Interpersonal Mindfulness for Clinicians

In their book, Fortuna and Vallejo outline two foundational principles for the practice of interpersonal mindfulness.

The First Principle of Mindful Communication

The first principle is about listening to what the client is saying with an unbiased and nonjudgmental stance.

This mindset will take practice and will involve first noticing when judgmental thoughts emerge and gently pulling yourself back to a neutral place. Note that this will not be strictly verbal. She may be presenting body language,or her own avoidance behaviors like covering her face, changing the subject or laughing nervously. To the extent that you’re tuned in, you’ll be better equipped to help her stay tuned in as well.

Here are some helpful reminders adapted from Fortuna and Vallejo’s book about what interpersonal mindfulness looks like:

• To the best of your ability, listen to your client as if you were meeting her for the first time. Limit any assumptions you might be tempted to make based on her clinical history and what she’s told you in previous sessions. Be curious, and rely entirely on her to fill in any blanks you may be tempted to fill in for yourself.
• Practice trusting the therapeutic process. If you feel yourself judging your competence as a clinician when you see that a client is still stuck in his or her patterns or maladaptive behaviors, gently bring yourself back to trusting in the tools you have gathered along the way.
• Stay open to whatever your client is saying, even when it feels painful or uncomfortable for you. Watch for any behaviors you may be tempted to engage in that will take you away from the present moment, and watch for them in your client as well.
• A few moments of focusing on the breath before speaking can work wonders for setting a mindful tone for the conversation.

The Second Principle of Mindful Communication

The second principle is about the intention we set when we enter into a session. When we’re communicating mindfully, we are approaching clients with the intention to serve. And serving does not mean fixing.

“Fixing or helping implies authority and conveys the message that you know more about that person than he or she does. When we feel that we know best for someone else, we create dependency. We take away a person’s self-efficacy, self-worth, and faith and trust in him- or herself. Put another way, we can listen with our minds, or listen with our hearts,” say Fortuna and Vallejo.

Compassionate Communication

Evidence touting the benefits of compassion-focused techniques in therapy is mounting. When we intercept on the mind’s evolved tendency to want to judge, fix, and seek out negatives, we make way for a style of listening that allows a deeper and more profound level of healing.

The idea here is that if we as clinicians can view our work as an action of service, we absolve ourselves of the inherently evaluative job of “fixing” people. It can help us to stay connected with our reasons for getting into this work in the first place and can ultimately reduce burnout.

Like any mindfulness practice, interpersonal mindfulness also takes practice and a commitment to returning to the present moment as often as possible, not just in sessions but throughout the day.

It takes a willingness to occupy our bodies when the physical sensations that come with fear, anxiety, stress, anger or grief emerge. And it requires the same willingness to stay present without pulling away when our clients experience similar distressing sensations.

If you already have a personal mindfulness practice, you’ll find that cultivating interpersonal mindfulness in your sessions to be a natural next step to deepening your practice.

Therapy session photo available from Shutterstock

Interpersonal Mindfulness for Clinicians