“Before you speak, ask yourself’ is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence?” Sai Baba
Indian teacher, Sai Baba, was a great proponent of silence and intentional speech. As a psychologist and researcher who devotes much of my life to studying human interactions and observing the ways in which we undermine ourselves by speaking first and thinking later, I couldn’t agree more.
It may seem as though staying silent and communicating mindfully is a relatively simple task. But when we're feeling excited, threatened, triggered or defensive it can take a lot of effort to listen attentively.
Jumping into a conversation
We live in a competitive culture. Quick responses, problem solving, being on the attack, and getting the job done shape our values and, consequently, our style of relating to others.
We tend to plow into conversations more concerned about getting our point across, winning or being heard than listening, holding the space, and creating room for a deeper understanding of what others are trying to convey. This unskillful action can come at the expense of our relationships.
Enter mindfulness; a way of being that emphasizes attention, awareness, self-examination, intention and skillful action. Behaving mindfully involves attending to communication from a place of awareness, and maintaining an intention to hold the space to do so. As Sai Baba points out, sometimes silence is a more effective communication strategy than speaking.
Too much is not necessarily a good thing
Years ago while studying music composition for film and television scoring at UCLA I made an interesting discovery. As a new student I believed that successful composers filled the space with as many notes as possible; that the goal of creating music was to use every orchestral instrument in as many ways as possible.
One day I was asked to compose a piece of music to a film clip from the movie, Roots, using only a harmonica, flute, bassoon and stand up bass. I was dumbfounded. No matter how hard I tried, I could not find a way to harmoniously arrange these 4 instruments together. Each attempt felt like fingernails scratching a chalkboard.
I soon realized that I had to do something differently. I needed to step back and reassess my strategy of filling the page with notes and consider that there might be another way to face the challenging task at hand.
I took a break from the assignment and listened to the works of several of my favorite composers. What I discovered shocked me.
Pausing is key
Music has as much (if not more) to do with the pauses between the notes as the notes themselves. The magic occurs in the moments of pause when we hold our breath in anticipation of a resolution, or sigh as stillness washes over us. Silence is golden. A cacophony is downright unpleasant.
The same applies to communication. Conversations are like building a fire. If we haphazardly dump as many logs as possible into a hearth without creating space for the air to circulate the fire quickly dies. Likewise, if we bombard others with our thoughts without creating space for them in the conversation, they rapidly lose interest and we miss the opportunity to connect.
Many of us have been conditioned to believe that conversations are exercises in turn taking. Unfortunately, this strategy can be very unsatisfying for both the speaker and the listener.
A few years ago I made a new friend who was very bright, engaging, and had a diverse set of skills and interests that I enjoyed hearing about. Early into getting to know each other I observed that each time I would tell a story he would respond by recounting a story of his own. While I was speaking I could literally see his mind working on what he was about to say next.
It didn’t take long to realize that he wasn’t really listening or taking in what I was saying – rather, it felt more like a tennis match in which ideas were bouncing to and fro and nothing more. I could feel my body reacting by tensing up each time I finished a sentence and my heart sink when he responded with a story of his own. Over time I felt unheard, unappreciated and marginalized.
When I commented on the dynamics of our communication he responded by saying, “Well, isn’t that what I’m supposed to do… respond to your story with one of my own?” Given how much that dynamic undermined our ability to get to know each other and build a friendship I’d say probably not.
In truth, good discussions provide opportunities for listening and learning as much as they do information exchange. When we concentrate on conversational volleying more than listening, we lose our ability to be present because our minds are busy working on what to say next. Once again, we circumvent an opportunity to connect with someone at a deeper level.
5 tips for creating space
We hear a lot about mindfulness, and how tools like meditation can help us to be in better touch with ourselves and others. When it comes to relationships, one of the most important skills that we can practice is remaining silent and being fully attentive when others are speaking.
Not sure how? Here are a few ideas to get you started:
Set an intention to pause and observe your habitual responses.
Examine how your perceptions, personal stories and communication patterns affect others.
Commit to listening rather than immediately responding.
Count to five before responding to someone during an important conversation.
Take the time to hear someone out rather than to criticize, pass judgment, problem solve, or respond by telling your story.
Approach this practice as an impartial observer rather than an evaluator – try not to judge your performance, but learn from what works and what doesn't.
Our job as mindful listeners is to create a space of respectful silence where others can explore and express their thoughts and feelings. In other words, instead of filling the space with notes or stuffing the hearth with logs, we pause, wait and listen.
This doesn’t mean that we don’t participate in the conversation – rather, we allow it to unfold like a meandering river rather than diverting its course or damming the flow with our own needs, agendas or anxieties.
This is just one step in learning how to approach mindful communication in our relationships. It can be remarkably challenging if our tendency is to problem solve, help out or fix things. But that is perfectly fine.
Mindfulness, like life, is a practice. We learn by doing, and failing, and trying again.
To learn more about how to practice mindfulness in relationships, see my book Mindful Relationships: Seven Skills for Success - Integrating the science of mind, body and brain