Mindful communication over the holidays

The holidays can often feel like a whirlwind this time of year. We may find ourselves in quite a few social settings: family gatherings, holiday parties, getting together with friends, etc. Conversations in these types of settings can be stressful and overwhelming. Here are some tips to make sure you’re communicating mindfully this season.

Tips for mindful communication over the holidays

Lead with intention. Going into the holidays with a clear intention helps us practice the essential skills of listening with curiosity, caring about the other person’s needs beneath their words, creating an intimate connection, and sharing the conversation as a collaboration. It can also keep us connected to our own needs and help us remain calm during conflict.

What values do you wish to bring to the table? Here are some words to consider when thinking about your intention:

  • connection
  • understanding
  • patience
  • care
  • kindness
  • presence
  • compassion
  • empathy
  • breathe

Stay anchored. A good rule of thumb mentioned in Kelly McGonigal’s Science of Compassion is to practice placing 95% of your attention on the other person while keeping 5% of your attention on your body. Anchoring your attention in your body will help you distinguish the self from the other and will also help keep you present. I like to pay attention to my seat on the chair, feeling the weight there. You can also focus on your breath, your hands, or whatever else feels best for you.

Take time to pause. Remember that you do not have to respond right away or rush through a conversation. Slowing down your pace gives your brain time to make sure you choose your words wisely. Taking time to pause also helps you collect your thoughts. I like to pause and take a breath before responding. It allows me to stay calm and remember my intention.

Reflect what you’ve heard before responding. Once someone has paused or finished speaking, take time to reflect and share what you’ve heard to ensure you understand the meaning behind the words. This is a great way to make sure the other person feels heard and that you recognize the needs behind what they’re saying.

Receive vs. give advice. If you ever notice yourself focusing on your response while someone else is speaking, you’ll find this tip helpful. Making sure a person feels heard requires fully listening to what they’re saying. Most people share because they want to connect, not because they want you to solve something for them. Try asking before offering advice next time you’re in a conversation. First, reflect what you’ve heard back to the speaker to make sure you understand. Then, you can ask, “Are you open to hearing my thoughts?” or “Are you looking for advice?”

Have boundaries and know your limits. Although mindful communication is a wonderful skill, it’s imperative also to state that there are instances when conversations can be unsafe places. Suppose you are dealing with someone who does not respect you or your boundaries, shows signs of prejudice, has violent or dangerous tendencies, or is simply unwilling to listen. In that case, it is best to exit that conversation. Putting your safety and well-being first is something you should never forget, especially when going into a conversation with someone you know has these tendencies. Mindfulness may actually help give you the space to pay attention to your own needs, letting you know when to leave a situation that is not helpful.

Here’s a partner practice to try if you want to strengthen your mindful communication skills:

Compassionate Conversations

Compassionate conversations are a meaningful approach to use when we want to increase the possibility of a conversation rooted in meaning, deep connection, understanding, curiosity, and discovering underlying needs and wants.

This practice is based on:

  • Practicing presence both as the speaker and the listener.
  • Being aware of yourself, the other, and the space between you. This involves slowing down, connecting, and reflecting before automatically responding.
  • Deciding what or who is being centered in the conversation. Whose needs, wants, or perspectives are being prioritized at this moment?
  • Training to listen for, attune to, and recognize what is most needed and essential from this conversation.

Practicing compassionate conversation includes the below skills:

  • As a speaker: Practice presence while speaking by connecting with an anchor. You can choose to anchor yourself in your breath, feeling your seat on the chair, your feet on the floor, or whatever feels best for you. Experience sharing as an embodied experience and notice when attention to the body begins to stray. Slow down and allow space by pausing and taking a breath before continuing to share. This allows space for speaking intentionally and gives the listener permission to reflect on what you’ve shared.
  • As a listener: When you are the listener, listen with generosity, broad awareness, and perspective. Lean in with your entire body, feeling how what you’re hearing affects you. Let your awareness be like taking in a view of nature, admiring a work of art, or listening to a song.
  • Mirroring: Reflect the content you’ve heard like a clear mirror, without your own judgment or biases. Try to avoid your own stories, your desire to fix or give advice, and judgments while you make sure you are understanding what has been shared.
  • Observing: Look at the whole picture. What are you seeing and hearing in your environment? Try to put it in terms of observation: a clear, concrete description that includes specifics and context. This is not an evaluation, analysis, judgment, interpretation, or diagnosis.
  • Recognizing: Ask permission to make a guess based on the above practices and sometimes instinct about what’s not being said, or the subtext, about what’s most important or needed.

