As it turns out, therapists, just like everyone else, tend to have wandering minds, emotional triggers, personal biases and urges to escape uncomfortable moments that arise between two people. Even during therapy sessions.
Mindfulness is a skill that we tend to practice individually, but it is inevitably challenged in our interpersonal relationships and in clinical work. Here are some tips for practicing mindfulness during communication that are sure to foster deeper awareness, intimacy and understanding between you and the person with whom you are communicating.
1. Don’t interrupt.
It may seem obvious but even people who have been trained to listen for a living struggle with interrupting. While most of us know that blurting out comments while someone else is talking is generally considered rude, there are other, not necessarily verbal ways of interrupting too, which can be equally damaging. I had a therapist who used to start frowning at me the minute I started talking about my ex, as if to say “Ew, are you seriously still talking about him?”
If you’re saying words, making judgmental facial expressions, sighing loudly or disengaging—you’re probably interjecting inappropriately and taking your mind’s attention away from what the person is trying to share with you.
2. Not everything requires a response.
I attended a compassion-focused therapy workshop once at which we did an exercise where we had to listen without providing any feedback whatsoever, as a stranger shared something with us for which he was deeply ashamed.
One of the things we learned through that practice was that often times when we’re responding to someone who is distressed, we’re really just trying to get ourselves out of being present in an uncomfortable moment.
For example, if my friend tells me she feels like a failure, I immediately feel awkward. Is she a failure? Do I sometimes think she might be a failure? Am I a failure? I must get out of this moment. So my urge is to immediately say, “Not even! Look how awesome you are at x, y, z.”
So because I’m uncomfortable being in that moment with him when she is genuinely feeling like a failure, I end up invalidating her (“No, your feelings are wrong, you’re not a failure”) and I miss out on the opportunity to get to know her on a deeper level.
When I give in to my urge to automatically debate what she’s saying because it makes me uncomfortable, I’m not helping her, I’m just selfishly getting as far away from connecting with her in her moment of pain as possible.
3. Notice when your mind starts making what a patient is sharing about his/her own experience about you.
Do you ever notice how sometimes when you’re supposed to be listening to a patient, you end up going into your own memory and finding something that’s somehow similar (that’s just like how I felt when so-and-so looked at me sideways that one time)?
Reel yourself in.
Sure, being able to relate to clients is great, and reminding that we’re all human and we’re all in this together is often clinically useful. But there’s a fine line here between being empathetic and projecting your stuff onto the person who’s speaking.
There’s a good chance that your client actually feels nothing like the way you felt when your ex-partner did to you what her partner did to her. There’s a good chance the circumstances are actually entirely different. Bring yourself back.
Don’t let your own baggage get in the way of being present to what another person is actually saying about their private experience. Keep in mind that they’re bringing an entirely different set of core values, beliefs about who they are, personal history, worldview, and so forth. There’s only one way for you to truly know what they’re going through…
Again, don’t assume that just because you remember a time when something similar happened to you, you know exactly what is going on internally with another person. You really don’t. So ask questions. Investigate. Be open to the possibility that someone is having an experience that you’ve never considered before. Do not let your own private narrative narrow your ability to see what’s really going on.
As feelings emerge in reaction to what you’re hearing, a good way to not get caught up in all the judgments, personal storylines, and mental chatter that accompany your feelings is to pay attention to your bodily sensations. Don’t obsess so much over the feeling in your stomach that you no longer hear what is being said, of course. But the cool thing about the body is that it can only be in the present moment. Use it to help you focus your attention back to what’s directly in front of you.
Relax. Remember that you are allowed to take pauses.
Taking pauses during a conversation can help you reduce your attachment to the storylines that are being verbalized. It can also help minimize automatic reactions. Don’t aim to be perfect,or even to pause for a few moments every time you’re about to speak (that’d be weird), but try to be aware of the fact that pausing is an option that is available to you at any time.