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Mechanisms of Mindfulness in
Communication Training
Daniel C. Huston, Eric L. Garland & Norman A.S. Farb

Mindfulness, an ancient spiritual practice, is becoming an increasingly popular

component of communication courses, training individuals to reserve judgment in their

dealings with others. However, the effects of mindfulness in communication courses are

not well researched. We compared students taking an introductory communication

course that included a mindfulness component (N �20) against a control group of
students taking an equivalent course without mindfulness content (N �24). Both groups
improved in their positive reappraisal tendencies following communication training;

however, the groups appeared to differ in how they positively reappraised situations.

Only the mindfulness group demonstrated improved mindfulness scores following

training, accounting for that group’s increases in positive reappraisal, and providing

evidence for mindfulness training as one mechanism for reducing negative reactivity in

communication.

Keywords: Mindfulness; Positive Reappraisal; Blame; Mindful Coping Model; Spirituality

Mindfulness meditation is an ancient spiritual practice introduced over 2,500 years

ago as a means of calming the mind and gaining insight into the impermanent and

interdependent nature of the self. Over the last few decades, scholars and clinicians in

the West have begun to explore secular applications of mindfulness, and have noted

the practical benefits of observing thoughts, impulses, and emotions. This ability,

nurtured through the practice of mindfulness meditation, appears to help people lead

happier, more productive, and fulfilling lives through the process of coming to know

Daniel C. Huston is a Professor in the Department of English, Fine Arts, and Foreign Languages at NHTI,

Concord’s Community College, Eric L. Garland is an Assistant Professor in the College of Social Work at Florida

State University and a Research Affiliate for Trinity Institute for the Addictions, Norman A.S. Farb is a

postdoctoral fellow at the Rotman Research Institute. The authors would like to thank Beth Blankenstein,

Susanne O’Brien, Diana Levine, members of the NHTI Institute Leadership Team, and the students

who voluntarily participated in the study for their contributions. Correspondence to: Daniel C. Huston,

Grappone Hall, NHTI, Concord’s Community College, 31 College Drive, Concord, NH 03301, USA. E-mail:


[email protected]

ISSN 0090-9882 (print)/ISSN 1479-5752 (online) # 2011 National Communication Association

http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00909882.2011.608696

Journal of Applied Communication Research

Vol. 39, No. 4, November 2011, pp. 406�421

themselves and realizing they are more than the self-talk they experience, more than

the habitual patterns of behavior they have formed over the years. They come to

realize they can ‘‘let go’’ of that ‘‘chatter’’ and those ‘‘habits’’ and open to a richer,

more complete experience of themselves and the world around them. As a result, they

transcend the narrow perspective that had been defining how they perceived

themselves and others; they connect to other human beings and more fully

experience the world in which they live. This transformation, which some might

describe as a spiritual experience, is thought to influence how people communicate:

improving accurate expression, increasing understanding, and reducing conflict.

King and Sawyer (1998) advocated the inclusion of mindfulness instruction in the

teaching of communication. Since then, interest in mindfulness in education has

increased with the development of organizations such as the Association for

Contemplative Mind in Higher Education; the Mindfulness in Education Network;

and the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. However, to

date few quantitative studies have examined the impact of mindfulness content in

communication training.

Mindfulness in the field of communication has mainly been considered in terms of

how consciously people plan their approach to a communication exchange or the

extent to which they identify and respond to relevant or irrelevant information in a

given situation (Burgoon, Berger, & Waldron, 2000; Folkes, 1985; Langer, Blank, &

Chanowitz, 1978). Stroud (2010) describes these early studies as equating mindful

communication with ‘‘effortful, cognitive processing,’’ which differs substantially

from the operationalization of the construct of mindfulness within the fields of

psychology and medicine. Scholars in these fields highlight elements of mindfulness

that have been passed down from eastern traditions such as Buddhist meditation

practices, emphasizing for instance, the cultivation of an open awareness to present-

moment experience without interpretation or attachment to a particular outcome

(Kabat-Zinn, 1982). The view of mindfulness that has emerged in these fields

recognizes mindfulness as a means of expanding one’s experience of each moment by

nurturing qualities such as acceptance and patience (Shapiro & Schwartz, 2000) that

allow for observation ‘‘of what is occurring both internally and externally’’ (Brown &

