Purposeful Pauses and Mindful Communication: Good Techniques for Teachers

Blurred people move about their day to reflect their busy lifestyles

The life of a faculty member is filled with noisy busyness—planning class sessions, grading, meeting with students, advising, committee work, research, scholarship, and publications.  We are consumed by the swirl of activities and the need to juggle all of these responsibilities without dropping the ball!

In Janice Marturano’s book, Finding the Space to Lead: A Practical Guide to Mindful Leadership (2014), she offers techniques for practicing mindful leadership that can keep us focused in our distraction-filled world. Although the title of her book suggests these mindfulness techniques are for leaders, we are all leaders in our classrooms.  The book is filled with numerous techniques, but I’d like to focus on two: the purposeful pause and mindful communication.

Marturano compares our chaotic lives to walking on a treadmill.  She suggests we “step off the treadmill” and take a purposeful pause. She defines this as “a moment in the day when you notice the swirl and choose to intentionally pay attention” (p. 57).  When you settle your mind and focus only on the present moment, this pause heightens your awareness of what is all around you, what you feel inside, and lets you “see more clearly what is here in this moment and then choose what to pursue next with greater awareness” (p. 58). It basically reboots your brain and body, allowing you to see things more clearly and enabling you to respond rather than react.

To develop the habit of taking a purposeful pause, Marturano suggests you begin by finding two places in the day to integrate the first pause, then a second whenever you catch yourself in the midst of the “swirl.” The beauty of these mini-meditations is that you can do them anywhere, anytime–eyes open or closed.  All you need is the awareness to intentionally interrupt your racing mind and direct your attention to the moment. As faculty, this can help us be more intentional about how we spend our time, especially our teaching time.

Practicing a purposeful pause can make communication more mindful. Marturano contends that taking a purposeful pause before your next meeting (think class session, student appointment, or conversation with a colleague) can lead to better results. She describes a four-step process for engaging in mindful communication that was adapted from the work of Gregory Kramer, author of Insight Dialogue (pp. 68-69). 

1. Pause

Stop the noise.  Ground yourself in the moment so that you can give your complete attention to the communication.

2. Open to what is here

Abandon your expectations. Don’t let your hopes, prejudices, or expectations interfere with hearing exactly what is being said.

3. Listen deeply

Don’t just hear–actually listen. If your attention starts to wander redirect it back to the moment. Your full attention is needed to feel the connection and take in what is being communicated–the words, the body language, and the emotions.

4. Speak the truth with the intention to do no harm

Be honest without being hurtful. The purpose of speaking the truth is to benefit those involved, not to insult or degrade.

Here’s an example of how I’ve used these two mindful leadership techniques.  Consider the Monday morning swirl (which can happen on Tuesday or really any day, but is a regular for me on Mondays).  Almost immediately you’re back on the treadmill.  A mountain of emails have accumulated as you devoted time to grading over the weekend.  You’ve got an article you must get out this week and a luncheon for 25 people to organize.  The swirl begins to feel like a cyclone once you get into those emails.

  • The scores on the test papers graded over the weekend were disappointing, not only to you, but to your students.  Several students have emailed wanting to know when grades will be posted and if you are going to offer extra credit work. 
  • A student who has missed several classes (including the test) has finally emailed after ignoring several of your, “What’s wrong? Where are you?” emails and wants to meet.   His email indicates he’ll be stopping by in 30 minutes.
  • One of your colleagues is out sick and needs someone to cover her afternoon classes.
  • And yes, your department chair is asking if you’ll serve on another committee. 

It’s a perfect time for a purposeful pause. You take a deep breath, relax your shoulders and your mind, and stop the madness. Once calm you imagine mindfully communicating with the student who will soon be at your door.  You will give him your complete attention. You will abandon your negative thoughts of his behavior and really listen to what he has to say.  You will respond as your policies dictate but that message will be communicated with compassion, even if he has been demanding and rude.  When he leaves, you may need another purposeful pause but your communication will have been mindful.   

Constant running on a treadmill takes its toll in all aspects of our lives.  Regularly incorporating the purposeful pause and mindful communication can help us slow down and redirect our scattered attention to meet personal and professional responsibilities in a more attentive and compassionate way.

Marturano, Janice. (2014). Finding the Space to Lead: A Practical Guide to Leadership to Mindful Leadership. Bloomsbury Press.

This article first appeared in The Teaching Professor on November 13, 2016. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.