Our inner monologues are a mix of random thoughts and plans as we react to life and try to squeeze in everything we have planned in our oft-overscheduled days.
Did I forget my keys?
That’s an interesting skirt.
If I get there by 11:15 I should be able to make my doctor’s appointment in time.
Pick up the kids, shopping, cook dinner … hmm, I’m forgetting something … darn!
Thoughts are racing though our heads, and then, all of sudden, we have a brain freeze and are staring off into the distance.
“Are you listening to me?” asks the person we’re halfway having a conversation with.
Oftentimes we nod yes and continue to not pay attention.
Whether in a meeting, standing in line at the grocery store, talking to your kids’ teachers at school, or chatting it up about your day with your significant other, many of us glide from interaction to interaction somewhat distracted.
A Scientific American study shows we pay attention less than 40 percent of the time in an average conversation.
Why do we tune out so much?
We extract the details we need to make a decision about what we’re listening to, and we excommunicate the perceived peripherals to melt into the background.
But mindfulness is not only for sitting alone in the waking hours of morning. We need to be present in every activity, including our everyday conversations. Whether these chats seem mundane and routine or not, they’re powerful, shared experiences.
We can do better.
1. Keep a healthy level of eye contact.
Too little eye contact can make us seem insincere, lacking confidence, untrustworthy, or disinterested. Too much eye contact conveys a sense of being uncomfortable or seeking dominance. You should maintain enough eye contact to convey nonverbal agreement to points you should be listening to, but also to read for understanding from who you are speaking to.
The familiarity and intimacy of the relationship is key to maintaining the appropriate level of contact. Family members and intimate partners are more likely to require longer, more intense gazes to make them feel as if we care about not only what they have to say, but their feelings and our relationships with them as well. Coworkers often require far less gaze, but enough engagement to convey we are processing the information we are being told. While interactions with strangers call for shorter, less focused gazes, yet enough to honor his or her presence. Eye contact also has the power to help us spark conversation with others.
2. Breathe while listening and speaking.
It’s enough of a challenge to maintain your breath and be in the present moment while practicing yoga. It’s even more challenging to maintain steady breathing off the mat when a million things are happening.
During conversations we’ll often be so eager for our turn to speak that we’ll hold a word on the tip of our tongues. Pay attention to your tongue in your next conversation. Breathe and let your tongue ease back from the roof of the mouth and rest. By breathing, relaxing the tongue, and listening you can better settle into conversations and allow them to flow. You can let conversations happen without forcing your opinions or thoughts.
People often subconsciously mimic each other's actions. So using your breath also invites others to synchronize with you. This rhythmic interaction will empower you—and those around you—to listen and be heard.
3. Concentrate on what is being said, not what you have to say.
Part of holding our tongues to the roofs of our mouths is that we are often always ready with a response, opinion, or argument. Constantly being ready to speak is not only a more self-based form of communication, it means we are lost in our own heads. Essentially, we are using another person to talk to ourselves. And this self-talk takes us away from the present moment.
We won’t forget what we have to say if we shut off this part of our brains and just be present, soaking in what we are hearing like warm sunshine. In fact, doing this livens us and creates a more robust conversation, as we base our responses not even as a response insomuch as it is an extension of our hearing. Hearing is a very present-based activity. The larger percentage of time we spend actively listening, the more present we become.
4. Find commonality.
Everyone wants to feel validated.
Our very existence is predicated on wanting the world to say to us “I see you. You matter.” When we actively seek common ground with others, we not only validate them, but also ourselves. There is always something we can connect with others on, whether it’s family, culture, place of origin, clothing, or even where we find ourselves interacting. Finding what makes us alike creates a higher likelihood we will remember the details of the conversation. In your next conversation, see how many things you have in common. It will be startling.
5. Repeat what is said.
We love parrots because they repeat what we say.
Those colorful birds are onto something.
We don’t have to repeat back verbatim what we’ve heard, but when we share some details of what we’ve heard in responding to others, we let them know we understand. Even if our conveyed details are incorrect, inviting another to affirm agreement with our understandings creates intimacy.
6. Lean in or sit up straight.
Your schoolteachers were wise in telling you to adjust your posture. Nonverbal communication makes up 55 percent of communication, while the content of what is said makes up only 7 percent, and tone of voice 38 percent.
Posture says plenty.
When we lean in, we tell others we care about what they have to say. Not only does leaning in create empathy, it signifies our openness to listen. We are far less likely to stare off into space or have inconsistent eye contact if we are leaning in.
Sitting up straight is another way to engage in conversation. Our hearts are more open than when we sit casually.
Smiling has several great, unintended side effects most of us subconsciously realize. Looking down is one of the easiest ways to exit any conversation. While smiling automatically lifts our eyes, straightens posture, gives us feelings of contentment, and encourages us to take deep breaths.
In the presence of others, a smile also looks for someone to share itself with. Smiles are contagious. Smiles invite others to be curious about our words. And 2 curious people make 2 great listeners.
Listening brings more mindfulness.
The bottom line: There are simple things we can do to bring mindfulness to everyday interactions, and it doesn’t have to be anything extraordinary. If we practice these 7 simple tips, we can not only find presence no matter who we are talking to, but also build instant connections with anyone.
Photo via iStock