Sunday, October 18, 2015

Unpacking Mindful Communication

How we communicate with one another, especially our speech, is the glue that enables relationship. One could say that communication IS relationship. So this is an important area, and a powerful one, to apply mindfulness. It would seem when considering a practice anchored in meditation, however,  that communication wouldn’t factor in at all.. after all, aren’t we just sitting by ourselves and watching the sensations of the breath for the most part? How does this translate to mindfulness in daily life, and mindfulness in communication in particular?

The answer to that becomes clear fairly quickly to practitioners of mindfulness… it tends to be an exciting revelation early on in practice; suddenly people notice that not only do they feel a little more centered themselves, but it seems to also have an effect on their relationships. They find others tend to respond differently to them – and that’s without ever learning any mindful communication techniques or giving it any thought at all! The key to mindful communication lies in first cultivating an ability to drop into 'mindful awareness', and then in recognizing our intentions when engaged with others. 

As Gandhi has stated, all change starts with the individual; 
"Be the change
you wish to see in the world"
... so it makes sense that the more we know ourselves, the better we function in the world. As I’ve mentioned before, in spite of the seemingly ‘selfish’ nature of mindfulness practice, it is, in fact, a generous act; transforming not only ourselves, but the relationships around us and our relationship with the world. However, as we make our way through the MBSR program we do move from the solitary practices of awareness of breathing, etc., into directly examining our communication from a mindful perspective. What does mindful communication look like, then, and what are some of the priniciples of mindful speech? 

Cultivating Mindful Attention

First, it’s important to mention that utilizing mindfulness techniques in daily life can be difficult to do without having a foundation in mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness is a particular way of paying attention, there is a quality of attention that is different from what is generally meant by ‘paying attention’, and it’s this that is developed and cultivated when we take time out for meditation practice each day. Once this is learned, however, it becomes easier and easier to ‘drop in’ to a mindful awareness in our daily life activities– and eventually even shifts into a default mode of operation. So, when we talk about the techniques for mindful communication, it’s helpful to understand that the quality of attention is different from just being aware of what’s going on the way we usually think of it.  A description of how mindfulness is engaged in communication may be helpful to understanding what that kind of awareness involves. 

How to Practice Mindful Communication

Mindful awareness in relation to communication involves being able to feel the sensations of the body; in our culture most of us aren’t in touch with our physical bodies at all unless some very strong experience demands it such as pain or very uncomfortable sensations. Learning to shift our awareness into the body is an extremely important aspect of bringing mindfulness to communication.  When we can notice what kinds of reactions are happening in the body in real-time we can become more responsive to stressful situations; after all, the stress response is a whole body-mind dynamic, only being aware of the content of our thoughts, for example, is not a full awareness of what is happening. Mindful awareness includes it all: Thoughts, sensations, emotions.  We can also use this kind of feedback to help us cultivate positive and nurturing patterns of communicating. 

Noticing Unpleasant Communication

Noticing tension or heat arising can be a cue that we are having a strong response, and having a mindful awareness of this allows us not to get pulled along by that into old patterns of reactivity that don’t tend to serve us well. It gives us a chance to become aware of whatever stories are present about the situation, and to check in with our intentions and desired results, and short-circuit the stress-response instead of reacting in the moment. 

Noticing Pleasant Communication

Bringing mindful awareness to pleasant communication can also be extremely beneficial; in his book Buddha’s Brain, Rick Hanson, a Neuropsychologist describes how we can re-wire our brains to default toward a more positive outlook.. something that scientists had believed was impossible for adults until recent research in neuroplasticity proved them wrong. By becoming more aware while engaging in happy, pro-active and nurturing communications, we begin to notice those pleasant experiences more, and the intentions and behaviors that enable those experiences. We also notice the kinds of responses we get when we are able to be more present with another. When we become conscious of this we become more able to intentionally apply that to communication when it’s not present; giving us the tools needed, through personal insight (not some list of techniques someone gave us that we’ll never be able to access in the heat of the moment!) to negotiate and change in mid-course.  As a teacher of mindfulness, I’ve heard some beautiful stories of this kind of insight arising in the midst of difficult conversations as we work with the mindful communication homework. 

