Conversational Mindfulness

Communication code schemeImage via WikipediaIncreasingly, therapists are becoming interested in encouraging mindfulness, in themselves and their clients. Research has suggested that people in therapy benefit from their own mindfulness practice, and they also benefit from their therapist's mindfulness practice. Some studies have even found better outcomes in psychotherapy when the therapists have a personal mindfulness practice. Steven Hayes, the founder of ACT, believes that therapists must be acting from their own mindfulness in order to be truly helpful to others.

An interesting question comes up: How can we assess the current level of mindfulness of someone we are talking to? Are there things that occur in our conversations that increase or decrease mindfulness?

One way to approach the evaluation of mindfulness is to describe how a person is paying attention. In order to accomplish this, we have to describe mindfulness as it manifests in our typical conversations, with the data that is accessible to an observer. Consider this common type of interaction: someone is telling you what happened when they talked to their sister yesterday. How could we determine whether the story-teller is being mindful? Here are some thoughts about principles, and examples to help in that assessment.

  • Mindfulness is non-defensive. It does not attempt to refuse any experience. Mindfulness is accepting, and not reflexively judgmental. As a listener, you might pay attention to whether your comments responded to, or are they ignored or deflected?
  • Mindfulness is here and now attention. So in our hypothetical situation, does the story-teller have any awareness of the here and now communication (including you in the conversation, asking your opinion, questioning whether you understand, vs just narrating; making eye contact; talking about feelings or thoughts in the present while telling the story). Subjectively, do you as the listener feel engaged and present? That's a pretty good indication of whether you are being seen by the speaker.
  • Mindfulness does not confuse the nature of experience. When we are remembering an interaction with our sister, we're aware that we are engaged in remembering. When we're talking to someone, we are aware we are talking to someone.
  • Mindfulness does not over-identify with any experience. We do not confuse mental states with external realties (cognitive fusion). Instead of saying things like "I'm a terrible person," the mindful speaker would say "I felt critical of myself."
  • Mindfulness is flexible and not preoccupied. Is the narrative characterized by black and white thinking or dogmatic assertions?

What could we do to support mindfulness during this hypothetical conversation?

  • Listen actively. Helping a person engage with you will bring their awareness into the present.
  • Ask questions about current thoughts or feelings (I see you felt very angry when she said that. As you look at your feelings now, do you still feel angry? Are there any other feelings?)
  • Bring the person’s attention to something in the present-moment conversation (the person's mood, changes in posture, etc.)
  • Process something in the here-and-now interaction (how did you feel when I asked you that question?)
  • Support their awareness of breathing, especially if they are uncomfortably "carried away."
  • Bring the person’s attention to a cognitive fusion ("You mentioned that you hate your job, but I wonder if what you actually hate is the way you are approaching your job.")

Learning to be mindful in a conversation is a crucial social skill. Many of us have the habit of not listening while we are talking, and our relationships can suffer as a result. Mindfulness could reverse that pattern. Also, when we consider that insight depends on the ability to observe oneself non-judgmentally, learning to be mindful in our conversations can increase the chances of learning something about ourselves in real time.

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Anonymous said...

Another great post! I'm really enjoying reading your blog, it reminds me not only about how to use mindfulness with clients, but more importantly, how to remain mindful myself. I especially liked todays post on listening - so important!
The only drawback I find is that time seems to fly and it can be hard to remember how long the session is.

Roger Thomson, Ph.D. said...

Thanks for your feedback, Bronwyn. If the "drawback" you mention is the worst thing that happens, we are sure to have very satisfying careers as healthcare professionals. Best regards, Roger