Matt Niswonger
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An empty mind is the secret to inspiring communication


Recently I spent a weekend in San Jose taking an intensive professional development seminar aimed at increasing my communication skills. What I learned demonstrated once and for all that my entire history of communicating with others has been lacking in effectiveness due to some basic assumptions that are false.

During the course of the seminar I fully appreciated—for the first time in my life—the extent of the opportunity I have been missing because of poor communication skills. Career, relationships—everything hinges on good communication and the fact that I have been walking around thinking I am generally a good listener was a huge personal blind spot that has no doubt cost me a lot in personal effectiveness.

At some point during the seminar I had a breakthrough. Being a good listener is not about politely waiting until it is my turn to speak. Being a good listener starts with the willingness to bring nothing to a conversation with another person because communicating is a creative dance that happens powerfully only when both speakers feel connected. As it turns out, feeling connected starts with the appreciation that the mind of the other person is in neutral—a state of readiness that signals a desire to listen intently.

What I connected with personally was the curious and possibly sad fact that pretty much the only time I am a good listener is right after a workout or time spent playing outside. Why? Because while climbing or running or surfing or biking my brain slips into a meditative state that makes it easy to achieve the mental readiness necessary for good communication. Soon after playing outside—and this part makes me sad—I begin chewing on an endless loop of thought fragments that exist as my normal internal dialogue.

I’ve always suspected that my internal dialogue actually holds me back in life and the seminar really helped me see this clearly for the first time. Powerful communication is thwarted by the incessant chatter happening in our brains and in fact really poor communicators are “stuck in their heads” as the saying goes.

People who meditate regularly tell me that formal meditation is another way (besides outdoor sports) to achieve the mental readiness required for good communication. I have never really practiced meditation because playing outside has always served as a way to quiet my mind, maintain fitness and earn beer credits all at the same time. However this usually requires a minimum of two hours and that is tough to squeeze into a busy day. With practice I am told that people who meditate regularly can achieve a powerful, quiet mind in fifteen minutes or less.

This is all pretty new for me. Before the communication seminar I never appreciated the value of meditation because I never made the connection between a quiet mind and effective communication. More importantly, I never fully grasped that all results in life hinge on effective communication—career, money, and relationships.

Once you realize that good communication is crucial for personal success and fulfillment it starts to become a high priority. If you ask yourself the question “what am I really communicating to others when I speak to them?” you have taken the first step towards learning to communicate powerfully. Since we are all very adept at picking up on verbal and non-verbal cues, you and I cannot access what is there to express powerfully the instant we determine that the other person is not listening—even to the slightest degree.

The practice of bringing nothing to a conversation is quite simply the willingness to listen with an empty mind when the other person speaks. This means that regardless of my agenda for any given conversation I should clear my mind and listen intently every time I engage in speech.

Not that this is easy. Since taking the communication seminar I have fallen into bad habits on multiple occasions. I was warned that it takes time and effort to reverse poor communication. What’s at stake here is a huge increase in personal effectiveness in all areas of my life, so needless to say I am willing to put in the work.

Which brings me to ASJ. Running, biking, surfing, skiing, climbing—all these activities will quiet your mind. What if we could achieve the powerful mental state that is reached while participating in adventure sports and maintain this mental readiness all day long?

In this issue once again our outdoor editors provide the lowdown on fall adventures while helping you get seriously pumped up for winter. From slacklining to cyclocross to kayaking to backpacking we’ve got you covered with a variety of ways to achieve a strong, empty mind that you can use to achieve results in every area of your life.

Do you agree that outdoor sports make you mentally strong? Send me an email to—I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

Thanks for reading! Matt Niswonger