In this practice, each person will have the opportunity to share something that has some significance in their life at the moment: an incident, situation, or event you would like to receive compassion and empathy. It could be something that is bringing you joy or something difficult you are experiencing. Please do not choose something too intense or challenging, or strong emotions will likely flood the exercise and get in the way of learning (at least when you first start this practice). If strong emotions arise, you have the option to turn toward them within this practice as well.

In this practice, you will try to:

  • Practice presence both as the speaker and as the listener.
  • Practice relational awareness, which often includes slowing down. As the speaker, you may want to have a loose focus on your breathing to remind you to slow down your pace. As a listener, connect and reflect with what you’re hearing before planning your response or automatically responding without intention.
  • Choose what is being centered in the conversation. Whose needs, wants, and perspectives are being prioritized at this moment?

Train yourself to listen for, attune to, and recognize what is most needed and essential.

  1. Take a couple of minutes to greet each other.
  2. Decide who will speak first and who will listen first.
  3. If you are the speaker, first bring up what you will be sharing with your partner. If you’re listening, shift around in your chair, so you’re sitting with a posture of embodied listening (comfortable, but alert).
  4. Set a timer for 3-5 minutes. The speaker will have 3-5 minutes to share while the listener simply listens.
  5. SPEAKER: As you share, practice leading with presence. Allow yourself to speak at a pace that enables this. Give yourself space to pause and connect with an anchor that supports being present. This anchor may be breathing, slowing down, or feeling the contact between your body and the chair or your feet on the floor.
  6. LISTENER: While the speaker is sharing, practice listening in these ways:
  • Embodied with your whole body, mind, and heart. Just listen. You are offering your complete attention without dissolving into the other person’s story. Keep some awareness of your own anchor, remaining present throughout.
  • Practice reflecting on some of the content your partner has shared. This is not responding with your thoughts or advice but mirroring what the speaker shared back to them to make sure you understood the content. Be sure to try this out at least once during your partner’s sharing. Times to offer a reflection are after a chunk of a story that is being shared or when you notice your mind begin to wander off or lose track of the story or details. You can also practice reflecting during any pauses in the conversation. Another critical time to reflect is before you direct a response. Here are three ways to try out offering a reflection:
    • Stay Connected: You can say something like “I just wanted to make sure I’m still with you” or “I want to make sure I’m understanding correctly” and then share back the last few things you heard as the listener.
    • Reflect the Headlines: Summarize the gist of what someone has shared using their words as much as possible.
    • Repeat the speaker’s last three words. Give a bit of space to make sure they’re finished, and you can say something like, “Can you say more about this?”
  1. LISTENER: After the 3-5 minutes are up, take a guess at what matters most to the speaker if you feel comfortable doing so. Let the speaker finish their thought and sit quietly for a few moments. During that minute, consider what mattered most to the speaker. Beneath the story, its details and what happened, what matters to them? Then, take a guess at what is most important to the speaker. Listener, you are not advising, telling, or directing the speaker. You are offering a guess at what’s essential or matters to them.
  2. SPEAKER: Respond authentically to this guess.
  3. Debrief for a few moments by thanking each other. Say something appreciative about what the other person offered to you. “Thank you for allowing me a safe space to share openly.” “Thank you for trusting me and being open to sharing this with me.”
  4. Switch roles, resetting the clock for 3-5 more minutes. Repeat the practice.

TO CLOSE: Letting go of any particular speaker or listener role, share what you’ve learned from the experience.

  • What was it like to listen in this manner? What was familiar or different from the way you often listen?
  • How was it to be listened to in this way?
  • What was it like to listen with your whole body?
  • What was it like to reflect the content of what was shared? Rather than give advice, or problem-solve right away? How is reflecting the speaker’s content similar or different from how you often respond to someone speaking?
  • What was helpful about making a guess and asking what matters most? What was useful about receiving a guess as a speaker?

If you’re interested in a guided practice, we recommend the Shared Identity Practice. In this guided exercise, you’ll be thinking of a person in your life who seems to be very different from you in every way that you can imagine. They might have different interests, different religious or political beliefs, or different life experiences. They may even be someone with whom you have had a personal conflict or who belongs to a group that has been in conflict with a group to which you belong. You will be working through finding commonalities.

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