Have you ever had a long conversation with someone about something meaningful in your life and by the end of the conversation you realize that the person listening to you was really not listening. In fact the other person was doing most of the talking and related everything you said back to themselves. Maybe you've even done this yourself. I know I'm guilty of not listening to family members, friends or colleagues when they really needed me to just be still and present with them as they expressed their thoughts, ideas, and feelings.
It's common to have an internal dialogue while someone is talking or to relate everything back to yourself. Most of the time while communicating you are trying to think of what to say in response to the person instead of listening. This can be a problem in many relationships, including those with our students. As educators we communicate all the time. However, too often we forget that communication also means to listen.
Communication has two elements to it: receiving information and providing information. It is an exchange and connection between people. We can elevate our communication skills by working on being more mindful, or bringing an awareness, on how we communicate and our patterns of communication. The next time you communicate pay attention to your body's reaction when you listen compared to when you talk. Pay attention if you typically listen more than you talk or vice a versa. Do you talk quickly or slowly? Do you pause a moment after someone speaks and before you speak? What type of words do you use? What are you hearing the person say to you? Below I will share a mindful communication exercise that you can practice with friends, family members, students, parents, and colleagues.
The following are steps on how to formally practice mindful communication. This practice is helpful for any conversation.
1. Find a quiet space where you can sit down comfortably, but dignified (with your back straight). Be sure that you and the other person are facing each other and can hear each other clearly.
2. Set an intention for the conversation, but be open to alternate possibilities of where the conversation goes. Be sure to also decide at this time who will speak first and how much time you'll give for each person to speak and respond.
3. Take a moment to clear your mind and focus on the conversation. Take a few deep breaths to help you calm the mind. Focus on the breath as it enters your nostrils. Pay attention to where the breath goes in your body and allow the breath to naturally go where it needs to. Don’t judge the breath or what’s on your mind.
4. As you are breathing remember to open your heart with compassion for yourself and the other person. Allowing space for the conversation to unfold naturally. You can do this by sending loving-kindness (metta) to yourself and to the person who you’ll be speaking to. You may want to practice loving-kindness or metta meditation, which I’ve created for you here, prior to practicing mindful communication, especially if the conversation will be on a difficult topic. (I also created a beautiful workbook on loving-kindness that you can find here.)
5. When you are both centered, focused and open to the conversation. The first person can start the conversation. Be sure to give the first person time and space to think (maybe even write) about what s/he wants to say.
6. While the person speaks the second person listens. This may seem like an easy enough task, but it can be difficult. Be sure to listen with an open-mind and heart. Focus on the person speaking and listen to the words s/he is using. Look at him/her directly. When listening limit your facial expressions as you listen, such as nodding, smiling, chuckling, making hand gestures, or any mimicking expressions. These physical expressions are forms of communication. By limiting your expressions you are fully focused on hearing the person speak and not interrupting their speaking with physical forms of communication.
7. When you formally practice the mindful communication practice you can limit the amount of time each person can speak, such as 5 minutes. The person speaking can use the full 5 minutes or not. If the speaker does not use the all of the allotted time s/he should gently bow to the listener to indicate that s/he is done. The speaker and listener will simply sit and with a soft focus, looking at each other. If you find looking at someone uncomfortable you can take your gaze to look beyond the person (such as above his/her shoulder or head). What may happen is that the speaker may be called to continue to speak after bowing out and compelled to return to speaking. The speaker can continue to speak until the timer goes off.
While speaking, during this formal practice, use “I” statements such as, “I feel…” “I think…” “I sense…” Additionally, only speak your truth. And be sure to also use kind words. The point of mindful communication is to be heard and speak the truth. This is not a debate. It is not about who’s “right” or “wrong.” It is about respectful speaking and listening.
8. When the 5 minutes are up the person who was listening will for 1 - 2 minutes paraphrase what s/he heard the speaker say. When paraphrasing be sure to use I statements such as, “I heard you say…” “I sense that…”
9. When the minute is up the second speaker will speak his/her thoughts. Again, using “I” statements and speaking up to 5 minutes or whatever predetermined time you both agreed on. The first speaker will now listen and focus fully on the speaker. When time is up the listener will paraphrase the speaker’s ideas and thoughts for a minute or two.
This pattern can continue for several cycles until the two parties are fully satisfied that they each had an opportunity to be heard. Note that the conversation may not come to a beautiful conclusion. The conversation may not reveal anything new. It may not resolve the problem. However, the two people have created and maintained a sacred space during this mindful practice, because it provides everyone in the conversation the dignity of speaking his/her truth and the gift of truly being heard with no interruptions.
Try this practice the next time you have to have a conversation with someone in which everyone’s full attention is needed. You can even practice this in your class. You can change the amount of time each person has to speak and it can be easily incorporated in a morning meeting or in a lesson plan in which students have to share their ideas with one another. When you practice this with students remember to be patient with them and to remind them of some of the key elements such as, no interruption, full attention, and “I” statements.