Party goers joke and banter, the table littered with discarded snack bits, half empty bottles and dirty glasses. One wobbly fellow — that would be me — clutches an edge, desperate as a drowning man clinging to his raft.
Across the room, I spot my friend, laughing easily, part of a group. I start towards them. Heart thumping, sweat pooling … I’ll be the intruder, sound like a fool. Worse still, be ignored. I lurch back to the table.
A woman stands alone. I thrust a plate in her direction. “Would you like a piece of cake?”
“Thanks, I have some.” She displays her trophy.
“Yes. No. I mean.” But she’s gone. The moment dies. And so do I.
That party was decades ago, but the memory lingers. Along with too many other moments like it. What do they know that I don’t? Why do I feel so awkward? Why do I sound like a drunken frog?
I thought I was alone, an outsider, different, but I was actually far from alone. My research shows that at least 25% of an average crowd feel uncomfortable in groups. 30% have a hard time speaking up. Many struggle to create a conversation, going through empty rituals, stuck in unending, unsatisfying small talk.
Conversation may be the most vital life skill that you never studied in school. Social conversation; work conversation; family conversation; conversation with friends, strangers, brief exchanges, intimate dialogues, these are the oil that keeps life flowing. If the oil isn’t there, the gears seize up. Thoughts don’t flow. Stress builds. You feel isolated and disconnected. Anxiety settles in. Depression may not be far behind.
We need to connect and to express ourselves fully. But for many, that challenge feels like the endless curse of Sisyphus, pushing a rock up a mountain only to watch it tumble back down. Relentless, arduous, painful, impossible. Such “failed” conversations rip our identity and self esteem into shreds.
Far too many people stay needlessly stuck in such downward spirals for a lifetime. Why?
- Lack of Awareness. You have to see what is possible before you can practice it.
- Lack of Skill. If you’ve never been exposed to or learned how to speak and listen fully and openly, you can’t imagine, much less practice it yourself.
- Resistance to Change. We default to the familiar. You learned your basic communications from your primary care givers when you were a toddler. Imitating was our first, deepest, mode of learning. Hard to break free
Early in my life, I thought that the solution was to become an extrovert. It took me decades to understand that I didn’t need to become, or pretend to be, an extrovert. Introverts and extroverts may be challenged differently, but the desire to connect and express is universally human.
Let’s Talk is about the practice of Mindful Conversation, a path available to all. It is not about introversion or extroversion. To make this kind of change, you must be willing to work. Take a risk. Experiment. Mindful Conversation is a path to wholeness and connection, but it is not for the weak willed.
Authentic, joyous, productive connection can be yours, even in the most unlikely circumstances. You can learn to talk with anyone, about (almost) anything.
The path of Mindful Conversation is about honoring yourself, learning fresh ways to listen and to speak, and grounding your conversation in a few basic principles.
This book’s mission is to encourage and assist you to live, listen and talk more courageously, more openly and more compassionately. To connect and express yourself in a way that only you can. The authentic you. This is your birth right. Yours, if you want it. But you’ll have to grab it. No one else can do it for you.
We are social animals. We herd. We build vast cities, form tribes, raise families, grow organizations, create clubs, teams, political parties and dinner parties. We congregate for survival, productivity, and comfort. Imagine life without conversation, ugh!
But what is conversation anyway? Dictionary definitions don’t do it justice. Unfortunately, most of us don’t do it justice either. We settle for a sad replica of what’s possible. What can it be?
Mindful Conversation, full, open, authentic conversation, makes life more wonderful, full, and real. It is a pathway to a life that is not just tolerable, but wonderful. It raises the curtain on the stage so that we, the actors, can thrive. We share our life experience, thoughts and feelings, dreams and desires, in words and gestures, over and over, with friends and strangers, and in so doing, we come to be who we deeply are.
Conversation is the master path to connection and expression, a thread that links us to the moment, to ourselves, to one another, and to our shared humanity.
Not just to survive, but to thrive. This is the door we yearn to pass through. Conversation is a master key.
We are the speaking species. We are each a mini broadcasting station, constantly sending our message out to the world. Every transmission and reception awakens the possibility of discovering a new friend, or rediscovering an old one, a lover, a business associate, a client, a teacher, a story, a passion, a career, a life. Conversation is the path to discovery, connection. And love.
What is Mindfulness?
