Mindfulness is a practice that’s gaining popularity with psychologists, leadership consultants, educators, and communication specialists. So what is it exactly? The leadership-consultant-standard definition of mindfulness is “being present in the present.” If that sounds too obvious to be useful-Of course I’m present in the present. Where else would I be?-consider how often you’re not fully there. Instead, you’re thinking of where you have to go or where you’ve just been rather than thinking about where you are. “Present in the present” means thinking about now and here rather than there and then.
Other examples of not being present: How often are you planning what you’re going to say rather than listening? How often do you revisit, in your mind, an unpleasant conversation you had earlier rather than really engaging in the conversation you’re in now? Or how about texting with someone who’s not present rather than talking with someone who is? Or checking email while you’re in a meeting. All are examples of not being mindful.
Until recently, mindfulness was primarily the domain of spiritual practices-notably, but not exclusively, Buddhism. Today, everyone from politicians to business leaders are talking about the value of tuning into the present moment, because it improves concentration, strengthens relationships, and can result in a healthier outlook on life.
But in order for mindfulness to help us realize all of the above, it actually has to go further than just “being present in the present.” Being present isn’t enough. It’s just the first step towards improving the moment. Being totally tuned in when our state of mind is horrible-angry or distraught, say-won’t improve relationships or give us a better outlook. You know from your own experience that you can be mentally razor-focused and “in the moment” when you’re hostile, defensive, or anxious. The real goal of mindfulness is to get to a better state of mind and stay there. Not to perfect your hostility.
Practicing mindfulness is (1) being aware of our present state of mind and then (2) improving it. For example, step one is recognizing I’m angry and knowing that no angry conversation ever goes well. Then step two is pulling back from the conversation before it’s too late and walking away, stepping outside for a change of scene and a breath of air in order to cool off. (Perhaps literally! Some research suggests the brain does actually heat up when we’re mad, which makes “cooling off” more than just a figure of speech.)
Talking and Mindfulness
Think about the last time you were in a discussion with someone who was, perhaps, bothered by you or by something you were doing. They’re complaining and you’re the target, and you know that even before the conversation begins. What’s your state of mind going into this discussion? Open and relaxed? Ready to listen? Probably not.
Whether the complainer comes into the conversation with guns blazing or gritting his teeth in thinly disguised suppression, you stand ready to defend yourself. And an edgy, unproductive conversation follows.
Let’s imagine instead that the complainer knows something about mindfulness. It’s a few minutes before the conversation where he intends to let you have it, but he takes a moment to tune into here and now. He knows he’s mad. He also knows that’s no way to start a conversation, not if he wants a productive outcome. Maybe he also knows that’s no way to treat a colleague, no matter what injustice he thinks you’ve done. Either way, he recognizes his state of mind-mad-and spends a few minutes dialing it down, redirecting his thoughts about you. Perhaps he thinks:
How important is this really, in the scheme of things?
Maybe he has no idea he’s annoying me.
Or maybe he thinks more broadly about you, rather than focusing on the one thing that’s bothering him.
I wonder if he likes his boss. I wonder if he water-skis.
Anything to turn down the hostility. That’s mindfulness in action.
Listening and Mindfulness
It’s pretty easy to make the connection between listening and being present in the present: if we’re distracted, thinking about something or someone else, or not focused on the person who’s speaking to us, then we aren’t listening.
We’re all encouraged to think we can do two or three things at once-i.e., multitask. That’s fine if you’re reading a journal while riding an exercise bike because only one activity requires your attention. But when it comes to performing cognitive functions, we can’t do two things at once. That means we actually can’t listen to our own distracted inner voice and simultaneously listen to the person who’s talking. It’s the same as listening to two people trying to talk to you simultaneously. At best it’s confusing.
Setting aside distractions and shutting off our own inner voice is essential for good listening. That’s pretty challenging for most of us, since we think about all kinds of things all the time, bouncing around continuously from one thought to another. First we have to shut that off so we can be attentive to now. But remember that’s just the first step.
The second step is improving your state of mind. When you’re defensive, frustrated, impatient, or critical, you’ll listen that way, and you’ll miss a lot. Example:
Bob takes his project’s innovative preliminary design to the Design Review Committee. He’s defensive going in because he expects pushback, and he gets it. In the meeting, he defends his and his team’s proposal. The discussion heats up. The committee insists on changes before they’ll approve. Bob is frustrated, thinking, These committee members are techno-bureaucrats, committed to risk-free adherence to standards when my team is trying to break new ground!
The committee states four changes to the design that must be made, but Bob is preoccupied with his thoughts-How will I tell my team without discouraging them? Who is this guy, this committee chair, telling me what works? So Bob misses some of the important changes the committee is asking for. He takes notes, but they’re incomplete. He doesn’t read the meeting minutes because he was there and thinks he heard it all, and so he goes back to his team with incomplete information.
And that’s how not-mindful listening is damaging-damaging to the work effort (the team gets incomplete information), to Bob’s reputation, and to Bob’s relationship with the people on the committee. All told, a lot of damage.
Mindfulness and the Mad Dash
We’re convinced there’s no time in our lives for these sorts of things-managing our state of mind, putting distractions in their place, becoming respectful listeners and talkers. We have other priorities, like knocking things off the to-do list, hitting our targets, saving time, and maybe someday finding ways to be in two places at once. For most of us, mindfulness seems like a luxury, with good payback potential but realistically not a priority.
To that I say it’s up to you. I’d be stating the obvious if I said our relationships and outlooks on life are important. Mindfulness practitioners-to a person-will tell you that life is better on many fronts when you tune in and improve your internal state before interacting with others. It is by no means a quick fix. Becoming mindful takes two things. First, there’s the personal investment of time (to develop the ability). Second, and perhaps more important, is the willingness to buck a trend, the trend that says success comes when you multitask at a frenzied pace every minute, attentive to nothing except whatever’s on fire.