This weekend I went to an afternoon workshop on breathing and stress reduction that I have attended three times now. The art of mindfulness can never be practiced too much and I always leave in such a peaceful state of calm that it is worth attending regularly. Although the focus was on stress reduction, there was an exercise that stands out as a way to make stronger connections that also happens to lessen the stress of interacting with others.
The Fight or Flight Response
When you are actively engaged in a conversation and anticipate what you are going to say next, your energy is probably high and you are in an anticipatory state of stress. Though the stress may be less for some people than others, no matter who you are, if you are having a ping-pong conversation, there is a certain amount of lively energy that keeps your adrenaline on high. That experience, don’t get me wrong, can feel wonderful and you do have a sense that you are really connecting with your conversational partner. However, there is an underlying strain to your physical system that has consequences to your health. When you are engaged in a high-energy conversation, your fight or flight system gets engaged so your sympathetic nervous system secretes hormones and your body goes out of balance. You experience any number of physiological symptoms like high blood pressure, stomach pain, flushing, heart racing—you are aroused and in a stress-state.
Remaining Calm, Cool and Collected
Imagine a different way of having a conversation. Imagine that you are a receptor where you just listen to what the other person has to say. You let them speak their entire story, so to speak, without saying a word. You listen and let their words flow to you where you calmly hear them and process them and understand what they mean. You don’t engage your fight or flight system. In the workshop exercise, we took it a step further to experience a strange yet very stress-free conversation. We were asked to pair up and the speaker was asked to say who they admire and why for two minutes. The listener was asked to listen and not react with any sounds, words, or facial expressions. That meant no giggles, no smiles, no nodding—no nothing. The listener’s job was to receive the information from the speaker and just listen serenely. We were told we could look almost vacuous.
The Benefit Of Staying Passive
It wasn’t easy for many people, whether they were the speaker or the listener because it wasn’t what anyone was used to in normal conversation. And yet, the discussion afterwards revealed that the listeners felt composed and peaceful because they weren’t in their head planning what they were going to say in response to the speaker. The listener also expressed that they loved hearing what the speaker had to say. They truly heard every word. Plus, several listeners pointed out that had they said something, the conversation might have veered off into a different tangent. This way, the speaker got to say what he or she really wanted to say. Physiologically, the reason that they felt calmer was because instead of engaging their sympathetic system, they remained in homeostasis and their stress mechanisms were not activated.
Speaking And Being Heard
From the speaker’s side, they also had a positive experience. Not surprising, the speaker felt heard. They commented that they felt the deep connection to the listener mostly through their eyes. Although there were no nods or other usual signs of acknowledgement from the listener, the speaker said that the listener’s eyes showed that they understood. And the speaker experienced a kind of spaciousness that they were able to complete their thoughts out loud without hesitation. They felt completely held.
Dealing With Difficult People And Conversations
Several people noted that this technique would be particularly useful when they are in a conversation with someone they find difficult who usually causes them stress. And that got me thinking. There are many times when we are speaking with someone about something that makes us uncomfortable, that we try to move the conversation one way or another. That takes a lot of energy and can be tiring and stressful. It certainly engages our sympathetic nervous system. If instead we allow the other person to speak their mind, and calmly listen without reacting strongly, we lessen the strong negative feelings and physical reactions in ourselves and we simultaneously take some of the negative energy out for the speaker. Even if you don’t agree with what they are saying, they will feel heard and understood. After they have completed what they have to say, you can take a turn at speaking or in the case of people who are particularly difficult for you to experience, just let them continue to speak without reacting ever. You can decide to remain peaceful. You can control that fight or flight reaction.
Choose To Remain Calm, Choose To Physically Relax
The amazing thing that this exercise illustrates is that in any given moment, you have a choice. You can choose to relax your body—your shoulders, jaw, fists and other body parts—and be calm, or you can choose to be tensed up and experience physical and emotion anxiety. It takes practice, but you can make the mindful choice to just let go instead of holding your body in tight stress. Practice it right now. As you are reading this and thinking I can’t possible be relaxed because I have to read this quickly before getting back to work, try letting your shoulders drop, your jaw drop and just calmly continue to read. Your work can wait a minute or two. And you can go back to work and practice staying in a relaxed physical state.
Relax Into Life For Deeper Everything
Relaxing into a conversation and listening deeply is a double bonus to your life. Actually relaxing into anything you do is a double bonus. When you choose to release the anxiety in your body in any given moment, your body will appreciate it, you will enjoy that moment more, and the side benefit is a deeper connection with others, a deeper understanding and a deeper appreciation of life.