Four Mindful Communication Skills for Difficult Conversations

 

 

Having good communication skills means having the tools, strength, and confidence to navigate tough situations when they arise.
 
Whether it’s the co-worker with that uncanny ability to push our buttons, simmering tension with a friend, or a charged conversation with relatives at thanksgiving, we each have our share of challenging moments to muddle through. I remember many family arguments that ended with someone storming out of the room in a huff, or tears.


When faced with conflict, we often fall back onto default patterns hard-wired into our nervous system. We may freeze: alarm bells are ringing inside but the flow of speech suddenly dries up. We may go on the attack, raising our voice in a show of power that either ignites or quells the situation but resolves nothing. Or we flee, literally or figuratively backing away, getting small, or otherwise ceding ground to keep the peace.

 

Instead of these unconscious defence mechanisms, we can develop a few core capacities to hold our own and stay engaged in intense moments. If we can bring some balance, patience, and a spirit of curiosity to the conversation, we may find something valuable waiting on the other side.

 

When our nervous system is over-activated we lose access to important functions like clear thinking, empathy, and perspective-taking. The first order of business is to come back into balance.
 
Mindfulness is a tremendous resource here. Feeling our body, noticing thoughts and attending to our breathing can help us stay balanced. Remembering to take even one deep breath can make a world of difference. Feeling our feet on the floor can bring the much-needed ground to the storm.

 

Perhaps the most essential skill in difficult conversations is the ability to be aware of our internal state and self-regulate. When tensions flare it sends a cascade of signals through our mind-body: stress hormones are released, our breathing changes, emotions rise, and our thoughts race. Conflict also tends to narrow our attention. The mind focuses on our emotions, judgments, or the other person’s words or behaviour, and we lose perspective. Widening your visual field of attention can help bring things back into balance. Orient to your surroundings: notice the space around you, the sounds in the room. If we lose the ability to stay balanced, we may need to pause the conversation altogether. I’ve rarely seen a conversation result in anything useful when neither person can listen. If you need to take a break, be sure to mention two things: Conflict also tends to narrow our attention. The mind focuses on our emotions, judgments, or the other person’s words or behaviour, and we lose perspective. Widening your visual field of attention can help bring things back into balance. Orient to your surroundings: notice the space around you, the sounds in the room. If we lose the ability to stay balanced, we may need to pause the conversation altogether. I’ve rarely seen a conversation result in anything useful when neither person can listen. If you need to take a break, be sure to mention two things:

 

 

a) Affirm your intention to figure things out, listen, or connect, otherwise, the other person is likely to interpret your stepping away as a rejection or dismissal b) Propose a specific time frame to return to the topic (“in a few hours, tomorrow”) which reduces anxiety.

 

 

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