Mindful Communication; A Mirror for Effective Feedback
Kris, the woman sitting next to me on the plane, was returning from what she called a ‘new kind’ of management conference. “What was different about it?” I asked, curious about her enthusiasm. “Everything!” she said. “ The first thing we learned was to think in a fresh way about what a corporation is. Instead of focusing on the bottom line and the financial emphasis on success or failure, we were told that the most valued resource in any company is the human eco-system of its employees.”
The words human eco-system made me smile. In mindful communication training we call this approach ‘we-first’, shifting attention from our personal territory to the network of relationships that support us. Kris and I talked about how this fresh view might apply to her biggest management challenge: giving and receiving feedback.
“ For me, the word ‘feedback’ is tricky. I brace for a painful confrontation when certain people say ‘can I give you some feedback?’. I’ve had performance reviews where I felt humiliated by someone in authority over me. So the word ‘feedback’ often means “ criticism”. So I’m looking forward to discovering a new association for this word.”
What would it look like to give and receive feedback in a positive way, protecting this human eco-system?”
1. Is it open or closed? Kris was describing the night-and-day difference between two kinds of communication. Understanding this difference is the first step in mindful communication training. We simply ask the question: is the communication open, closed or in between? To make this easier to talk about, we use the three traffic lights: green, red and yellow.
When we’re open, the giver of feedback is a spokesperson from reality, showing us how to pay better attention. Like a mirror, feedback illuminates our blind spots. And giving feedback accurately, without judgment, is an act of generosity, an investment in the relationship.
The opposite is true when communication is closed. Red light feedback is toxic. It is one person imposing an opinion on another. The effect is all the more destructive when it’s hidden behind a friendly smile. My mindfulness teacher calls this ‘honey on the razor blade’. The receiver of the feedback might feel put down, attacked, or cast into the role of I-lose, you win, but the disingenuous mask makes it hard to validate these feelings.
Feeling vulnerable or hurt is a characteristic of a third state of communication, “in- between” being open or closed, symbolized by the yellow light. This is a gap of groundlessness. We can pretty much guarantee a gap of shock and groundlessness will come to the receiver of feedback, no matter how open we feel. By definition feedback is showing us something we hadn’t counted on or expected. If we want the communication to stay open, we need to pay special attention, taking care of this critical transitional time in a conversation. We need to be sensitive to the core fears that surface at times like this, fears that we are unworthy or inadequate. Protecting this vulnerable experience with genuine kindness will help prevent our yellow light reaction from freezing into a red light shut down.
2. Creating a Green Zone for Mindful Communication To support ourselves during the groundlessness that comes from painful feedback, we can rely on mindful communication training.The main thing we need at that moment is trust. This comes with a ‘green zone’, when there is a shared intention between the giver and receiver of feedback. To build this trust, in a green zone we agree to protect our conversation with three guidelines:
- Go with the ‘green light’: We agree that we value openness, being curious and supportive of all the ways that we reconnect with ourselves, with each other and with the environment.
- Stop when the light turns red: We agree to create space instead of reacting. We acknowledge that nothing productive happens after a communication barrier goes up. The best we can do is to notice this and then refrain from causing harm. The red light is a signal to pause, take time to breathe, to feel the impact the groundlessness or pain or communication breakdown is having on us, and to pay close attention to our own re-action patterns*.
- Take care when the light is yellow: We agree to protect vulnerability. In the gap that opens up when we’re “ in between “ open and closed we feel uncertainty, embarrassment, disappointment. It has the felt experience of anxiety and self-doubt. The power of transformational dialogue depends upon how successfully we can protect the ‘yellow light’ experience for both the giver and the receiver of feedback. We need to be sensitive to vulnerability whenever it arises. This sensitivity respects the fact that at some level or another, we feel an identity crisis when things don’t go as planned.
