Mechanisms of Mindfulness Communication Training
Critical Analysis Essay
“Clear your mind,” is often one of the first things people hear when entering a meditation session leading to the assumption of mindfulness as a state of “nondoing” (Huston, Garland, & Farb, 2011, p. 416) and relaxation. This assumption is challenged in the article Mechanisms of Mindfulness in Communication Training as authors sought to study the outcomes of mindfulness training and application of adaptive communication in college communication students. This essay examines the authors’ assumptions that mindfulness training, in conjunction with communication instruction, can increase the use of positive reappraisal techniques and decrease the frequency in which students place blame on others for challenges in communication (p. 409). Identifying the mindfulness theories and philosophies grounding this research, I will provide an analysis of the methods used, discuss the implications of the findings, and use examples from the study to formulate a precise review.
Grounding Philosophy & Theory
Stemming from Eastern religious and cultural practices mindfulness is an internal process intended to provide a deeper understanding of the self. Huston, Garland, & Farb (2011) emphasize mindfulness’ power to cultivate “open awareness to present moment experience without interpretation or attachment to a desired outcome” (p. 407). This practice of mindfulness is well suited for the field of communication, specifically within interpersonal theory and the phenomenological tradition. Littlejohn and Foss (2011) define phenomenology as the “study of the conscious experience” (p. 130). Likewise, individual-centered theories in interpersonal communication echo this definition focusing on how the interpretation of events construct one’s reality. More specifically, interpersonal communication examines how people “plan, produce, and process” (Braithwaite & Schrodt, 2015, p. 5) messages.
Employing a mix between Eastern philosophy and Western application of mindfulness, the authors based their study on the transformative experience of mindfulness’ ability to improve “accurate expression, increasing understanding, and reducing conflict” (Huston et. al, 2011, p. 407). When seeking tools to measure mindfulness’ effect, Western scholars identify adaptive communication skills mindfulness offers to overcome the negative effects of self-talk and break habitual behavior patterns. Ultimately, benefits from both Eastern and Western theory correlate as people transcend the limiting perspective of themselves and others, they tend to be “happier, more productive, [and lead more] fulfilling lives” (Huston et. al, 2011, p. 406).
At the time this article was written, there was a lack of data quantifying the effects of mindfulness training. In fact, the authors claim their findings to be the first written and reported (Huston et al., 2011). The variable used to carry out this study was a mindfulness training integrated into a college communication curriculum. Participants were broken into two groups. The mindfulness group received the “unique” material while the comparison group received the traditional communication instruction during the course. Huston et al. (2011) identified quantifiable cognitive strategies individuals use to measure mindfulness training outcomes. Hypothesizing that “non-evaluative” mindfulness can foster cognitive skills akin to adaptive communication, the authors proposed mindfulness training would improve one’s ability to apply positive reappraisal techniques and decrease the frequency in which they place blame on others for challenges in communication (p. 407-409). Both groups were given questionnaires at the beginning and end of the course to measure their progress.
In their research, the authors identified a “refractory period” (Huston et. al, 2011, p. 408) in which negative emotions linger after a challenging situation. During this time, people will seek evidence to affirm their current emotional state. Huston et al. (2011) sought to change this pattern by introducing mindfulness techniques to encourage positive reappraisal and reduce one’s act of blaming others. The authors characterize positive reappraisal as the ability to process stressful events “as benign, beneficial and/or meaningful” (Huston et. al, 2011, p. 407). This reevaluation of events runs contrary to the act of blaming, inhibiting the effectiveness of blame. Associated with anger, blaming is considered “maladaptive” and a “form of negative external attribution” (Huston et. al, 2011, p. 408). Consequently, when one blames others for faults in communication, one’s personal needs go unattended and conflicts arise.
As people turn their attention inward, they gain control of their impulses and avoid getting sucked into self-deprecating and judgmental thoughts. Referencing insight dialogue and the mindful coping model, Huston et al. (2011) refer to this as a person’s ability to refrain from being disturbed by “distorted, automatic thoughts” (p. 408) and enter a more beneficial state of mind. To encourage these positive coping strategies participants in the mindfulness group were given curriculum to aid in identifying and changing “unproductive, habitual patterns of behavior through the study of mindfulness and communication theory” (Huston et. al, 2011, p. 409).
The authors gathered data from two primary assessments the Five Factor Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ), and the Cognitive Emotion Regulation Questionnaire (CERQ). The FFMQ yields a total mindfulness score and measures five internally consistent mindfulness factors: ranging from nonreactivity to inner experience to acting with awareness. The CERQ assesses how often adaptive communication and cognitive strategies are used to cope with stressors. This questionnaire had two subscales measuring positive reappraisal, refocus on planning, catastrophizing and casting blame on others (Huston et al., 2011).
