This is the written form of my talk for the Manchester Mindfulness Festival 2022
I'd say that therapy is the ultimate mindful conversation; there is active listening, compassion and awareness in spades. The counselling room isn't the only place I have mindful conversations though, far from it. I experience them - as you might expect - in my monthly mindfulness group and on my forest bathing sessions when people share their experience in the present moment. It's fair to say I have created a life in which mindful conversations happen often; this was a conscious effort. But mindful conversations aren't just for these therapeutic environments - they are for everyone, everywhere. As I'll go on to discuss, they can happen round the dinner table, at the office and even with a group of scruffy teenage lads in the local park....
What is a 'mindful conversation'?
Let me assure you, you do not have to be wearing a robe, sitting cross legged in a temple to have one! Essentially, a mindful conversation is any verbal interaction in which the '4 dials' (my own model of mindfulness) are turned up:
Focusing on that last dial for a moment; an important part of a mindful conversation involves listening without judgement. Judgement can arise for a number of reasons and all people make judgements - be wary of those who pertain to never judge because it just means they are unaware of their judgements! It's the unconscious and unchecked judgements we hold that turn into action and can be harmful. We tend to do this when we are dysregulated; when our stress response has been activated - possibly through fear - and we have gone into flight/fight or freeze mode. Therefore, staying regulated - within your own window of tolerance - is key to a mindful conversation.
In his book, 'The Art of Communication', Thich Nhat Hahn writes often about the importance of focusing on the breath and pausing to centre or ground himself before responding to someone. This is his way of staying regulated when in conversation with someone. It's a simple but effective technique that we can all try to practice.
For more info on this see my NS regulation resource.
Another key ingredient of a mindful conversation is authenticity, which may involve a degree of vulnerability, depending on the context. As social animals we have competing drives: the need for connection (to be seen) and the fear of rejection (to hide). We need to judge what level of vulnerability is appropriate for the setting, but know that without authenticity we can't be fully present in the conversation.
A mindful conversation is not a perfect conversation in which you always say the 'right' thing - it is a conversation in which you are present, regulated, compassionate and focused on listening well.
Why is all this important?
"Conversation is a form of nourishment" - Thich Nhat Hanh
I probably don't need to point out to you that we live in lonely and divided times. Mindful conversations - in which we are connected and compassionate - are the antidote to this.
Most of us value our relationships above all else in our lives so the conversations we have with our loves ones really matter. When I'm talking about mindful conversations I'm absolutely talking about the 'how was your day' chat at the dinner table with your partner, or the catch up lunch with an old friend, or the tricky talk about a work problem with a colleague.
In Bronnie Ware's well known book Top Five Regrets Of The Dying, two of the regrets are conversation related:
I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
I really can't overstate the importance of mindful conversations. When you are present and authentic in your conversations you are creating the conditions for connection, healing and contentment. When we listen well we tell someone that they matter. When we respond instead of react we facilitate growth and positive change. When we are honest we create meaning. When we are truly with another person we can even save a life.
A tulip poplar & some Salford lads - a story
(don't want story time? Scroll down for Mindful convo tips)
Shortly before the Manchester Mindfulness festival I had gone to walk in the park, brainstorm and finish my notes for my talk on mindful conversations. On the way to the bench I’d chosen I noticed 3 teenage boys, around 14 years old, standing next to a young tulip poplar. Something about them sent my nervous system into alert mode and I kept an eye on them as I sat down and started to write. A this point I can predict what is about to happen and have already decided, in the back of my mind, what I will do. Sure enough, one of the boys starts to pull on a tender, low branch and pulls it off. This is a small tree, a sapling, it doesn't have a lot of branches to spare. So I stand up. I walk over. “Hey!” I call out as I approach. My heart is thumping but I’ve made my choice now. The boys look amused in a mean way, one of them grabbing another branch, as I get nearer and call out “please don’t do that. It’s not ok to damage that tree.”
He breaks the branch off, it snaps and tears and it makes me wince. I take a breath, like TNH would do. “Look,” I try, keeping my voice calm and even, “people come here to relax and feel good, they don’t want to see broken and damaged trees when they walk in the park.” He reaches for another branch and I realise that I’m not getting anywhere, I decide to leave soon but try one more thing, “that is a living thing and you are hurting it,” I tell him.
“No it’s not” he says, bending the branch.
“It is, it’s alive, all trees are alive”
“But it doesn’t have a heart, I can’t feel a heartbeat." I realise he actually doesn't know what he's doing, he isn't aware the tree is living. I want to explain.
“No, it doesn’t have a heart like you do, but it has life running through it because it’s connected to the earth, it’s pulling up the energy through it’s roots right now."
He hesitates, I see he is torn and his mates are watching in that awkward, aggressive way that young boys can have. He yanks on the branch again, the whole tree jerking with the movement and it begins to tear. I can’t watch and decide on a closing statement,
“what you’re doing is unkind. You can carry on and damage it some more or you can choose to be better than that. It really is up to you what kind of person you want to be right now.”
I turn and walk away, leaving their laughter and comments to get swept away by the wind. When I turn to see where they, phone in hand as some kind of safety blanket, they run away and I return to my seat breathing rapidly. My inner child is scared and expects them to come and steal my things or hurt me. But I breathe and look at the trees and pick up my pen. The boys are peeking out from behind a bush now and I ignore them. I write some random things down to distract myself. Then they return, unexpectedly with the broken branches in their arms, arranged like a bouquet, and place them gently on the bench in front of me.
“We brought you a present” one of them says. They are being daft but not menacing.
“Thank you,” I say, sincerely, “they’re beautiful.” I reach out and touch a leaf. They giggle – yes, giggle not sneer – and run away. I smile.
The boys didn’t know the tree was alive. They didn’t know. And now they do. Who knows what they made of our little exchange, but I know that I made a choice to speak from a place of values and authenticity instead of fear.
I went to see the tree on my way out the park. I gave it some love. I've been back a few times since and it's doing well. I helped it but it helped me too by providing me with the opportunity to have a slightly bizarre yet sweet mindful conversation.
How to have mindful conversations - some tips:
A simple but useful quote to keep in mind.
Let go of perfectionism - it’s ok to be a messy human. Commit to ongoing learning and progress and apply compassion/non-judgement to yourself also.
Stay grounded and present. Keep connected to your breath. If you start to feel overwhelmed, take a break and return later.
For difficult conversations set an intention beforehand, try to stay on task and sit with the discomfort.
Be aware of your posture:
Listen to understand not to reply; make listening your main activity in the conversation.
Before you offload onto someone, ask if they have capacity to listen/talk.
Set healthy boundaries:
Empathy without boundaries is self destruction
Be curious - even if you disagree, focus on learning more about the other person rather than trying to convince/convert them.
Remember that all these things are skills - you can learn them, practice them and improve. It's effort, but it's so worth it.