Tidal Talking. Two people engaging in mindful interaction.

Tidal Talking—The Importance of Mindful Interaction

We talk to people all the time.

Although technology has resulted in a decrease in the amount of communication that happens in person, it is still a critical aspect of how we interact. When something is important or sensitive, we handle it face to face.

But how many of us are skillful in the art of conversation—not just small talk, but meaningful conversation that transcends the narratives in our head and the need to steer the conversation to our benefit?

Tidal talking

A great example of a regular, back-and-forth pattern is the tides. Tides move between high tide and low tide in a regular, unhurried rhythm, with the shoreline accepting each tide willingly. The shore doesn’t push back or in any way alter the tide as it comes in, and the sea welcomes the outgoing tide and incorporates it into itself. Ideally, conversations should be like that too, with the listener absorbing everything the speaker is saying without judgment and without considering how they might respond until the speaker is finished.

When the tide comes in, the shoreline is altered in many ways, both subtle and significant. The same should be true when we listen to someone. Anytime someone speaks to us, we are changed. The change might be miniscule, or it might be significant. When it is our turn to speak, we incorporate these changes into what we say, even if we don’t realize it. In conversation, once one speaker is finished (once the tide is in), the listener then becomes the speaker (the outgoing tide) and can speak freely and with respect for the newfound insights that they have received from the other speaker.

Tidal talking is an ideal. In reality, conversation is often very different. People don’t truly listen to what the other person is saying; they finish the other’s sentences or interrupt them with their objections or opinions. They don’t reflect on what the other person is saying. They don’t consider the context, where the other person’s perspective comes from, or how they came to have their outlook and opinions.

Incorporating mindfulness into our interactions with others

When people begin talking, they often stop being mindful, even if they are mindful when alone. It’s very natural to let our minds wander when someone is talking to us. We tend to conduct an ongoing assessment of what is being said based on our experiences, opinions or agendas.

People have goals when they engage in conversation. They may be minor, like finding out the latest gossip, or they may be significant, like working through problems in a relationship. When we don’t feel like talking, our goal may be to get away from the conversation quickly. The point is that any goal can prevent us from listening to another person with our whole selves. The key is to be fully aware of our goals and how they affect our interpretation of what we hear and our responses. There’s nothing wrong with having an agenda when we talk to people, but how we act on that agenda can harm the quality of our conversation.

There are those who will say that their agenda is the key part of the conversation—that they’re having the conversation to get something accomplished. This perspective is not inconsistent with mindful interaction. In fact, listening to the other person fully will help you achieve whatever you are after, as you will have a better sense of what challenges you face and how aligned the other person is with your goal.

There are many practices that can help us get better at mindful interaction. One of my favorites was developed by Janice Marturano of the Garrison Institute. The following is an adaptation of her approach. During any conversation, think about the following elements:

  • Check in with your body—if you’re bringing tension, anger or stress to a conversation, be aware of it and its potential impacts before proceeding. Focus your attention on the situation at hand rather than on your state of mind five minutes ago.
  • Be open to what is before you. Bring clarity to the situation—accept the situation rather than being upset because you expected or wanted it to be different.
  • Listen deeply and don’t interrupt or finish someone else’s sentences—these behaviors prevent people from opening up.
  • Take note of when you start formulating a response. Conversations can be like waging a battle, always looking for an opening to get your point in. It’s important to be aware of that.
  • Be honest and compassionate in your response, showing respect for the other’s perspective.

Conversations can be a dry, shallow passing of time, or they can be deep, meaningful explorations—it’s up to you.

Allow the rhythm of conversation the space to ebb and flow.

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