Changing Unhelpful Conversations

This is for the mindfulness class this week. We are going to explore some principles and methods for making unhelpful conversations more effective.

Unhelpful Conversations

  • We all have conversations which are unhelpful and unpleasant. These conversations often repeat themselves, with consistently unhelpful and unpleasant results.
  • We try to make the conversations pleasant. So we avoid the real issues and the conversation is pleasant, but still unhelpful.
  • Or we avoid the conversations altogether, which is still unhelpful.

To get a sense as to what is going on, think of a situation or issue which is likely to lead to an unhelpful conversation. You may have had such a conversation or you may be avoiding such a conversation. Either is OK to work with. Now divide a piece of paper into four columns. Or create a word processor document with four columns. Label the columns 1-4 starting at the left.

  • In column one, write out the actual or imagined conversation.
  • In column two, write out what you would be thinking and not saying.
  • In column three, describe your actual or imagined body experience during the conversation. Especially note any sensations of increased tension or stress, i.e. chest tightness, cold or sweaty hands, flushing, butterflies in the stomach, dry mouth, speech freezing up, etc.
  • In column four describe what sources of threat or potential embarrassment associated with the situation. The sensations in column 3 prove that such potential threat or embarrassment is present. The threat may be to yourself, your feelings, the safety or feelings of others, your reputation, self-identity, etc. Work on being honest with yourself here.

Creating Effective Conversations

The above exercise can expose what makes the conversation unhelpful.

  • If we look at column 1 it probably does not directly address the concerns in column 4.
  • Column 2 probably relates to the concerns in column 4, but in a way that would be extremely unhelpful to express. Saying what we are thinking in column 2 would be worse than the unhelpful statements in column 1.

So we need a way to think differently about the concerns in column 4 so that we can create helpful thoughts that we can then say.

This is where column 3 comes in.

The sensations in column 3 are signs of stress overload. Our sympathetic nervous system is activating because of the potential embarrassment or threat described in column 4. This sympathetic activation inhibits our ability to think creatively, flexibly or even accurately. In order to explore those issues in column 4 effectively we will need to practice calming techniques, such as mindful breathing to reduce the sympathetic activation. Then we can explore the issues and start working out ways of addressing them with the other person.

CRITICAL POINT: We don’t use a calming technique to get comfortable and then avoid the issues. That is pleasant but unhelpful.

Once we calm our sympathetic activation we can use contemplative thinking skills to start to change our thinking. We can also clarify our intention and look for ways to communicate that will make the effect of our words consistent with our intention. We can also explore our contribution to the issues and address those without judging. We will probably need to calm ourselves repeatedly while exploring the issues as this is a difficult conversation we are having with ourselves.

For class please do the four column exercise and if you have time start alternating a calming technique such as the mindful breathing with thinking about the issues in column 4. Take notes on any helpful thoughts or insights you might have.


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