A consistent mindfulness practice has been shown to improve relationships through greater empathy and compassion — suggesting mindfulness training has numerous benefits for the workplace environment, where clear communication, high cognitive performance, and compassionate leadership skills are in high demand.
So, how does mindfulness help us recognize and understand communication cues and help to overcome challenging conversation barriers? How can mindful conversations provide us with an avenue for better self-awareness and become more compassionate and empathic leaders?
To answer these critical questions, let’s first look at why communication is instinctual, then review introductory concepts of brain function which are integral to avoiding conflict and resolving it once encountered, followed by a more detailed explanation of how a mindful practice can significant improvement our communications at work.
The Communication Connection is a Basic Human Need
How we interact and communicate in life and at work has meaning – we can’t escape this fact. We are social beings, and learning new and better ways to engage and communicate with others fosters our well-being and growth and that of our collective tribe and society as a whole.
The process of communication between humans is partly learned and partly instinctual. Our brain’s neuropathways formation that fosters communication predates prehistoric illustrations on cave walls to grunts and body language. It provides a connection with the world around us and internally, negative or positive.
Our past learned social behaviors to control our anger and anxiety, and immediate environmental and emotional factors preceding and during communication, will impact our ability to articulate. Along with what body language we deploy and our tone (volume, pitch, and word choice/emphasis) will all affect our message’s quality (precision of succinctness). Similarly, these factors will affect the receiver’s ability to comprehend and understand our true meaning.
In addition to communicating for safety, security, coordination of mutual efforts (working together or avoiding conflict), communication also serves as a form of connectedness between humans. As we learn the art of communication through mindful practice, we gain a more profound sense of self-awareness, purpose and our relationship with others is enhanced.
Our Expressions Communicates More than Words
Recently, we have all felt the intense pressure of Covid-19’s direct impact on our daily lives. We’ve all made adjustments and strived to do our best to adapt to our changing world. Many employees have had to learn new ways to do their job effectively, such as remote work and continual video meetings, and gain skills to adapt quickly by learning new ways to foster communication with employees and customers. Gaining the knowledge that we have an innate ability to understand other’s emotions through facial expressions and inflections in our voice will help us become better communicators. Studies suggest that 93% of our communication is visual and auditory; the art of reading facial expressions and the use of tone of voice has never been more vital to our success as communicators.
How Stress Dampens Clear Communication
Whether it’s work-related stress, family conflict, or constantly worrying about life, modern-day struggles and hardships activate the same fight or flight responses in the brain. We can tolerate stress for brief durations; in fact, some thrive on the increased sense of energy and drive resulting from the release of stress hormones (“Adrenaline Rush”).
However, suppose we are exposed to stressful conditions (or situations) for prolonged periods. In that case, our body goes into a defense mode due to the release of other hormones, including cortisol, which can impair the immune system, cause sleep disturbances, and sub-optimal cognitive performance. Indeed, prolonged cortisol can lead to fogginess and impaired function of the executive brain (the part we need for complex problem solving and creative thought).
Cortisol can be viewed as nature’s built-in alarm system. During brief episodes of stress, the cortisol provides resilience by increasing blood sugar for anticipated increased metabolic needs and decreasing inflammation with vigorous exercise (fight or flight).
These favorable adaptions to overcome acute stressors are augmented by the other stress factors, epinephrine (adrenaline), and norepinephrine, increasing the strength of the heart and skeletal muscle contractions and the blood pressure needed for exercise (as would occur with fight or flight). In contrast, with chronic stress, the prolonged elevated cortisol levels begin to manifest the deleterious effects mentioned above (impaired sleep, immunity, and cognitive function), high blood pressure, weight gain, irritability, fatigue, and anxiety depression, along with other mental health concerns.
A Mindful Practice Offers Protection Against Stress
An essential practice for protecting ourselves from unnecessary stress is to approach as many of our daily interactions as possible mindfully. In this context, “mindful” relates to “being self-aware” and also prepared for the input of discordant factors, and working to stay fully engaged and aware of your feelings so you do not slip into react (fight or flight) mode.
