Mindful Communication

By Katie Garrett

As park and recreation professionals, we communicate with many different types of people on any given day: co-workers, parents, children, individuals with special needs, senior citizens, elected officials, etc. By using mindful communication, we can craft each message to fit the needs of the individual audience and ensure each message is heard correctly.

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Being Mindful
I bet that mindfulness is not a new term to many people, given how popular mindfulness meditation has become in recent years. But it doesn’t just apply to meditation; one can mindfully walk the dog, eat mindfully, or go for a mindful walk. What does it mean to be “mindful”? Being mindful means being fully present in the moment, without judgment of any thoughts or feelings. In mindfulness meditation, the focus is solely on the breath, and bringing the focus back to the breath whenever the mind wanders. Becoming a good mindful meditator takes practice; the same goes for being a good mindful communicator.

Communication can be tricky. Its models may oversimplify, when in fact we each communicate as individuals. We have each played the role of sender and receiver, delivering a message to one another through various amounts of external noise, with varying degrees of success. We can all remember a time when we’ve had a miscommunication, especially at work. You, as the sender, thought your message was crystal clear, and the feedback you received was like muddy water. Confusion and frustration can abound, and what started as a simple request turns into friction between co-workers, which can affect the office environment.

Communicating with mindful awareness is being fully present for the duration of a conversation. It’s a simple concept, yet in this increasingly digital world, it often feels like an insurmountable challenge—to just sit, listen, and respond to someone. By understanding how we communicate with each other, how we communicate differently, and bringing a sense of mindful awareness to our approach will create better, more meaningful conversations.

Active Listening
The first step to becoming a better communicator is becoming a better listener. Without truly listening to each other, we’re just saying prepared points back and forth, much like in a political debate. We all know a bad listener—and some of them are our own parents, spouses, and dearest friends. Most people probably know a good listener, too. My dad, a retired counselor, has had many years of professional practice being a good listener. He maintains eye contact during a conversation, gives verbal and non-verbal feedback (“yep,” “okay,” nods head, and smiles), and rarely interrupts, even when he disagrees. He waits until a break in the conversation to add a point or bring up an argument to discuss further. Someone who listens well is a joy to converse with.

Like any other discipline, becoming a better listener takes practice, Take this simple exercise: sit somewhere where you can comfortably close your eyes—it can be right at your desk—turn off any background music or distractions, and just listen. Can you quiet your mind enough to hear the hum of the fluorescent lights above, the fan in your computer tower, or the footsteps and chatter in the hallways? See how long you can hold your attention on these small, distant sounds. Now, bring this practice to your next conversation. Transition from thinking about what you were just doing or what you need to be doing later, and focus on the person you’re conversing with. Listen to every word, really absorb what the person is saying—verbally and non-verbally—and then craft your response thoughtfully.

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Tips For Better Conversation
Bringing the technique of mindful listening to a mindful conversation is a good start. Another great tool is using what meditators call “beginner's mind,” approaching everything with fresh eyes like those of a child. When entering a conversation, especially a tough one, using beginner’s mind can avoid preconceptions of how the conversation will go. We can truly listen to ourselves and to those we’re communicating with.

The feedback loop is a vital part of mindful communication. After the message has been communicated and listened to, feedback like “I agree, we should…” or “what I’m hearing is…” are good ways of knowing the message was received as intended. If the feedback doesn’t match what the sender was intending, correct the message in real time to avoid a miscommunication. It is essential in a professional environment for everyone to be on the same page.

Sometimes there are people we feel we just can’t get through to. By adapting speech to better match how someone else communicates, the message is delivered in a more effective way. Recently, there was a proposed location for a new gym in the town where I live. Emails to and from residents and the mayor were made available online in the town hall minutes. One exchange between a female resident, who lives close to the site and the mayor, showed this adaptation of speech in a humorous yet effective way. The resident, from her first email typed in all caps, explained her frustrations with the site’s location. The mayor’s initial response was to thank her for the feedback and to encourage her to sign up for the weekly newsletter to stay informed. The resident proceeded again to respond in all caps, with an increasingly frustrated tone and liberal use of exclamation points. The mayor decided to respond in all caps from then on, not using an aggressive tone, but hoping his message would better register with the frustrated resident.

The best conversations are had in person so both verbal and non-verbal cues can be seen and heard. If a message must be delivered by phone or email, use the same principles: adapt your speech to whomever you’re addressing (co-worker, subordinate, boss, parent), allow them to provide feedback by encouraging them to reach out with questions, and show respect with the tone and choice of words. At the end of the day, no one wants something as simple as a miscommunication to ruin the day or a relationship with someone at work.

The most important factor in having a mindful conversation is to show respect for a person’s time and ideas. Even if the topic isn’t your favorite, use an alert posture, maintain eye contact, and shoot for good verbal give-and-take without interruption. Try not to rush the conversation; make sure both sides are being heard and are able to say everything they feel needs to be said before ending the conversation. One small thing I like to do when meeting with someone in my office is to turn off the computer monitor. It signals to the person that I am committed to being fully present for this discussion, and there will not be a distraction when a new email pops up.

Tools For The Workplace
One exercise to get teams thinking about how to communicate with each other is a simple yet fun drawing game done in pairs. I was introduced to the game during the March 2018 Illinois Park & Recreation Association’s joint-educational presentation by Katherine Broughton, Ph.D., Assistant Professor at Western Illinois University. I decided to bring it to one of our recreation team meetings a month later. One person in the pair is the “describer” and the other the “drawer,” switching turns after one round. Facing each other, the describer has a sheet of paper with a simple image on it, and needs to communicate to the drawer exactly how to sketch that image. The describer also has a list of words that cannot be said to describe the image to the drawer. For example, the first-round image was a cartoonish owl, and the list of “no-no words” included “owl,” “nocturnal,” “bird,” “hoot,” “body,” “face,” “wings,” and “feathers.” I played a song in the background to increase the amount of external noise, and it also doubled as a timer. In the end, almost every drawer had guessed that the picture was an owl. However, no two “owls” looked the same, which illustrated the point of the exercise that no two people communicate in the same way. It also created a fun, loose atmosphere that was conducive to teambuilding. Everyone looked at the drawings and were able to laugh at themselves.

I also challenge you to change your communication routine within the workplace. Next time you have a meeting planned, see if your colleagues are up for taking a walk outside to talk over the topic instead. Getting fresh air into the lungs and some blood pumping will only increase the level of creative problem-solving. Be completely present for the entire meeting and engage in the topic at hand until the discussion comes to a close. If the weather doesn’t allow for a walk outside, even small movements and a change of scenery will shake out some cobwebs and decrease the distractions for a more productive meeting.

Share what tactics work for you with colleagues and superiors, then notice a more mindful workplace flourish.

Katie Garrett is the Marketing Coordinator for Round Lake Area Park District and serves on the Board of Directors for the Round Lake Area Chamber of Commerce in Illinois. She has been practicing mindfulness meditation for eight years (and has been communicating for over 30!). Reach her at katie_garrett@rlapd.org.