Holiday Conversations

I was impressed by how effective this year’s political campaigns were at creating division and fear. As we come together with friends and family of all political stripes over the holidays, what would happen if we analyzed how politicians behaved and did the opposite? Would our conversations create connection and trust?

holiday conversation

Mindful Listening

The authors of the original mindfulness manual laid out simple guidelines for listening.

People may use five types of speech when addressing us.    

• Timely or untimely.

• True or untrue.

• Gentle or harsh.

• Helpful or unhelpful.

• Well-intended or malicious.

How should we respond?

No matter what is said, train your mind to remain unaffected. Always maintain kindness and compassion for the speaker’s well-being.

The Heat of the Moment

But how do we train to keep our composure, let alone good will, when people from the other side interrupt us, spin falsehoods, spout inflammatory language, and never waver from their malicious intent?

Some instructions adapted from Chade-Meng Tan’s Search Inside Yourself offer ideas.

Timely Conversations

In the age of 24/7 media, cable news shows are hungry for the crisis of the moment. Polarized pundits duke it out by cutting each other off mid-sentence. This is great for amping up emotions and producing viral soundbites.

But how do our conversations with friends, family, and co-workers go when we cut people off mid-sentence? What if, instead, we invite others to share whatever is on their mind, and give them our full attention as they tell us?

One way to practice using timely speech is to designate a time for speaking and a time for listening.

Team up with a conversation partner and offer them the option to be speaker or listener.

Set a timer for three minutes.

Speaker instructions: this is your three-minute uninterrupted monologue. When you are speaking, try to maintain some awareness of your body to see how it feels when someone listens to you. No need to worry about being cut off. No pressure to keep talking if you can’t think of what to say next. If you run out of things to say, notice how it feels to sit with silence. When another thought pops up, you may continue speaking.     

Listener instructions: your job is to listen while maintaining some awareness of your body to see how it feels when you don’t have to think about what to say next. No pressure to jump in if the speaker slows down, meanders, or goes silent. If the speaker stops, notice how it feels to sit with silence. If they start speaking again, resume listening.

Tip: if the content of the speaker’s monologue rouses some strong sensations in the body, like those you associate with anger, consider whether the purpose of the occasion (such as getting together with friends and family) is to debate public policy or philosophical perspectives. To keep the conversation civil, try one of the approaches below.

Truthful Speech

Politicians and pundits are known for their selective and creative use of facts. They tend to acknowledge the ones that support their truth and ignore or cast doubt on the ones that don’t.

For political junkies fact checkers provide a great public service. But how do we feel about them in everyday interactions? If interrupting someone doesn’t turn a friendly conversation hostile, try upping your game by correcting them.

To practice resisting the urge to fact check the speaker, respond by paraphrasing your understanding of what they said, beginning with phrases like, “What I heard you say is…” or “If I understood you correctly….”

When you finish your summary, give the speaker the opportunity to clear-up any misinterpretations or important facts that you left out.

Tip: when it’s your turn to speak, if you’re not one-hundred percent sure of your facts, make it clear that you’re expressing a belief or opinion with phrases like, “It was my understanding that…” or “I think…” or “I feel…” Whatever follows these statements is always a fact.

Gentle Conversations

When politicians and pundits use harsh language, they’re out to arouse our emotions, not our reason. There’s method to this madness. Soundbites of harsh language spread like wildfire.

In real life, we don’t fight wildfires with fire but by creating the conditions for them to burn themselves out.

To practice resisting the urge to fight fire with fire, paraphrase your understanding of the speaker’s emotions as well as their words, beginning with phrases like, “What I heard you’re feeling is…” or “It sounds like you’re feeling….”

When you finish your summary, give the speaker the opportunity to clarify their feelings.

Tip: when it’s your turn to speak, let your body awareness help you tap into how you feel as well as think about what you’re saying.

Helpful Conversations

Politicians go on defense and double-down whenever an idea they identify with is being judged.    

In real life, we go on defense at the slightest suggestion that we’re being judged:

• Incompetent.

• A bad person.

• Unworthy of love.      

To practice resisting the urge to threaten the speaker’s self image, use your body awareness to notice whether you’re tightening up and feeling judgmental. Remember that any feedback that makes the speaker feel defensive will not be helpful.

Conversely:

  • Paraphrasing the speaker’s words without judgment acknowledges their competence.
  • Recounting their feelings without judgment acknowledges their goodness.
  • Demonstrating that they’ve been heard and understood is one way of showing you care enough to listen.    

Tip: if you feel judged when it’s your turn to speak, start from the position that it isn’t the listener’s intention. See below.

Well-Intended Speech

If you’re not certain why a politician chose to say or do something, their opponent will be happy to tell you.

But one honest mistake we make creates misunderstandings more than any other: we judge the effect of our actions based on our intentions, and we infer other people’s intentions based on their actions.

For example, if we accidentally cut somebody off in traffic, we excuse ourselves because we’re running late. If someone cuts us off, it’s because they’re rude, reckless, and self-centered.    

So, if something we hear is hurtful to us, we assume that it was meant to harm us.

To complicate matters, once we assume we know someone’s intentions, we accept our assumption as fact. Even if the offender later claims they meant no harm, we may not believe them.

When you’re unclear on the speaker’s intentions, you can express that uncertainty with “I’m a little fuzzy on what you said about…” or “I wasn’t quite sure what you meant by….”

This gives the speaker the chance to clarify anything the listener misconstrued.

Tip: be aware that your own intention is to remain kind and compassionate for the listener’s well-being.

Ten Minute Exercise

To recap how to practice civil conversations:

1. Team up with a conversation partner to take turns as speaker and listener.

2. Speaker instructions: this is your three-minute uninterrupted monologue. When you are speaking, try to maintain some awareness of your body to see how it feels when someone listens to you. No need to worry about being cut off. No pressure to keep talking if you can’t think of what to say next. If you run out of things to say, notice how it feels to sit with silence. When another thought pops up, you may continue speaking.

Listener instructions: your job is to listen while maintaining some awareness of your body to see how it feels when you don’t have to think about what to say next. No pressure to jump in if the speaker slows down, meanders, or goes silent. If the speaker stops, notice how it feels to sit with silence. If they start speaking again, resume listening.

3. During the next two minutes, the listener summarizes their understanding of the speaker’s words and emotions, including their uncertainty about the speaker’s intentions. The speaker then gets a chance to clarify.

4. Repeat steps two and three reversing the roles of speaker and listener.

To practice these conversation skills without the timer:

Give the speaker the gift of your attention.

Maintain some awareness of how your body responds to what is said.

When the speaker comes to a natural pause or starts a new topic, ask for permission to summarize by saying something like, “Before we move on, let me see if I understood you correctly.”

Before you speak, you might start with something like, “I don’t always speak as clearly as I’d like, so feel free to give me feedback on how this comes across.”

For handling anxiety while speaking or listening, try these ten second reality checks.

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.