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Cognition and perception, Social and behavioural

What if we could practise being fully present during interactions with another person as part of our meditation?

Dr Emma Donaldson-Feilder explains how bringing relationship and mindfulness together turbo-charges each of these elements, offering new perspectives.

07 September 2023

When we think of mindfulness meditation, we tend to think of someone sitting silently, with their eyes closed or gaze downcast, focusing on their internal experience. But what if meditation were not an exclusively individual pursuit?

I'm not talking here about the benefits to be gained from meditating individually in a group setting, though that is a relevant and important enquiry. What I am getting at is, what if we were to include dialogue with other people as part of our mindfulness meditation practice?

One of the important benefits of learning mindfulness is that it helps us to be more aware moment-by-moment in our relationships, with all the joys and challenges that they bring (Bihari & Mullen, 2012; Allen et al, 2009). So, what if we could practise being fully present during interactions with another person as part of our meditation? How might that support our work – and our relationships more broadly?

In answer to these questions, for the last 12 years, I have been exploring relational forms of mindfulness and meditation: it is proving to be a profound journey. I have seen enormous benefits from relational meditation, not only for me personally, but also for the coaches, leaders, and others to whom I have offered programmes based on relational mindfulness. My experience and the feedback I get from others is that:

  • Learning to be more aware in the moment of relating with another person builds our relational capability and makes the capacities we gain in meditation more transferable to daily life.
  • Interacting with others as a mindfulness practice further enhances our capacity for moment-by-moment awareness.
  • Bringing relationship and awareness together in mindful dialogue can give rise to insight and new perspectives through the meeting of two (or more) meditating minds. 

My reason for writing about this in The Psychologist is that I believe psychologists can benefit from what relational mindfulness offers. For most psychologists, relationships are at the heart of what we do. Much research now points to the importance of relationship and social identity in therapeutic, clinical, and coaching settings (e.g. Lee et al, 2021). Relationships are also central in consulting, facilitation and other activities that we undertake in psychology. Relational mindfulness offers a means of enhancing this relational aspect of our work.

My journey

I have been meditating in one form or another since the late 1990s and started to bring mindfulness into my work as a coaching psychologist in the late 2000s. I found that having my own meditation practice and increasing my level of mindfulness enhanced my working alliance with clients and improved my relationships in all areas of my life. My discovery of Insight Dialogue (ID) in 2010 dramatically increased this positive effect. Here was a form of meditation that brought relationships and our interactions with others right into the centre of practice. In an ID session, as well as spending time in silent and/or guided individual meditation, we also engage in mindful listening and speaking with one another.

Developed by Gregory Kramer in the US (Kramer, 2007), ID has been picked up around the world in the last 25 years and now has an international community of teachers/ facilitators, of which I am one. ID has some distinctive features:

  • Meditating together in dyads, small groups or a large group: Whilst there is usually an initial period of silent/individual meditation to settle and ground us, and mindful pauses to bring us back into the moment, the central practice in ID is to engage in meditative dialogue. Sitting in a pair or small group with another person/people, we are invited to speak and listen to one another as meditation, rather than as conversation. There is often a separate speaker and listener – at least initially – allowing the speaker to speak without fear of interruption and the listener to listen without needing to prepare a response.
  • Six meditation guidelines: To support the meditative nature of the dialogue, ID practice is underpinned by six meditation guidelines. By helping us pause and bring a kindly receptivity to what is arising internally for us, and externally in our dialogue partner(s), these guidelines enable us to bring awareness right into the moment of speaking, listening, and interacting with another or others.
  • Contemplation topics: To help focus the dialogue, a contemplation topic or question is provided. Topics can include noting and naming out loud our present moment experience, or an exploration of experiences such as change/ impermanence, generosity, or the roles we play in life. Dialogue on these topics offer the opportunity to explore these areas experientially and reflect on how our experiences illuminate the nature of being human and human relationships.

ID shares the intentions of the Buddhist Insight Meditation tradition, aiming to generate insights into the human condition, suffering and the end of suffering. The intention is that developing present-moment awareness whilst in relationship with another person supports insight by enabling us to investigate together. ID contemplations are designed to encourage in-the-moment awareness of our habits and patterns, re-evaluation of assumptions, and clearer seeing of the human experience. 

