Mindful Conversation: What do you seek?

Robert Frost put it this way, “Half the world is composed of people who have something to say and can’t, and the half who have nothing to say and keep on saying it.” A bit cynical, but perhaps not far from the truth. Another truth is that most of us seek the same two things when engaged in conversation, even if we dare not go for it. It’s baked into our DNA. Mindful Conversation is the path to being able to:

1. Express ourselves fully and freely. Show who we are.

2. Connect deeply. Not feel alone.

We want an experience of connection and expression. given our prodigious verbal abilities, it doesn’t seem like too big an ask. So why do we fail so miserably, so often? Why do so many of us find ourselves paralyzed by fear, unable to show our humanity, closed off from ourselves and our conversation partners?

Answering the Call

A number of students in my classes on Mindful Conversation have told me they feel more confident and are better able to show their real selves when they are acting in the confines of some kind of structure. But most conversation seems unstructured and unpredictable and therefore uncomfortable.

Here is a simple, but universal structure. Hold it in the back of your mind. Let it be a road map.

There are three phases to a conversation. Beginning, Middle and End. Each phase has a purpose and several explicit tools that can help you navigate. I intend to devote this and my next few blog posts to further clarifying these three phases, in a way that you can begin using them immediately.

Opening Your Conversation in a Mindful Way

Many people feel slightly or very nervous when they begin a conversation. What will we talk about? Will he like me? What if we don’t agree on things? What if I get tongue-tied, can’t think of what to say? Silence is so awkward.

The beginning is all about welcome and connection. Think of your role as ensuring that these two actions happen in satisfying ways. Make that your purpose.  But how? I’ll introduce one basic tool today and a second in my next blog. For now, try this:

– Eye contact. Make eye contact, right away.  If you can look a person in the eye, you are well on the way to establishing a connection, creating a moment of trust, seeing who they are. “The eyes are the windows to the soul.” (I searched to find who first uttered this sentiment, but it’s been attributed to almost everyone from Cicero while at a Roman bath, circa 95 BC, to current writers like Paul Coellho. No one cited Donald Trump. Otherwise, your guess is as good as anyone’s.) Many people find eye contact difficult to establish or maintain. If you’re one of these, I encourage you to set an intention to practice. Short is fine. A second or two.

– A trick to make eye contact easier is to set yourself a challenge to notice something unique about the eye: the color, the shape, the length of the eye lashes. There are so many details. See if you can memorize one specific detail. When you get a bit more comfortable with eye contact, you can return to this detail later in the conversation to see if the detail still strikes you the same.

Mindful Conversation during Covid

Sure, we’re all more restricted in conversational opportunities during the Covid era. If your conversations are on the phone, eye contact can be tricky. Try voice contact. How would you describe the voice on the other end? Business like? Friendly? Happy? Subdued? High pitch? Low pitch? Speedy? Slow? Loud? Soft? Because, after all, as Shakespeare said, “The voice is the doorway to the closet.” … or something like that.

Try it.

Your assignment, if you choose to accept it, is to try using eye or voice contact as a way of connecting at the beginning of a conversation. You may be surprised. Just remembering to do this will help get you focused on the conversation and out of your own head. I’d love to hear how it went.

For further reading about conversation, check out Doug Stone and Sheila Heen’s Difficult Conversations: How to Talk About What Matters Most, https://www.amazon.com/Difficult-Conversations-Discuss-What-Matters/dp/0143118447

Click here to read an introduction to Mindful Conversation.

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