Staying mindful in our interactions with others starts with the intention to do so. We all have relationships we would like to improve. One way to make those improvements is through mindful communication and intention setting. Research has shown that mindfulness can help people resolve or avoid conflict, improve their relationships, and reduce stress. Researchers have been testing mindfulness interventions with couples for decades. For example, Dr. James Carson and his colleagues found that couples who participated in 8 weeks of mindfulness training reported higher relationship satisfaction, closeness, and acceptance of their partner than those who did not participate in the training.
Mindfulness has been described as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn, 1994). Mindfulness in communication refers to processing what your partner is saying in an active and flexible way, showing sensitivity to the context (have they had a bad day, is the setting formal or relaxed), being open to multiple points of view, and having the ability to understand things in new ways (Burgoon et al., 2000).
In short, mindfulness is all about being active and in the moment whether you are communicating or not. It takes quite a bit of effort to engage in mindful communication. This is where intention setting comes in. Setting intentions helps us move toward more mindful communication by focusing on particular behaviors in specific relationships.
If you would like to work on mindful communication in one of your relationships, read on. I am going to walk you through a "setting a relationship intention" activity to improve communication in your relationships. Feel free to pull out a pen and paper to write down your answers.
Love patiently with an open and giving heart.
Practice understanding while showing compassion and grace.
Build trust by opening up and showing interest.
Engage with a curious mind, express interest, and show compassion.
Love with understanding while being interested and open.
Conscious and mindful communication are implied in these intentions. Loving patiently requires listening and communicating openness to my partner. Showing compassion and grace is yet another communication-focused intention. I show these through communication with others.
7. Articulate why you want to improve a given relationship. Is it causing hurt or pain to others in your family or life? Is it simply because they are “family” and you feel you should have a good relationship? Is it so that you can feel good about yourself? Or so you can be there for them? Be specific and honest with yourself.
More to Think About
Think about how communication will get you closer to your goal of an improved relationship. How will you enact your relationship intention in the next month? Over the next 3 months? Make a plan with actionable steps. Blogs like this one offer research based tips on improving your communication. See my posts on mindful listening and conflict to start, and explore other Psychology Today blogs for ideas. Mindfulness before and during interaction with your relationship partner is key to improving your communication and listening.
In the past I have asked my interpersonal communication students to set a relationship intention and work on that relationship with their intention in mind for a semester. The key to their success was a consistent focus on their relationship along with a real motivation to improve their communication.
*Not all relationships should be improved. If you are in an abusive relationship seek help and know that the best course of action is sometimes to end a toxic relationship rather than improve it.
Beyond setting intentions for improving relationships, Dr. Carson and his colleagues suggest a variety of mindfulness activities couples can do together. For example, focusing on the days when the couple first fell in love and decided to be together. See Mindfulness-based Relationship Enhancement (MBRE) by Carson, Carson, Gil, & Baucom (2006) for more information on these activities.
Drs. Toni Schindler Zimmerman and Shelley Haddock, professors of Human Development and Family Studies, describe Shared Journaling to help couples struggling to use communication skills in the book Techniques for the Couple Therapist. They propose that journaling about a couple’s conflict for a week slows communication down to a more mindful and intentional pace.
For more information on general intention setting, check out Jess Lively’s blog and podcast here.
Burgoon, J. K., Berger, C. R., & Waldron, V. R. (2000). Mindfulness and interpersonal communication. Journal of Social Issues, 56(1), 105-127.
Carson, J. W., Carson, K. M., Gil, K. M., & Baucom, D. H. (2006). Mindfulness-based relationship enhancement (MBRE) in couples. In R. A. Baer (Ed.), Mindfulness-based treatment approaches: Clinician’s guide to evidence base and applications. San Diego: Academic.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are. New York: Hyperion.