For me, practising ID provided a new way of looking at mindfulness and meditation that was to bring about a sea change not only in my meditation practice, but also in my relationships, my practice as a psychologist, and eventually my career direction.

I found that meditating in dialogue 'turbo-charged' my meditation practice, helping me reach states of calm, awareness, and concentration that were less readily available in my individual meditation. I also noticed how I was better able to translate my capacity to pause and bring awareness into the moment into my daily life. This helped me to make wiser choices about what to do and say in my relationships. Most intriguing of all was how this form of meditation generated new ways of seeing.

Before long, my enthusiasm led me to undertake training to offer relational mindfulness practice, particularly ID and its secular version the Interpersonal Mindfulness Programme (IMP, Kramer, Meleo-Meyer & Turner, 2008). The IMP mirrors other mainstream mindfulness-based interventions, such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, by having an eight-week structure, with weekly sessions and specified 'home practice' for participants to engage in between the weekly meetings. It is clearly defined through a teachers' handbook and curriculum (Hicks et al., 2015-2019) and great care has been taken to ensure its fidelity to the ID practice on which it is based, while at the same time making it accessible in non-Buddhist contexts. 

Taking Jon Kabat-Zinn's definition of mindfulness ('the awareness that arises from paying attention on purpose in the present moment and non-judgementally' (Kabat-Zinn, 1994, p.34)) into relationship, relational mindfulness (RM) is about 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.

Convinced that developing RM through ID-based practice was a powerful approach, I was keen to integrate it into my work as an occupational and coaching psychologist. In discussions with other practising coaches, psychologists and leadership development professionals, I found agreement with my view that this form of mindfulness and meditation would be an ideal vehicle to support development for those for whom relationship is a central part of their role (including, for example, psychologists, leaders, people managers, and coaches). As an evidence-based practitioner, I looked around for research evidence that could support this integration of RM into professional development programmes. Finding that the research literature was almost non-existent, I tumbled into doing a Professional Doctorate with that integration as its central theme (Donaldson-Feilder et al, 2019; Donaldson-Feilder et al, 2021).

After completing the doctoral stage of my development journey in 2019, the logical next step was to run programmes based on RM, which is what I am now doing. As a result, I have seen relational meditation provide benefit in coach development, leadership development, professional and personal development, and other contexts where building quality relationships is a vital component – including for psychologists (see details about the BPS programme for psychologists I will be offering in the new year).

What can RM offer psychologists?

My experience is that RM: 1) helps bring mindfulness into interactions, supporting relational capacities; 2) brings relationship into mindfulness, supporting awareness; and 3) through this combination of mindfulness and relationship, helps generate insight and grow wisdom. As RM is a relatively new construct, there is very little research directly about its effects. In the long run, I hope to conduct research to see whether my experience is confirmed by a more systematic exploration. For now, I will draw on observational findings to enlarge on these three potential benefits.

1) RM supports our relational capacities

We can probably all think of people who give us a sense that they are fully present with us and how that enhances our feeling of connecting with them – or how, when someone seems to be mentally absent, despite being physically with us, that can disrupt how we relate with them. My suggestion is that increased RM can help generate the former experience and make the latter less likely.

The research literature suggests that mindfulness, even in its individual form, has a positive impact on relationships (see the Mindfulness Initiative website for a review). The feedback I am getting is that RM can multiply these benefits for relationships. By engaging in relational meditation, we are learning the attentional process of bringing mindfulness into our interactions with others. We are building the neural pathways that allow us to place our attention on relating and being with others. People report that developing their ability be more present and bring a kindly receptivity to their relationships through RM practice gives them a much greater capacity to 'be with' challenging moments, such as a difficult interaction in a coaching session or a stressful family situation.

Whilst engaging in and offering RM practice, I have repeatedly seen a 'magical' shift in a group as a sense of connection, care, kindness and shared humanity emerges through people meditating in dialogue with one another. The capacity for empathy and compassion developed seems to extend beyond the formal practice of RM/ID and into daily interactions. Kramer and colleagues suggest that relational meditation can help those working with others, such as psychologists and therapists, to be more self-aware, more accepting of difficult emotions that arise, more present to and accepting of clients and better able to collaborate with them to explore the present moment with respect and curiosity.

