There are two well-established problems that people can face in their communication with others; their mind wandering and their preconceived ideas.
How many times have you found yourself having a conversation, when you realise you’ve drifted off and have to bring your attention back? You know the conversation is important, but you can’t work out how the sentence started. You then spend the next moments (or even minutes) trying to piece together what the other person is saying. So now you’re still not listening to the conversation because you’re listening for clues about something when you don’t know what it is, and you still don’t know what they said…
This mind wandering is very common. Whenever I run mindfulness classes, at least one of the delegates will point out that they have just noticed how often their mind wanders. This is completely normal!
One of the skills you’ll develop in mindfulness is concentration; the ability to keep your mind focused on a topic for an extended period. Most people start mind-wandering within a couple of seconds of their attention being drawn to something, so being able to stay focused for just ten seconds would make a radical difference when listening to others talk. I’m certain that whilst you’ve been reading this article your mind has wandered off at least once; you may even have had to go back to re-read that last sentence!
You can develop this skill of staying focused simply by practising an appropriate mindfulness technique -think of it as mind training.
An additional technique I’ve learned is just to be open with people when you have lost focus on them, saying something like, “I’m sorry, my mind just wandered off – can you say that again, please?” I have a few versions of this, and it’s got me out of a lot of trouble! It also took me many years to build the courage to say this in real conversations, but so far, nobody has ever objected.
The second barrier to good communication is preconceived ideas. That is, we think we know what someone is saying, or what they understand of what we are saying. Sometimes, when we are listening, we think we are hearing what the person has said (perhaps several times) before so we’re not listening to the conversation we are having right at that moment.
To be aware of what is being said right here and now in this conversation, rather than drawing in memories of previous conversations, gives you a significant advantage. This ability to hear accurately is often referred to as sensory acuity, paying attention to our senses rather than to our memories.
If I’m talking with somebody and they’ve said the same thing many times, perhaps they’re doing this because they don’t think they have been heard. I will say something to assure them that I’ve heard it. If that doesn’t stop the repeating, I often say something like, “I appreciate that you’ve said this before; what is it you think I’m not hearing?”
This second phrase has also got me out of a lot of trouble. I’m taking responsibility for the communication. The other person hasn’t realised their message is not getting through, and by letting them know it hasn’t got through they have a chance to reformulate it, so we can then step into a new conversation. And occasionally people are just venting, saying the same thing repeatedly. The simple act of bringing their attention to this often stops it.
Once you develop mindfulness skills, they are with you all the time. It then becomes easier to tune into them, to get clear on what is going on for you, right at that moment. It takes time to develop the brain pathways that give you this power to be present in conversations.
If you routinely find that your conversations don’t turn out the way you hoped, perhaps it’s time you considered developing your mindfulness skills. The version of mindfulness I use with my clients and also teach on some local Sheffield workshops is called Unified Mindfulness. I have found that it leads my clients more quickly to a place where the mindfulness is beneficial for them. The technique is based on traditional approaches, yet has been modified to fit in with the busy Western lifestyle.
If you live within the Sheffield area, take a look at our short two-hour workshop where you will learn all you need to about this technique or search for Unified Mindfulness; the details are on our website.