Communicating Mindfully

October 20, 2017 by School of Medicine Webmaster

We interact with others all the time which gives us many opportunities to practice mindful communication skills. When we meditate, it is usually a solitary pursuit.  Even if we are in the presence of others, we are silent, and often intentionally not interacting in order to remain focused on our own experience. Paying attention to our own experience is often quite challenging. When we add another person it only gets more difficult.

So how can we communicate more mindfully? I think this begins with slowing down, with pausing to pay attention to our own experience first. There are many things we may notice in this pausing. First, our own state before we interact with someone else will affect how we react or respond. If we are already tired, or anxious, or frustrated, this will impact our experience, and often make it more challenging to slow down and be open to others. Recognizing how we are feeling going in to an interaction can help us be less reactive. Just acknowledging our present state, perhaps by saying internally “I’m feeling frustrated” can help shift from a state of resistance, thinking “I can’t believe I have to put up with this” , to one of greater acceptance such as “I’m feeling frustrated and I still need to make the best of this situation”.

Knowing our current state, we can then enter into a dialogue. Although “communicating” implies speaking for ourselves, effective communication often begins with listening. And the more deeply we can listen, the more likely we are to have a positive interaction, especially if we can listen with empathy. Empathy is understanding what another person is experiencing. One of the fundamental ways we experience empathy, understanding the experience of another, is by paying attention to how we are feeling. Because of mirror neurons in our brains, we actually feel some of the same emotions that the people we are interacting with experience. If we pay attention to this, it can help us relate to others more deeply. Sometimes when we hear the experience of another, and feel some of what they are feeling, we have a tendency to tell a story of how we have gone through something similar. While sharing similar experiences can deepen connections, it is often better to just listen first and let the other person finish what they are saying, acknowledging what they have shared, perhaps by saying something like “that must have been really difficult” or “it feels like that was a really positive experience for you.” Simply encouraging someone to continue what they are saying can also foster empathy, using phrases like “uh huh” or “can you tell me more about that?”

At times when we interact with others, rather than feeling empathy or positive emotions, we may experience negative emotions. It is natural to feel this way when we perceive someone else to be acting in a hostile way, or when they are saying or doing something that we feel they shouldn’t be. There are behaviors of others that each of us feel are annoying, although what we may find annoying is not the same as what someone else does. For instance, we may feel annoyed when someone is not paying attention to us, or when we feel someone has said something insensitive. When this happens, if we are paying attention, we will notice an emotional reaction, perhaps a sense of annoyance, resistance, or even anger. These actions of others are called “triggers” for they trigger an emotional reaction in us. When this happens, it is again useful to pause and notice what we are feeling, without judgment. We can notice “oh, I’m feeling really annoyed right now”.   Our typical reaction might be to not like feeling this way and to judge it, saying to ourselves “I shouldn’t be annoyed”. Or we might just react to feeling annoyed, and say something we might later regret, such as “Why don’t you just do your job?”. Neither of these reactions is likely to facilitate reaching the end we are trying to achieve. In the first case, we may just suppress our feelings and not say anything. In the second, we may irritate the other person so they don’t want to help us. A third option is to notice we’re feeling annoyed without judging it, perhaps even with curiosity, wondering why we feel so annoyed. These feelings are often deeply rooted in our past life experiences, and if we trace them back they often arise out of rules we learned from our families of origin (but that is a topic for another Musing).

More immediately, once we recognize how we’re feeling, we have less need to react to the feeling itself, and can respond in a more thoughtful and aware manner. We notice we’re annoyed, and that’s ok because we know it’s because something has triggered us. Noticing that we feel annoyed, we now have a choice, do we want to react out of annoyance, or respond in a less reactive and potentially more productive way?

So communicating mindfully is about pausing and paying attention, both to what we’re feeling and to our understanding of others’ experiences. Listening is key to fostering this understanding. When we feel ourselves having a strong emotional reaction, it is especially important to pause, noticing what we’re feeling without judgment, and then proceeding to respond with this awareness.

Filed Under: Monthly Musings