September 2014

Mindful Conversations™

The Art and Science of Connecting, High Performance, and Transformation

You may ask, “How do mindful conversations become the art and science of connecting, high performance, and transformation? That is a tall order. How can that possibly be?”

The short answer (which isn't so short) is this:

  1. Mindfulness, with compassion and self-compassion, brings out the best in the speaker and creates conditions in which the listener is more likely to respond mindfully rather than reactively.
  2. This allows the people in the conversation to connect rather than distance.
  3. When people connect, they are better able to deal with differences, solve problems creatively, and collaborate effectively.
  4. These attributes, characteristic of mindful conversations, enable the two or more people to move into high performance in whatever task they are working to accomplish.
  5. These mindful conversations are also transformative. By bringing self-awareness to the fore, awareness of other, and awareness of the interaction between the participants, the process becomes transformative for the individuals and the relationship.
  6. It is an art in that it is honed with study, practice, experience, and attention.
  7. Mindful Conversations are a science in that they apply the newest research from neuroscience and interpersonal neurobiology. The moment someone brings their attention, intention, and commitment to a mindful conversation, new neural networks begin to form, thus changing and rewiring the architecture of the brain.

Our focus this month will cover the importance of mindful conversations, the basic structure of them, and we'll outline the principles. Then, over the next 10 months or so, we'll go into specific aspects of Mindful Conversations.

Let's revisit Sally and Donna with an eye and ear to noticing what kinds of conversations each fosters...


Sally has just left a meeting in which she felt humiliated because she didn't know the answer to a question that a senior leader asked about the project she was presenting. Though everyone in the room was understanding, Sally is upset with her team for not giving her sufficient information for the presentation. She feels like a fool and is convinced that she has been found out. She thinks that they now know that she isn't as competent as she pretends to be.

Sally leaves the meeting as quickly as possible, races to her office, and shuts her door. She can't sit down fast enough. Her breath is labored and her heart is racing. She just can not believe the predicament she is in. With hands shaking, she finds the headhunter's number and calls him.

A cheerful voice answers, “The Perfect Position. Bob speaking.”

“Hi Bob,” Sally responds. “This is Sally Shore. Is James available?”

“Hi Sally,” Bob replies. “I'll get James for you.” Hearing stress in her voice, Bob, who has known Sally for several years asks,“Are you okay?”

“Sure, I'm fine,” Sally answers. “I just want to speak with James if he's free.”

“Hold on a moment and I'll get him on the line.”

James picks up his extension. “Why hi Sally. How are you doing?”

“Not so great,” Sally begins. “My friend got me into this crazy company. I wish I had let you place me. I wouldn't be in this terrible situation. You've always found me positions that allowed me to shine. This is just the opposite. It's like I'm back at square one. Nobody cares about all the work I've done. It's as if I didn't have a prior career history. I really don't get them at all. I just want to leave as soon as possible. What do you have for me? There must be some company that is looking for a top performer!”

James listens intently, then responds: “Sally, your situation sounds awful. What company is it? What happened?”

Sally freezes. She really doesn't want James to know. She doesn't want word to get out to anyone that she's failed in this company. Finally, she says, “What difference does it make? Do you really have to know?”

“Well, no,” James pauses. “But if I'm going to find a good fit for you, it helps me to know what isn't a good fit. You know that your information is safe with me, right?”

“Well, nobody seems to care about my accomplishments. Not my team, not my direct reports, not even my supervisor. Everybody is 'nice' enough but I think they're too nice. They just aren't business-like. You know, they're too laid back,” Sally pauses. As she listens to herself, even she thinks it sounds lame. “I know a good example. They're trying to help me learn things as if I'm stupid. They keep saying things like, 'You'll get the hang of it' as if I haven't been doing this for a century. It seems so condescending.”

James pauses again. Then, very measured, he asks Sally, “Have you spoken with your boss about this? Maybe he could shed some light on it. Why don't you talk to him and then get back to me. Meanwhile, send me your current resume and I'll start looking around.” While Sally listens to James' response, she shakes her head in frustration.

“Even you think I'm an idiot, don't you?” Sally blurts out in a sharp tone of voice. “Maybe I'll call another headhunter who will help me get out of this. You're not the only one around.”

“Now Sally,” James implores. “Give me a chance. I'll see what I can do for you. Why don't you come over here after work today? Are you free at 5:30?”

“I don't know,” Sally snaps back. “I'll call you later.” Sally hangs up, exasperated. Even the headhunter doesn't believe her. Even he thinks she should give them a chance. Only her husband understands.

Sally calls Larry. When he picks up the phone, she says, “I'm so exasperated. Even the headhunter doesn't understand how terrible this place is. What should I do, Larry?”

“Go get another headhunter who understands,” Larry responds. “That's an easy problem to solve. Did you give notice yet?”

