By Dr Joe Flanders
Research in psychology and neuroscience consistently demonstrates that being connected to others is one of the most important ingredients for health and well-being. The same can be said for being effective at work: being in tune with colleagues is essential for success. And yet, we constantly face obstacles to being fully connected with others, especially external distractions and unhelpful mental habits.
These obstacles often manifest when we are trying to communicate with others. First, because mind-wandering is the default mode of our brains, we easily lose touch with the conversation we are trying to have. Second, many of us are extremely busy and preoccupied with our “to do” lists. This makes us much more likely to work our own agenda in conversation (e.g. when would be a good time to interrupt? How am I going to convince her how important this is, etc.) rather than really listening and being with the person. And third, we often communicate with others through digital channels. While digital connection provides unprecedented flexibility in our communications, it can also expose us to the distractions of email, social media, and other apps on our devices, which can subtly erode our presence.
Check in with your mood the next time you find yourself distracted during a conversation with a colleague or loved one. You’ll probably notice it doesn’t feel very good. If chronic, that feeling of disconnection can seriously impact our physical and emotional health. Social isolation can diminish our cardiovascular health, immune system, and cognitive functioning. Social rejection activates the same brain regions as physical pain.
Humans are social animals to the core. We don’t have big teeth, we can’t run especially fast, and we can’t dominate other animals with brute force. Our most important evolutionary edge is our frontal lobes that permit us to cooperate with peers in our complex social networks.
We even have a hormone, called oxytocin, that is designed to build and strengthen social bonds. Oxytocin is typically released into the bloodstream during caregiving, breastfeeding, sex and even hugs. High levels of the hormone create a craving for social contact, like a night out with a friend or even a text message. Oxytocin makes your brain more efficient at noticing and understanding what other people are thinking and feeling. It also makes you more trusting of others. Perhaps the most interesting effect of oxytocin is that it makes us more courageous. When those around you are facing a threat to their physical or emotional well-being, oxytocin can dampen the body’s fear response and enhance our motivation to ensure their safety. That’s why we often think of loved ones when exposed to danger.
These findings are highly relevant to the workplace. When we feel more connected with colleagues we are more likely to 1) feel joyful, engaged, and satisfied at work; 2) experience less stress and health problems; and 3) find win-win solutions, work successfully in teams, and have the courage to make difficult decisions.
All of this scientific evidence points to the importance of cultivating social connection at work. Fortunately, mindfulness offers some practical tools for improving this aspect of work life.
Consider a typical conversation. We know that people communicate on several levels, including spoken word, tone of voice, and body language. What percent of the meaning do you think is communicated on each of those levels? Believe it or not, spoken word only accounts for 7%! Tone of voice accounts for 38% and body language carries the most meaning at 55%. And yet, we rely so much on texting and emailing, channels where body language and tone of voice are absent. Even in person, many of us believe that we are listening as long as we hear the words. We can do better.
Here are 4 steps for mindful listening. Try it out the next time you’re in a meeting with someone
- Unitask: try to clear your agenda so that you have nothing else to do but be with that person in that moment. You might consider shutting off notifications on your devices.
- Focus: set the intention to focus your attention on the person with whom you’re speaking. Be vigilant about your mind wandering off to other topics. When that occurs, gently escort your attention back to the person.
- Broaden awareness: open up to the full range of information coming your way, including tone of voice and body language.
- Listen deeply: adopt an open and receptive attitude in the conversation. Resist the urge to interrupt where possible. Let go of your agenda for a few minutes and listen for understanding.
See if this approach:
- Allows you to pick up on more of what is actually going in the conversation
- Puts you in a position to respond more skillfully
- Makes you feel more connected to a colleague or loved one
We are no less susceptible to distraction and being in our heads when we are speaking. Unmindful speech can cause all kinds of problems, including costly misunderstandings, inefficient use of meeting time, and alienating or frustrating other people. And here are some guidelines for mindful speech:
- Clarify intentions: Before going into a meeting, reflect on your intentions for the interaction and speak deliberately in accordance with these intentions. The clearer your intentions, the easier it will be to get to the point.
- Be succinct: Make the effort to be economical with your language, getting your point across directly, without going on any unnecessary tangents.
- Speak the truth: Communicate your own point of view in a calm, neutral, and non-threatening manner, using “I” language.
- “I feel… I would like… It’s important for me that… My view on this is that…”
- Be helpful: The intention to speaking the truth should be constrained by an intention to make a useful or helpful contribution to the discussion.
See if this approach:
- Helps you declutter your relationships and get less caught up in drama
- Makes you feel calmer and more focused in conversations
- Makes you less likely to ruminate and worry about difficult conversations