2) RM supports mindfulness

At the same time as mindfulness seems to support relationship, relationship can also support mindfulness. It is certainly my experience, when practising relational meditation, that the presence of a meditation partner enhances my capacity to bring my attention into the moment, reduces my distractibility and increases the likelihood of my finding a sense of calm and tranquillity. If my mind wanders off or my awareness wavers, the presence of a meditation partner can help bring me back into the moment; if I am agitated, their stability can support me to calm down. This aligns with neurobiological research around interpersonal resonance and mirroring (see Fredrickson, 2013, for a summary).

Practising relational meditation can give us the experience of attuning to another person with present-moment, non-judgemental awareness, generating mindful states for both participants. Through repeated practice, regularly experiencing mindfulness in relationship establishes interacting with another person as a prompt or 'anchor', 'conditioning' us to bring greater presence and awareness into other relationships. My experience and that of others, is that this relational meditation practice has taken our mindfulness to a new level and better enabled us to translate it into our client work and other relationships.

3) Opportunities for insight

In coaching and therapeutic interventions, one of the underlying intentions is often to increase our clients' self-awareness – to generate insights that help them shift or even transform their way of seeing themselves, the world and their behaviour. In my experience, RM has helped the coaches I have worked with to gain insights for themselves and to support insight in their clients.

Research by Stephen Porges and others has shown that safe, 'calm and connect' neurobiological states are a prerequisite for accessing the higher brain structures that enable us to be creative and generative. Thus, if we want to gain insight, we need to feel safe and, if we want to support insight for others, we need to offer compassionate listening, quality attention and a psychologically safe space.

Relational meditation offers a listening space where attention and kindly receptivity are built into the meditation guidelines. This helps generate insight for those participating and builds their capacity to offer this attentive, kindly listening to others. The insight that can arise as a result might be insight into our own habits and drivers, and/or a shift in our worldview to broader mindsets and perspectives. 

In terms of insight into ourselves, relational meditation offers the opportunity to slow down the process of interacting with another person, helping us to observe and learn about our habitual patterns in relationship. This can help us make wiser choices about whether to continue to act on our habits or choose different ways of relating. For example, in a relational meditation, I might notice my tendency to want to please others or my aversion to silence in the dialogue. Becoming familiar with these internal drivers in relational meditation can help me choose in moments of my daily life whether to act on them or not. 

As for shifting our worldview, the contemplative dialogues in relational meditation have similarities to the dialogues advocated by theoretical quantum physicist David Bohm to broaden our thinking and our capacity to think beyond our existing paradigms. (Indeed, Gregory Kramer's creation of ID was informed by Bohm dialogue.) Relational meditation involves mindful listening to another person's views, providing the chance either to see how we share common human concerns and challenges, or to gain a different perspective on a topic/question, or both. This can emphasise both our shared humanity and the rich diversity of the human experience. It can reveal that our way of seeing the world is just one of many and is part of a complex interrelated system. RM practice offers a number of the factors advocated for supporting adult or vertical development, such as bringing quality awareness and attention to notice and question our meaning-making and having a compassionate and open-minded attitude to others with different world views (e.g. see Petrie, 2015).

The potential for RM in the world

In summary, my experience and observations suggest that relational meditation and RM have the potential to support us as psychologists to bring greater awareness, presence and relational capacity to our work. Intriguingly, they also offer the possibility of insight and wisdom for us and for our clients. Beyond that, in a world that is riven with division and polarisation, where social media seems to amplify our tendency to identify with a particular set of beliefs and to 'other' those who do not share them, anything that helps build mutual understanding must be welcome. While RM will not be for everyone, its capacity for creating more powerful and deeper dialogue, and for generating a sense of interrelatedness seem to offer great potential.

About the author

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

Her varied professional portfolio includes teaching relational mindfulness, coaching senior managers, supervision for coaches, research, writing, and contributing to public policy.

She and Liz Hall, editor of Coaching at Work and author of Mindful Coaching, are co-authoring a book on relational mindfulness for coaches (forthcoming). She can be contacted at [email protected]

Emma will be offering a programme through the BPS entitled Relational Mindfulness for Psychologists: Deepening moment-by-moment awareness in our client relationships and beyond.

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