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5 Practices for Mindful Communication

March 14, 2013

 C11-713225

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 new 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 turn 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 mediation 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 my 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 forces of 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 and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.

Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

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Related articles: 10 Ways to Bring More Mindfulness to Your Work Day, The 5 Habits of an Empathetic Communicator, Workplace Relationships: You Have to Care, Even 5 Minutes of Mediation Can Change the Way You Work 

Photo Credit From Bearseye

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24 Comments leave one →
  1. March 14, 2013 8:25 am

    Wonderful post, Louise. Something seemingly so simple – mindfulness – can bring immeasurable richness to our lives. One of my favorite Thich Nhat Hahn quotes is: “True mindfulness is not an evasion of any kind. It’s a serene encounter with reality.” And, as you so wisely point out, that can inform us in business as well as our personal lives.

    • March 14, 2013 8:37 am

      Hello and thanks Ronnie for that wonderful quote.

      Yes, something as simple as mindfulness can shift our perceptions and consequently an entire communication.

      Best,
      Louise

  2. March 14, 2013 11:18 am

    Well written and engaging, I sat for a while after reading with the thought ” bring your empathy” and with a huge exhale and smile I go on my way… Thanks

  3. March 14, 2013 1:01 pm

    A question or two, if I may Louise. I’m curious about mindful meditation vs. meditation that uses a mantra. Is mindful meditation your preferred form? If so, why?

    I know each has value, despite the differences. And I read that in some ways they are similar in effect – here’s one site that discusses both, pointing to something the author calls “a kind of silent merging” of the sensing body and the mind: http://www.shinzen.org/Articles/artMantra.htm

    Would love to read your thoughts on this. Thanks!

    • March 14, 2013 1:21 pm

      Hi again and glad you raised this. First let me say I am no expert on meditation styles or techniques, just have acquired knowledge through study and my own experience. So I answer from that place. I believe all mediation has value. It is deeply personal and have to be right for the doer. Many techniques, including using sound have worked for me. For example, I love occasionally using tibetan bell sounds. At times, I have used types of mantras (it certainly works for the monks – of all sacred traditions). I, like many others, use the term mindfulness as a generic description of a certain kind of basic practice that focuses on the breath and body awareness. Many people mistake this for emptying the mind and believe they aren’t doing it “right” if they have thoughts. I like the term some Buddhists use calling it “monkey mind.” Some days, regardless of the length of practice, monkey mind rules. But as Thich Nhat Hahn says all we have to do is to allow what rises, thoughts, feelings to rise. It is our not having to fix or tend or analyze these thoughts or feelings that allows a sense of spaciousness and freedom. Because of this I often choose simple mindfulness meditation over sound so as not to distract myself again. Perhaps that’s why this form of meditation is at times more challenging – to just sit in all that arises without distraction or judgment.

      Thanks for posing the question.

      PS I don’t know if any of the research on meditation and neuroscience has tackled this question – but because the meditation examined so far seems to shift from one region of the brain to the other, the style of meditation is an interesting question.

  4. Gurmeet Singh Pawar permalink
    March 15, 2013 12:04 pm

    Nice Post. Not aware of any terminologies or techniques mentioned, but much appreciate the advice in 5 practices. They are good.

    Thanks

  5. March 26, 2013 6:54 am

    Dear Louise! Thank you for finding me from the wordpress jungle. I truly enjoyed reading your blog and I am happy to be connected to such a lovely person. Look forward to being in touch : )

    “While mindfulness is mostly associated with meditation, I like to think of it as a way of being in the world.” Indeed… love this.

    Warmly,
    Emilia

    • March 26, 2013 7:55 am

      Dear Emilia,
      What a nice surprise to hear from you. One of the many pleasures of blogging is the discovery of like minds and kindred spirits. Looking forward to it!
      All good things ~
      Louise

      PS found your blog not through WP but from a tweet (you on twitter?) posted by the Center for Appreciative Inquiry ~ small world.(@Center_for_AI)

  6. March 29, 2013 11:44 am

    6. Step into the other person’s shoes to see it and say it in ways that matter to them
    7. Live by the Golden Golden Rule: do unto others as they would have done unto them
    8. Listen and confirm you understood what they said, before responding
    9. Recognize that we are far more revealing by the question we ask than the answers we give, so listen closely to what they ask, and seek the underlying concern behind the question(s)

  7. March 30, 2013 11:42 am

    Great post. Thank you for sharing.

    I agree that today mindfulness to too closely associated with meditation. Unfortunately, I find when this happens the mindfulness stays on the cushion and doesn’t venture far into the workplace.

    When I work with helping leaders to help them develop mindful leadership I find it useful to talk about meditaiton as the equivalent of going to the gym. The fitness gained from going to the gym is of most benefit when it is used in an active life. It’s the same with meditation and mindfulness.

    The 5 practice you’ve shared for bringing mindfulness into communication are very helpful. Thank you.

    Terry

    • April 1, 2013 10:39 am

      Hi Terry,

      Thanks for the comment. I think that the “cushion” can become a place of refuge for many meditators. Taking mindfulness “on the road” can often be more challenged. On the cushion, the only emotional triggers are internal. We don’t have to contend with the frequent string of triggers that happen in the “real world,” especially in the workplace.

      I think the analogy of meditation as brain fitness is very useful with many people – and I use it often. And on that level, it is practical and useful. My only concern is that it can sometimes reinforce the concept of
      mindfulness as another task, another form of doing. I think that one of the great challenges for many people today is taking time to just be.

      Regards
      Louise

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