Mindful Conversation: Speak Openly, Connect Deeply, Live Joyously
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Mend and deepen relationships at home, at work, and about town. Stories, theory, humor, inspiration and practical advice to make your every conversation a vehicle for harmony, success, and growth. Change your conversation. Change your life.
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Party goers joke and banter around a table covered by empty bottles and tossed napkins. A wobbly fellow – that would be me – clutches the table, a drowning man clinging to his raft.
Across the room, I spot a friend, laughing easily. I step in his direction, pull back. Heart thumping, sweat pooling, thoughts screeching: You’ll be the intruder, sound like a fool. Worse still, ignored.
I lurch back to the table. A woman stands there, alone. I grab a plate, thrust it at her. “Cake?”
“Thanks, I have some.” She displays her trophy.
“Yes. No. I mean.” She’s gone. The moment dies. And so do I.
That party was decades ago, but the feelings linger. Along with too many other similar moments.
I thought I was alone, an outsider, different. So wrong. My research shows that at least 25% of an average crowd feel uncomfortable in groups. 30% have a hard time speaking up.1 Many struggle to create a conversation, stuck in unending, awkward, unsatisfying small talk. Not talking about what matters. Failing to engage in a meaningful way. Alone and anxious.
Conversation is the most central life skill that you never studied in school. Social conversation; business conversation; conversations 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 and discontent gum up your engine.
Throughout history, the art of conversation has been fundamental to our existence and our evolution. Athenians who spearheaded the cradle of democracy in ancient Greece considered talk more vital than voting. Times change. In the U.S. now, we appear to be heading down a perilous road. Can our most basic, social assumption, Democracy, survive in a “post-conversational” society? Not just democracy. The family and the rule of law are equally threatened. Our way of life struggles to survive, and certainly not thrive, without constant, authentic, respectful conversation.
Struggles in everyday conversation can undermine our very identity – our relationship to ourselves, our self-confidence, motivation and ability to act with intention.
We yearn to connect and to express ourselves fully. It’s baked into our DNA, paramount to our survival and position in the food chain. We know how to talk. We have the most advanced communication system in the animal kingdom: approximately 6,500 languages, 171,000 words in English alone, not to mention infinite variations when you add in gestures, tone, pitch, volume of voice, the whole range of non-verbal communication.
So, why such trouble? Why so much miscommunication?
- Lack of Awareness. You have to see what is possible before you can practice it.
- Lack of Role Models. Most of us model our communications on our family of origin. If you grew up with verbal abuse, non-listening, interruptions, repression of feelings, etc., then you are very likely to carry these patterns into your own adult communication style.
- 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 this yourself.
- Resistance to Change. What’s familiar is comfortable, even if it doesn’t work.
Tools and Beyond
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?
It’s not just about the tools. Rather about our ability to use the tools. Your success with Mindful Conversation will grow from a blending of an inner shift (aka mindfulness) and an outer shift/new tools (aka conversation). Embracing Mindful Conversation requires gentle, persistent attention to both the inner and the outer.
I am an introvert. 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 be an extrovert. In fact, I had as much chance of becoming an extrovert as a snail has of becoming an eagle. Mindful Conversation is not about intro-version or extroversion, but rather about how to fully and unabashedly embrace our deep need to express and connect.
Mindful Conversation is a path to wholeness and connection, but you must be willing to do the work: honor yourself and dare to speak about what matters to you. Open your heart and listen to others. It requires courage. And practice. The Czech novelist, Frank Kafka, called this human urge, the “hand outstretched in the darkness.”
This book’s mission is to encourage and assist you to connect and express yourself in a way that is unique and authentic for you. To talk about what matters to you, in a way that others will want to listen. To listen with the heart, you could say, and speak from the soul. The payoff is huge: at home, at work, with friends, with strangers, with family, with intimates, over the backyard fence or over the Internet.
Mindful Conversation is an invitation to a more full, free and joy filled life. Less stress, more fun, more productive.
What do you long for?
If it’s friends you’re after, they’re everywhere, but you have to meet and connect. Mindful Conversation will show you how to approach others respectfully and nonjudgmentally, and how to talk so they want to listen.
