As Valentine’s Day approaches, I would like to encourage you to think beyond flowers and chocolate, to bring mindful awareness to how you communicate – with that special someone or any loved one or person you care about. After all, what is more important in a relationship than communication?

As human beings, we are communicating with each other virtually all of the time, both verbally and non-verbally. You would think with so much practice, we’d all be really good at it, but that’s just not the case!  Misunderstandings are common and frequent, and occur in all relationships. Mindfulness practice has much to offer in improving our communication skills, both listening and speaking.

Mindful communication means remembering the three primary Mechanisms of Mindfulness:  Intention, Attention, and Attitude.  Our intention is to pay attention, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. How does this apply to ordinary conversation?

LISTENING:  When someone else is speaking, we focus on hearing their words, rather than on what we would like to say. We pay attention to how the speaker is communicating, bringing awareness to their tone, body language, and other non-verbal cues to help us understand their intention. We listen with interested curiosity. We don’t play with our phones or look out the window.

We are aware of our own reactions – thoughts, emotions, sensations – including any aversion or attachment to what is being said; noticing the urge to respond before the speaker has finished; and if we notice our mind wandering, we bring it back to listening. We stay with what is being said in the present, rather than dwelling on what’s been said in the past, or worrying about what’s to come. And we keep our mouth shut, other than to say, “I see,” “I hear you,” or “I understand.”

SPEAKING:  Before opening our mouth, we pause to gather our awareness of the present moment, perhaps quickly scanning the body for any sense of anxiety, tension, excitement, or other emotion, and noting mental activity. Then we focus on the intention – both the content of our message as well as how we deliver it – asking “Is this necessary? Is it true? Is it useful? And is it kind?”

As we speak, paying attention to how our message is being received, noticing any reactions in the listener(s), while continuing to monitor our own internal process (thoughts, emotions, sensations). Noticing what is happening for the listener – confusion? Irritation? Amusement? – and modifying our message accordingly, perhaps pausing to ask, “does this make sense?“ or “am I being clear?”

When I have taught mindful communication in my classes and groups, people readily recognize what unmindful communication is, because we’ve all experienced being on the receiving end, and we’re guilty of doing it, too. It’s another of those automatic pilot habits we engage in.

So we need to practice listening and speaking mindfully – it takes effort to change these habits. But when we do, we feel better about ourselves, the person or people we’re communicating with feel better about themselves, and the interpersonal relationship grows stronger.

To learn more, I highly recommend the work of Oren Jay Sofer, mindfulness teacher and expert on Non-Violent Communication. Here’s a link to Oren’s blog.