Ryan, 2003) and therefore results in increased emotional awareness and increased

self-regulation abilities (Brown & Ryan, 2003; Shapiro & Schwartz, 2000; Shapiro,

Carlson, & Astin, 2006). Communication scholars are beginning to use the term

mindfulness to refer to this kind of expanded awareness and its function in adaptive

communication (e.g., Adelman, 2010; Chinn Swartz, 2008; Stroud, 2010; Ucok,

2007). In the present study, we directly tested the hypothesis that this open, non-

evaluative form of mindfulness may promote cognitive strategies associated with

adaptive communication.

While ‘‘adaptive communication’’ may be a broad construct, communication

efficacy can be measured by the types of cognitive strategies employed by individuals in

their communication efforts. One adaptive strategy is positive reappraisal, which is the

cognitive process through which stressful events are re-construed as benign, beneficial,

and/or meaningful. This strategy (alternately conceptualized as benefit-finding) is

Mechanisms of Mindfulness 407

associated with decreased distress and enhanced mental health (Helgeson, Reynolds, &

Tomich, 2006), and also appears to modulate physiological parameters associated

with stress (Bower, Low, Moskowitz, Sepah, & Epel, 2008; Tugade & Fredrickson,

2004). Positive reappraisal is an active, emotion-focused coping strategy (Folkman,

1997) that is often the first step towards a productive reengagement with a stressful

situation. For example, in a conflictual interaction, one may first appraise a given

communication as a personal attack stemming from disrespect, and then positively

reappraise that communication as a brusque expression of concern and care. In

reappraising the communication this way, the dyad may be more willing to engage in

constructive dialogue around how best to give and receive feedback. Positive

reappraisal has been associated with increased communication satisfaction (Corbeil,

Quayhagen, & Quayhagen, 1999), and employing a positive reappraisal strategy to cope

with an interpersonal offense decreased negative emotion and physiological arousal

while exerting salutary effects on heart rate variability and increasing positively-toned

communication (Witvliet, Knoll, Hinman, & DeYoung, 2010).

A second candidate measure of communication efficacy is a person’s ability to

refrain from blaming others for communication difficulty, a form of negative external

attribution that has negative impacts on communication (Burr, 1990; Cleaver, 1987;

Ford & Ford, 1995). Furthermore, blaming others is a maladaptive strategy that has

deleterious effects on mood: compared to participants high in positive reappraisal,

participants who frequently blamed others for communication problems demon-

strated greater dysphoric symptoms (Schroevers, Kraaij, & Garnefski, 2007). It is

theorized that blame often gives rise to anger and interferes with awareness of

personal needs during moments of conflict, resulting in communication that is

unlikely to help one meet his or her needs (Rosenberg, 2003). Consequently,

developing an increased awareness of difficult emotions during interpersonal conflict

is key to productive communication. As Goldstein (1993) asserts, the increased

awareness afforded by mindfulness makes it possible not only to ‘‘initiate effective

communication,’’ but to do so ‘‘without getting caught in reactive judgments’’

(p. 152). This emphasis is consistent with a form of communication training called

Insight Dialogue (Kramer, 2007) that integrates Buddhist mindfulness practices into

interpersonal communication. Key to this training is the notion that human beings

are plagued by distorted, automatic thoughts that filter the way we interpret

information, often leading to blame, misunderstanding, and suffering.

The present study investigated whether mindfulness strategies acquired through a

communication class could account for training-related changes in positive

reappraisal and blaming others. According to the mindful coping model (Garland,

Gaylord, & Park, 2009; Garland et al., 2010), positive reappraisal can occur when one

disengages from automatic negative appraisal (e.g., blaming another for a conflictual

interaction) into the state of mindfulness, a state of broadened, metacognitive

awareness wherein evaluations of the interaction are suspended. On the other hand,

negative emotions induced by relational conflict often linger during a ‘‘refractory

period’’ (Ekman, 2003), a period of time during which one is biased towards mood-

congruent information and making emotion-consistent appraisals. Mindfulness may

408 D. C. Huston et al.

suspend blame-laden appraisals of challenging situations, allowing individuals the

cognitive flexibility to more easily attend to the benign or benevolent features of the

relationship and the ability to reappraise the interaction as meaningful or even

beneficial. Repeated engagement of the state of mindfulness may result in the

establishment of mindful dispositionality, which, in turn, could lead to a heightened

propensity toward making positive reappraisals of interpersonal communication.

