How Mindful Communication Makes Us More Compassionate

By pausing to notice the way we respond to others, we can open ourselves up to more honest communication.

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Recently my friend Nancy, who I haven’t seen in years, sent me an email with some photos attached. “You’ll love these,” she wrote.

The photos circulating through the Internet were of a polar bear and a dog playing together. I first saw them in a National Geographic magazine many years ago and was captivated by the story. A dog named Churchill was tied up to a stake in the ice. His owner spotted a starving bear, just out of hibernation, through the window of his cabin. He watched in horror as the bear approached his dog. Feeling powerless to protect his pet from certain death, he grabbed his camera and snapped pictures of the scene unfolding before his eyes. But to his amazement, what he ended up witnessing was how Churchill saved his own life.

As the bear lumbered towards him, Churchill crouched down and wagged his tail. In spite of his ravenous hunger, the bear responded to the signal and switched from predator to playmate. One of the photos shows Churchill and the bear embraced in an affectionate hug as they tumbled and rolled around the ice. Then the huge polar bear turned and ambled away. Over the next few days, the bear returned to the site several times to play with his new friend.

What is Mindful Communication?

The National Geographic photo essay came into my life at the right moment. I had been preparing to teach a series of workshops on mindful communication, where students would learn practical skills in bringing awareness, insight, compassion and choice to their communications. In preparation, I was paying close attention to my own interactions, especially with the difficult people in my life.

Bringing awareness, or mindfulness, to the way we communicate with others has both practical and profound applications. During an important business meeting, or in the middle of a painful argument with our partner, we can train ourselves to recognize when the channel of communication has shut down. We can train ourselves to remain silent instead of blurting out something we’ll later regret. We can notice when we’re over-reacting and take a time-out.

We begin practicing mindful communication by simply paying attention to how we open up when we feel emotionally safe, and how we shut down when we feel afraid. Just noticing these patterns without judging them starts to cultivate mindfulness in our communications. Noticing how we open and close puts us in greater control of our conversations.

Simply being mindful of our open and closed patterns of conversation will increase our awareness and insight. We begin to notice the effect our communication style has on other people.

Practicing mindful communication brings us face to face with our anxieties about relationships. These anxieties are rooted in much deeper, core fears about ourselves, about our value as human beings. If we are willing to relate to these core fears, each of our relationships can be transformed into a path of self-discovery. Simply being mindful of our open and closed patterns of conversation will increase our awareness and insight. We begin to notice the effect our communication style has on other people. We start to see that our attitude toward a person can blind us to who he or she really is.

A Simple Practice to Label How You Feel

In my mindful communication workshops, the metaphor we use to notice whether communication is closed, open, or somewhere in between is the changing traffic light. We imagine that when the channel of communication closes down, the light has turned red. When communications feels open again, we say the light has turned green. When communication feels in-between, or on the verge of closing down, we say the light has turned yellow. Participants learning mindful communication find that the changing traffic light imagery helps them to identify their various states of communication, and to recognize the consequences of each.

We’re all born with sensitive receptors in our body, heart and mind that keep us tuned into the flow of energy and life going on around us and within us. Each of us already has this natural communication system that feeds us information all the time. So when we close down and become defensive—for a few minutes, a few days, months or even a lifetime—we’re cutting ourselves off not only from others, but also from our natural ability to communicate. Mindful communication trains us to become aware of when we’ve stopped using our innate communication wisdom, a state symbolized by the red light.

The Red Light: Defensive Reactions

When I let my bullying co-worker Robert intimidate me, my red light came on. I became defensive and closed down. When we react to fear by shutting down the channel of communication, we’ve put up a defensive barrier that divides us from the world.

Signs you’re in the red light zone:

  • We justify our defensiveness by holding onto unexamined opinions that we are right. We tell ourselves that relationships are not that important. We undervalue other people and put our self-interest first. In short, our values shift to me-first.
  • Closed communication patterns are controlling and mistrustful. We see others as frozen objects that have importance only if they meet our needs.
  • When we are closed and defensive, we feel alone and emotionally hungry. Then we look to other people to rescue us from our aloneness. We might try to manipulate and control others to get what we need. Because these strategies never truly work, we inevitably become disappointed with people. We suffer, and we cause others to suffer.
  • Regardless of how self-assured we may feel or appear on the surface, the sense of isolation that our defensive barrier triggers is subconsciously terrifying. If we are indeed isolated individuals, how do we get our supplies? How do we ward off enemies?
  • Suppressing these inner fears makes us even more rigid and out of touch with the flow of energy in our body, mind and heart. We tighten our muscles and thoughts; we harden our hearts.