In in the 4th and 5th week of the MBSR program we provide a ‘communication calendar’ where students can track communications over the course of each week: one week tracking ‘pleasant’ communications and in the next, ‘unpleasant’ communications. The following questions are what we are directing our awareness to in tracking our interactions: 

  1. Describe the communication. With Whom? Subject?
  2. How did the situation come about?
  3. What did you really want from the person or situation? What did you actually get? 
  4. What did the other person seem to want? What did they actually get?
  5. How did you feel (physically & emotionally) during and after?

When looking at this list, one can notice the other major aspect involved in mindful communication: what motivations or intentions are present. When we notice what our intentions are and, for instance, recognizing when we have an intention to connect, as is often the intention present in a pleasant communication, we can see the results both in our internal experience and in the interaction. When we start to experience, consciously, how this dynamic feels often what arises is an interest in listening more and a natural manifestation of compassion – as well as an interest in cultivating this more intentionally in other interactions. We then can begin to apply this in what we’d normally consider unpleasant discussions; where can we find common ground, where can we find an intention to connect where we’d previously focused on what we’re trying to get out of the interaction?  In our awareness in difficult or unpleasant communication, we start to recognize how certain patterns of reactivity toward a challenge don’t serve our purposes. Noticing both pleasant and unpleasant communication, mindfully, we begin to be able to negotiate our relationships more skillfully and intentionally. 

In class, after we’ve spent a couple of weeks noticing our communication patterns, we engage in some fun exercises acting out common patterns of interaction based on Aikido, a martial art focusing on the resolution of conflict and coming into harmony.  The first exercises focus on what it feels like to take on the role of the victim, the passive-aggressive or avoidant participant, and the aggressor – roles we’ve each taken at some point - and the way in which they interact with one-another. Our last exercise focuses on working proactively with a perceived threat, by ‘entering and blending’: holding our own center and boundaries while moving toward a threat or ‘attacker’ in a way that engages and redirects energy without becoming confrontational. In the experiential acting out of these patterns, and the recognition of the physical sensations and emotional responses that accompany them, we internalize the sense of how each feels, something we can reference when we notice these patterns emerging in our daily life.  For instance, most recognize that when we get to engage in a mutual  “I’m right, you’re wrong”  stand-off there is a bit of a pleasant charge to it initially, but that it's eventually just frustrating- there isn’t a ‘winner’.  Having a more pro-active way of engaging up our sleeves can help inform the way we might respond to something that triggers us in the future. 

Principles of Wise Communication

Some further guiding principles in mindfully engaging skillful speech come from a Buddhist perspective. These are questions we can keep in mind that help frame our intentions to enable mindful communication. The Buddha stated that in order to qualify as skillful speech, it must include all of the following: 

Is it necessary? 

Is it helpful?

Is it timely? 

Is it kind? 

When we hold these higher intentions with our speech, and become mindful of the intentions that are guiding us in the moment, we can see the direct experience when we do and don’t end up following them. What happens in the body and mind when we end up making unkind comments? What is the result of an interaction when these guidelines aren’t held? Often we’re not so aware of these when we are focused on what we want to get or are triggered by someone else’s behavior. Bringing mindful awareness to our speech can drive more harmonious interactions, not because we ‘know we should..’ but because we see the way it affects us, others, and drives outcomes. 

All of this, though, boils down to a couple of ‘techniques’ to remember in mindful communication:

1) Cultivate the ability to ‘drop into’ the body when engaging with others. To orient to the body’s sensations you can connect with the felt-sense of the feet against the ground (i.e.; pressure, warmth), as well as to the sensations of breathing in the belly or the chest. Once this connection is established, notice whatever other sensations in the body are arising; tension, heat, tingling or vibration, etc.) This is something that becomes second nature in the course of a meditation practice.

2) Noticing the intentions involved in any communications; what are you wanting to get from the interaction? Is it information, a particular response, or simply to connect?

You’ll be surprised how very powerful it is to simply connect with the body’s responses in real-time and to notice your motivations and intentions as you are engaging with another. Mindfulness in our interactions doesn’t take anything more than an intention to notice what’s happening in the moment when paired with an ability to access mindful awareness. 

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