Given that I’m a journalist, and that I interview people on a regular basis, you’d think that “mindful conversation” would have been easier for me.
I was at Search Inside Yourself (SIY), a mindfulness workshop developed at Google and now offered publicly across the globe. For the exercise, participants worked in pairs (person A and person B) and were given the following instructions:
- A talks and B listens until a bell sounds.
- B responds with, “What I heard you say is …”
- A gives feedback and B responds until A is satisfied.
- When the bell sounds, A and B switch roles.
Participants were given a few prompts, including, “Describe a time when you overcame obstacles to be very successful/happy.” Or, you could talk about something that had come up for you during a journaling exercise right before.
The key directive was this: While one person is speaking, the other person listens and can’t interrupt.
This process can get awkward. My partner and I misunderstood the instructions and switched to the second step before the bell sounded — but this probably happened because it was challenging to keep talking for several minutes while the other person was completely silent.
The “aha!” moment came during the second step, when I tried to give some coherent feedback based on what my partner had told me about her experience journaling. Maybe (probably?) she was just being nice, but she told me I’d made a connection she wouldn’t have made otherwise, giving her some new insight into her personal values.
This exercise struck me as good — maybe even necessary — practice for any journalist. Instead of using the time while your source is speaking to formulate your next question, it’s important to really listen to what they’re saying and give some feedback, to make sure you fully understand what they’re trying to communicate.
Perhaps more importantly, this exercise is good practice for being a functioning human being. The goal is to have less superficial interactions, to instead have interactions that leave you feeling like you and your conversation partner really understood each other — and maybe even helped each other introspect.
One participant at SIY said she felt like she’d made a strong connection with her partner through the mindful conversation exercise, like she had a “new best friend.”
At the same time, I imagine it could get super uncomfortable when you use this tactic in real life. Like when you’re talking to someone new at a networking event and restrain yourself from interjecting, even with a simple “No way!” or “Me too!” Or when you pause silently after they have finished speaking, to see if they want to say more.
I also imagine that this process gets easier over time — even during a single conversation.
In the days that followed SIY, I tried to implement this strategy during interviews and conversations with friends and coworkers. Mostly, I forgot to use it, or gave up halfway through. But when I did use it, I noticed that conversations flowed better, and that my conversation partner was more animated.
Ultimately, mindful conversation is probably worth the effort and initial discomfort involved — for journalists, and for anyone who wants to forge and sustain more meaningful relationships.
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