Mindfulness at Work: Three Practices That Will Transform Your Relationships with Colleagues

Mindfulness Over Panic

The summer of 2009 in Austin, Texas was filled with the sounds of a constant hum from air conditioning units running almost nonstop, during a span of three months when there were 100 days over 100 degrees. In the swelter of those summer nights, it is hard to imagine the cold chills that shocked me from my sleep one night. However, there was nothing new about this shock, and no amount of heat could keep those chills from visiting themselves upon me.

For many years, I had been beset by panic attacks. Always occurring in the night, I would awake to my body being flooded with adrenaline, my limbs rattling, my palms perspiring, my heart pounding, and my thoughts swirling with an overwhelming desire to flee. During the many previous episodes of nocturnal panic, I would fling the blanket from my body, leap from the bed, and rush to the most open space in the house, where I would then pace for 30 to 90 minutes until my stores of adrenaline depleted, after which I would return to bed, feeling emotionally battered, and uncomfortably drift back to sleep. However, this hot Texas night would be different, and it would bring me to a mental place that I had previously never visited.

As the panic washed over me that night, instead of rocketing from the bed, a sudden inner stillness appeared like a dim light at the end of a tunnel. The stillness spoke to me, and it told me not to fight, but to give the panic permission to happen, to acknowledge the physical and emotional sensations, and to recognize them not as a threat but as a physiological experience that would soon end. I focused on my breathing, taking in and letting out slow deep breaths. My body continued to shake furiously. However, almost as soon as the panic started, it was over. And this time, I didn’t feel like my brain had just been through a blender. I calmly returned to sleep and awoke the next morning with a sense of tranquility that I had never felt before. How was I able, in a moment of great terror, to find peace in the raging sea of panic? This was, as best as I can recall, my first experience with mindfulness over panic.

On Mindfulness

There is no one definition of mindfulness. However, there are many very good definitions. The description of mindfulness that most resonates with me is a simple one: focused mental awareness on now in the service of acceptance. In my case that night in 2009, I allowed my awareness to observe what was happening to my body, and was able to accept it by identifying it as an uninvited but harmless burst of adrenaline. My acknowledgement and acceptance of the emotional and physical feelings I was having that night did not make them suddenly disappear—I still had the panic attack. However, my acknowledgement and acceptance of the panic reduced its power over me, as I was able to distance myself from the emotional and physical feelings. While I have continued to experience panic from time to time, and have sometimes even failed to be fully accepting of it, the lesson I learned that night has abided with and served me ever since.

Mindfulness has many applications—it is a useful tool for dealing with mental health issues, raising children, and, as is the subject of this article, developing healthy relationships with our colleagues in the workplace. In order to explore the role mindfulness can play with colleagues in the workplace, I would like to offer that there are three important spaces in which mindfulness can be cultivated: the personal, the interpersonal, and the group. In each of these spaces, there are potent techniques that, when practiced, can literally transform workplace relationships and, by extension, the workplace itself. To be sure, mindfulness is an internal experience. However, mindful behaviors can manifest differently in the context of the personal, interpersonal, and groups spaces. 

Much of what makes mindfulness such a powerful tool is its ability to cultivate within ourselves, between ourselves, and among ourselves a sense of psychological safety. One of the most significant findings on the topic of psychological safety in the workplace comes from a 2009 study, in which Google conducted research into what makes teams effective. Researchers at Google concluded that teams without psychological safety—even teams with the brightest of the bright on them—did not perform as well against their objectives as other teams that had high levels of psychological safety. When psychological safety is low and fear is high, workplace relationships are bound to be fraught. Fear is a primitive emotion because it is a survival emotion, and therefore plays a core role in our lives, both for good and bad.

When fear manifests in the workplace, people can retreat to silence on one end of the spectrum or to passive aggressiveness and even full-blown shouting and yelling on the other end of the spectrum (I've been in both places). The good news is that these feelings of fear that manifest as everything from silence to screaming are a natural part of the human experience, so we can have some compassion for ourselves and others who experience these manifestations of fear. The even better news is that there are specific things we can do to mitigate these manifestations by increasing psychological safety through mindfulness practices.