The Yellow Light: In-Between

When my defensive reactions to Robert became so painful that I began to be curious about them, my yellow light came on.

Signs you’re in the yellow light zone:

  • In practicing mindful communication, eventually we ask ourselves: what exactly causes me to switch from open to closed and then open again?
  • We begin to discover the state of mind that exists in between open and closed. In between is a place we normally don’t want to enter. We find ourselves there when the ground falls out from beneath our feet, when we feel surprised, embarrassed, disappointed—on the verge of shutting down.
  • At this moment, we might feel a sudden loss of trust, an unexpected flash of self-consciousness.
  • Learning to hold steady and be curious at this point is critical to the practice of mindful conversation—Buddhist teacher, Pema Chödrön, calls this “holding your seat.”

The Green Light: Openness

When I was able to open up and re-connect with my resources, and to Robert as a playmate, my green light came on. Paying attention to our communication patterns helps us realize the value of openness.

Signs you’re in the green light zone:

  • When we’re open, we let go of our opinions and enter a larger mind. This larger mind is sometimes described as a fluid awareness, a state of knowing.
  • We discover that the world around us has the same flowing quality. Being connected to this fluid awareness gives us the power to trust our instincts.
  • When we’re open, we don’t regard our individual needs to be in opposition to the needs of others. We experience a we-first state of mind because we appreciate that our personal survival depends on the well being of our relationships.
  • We express this sense of connectedness to others in open communication patterns. Open communication tunes us into whatever is going on in the present moment, whether it is comfortable or not. Openness is heartfelt, willing to share the joy and pain of others.
  • Because we’re not blocked by our own opinions, our conversations with others explore new worlds of experience. We learn, change and expand.

Be Responsive, Instead of Reactive

When I first saw the National Geographic photos, I was observing the defensive strategies I used with the hungry bears in my life. Would Robert turn into a teddy bear if I adjusted the signals I was sending? Not likely. But I decided to give tail wagging a try anyway.

In some ways, Robert fit the image of a starving polar bear as he stalked the office, commanding attention and emotionally devouring the rest of us with his crude jokes and predictable opinions. Normally, when he walked into the room I cringed and put on my mask, which only locked the two of us into another episode in our predator-prey relationship. But when it occurred to me that I could arouse a feeling of friendliness rather than cower, I felt a wave of confidence. Over the following days and weeks, I discovered that I could interrupt my defensive reactions to Robert by bringing up the mental image of Churchill and the polar bear. This interruption in my defensiveness allowed me to relax for a moment.

Letting my guard down even for a moment or two allowed me to notice the vulnerable messages Robert was really communicating behind his bravado. I still did not agree with his bullying tactics, but he became a real human being to me.

In one such moment, I flashed back to my little brother at age four dressed up as a cowboy wearing a sheriff’s badge. A wave of sisterly affection came over me, and with it, a new image of Robert. I saw him as a lonely, confused man who was always hungry because he had no idea how to nourish himself through friendship. Imagining his isolation made me feel sad. Letting my guard down even for a moment or two allowed me to notice the vulnerable messages Robert was really communicating behind his bravado. I still did not agree with his bullying tactics, but he became a real human being to me—wounded and frightened, just like the rest of us.

As Robert came more into focus for me, positive details about him started to emerge. I appreciated the fact that he was always on time for work even though his eyes looked tired and swollen, as if he’d been up too late the night before. I noticed that he had good taste in clothes and that his shirts were always clean and ironed. Gradually, I formed a more respectful image of Robert and my fear of him lessened significantly. I felt my resistance to him dissolve, and felt some compassion grow. Not only did I feel better about Robert, I felt better about myself. Over time I noticed that Robert seemed to pause by the door of my office more often than he used to, even though he had nothing in particular to say. I had the impression that he was, without knowing why, drawn towards the small amount of warmth I was generating—like a cat to a sunny window ledge.

