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What are relational mindfulness and mindful dialogue?

Dr Emma Donaldson-Feilder shares her passion for mindful dialogue as a way of enhancing our ‘ways of being and seeing’ as psychologists.

06 October 2023

Sign up for Emma’s Relational Mindfulness course on BPS Learn starting in January 2024 to find out more.

Research suggests that a big part of what we offer in any psychological service is down to the relationship we establish with our client. While we have probably learned lots of good relational habits and perspectives on our journey as a psychologist, we may also have some ways of being and seeing that we could let go of to benefit ourselves and our clients. My experience is that mindful dialogue offers a potential way to do this.

Mindful dialogue is a form of meditation that involves contemplating with another person, aiming to develop relational mindfulness and insight into ourselves and others. Through listening and speaking together in a safe space, we get to see and shift our own habits and become more present and aware in relationship (new ways of being).

We can also better understand other points of view, realise that our own perspective is just one of many potential lenses on the world, and gain a deep sense of our common humanity and our interconnectedness with the world around us (new ways of seeing).

This combination of awareness, self-understanding, and new perspectives can enable us to bring greater presence and wisdom to our client relationships – indeed, to all our relationships.

Mindfulness and meditation

Mindfulness and meditation have received a lot of attention in recent decades – in the media, in psychological settings, and in the general population. When I started meditating 25 years ago, few people had heard of either meditation or mindfulness; by contrast, today most people have come across these terms.

However, the coverage of mindfulness and meditation in the popular press and the kind of photos used to illustrate them (so often pictures of beautiful people in yoga positions surrounded by natural beauty) can lead to both terms being misunderstood. I regularly find that people believe mindfulness is for those who can ‘empty their minds’, or who sit meditating in isolation for hours.

In this context, trying to explain mindful dialogue to develop relational mindfulness can prove challenging!

Defining terms

In our forthcoming book about ‘Relational mindfulness for coaches’ (to be published by Routledge), my co-author Liz Hall and I define relational mindfulness as:

'…paying attention on purpose, non-judgementally (or dispassionately) in the present moment, whilst speaking, listening or otherwise interacting with others; it is about awareness of self, the other(s) and the relationship.’

(Those who are familiar with the world of mindfulness will recognise this as an adaptation of the classic Jon Kabat-Zinn definition of mindfulness.)

Mindful dialogue is a form of meditation designed to help us increase our capacity for relational mindfulness. We meditate together by engaging in dialogue on a chosen contemplation topic, aiming to bring our full attention to the process of speaking and listening and to adopt a non-judgemental, dispassionate attitude to ourselves, each other and whatever arises.

Nothing here about clearing our minds or sitting in a yoga position on top of a mountain! In fact, developing greater relational mindfulness through mindful dialogue is a practical step that can really help improve how we relate to others in each moment of our relational lives.

Takes practice

For most of us, bringing high-quality attention and a dispassionate attitude to our daily relationships takes practice. We have habits, preconceptions, and approaches that lead us to react in ways that are not conducive to being fully present with the person in front of us. When the interaction is challenging, it can be even harder to bring the presence, wisdom, and kindness we might ideally want to offer.

Shifting such habits requires practice: mindful dialogue offers a way to practise being more relationally mindful and to develop greater capacity to be how/who we want to be, even in difficult interpersonal situations. It involves sitting with another person (or people) to mindfully speak and listen to one another. In the same way that physical training builds our muscles and rehearsals help us give presentations, mindful dialogue develops our capacity for awareness, presence, and choice over how we show up in our relationships.

More than learning communication skills

You might ask: isn’t this just learning good communication skills? My response would be that, while learning communication skills is about cognitive understanding and behavioural development of specific skills, mindful dialogue goes further. It includes the cognitive and behavioural but is much more about who we are being and a more embodied mode of change. It also helps us gain insight and new perspectives.

Relational mindfulness is not purely about how we think. In mindful dialogue, we are invited to bring awareness to the emotions and physical sensations that emerge as we contemplate, as well as the thoughts. To help us bring this multi-dimensional attention to speaking and listening, we are encouraged to slow down and release conventional patterns of conversation.

Bringing this kind of awareness to relating with another person provides the space for us to observe and eventually let go of drives, habits, and reactions that don’t serve us. At the same time, the dispassionate attitude cultivated in mindful dialogue helps us understand another person’s perspective, our common humanity and how interrelated we are to everything.

As you might gather, I am passionate about meditating in dialogue and hope that you may want to try it yourself!

Find out more

You can read more about Relational Mindfulness in Emma’s recent article in The Psychologist and learn more by attending Emma’s course on BPS Learn starting in January 2024.

Written by Dr Emma Donaldson-Feilder, a Chartered Occupational Psychologist, Chartered Coaching Psychologist, Relational Mindfulness Teacher, and Coach Supervisor who aims to support the development of kinder, wiser workplaces.

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