For example, if during an interaction with a colleague you SEE with your eyes an angry facial gesture, such as snarl, and/or HEAR with your ears, words spoken in a loud angry tone by this individual, the unprepared (non-mindful) response would be to react in a fight or flight way. This fight or flight response is hardwired into our Central Nervous System (CNS), and plays a vital role in a genuine threat. Interestingly, brains process this information and return a response in fractions of a second, using neurochemical messengers for you to get out of danger or retaliate.
Routinely Practicing Mindfulness We Naturally Become Better Communicators
A mindful approach to this situation requires self-awareness (checking in on how we are feeling) and assessing the full situation, including what might be causing the individual to be expressing angry gestures and words. Staying present (self-aware) requires the use of the executive brain (frontal lobes), and dramatically increases the likelihood of avoiding strong emotions that can cloud our thinking. Using a mindful technique allows us to become far better communicators (better listeners and more articulate speakers). Our brains, in essence, can be controlled through a consistent mindful practice so that the reflexive (fight or flight) pathway is subdued and the executive function stays in control, allowing our exchanges to be poised, intelligent, and mindful.
(Note, the brain can be triggered to go down the fight or flight pathway following a stressful memory and be perceived as just as profound of a threat as the real thing when patients suffer from PTSD.)
Mindfulness Provides an Avenue for self-awareness
Here is where mindful skills can help in communication. Through practice, one develops a sense of clarity, concentration, equanimity, self-awareness, and self-knowledge. Through practice, you will begin to notice you have the choice to respond or not and respond with compassion rather than with tough emotional reactions such as anger or frustration. Through practice, the observance, and untangling of emotion, one can experience the interaction with equanimity fostering internal growth and awareness.
Mindful disciplines regard emotions as “impermanence.” Emotions by nature are quick and fleeting; they are not permanent. For example, when if you are fully engaged in watching a movie – you can be laughing and feeling joy in one instance, fearful in the next, and then irritated. Your emotions rise and resend without conscious effort or work.
When an emotion is continuous over the course of the day, it is considered a mood. If it is a negative habitual and acute, compounded negative emotions can lead to depression and severely affect our mental health.
In our mindful practice, we allow ourselves to observe, release or focus on the emotions; as we do so, we let go of our control the emotion that arises, and note is emergence and passing. Through steady practice, we are training ourselves not to get stuck in emotional traps. We become the observer, more self-aware of our emotions rather than the reactor. Having the skill of noticing and observing emotions as they arise is essential and allows you to be more present.
As we become more self-aware of how we are feeling and do not let strong emotions cloud our thinking, we become better communicators. And with practice, we can teach ourselves to avoid the traps of sticky conflict.
Mindfulness Can Help Us to Compassionately Resolve Conflict
To be effective in the workplace, learning how to communicate with clarity, and being skilled at conflict resolution, are required to make us better leaders and trusted by our peers. In times of conflict, a mindful practitioner can begin to see the positive results of their mediation practice. A student of mindfulness has done habitual practice independently and has mindfully sat with challenging emotions as they have come and gone, in states of quiet self-reflective mediation. They have sat through the uncomfortable feelings and learned to observe and accept them rather than lean towards flight or fight scenarios. They have trained your nervous system not to overreact to emotions that arise as of this effort.
In practicing mindfulness, one learns to overcome and not react to conflict because of a sense of concentration, clarity, and equanimity. As one moves through the phases of mindful development, one learns to manage their thoughts and emotions. In effect, they are learning the skill of thought management that will result in one having a tendency to become calmer, more grounded, centered, and speak with more clarity. Even in tough conversations, the person who is trained in mindfulness can have mindfulness technique playing in the background of their mind to maintain their state of equanimity.
Furthermore, suppose one is to follow the prescription of bringing a mindful practice to work. In that case, they may be surprised by their resiliency, the ability to an observer with non-judgmental acceptance. They may discover that they approach work with the open mindfulness to be present, listen to what is being said (and not said), and work through tough conversations with more tolerance and compassion.
When one commits to a mindful state of mind, they bring self-awareness to each conversation, allowing for clear, concise communication, which opens the door for more compassion, joy, and clarity, thus more personal empowerment and job satisfaction.