A few years ago, the term “Mindfulness” was relatively unknown in the western world. It conjured up images of a Buddha figure, eyes closed, legs crossed, thumbs to forefingers, sitting under the Boti tree. Mindfulness has now been embraced by millions in the west, thanks to overwhelming evidence of its effectiveness. Still it is a hard concept to define.
“Mindfulness” refers to a state of being, characterized by present moment awareness, both of one’s self (inner awareness, thoughts and feelings) and the world around (outer awareness, the senses). Living mindfully means being grounded in the present moment, the ‘now’.” Mindfulness infers values such as compassion, non-judgmentalism, and a gentle acceptance of what is. Living mindfully involves a sense of connection to the whole canvas of existence, a recognition that we are not alone. Mindfulness is aspirational – always seeking an open heart and a quiet mind.
Mindfulness is not multi-tasking; it is not trying to control or analyze everything; it is not judgmentalism; and it is not being held hostage by every wisp of fear that creeps into your being. Mindfulness is surrender. Not surrender as in to an enemy, but surrender into your authentic self, into the belly of the universe. Mindfulness is not meditation. Meditation is a practice that may help you become more mindful but not a requirement.
None of us will ever be fully mindful 24/7, but we can all walk the path.
So, What is Mindful Conversation?
When we talk about conversation, most people immediately assume that means conversation with one or more others, whom we know, at least in passing. Mindful Conversation is about talking with others, but it is also about how we talk with ourselves. Mindful Conversation is not just talk; it is our identity on parade. Our conversation defines who we are; it links us, or isolates us; it reflects our inner and our outer world; it links us to friends and strangers, intimates and casual acquaintances, and our common humanity.
Mindful Conversation (MC) is a master life skill, for your most important job: living life to its full potential. A mindful conversation is expansive. It opens the curtain onto a great stage where you present yourself to the world. Mindful Conversation expands who we are and expands our opportunities. it invites you and those around you to celebrate the new growth that blooms when sentient beings meet one another in the field of possibility.
This is a path of joy.
About You and Beyond You
The impact of Mindful Conversation extends beyond any one of us. Conversation changes not just who you are and who I am, but who we are. In the past decade, many observers have noted the pall of isolation and polarization that has beset our culture. We need a new way of connecting. To preserve an open, diverse society and our democratic government, we must go back to basics. All of us — our political, business and community leaders, and every mother, father, sister, brother, butcher, baker, and candlestick maker — must learn, or relearn, how to talk and how to listen. When we learn to speak and listen mindfully, then we as a nation, and we as a species, will begin to operate as allies to one another — bridging divisions of politics, economics, race, religion, gender and geography. We will learn to disagree without dismembering one another. We will realize that we are, at the end of the day, all in this together. Other changes will be required, but no other approach will make a deeper, more lasting impact than this societal shift in how we talk.
Words do matter. So do gestures. And so does our inner conversation.
Sources for this Book
This book draws from both my professional and personal experience. For 25 years, I have consulted, lectured, taught workshops, written about and coached individuals and organizations on the attitudes and skills that you will learn in this book. I have worked in 16 countries and 3 languages, across cultures, in some of the world’s largest corporations, as well with families, couples and individuals. I’ve worked in hospitals and banks, non-profits and government agencies. I’ve worked in third world countries, in the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe, as well as in high levels of government in the U.S.
My interest in Mindful Conversation is deeply personal. In my teen years, I created a story that I was a relationship failure. Some years later, I recognized the distortions in my thinking. I finally acknowledged that I was a good listener and that this was, in fact, a great gift that I could give to those around me. Once I accepted my gift for listening, I discovered that I also had a lot to say. I told myself a new story, and in that moment, a new life was born.
My “PhD” is in eavesdropping, in parks, airplanes, on the street and at the water cooler. I’ve also studied the psychology and the literature. Much of it is good, but too much misses the most fundamental truth, that every conversation is an opportunity for connection, expression, and discovery. Conversation is not just a problem to be solved. Approach conversation from the point of view of possibility rather than problem, and you are a kid in a candy store.
I am still on a learning curve. I make plenty of mistakes. I get judgmental and impatient. Mindful Conversation is an aspiration I work towards, knowing I shall never fully master it. But I thrive on the path of lifetime learning. Please join me in Rumi’s field.
“Out beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
What do you long for?
To make better friends, to work on a special relationship, to advance your career, to be a better spouse and/or parent, to work more collaboratively, or to feel more comfortable at a party. Do you wonder about how to start a conversation with a stranger? Or end one? Does fear hold you back from being your full self? Do you live in dread of the family Thanksgiving dinner?
