By Sophia Godkin, PhD
When you speak with someone, are you really listening or are you just planning what you will say next as you await your turn to be heard? Are you paying attention to what the other person is really feeling and really saying or are you only listening for their words?
The most precious and holy of all our life experiences happens when we interact with another person. It is through sharing ourselves with others that we learn, grow, and adapt to the ever-changing world around us. It is how we glean the information we need to solve a problem just when we are feeling hopeless about finding a solution. It is how we share creative insights and ideas that give rise to our dreams, purpose, and vision for changing the world for the better. It is how we receive love just when we need it most and give love just when they – our friend, partner, acquaintance, work colleague, neighbor, parent, sibling, or other – need it most.
To receive the solutions, dreams, and love often contained in our conversations, there is one thing we must learn how to do, and that is to communicate mindfully. Mindfulness, by definition, teaches us to open our hearts to whatever is going on within and around us, and to whomever is passing by, sitting across from, or speaking to us. In its essence, mindfulness means letting ourselves show up, be present, letting down the cages, barricades, and walls we have built up to shield ourselves over time, and opening our senses to the present reality that is both within and around us. In conversation, mindfulness means the difference between a purposeless exchange and a loving, compassionate exchange that serves both you and your conversation partner to the highest capacity.
So how do you transform your conversations from mindless to mindful? Just follow and work on implementing these 4 tips:
#1- Engage genuinely. Before you start speaking, tune in to your heart and ask what wants to be said. When you speak from your heart, you speak to the heart of the other. You speak to the essence of who this person is at the level of their soul rather than to this person as merely an object receiving what you are saying. Take care in knowing that every word that you speak has the potential to create trust, build a relationship, heal conflict, and allow you to connect more deeply with yourself and with the other person. As you speak more and more from your heart and less from the confines of your mind, you will begin to notice that your conversations can be simultaneously more truthful, accepting, and compassionate. So let your fears, concerns, and self-doubts be known and allow yourself to transition into an emotionally safe space from which you can speak genuinely from your heart.
#2- Truly listen. When we speak, we share of ourselves and we hope to be received. To allow a person to feel received requires us, as the listener, to drop any agenda we have for the interaction and any direction we hope for the conversation to go, and rather to engage with the other person genuinely and with curiosity. The fact that “most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply” (Stephen R. Covey) is what prevents mindful, meaningful conversation from occurring. However, when we can dissolve any desire we have to reply before really hearing the other’s words, and to change our own thoughts or feelings or the thoughts or feelings of the person to whom we are speaking, then and only then can we listen with full, unbridled attention.
Furthermore, it is when we stop talking to ourselves while the other is talking to us that we are truly listening. In fact, true listening has been defined as the moment you stop thinking your own thoughts and start thinking my thoughts. And in order to tune into the thoughts and emotional experience of another and truly step into a space of empathy (the fabric of true connection), we have to first step out of our own thoughts, emotions, and desires.
#3- Know when to hold space. In any conversation, there are opportune times to share, and there are opportune times to stay silent. Practice being aware of the person to whom you are speaking so that you can easily know the difference between when to speak and when to be quiet, and therefore be less likely to interrupt. Remember that communication is a collaborative activity in which you and another person are creating shared meaning from shared dialogue. At times, the urge to speak, whether to share our own point of view, to comfort another, or one of many other reasons, becomes so great that we forget the power of silence. Silence, when appropriately timed, says a lot more than words ever can.
#4- Listen beyond the words. Be aware of the tone and intensity of your voice when speaking. Is the tone and intensity of your voice communicating something different than the words you are speaking, therefore producing a different message altogether? Maybe there is a charged emotion arising within you and you need to take a few moments to yourself before you continue speaking. Whatever it is, listening beyond merely the words that you or your conversation partner is sharing dramatically enriches the exchange.
Furthermore, communication happens not only through our lips and ears, but also through our eyes and entire body. In fact, communication happens predominantly through non-verbal channels. When we are unsure of what someone means through the words they are using, we rely almost exclusively on their tone of voice and facial and physical appearance as they are speaking. Practice maintaining eye contact with the person to whom you are speaking. Notice whether your bodily posture sends the message of “I am engaged and listening to every word you say” or whether it sends more of a “I can’t seem to maintain interest in what you are saying and actually, I might have something far more interesting to say” vibe.
Then tune in to the non-verbal messages their body is sharing with you. The language of the body says as much, if not more, than the language of the lips. Does the emotional connotation of their words match the emotion being expressed by their body? What does their verbal and physical communication reveal about how they are feeling in this very moment?
It is body language that allows information to be both shared and received simultaneously. While you are speaking, you’re already getting clues about how your message was received through what the other person is sharing nonverbally, for example through their facial expressions.
When it comes to how we live our lives, communicating mindfully is everything. Let your conversations become a reflection of who you are. And let who you are flow into each and every one of your conversations. After all, conversation is how we unlock the doors to love, understanding, appreciation, and all of the experiences that make life worth living.