Or are you perhaps in an intimate relationship that is showing cracks? Enhance your conversation to reignite the spark, bring back the intimacy, and rejuvenate the connection that drew you together in the first place. Ideal, of course, is to work on your communications with your conversation partners (CP). 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.
If you are a parent or part of a family, you are familiar with the challenges of family conversation. As David Brooks writes in his wonderful book The Second Mountain, “Never underes-timate the power of the dinner table.” Many kids these days grow up believing that text messaging is the path to closer friendship. The kind of connection I’m talking about can be augmented by technology, but it rarely happens solely via a screen. Still, the principles of Mindful Conversation apply both to face-to-face conversation and, with some adjustments, to your technology platform of choice.
You may already be practicing some of what is covered in this book. If so, Mindful Conversation will confirm and augment your desires for further growth. Or the ideas presented here may seem radical to you. You may have to stretch beyond your comfort zone. This requires an open mind. Mindful conversation can enhance any conversation, with anyone, about anything, anytime. It does not guarantee perfection. Mindful Conversation is about “human expression not human perfection.” 3 It will substantially improve your odds for success. Experiment and then take what feels right and appropriate for you.
What is Conversation?
Dictionary definitions don’t do it justice. We settle for so much less than what’s possible.
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 form relationships for survival, productivity, procreation and comfort. Conversation is the glue that helps us sustain these relationships. Conversa-tion is more than talk; it is our identity on parade.
I define conversation as the master path to connection and expression, the thread that links us to the moment, to ourselves, to one another, and to our shared humanity. Much more on this to come.
The word “conversation” usually conjures up a dialogue between yourself and one or more others. This is the Me – You (The First) conversation. The Me – You conversation links us to (or isolates us from) family and friends, colleagues and acquaintances. But there is so much more. Hidden inside each of us is the Me – Me (The Second) conversation, the conversation you have with yourself, that no one else knows about but yet deeply affects who you are and how you relate. Changes in the Me – Me conversation impact both the Me – You conversation and the Me – Us (The Third) conversation, our dance with the life force that holds us all together, our common humanity.
There are thus actually three distinct conversations, happening simultaneously, each impacting the other two. In this book, we will explore all three types of conversation, Me – You (first), Me – Me (second), and Me – Us (third).
What is Mindfulness?
A few years ago, the term “Mindfulness” was relatively un-known in the western world. It conjured up images of a Buddha figure, eyes closed, legs crossed, beatific smile, thumbs to forefingers, sitting under the Boti tree. Mindfulness has now been embraced by millions in the west, thanks to overwhelm-ing evidence of its effectiveness. But what is this thing called “Mindfulness”?4 Here’s my take:
“Mindfulness” refers to a state of being, characterized by present moment awareness, both of one’s self (inner aware-ness, thoughts and feelings) and the world around (outer awareness, brought to us through the senses). Living mindfully means being grounded in the present moment, the ‘now.’ Mindfulness infers values such as compassion, non-judgment-alism, 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 in this together. On the same team, all of us. We sink or swim together. Mindfulness is aspirational – always seeking an open heart and a calm mind.
Mindfulness is not multi-tasking; it is not trying to control or analyze everything; it is not following every whim, nor is it being held hostage by every 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 a synonym for meditation. Meditation is a practice that may help you become more mindful but not a requirement.
So, What is Mindful Conversation?
Mindful Conversation is a conscious approach to sharing our life experience, thoughts and feelings, dreams and desires, in words and gestures, with friends and strangers. Not everyone, of course, will play on this team. Some will continue to see life as a competition: “whatever you get is that much less for me.” Mindful conversation is for you if you want a life filled by authentic expression, deep connection, and the joy of knowing that you are never alone because you are an overarching life force.
When you engage in conversation, you are a mini broad-casting station, sending your message out to the world. Every Mindful Conversation 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 purpose, a life. Mindful Conversation is a path to discovery, connection, and love, a path to becoming who you really are. It is a path of joy.
