February 12, 2017

How to Practice Mindful Conversation.

As any contemplative person will admit, hunkering down to meditate isn’t easy.

Our attention swiftly gets sabotaged by thoughts. And once thinking takes over, it requires a degree of mindfulness to wrest our awareness back. Repeating this process ad nauseam trains the mind.

But what, exactly, are we training for? Unless you’re living the monastic life, you probably aren’t shooting for the status of Arhat, or fully enlightened being. Rather, you have more modest goals. You want to be happier throughout the day, tamp down stress, and stop mindlessly checking email.

In principle, mindfulness can permeate every moment of our waking lives. Not all moments, however, are created equal. It’s one thing to notice your respiratory rhythm in the shade of towering trees. It’s quite another to execute this move when a customer rep asks you, for the third time, to repeat the spelling of your name. The chrysanthemums of the world can be forgiven for losing their cool here.

This example hints at a larger truth: Conversation is not always Zen. There are two parts—speaking and listening—to any dialogue, both of which are entangled in the concepts of human language. There is no escape into sensory data. One simply must engage with the ideas.

From my perspective, speaking seems to be little more than thinking out loud. My thoughts simply move from within to without. The outer voice, fortunately, seems to have a filter that the inner does not. But the functioning of this filtration system is deeply confusing to me. And when it doesn’t work, I’m even more confused.

However mystifying these processes may be, a meta-awareness of our speech is crucial for connecting with others. Without noticing certain habit patterns—gossip, lying, self-talk, useless chatter—we can’t see how poorly they reflect on us. When someone is jabbering about total strangers, it takes real effort to feign interest. But how often are we, in fact, the tiresome bore?

“There is this mismatch between what we think makes us look good, and what we effortlessly recognize looks bad on other people,” remarks the philosopher Sam Harris. “[It’s like] a piece of clothing you could wear which you thought looked great on yourself, but the moment you put it on another person, you could recognize that this is the least flattering thing a person could possibly wear.”

Gossip is obviously one of these garments. And yet, it’s often the only form of speech on the menu. It’s standard dinner table fare. Deriding our fellow humans (behind their backs of course) can be tremendous fun. But there are consequences—psychological, reputational, or otherwise—to indulging this appetite. We say one thing socially, another in a work setting, and yet another to a stranger. This is not a practice for building integrity.

The habit of gossip is so deeply ingrained that one wonders if it can be kicked. Many years ago, in fact, the meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein decided to find out.

“I made an experiment,” reflects Goldstein, “and for some period of time…maybe a couple months, I decided not to speak to someone about someone else…If they weren’t there, I wasn’t going to speak about them.”

How did it go? “About 90 percent of my speech was eliminated,” remarks Goldstein. This is absurd. Imagine, for a moment, paring your speech down by 90 percent. How would you get through the day? No doubt it would require lots of smiling and head bobbing on your side of the table. 

But radical, guru-level, commitments need not be made. Merely noticing our tendency to gossip can be transformative. And this bad habit, it seems, hints at an underlying pathology: We simply want to be heard. With our speech, we’re often doing little more than announcing our presence.

This tendency is, in fact, perfectly opposed to the other side of conversation. And when we’re on the other side listening to someone speak, we seldom do so with an open mind. Instead, we’re busy conjuring something clever. When our main goal is to sound smart, we can’t interact with what the other person is saying. I catch myself doing this at an astonishing frequency.

When both parties behave this way, the situation can turn ugly. Polite conversation rapidly disintegrates into petty competition, and the interlocutors simply talk past one another. In these fraught exchanges, mindful listening is not a priority. But it’s obvious that attentive listeners are light years more likable than insufferable blowhards.

And it’s good to be liked. Ironically then, it’s in our selfish best interest to be less self-centered with our speech patterns.

Contemplatives, of course, have known this for ages. The great Chinese sage Lao-Tzu once quipped, “Those who know don’t talk. Those who talk don’t know.”

As we pay closer attention to our speech, Lao-Tzu’s words make progressively more sense: There are indeed many things that are best left unsaid.



Author: Brian Stanton

Image: Flickr/Rick & Brenda Beerhorst

Editor: Callie Rushton

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