Last week I wrote an article for clinicians about how to do interpersonal mindfulness in sessions. I’ve read and heard so much about mindfulness in the last ten years but I’m particularly interested in talking about ways that mindfulness can benefit others and society as a whole, and not just ourselves.
As it turns out, therapists, like the rest of us, tend to have wandering minds, emotional triggers, personal biases, and urges to escape uncomfortable moments that arise between two people. And let’s face it—you might pay them, but you’re not homies. Sharing an intimate moment of intense personal pain, even with a trained professional, can get real awkward, real fast.
Anyway, in the process of writing the article I learned some great tips for mindful communication which I thought would be worth sharing. These tips came from a clinical text, but I think they’re useful in everyday life. Like if you have a difficult partner, a toxic parent, or a co-worker you’d like to punch. Here goes.
I honestly don’t understand why this is so hard for people. Is this not the first rule you learn when you’re old enough to speak? Were you raised by wolves?
If you interrupt people often, especially during emotionally-charged conversations, it’s sure to make you look and sound like an out of control child. But there are other, not necessarily verbal ways of interrupting too, which can be equally damaging. I had a therapist who used to start frowning at me the minute I started talking about my ex, as if to say “Ew, are you seriously still talking about him?”
If you’re saying words, making judgmental facial expressions, kissing your teeth—even if it’s in solidarity against some antagonist being described—you’re interjecting inappropriately and taking the attention away from what the person is trying to share.
So chill, hush, and in the meantime remember…
Not everything requires a response.
I attended a compassion-focused therapy workshop once and we did an exercise where we had to listen without providing any feedback whatsoever, as a stranger shared something with us that they were deeply ashamed of.
One of the things we learned through that practice was that often times when we’re responding to someone who is distressed, we’re really just trying to get ourselves of being present in an uncomfortable moment. For example, if my man tells me he feels like a failure, I immediately feel awkward. Is he a failure? Do I sometimes think he might be a failure? Am I a failure? I must get out of this moment. So my urge is to immediately say “Not even! Look how awesome you are at x, y, z.”
So because I’m uncomfortable being in that moment with him when he is genuinely feeling like a failure, I end up invalidating him (no babe, your feelings are wrong, you’re not a failure) and I miss out on the opportunity to get to know him on a deeper level. I never get to know what matters so much to him that it could effect him to this extent.
When I give in to my urge to automatically debate what he’s saying because it makes me uncomfortable, I’m not helping him, I’m just selfishly getting as far away from connecting with him in his moment of pain as possible.
Notice when your mind starts making what someone is sharing about their own experience, about you.
Do you ever notice how sometimes when you’re supposed to be listening to someone, you end up going into your own memory and finding something that’s somehow similar (that’s just like how I felt when so-and-so looked at me sideways that time)?
Reel yourself in.
Sure, being able to relate to people is great, but first of all don’t be self-absorbed and second of all when you do this you’re going to start projecting your stuff onto them.
There’s a good chance that they actually feel nothing like the way you felt when your boyfriend did to you what her boyfriend did to her. There’s a good chance the circumstances are actually entirely different. Bring yourself back.
Don’t let your own baggage get in the way of being present to what another person is actually saying about their private experience. Keep in mind that they’re bringing an entirely different set of core values, beliefs about who they are, personal history, worldview, and so forth. There’s only one way for you to truly know what they’re going through…
Again, don’t assume that just because you remember a time when something similar happened to you, you know exactly what is going on internally with another person. You really don’t. Ask questions. Investigate. Be open to the possibility that someone is having an experience that you’ve never considered before. Do not let self-absorption narrow your ability to see what’s really going on.
There’s something that the authors of the book I used to write my clinical piece (Treating Co-Occuring Adolescent PTSD and Trauma) mention called “embodied listening.” What this basically means is, use your body like an anchor.
As feelings emerge in reaction to what you’re hearing, a good way to not get caught up in all the judgments, personal storylines, and mental chatter that accompany your feelings is to pay attention to your bodily sensations. Don’t obsess so much over the feeling in your stomach that you no longer hear what is being said, of course. But the cool thing about the body is that it can only be in the present moment. Use it to help you focus your attention back to what’s directly in front of you.
Chill. Remember that you are allowed to take pauses.
Taking pauses during a conversation can help you reduce your attachment to and obsession with the storylines that are being verbalized. It can also help minimize automatic reactions. Don’t aim to be perfect, or even to pause for a few moments every time you’re about to speak (that’d be weird), but try to be aware of the fact that pausing is an option that is available to you at any time.
Chill. As my yoga teacher in India always says, “why you are hurrying?”
So use these tips. They came from a reputable source. They were recommended specifically for therapist working with teens who are struggling with substance abuse and post-traumatic stress, but I think they’re useful in any context that requires listening and connecting with someone.