Indeed, a recent study found that the stress-reductive effects of increases in

dispositional mindfulness were mediated by growth in positive reappraisal over an

eight week course of mindfulness training (Garland, Gaylord, & Fredrickson, 2011).

Further evidence for the model may be drawn from social psychological research to

broaden and build theory (Fredrickson, 2004), which has identified reciprocal

relationships between broadened cognition and positive emotions (Burns et al., 2008;

Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002). Insofar as mindfulness practice augments positive

reappraisal, it may prevent communication difficulties that arise as a result of

unconscious, maladaptive patterns of behavior.

Identifying habitual patterns of thought and reactivity is particularly challenging

given the extent to which individuals appear to be influenced by stimuli unconsciously

and react to them habitually (Motley, 1986a, b, 1990). At least one study suggests that

mindfulness reduces the automatic allocation of attention, reducing automatic

response tendencies (Wenk-Sormaz, 2005). The curriculum being examined in this

study is designed to help students recognize and modify unproductive, habitual

patterns of behavior through the study of mindfulness and communication theory.

(For a detailed description of this curriculum see Huston, 2010a, b.) Students learn to

‘‘wake up’’ to the present moment and, as a result, notice how communication

concepts such as self-talk and nonverbal behavior act as internal and external

influences on their thoughts and emotional reactions. With this awareness, they can

then make informed decisions about how to appraise and respond to challenging

situations. Through mindfulness students learn to ‘‘reenter’’ difficult situations ‘‘from

a gathered, deliberate, more spacious and less self-centered perspective’’ (Williams,

Teasdale, Segal, & Kabat-Zinn, 2007, p. 197) that may help them to choose ways of

communicating and interacting which allow growth and learning to materialize

(Bstan-dzin-rgya-mtsho & Cutler, 1998).

Hence, both Eastern traditions and contemporary secular applications of mind-

fulness emphasize the role nonjudgment plays in opening one’s awareness and letting

go of the initial tendency to blame others that often arises during difficult interactions.

Recognizing emotional reactions and positively reappraising the conflict appear to be

central to choosing a productive, satisfying response. Mindfulness training may foster

awareness of the emotional impulse to react and blame others, promote a positive

reappraisal of the situation, and ultimately result in more effective communication.

The aim of the present study is to examine the effects of teaching mindfulness on

positive reappraisal among students in an introductory communication course. We

hypothesize that, compared to a standard communication curriculum, mindful

communication training would result in increased dispositional mindfulness, which

Mechanisms of Mindfulness 409

would account for increased use of positive reappraisal and decreased use of blaming

strategies in daily communication.

Method

Participants and Study Design

Students enrolled in five sections of a college communication course offered in

the spring semester of 2010 were invited to participate in the study at NHTI,

a comprehensive community college in Concord New Hampshire. The study

obtained prior review and approval by the Institutional Leadership Team, the IRB

for the college, in accordance with the Human Subject Research Protocols established

by the college and the Community College System of New Hampshire. Class sections

selected to be a part of the study were taught by different instructors. The comparison

group for this study was comprised of students from two class sections who received

a traditional communication curriculum without mindfulness elements, while the

experimental group consisted of students enrolled in three class sections that

incorporated mindfulness concepts and practices. From these classes we obtained

complete participation from 24 students in the comparison group and 20 students in

the mindfulness group. The mindfulness and comparison groups did not differ with

respect to age (18.891.0 years vs. 19.692.2 years respectively), gender (12 female vs.

10 female), ethnicity, or years of post-secondary education (1.490.9 years vs.

1.291.1 years).

