Imagine a force that has the power to influence people’s thoughts, emotions and bodies. A description of this “force” might seem to be the stuff of science fiction, and yet it
is a power that resides within each one of us—the power of communication. Communication is a basic building block of relationships. This article reviews ideas and practices related to creating effective communication with your clients and students.
Building a Strong Foundation
Three essential principles provide a strong foundation for clear and helpful communication.
LISTENING IS PRIMARY
When you think of communication, it’s easy to consider only the action of speech. However, the most significant component of communication is listening, for without accurate and emotionally connected listening to others, the actions of our speech are unlikely to carry much influence. Listening means much more than “hearing”; it is an intentional act that requires the listener to focus consciously upon another. Listening is like the foundation of a building, while speaking is like the upper “stories” of the structure. Without an intact foundation, the stories will fall flat.
ATTITUDE IS ESSENTIAL
While there are many useful techniques for improving communication, the best techniques in the world will be ineffective if they are not supported by attitudes that reflect interest, respect, humility and care. Other important attitudes that are essential for effective communication include empathy, compassion, kindness, nonreactivity, enthusiasm, patience, acceptance, nonjudgment and openness.
BEHAVIOR IS INFLUENTIAL
There is truth to the cliché that “actions speak louder than words.” Your actions (which include your words) serve as a powerful form of communication to those you teach. Your behavior expresses your values as well as your style of relating to self and others. Be the kind of person that you would like your clients to become, and your professional efforts will be enhanced. Your behavior naturally influences others. When integrated with the attitudes described above, your behavior can have a healing and inspirational impact on others.
Designing the Stories
If speaking is like the upper stories of your communication structure, how you design those stories makes all the difference in your relationships with clients and students.
Mindfulness has been defined as “. . . awareness . . . of present experience . . . with acceptance” (Germer 2005). Mindfulness can be cultivated within a formal meditation practice or as an informal practice of fully attending to the present moment. Mindfulness informs you about the present state of your mind, words and behavior. Mindfulness is an antidote to “mindlessness,” the state of mind that is likely to result in actions and speech that are ineffective at best and harmful at worst. One quick way of cultivating present-centered awareness is to pay attention to your breathing.
In the communication realm, the task at hand is to pay full attention to the words of your clientele (as well as your own words), while receiving their words with
a sense of acceptance. A recent study of
primary-care physicians found that training in mindful communication reduced burnout, improved mood, increased empathy and enhanced conscientiousness and emotional stability (Krasner et al. 2009).
Mindfulness can increase your awareness of nonverbal communications expressed by posture, facial expression, voice tone and eye contact. This awareness can enhance your attention to cues from your clients that are related to attitude, motivation and the expression of pain (e.g., facial grimaces).
Practice: Notice what you are saying to students in the present moment. How do your words align with your posture, voice tone, eye contact and facial expression? If necessary, adjust these aspects of your nonverbal behavior so that they are fully congruent with your words.
Encouragement, praise and supportive communications can increase your clients’ motivation to achieve desired goals. On the other hand, criticism can lower motivation, especially if the criticism is not balanced by positive communication. Research has shown that enthusiastic, positive communication can generate humor, interest, support and empathy in interpersonal relationships, even during times of conflict (Gottman & DeClaire 2001).
Practice: Notice the amount of positive (e.g., encouraging, praising) versus negative (e.g., criticizing, judging) messages that you express toward clients. Make a commitment to express more positive messages toward them.
If you would like your students to change in a desired direction, it is much more effective to focus on actions that are moving toward the goal, as opposed to highlighting actions that are off target. This method of communication can be regarded as focusing more on solutions and skills than problems and deficits. As every teacher and parent knows, what you pay attention to is likely to occur more frequently! Therefore, it pays to align your attention with your intention.
Practice: Declare an intention to yourself, such as, “I would like to be more acknowledging of the competency of my students.” Use your imagination to visualize how you will use your thoughts, words and actions to express this intention. After you have developed a clear picture, practice expressing yourself intentionally in a real situation with your students.
Be sensitive to the gender, cultural, ethnic and geographic differences of your clients. Don’t stereotype others, but be aware that sometimes differences do exist with regard to communication styles. I once heard an aggressive yoga teacher from the East Coast complain that her jokes were not appreciated when she taught a workshop in California. When she confronted her workshop participants about their perceived “lack of humor,” one assertive participant told her, “Maybe you’re not funny in California!”