If you want a formal definition, here is as exact and precise as I can be:
Mindful Conversation is a means of verbal and non-verbal communication, part art, part science, and part way-of-being. It is designed to maximize potential for self- expression and connection, focused on exchanges about what matters most to the participants. Mindful Conversation includes methods to enhance change in both inner and outer realms. It encompasses connection on 3 distinct levels: Me – You, Me – Me, and Me – Us, as well as values and tools for listening, speaking and thinking.
When I reflect on this definition, I realize that I have defined a way of being. If so, then so be it. I believe that my drivers and joys are not that different from yours. We all want to express and connect about what matters to us. My wish is that Mindful Conversation may wrap you in as much life and hope as it has me.
Three Goals of Mindful Conversation
1. SPEAK OPENLY
Speaking Openly is about authenticity — coming out from behind the mask to show your real self. It doesn’t mean wearing your heart on your sleeve or saying every thought or feeling that enters your mind. It does mean daring to be vulnerable, sharing your motivations and intentions, your “prouds” and your “sorries.” It means talking with respect about yourself and inviting others to respond in kind.
2. CONNECT DEEPLY
Connecting deeply refers predominantly to listening in a new way. It means striving to understand others (and yourself), being patient enough to listen, not too proud to ask questions. It means abandoning Serial Monologue and Grabbing Re-sponses, in favor of Reflective Listening. It means leading with empathy and respect, and attending with appropriate verbal and nonverbal tools of connection.
3. TALK ABOUT WHAT MATTERS
Mindful Conversation includes play and easy banter, but you can’t avoid the big life issues, whatever they may be for you. If “small talk” is the only talk you make, then you can never be fully on the path of Mindful Conversation. Dare to talk about what matters. And, of course, you – and only you – can define what that is for you.
How is Mindful Conversation Different?
How is Mindful Conversation (this book and this practice) different from other approaches to human communication.
- Most theories of conversation teach tools, but as psychologist Abraham Maslow said, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.” Your conversations soon become repeti-tive, forced and stilted. Mindful Conversation goes deeper. It includes an entire toolbox, but is based on values, the C.A.R.E. (Curiosity, Authenticity, Respect, Empathy) Model of human interaction.
- Most theories of conversation consider only Me – You talk. Mindful Conversation includes the three levels of conversation already introduced:
- Me – You
- Me – Me
- Me – Us
- This is a big stage to walk onto. The stage is set. The curtain is about to be opened. Are you ready?
- Most theories of conversation talk about means and methods of conversation but give little attention to what you talk about. Mindful Conversation looks at how you speak, how you listen, and also, what you choose to talk about. It is about bringing the words, the music and the dance together, on the path to meaning.
Sources for this Book
This book draws from both my professional and personal experience, and my life-long passion for authentic connection. I grew up a shy, sensitive kid, then an awkward teen, and for too long, a bewildered adult. Most of the time, around others, I felt like an outsider, an introvert who longed to be an extrovert. I struggled for so many years, so many uncomfortable times. I watched and listened a lot, wondering how all those cool, relaxed others did it. I finally figured out some of the secrets, how little it had to do with introversion or extroversion. I recognized the distortions in my “story.” I acknowledged that I was a good listener and that this was, in fact, a 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. Mindful Conversation became my passion in life. I realized how many people suffered through the same struggles I had lived with for so long. I had to share my insights, the source now of such meaning, joy and confidence in life. This book is the result of that journey.
For 25 years, I consulted, lectured, taught workshops, wrote and coached individuals and organizations on the attitudes and skills discussed in this book. I have worked on 4 continents, 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, in third world coun-tries, in the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe, and at the highest levels of government in the U.S.
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 gender, my life and work experiences, my ethnicity, and the privileged life I have led.
My “PhD” is in eavesdropping, in parks, airplanes, in meeting rooms, on the street and at the water cooler. I’ve also studied the psychology and the literature. Some of it is good, but too much misses the most fundamental truth, that every conversation is an opportunity for connection, expression, discovery and joy. Conversation is not just a problem to be solved.
Approach conversation from the viewpoint of possibility 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.
Full disclosure: I am hardly neutral. Where I was once deathly afraid of conversation, I am now wildly, madly in love. This shift in attitude has transformed my life. Mindful Conversation is my ticket to freedom, to being who I am meant to be, connected through love, a joyous traveler on this path of connection. Will you join me there?
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