Mindful communication

One of the most challenging circumstances for practising mindfulness, at least for me, is in the midst of a difficult conversation. Sometimes the other person can seem like a wily tennis opponent who is constantly hitting back your ball with plenty of spin and unexpected angles, leaving you standing in the middle of the court as the ball shoots past, with your mouth open and thinking, ‘what on earth was that?’ Apart from conventional small talk about the weather, most conversations are by their nature unpredictable, and if we’re feeling under attack, we may struggle to come up with a coherent response. Afterwards, we can think of all kinds of witty and clever repartees, but in the heat of the moment, it’s often not easy to reason clearly, let alone articulate our feelings in a skilful manner.

We can then slip all too easily into rigid communication patterns, based on what we’ve learnt in our past, both within our families and also the cultural context we grew up in. Some people are very skilled at assertive communication, where they are able to calmly express their point of view without attacking or ignoring the other person. For many of us, however, the communication patterns we learnt either involved withdrawal or aggression – or even a combination of the two in passive/aggressive behaviours. In the midst of a stressful encounter, these are the patterns we tend to revert to, despite our best intentions to try something different next time we find ourselves in this kind of situation. Decades of social conditioning and learnt behaviours are not so easy to undo.

The main way in which mindfulness can help us during a stressful encounter is by tuning into our body sensations as we are talking. This may seem counter-intuitive – who’s got time to worry about what might be happening in our bodies when we’re busy trying to think of a clever response and at the same time pay close attention to the other person, not just to their words but their body language and other non-verbal signals. And in any case, what have our bodies got to do with this conversation?

In fact, just as the other person’s body language gives you many valuable clues about what’s really going on, so does your body hold invaluable information, especially in the visceral region in the abdominal area. The well-known ‘gut instinct’ is a reality, based on our nervous system which sends particularly important information from this region to our brain. Often, if we’re feeling agitated, this information ends up in the more primitive parts of the brain, where it just makes us feel vaguely uneasy. However, by using mindfulness, we can bring the information to the front of the brain, the central pre-frontal cortex, where we are able to use it in a much more conscious and sophisticated manner. Ironically, by tuning into our own physical body sensations, we get a clearer idea of what is going on with the other person as well.

This helps us to also see their point of view, and the conversation becomes much richer, less confrontational. It may not instantly solve the difficulties, and we may never feel at our most effective when talking to this person. But anything which can take the heat out off a challenging situation, and help us be more present and grounded during the encounter, is likely to be helpful. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, sometimes the best we can hope for is not to escalate the situation.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, when you’re talking to someone who is mildly irritating, try tuning into your body sensations during the conversation. Notice if this makes any difference to your experience of the encounter.

Anja Tanhane

 

Self knowledge

‘He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.’

― Lao Tzu

If knowledge is power, as Francis Bacon famously said, then self-knowledge can be seen as self-empowerment. We think this should be easy – after all, who better to know us than us ourselves? Yet, among the rush and stress of daily life, it can be surprisingly difficult to have a sense of what’s really going on inside us. In the midst of countless stimuli coming at us from outside, our internal signals can often remain unnoticed – that is, until they become so strong they can no longer be ignored. A major health crisis, the breakdown of a relationship, finding ourselves on the wrong side of the power dynamics at work – these common scenarios were often preceded by months if not years of subtle signals which we might have been ignoring at our cost.

It’s as if the temperature inside us is gradually increasing in intensity, bubbling away and gaining steam, until one day the lid is blown off and we literally ‘lose it’. This can be an outbreak of violence, such as a road rage incidence, or it can be more covert. Most of us would probably not attack someone physically, but we might become sarcastic, make some snide comment designed to hurt, or engage in passive-aggressive behaviour in the office or with our family. We might tell our boss a few home truths which would have been better addressed in a more professional manner, or we might say to our partner ‘not now’ when they want to raise a concern with us, stonewalling behind the fact it’s Friday night, or Sunday morning, or just never the right time to talk. Regardless of how it is expressed in our lives, this subterranean simmering tension, if not addressed, is unlikely to bring out the best in us.

By mindfully attuning to the early, very subtle signals, we can deal with our issues at a much earlier stage, before they get out of hand. We might notice a subtle tightening in the pit of our stomach every time we walk into the office, and ask ourselves – ‘what is going on here?’ We might feel nervous when confronting a relative, but be aware that this is a conversation which must be had, even if it is difficult for us. We might also notice subtle signs that some of our behaviour is no longer aligning with our values. Perhaps we ‘forgot’ to invite a less popular colleague to drinks after work, and notice sensations of discomfort in our bodies when we realise he or she is really feeling quite hurt.

By tuning in regularly to our bodily sensations, thought patterns and emotions, we are acting from a place of greater clarity and understanding. We do become more ‘enlightened’, as Lao Tzu said, in that we are shining an illuminating light on aspects of our lives we may have preferred to ignore.

Weekly practice idea:

Stop from time to time, and notice any bodily sensations, emotions, or thought patters. They may be subtle, or quite intense. What are these signals trying to tell you – and are you willing to take their message on board?

Anja Tanhane

 

Tuning in

Leaves at creek

There are many reasons why someone chooses to take up a meditation practice, but an underlying motivation might be a desire to either tune out, or to tune in. While some meditation traditions encourage their practitioners to aim for ‘special’ states which help them to tune out from everyday concerns, mindfulness meditation is very much about tuning in – being attuned to life as it is right now. Musicians know all about tuning in – being in tune with their own internal physiological and mental processes during a performance, as well as being aware of and tuning into the musicians around them. Continue reading “Tuning in” »