The data consisted of three brief paper assessments which were administered

during the first half hour of the first day of class and the last scheduled class

session of the semester. In an effort to reduce the potential problem of demand

characteristics, i.e., students attempting to predict what was being measured and

deliberately skew the results, these instruments were administered by personnel of the

Office of Institutional Research and Grants, Academic Affairs, distancing the study

from the professors and consequently the course material itself. Students were sent a

letter from the associate vice president of academic affairs in advance of the start of

the semester, inviting them to participate in the study without mentioning what was

specifically being measured, other than that the results of the study may be used to

improve teaching methodology in college communication classes. Students were

assured that their participation was voluntary and confidential, and the human

subject research protocols of the college were followed. Participants were advised that

their participation would have no impact on their grading performance for the

course. Furthermore, students took the pre-test before having met their professors in

order to limit their influence. During the management of the post-test, participating

professors were careful to treat it as they would any other study being done at the

college. It is not uncommon, for instance, for students to complete studies in a class

that have nothing to do with the course itself, e.g., studies that measure recreational

drug use, use of library resources, or other general-information. The assessment

instruments administered at the beginning of the semester included a general

410 D. C. Huston et al.

information form which assessed prior meditation experiences and other relevant

demographic information, the Five Factor Mindfulness Questionnaire, and relevant

items selected from the Cognitive Emotion Regulation Questionnaire. At the

conclusion of the semester, the latter two instruments were administered.

Communication Curricula

Course work in both the mindfulness and comparison groups consisted mainly of

writing assignments, speeches, and small group work. The number of assignments

was nearly identical in both groups.

The mindfulness curriculum includes seven units focused on introducing students

to particular communication concepts, guiding them through mindfulness medita-

tion exercises, and assigning Application Journals that ask students to reflect on

communication concepts in their lives. The order in which the mindfulness exercises

and communication concepts are introduced is designed to scaffold students’

understanding and application of key ideas.

Students in the mindfulness group were led through these units each week for seven

weeks during the 15-week term and were encouraged to think of the related

communication concepts as internal and external influences on their behavior (e.g.,

‘‘self-talk’’ is an internal influence; the amount of eye contact someone is or isn’t giving

is an external influence). Students were encouraged to participate in the in-class

guided meditations, and the teachers of these classes recommended that students

practice these same meditations, which were available online, as much as possible,

ideally daily. No effort was made to determine how often students meditated on their

own.

Students in the mindfulness classes were also encouraged to apply the abilities

mentioned above to their public speaking and group work, e.g., thinking about

symptoms of nervousness (such as blushing cheeks or sweaty palms) as an indication

that they may be reacting emotionally to the situation at hand in a way that is not

necessarily accurate or productive. Students could then use the recognition of such

physiological symptoms as an opportunity to reappraise the situation before they

reacted in a manner that might lead to poor communication or performance in the

class activity.

Measures

Mindfulness. The Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ; in this sample, total

a�.81), comprised of 39 Likert-type items rated on a five-point scale (1 �never or
very rarely true, 5 �very often or always true), was used to measure trait mindfulness.
The FFMQ yields a total score (computed by summing responses across all 39 items)

and scores for five internally consistent mindfulness factors each with their own

convergent and predictive validity: nonreactivity to inner experience (tapped by items

such as ‘‘I watch my feelings without getting lost in them’’; 7 items, subscale a �.76),
observing and attending to experience (‘‘I pay attention to sensations, such as the wind

Mechanisms of Mindfulness 411

in my hair or the sun on my face’’; 8 items, subscale a�.83), describing and
discriminating emotional experiences (‘‘I’m good at finding words to describe my

feelings’’; 7 items, subscale a�.87), nonjudging of experience (reverse coded item:
‘‘I tell myself I shouldn’t be feeling the way that I am feeling’’; 8 items, subscale

a�.83), and acting with awareness (reverse coded item: ‘‘I find myself doing things
without paying attention’’; 7 items, subscale a�.91) (Baer, Smith, Hopkins,
Krietemeyer, & Toney, 2006).

