Wise men speak because they have something to say;
Fools because they have to say something.
As humans we use speech to communicate with each other on a daily basis. While these situations usually lead to a harmonious outcome, many end confusion and ill will. This is down to misunderstanding and a breakdown in communication. This is usually accidental, although there are times when obfuscation through language seems to be the main aim of any communication. Donald Rumsfeld seemed to be an expert at this.
This breakdown in two-way communication is much more common when the conversation is negative, or when it involves real or perceived criticism. Under these circumstances, excessive emotional responses to neutral information are quite common. We find it hard to tell other people that we are not happy with some aspect of their behaviour, or to hear them say the same kind of thing to us. This uncomfortable experience makes it all too easy to lose sight of our good intentions, and to fall back on what might be our habitual, unhelpful, and inappropriate ways of behaving, with the inevitable poor outcome.
When we feel attacked and make an emotional response the main drawback is that we stop listening to the conversation and instead we become reactive. This means that we either do not hear, or find ourselves ignoring any other information that might be available. Real communication is no longer possible in this situation and all ends in acrimony and recrimination.
For accurate communication we need to be able to develop a mutual understanding of the issues at hand. We need to understand what we each mean by our words, what the other person understands us to mean, what we feel about the conversation, and what we need to get out of it. Without this we are unable to accurately communicate. As Wittgenstein put it, we need to be playing the same language game as the other person with whom we are talking.
Fortunately it is possible to handle our interactions with others sensitively and confidently on a much more regular basis.
The first step is mindful listening.
This is a very direct way of putting mindfulness to work in our daily lives, and one with major benefits for us and for others.
Mindful listening helps to build rapport and to demonstrate empathy with others, it leads to improved understanding and reduces any confusion around the message we are trying to understand. It helps us to negotiate the differences between those involved in a conversation, and so to reduce problems between people. This has the added advantage of bringing about an improvement in our relationships.
Mindful listening requires us to give our full attention to the person speaking, not allowing ourselves to become distracted by our own thoughts and feelings, or to give in to any ill will or resentment that we might feel. By avoiding misunderstandings it minimises the chances of frustration or anger developing about ours or others perceived behaviours – especially when we are giving or receiving criticism. We are able to express our opinions freely and appropriately with a greater chance of being heard.
Listening well requires our active participation in the process. We need to give our attention to what the other person is telling us. Our FULL attention. It is too easy to become distracted by other stimuli in our environment. Our thoughts and worries, the whistle on our phone telling us a message has arrive, the television or even events outside the window.
Mindful listening is a reflective process, we listen as if we are going to paraphrase and then reflect back what the other has said. Giving them our interpretation and understanding of what has been said, to check that we have fully understood both the sense and significance of what we have heard. While the other person is talking we need to listen to the conversation while making mental notes of their main points and their overall message.
There are many circumstances under which we would actually give or ask for feedback as part of a conversation, asking directions and checking that we have understood correctly, or summing up in a meeting, however it would be weird to give feedback in every situation: “So let me just check to see if I have this right, you want me to pass the salt? Is that correct?”
When we listen in a reflective way we make sure that we give our full attention to the conversation. This mindful listening helps us to avoid becoming distracted, allowing us to listen before we start to formulate our own response.
Our assumptions, judgements, beliefs and upbringing can all distort what we think we hear in a conversation. Mindful listening helps us to avoid these pitfalls. Mindfulness is the deliberate, non-judgemental focussing on whatever we choose to pay attention to. By it’s very nature reflective listening is mindful.
Secondly, we need to clarify our understanding.
Mindful listening makes it much more likely that we will notice gaps in our current understanding, gaps of which we might have been completely unaware. With this knowledge about ourselves we are more likely to be able to ask the right questions to give us the necessary extra information, and to do this at the right moment so that we can clarify the issues.
It is important to stay in the present moment, and not push the conversation forward too quickly. The person who is speaking might need time to gather their thoughts, and we should make sure that they have finished talking, and are not just pausing briefly, before we rush into the conversation with our own opinions. Silence is not dangerous, and can be allowed to persist if necessary.
Speak clearly, if you speak at all;
carve every word before you let it fall.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
In the same way we should allow ourselves the same space, so that we can gather our thoughts and consider what has been said and to reflect on our response before we answer. Time taken for reflection and tolerating silence helps to keep us in the here and now and to stay focussed on the task in hand.
The third element is to pay attention to the non-verbal elements of our communication.
The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.
Only about 7% of the information and meaning of our utterances is contained in the words that we use. The rest of the information is made up of “non-verbal” elements. This non verbal communication includes our posture, tone of voice, the degree of interest which we seem to show, even the words we choose to stress, and our facial expression and other elements. It is entirely possible to make our words mean the exact opposite just by how we speak them. It helps if we can monitor the body language and so forth of ourselves and our conversational partner. This is especially important when there is a consistent pattern of the verbal and non verbal elements being consistently out of sync with each other.
Monitoring in this way helps us to remain cognisant of other people’s feelings and underlying emotional response to the subjects under discussion.
To summarise, there are three main steps to mindful communication.
- Active listening. Paying attention mindfully to what the other person is saying. Using a reflective listening approach. We need to resist the urge to interrupt or put forward our own arguments or opinion’s too soon. We wish to understand what the other is trying to communicate.
- Clarify. We can ask questions and feedback our understanding of what has been said in trying to better understand the issues. We need to make sure that all parties are on the same page otherwise much time will be wasted going around in circles arguing about inessential elements.
- Respond. When we are sure that we understand we can take a moment or two to consider what we have heard. This space gives us a chance to reflect on what we need or want to say in reply in order to keep the conversation moving forwards. If we can avoid immediate responses made out of our emotional reactions we are more likely to have a fruitful, non-confrontational discussion.
If we can remain mindful when we communicate, we should have fewer of those conversations which only seem to make matters worse, when what we say out of our emotional responses only serves to throw petrol on the fire. Instead we can have more interactions that lead to greater understanding and clarity about the issues under discussion.
Such conversations are helpful in all areas of our lives, from our personal relationship to clarifying issues at work. The skills that are required are well worth practicing.