By merely paying attention to my interactions with Robert, I had learned two lessons. First, I realized how I distort my view of other people when I’m reacting defensively. I also saw that when I can open up and see another person in a fresh way, my own self-image transforms. On the surface, these two insights might not seem to be that big a deal. Not as exciting as a dog and a hungry bear rolling around in play. But learning how to switch out of defensiveness into a more humorous, receptive state of mind is a big deal—it is the key to happy, harmonious relationships and communities.

Creating an Environment of Insight and Compassion

“I don’t understand the yellow light,” said my friend Kerry’s four-year-old daughter one day from the back seat of the car. “I know red means stop and green means go. But when the light is yellow some people speed up and others slow down.”

In mindful communication training, the symbolic yellow light is a reminder to slow down and take a closer look at what happens when something unexpected occurs, when we feel uncertain. What we’re more accustomed to doing is to race right through a yellow in-between state, and then smack right into a red closed state.

A yellow-light transition can appear any time. It’s possible to switch from a closed state into an open one via the yellow light, if we’re willing to enter into curiosity, or ‘not knowing.’ For instance, one day, during an argument with my husband, I stormed out the door and was halfway around the block when, out of nowhere, I asked myself: why am I doing this? I didn’t know the answer and despite my pain, I was curious. Suddenly, I was outside the defensive security of my red light, open to any and all possibilities.

Joining mindfulness with communication makes this kind of turning point more workable. Training our mind boosts our emotional immune system, as it were, so that we are less affected by the ups and downs in our relationships. After we’ve spent some time observing our patterns of opening up and closing down, we can zero in on this most important area, the stage in-between. Mindfulness teaches us how to hold steady when we feel hurt or disappointed. It gives us the power to refrain from making matters worse during those episodes when negative reactions rise up because things aren’t going as we planned.

Mindfulness teaches us how to hold steady when we feel hurt or disappointed. It gives us the power to refrain from making matters worse.

Small acts of kindness that are either shared or withheld when the yellow light is flashing can make or break a relationship. Once we’re in the red zone, it’s too late to engage in acts of kindness—we’re too mistrustful. I’ve seen this over and again when I worked with couples—they would reach a critical point when they could save their relationship by switching from me-first to we-first thinking. They thought about their children, pets, or anything that brought a larger picture to mind. Acts of kindness at this point shifted them into a temporary mood of gratitude. Feeling gratitude made them more interested in moving forward.

The key point in mindful communication is to create an environment of insight and compassion when fears and misperceptions arise during the yellow-light state of mind. The reaction of shutting down is triggered by mistrust. If we can hold steady and be a little more aware of our defensiveness, we can learn from all our episodes of reactivity. Defensive reactions backfire on us, make us feel like failures. Being honest and gentle with our own fears is what brings greater softness and appreciation for others. For instance, I became more sympathetic to Robert after examining my own awkward, self-defeating attempts to guard myself from imaginary threats.

The yellow light points to those miracle moments when we can open up and wag our tails to play. We break the spell of our own personal agendas and awaken to genuine relationship. Such abrupt shifts seem to come out of nowhere in the middle of our most ego-crunching experiences—such as admitting that we’ve made a mistake.

The yellow-light zone is a moment of choice. When I’m in that zone, I can hear my mind debating which direction to go: do I go back and apologize or continue to hold a grudge? Depending on how much mindfulness I bring, I could tip in either direction. The happiness of my marriage hangs on this balance.

When I think back to the early years and the arguments I’d have with my husband, I realize that the timeline of our twenty-one-year marriage has been a series of turning points. At these turning points the path of our relationship could have led toward heaven or hell. Our happiness is the result of thousands of small flashes of the yellow light, where we were able to transform disappointments and arguments into opportunities for unmasking, intimacy and joy.

The in-between state of mind is where we gain both compassion and insight. It is not only where we witness ourselves closing down, but also where we notice the miracle of opening up again. Why and how does this happen? What exactly is it that makes us stop caring about ‘being right’ and begin taking an interest in another person’s point of view? What causes our defensiveness to dissolve for no reason at all, the way a dream does upon awakening? Mindfulness makes us more curious about this turning point, both in our communication with others, and within ourselves.

Adapted from The Five Keys to Mindful Communication: Using Deep Listening and Mindful Speech to Strengthen Relationships, Heal Conflicts, and Accomplish Your Goals by Susan Gillis Chapman. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston, MA.