Mindfulness in the Boardroom
I’ve sat in too many meetings to remember. Some are worth forgetting. The glazed over eyes, the growing seedlings of anxiety as precious time is absorbed by circular conversation and corporate jargon, metaphors and acronyms thrown around as diversions from the real work (amid the constant risk of being caught out as “not enough”). I don’t think I’m alone. You’ve been in that room too – you probably used your thinking mind to escape it – leaving your body behind to fill the uncomfortable seat and leaving you to consider your to-do list, the last meeting you had (“did I say the right thing?”), or the weekend ahead. I know – I’ve seen you – I can tell when you aren’t there anymore – your eyes are glazed over and your contributions are in the voice of your automatic pilot. Fair enough – you’ve probably had this conversation a few times already in 3 other meetings about the same topic. There was no outcome last time either.
So what if everyone (and their thinking minds) WERE around the table. What if the questions that were asked of each other were in a spirit of true collaboration? What if we were safe enough to put the real challenges on the table and were listened to with openness and compassionate attention?
Too good to be true? You may not be able to control the environment, the other people around the table, or even the agenda and leader if that is not your role. However – what you can choose is your own presence – your own level of awareness. What I know is this – your own full presence calls the attention of others around you to arrive too. It elevates the quality of conversations. When you feel really listened to – you show up and say what you really think, feel, believe. The same is true for those around you. By truly arriving in the boardroom you encourage others to do the same. This is how mindfulness shifts the meeting room from a time guzzling black hole to a creative, focused and compassionate space where we speak and listen with a clarity that is effective and exponentially more productive. Anxiety softens, stress simmers down and the loud clatter of thoughts in our minds makes space for collaborative problem solving, idea building, and learning.
Wonderful! But how? We have agreed that it begins with taking responsibility for our own awareness so let’s start there. You may love to jump to the possibility of a full 5-10 minutes of breathing together before the meeting kicks off but let’s be honest – this isn’t always possible and more often than not we would just settle for everyone not being on their phones and arriving on time. So let’s play with some practical ways that you can practice mindfulness in a meeting – and then notice if that changes anything for you. This is by no means an exhaustive list – but a great place to begin. Feel free to share your tips and insights in the comments!
Yes – I’m going to begin with breathing. It’s not really a surprise is it? That’s because it works. Choosing to arrive by taking one, two, three or five conscious breaths before you walk into the meeting, or as you sit down, is a simple habit of cultivating intentional awareness. You are saying to yourself – “I have arrived. I am here and choose to be present for what is here and what unfolds, without judgement”. If mindfulness is about “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally”, as Jon Kabat-Zinn encourages us to do, then this is our opportunity to say “yes”. It is about letting go of whatever else is happening that is not present in the room or conversation. Sometimes it takes realising that we haven’t actually left the last conversation we were having, or that our mind is actually still focusing on yesterday, or perhaps tomorrow. A great way of checking in with yourself during the meeting is to ask the simple question – “What % of me is here right now?”. This is not with the heavy pressure of judgement but purely of awareness. When we notice our time-travelling mind we call it back to the present with compassion.
Recognising Boredom and Frustration
If you have been reading this far you might have already noticed this creeping in. Our attention spans are shrinking into bite-size chunks and we are already at 704 words here. Can you feel the restless energy of urgency spreading through your body? The tell-tale thoughts of time-wasting or FOMO chattering away in your mind? If your focus is stretched now or not – I am sure you can recall a time when it was. In our lives we tend to fight it – resisting boredom with handy distractions and nervous energy. What happens when we choose not to do that and mindfully experience the state of boredom instead is the subject of a whole other blog. For now let’s focus on that particular flavour of boredom that arises in a meeting environment. Someone might be stuck on their point of view, or you may be wondering what the value of you being involved in this conversation really is. As boredom or frustration colours in our view we become irritable, judgemental and we begin to close ourselves off. Not very helpful! These are all secondary reactions though – all resistance of the experience itself. What if you chose to see the boredom/frustration flags and bring your awareness (which has by now undoubtedly left the room or started creating stories about itself) to the sensations that you are experiencing. What does boredom feel like? Where do you feel frustration in your body? Tense jaw? Headache? Sore back? Numbness? Consciously attend to these feelings with your breath awareness and notice how they begin to soften. They may not go away but with recognising them we can get off the thought train journey that they want to take us on. We can choose to see them, know them and then bring ourselves back to practicing mindful listening instead.
If there is one practice that will make the difference in the boardroom – this is it! Think back to a really great meeting, a really impactful conversation. Was the person you were speaking with listening fully? Were you? I’ll go out on a limb and say that they probably were. In fact – I bet that you were listening with your full attention too. Mindful listening brings a tangible energy of presence into the relationship between communicators. The noticable way it sparks inspired conversation is balanced by exactly how flat an exchange feels without it. So why wouldn’t we want to have meetings where everyone is really listening? How? This is a little different for everyone – I’ve known some people to find taking notes helpful or doodling. Ultimately it is about listening on purpose. Ask questions and be aware of yourself as you attune to others. Simon Sinek says that “the opposite of listening is waiting to respond”. Notice your thinking mind and tune in instead to the person you are listening to. Trust that when you speak that they will listen to you because they have felt heard. Listening with non-judgement and compassion allows for intuitive action as well as approachability and honesty. Here is a handy guide to the steps of mindful listening adapted from Janice Marturano’s wonderful book “Finding the Space to Lead” (which we sell if you are interested in reading it):
Pause: check in with yourself – what filters and sensations are present for you?
Open: be clear about what is happening now (what is actually happening – not what you want/expect/hope/assume)
Listen Deeply: focus your attention with non-judgement and compassion
Speak the Truth: with the intention to do no harm
Lastly is the kindness that we can bring to ourselves – the noticing of our mindlessness or autopilot taking over and the gentle, non-judgemental shift back to the present. It’s not about beating yourself up for drifting off but noticing that you have. Noticing that somehow your phone jumped back into your hand, your thoughts raced along to the next task, or that your ego has closed your open heart in a defensive stance to a perceived threat. When we kindly think “ah look – there I’ve gone off again” we can bring ourselves back with softness and space rather than anxious urgency. The more we practice bringing our minds back to where our bodies are the stronger the working memory, empathetic parts of our brains become. Its about creating newer and stronger connections in our brains – and the more we do it the easier it becomes. One of my mindfulness teachers explained it to me this way: the very practice of mindfulness IS the noticing of the distraction and choosing to come back with compassion for yourself. I get that. It’s the awareness of mindlessness that makes us mindful. Then we decide to cultivate ways to make it easier for ourselves to be mindful more often when we feel the difference it makes. Like breathing, or choosing to be present in a meeting today – even if no one else is.