I’m grew up in a household where speaking your mind was a way of life. Nowadays, however, when I’m around others outside of my family, I feel like my opinions can get me in trouble. Holding back feels unnatural, but being too outspoken is no good either. How do I strike a balance?
Dear Too Straightforward,
Your question is vital to our growth as human beings as it brings to the forefront a developmental process that we all have to undergo in entering the complex social world. Part of that quest calls for us to unearth our family of origin patterns and discern which of those are helpers and which are hinderers.
It is a given that life demands our presence and participation, and part of this learning is how to work with the currency of conversation. This currency is the giving and receiving that we have to do in being a part of any relationship. Communication, both verbal and nonverbal, and any other form of communication, between individuals or groups is our primary way of engaging with and “doing business” with each other. Therefore, learning skills in this area is valuable for everyone.
Also, I think we have to recognize how complicated this growth process is and give ourselves the freedom to make mistakes along the way. As we all embark on this journey from our family of origin and into the vast social wilderness, we have to be ready to meet many joys and challenges. I recommend perceiving all experiences as opportunities to learn and to greet the moments of our life with graciousness and gratitude; for transformation often blooms out of life’s trials and tribulations.
For this column, I have to keep my recommendations brief. Therefore, we will hone in on the area of Mindful Attention within a broader context of what Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) practitioners call Basic Interpersonal Skills. As the designation “basic” implies, the following skills are foundational. If it interests you, you can learn more advanced skills. To go deeper into this topic, you can work with a DBT therapist or refer to The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook by Matthew McKay, PhD, Jeffery C. Wood, PsyD, and Jeffrey Brantley, MD.
Mindful attention involves the natural human ability to stay in the present moment with clarity and compassion. It is a natural ability that we all already possess. We have to continuously come back to it due to the kind of “altered state” of distraction and information overload that we all live in now. Mindful attention calls for simplicity of focus. In mindfulness circles, people talk about this kind of clear focus frequently concerning the awareness that arises out of the practice of meditation, yoga, and everyday mindfulness. I believe that there is always an open invitation from existence for us to be “right here, right now.” But so often we don’t show up for the party! Relationships require the same kind of disciplined attention that the practice of meditation and yoga needs.
The cultivation of positive and healthy relationships hinges upon one’s ability to attune to the other’s emotions, needs, wants, and receptiveness to what you are saying and how you are behaving, or the body language that is being conveyed by speaker and listener. There is also the overall state of the relationship between you and the other. The health of the relationship requires attention, too.
Examples of things to focus on in assessing the connection at the moment are the other’s “facial expression, body language, tone of voice, and choice of words” (McKay et al., 2007; p.181) in how they are responding to you. In real time, these cues happen quickly and constantly. Therefore, you can see why careful attention is necessary to be able to pick up on them.
It’s true that if you turn your gaze away for a moment in the dynamic play of relationships, you may miss a cue. You may get caught up in own internal dialogue. You may err in acting out your false assumptions about the other person. In your absence, the interaction can seem to go south for completely preventable reasons. To make this even more complicated, you also have to be simultaneously aware of your own experience in all of this. You have to maintain a kind of stream of “inner” mindfulness to gather more data about the relationship.
In addition to the real-time assessment that you are making in the relationship, it is also essential to take time after a significant interaction to contemplate how it went. You can probably think about recent interactions you have had with others that left you feeling alive and rejuvenated and others that left you depleted. There is data in those interactions that can inform you on how to shape future communications to maximize their positive potential.
In both the real-time and post-conversation assessment, you are engaging in self-study. Your efforts are directed toward becoming aware of your ever-unfolding experience. Your brain and body have the computing power to take in all of the sensory data about your external and internal impressions of the interaction. You will cram this data to come up with information that can act as a compass for you to determine your next words and actions. There is nearly always noise in any complex equation, a significant variable in interpersonal relationships is usually our filters and defenses that we have constructed to protect ourselves from being injured or wounded by the other. Often, but not always, these are unhelpful core beliefs about others that we have developed based on our past experiences. They may, as you have alluded to, have roots in our family of origin. It is our job to explore core beliefs to utilize our experience to design a life of possibilities.
Try this simple mindful attention exercise adapted from The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook (McKay et al., 2007; p. 182). The purpose of this practice is for you to begin to learn how to assess and adapt the way in which you relate to and connect with others in your life. To complete this exercise, you will need a conversation partner. You will spend some time in conversation with someone you trust. It would be enlivening to do this over coffee or tea. During or after the meat of the discussion, you will have to trust your intuition about this, invite yourself to check-in with them on how the communication or interaction went for them.
Ask your conversation partner if they felt listened to, attended to, connected with by you. If that feels awkward, let them know that you are trying to work on your ability to be a good listener, and you are hoping they can give you some feedback. Honor a promise that you make to them that you will take in their feedback gracefully and non-judgmentally. If you don’t feel like your ready to do that, then I recommend waiting until you feel like you can.
To address your specific concern about oversharing your opinions. You can ask them directly if they felt like the opinions that you offered overstepped any boundaries. Ask them if they thought you overpowered them in the conversation or were not patient. Ask for their take on the overall health of your friendship or partnership. This assessment can be a simple “are we okay, here together right now?” After you get their feedback, do your best to map that feedback onto your internal sense of how things went. Here, you are trying mash this data together to get a meaningful take on how the conversation went.
I encourage you to take time to journal about it. Try your best to determine where your growth edges are, what you did well and what were the teachable moments in the interaction for you? Lastly, and most importantly, honor and congratulate yourself for taking this interpersonal risk.
As human beings, we are relational beings, I think we all could benefit from practicing mindful attention in relationships. Mindfulness can increase our loving connections with each other. Establishing healthy relationships is a remedy for our universal human struggle with loneliness and isolation. Thank you for bringing this question into the focus of this column for this month.
I wish you the best in working with this and may you find happiness in your relationships!
By John Rettger