If it’s friends you’re after, they’re everywhere, but you have to meet and “embrace” them. Mindful Conversation will show you how to approach others in a way that is authentic and respectful, how you can be more friendly, not because you should but because the connections you make will feed your soul. As you build your own awareness and skills, your satisfaction and self-confidence will increasingly attract the kinds of people and relationships you desire.
Or are you perhaps in an intimate relationship that is showing cracks? Enhance your conversation to regain the spark, bring back the intimacy, and rejuvenate the connection that drew you together in the first place. Conversation is a dance. Ideal, of course, is to work on the steps together. But if that is not an option, changing your own rhythm can create new openings and delightful discoveries.
If you work in an organization, or you’re in a leadership role at work or in your community, why not broadcast the invitation, “Let’s Talk,” as a way to build relationships and a spirit of collaboration. Use Mindful Conversation to foster teamwork and trust. Tap the wisdom and potential that awaits. Get more done and thrive in the doing.
If you are a parent or part of a family, you are already familiar with the challenges of family conversation. Too many kids these days grow up believing that texting is a path to intimacy. Technology can be a valuable tool that enables Mindful Conversation, but the kind of connection I’m talking about cannot happen solely via a screen.
You may already be practicing a lot of what is covered in this book. If so, I hope that Mindful Conversation will confirm and augment your joy and successes. Or the ideas presented here may be new and seem strange to you. This book is an invitation to engage when, where and with whom you choose. Maintain an open mind and take what feels right and appropriate to you.
Steps of the Journey
There are five basic parts to our journey together. Start with Part l to explore the territory. Then take it mile by mile, or jump around if you prefer. Patience and practice are essential. Be gentle and forgiving with yourself and your conversational partners (referred to as “CP’s” throughout this book). Every encounter along the way — with your children, your spouse, your work associates, your friends, or the person behind you in line at the DMV– is an opportunity, if you choose, for Mindful Conversation.
The five parts of your journey are:
- Exploring the Territory
- The Outer Conversation: Listen to Connect
- The Outer Conversation: Speak to Express
- The Inner Conversation: Speaking & Connecting with Yourself
- Change Your Talk, Change the World
Each chapter ends with a standard format: “Notes from the Journey”, “Next Steps” and “Smile.”
Notes from the Journey is a summary of the chapter, comprising:
- Core Awareness: The essential mindset or attitude for success.
- Core Value(s): The belief or reason behind why you may choose to follow these steps toward more mindful conversation.
- Core Skill: The learnable behavior to practice
- Core Tool: The specific steps that put the skill into action.
Next Steps consists of exercises, written and verbal, some social, some solitary. Many of these exercises can be seamlessly integrated into your everyday life. If they feel awkward or you are reluctant to try something in public, you can do a lot privately. Or you might benefit by finding a traveling companion, or forming a Mindful Conversations group, for practice, camaraderie, and support.
Smile is a visual cartoon because you are the one doing the work and you deserve a smile. And, let’s face it, conversation has lots of absurdities. So smile often on your journey to more mindful conversation.
I invite you to keep a “Conversation Journal,” a notebook that you write in frequently, as you experiment and become more conscious of your own conversation. Writing is a great way to expand awareness and deepen learning.
The principles that I write about in this book are generally universal, but my choices are inevitably formed by my own biases, cultural conditioning, my male gender, my life and work experiences, my ethnicity, and the privileged life I have lead. Your choices will vary from mine. Take what fits for you. No need to eat the whole cake, or all at once. Eat what you can digest.
In summary, every conversation is an opportunity to rediscover the wonder, beauty and immense possibilities of life. Mindful Conversation is a mental, emotional, spiritual and, at times even a physical journey — a way to nurture the soul.
Mindful Conversation is a way to dance with, rather than try to impress or manipulate others. Apply yourself to understanding and practicing the 5 Steps of Mindful Conversation, and you will find yourself more comfortable, relating in new ways, reclaiming the power of conversation and helping to rekindle the true spirit of a diverse, democratic society.
Writing this book has been a personal labor of love for me. I welcome your feedback, thoughts and experiences with Mindful Conversation. I offer various workshops, talks, blogs and coaching. Please visit my web site, www.petergibb.org or contact me if you wish to connect further.
Like all books and all those who aspire to help, this book can point you in the right direction and urge you forward, but it can’t do the work for you. That’s your job.
Don’t wait. Start now. You can do it.
“Now that we’ve done the introductions, let’s have some fun.”