How I Learned to Stop Approaching Conversations as Contests

Six People at a Table

Earlier this year, I had a profound experience at a Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI) event hosted by the Center for Positive Organizations. SIYLI’s programs teach neuroscience-backed techniques for practical mindfulness and emotional intelligence.

Over two days, I participated in dozens of immersive activities geared toward learning in these domains. The whole experience was very impactful, and I’ve carried many of the SIYLI’s micropractices into my daily life.

Conversations Without Anxiety

In the program, we did many exercises around listening. These left a bigger impact on me than any of the rest. Typically in these exercises, program participants paired up and were given a topic to speak about. Person A would speak for three minutes, and Person B could only listen. Then we switched. In different variations of the exercise, we practiced skills like active listening and listening for emotion.

After several iterations of this exercise, I started to feel very different from how I normally do. I noticed that I was speaking more slowly and sharing my thoughts more freely. I felt centered. It was a great feeling; I wanted to feel that way in all of my interactions.

As I reflected more deeply later in the evening, I realized that in my day-to-day life, I feel a lot of anxiety around conversation. I’m naturally more reserved, so I often have difficulty breaking into vigorous group conversations. And I habitually speak quickly because experience has taught me that somebody might cut me off before I can finish my thought. Conversations can feel like exhausting contests where I need to fight for speaking space.

But as we did the SIYLI exercises over and over, I realized that my conversation partner couldn’t cut me off. As a result, I felt calm, relaxed, and more articulate.

What I Can Control

I wanted to feel like that all the time, not just in a seminar. But how? In the real world, people aren’t bound by rules to listen to me for three minutes!

Listening

One thing I do have control over in a conversation is how I listen, so I started there. The SIYLI exercises all required listening quietly — not planning what you’re going to say next, not looking for an opening, just listening.

I started to focus on listening in my daily interactions. I found that bringing this posture into my conversations already went a long way toward reducing the stress I felt. And it put me in a good place both physically and mentally for when it was time for me to respond.

Responding

At SIYLI, I had the chance to feel what it was like to interact in a conversation where I felt heard, not rushed. I started taking that memory into my conversations. Additionally, I’ve been using micro-practices to stay present and mindful throughout conversations. I’m better at fighting off nervous energy and keeping a comfortable pace.

I’ve also developed a better strategy for dealing with the interruptions. A simple phrase like “excuse me, I’m not done yet” feels like a bold move, but it usually does the trick and feels so much better than rushing through my thought.

How has mindfulness practice impacted your work or your interactions? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!