When we hear the word “mindfulness”, many of us think about how being more mindful could benefit our physical health, reduce our anxiety, help us perform better at our job, or deepen our spirituality. Being more mindful can certainly bring about these changes. However, mindfulness can also strengthen our relationships with other people. How does this work?
The three “what” skills of mindfulness are:
Generally, we practice one of the “what” skills at a time, rather than trying to juggle several at once. You may find that you feel more adept at one of the skills than the others. In this case, it might behoove you to spend more time practicing those skills that you may find challenging, so in time they come more naturally to you.
First of all, mindfulness asks that we observe what’s going on, without labeling our experience. In relationships, this means that we:
- Do one thing at a time. Instead of multi-tasking, we put our complete attention on the person or people we are with.
- Have an attitude of interest and curiosity. We suspend judgment and are simply receptive to what other people are presenting to us, with their words, vocal inflections, and body language. We pick up when their verbal and non-verbal communication don’t seem congruent, such as when someone says that they’re fine but are wringing their hands or frowning.
- Listen to what’s being said, instead of rehearsing our response.
- Remain open-minded and attentive to what the other person is telling us, rather than staying stuck in preconceived notions about the other person.
- Be other-focused, instead of self-absorbed. This has the added benefit of releasing us from concern over how we might be perceived by the other person.
- Not beat ourselves up if we do notice a judgmental thought arising about the other person. We simply notice the thought and then let it go, returning our attention to simple awareness of the situation.
- Listen to our gut instinct.
Secondly, mindfulness involves describing what we’re experiencing, rather than judging it. Often our descriptions in social situations are mental and not voiced. We:
- Use descriptive words rather than judgmental words. For instance, we could note that the person is speaking rapidly in a loud voice rather than thinking to ourselves, “They are jabbering on in an annoying way”.
- Steer clear of making assumptions about the other person’s feelings about us. We stick with the facts, such as “She smiled at me” or “He looked at his watch”. We cannot know for a fact that she is interested or he is bored.
- Ascribe to the “innocent until proven guilty” approach. Instead of worrying that other people won’t like, approve of, be interested in, or approve of us, we expect good rapport. Also, we assume the best about other person’s character.
Finally, mindfulness means that we fully participate in our interactions with others. Instead of holding back, we:
- Throw ourselves into the conversation or experience. Instead of having one foot in and one foot out, we are fully immersed in the situation. We aren’t looking at the door or another escape route.
- Exercise flexibility and accept the experience as it is, instead of attempting to control it. If it’s been decided that the two (or more) of us are going to a certain restaurant, we don’t waste time wishing and/or voicing that our preference would be otherwise.
- Stay with the interaction, even if it feels challenging, unless we feel strongly that it’s best to terminate the conversation. Communicating with others can involve awkward or tense moments. When we’re really participating, we accept such times without withdrawing emotionally or physically. However, if we truly feel unsafe, we are able to purposefully remove ourselves from the situation.
One common mindfulness practice is the loving-kindness meditation, in which we first wish well to ourselves, then to someone we love, then to a neutral person (someone we don’t know well), and next to someone with whom we have a challenging relationship. Practicing loving-kindness meditation before, after, or even during our interactions with others can significantly increase the harmony in our relationships.
First we say to ourselves something along the lines of:
May I be happy.
May I be healthy.
May I be safe.
May I live in peace.
After a few minutes, we picture a person to whom we feel great affection, and we silently say:
May you be happy.
May you be healthy.
May you be safe.
May you live in peace.
We then consider someone who we may encounter now and then, but for whom there isn’t a big emotional “charge”, and we silently repeat the above phrases.
Finally, we think of a person towards whom we may feel anger or resentment, and we repeat these phrases to ourselves.
Such a practice can be done sitting alone in a quiet place, and preferably on a regular basis, so we learn how to more readily shift into this compassionate stance. Then, when we are engaged in interactions with others, we can maintain a sense of good will and connection, while also remaining alert to what is actually taking place. We will be better able to state our requests or receive constructive criticism in ways that work for the best for all concerned.