Cognitive coping strategies. The positive reappraisal, refocus on planning,

catastrophizing, and blame others subscales of the Cognitive Emotion Regulation

Questionnaire (CERQ; Garnefski, Kraaij, & Spinhoven, 2001) were administered to

evaluate cognitive coping. The full CERQ consists of 36 Likert-type items that assess

how often certain cognitive strategies are employed to cope with stressful life events.

The positive reappraisal subscale (4 items, subscale a�.80) includes items such as
‘‘I think I can learn something from the situation,’’ and ‘‘I think I can become a

stronger person as a result of what happened.’’ The refocus on planning subscale

(4 items, subscale a�.73) is comprised of items such as, ‘‘I think about a plan of
what I can do best’’ and ‘‘I think about how to change the situation.’’ Items assessing

catastrophizing (4 items, subscale a �.77) include ‘‘I keep thinking how terrible it is
what I have experienced’’ and ‘‘I often think what I have experienced is the worst that

can happen to a person.’’ The blame others subscale (4 items, subscale a�.73) includes
items like ‘‘I feel that others are responsible for what has happened’’ and ‘‘I feel that

basically the cause lies with others.’’ The CERQ has been shown to have good internal

consistency and convergent validity with subscales of the SCL-90 (Garnefski & Kraaij,

2007; Garnefski et al., 2001).

Analytic Strategy

Descriptive statistics, paired t-tests, and repeated measures analyses of variance

(ANOVA) were used to assess between- and within-groups differences. Pearson

correlations were utilized to examine associations between pre-post changes in

dispositional mindfulness, positive reappraisal, refocus on planning, catastrophizing,

and blaming others.

Path analysis via structural equation modeling software (AMOS 17.0) was used to

test a hypothetical model in which participation in mindful communication training

could lead to change in dispositional mindfulness which in turn could exert direct

effects on change in blaming others or indirect effects through increases in positive

reappraisal coping. The overall model fit was assessed by examining the chi-square

statistic and the Comparative Fit Index (CFI; Bentler, 1990), as well as the Root Mean

Squared Error of Approximation (RMSEA) Index (Hu & Bentler, 1998). According to

statistical convention (Bentler, 1990; Hu & Bentler, 1998), the CFI has typical values

between 0 and 1, with a value close to 1 indicating a good model fit, and RMSEA

scores closer to 0 indicate a better model fit. Maximum likelihood estimation (MLE)

was used to handle missing data in structural equation models.

412 D. C. Huston et al.

Results

Main Effect of Training

An initial analysis of within-group training effects for each of the subscales was

performed (see Table 1). Both groups reported significant increases in positive

reappraisal. In contrast, while the comparison group demonstrated a significant

increase in refocusing, the mindfulness group evidenced significant increases in total

mindfulness and the observing subscale of the FFMQ.

To look for differential effects of training group on training effects, all subscales and

the FFMQ total scores were subjected to 2 (group) �2 (pre- and post-training)
repeated-measures ANOVA. Main effects of training were found for the refocusing

(F(1,42) �8.94, p �.005) and positive reappraisal (F(1,42) �23.50, p B.001) subscales of
the CERQ, as well as for the observe subscale of the FFMQ (F(1,43) �8.287, pB.01).
However, only the mindfulness group demonstrated significant increases in total

FFMQ scores, as evidenced by a significant group by training interaction

(F(1,42) �6.885, pB.01). The mindfulness group also reported a marginally significant
increase in acting with awareness compared to the control group’s marginal decrease

(F(1,42) �3.92, p �.054).

Individual Difference Analysis

To examine whether changes on the CERQ and FFMQ subscales were related, we

performed an individual difference analysis on the change scores (post � pre training)
for each of the subscales and total FFMQ with Pearson correlations. Correlations

in FFMQ and the CERQ change scores are presented for each of the two groups in

Table 2.

