3 Important Lessons on Mindful Conversation

To perform at our best in crucial conversations, marrying mindful intentions with mindful actions helps to ensure that you can make good on your good intentions.

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You stare in stunned disbelief. “Did she really just say that? What the h*ll’s wrong with her? Didn’t she hear what I just said? I’m never going to get through to this person and have a mindful conversation.”

All of a sudden, your high-stakes conversation has just taken a sharp left turn. Your good intentions and well-laid plans have flown out the window.

You start to feel off balance. Heat rises up the back of your neck. Breathing becomes heavier. Palms sweat. Mouth dries. Thinking scrambles. Focus narrows. Run away or lash out?

Now isn’t exactly the time to excuse yourself so you can go down the hall and meditate for 20 minutes. Instead, you’ll need to collect yourself in the moment to practice mindfulness in action.

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Whether you are what I call “mindful-curious,” new to mindfulness, or an experienced practitioner, chances are that you’ve heard a lot about solitude, stillness, and silence. For sure, many solo practices that require these conditions are invaluable for training yourself to become more self-aware in a non-judgmental way.

Yet to practice being mindful in social interactions, you can’t be alone, still, or quiet. By definition, you have to be with others, you have to act, and you have to communicate. So what’s a well-meaning practitioner to do?

To perform at our best in crucial conversations, marrying mindful intentions with mindful actions helps to ensure that you can make good on your good intentions.

Your ability to be simultaneously curious and grounded is more likely to communicate that you are mature and self-possessed, and that you are willing to listen and act with goodwill toward your audience, all of which contributes to your credibility and a constructive conversation.

While practicing mindfulness in action is a wide-ranging and lifelong pursuit, you can get started with a few simple practices for cultivating poise in crucial conversations. Start by practicing the following exercises solo one at a time, then graduate to putting them together in mindful conversations with others.

Solo practice can take the form of visualizing before a conversation or reflecting after. Keep your mental rehearsals creative and flexible, trying out different approaches that will help you improvise fluidly in the moment. Keep reflections constructive by focusing on what you can learn and apply in the future. Avoid slipping into ruminating on the wrongs you’ve suffered or justifying your righteous actions. I’ve found visualizing and reflecting in journal writing to be especially effective.

When you are ready, incorporate lessons learned in solo practice into live in-the-moment conversations. You may start with lower-stakes and then progress to higher-stakes practice. Lower-stakes situations generally have a lower emotional charge and less riding on them, such as small talk over coffee or leading a routine meeting. Higher-stakes situations generally carry more potential for emotional reactivity and may have a lot riding on them – for example, coaching someone to up his performance, negotiating a delicate deal, or handling conflict skillfully during a tense exchange.

3 Important Lessons on Mindful Conversation

1) Fully Arrive

Like many yoga and meditation teachers, I often begin my weekly community center yoga classes by asking students to take a moment to “fully arrive.” As it turns out, this is a really useful practice for all kinds of situations off the yoga mat too. So I also ask faculty and staff to “fully arrive” in mindfulness-at-work sessions, and I ask students to “fully arrive” to prepare for giving a presentation or role-playing a difficult conversation. You can adopt this practice too as a prelude and interlude in crucial conversations.

Basic RGB

Of course, there’s always a bit of irony in the direction to “fully arrive.” Checking in with ourselves, we can smile quietly when we recognize that although we might be here in body, we’re not yet here in spirit. We might notice that we’re still gnashing our teeth over that slow driver who stole our parking spot 10 minutes ago. Or maybe we’re having a hard time letting go of worry over an overflowing email inbox. Or maybe we’re distracted by feeling overworked or sluggish from low morale or burnout. In conversation, we often have a history with others that casts a light or shadow over the interaction before it even starts, affecting the way we show up and perform.

Just as in yoga class, “fully arriving” for conversation means making some small postural adjustments to support transitioning into your own present-moment awareness. But in conversation, “fully arriving” by embodying an alert-yet-relaxed posture has the added benefit of communicating to others attentiveness and respect. In this way, you can use your “fully arriving” practice to do double duty as inner work that helps you and outer work that helps you connect.

So how do you embody “alert-yet-relaxed”? If you are in a crucial conversation, you probably aren’t sitting cross-legged on a yoga mat or meditation cushion, so try practicing a naturalistic version of Mountain Pose, either standing or seated in a chair. Rather than practicing in an exaggerated, rigid fashion, see if you can practice with an air of poise that is supple enough to move in any direction as the situation calls for and the conversation unfolds.

Mindful Conversation Practice: Alert-Yet-Relaxed Posture

  • Whether standing or sitting, place the soles of your feet on the floor at about hip’s distance apart.
  • If standing, distribute your weight evenly between the two feet. Lift energetically through the arches of the feet, gently waking up the muscles in your legs and toning through the lower and upper abdomen.
  • If sitting, wiggle your fanny way back in the chair and sit upright on your sitz bones. Keep your feet flat on the floor and knees in line with the hip bones to avoid clenching between the inner thighs.
  • In both cases, keep your pelvis neutral and elongate your spine by lifting through the sides of your torso. Relax the tops of your shoulders while lengthening through the back of the neck. Picture the head sitting lightly on the top of the spine. Arms can be held gently at your sides.
  • Gaze ahead softly, while maintaining an open and responsive brow and facial expression. Begin to memorize this alert-yet-relaxed countenance so you can re-center and return to it at any time.

Practicing the alert-yet-relaxed posture solo can help you build muscle memory so that you can more readily shift into a constructive stance during conversation. For example, in a low-stakes conversation, you may become aware that you’ve slipped into slumping sideways in your chair. On the inside you may feel fatigued and just want to get comfortable, but on the outside you realize that this posture risks communicating disinterest. Shifting subtly into an alert-yet-relaxed posture again will not only help you brush away mental cobwebs, but can also help you communicate that you are in fact interested in the other person and your conversation.

Your alert-yet-relaxed practice can be even more valuable in high-stakes conversations. Suppose in the heat of the moment you catch your neck tightening, your forearms tensing, and your body starting to lean forward strongly. Your solo practice can help you be aware of how much you’ve drifted from your constructive home-base position. You may realize that your high-tension posture reflects but also feeds your growing internal pressure. Since you are in a social interaction, you become aware that although this posture is in one sense authentic, it isn’t going to serve you very well because it is likely to escalate an interpersonal conflict as the other person picks up on your increasingly aggressive body language. Your low-stakes practice then can help you subtly shift back into a more constructive alert-yet-relaxed stance that can cool your inner fire and defuse the risk of conflict.

2) Breathe In Curiosity, Breathe Out Stability

mindful conversation

As part of your solo practice, once you have arranged yourself in an alert-yet-relaxed posture, you might bring your attention to your breathing. At first you may just observe your breath without changing anything, using it as a kind of dispassionate information, much as you would in a mindfulness meditation exercise. Sometimes just noticing your breath in this way leads it to evening out and growing more still and quiet, which can have a calming effect.

Showing up all blissed out, however, may not be an optimal state for performing well in a mindful conversation, especially in a high-stakes one. As you probably know from experience and research has shown, people tend to perform best at moderate levels of arousal, neither too low nor too h