Analyzing the data collected, the authors concluded that mindfulness training increases one’s general disposition towards mindfulness. This disposition influences the use of adaptive communication and cognitive strategies to reframe events more favorably and to disengage in playing the “blame game.” A separate finding emerged as Huston et al. (2011) analyzed questions on the FFMQ assessment noting a lack of implied “positive construals of stressful situations” and “positive affective processes” (p. 416). The authors share this finding as evidence contrary to the theory that mindfulness is a state of “nondoing” (p. 416). As an active, discerning state of mind, the authors refer to mindfulness as engaging one to interpret and respond to life events using more effective communication.
At the end of the course, both groups reflected an increase in using positive reappraisal, though how they used positive reappraisal differed revealing another benefit in association with mindfulness training. For example, the mindfulness group scores on the FFMQ non-reacting and describing subscales indicate an overall increase in emotional awareness (Huston et. al, 2011). This awareness slows down the reaction time and increases one’s ability to healthfully express their emotions in the moment. In contrast, the comparison group showed an increase in refocusing and evidence of exerting harsh judgment against their thoughts and feelings.
Evidence for these findings was found in the patterns of data emerging from the assessments’ subscales. For the comparison group, scores on the FFMQ observing subscale aligned with the CERQ reappraisal scale, but negatively associated with blaming others. These correlations support the authors’ premise that present-moment awareness is gained through strategies in adaptive communication. When the authors looked further into the nonjudging subscale, a positive association appeared with blaming others. Huston et al. (2011) interpret this pattern to show as members in the comparison group dropped self-judgment they “allowed themselves to negatively appraise interactions and place blame on others” (p. 414) ignoring the opportunity to employ positive reappraisal. As a result, participants decreased their engagement with others during difficult interactions.
In comparison, the mindfulness group showed a correlation between an overall increase in FFMQ scores and CERQ refocus and reappraisal subscales. Huston et al. (2011) observed the strongest associations in the FFMQ and CERQ subscales of nonreacting and describing. These connections suggest mindfulness training’s effectiveness in teaching people to express one’s needs in the moment and refrain from reacting. Unique to the mindfulness group was an association found between the acting with awareness and catastrophizing and blaming others subscales indicating the participants grew an awareness of their ” faults and weaknesses” (Huston et. al, 2011, p. 415). The authors interpreted this link as proof that mindfulness training “nurtures positive reappraisal based on increased awareness of emotional impulses which reduces the tendency toward reactivity and an increased ability to describe one’s emotions” (Huston et. al, 2011, p. 416).
In summary, the authors claimed mindfulness training increased one’s overall disposition towards mindfulness and encouraged a positive reframing of events. When people turn their attention inward, using mindfulness practice, they can choose more effective communication and control their impulses rather than get swept up in reactive judgment (Huston et. al, 2011, p. 408). Huston et al. (2011) also suggest mindfulness training uniquely integrates “nonreactivity and emotional awareness skill into reappraisal strategies” (p. 416). By gaining clarity of impermanence and interdependence, practitioners can positively enhance their interactions and experiences.
A question that remains for me after reading this article is how does one sustain mindfulness over time? Eastern traditions of mindfulness introduce an other-centered focus where one switches from a self-centered view to focus on their thoughts and actions to benefit others. Viewing mindfulness as just a process to feel better about the self, lends the practice to become “refashioned into a banal, therapeutic, self-help technique that can actually reinforce those roots” (Purser &Loy, 2013). Mindfulness’ original intent to create a state of equanimity between self and other is negated as Western application excludes the original intent to seek “ethical development, concentration development, and wisdom cultivation” (Yi, 2017, p. 209). Pure practical application misses the ultimate transformative experience, the spiritual experience.
Huston et al. (2011) put contemporary theory to the test and introduced a quantifiable way to measure mindfulness’ impact. The authors identified correlations between mindfulness training and cognitive strategies in adaptive communication to highlight the practice’s benefits. Of those benefits, the authors propose one can gain skills to “productively negotiate emotionally charged situations” (p. 418) and gain an overall heightened emotional intelligence. Mindfulness shifts one’s focus away from harmful negative emotions and actions towards finding a more constructive outcome in the heat of the moment. As mindfulness continues to make waves in academia and pop culture, a new dialogue is taking shape bringing into question the Western application of mindfulness and focus on the individual versus Eastern tradition and focus on the community.
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Huston, D.C., Garland, E.L. & Farb, N.A.S. (2011) Mechanismsn of Mindfulness in Communication Training. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 39(4), 406-421.
Littlejohn, S.W., & Foss K.A., (2011) Theories of Human Communication. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.
Puser, R. & Loy, D. (2013, July 1) Beyond McMindfulness. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from: http://www.stressless.org.nz/uploads/5/4/9/2/54921403/beyond_mindfulness.pdf
Yi, K. S. (2017). Recontextualizing ‘mindfulness’: Considering the phenomenological enactment of clinical, spiritual, and religious realities. Spirituality In Clinical Practice, 4(3), 209-215. doi:10.1037/scp0000139