Becoming a more mindful communicator is one of the surest paths to enhancing your relationships with others – from the everyday interaction you have with a stranger to the most important people in your life.
The truth is, communication can be surprisingly difficult, given how often we engage in it. We tend to skim emails, fill in the blanks with what we think someone means or pull out a point (often out of context) that a speaker didn’t intend.
This is where listening comes in. One of the greatest benefits of mindfulness is the increased ability to listen to others – which, in turn, improves our ability to communicate more effectively.
A mindful listener is a more active listener. I find it helpful to think of active listening as engaged listening.
Here are some tips for engaged listening:
- Make eye contact. Nod, sit up and use body language that signals your brain to stay engaged.
- Focus on what is being said, not what you want to say.
- Ask clarifying questions.
- Summarize or paraphrase the speaker’s ideas, and ask if your understanding is accurate.
- When they respond, ask follow-up questions when appropriate.
Studies have found1 that mindfulness not only improves active and engaged listening, it also positively influences empathy and the emotional support people feel they’ve received. As a mindful communicator you are also more likely to observe and withhold judgement.
With mindfulness and engaged listening, you can consciously improve your communication in any circumstance – and perhaps even more importantly, you can take steps to transform even the toughest conversations.
6 Steps to Becoming a Mindful Communicator
We all have to face difficult situations where effective communication is vital – like when discussing your elderly mother’s care options with your siblings who have very divergent views from your own. Or when you’re blindsided in a meeting by someone interrupting you or discounting your contribution. That’s when you’re more likely to find your brain fill with fog and the speaker morphing into that teacher from a Charlie Brown cartoon!
When this happens, you may not even realize that you’ve been swept up in an emotional reaction and are about to check out of the conversation altogether.
In highly charged situations like these, the following 6 steps will help you navigate your own emotional reaction, as well as the reactions of others. You’ll find with practice, you’ll be able to make a conscious choice to set that emotional reaction aside for now, and focus with greater calm on the situation at hand. Here’s what you can do:
1. Do your best to remain neutral and present.
When going into an emotionally-charged situation, do your best to remain calm and enter into the conversation without projecting what might go wrong.
Rather than anticipating all the demands the overbearing member of your HOA is going to make at the next meeting, or the cutting remarks your daughter-in-law will probably make at lunch, stay in the present moment.
When you catch yourself getting upset about things that haven’t happened yet or ruminating on a past hurt, press “Pause” on these thoughts so they don’t feed your projections.
2. Keep your eye on the prize.
What is it you’d like to accomplish from this discussion or interaction? How do you want to present yourself? Chances are, acting out your emotional reaction or shutting down will be counterproductive.
Deciding on your preferred outcome in advance can help you anticipate that emotional reaction and avoid getting caught up in it automatically.
But if the reaction is intense enough that you do act it out – be gentle and forgiving with yourself. Learning from your mistakes comes from insight into your behavior, not from beating yourself up.
3. Be aware of any tension you are holding in your body.
When you feel tension, take a moment to focus on your breath. Breathe in, then as you breathe out focus on relaxing your tense muscles.
Not only does holding tension affect your stress level, but if (for example) your shoulders are hunched or your brow furrowed, this communicates your uneasiness to others. This is a sure-fire way to heighten stress for everyone involved.
When you feel your stress rising, try to make a habit of checking in with your body first. This will often provide the distance you need to be conscious that your emotions have been triggered.
4. Focus on what is actually being said.
When in the grip of an emotional reaction, our thoughts often race directly to the worst-case scenario we can imagine. We jump to conclusions that fuel our emotional reactions with things we’ve essentially made up in our minds.
Rely on the engaged listening tips above to focus on what is being said, rather than on your emotional reaction to the message. It’s okay to ask someone to repeat what they’ve said when you realize that your ability to listen has been compromised. I’m sorry…can you repeat that last part? Or ask a clarifying question. When you say x, is this what you mean…?
And if it turns out the worse-case scenario is true—your son’s house is being foreclosed on and he and his family want to live with you until they get back on their feet—you will be better positioned to take in the reality of the situation and wait until you can formulate a self-valuing response.
5. Be mindful of other people’s triggers…
When discussing particularly touchy topics, especially with loved ones, you likely have a good sense of words or phrases that will set the other person off. Maybe your sister bristles at any mention of religion, or your brother is defensive about what he perceives to be your criticism of some aspect of his lifestyle.
Finding ways to avoid these landmines is likely a good first step to ensuring a more productive outcome. Before you speak, press Pause quickly and give yourself a moment to consciously choose a response that doesn’t (intentionally or unintentionally) provoke the other person.
6. …And your own triggers.
If you find yourself trapped in the loop of an emotional reaction, despite your best attempts, wait until you’re calm before saying too much or making any decisions. Tell the other person you need time to consider what they said, and excuse yourself so you can exit the situation if you need to.
Try putting even one of these steps into action over the next week or two. Make a point to notice when you are really engaged in listening or when you are caught up in your own thoughts, judgments or emotional reactions. Try keeping a journal and record your experiences with each step as you use it to practice mindful listening.
Did engaged listening help you refocus?
Did the steps to mindful communication help get you through a tense situation more calmly than you might have otherwise?
Let me know in the comments or on our Facebook page what you found most helpful.
Take good care : )
P.S: If you’d like to learn to reliably calm your emotions and quiet your mind in the face of stress, visit CalmSpace™, our simple, streamlined program that offers power tools for building inner peace.
Susanne M. Jones, Graham D. Bodie, Sam D. Hughes. The Impact of Mindfulness on Empathy, Active Listening, and Perceived Provisions of Emotional Support. February 3, 2016. https://doi.org/10.1177/0093650215626983