Staying mindful in our interactions with others starts with the intention to do so. We all have relationships we would like to improve. One way to make those improvements is through mindful communication and intention setting. Research has shown that mindfulness can help people resolve or avoid conflict, improve their relationships, and reduce stress. Researchers have been testing mindfulness interventions with couples for decades. For example, Dr. James Carson and his colleagues found that couples who participated in 8 weeks of mindfulness training reported higher relationship satisfaction, closeness, and acceptance of their partner than those who did not participate in the training.
Mindfulness has been described as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn, 1994). Mindfulness in communication refers to processing what your partner is saying in an active and flexible way, showing sensitivity to the context (have they had a bad day, is the setting formal or relaxed), being open to multiple points of view, and having the ability to understand things in new ways (Burgoon et al., 2000).
In short, mindfulness is all about being active and in the moment whether you are communicating or not. It takes quite a bit of effort to engage in mindful communication. This is where intention setting comes in. Setting intentions helps us move toward more mindful communication by focusing on particular behaviors in specific relationships.
If you would like to work on mindful communication in one of your relationships, read on. I am going to walk you through a “setting a relationship intention” activity to improve communication in your relationships. Feel free to pull out a pen and paper to write down your answers.
- Choose a relationship you want to work on. This could be your brother, sister, parent, boss, roommate, boyfriend/girlfriend, best friend, want-to-be-closer friend, coworker, aunt, uncle, cousin, grandparent.
- Think about why you want to improve the relationship and envision what the relationship would look like if it was in a satisfactory place. We often think about wanting to have better relationships, but we don’t have real goals in mind or the communication tools to reach those goals.
- When we think about the relationships we want to improve, we often think about what the other person has done or said to sour the relationship or keep it from achieving its full potential. Instead, think about your own communication choices and how changing your communication choices can positively influence your relationship. We often expect others to change, yet we know that the only person we can change is ourselves. How has your communication played a role in your interpersonal conflicts with the person you chose? How have your communication choices influenced this relationship? Be honest with yourself and spend some time thinking and writing here.
- Choose the intentional behaviors you want to focus on while interacting with this person over the next six months to one year. Intentional behaviors are actionable, positive, immediate and long lasting (you could do them now and keep doing them in the future), and flexible (adapted from Lively, 2017). See the figure below for ideas.
Source: Elizabeth Dorrance Hall
- Write down 3-5 intentional behavior words that represent how you would like to move forward in the relationship you have chosen. You can pick from the list above, or pick your own intentional behaviors, just make sure they are not goals (like: have a conversation), but instead are longer lasting and positive.
- Construct a sentence using 2-4 “intentional behavior” words from the boxes above. Writing your intentional behaviors into a sentence will help you remember your relationship intention. Write your intention down and put it somewhere you will see it often: in/on your phone, on a sticky note, anywhere that you will see it again at least weekly.
Love patiently with an open and giving heart.
Practice understanding while showing compassion and grace.
Build trust by opening up and showing interest.
Engage with a curious mind, express interest, and show compassion.
Love with understanding while being interested and open.
Conscious and mindful communication are implied in these intentions. Loving patiently requires listening and communicating openness to my partner. Showing compassion and grace is yet another communication-focused intention. I show these through communication with others.
7. Articulate why you want to improve a given relationship. Is it causing hurt or pain to others in your family or life? Is it simply because they are “family” and you feel you should have a good relationship? Is it so that you can feel good about yourself? Or so you can be there for them? Be specific and honest with yourself.
More to Think About
Think about how communication will get you closer to your goal of an improved relationship. How will you enact your relationship intention in the next month? Over the next 3 months? Make a plan with actionable steps. Blogs like this one offer research based tips on improving your communication. See my posts on mindful listening and conflict to start, and explore other Psychology Today blogs for ideas. Mindfulness before and during interaction with your relationship partner is key to improving your communication and listening.
In the past I have asked my interpersonal communication students to set a relationship intention and work on that relationship with their intention in mind for a semester. The key to their success was a consistent focus on their relationship along with a real motivation to improve their communication.
*Not all relationships should be improved. If you are in an abusive relationship seek help and know that the best course of action is sometimes to end a toxic relationship rather than improve it.
Beyond setting intentions for improving relationships, Dr. Carson and his colleagues suggest a variety of mindfulness activities couples can do together. For example, focusing on the days when the couple first fell in love and decided to be together. See Mindfulness-based Relationship Enhancement (MBRE) by Carson, Carson, Gil, & Baucom (2006) for more information on these activities.
Drs. Toni Schindler Zimmerman and Shelley Haddock, professors of Human Development and Family Studies, describe Shared Journaling to help couples struggling to use communication skills in the book Techniques for the Couple Therapist. They propose that journaling about a couple’s conflict for a week slows communication down to a more mindful and intentional pace.
For more information on general intention setting, check out Jess Lively’s blog and podcast here.