The road to connection, understanding, and healing is not always easy. In fact, it is often quite challenging and frequently involves difficult conversations. We cannot escape life without having to navigate challenging interactions, so the question then surrounds how to approach difficult conversations. How can we more mindfully and effectively navigate tricky subjects and situations that need to be worked through?
In this comprehensive guide to mindfulness for difficult conversations, we will explore:
The Power of Mindful Communication
The words that we speak and the way that we speak them hold immense power. In fact, studies have shown that positive and negative words alone impact us on a physiological and psychological level. For example, positive words stimulate frontal lobe activity, a part of the brain responsible for taking action. Conversely, negative words have been found to release stress and anxiety-inducing hormones in study participants.
By bringing mindfulness to what we say and how we say it, we can have a large impact on where a conversation takes us. Additionally, when it comes time to receive what another person has to say, mindful listening can further enhance our conversation for the better. Therefore, to practice mindful communication, we must draw awareness to both sides of the equation: to our role as listener and to our role as speaker.
Furthermore, mindful communication asks that we:
When we bring these invitations into our conversations (especially difficult conversations), we are more likely to find understanding, resolution, and agreement where it would have otherwise been out of reach. In other words, mindful communication helps to bridge gaps.
“Good communication is the bridge between confusion and clarity.”
- Nat Turner-
How to Approach Difficult Conversations
If a difficult conversation is required or upcoming, you can cultivate mindfulness to support you. Practicing mindfulness in difficult times is not always easy, but it can help us to accept whatever the present moment holds and to more effectively navigate what comes. The best way to approach a difficult conversation is to ground yourself in a few key principles or intentions, namely:
First, it is important to approach the situation with a desire to understand. Without a desire to understand, it becomes incredibly difficult to find commonality or a bridge between two sides. To understand does not mean to agree; it simply means to see where another person is coming from. You may not always understand, but the intention creates space for resolution. Curiosity is of great service with this.
Secondly, it is helpful to remember that despite our differences, we share our humanity. In some difficult conversations, it is easy to remember our shared humanity (such as when we must express something uncomfortable or upsetting to a loved one). In other cases, it is easy to forget that we are all in this together – and that we all come from the same source (whatever you understand that to be). Practices such as the ‘Just Like Me’ meditation can enhance our sense of shared humanity before a difficult conversation.
And last but certainly not least, it is important to harness self-compassion during difficult interactions. Self-compassion helps us to honor our needs, our boundaries, our questions, and our emotions. When we are self-loving, we typically find it easier to be courageous when we need to – and to have compassion for others.
“The single most powerful and transformative ingredient in dialogue is the intention to understand.”
- Oren Jay Sofer-
8 Mindful Tips for Difficult Conversations
For more ideas about how to approach difficult conversations, consider the following 8 mindful practices. These mindful strategies for conflict management can positively impact your own wellbeing, the wellbeing of another, and the connection between the two.
Start by setting an intention.
First, consider: What is your intention for the conversation? Do you seek to prove a point, to be declared as ‘right’, or to reach understanding and resolution? Ground yourself in an intention that is heart-based, coming back to it as often as you need to. To identify your intention, ask yourself: What is most important here?
Come back to your body frequently.
During difficult conversations, we easily become caught up in our heads. When you find yourself overthinking or caught up in intellectual debate, take a moment to notice what is happening in your body. Is there tension? Is there discomfort? Assuming that you are physically safe, explore what it might be like to soften any tension that you observe.
Uncover the needs of both parties
Another great practice of mindfulness in difficult times is to explore the underlying needs of both sides of any difficult conversation. Often during challenging conversations, we end up arguing about small, surface-level annoyances while leaving our deeper needs unexamined.
For instance, let’s imagine that a couple is arguing because one of the two wants to cut their work hours in half. Imagine that the other individual strongly believes that they cannot afford it. What might be the underlying needs here? This couple might identify needs such as: rest, ease, support, security, and safety.
Notice your assumptions and judgments.
When in a challenging conversation, become aware of the assumptions, biases, and judgments you hold. Are they impeding your ability to listen mindfully? To hold judgments and assumptions is entirely human, but what we do with them matters. Ease assumptions by cultivating curiosity towards the other person or the situation at hand. Ask clarifying questions as you need to.
Be mindful of your limitations
It is also important to be mindful of your limits, needs, and boundaries when in a difficult conversation. If you need to take pause to think, reflect, or breathe, consider how you might do this. How can you best express your needs and limitations in any given moment?
Return to your breath.
Additionally, return to the natural rhythm of your breath frequently during a challenging interaction. Unless we are in imminent physical danger, it can be helpful to ease the stress response by softening the belly and taking a few deep breaths.
Accept the nature of emotions.
Difficult conversations of any sort are bound to bring up challenging emotions. Remind yourself that emotions are entirely natural; it is what we do with them that counts. When you feel strong emotions, become curious about the emotion as it presents itself in your physical body. Breathe compassion into any challenging emotion, taking as much time as you need to sit with whatever is present. Furthermore, when emotions are strong, it is often helpful to let them soften before responding.
Take a shared moment to reset.
I think it might help if we just take a few moments to breathe before continuing. Can we try this?
Notice what happens when you return to the conversation. Has the energy of the interaction shifted? Often, these small pauses breathe new life into challenging times.
Learn more about how to practice mindful listening.
6 Mindfulness Resources to Enhance Mindful Communication
To further enhance your understanding of how to practice mindfulness in difficult times through mindful communication, consider the following free resources. These talks and exercises offer further insight into mindful strategies for conflict resolution.
To enhance mindful communication, consider taking time to practice both mindful listening and mindful speaking. This practice invites us to sit with a partner and take on the role of speaker or listener for four intentional minutes before switching roles.
Through sharing an anecdote, Oren Jay Sofer expresses the power of curiosity. He tells a story of a couple who used curiosity to alter the direction their relationship would go in.
Another exercise for enhancing mindful communication is this practice on mindful speech. This meditation can help to enhance our awareness of the words we use and why we use them. Furthermore, it can help us to use our words in a more precise and conscious manner.
To better understand the importance of identifying our needs, consider this short video of Oren Jay Sofer explaining why this is such a powerful practice. What does identifying our needs do for us?
To enhance your awareness of assumptions and judgments that you make, consider this meditation practice on ‘noting your judgments’. When we are aware of our judgments, it is easier to set them aside and to remain open to new possibilities and deeper levels of understanding.
Lastly, in this short clip Oren Jay Sofer explains what intention is. He notes that it is not where we wish to go but how we are showing up. Intention invites us to ask, “What are the qualities that I am bringing to this conversation?” He goes on to explain the power that intention holds.