How to Have a Mindful Conversation
Originally published on Mindful.org on November 18, 2016
Our toughest talks are full of half-truths—not because we're serial liars, but because we're survivalists. Here's how to bring clarity and intention to your most important relationships.
Most of us would agree that honesty is not only a good policy, it’s what we most want and need in our relationships with others. Particularly in our closest relationships, a willingness to tell the truth is key to minimizing pain and maximizing understanding.
And by truth, I’m not talking about some moralistic parting of clouds and downward-shining declarations from on high. I’m not even referring to what most people are focused on when talking about “honesty” in relationships—not the absence of lying or casting around blame about the who, what, where, when and how of our daily doings and misdoings. No, I’m focused on big “T” truth that is always accurate, can never be dismissed or argued away, and is always available. I’m referring to the truth of our present moment experience—the truth that arises amid the charge of interactions.
Have I ever felt the throb of anger and resentment and told someone I was “fine” when asked?
Have I ever stayed quiet about a loved one’s unhealthy or risky choices even though every fiber of my body was screaming out with dread?
Have I ever snapped, pushed, pulled, or shut down with someone and said it was something about them without saying or doing anything about how I was actually feeling and thinking in that moment?
Have I ever said “yes” when my strong gut feeling was “no” or vice versa?
Few of us tell the “full” truth about anything approaching a consistent basis (authors included), particularly in our close relationships where there’s a great deal at stake. We hedge, hide, and flail about with colleagues, family members, and friends—even though we may not be “lying” about the overall and surface-level facts of a given situation. We do so because our brains are biologically wired (after eons of evolution) to make snap judgments and prompt rapid emotional reactions in order to help us manage threats—it’s an ancient form of self-protection that served us well in our cave-dwelling days, but no longer matches the social nuance and (relative) physical safety of the modern world.
For example, I may have been telling the truth that law school was a bad fit for me when I was in my early twenties, and even that the way things were being taught wasn’t necessarily the ideal way to promote deep learning for many students (at least those like me) . . . however, I was not telling the truth of my actual, present moment experience.
“Legal education is really like military boot camp,” I’d say at the time. “Pressure cookers of anxiety and competition are not the way to go.” And yet there was the full truth: I was terrified (as if a saber-toothed tiger were lunging at me), full of self-doubt, and confused as to why I’d chosen that path. I felt the bodily sensations of anxiety and the compulsive urges and behaviors of avoidance on a daily basis, and my thoughts had a chokehold on me with assumptions of failure and rejection. Not only was this full truth absent from my conversations with loved ones, I blamed professors, fellow students, and even my family and friends for my predicament. I rarely (if ever) spoke and acted from a connection with my actual experience. And this is where mindfulness can be extremely helpful. When we’re surging with discomfort and emotional pain, tapping into our full experience and communicating mindfully can help us get unstuck.
What Do We Lie About?
We lie (and omit and project onto others) about the only three things we have at our disposal during communication with others:
Our bodies (sensations and emotions)
and what what’s most important to us to feel whole, intact, and like our lives are on track: our core values or needs.
Again, we “lie,” not because we’re bad or inept, but because rapid, reactive blaming and bias toward others as threats to our well-being has helped us stay alive and thrive as a species in the past. Though we are bound to the same biology of our ancestors, with mindfulness (because it actually has been experimentally proven to change our brains in measurable and meaningful ways), we have a shot at slowing down, sidestepping bias and misperception, and cultivating compassionate speech and action. Mindfulness gives us a small gap in our processing of social communication whereby we can let the full truth seep in.
We “lie,” not because we’re bad or inept, but because rapid, reactive blaming and bias toward others as threats to our well-being has helped us stay alive and thrive as a species in the past.
Mindfulness practices are often discussed in “formal” terms—sitting on cushions for 10 or 20 minutes (or even more) and placing our attention on an “object” such as our breath. Keeping it there, gently and non-judgmentally “coming back” to the object when attention wanders. These and other formal mindfulness practices are very important, and can help us develop the clarity, focus, and calm that makes communication (even when there’s heat to the moment) more doable. In addition, in order to learn to break the patterns of “dishonesty” that create so much havoc in our relationships, we need a mindfulness practice that is much more more rubber-on-road.
What follows are a series of mindful “truth-telling” practice steps I use in my work as a psychologist with families, couples, parents, and individuals. I do my best to use it myself. We all fall short of the freedom and ease that can flow from more consistent mindfulness in our communication—the full truth that tends to go unaddressed and unarticulated.
The benefits of telling this version of the truth are many:
dissolving of perhaps intergenerational patterns of knee-jerk (and self-defeating) reactivity
increased (and mutual) understanding and compassion
improved collaboration and problem-solving, and
increased satisfaction and well-being in our relationships.
Parents can learn to stop passing on unhelpful emotional inheritances to their children. Colleagues can learn the power of authenticity and compassion for really “getting ahead” in an organic, and mutually beneficial way. All of us can learn to see behind one another’s behavior (which may spark upset in us) and speak to the truth of what’s really there—sensations, thoughts, and core values.
And as we depart from the roller coaster of national elections and embark on that of the holiday season, may we all learn to speak the full truth.
Mindfulness Practice: Grabbing Truth and Letting Go of Being Right
1. Before, during, or right after a difficult interaction with someone, pause for a moment.
2. Notice sensations of anxiety, discomfort, or frustration that are showing up in your body. Watch them move in your body with curious, compassionate attention. Breathe into and penetrate them. See the “truth” of them—a truth that is direct and undeniable.
3. Slowly tighten your right hand into a fist. Draw your attention to the sensations there in your hand—the pulsing and tension. Imagine all the tension, clenching or surging in your body gravitating to the sensations of your fist.
4. This entire practice may only last a few breaths, but notice how rapidly and readily you can direct your attention to this one area of your body. Breathe into the tension in your hand, regardless of what the other person has already said or done (or might). You get to choose how you relate to this tension in your body.
5. Now let go of the tension in your right hand and open it, facing the palm up. Notice the sensations in your hand, and the differences and changes as they occur. Watch how you can let go of being “right” and just witness the truth of what both your body and thoughts are saying. No need to grab onto or shove at anything—if you’re willing, you can just let it all be just as it is. Bodily sensations, thoughts passing through your mind.
6. And now with a final, deep breath, ask yourself: What matters most to me in this moment? What one thing do I most need or value? Perhaps it’s acceptance, validation, collaboration, emotional space, or even honesty itself.
7. And finally . . . Am I willing to speak from the full truth of this practice? Consider saying out loud what is happening:
Give words to your bodily sensations (clenching, pulsing, surging, heat, cold, numbness, vibrating, or whatever)
State the truth of your emotion from the labels of anger, frustration, sadness, fear, confusion, shock/dismay, or (I dare say) joy
Point out what you most need in ONE or TWO words (validation, acceptance, understanding, patience, collaboration, safety, respect, etc.)
8. Consider opening to the other person’s perspective (i.e. actually listening in order to truly understand them versus waiting to make your point, vent your feelings, or insert blame). Invite the other person via your mindful honesty to speak their own truth.
9. Notice, notice, notice what this practice of mindful truth-telling brings.