Table 1 Changes in mindfulness and communication-related variables pre- and post-

participation in a mindful communication curricula and standard communication course

(comparison group)

Comparison group (N �24) Mindfulness group (N �20)

Pre Post Pre Post

Refocus 13.8 (0.5) 15.3 (0.6)* 13.7 (0.6) 15.1 (0.6)
Reappraise 13.9 (0.5) 15.9 (0.5)* 14.1 (0.7) 16.2 (0.6)*
Catastrophize 7.0 (0.5) 7.7 (0.6) 7.2 (0.5) 6.9 (0.5)
Blame 6.5 (0.4) 6.8 (0.4) 6.8 (0.4) 6.9 (0.4)
FFMQ total 127.3 (2.8) 127.3 (2.9) 126.9 (3.9) 134.0 (3.5)*
Nonreacting 22 (0.6) 21.5 (0.8) 20.9 (0.8) 22.2 (1.0)
Describing 25.7 (1.2) 27 (1.2) 28.9 (1.2) 29.9 (0.9)
Observing 23.1 (1.1) 24.2 (1.0) 25.0 (1.3) 28.5 (1.1)*
Nonjudging 25.6 (1.0) 24.8 (0.9) 23.1 (1.1) 23.7 (1.2)
Act with awareness 27 (1.1) 25.9 (1.1) 25.5 (1.6) 26.2 (1.3)

Note: For each scale, means are presented with standard errors in parentheses.
*pB.05.

Mechanisms of Mindfulness 413

Correlations observed among comparison-group participants. In the comparison group,

the FFMQ observing subscale (e.g., ‘‘I pay attention to how my emotions affect my

thoughts and behavior’’) was positively associated with CERQ reappraisal and

negatively associated with blaming others, suggesting that the tendency to observe

present-moment experience is associated with cognitive strategies characteristic of

adaptive communication. Also in the control group, nonjudging (a reverse scored

subscale, e.g.,‘‘I tend to evaluate whether my perceptions are right or wrong’’) was

negatively correlated with reappraisal but positively associated with blaming others.

This pattern suggests that comparison-group participants who decreased their

evaluative tendencies may have simply defaulted to blaming others for events rather

than attempting to reappraise their interpretation of these events. In other words,

rather than be self-critical of their own maladaptive communication tendencies,

participants in the comparison group who became less judgmental of their own

thoughts and feelings may have simply allowed themselves to negatively appraise

interactions and place blame on others.

Correlations observed among mindfulness-group participants. The mindfulness group,

who showed a specific increase in FFMQ total scores, demonstrated a strong

correlation between such FFMQ increases and CERQ refocus and reappraisal. Among

mindfulness-group participants, the strongest associations observed between FFMQ

and CERQ subscales were non-reacting (e.g., ‘‘I perceive my feelings and emotions

without having to react to them’’) and describing (e.g., ‘‘I’m good at finding the

words to describe my feelings’’) rather than the observing subscale found in controls,

suggesting that one mechanism for the mindfulness training effect may lie in

refraining from reacting and articulating one’s feelings instead rather than just

Table 2 Individual difference analysis of associations between changes in mindfulness

facets and communication-related variables observed among students participating in a

mindful communication curricula and standard communication course (comparison

group)

DRefocus DReappraise DCatastrophize DBlame-Others

Comparison group (N �24)
DFFMQ total �.01 .01 �.03 .00
DNonreacting .09 .26 �.19 �.20
DDescribing �.05 .00 �.17 �.02
DObserving .03 .52* �.33 �.46*
DNonjudging �.14 �.53* .32 .56*
DAct w/Awareness .06 �.10 .28 .03

Mindfulness group (N �20)
DFFMQ total .52* .50* .33 .34
DNonreacting .54* .52* �.22 .04
DDescribing .61* .51* .16 .16
DObserving .21 .29 .20 .02
DNonjudging �.14 .06 .27 .14
DAct with Awareness .13 �.04 .48* .54*

*pB.05.

414 D. C. Huston et al.

observing emotional reactions. Unexpectedly, increases in acting with awareness

(a reverse-scored subscale, e.g., ‘‘I rush through activities without being really

attentive to them’’) was associated with higher catastrophizing and blaming others in

the mindfulness group, suggesting that as participants became more mindful, they

became increasingly aware of their faults and weaknesses, including catastrophizing

and blaming others.

A Fisher’s Z transformation was used to determine …

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