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Mindful Communication in the Workplace? Yikes!

Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (yes, that guy Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize) says that “we communicate to be understood and to understand others”.


In The Art of Communicating, Hanh nudges us to approach communication mindfully to nurture peace in the spaces we live and work. Inconveniently (for most of us, anyway), the practice begins by cultivating self-awareness and internal peace so that we have the capacity to listen. From this place, we are well-positioned to engage with others. We can communicate our willingness to see and hear another. We can acknowledge another’s experience without getting judgey, telling them how to fix it, or taking the emotional load onto ourselves.


Hanh suggests that there are two keys to effective communication: (1) deep listening; and (2) loving speech. Deep listening means setting judgment and blame aside to focus instead on creating a space where the speaker may begin to figure out how to suffer less. Loving speech means that you try to express your understanding of the truth without malice; the goal is to spark insight and understanding to lessen suffering.


Some of you may argue that these concepts don’t belong in workplaces. Deals need to close. Work products must be delivered by deadlines, and targets need to be met. I know I’m not exactly feeling the loving-kindness flow when my teammate fails to complete their piece of the project and leaves me in the lurch.


I invite you to think of it as a distinction between means and ends. The end remains the same: high-quality work product, happy end-users, and increased organizational performance. Workplaces can achieve these ends with greater ease by going at it mindfully.


Mindfulness focuses on the how.


Loving speech can be incorporated into difficult conversations about performance, or when informally mediating workplace conflicts. Hanh says that loving speech has four elements; it’s: (1) truthful; (2) unexaggerated; (3) expressed in consistent terms from one party to the next; and (4) phrased in respectful language.


Try an experiment. In the next week, watch how you engage with people. When do you feel annoyance arise? Why might that be? When do you feel open and welcoming? When do you feel closed? Why might that be? Self-awareness and compassion toward yourself are the beginning.


Having checked in with yourself, you may check in with another. By your manner, and perhaps a few words, you can communicate that you are fully present to them.

Hanh identifies six sentences that express care for another:


· “I am here for you.”

· “I know you are there, and I am very happy.”

· “I know you suffer, and that is why I am here for you.”

· “I suffer, I am doing my best, please help.”

· “This is a happy moment.”

· “You are partly right.”


The first two sentences apply to all interactions. The first sentence gathers your presence. The second reaffirms that the person you’re addressing matters, and that you are listening.

Sentences four through six are appropriate to specific situations. Sometimes the other person feels overwhelmed and needs your reassurance, at another time you may need to express that they have hurt you and that you need their help instead. Other moments are celebratory, while others still hold disagreement that must be parsed for the relationship to continue positively.


Even if you feel you don't have a knack for "saying the right thing" in critical moments, allowing these sentiments to inform your responses could bring greater peace into your self and workplace interactions.


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