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What Is Mindful Communication? (And How to Practice It)

2 women sit at a kitchen table and talk


How often have you spat out hurtful words during a conversation, only to realize that you’ve sorely misunderstood the other party’s intentions? Oh, the suffocating shame and guilt. So many relationships are unintentionally hurt in this way. If only you could swallow back your words! 

While you cannot undo the initial hurt, you can actively work toward improving how you communicate—to bring more compassion, wisdom, and kindness into your daily interactions in order to build stronger relationships. Oh, and it’ll definitely come in handy when asking for forgiveness, too. A framework to use? Mindful communication.

Drawing extensively from the wisdom of Oren Jay Sofer in his book, Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication, this article reveals 5 simple steps to help you communicate with greater care and effectiveness. 

What is mindful communication? 

Think back to the last conversation you had. Were you genuinely present and listening to what the other person had to say? Or were you:

  • Thumbing through the notifications on your phone?
  • Crafting a reply in your mind based on the direction you think the conversation was headed?
  • Mentally changing what they were saying to validate your own feelings or views?
  • Cutting them off mid-sentence and rattling off whatever was on your mind?
  • Doing all the above?

Mindful communication is the opposite of all that. It asks you to remain present and maintain awareness throughout a conversation (when you’re listening and speaking) in a balanced, nonreactive way—even if it's difficult.

How to practice mindful communication 

#1: Cultivate mindfulness

Before you balk at the prospect of having to clear space on your schedule for meditation (it’s not for everyone—but is certainly beneficial), a simple alternative is to simply tune into the sensations of breathing whenever you have pockets of free time. Here’s how:

  1. Ideally, find a quiet space.
  2. Tune into the steady rhythm of breathing in and out.
  3. It’s normal for your mind to wander to thoughts, sounds, or other experiences. Whenever that happens, gently bring your attention back to feeling your breath.
  4. Sustain for however long you are able or have available.

#2: Practice empathetic listening

This is where you temporarily set aside your thoughts, views, and feelings to truly understand or feel what the other person is experiencing from their point of view. Try it out during your next conversation. For example, when the other party shares their struggles (e.g., an increased workload), instead of habitually jumping into "problem-solving mode" (e.g., "Just tell your manager you can't handle it") or offering dismissive statements (e.g., "Well, you should be glad you have a job"), listen with mindfulness and empathy by: 

  1. Putting yourself in their shoes: Have the heartfelt intention to understand and “feel into” what they’re saying. 
  1. Reflecting before you respond: Check that you’ve truly understood how they feel and/or what they need by reflecting what you hear is most important to them (e.g., “It sounds like you’re unhappy with your manager because you’re getting more responsibilities, but none of the associated compensation. Did I get that right?”).

#3: Express feelings and needs

In every dialogue, recognize that you and the other party may have different needs. But, at the same time, neither of you are mind-readers—which means clear, kind, and open communication is vital to meeting both parties’ needs. Here’s how you can practice that: 

  • As you listen, focus on what the other party might need. Check that you've understood correctly by reflecting it back to them (e.g., "Is this what matters to you?"). 
  • Be honest about your needs, too. Phrase it in a positive way. For example, instead of saying, “I don’t like the way you treat me like a child in our relationship,” you could say, “Having autonomy and freedom is important to me.”

It's natural to experience intense emotions, including anger, during the process. When that happens, instead of allowing emotions to cloud your judgment, try to:

  • Remember that your emotions reflect your needs (e.g., “I’m mad because I’ve just gotten home, and the kitchen still looks like a mess.”)
  • Separate observations from judgments (e.g., "There are many unwashed dishes in the sink," vs. "You didn't clean up after yourself—again.")
  • Find ways to express your emotions without blame (e.g., “I was looking forward to enjoying our date night together.”)
  • Link others’ feelings to their needs (e.g., “They’re frustrated because their intentions to cook me a romantic home-cooked dinner weren’t appreciated.”)

#4: Transform conflict through understanding 

Step #3 paves the way toward mutual understanding. Once both parties’ needs and feelings are out in the open, it's time to seek common ground and find mutually beneficial solutions.

A disclaimer: you will experience situations where it’s impossible to meet all the needs on the table. In that case, you can still work collaboratively with the other person to meet as many needs as possible. 

#5: Engage in honest and courageous conversations

The final but most crucial step is implementing everything you've learned into real-life communication. Here's a piece of advice. You don't have to start with the most difficult conversations (e.g., setting boundaries with your micromanaging boss) or relationships (e.g., your emotionally distant parents) in your life. Start small. Try it out with your closest and dearest, who can humor you through the awkward learning stages. 

Also, don’t expect to get it right on the first try. Like learning anything new, give yourself time and space to get things wrong—sometimes majorly. After all, your current communication habits took years to build. Retraining them will—and should—take time. 


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