Clients who are emotionally resilient or “thick-skinned” might be able to tolerate aggressive communications from their instructor, while others who are shy and unassertive might withdraw from such interactions. The sensitivity of your communication can mean the difference between having thriving or dwindling classes and numbers of clients.
Practice: Notice the differences in communication style among select students and clients. Further notice how you can best make contact with these individuals, recognizing that you may need to use a slightly different style of communication with each person you encounter. Think of this as “speaking a different language” in order to skillfully fulfill the responsibilities of your role.
Communicating respectfully means considering the views of your students, especially when there is a difference of opinion. Respectful instructors and coaches also recognize that every student has a unique frame of reference that will affect his or her understanding of instructions and directives. For example, “surrendering” can mean going deeper into a yoga pose or backing off from the pose, with each process being a manifestation of surrendering to the wisdom that is beyond an ego-based image or expectation. “Doing more” can be a challenge for some students, while “doing less” can be a challenge for others.
Respectful communication is supported by your willingness to understand the opinions and perceptions of those you teach, without the need to be “right” or to fulfill an image of being “the expert.” As all good teachers know, our students will teach us much about ourselves and our area of expertise if we are receptive to them.
Practice: Listen to the opinions of your students without judging them as being right or wrong. Acknowledge their points of view without necessarily agreeing or disagreeing with them, and ask gentle, open-ended questions to develop a deeper understanding of students’ perspectives. Open-ended questions usually facilitate more in-depth responses, whereas close-ended questions often result in a yes or no response. Open-ended questions typically begin with words such as how, what, where or why. For example, notice the difference between these two questions: “What was your experience of that movement?” versus “Was that movement comfortable for you?”
Humility allows you to quietly embody your self-worth without having to boast about being better than anyone else.
A humble instructor is open to learning from others. The openness that reflects true humility was beautifully expressed by Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, who once stated, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few” (Suzuki 1970).
A humble instructor functions as a “servant” to his or her students, not as a self-important “master.” This humble way of being was once made clear to me by my highly accomplished tai chi instructor, Master Jesse Tsao. At the beginning of one of my tai chi classes, it was obvious that the floor needed to be swept. Without demanding anything of his students, and without any pretense, Master Tsao joyfully swept the floors with a smile on his face! Service, of course, has its limits and boundaries. However, the point here is that even the most advanced instructors should not regard themselves as being “better” than anyone else at the basic level of self-worth, which is beyond comparison to any skill or accomplishment.
Practice: Look for instances where your clients are spontaneously teaching you valuable lessons or providing meaningful information to you. When appropriate, communicate appreciation for their contribution to your learning.
Conflict can provide an opportunity to improve your relationships with students and clients. Practicing the skillful management of conflict can teach you to become more accepting and less defensive.
Keys to skillfully managing conflict and disagreements include the following:
- Acknowledge your student’s or client’s point of view, even if you disagree with it.
- Ask nondefensive, open-ended questions to gain a greater understanding of the perceived problem.
- Receive criticism with a spirit of curiosity and openness by asking the critic for the specific details about your behavior that appeared problematic. Strive to understand and acknowledge the critic’s point of view without justifying your actions.
- When “gridlocked” in conflict, ask solution-focused questions, such as, “How would you like this situation to be resolved?”
- When necessary, respectfully agree to disagree.
- Stay “centered” by connecting to your body and breath.
- Communication is a creative act, one that has the power to be constructive or destructive. Using the tools discussed in this article can help you create a solid foundation and an inspiring space for your work!
Gottman, J.M., & DeClaire, J. 2001. The Relationship Cure: A Five-step Guide for Building Better Connections With Family, Friends, And Lovers. New York: Three Rivers Press.
Krasner, M.S., et al. 2009. Association of an educational program in mindful communication with burnout, empathy, and attitudes among primary care physicians. Journal of the American Medical Association, 302 (12), 1284–93.
McKay, M., Davis, M., & Fanning, P. 2009. Messages: The Communication Skills Book. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Shafir, R.Z. 2003. The Zen of Listening: Mindful Communication in the Age of Distraction. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books.
Suzuki, S. 1970. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (T. Dixon, Ed.). New York: Weatherhill.
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