5 Practices for Mindful Communication

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” George Bernard Shaw

It’s getting difficult not to bump into the word mindfulness these days. While mindfulness is mostly associated with meditation, I like to think of it as a way of being in the world.
Mindfulness meditation “practice” is valuable – and it will likely have multiple ripple effects in every corner of your life.  A study at The University of Utah has confirmed its benefits and shown that mindfulness affects stress responses throughout the day. According to researcher Holly Rau, “People who reported higher levels of mindfulness described better control over their emotions and behaviors during the day.”
Magic?  No.  Methodical practice of retraining the brain to respond to stimulus differently builds cognitive flexibility in ways we are just beginning to understand.
In an age of looking outside of ourselves for solutions, mindfulness practice turns out to be the ultimate insider “strategy.” The magic of mindfulness is that it rearranges neural networks in powerful ways. And the great news is that we are the “tool” that makes it possible.  Apps can remind us when to breathe, sit and slow down, but only we can make it happen.   

Sitting on the “Cushion” is the “Easy” Part

It took me a long time to establish a regular meditation practice.  My resistance wasn’t very creative. Like many of us, I was too busy, too distracted and too hesitant to sit down with myself and do “nothing.” While I had long admired many mindfulness practitioners around me, I couldn’t get my act together to block out a small chunk of time everyday to sit.
Fortunately, I did establish a daily practice.  Meditation practice has been one of the best gifts I’ve ever given myself.  But soon I realized that my mindfulness practice didn’t have to be confined to meditation.  Meditation is the anchor. The real practice was to stay mindfully present to what was happening around me – on the cushion – and off.

Several Zen teachers, like well-known American Roshi Bernard Glassman have used the metaphors of cooking to demonstrate that every task of life offers an opportunity to practice acts of mindfulness.  In their Instructions to the Cook, Glassman and Tricycle editor Rick Fields write, “When we cook-and live-with this kind of attention, the most ordinary acts and the humblest ingredients are revealed as they truly are.” The authors point out that when we practice mindful attention, every ingredient is used in the cooking. “Our body is an ingredient, our relationships are ingredients. Our thoughts, our emotions and all our actions are ingredients. With practice, our territory expands and all the objects of the world become our ingredients.”

Communicating with others can offer one of the greatest opportunities to practice mindfulness.  Our daily communication with family, friends and work colleagues is filled with abundant possibilities to stay present to how we feel and act – moment to moment.  Practicing mindful communication necessitates that we slow down and allow ourselves to really look at the choices we make with others.  While it may be easy to communicate with kindness and respect to those we care about, how far does that regard extend to those who try our patience? How considerate are we with people we’ll never meet again? How gracious are we when pressures mount?  How mindful do we believe we should be with people we don’t like?

In considering the mindful treatment of others, I often recall the sterling advice of Buddhist scholar and teacher Robert Thurman.  Asked by several of our classmates how to practice mindfulness most effectively, the often jocular professor suggested that we all get a cup of coffee from the corner “deli” as a start.  His remarks left several students baffled; Thurman elaborated, “The guy in the deli doesn’t have a very exciting job. He’s not well paid and people give him a hard time all day.” How do you treat him? Are you kind? Are you impatient? Do you ask how his day is going? This is mindfulness practice – the nitty-gritty mechanics of daily life.  How we act is a reflection of what we think and how we feel.

Mindfulness Practice in Action

Our Instructions to the Cook assure us that “Right now, right in front of us we have everything we need to begin. But the Zen cook knows that we can’t prepare a meal if the kitchen is cluttered with last night’s dishes. In order to see the ingredients we already have in our lives, we need to clear a space.”
So it’s useful to clear our space before we bring our mindfulness practice to our communication.  Here are 5 practices that can help us:

  1. Understand what you believe and why. We’re motivated by beliefs that are often unconscious and can impede what we consciously intend.  There is a presence that is really who you are (let’s call this the you who is aware of you) that transcends the belief systems that are shaping your behavior.  This awareness needs constant activation.  We are operating from beliefs that drive every element of our communication – “I don’t have time for this.” “She’s not sincere,” “He doesn’t get it,” “I need to get this done now,” “I’ve told her this a million times.” It’s impossible to stay mindfully present unless you understand what’s motivating your feelings and behavior in the moment. It’s in that moment of awareness – that you can shift your response unless you believe it’s not worth it.
  2. Accept that your perceptions are always limited and that your mindfulness task is to open your mind and heart to see more. Committing to mindfulness practice, especially when communicating with others, requires acceptance that you never arrive.  You never master it. There is always something new to learn and to see. When we open ourselves more deeply to the experience of others the constant unfolding of learning is surprising. These realizations can transform the most mundane of human “transactions” into gratifying moments of connection.
  3. Bring your empathy, however weak, to every communication. There’s a wonderful saying that’s making the rounds online these days, “Be kind, everyone is carrying a heavy burden.” You get the point. We simply have no idea what people are “carrying” despite their facades.  Imagine a day spent meeting others from your most empathetic place.  Your empathy will naturally translate into different communication choices.  In many cases, you will feel a qualitative shift in the responses you get from others.  Emotional contagion is real, and your conscious intent to understand others from where they sit – will be felt.
  4. Start recognizing the role your judgment plays in how you communicate. I’m not referring to your discerning rational mind – rather the way your judgment reduces or devalues the other person in your communication.  The more I practice mindful communication, the more I see judgment as corrosive and toxic. Since we are always emotionally triggering ourselves and others, a judgment is instantly felt.  The brain is always monitoring for reward and threat, so we can’t expect anything other than some form of defensive response from others when they feel judged.
  5. Our intentions need to be linked to our outcomes. For the Zen Cook the old adage “A watched pot never boils” is half-true. We leave the lid on the pot for most of the time, but we also lift the lid every once in a while to taste the food.  We form intentions to use as a gentle rudder to guide us in our communication. We stay open to what others are trying to communicate.  While we cannot know (without asking) what a positive outcome would be for the other person, we can commit to contributing to creating a supportive atmosphere.

The soft path of mindful communication is the path of the heart. Terms such as these often seem incompatible with hard business needs.  That’s one of the beliefs we must practice to overcome. The results will provide us with the ROI (return on investment) we need.  But most important, mindful communication requires us to reshape our field of awareness in every interaction.  It asks – what can I bring to this communication, rather than  what can I get from it.  What qualities – kindness, acceptance, patience, lightness, humor, strength – can I offer?  When we communicate mindfully, every interaction is fresh – filled with the opportunity and open to discovery.

Daily life can be messy – misunderstandings with others – inevitable.  Sometimes the meditation cushion seems like a retreat from it all – a wonderful refuge from the storm.  But for every human interaction we mindfully engage, we can emerge enriched.  Mindfulness pioneer Sylvia Boorstein wisely reminds us, “Mindfulness doesn’t change life. Life remains as fragile and unpredictable as ever. What changes is the heart’s capacity to accept life as it is. It teaches the heart to be more accommodating; not by beating it into submission, but by making it clear that accommodation is a gratifying choice.”

Thanks for reading,
Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Consultants
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Photo: Louise Altman

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