French Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard recently wrote:
“self-transformation is meaningful only if it allows us to be of greater service to others.”
What good is meditating for hours each day if we get up from the cushion and treat our loved ones poorly or cannot then be present with them? And as clinicians, attending meditation retreats and memorizing all the mindfulness-based protocols in the world won’t be of much use if we are ultimately unable to communicate mindfully with clients.
Interpersonal mindfulness is what happens when we are able to apply the way we relate to ourselves through mindfulness practice to the way we relate to others. It allows us to access the deeper meaning behind what people say and to recognize the way their words affect us personally, from one moment to the next.
Why Interpersonal Mindfulness?
Being present with our own difficult feelings is challenging enough. Where are the direct benefits to focusing on interpersonal mindfulness in therapy?
Interpersonal mindfulness can reduce burnout by helping clinicians to be less overwhelmed by the emotional experiences of clients. When you’ve developed skills in mindful communication, you can share what you’ve learned with your clients so that they may more effectively navigate their own interpersonal challenges outside of the therapy room.
When you are communicating mindfully, you are perpetually tuning in, and back in, to what is being communicated and what impact it’s having on your own internal experience. Interpersonal mindfulness is not something that you will ever perfect, but through practice it can radically improve your relationships with clients.
What Mindful Communication Is
According to Lisa Fortuna, M.D., and Zayda Vallejo, who co-wrote a book about treating co-occurring adolescent PTSD and addiction:
“Mindful communication is paying attention, on purpose, with the intention to be present to what the client is saying, moment-to-moment, with affectionate curiosity and nonjudgmental awareness. It also means attending to the impact of the client’s words in your internal landscape of bodily sensations, emotions, and thoughts. Finally, interpersonal mindfulness involves practicing mindful listening as well as expressing oneself mindfully.”
The goal of listening mindfully is to not only observe what is being communicated in a nonjudgmental way, but to observe your internal reactions to that information as well.
This goal is perhaps one of the most useful applications of mindfulness practice because like Matthieu Ricard mentioned, it allows us to use our ability to be present in the service of others.
In this way, each session becomes a practice in present moment awareness. How often during a session while a client is talking do you find yourself thinking about other things? When something particularly harrowing or painful is shared, how often do you say or doing something to shift out of being present, whether impulsively or on purpose?
“When you’re sharing a moment of intense personal pain with somebody, something that maybe they haven’t made contact with in years, it takes a willingness to stand in the moment and to not run away yourself, because that’s what your client is going to try to do,” says Kirk Strosahl, Ph.D., co-founder of acceptance and commitment therapy and author of “Inside This Moment: A Clincian’s Guide to Promoting Radical Change Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.”
When you make it a goal to practice mindful communication in your sessions, you will start to be aware of some of the ways you attempt to escape from the present moment when what’s being shared feels uncomfortable.
In those moments, do you start to think about something similar that happened to you? Do you latch onto evaluations about how you handled or mishandled it at the time? Do you secretly judge your client?