Below is a simple matrix that outlines the three practices discussed in this article, and the contexts in which they are described:

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Labeling & ReframingIn order to increase a sense of psychological safety at the personal level, one of the specific things we can do is what author and leadership consultant, Dr. David Rock, calls “labeling” and “reframing”, in his book, Your Brain at Work. Labeling is a very simple mindfulness practice that helps to reduce the power our thoughts and feelings can have over us. The process of labeling is done by simply identifying by name, non-judgmentally and with self-compassion, the thoughts and feelings we’re experiencing, and recognizing that they do not make up the whole of who we are. In my first experience with mindfulness over panic, I was having intense emotional and physical sensations. However, I was able to reduce the power of those sensations over me by labeling them as an uninvited release of adrenaline, which made it feel much less like a life-threatening experience.

Labeling can also be useful when dealing with responses to external stimuli. An example of this may be if someone were to say something you found offensive. You might feel a rush of anger or fear. In this case, you can say to yourself “I am feeling anger”. The use of the word feeling is important, because, as opposed to “I am angry”, adding feeling is an acknowledgement of the fact that you are more than your feelings. Labeling helps to increase the space between thoughts and actions by reminding us that we are indeed safe from our thoughts and feelings, because they do not own us and do not make up the whole of who we are as people. You might still choose to productively engage the offender. However, rather than coming from a place of anger, where your first thought might be “I am offended and I am going to cut this guy down to size”, after which you launch into him, you might offer a calm observation that you felt offended and offer the offender the opportunity to apologize, explain, or clarify without making him feel the need to go into flight mode in order to protect himself.

By labeling your feeling of anger, you buy yourself literal milliseconds, which is all you need to change your choice of response. Only you can know how to respond. The key is that labeling gives you distance between what you are feeling, by acknowledging that feelings are natural and sometimes instinctive responses that do not need to be the sole determining factor in how we choose to respond. There is a truism that emotional control is a hallmark of emotional intelligence. However, I would argue not that we should seek to control our emotions, but to be more mindful of how we respond to our emotions. This, I would argue, is a true sign of emotional intelligence.

Depending on the nature of the situation, sometimes labeling will not be sufficient to provide the calm internal space we need to make a wiser choice. In these cases, Rock recommends using a tool called “reframing”. Reframing is similar to labeling, but goes a step further by looking at a situation from a different point of view. This technique can be very potent in terms of how we choose to respond to situations. Perhaps an example from my own life would be useful to help illustrate how reframing could have helped me in a particular situation.

A few years ago, I had intense stomach pains one night. The following morning, while I was still in a great deal of pain, my wife suggested that I stay home. However, I insisted on going to work. As the day progressed, I became sicker and sicker. A close friend suggested that there might be something more seriously wrong with me, like appendicitis, but I dismissed his observation. Several hours later, after I could take the pain no longer, I finally left work. By the time I reached home, I literally collapsed through the door and passed out briefly. As my wife rushed me to the hospital, she was white hot with anger at me for not taking my health situation more seriously. I became enraged that she took issue with how I had behaved. Instead, I could have attempted to reframe the situation by looking at it from my wife’s point of view. As far as my wife knew, I was very ill the night before, I went into work against her better judgment, I came home in worse shape than when I left, and she had to rush me to the hospital. Did she have good reason to question the choices I made? Yes. And, as it turns out, I did have appendicitis and had to have emergency surgery. By not prioritizing my health, I literally put my life at risk, which could have had significant and far-reaching consequences for my wife and two young daughters.