“No, I haven't given notice yet” Sally answers. “I don't know what to do. Do you think I should tell my boss how crazy the place is and how it doesn't work for me? I think I should just leave without saying anything.”

“Sure. You don't owe him anything,” Larry points out. “Just tell him it doesn't work and walk out the door. You'll find another job right away, I'm sure.”

“You aren't being helpful at all,” Sally complains. “You just keep telling me to leave.”

“Now don't start getting mad at me!” Larry responds. “I'm just trying to help you.”

“Well you're not being helpful,” Sally retorts. “I've got to go. Bye.” Sally slams down the receiver. Just then, there's a knock at Sally's office door.

“Who is it?” Sally calls out.

“It's Tom,” Tom replies. “Can I come in?” Sally quickly fixes her hair and puts on lipstick.

“Why certainly,” Sally replies and opens the door for Tom. “Come on in.” Sally stands still in the doorway.

“May I come in?” Tom says again.

Flustered, Sally steps aside and says, “Oh yes, of course. Come in and have a seat.”

Tom sits down and looks at Sally as if he is looking for something on her face. “Sally, how is it going, really? I have a sense that something isn't right. Will you tell me what it is?”

Sally freezes. She feels like a trapped rat. “Tom, I was just about to leave for a lunch appointment. How kind of you to ask. Would you mind if we talked about this tomorrow morning?”

Meanwhile...

Donna is having a very different experience. She just completed a difficult performance review in which she told a young high achiever that she had to address some conduct issues. Donna feels proud of how she handled the difficult situation. She used all the principles of Mindful Conversations and it ended up going fabulously. She can't wait to get home and have a celebration dinner with her family.

As Donna walks into the house, her children Katie and Kyle run up to her almost chirping, “Mommy! Mommy! Wait until you see what we made for you!” They grab her hands and take her over to the table. It is set with their good dishes and with candles. There is a plate of deviled eggs with a card next to it. “Open it. It's for you. We made it!” they both squeal while bouncing.

Donna opens the envelope and takes out a hand-painted card that Kyle made. Donna says, “It is beautiful Kyle. It has my favorite colors.” She gives him a hug. He's beaming. Katie, impatient for her mommy to read the card, says, “Now read it. C'mon.”

Donna reads it out loud: “Dear Mommy, We love you. You are the best mommy ever. Love, Katie and Kyle.”

With tears of joy in her eyes, Donna reaches over and pulls Katie into a hug. “Thank you sweetie. This is the best celebration ever.” Then she pulls Kyle in and as she's hugging them says, “You two are the best.”

Kyle squirms out and says, “Taste a Devil's egg. We made them. They're really good.”

Donna laughs and says, “Sure. I love Devil's eggs. You bet I'm going to have more than one.”

Darren comes over and hugs Donna. “We've been having the best time getting ready for this celebration. The children and I are eager to hear about all the wonderful things you're doing that we're celebrating. And of course, they have a few things they want to celebrate too.” He winks at Donna as he says this.

Katie quickly admonishes her dad. “You aren't supposed to tell. You promised.”

Darren responds immediately. “Katie, I would never tell. You'll get to tell Mommy, I promise.”

And with that, the family settles down to their celebration dinner. When everyone is served, Darren says, “Okay. Let's hear what Mom wants to celebrate and then what each of you want to celebrate tonight.”

Each person says something that they liked that they did that day while the others listen, then ask questions like, “What was special about that for you?” and “How did you figure that out?” After they go around the table once, the conversation shifts to talking about the fish in their pond. They have a delightful dinner and evening celebrating.


If we listen to Sally's conversation with James the headhunter and the snippet of a conversation with Tom, her boss, we find that it is anything but mindful. Sally does not show any deeper level of self-awareness other than she is uncomfortable. She quickly goes into blame with James as we saw and heard in the meeting when she presented a project from her team.

Sally does not display compassion, which is a dead giveaway that she is lacking in self-compassion. When her boss comes in with a very sincere question, Sally is not able to meet him with authenticity. She ducks out of it, avoiding any connection, truth telling, or possibility for a mindful conversation.

On the other hand, Donna's conversation with Sasha during her performance appraisal is a great example of a mindful conversation. Throughout the conversation, Donna stays present with herself and present with Sasha. She manages her own feelings and reactions in a manner that allows her to express empathy with Sasha and still give Sasha difficult feedback. Even when Sasha becomes defensive, Donna is able to stay centered and keeps them on track in a compassionate but intentional way.

That Donna was able to influence Sasha so that her best qualities came out is a tribute to the level of mindfulness that Donna brought to the conversation. Without putting Sasha down in any way, Donna is able to motivate Sasha to want to learn and improve her conduct. Hats off to Donna.

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