Once we have the three agreements in place, many kinds of conversations can take place in a green zone. This shared intention creates the ideal environment for the giving and receiving of feedback. In particular, the word ‘feedback’ can be cleared of its ulterior meanings and be restored to it’s original use, as a form of listening. In the context of a ‘we-first’ relationship, feedback is the offering of a reality check, a ‘flash of green light’ to illuminate our blind spots.
When communication is open, there is trust and honesty. Receiving feedback in this environment is a positive experience in the long run, even if it in the short term it hurts a bit, like stubbing our toe. I remember when a friend of mine carefully set up a time and place to tell me that I’d said something that hurt her feelings. She made a point of assuring me that she hadn’t told anyone else about it, that it was between the two of us. A wave of shame and regret swept over me when I heard her feedback, but it was contained by feeling protected.
In a green zone, we maintain unconditional positive regard for both the giver and the receiver of the information. The fullness of who we are as a human being is welcomed. This fundamental recognition of the basic goodness of relationship is what sustains the openness of the communication. We learn to trust that there is an intelligence to the communication that is beyond the territory of one person or another, and both parties are enriched by the experience of openness.
3. Specific mindfulness practices for giving and receiving helpful feedback: Mindfulness practice is a way to tune into the present moment, or ‘nowness’. To do this in the presence of another person takes courage and a willingness to share our vulnerability rather than defending our territory. This isn’t easy, but the alternative is more painful. So the best way to train in opening to each other is to train in opening to ourselves. This is why meditation practice is an essential component of mindful communication training. We need to learn how to listen to the intelligence of our own body, emotions and the mind of the present moment. There is a new world of information waiting to be heard when we tune into the subtle messages of our own body
- Space for silence:
When you are face to face with another human being, take a deep breath and tune into your own body, your felt experience, and allow your mind to be open to this present moment, letting go of past and future opinions. All of this occurs in silence, before the spoken conversation begins.
Pause and silently welcome the other person, notice how he or she communicates non verbally. Notice the posture of our bodies, what we are wearing, the colors we’ve chosen for the day.
Silence and space are two essential ingredients for genuine communication. Like a green space in a city, this breathing room tends to get swallowed up in our busy schedules. But the physical space has it’s own intelligence and communication system, which we call ‘awake body’. It informs us about our inner environment , our own energy, and at the same time it brings us back to the sense perceptions of the present moment.
- Tuning into the Heart:
How am I feeling right now?
Notice the very subtle texture of our emotional response to the situation. In the present moment there is an intelligence to our sensitivity, a way of knowing what is going on and how to respond which is pre-conceptual.
How are you feeling?
It takes courage to bring our heart forward and with encouragement we invite another person to join us there. This step clarifies our intention: the whole point of giving feedback is to polish the qualities the speaker appreciates in the receiver.
“ thank you for the opportunity to listen to you and offer feedback. What would be most helpful for you to know?”
Putting that intention into words enables the speaker to keep the channel of communication to the receiver open.
- The fresh mind of not knowing
The challenge of giving feedback is to remain open minded about what we think to be true. Most of the time we enter this conversation with some opinion or idea in mind of what we want to say. But openness means our ideas have to fall away in order to discover something new. Both giver and receiver will have had a change of mind by the end of the conversation. This is because genuine conversation is a transformative dialogue, one that reshapes not only our idea of what is true but in some way reshapes our experience of who we are.
At the end of the conversation, we are curious about how to go forward with the feedback we’ve exchanged. The word playfulness indicates that something creative emerges when we have no agenda, and it is this emergence that we look to for fresh ideas for the next step of the learning process. Both the giver and receiver of the feedback have learned something new and it’s important to acknowledge this.
The plane was landing in Vancouver and it was time to say good-bye to Kris. We were both exhausted, but I felt invigorated by the thought that a new generation of managers was being trained to think of the corporate environment as a human eco-system. It’s not hard to open to each other on the plane at the end of a long journey. “May all go well for you”, a silent blessing entered my mind, my heart. Our conversation had changed me, somehow. I felt more optimistic about the goodness of human nature could enter our corporate world with her generation. How close to surface the ‘we-first’ experience really is, when we’re ready to listen to each other.