A little while after I was discharged from the hospital, my wife and I talked about the situation and I was better able to understand her perspective. However, had I the ability to reframe when the anger escalated between my wife and me over my neglect of my health, I might have been able to express that I understood her point of view, offer and apology, acknowledge that she was right to have been concerned, and accept responsibility for my unwise choices. This probably would have deescalated the situation. Some might ask why my wife could not have reframed the situation to avoid becoming upset with the choices I made. This is a fair point. However, I am not responsible for the choices my wife makes in terms of how she responds to situations; I am responsible for myself alone. And this is an important rule to keep in mind. When dealing with colleagues in any situation, you might be tempted to ask “Why can she not just reframe the situation and give me the benefit of the doubt?” or “Why can he not reframe to see things from my point of view instead of getting upset at me?”. When it comes to using these and other mindfulness techniques, each of us is responsible for our own responses, and reciprocity is not a prerequisite for our own mindfulness.

Since I gave an example of when I was not at my best when it comes to being mindful and using labeling or reframing, perhaps it is fair to give an example of when I did a better job. Not long ago, I received a piece of mail that was very important, but contained some inaccurate information. There was a telephone number in the letter and a person’s name to contact with questions, Charlie Johnson. Hoping to resolve the situation, I called the number and asked for Charlie Johnson. The woman who answered the phone, Barbara, snapped back, “Charlie Johnson does NOT work here!”. I was surprised at Barbara’s response, so I enquired further. It turned out that Charlie Johnson worked for the same company as Barbara, but at a different location. Charlie Johnson’s new contact information had not been updated in the letter, and poor Barbara had been getting calls non-stop for days asking for Charlie Johnson. I obviously had no idea that the number I dialed no longer belonged to Charlie Johnson.

Fortunately for Barbara and me, I was able to create some space between the shock and anger I first felt after Barbara answered the phone, and my response to Barbara. I could have gotten mad. After all, how was I to know Charlie Johnson had a new number? But, I also understood why Barbara felt frustrated and why she responded the way she did, which gave me the space I needed to choose a different response from the one my initial emotions suggested. In summary, my instinctual response to Barbara was anger, creating a desire to defend myself. However, the small space reframing created (i.e. I might be upset if I were receiving calls for the wrong person for days on end too), helped me to understand Barbara’s response and not feel threatened, thus creating the psychological space that enabled me to choose my response out of wisdom, and not anger. Again, some might argue that it is Barbara who should have been more mindful. But, I was not response-able for Barbara’s actions; I was response-able for myself only. 

Pure Inquiry

When working at the interpersonal level, we step outside our own internal dialogue to engage with others in mindful ways. One highly useful way of mindfully engaging others is through what the expert in organizational culture, Dr. Edgar H. Schein, calls “pure inquiry” in his book, Helping. In the same vein as labeling and reframing, pure inquiry is a potent technique for mindful engagement, because it encourages psychological safety. Pure inquiry is a form of asking questions and eliciting responses without judgmental or loaded feedback. Pure inquiry requires that the person asking the questions keep her attention on the answers being provided, without getting caught up in how she wants to respond. Keeping this sort of attention can be difficult at first. However, by being mindful of your thoughts, you can gently and non-judgmentally draw your attention back to the person being questioned.

Pure inquiry results in pure information being generated, that is not polluted by the questioner’s interjections, suggestions, vocalized judgements, etc. That type of feedback has a place, but not in pure inquiry. In pure inquiry, questions should not be loaded with judgements, but should be invitations to share information. An example of pure inquiry might be “Tell me what’s on your mind.” A loaded form of this question might look like “I see that you are upset. What is wrong?” In the second question, the observation that someone is “upset” is a judgement that is going to have an influence on the type of response you get. Another example of pure inquiry is the question “Can you tell me more about what it is you want from me?” A loaded version of this question might be, “It seems like you really want a lot from me. Why is that?” Again, there is a judgement superimposed in the second question.

While pure inquiry only makes up some (perhaps a very small part) of the interactions we have with our colleagues, my observation is that it is a type of engagement that is absent from the workplace at an epidemic level. So much of our communication is loaded down with judgements, with attempts to predict what someone else is going to say, to outwit others, to manipulate, to talk over someone, or to simply be letting our thoughts wander when someone is talking to us. Pure inquiry is a way of creating a space of psychological safety for others through mindful engagement that is a manifestation of the axiom “seek first to understand”.

