Research is starting to examine the benefits of mindfulness as a tool to promote healthy relationships. In addition to reducing stress, studies now suggest that mindfulness can increase our empathy toward others. Developing empathy for others through the practice of mindfulness can prepare us to look “beneath the surface” of what we think about the people in our lives whose actions seem to challenge us every-step-of-the-way. It can help us make better decisions when triggered by emotion and construct another way of seeing things during times of interpersonal conflict. Would you like to know more?
In what follows, I’ve outlined three mindful steps you can take to make a radical shift in the way you currently manage difficult relationships. You might say the three steps are a practical tools you can use to make your life a little easier:
Step One: Pause and practice mindfulness.
Several studies examining the benefits of mindfulness strongly suggest that mindfulness promotes stress reduction. When we’re less stressed we are better able to perceive difficult behaviors in others as “challenges” rather than “threats.” In other words, practicing mindfulness in the presence of potential conflict helps to calm the areas of our brain responsible for triggering “fight, flight, or freeze” responses and, therefore, helps us maintain our connection with the more rational parts of our brain that promote good judgement.
One practical tool to practice mindfulness in difficult moments is the practice of shifting your focus away from conflict and onto the physical sensations of the breath. One way to do this is to say to yourself with every breath: Inhale one, exhale one…inhale two, exhale two, and so on.
Step Two: Explore your hunches about the other person’s underlying needs.
Before responding to irrational behavior from others, it may be helpful to pause and ask yourself: How likely is it that this person’s behavior is really about me? If we’re honest, we’ll likely discover that, most of the time, it isn’t. Barring the presence of mental illness, people’s challenging behaviors (E.g. blaming, complaining, shouting) are often a reflection of unmet needs: psychological states of being that undermine personal growth and a sense of emotional security. For example, the person at the office who makes undermining comments at someone else’s good idea may have an underlying need to feel recognized and competent within the group.
Like an iceberg, underlying needs exist “beneath the surface” and are psychological explanations for what often drives difficult behavior. That said; when facing irrational behavior from others–in addition to asking yourself the question: “How likely is it that this person’s behavior is really about me?”–it may also help to ask: “What are these behaviors really signifying?” “What’s likely beneath the surface?” and “How can I best respond knowing that this is probably more about this person’s underlying need than anything I’ve done?”
Step Three: See the person as an innocent child, or try to see aspects of yourself in the other person.
Now that you understand the concept of underlying needs, this step asks that you put this knowledge into practice. After you’ve considered the possible needs underlying the other person’s irrational behavior, try to imagine what he/she must have looked like as an innocent child whose legitimate needs were never met. Perhaps they might resemble the child in this picture:
If you find this too difficult to do, try to see aspects of yourself in the other person. To help you do this, you might ask yourself the following questions:
– Have I ever been in a similar situation as this person? If so, how did I feel?
– Have I ever felt angry, afraid, or ashamed?
– Have I ever acted irrationally when upset?
It is much harder to judge someone when we discover pieces of ourselves reflected back in the experience of the other person who, like us, is imperfect; has endured the palpable pains of life, and is ultimately vulnerable to suffering, sickness, and death–just like us. Although it is sometimes necessary to sever relationships with people who are “toxic,” there are some relationships from which we simply cannot walk away–relationships that we need to meet our goals whatever those may be. In these cases, it may be very helpful to introduce a bit of mindfulness into the relationship. Mindfulness is not magic, but it may ultimately help you make a radical shift in the way you perceive the other person and the situation. And, this can make all the difference!