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  • Vanessa Barajas, MPH

Practicing Mindfulness when Communicating

When we want kids to express themselves in ways other than a tantrum, we say “Use your words.” But I often wonder, do we adults really know how to use our words mindfully, in ways that help and don’t harm?

As we age, our relationship with words and speech changes. When we’re young we tend to believe that what we have to say is extraordinary, original, and right in some overarching, universal way. We have a strong need to be known and recognized, to establish who we are. It feels important thus to have our words heard and to use our words to correct any wrongs we encounter. Our words are representations of our self; without them, we don’t feel we exist.

But as we evolve and hopefully a bit of humility sets in, we often realize how little we actually know, how much less we have to say than we thought. We come to understand how powerful our words actually are, how deeply the words we choose impact our relationships and our own wellbeing. If we’re paying attention, we assume a greater sense of responsibility for the words we put into the world. Practicing mindful speech causes us to speak less and listen more. This is a positive thing. Listening leads to learning.

As well as being mindful of our true feelings, it’s also useful to become clear on what we want to get out of communicating with a particular person.

Do we want them to feel bad about how they’ve made us feel?

Do we want to punish them with our words?

Or do we want to feel understood?

Do we want to find a resolution to a problem?

Maybe we want to understand the other person better, as well as helping them understand us.

When communicating around an event, like a scheduled meeting or presentation, take the time to set your intentions for the conversation. You may find it helpful to actually write these down or start a Word document with your intentions. This helps the difficult conversations go more smoothly and it reduces any anxiety you may have.

Let’s say for example you need to have a concerning conversation with an employee who is falling behind, making mistakes, etc. You can write: “My intentions are to help coach this employee to improve their performance. I will speak from the heart and be direct and respectful in my feedback.”

When speaking, how we choose to phrase our feelings is important. The types of words we use can make a big difference in how we are understood, as can our tone. Even if the words we are using seem diplomatic, if our tone is bitter, sarcastic or mean, those words will count for very little.

Most of us get defensive when we feel attacked, and so it makes sense to try and limit this if we want open and meaningful dialogue with someone. After all, the person may not even be aware that they have caused us any bad feelings!

Rather than listing all the things we feel that the person did wrong, it might be more helpful to speak openly about how we feel, and why.

For example, instead of saying, “You ignored me! I’m really angry at you!” we can mindfully rephrase it and say something like, “I don’t know if you meant to, but I felt ignored by you earlier. It made me feel really hurt and angry. Can we talk about what happened?”

We can notice our tone, and try to take as much blame out of it as is possible. This way, we are allowing space for a real, two-way conversation. We are staying open-minded about what really happened; although we feel upset, we recognize the fact that we may have misunderstood something, or that the other person is going through their own emotions.

Mindful communication isn’t about getting it right all the time. We’re all dealing with our own internal worlds, and sometimes we just can’t avoid misunderstandings and heated conversations. But we can become more mindful communicators at any time, just as soon as we notice that we’re stuck in a blaming mindset.

Even if we notice half-way through an argument, we can make efforts to re-evaluate our stance and approach the situation with more mindfulness and compassion.

Remember to stay present and be aware of what’s going on. Pay attention to how your body and emotions feel, then try to maintain that self-connection and stay present. When faced with an exciting creative idea, are you prone to go off on your own tangent or stay with the speaker? When you feel a stress or anger response to someone’s point of view, are you able to let them finish speaking without interrupting?

By monitoring yourself, it’s possible to come back to the moment any time you’re pulled away from an opportunity to be present. The goal is to maintain a calm and relaxed demeanor that allows you to be fully connected to yourself and others.

If you want to learn more about mindful speech, listen to the latest podcast episode on A Mindful Moment with Teresa McKee titled “Using Our Words Mindfully”. Click here to listen.

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