When people are mindfully engaged in pure inquiry, they will share their best ideas, learn about themselves and others through expression, develop bonds of trust, and reduce their stress by lessening their negative emotional load that builds up without the chance to engage in the companion to pure inquiry—pure expression. The compassion, empathy, sympathy, and understanding that comes from pure inquiry and pure expression will reduce barriers among people in the workplace and create the atmosphere for collaboration that is a precursor to innovation, high morale, and a sense of collective purpose.

Mindful Arrival

Where mindfulness in groups is concerned, the practice of mindful arrival is key. Mindful arrival is any activity that is practiced with the goal of focusing a group’s mental awareness in the service of acceptance. Meetings and the beginning of the workday are excellent opportunities to practice mindful arrival. One example of mindful arrival is guided meditation at the beginning of a meeting. This guided meditation can take as few as three minutes, but it can have profound effects. Hands-on experience is the best place to learn guided meditation. However, I can offer a description of what mindful arrival through guided meditation might look like, and how it can affect group dynamics.

When we walk through the door and into work, we are often carrying an emotional load with us that can influence in negative ways how we interact with others. Perhaps we had a spat with one of our children. Perhaps there was heavy traffic on the way to work. Perhaps we did not sleep well. This emotional load is nontrivial in terms of our workplace relationships. Mindful arrival through guided meditation creates a physical and mental calm that opens up psychological safety in the group by creating distance from and reducing our emotional load.

In its simplest form, mindful arrival through meditation can be someone guiding the group through an exercise of deep breathing where participants focus their attention on their breath, be it in their stomach, nose, mouth, or lungs. As attention is focused on the breathing, participants are gently verbally encouraged to return their attention to their breathing if their thoughts wander, which thoughts are want to do. Participants can be asked to focus attention on parts of the body where stress and pain are often carried, such as the neck, shoulders, back and feet. As participants focus on these body parts, they can be invited to label whatever feelings they are experiencing, such as pain in the hip, or throbbing in the ankle. This acknowledgment of pain and discomfort through labeling in the context of meditation can create a space between the sensations and our reactions to the sensations, just as I was able to do with my panic.

At first, the practice of mindfulness through guided meditation might seem uncomfortable or even strange. But as someone who felt both uncomfortable and strange about guided mindfulness through meditation, I can make a promise that consistent and genuine practice, even for a few days, can yield meaningful results. And as the practice continues, the fruits of mindfulness will pay in dividends.

Conclusion

I know there are those who are skeptical of mindfulness. Some see mindfulness as a present-day manifestation of New Age practices from the 1970s. To the skeptics, I would offer that the mental structures for mindfulness are already in each of us. Practicing mindfulness is not about taking something outside of yourself and bringing it in; it is about cultivating and growing a part of yourself that is already there. I would also offer that we all practice mindfulness, regardless of how we feel about it. When feeling stressed, we take deep breaths to soothe ourselves. Taking a moment to focus our thoughts when we’re feeling overwhelmed is a practice of mindfulness. Even prayer and exercise can be forms of mindfulness. Cultivating mindfulness does not mean you have to take on negative associations with mindfulness, whatever those negative perceptions happen to be. Mindfulness is already in you; it is just a matter of how much you want to grow it to your benefit.

The renowned historian, Arnold J. Toynbee, taught that history can be reduced to the simple formula: challenge --> response. When the challenge changes, the response often lags, making it inadequate. Taken as a whole, the current status of the workplace is in a lag state regarding its response to the challenges that face the workforce in the 21st century. The three mindfulness techniques described in this article are not alone a sufficient new response to the needs of workers in this new century. However, they are a good place to start, and an acknowledgment of the fact that people require physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual nourishment in the workplace in order to be healthy. While employers can eschew providing nourishment at all of these levels, to do so will result in a failure to create sustainable environments for productivity. I believe that as employers dedicate themselves to the art of mobilizing and energizing the creative resources of all people at all levels of their organizations, they will come to understand that mindfulness practices in the workplace are key to realizing that goal.