhism is to reach enlightenment, an elimination of suffering, and mindfulness is a practice used to achieve this goal. “Most of our contemporary mindfulness practices originate from the Buddhist tradition, where the four foundations of mindfulness (of body, feeling, mind and objects of mind) are a basic practice,” says Susan Gillis Chapman, author of “The Five Keys To Mindful Communication.”
“In particular, in Buddhism there are precepts for mindful speech that focus on refraining from causing harm,” she says. “In lay Buddhist communities, this is practiced by refraining from harsh speech, gossiping and from dishonesty, which includes being dishonest with ourselves.” To communicate mindfully then shows us that the purpose of our speech is to help others and ourselves suffer less.
How, then, can we start to apply mindfulness to our speech so our words are kind, honest and helpful? By paying attention to our words, releasing judgment, and being in the moment.
1. Pay Attention
We’ve all been in situations where we’ve said something or reacted in a way that later we regretted, whether it was during an argument or fueled by resentment or by letting our attempts at poking fun get out of hand. Not only do we feel bad for what we said or for slamming doors and walking away, but we also see the hurt we’ve caused someone else. It’s in the aftermath of these situations that we see how powerful our words and our actions can be. It’s then that we see how easily we use judgmental or accusatory language or react with a cold shoulder or roll of the eyes.
But if we start to pay attention to our words and reactions, then we can begin to change them. By being conscious, “We learn to identify and clearly articulate what we are concretely wanting in a given situation. The form is simple, yet powerfully transformative,” writes Marshall B. Rosenberg in his book “Nonviolent Communication.” We often forget that at every moment we have the opportunity to choose how we express ourselves. We can choose to use words that encourage a sense of openness, safety and understanding or that create stress, make others and ourselves feel less than, or provoke anxiety.
Along with our words and reactions, it’s important we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings as well, especially in difficult conversations. “Paying attention helps us to not get hooked in a chain reaction that leads to mutual dissatisfaction,” says New York City- based psychotherapist Susan Solomon. “The body knows. We must take the time to acknowledge our bodily reactions, thoughts and feelings. Taking 10 seconds followed by a deep breath leads to communication based on understanding and compassion, not reactivity and disconnection.”
If we slow down the process of interacting, pausing now and again or taking a breath before speaking, we give ourselves more time to maintain awareness and promote painless conversations. If you notice yourself speaking quickly, getting caught up in a reaction, take a breath and slow down; you can always begin again.
2. Release Judgment
There’s a tendency when we start paying attention to judge others and ourselves. Phrases like, “I can’t believe I said that.” “What’s wrong with me?” Or passing thoughts like, “She has no idea how she sounds,” or “He thinks this is funny?” seem like harmless expressions, but there’s a lot of evaluating going on. If the point is to help others and ourselves suffer less, criticizing and judging only makes everyone hurt more.
The wonderful part about mindful communication, and the scariest, is it’s a judgment-free zone. “Mindfulness communication involves listening with a beginner’s mind — without judgment, without interruption, and with total receptivity,” says McLean. This means in conversation with others and ourselves, we’re committing to no longer seeing something as good or bad, right or wrong; we’re no longer seeing from a place of betterness or less than, but as an equal. “When we combine observation with evaluation, people are apt to hear criticism,” writes Rosenberg. “We need to clearly observe what we are seeing, hearing, or touching that is affecting our sense of well-being, without mixing in any evaluation.”
How do we do this? We stop gossiping about others and start reminding ourselves that our wants and needs are the same. “Find a shared goal, and you have both a good reason and a healthy climate for talking,” writes Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler in “Crucial Conversations.” When we remind ourselves of our sameness, we learn to understand our differences. If we’re judging our own behavior, we need to let ourselves feel the feeling but not let it consume us. Getting stuck in any emotion forces us off equal footing. Suddenly we’re either horrible people and less than or we’re saintly and better than. Instead of getting stuck, note the thought and say, ‘I forgive you.’ Then gently let the thought go, and start again.
3. Be In The Moment
When we’re with someone, it’s possible we’re thinking of the meeting we just had, what needs to be done for tomorrow, our list of groceries to pick up. Or we’re waiting for the person to finish talking so we can or we’re too excited so we interrupt.
Our attention can drift, but what mindful communication encourages is to refocus. McLean says that “mindfulness cultivates the attention necessary for anyone to become aware of and redirect their thoughts, again and again back to what they are actually engaged in.” When we notice our attention is stuck in a story outside the conversation, that’s the moment we come back to the conversation at hand. Without judging ourselves for not paying attention, we let go of the story we’ve been lost in and come back to where we are.
By drifting and refocusing, we’re constantly coming back to the present moment again and again, keeping us tied to the conversation we’re in and aware of its needs.
There are many reasons why we choose not to be mindful: It takes discipline. It means listening and respecting another person’s reality of a situation even if we don’t agree. It means learning to accept others and ourselves as deserving of the same type of kindness and support. It means having to take responsibility for our words, actions, and reactions and their effects on others and ourselves.
But for all the energy it takes to cultivate a moment-to-moment focus and observe our words and actions without judgment, what mindful communication gives us is a guideline for communicating that is kind, honest, and helpful.