When it comes to conversation, the force of our habits and the pressure of social settings can make it exceedingly difficult to maintain awareness. Here, mindfulness practice serves as a basis. We can use the arena of conversation itself as a training ground for presence, using techniques to anchor awareness within the midst of exchange and developing the capacity for relational awareness.
Consciously choosing when to speak and when to listen is essential for meaningful conversation. In some respects, it’s the most basic communication skill. How many times have you said something, only to wish you could take it back moments after the words left your mouth? Or hit “Send” on an email when it might have been better to let things cool off? It’s equally important to have the courage to say our piece. When we don’t speak up, we can feel as if we’ve let ourselves or our loved ones down.
Conversation is a dynamic interplay between each person’s choice to speak or listen. When those choices are conscious and respectful, conversations tend to be more productive and enjoyable. If those choices are unconscious or impulsive, conversations tend to be less productive and more stressful.
Related: Say It Right
I call this juncture the “choice point” between speaking and listening. With presence, every moment offers a choice. Our ability to maintain presence at the choice point takes practice. Sometimes the moment of choice races by like a road sign while we are doing 75 miles per hour on the freeway. The impulse to speak can be so strong that it impels us to verbalize simply to release the internal pressure. If we tend toward the quieter side, it can feel as if those openings in a conversation disappear before we can muster our voice.
This is where mindfulness comes in. In meditation, we learn how to observe unpleasant sensations (knee pain, a sore back) without immediately reacting. We develop the capacity to be aware of an impulse without acting on it.
The anxiety we feel in conversation is usually rooted in deeper needs to be seen or heard, needs for safety, acceptance, belonging, and so on. The less confident we feel in meeting those needs, the more pressure we will experience to speak up or remain silent. We may fear that if we don’t say something right now we’ll never be able to do so. Or that if we do say something, disaster or disconnection will surely ensue.
Related: A Field Guide to Right Speech
The more ways we find to meet those needs (and to handle them skillfully when they aren’t met), the less pressure we feel to speak or remain silent; we can relax into the flow of a conversation. There’s no danger in speaking our mind and no rush to say it all at once. If it’s important, we’ll find the right time and way to say it.
This capacity builds slowly. As we practice honoring our needs, we learn to trust ourselves. Paying attention to any small successes helps our nervous system settle and reset. With a new baseline of ease, it can stop setting off false alarms that impel us to speak or prevent us from speaking, and our ability to make more conscious choices grows. We can then discern what’s going to be most helpful to move a conversation forward and how to balance all the needs on the table.
Practice: Choice Points
To practice, choose someone with whom you feel relatively comfortable. This familiarity makes it easier to learn the tool. During a conversation, notice when you choose to speak. If you find yourself talking without having consciously chosen to do so, try stopping and leaving space for the other person to continue. Notice what it’s like to actively choose to say something rather than doing so automatically. Pay particular attention to any urgency or reluctance to speak or any sensations of internal pressure. Use that pressure as a signal to make a more conscious choice.
There tends to be more freedom to remain silent in meetings than during one-to-one conversations. The next time you are in a meeting, notice how the impulse to speak can rise and fall as the conversation unfolds. If there is an important point you’d like to make, choose when to do so. You can always begin, “I’d like to go back to something we were talking about a few moments ago.” Notice how it feels after you speak. Is there relief? Anxiety or self-doubt?
Experiment with making conscious choices about when you check your inbox or social media feeds (“listening”). When you do engage, pause before replying to consider whether or not you want to “speak.” Is this the right time? Would it be useful to wait or to say nothing at all?
Part of this investigation is getting to know our own patterns. Do we tend to speak easily and freely, finding it harder to leave space for others? Is it more comfortable for us to listen, finding it challenging to come forward?
Most of us tend to be stronger in one area. Circumstances and events tied to our gender, race, class, or other aspects of our social location tend to mold how we show up relationally. We’ve all received messages—explicitly and implicitly, personally and through media, stories, and culture—about how we are expected to behave. Through various cues of approval or disapproval, inclusion or exclusion, we learn what’s safest based on our role and the expectations of others.
Our work is to uncover these patterns and develop an authentic freedom of expression. There is no ideal way to be, no one thing to do in all circumstances. The goal is dynamic flexibility through presence, choosing to speak or listen as needed.
Adapted from Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication, by Oren Jay Sofer © 2018. Reprinted with permission of Shambhala Publications (shambhala.com).
Learn more about right speech in Oren Jay Sofer’s Tricycle Dharma Talk, The Buddha’s Communication Toolbox.
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