Monday, January 14, 2013

Mindful Interactions...Not Just for Therapists!

Work last week was more stressful than usual, so I though now would be a good time to discuss engaging with others mindfully. While my day is mostly comprised of interacting with children, I also have multiple opportunities to interact with adults. Hence, I will be sharing my thoughts on how to have mindful interactions with both populations. Both are not so different, you just need to change the delivery a little!

In a previous post, I stated my view of mindfulness. It is focusing on the present. It is paying attention to what you are seeing, feeling, experiencing and thinking as it is happening. It is paying attention to how my body is feeling based on my emotional response from my mental assessment of the situation. When applying this concept to interactions with others, the last step is giving an intentional response.

Let's take examples from my work experience to illustrate the challenge, but necessity, of employing mindfulness when interacting with children. I love doing therapy, but for this population, many times behavioral modification (using techniques to increase positive behavior and decrease negative) comes first. Being mindful during these situations is particularly important.

Now, when a chair is being thrown at my head or a child is screaming and swearing at me because they didn't like the natural outcomes of their poor choices, my first instinct is generally not to stop and think. If they are running away or refusing to follow any directions, it is easier to take it as a personal vendetta rather than mentally and emotionally removing myself from the situation before reacting.

 In practicing mindfulness, I often times have literally seconds to be aware of my emotional responses that impacts what I am feeling in my body. But once I got started, it gets easier to get to that place automatically! Thank God. It's still hard work. It includes stopping and assessing the situation. Asking the question, "What is the function (therapy speak for reason) behind this behavior?" It is because they want to ruin things for other people, make people mad, get out of something? Possibly, but what is behind that? Anxiety that someone will leave or reject them? Their basic needs will not get met? Learned behavior based on past experiences that at one point ensured emotional or even physical security? Maybe it is simply that they are children, and don't have the words yet to ask or tell, they can just show through their behaviors. Regardless, I make my assessment and use these as a basis for my very different responses to each kid in each situation. The responses tend to follow the same pattern in a very calm but decided voice:

"I am hearing that you are wanting/not wanting to do ___________. That's your choice, but I can't help you until you follow directions/meet expectations. When you do __________, then you can do _________."
"If you continue to do ________ then ________with happen."

If-Then statements work wonders. Sometimes I have to repeat this statement over and over (along with "I am going to be doing _______, when you are calm I would like to figure it out with you", etc), until the child realizes that their current method of getting what they want is not working, and they try something else. Hopefully, it is to follow expectations. Sometimes it is to up the ante, then we start over again. Eventually, they generally find that they prefer to get positive attention for their choices rather than unfavorable attention for poor decisions. It also helps to keep my head on straight and my emotions in check, to remember that it is not about me and I don't have to fix everything. There is a function for the behavior and I need to determine my response to increase their ability to think through situations and make their own choice, be it positive or not. This is slowly becoming my first instinct.

Shifting gears, let's think about interactions with adults. The same concepts still apply. Having a mindful interaction involves gauging your own emotional and physical responses ("Why do I have a reaction to what they said? What is that about?" What might be the reason for their actions/words?") before reacting or giving a response. Practice seeing things from their perspective before responding instead of just reacting. That could save a lot of frustration and misunderstanding in the end. You may need to take a break and come back. You may need to ask to think before giving a response. You might open up a conversation that greatly improves your relationship, or at the very least be practicing empathy and greater self-insight.

This seems like a lot, but give it a try! One step at a time.

1. Stop and think
2. What are you feeling?
3. Body scan, what does your body feel like?
4. Ask yourself, what is the function (reason) behind their behavior?
5. Based on this information, how will I respond?

Be compassionate toward yourself. Try again. And again. And again. Just trying itself increases mindfulness. And that is the whole point.


  1. Well written and extremely insightful! The first step for me in implementing mindful interactions will be to remember and put into pratice, "It also helps to keep my head on straight and my emotions in check, to remember that it is not about me and I don't have to fix everything." Thank you, Jill, for sharing your knowledge and believing your Gramma is not too old to learn new things :) Love you!!

  2. I'm slowly learning to do this too! It so helps to think about what people are actually reacting to...most of the time, it's not me! :-)