11 Ways to Be More Mindful in Your Work Relationships

Do you know about the marshmallow test?

No, it’s not about seeing how many marshmallows you can toast and eat by the fire. It’s the classic Marshmallow Study conducted in 1968 at Stanford University by clinical psychologist Walter Mischel that became one of the longest running experiments in psychology. The initial study examined 600 children to see how they would behave when given a marshmallow and left alone. Each child was given a choice: wait for the experimenter and you get two marshmallows or just eat the marshmallow while you wait.

It’s fascinating to watch some of the children’s strategies for handling the choice. Subsequent follow-ups demonstrated that the children who waited – in other words, delayed gratification – performed better later in life with academics, attention, stress management and relationships than kids who rang the bell first (ate the marshmallow).

You may be wondering – what’s a 1968 study about children and marshmallows has to do with workplace relationships? While “mindfulness” was not on any scientist’s radar screen back then, the marshmallow study speaks to early patterns of self-control that follow us into our adulthood. Impulse control is learned early, and what’s still not completely understood is how much is native to a brain or learned through the power of social conditioning.

One thing is certain – while some of us may be born with more of a predisposition towards patience and self-discipline, none of us are born with the skills to be mindfully self-aware.
Take a few (delightful) minutes to watch this video of the children participating in the marshmallow study. Which one would you guess is most like you were as a kid? As much as I would like to think I had the willpower of the kid in the zebra suit, I’m probably more like the girl who ate bits of the marshmallow till it was gone and then took matters into her own hands and went looking for the person in charge.

Work Relationships are Rarely Easy 

As I’ve written before in these pages, mindfulness is a skill that requires a commitment, over time, to develop and maintain desired behaviors. A daily meditation practice is only one way to engage acting mindfully. While there’s ample evidence of the physiological benefits of regular meditation, the practice alone won’t necessarily transform how you relate to other people.
Mindfully relating to others at work is an especially challenging and important skill. After all, relationships are the foundation of business. Business happens because people make it happen. Unless you work completely alone, you get things done with and through other people. And “performance” is based on feelings, even when those feelings are outside of conscious awareness.
One of the most significant findings of the last two decades is a greater understanding of the social nature of brains. Advances in our understanding of  social neurobiology, show that our interactions with others shape our brain’s neural pathways including those that are genetically programmed. Recent studies show that the brain responds to nonverbal messages and emotional cue throughout life.
In his book, The Developing Mind, social neurobiologist Daniel Siegel uses the phrase the “feeling of being felt” to describe relationships that shape the mental circuits responsible for memory, emotion, and self-awareness. Brain altering communication is triggered by deeply felt emotions that register in facial expressions, eye contact, touch posture, movements, pace and timing, intensity and tone of voice.”

What You Value

If we value the growing body of neuroscience that demonstrates the impact and power of neural interdependency, the question becomes one of choice in deciding how to relate to others. Developing greater mindful awareness of our communication habits is one level of proficiency in relationship building. But it takes a deeper understanding of our motives in relating to others, especially in work relationships, to build mindfulness that can become our default state.

Developing greater mindfulness is a practice, the definition of which is simply, “done with repetition.” While you may want to be more mindful with your manager, expanding mindful awareness of your habits, in all of your work relationships, will give you better insights than simply focusing on one person, although that may be a good start. While there is often a tendency to want to  “solve” our more intractable people problems first, try to resist the temptation to start with the most “difficult” person you know.

For beginners, it’s helpful to practice mindfulness when you are more relaxed to give yourself the space to calmly observe your reactions and those of others. Recognize that mindful awareness is not  an “event” or “technique” or “strategy” that you use. Rather it is a commitment to a way of being that is transforming not only how you behave but how you perceive the world.

11 Ways to Practice

  1. Clarify Your Intentions. As mentioned earlier, understand your motives. You may intend to be more patient or kinder with a specific colleague or with all the people you work with. Be clear with yourself about your intentions. What do you really want your outcomes to be –for you – and for others?
  2. Think More Consciously. Being consciously self-aware means you are intimately aware of what, how and why you are thinking what you are thinking. Author Eckhart Tolle says that “When we can’t make up our minds, it’s because of our minds, or what I call “the voice inside your head.” Many people don’t even know they have this voice, but it’s talking away, creating a never-ending monologue.”
  3. Develop Your Emotional Literacy. The more you engage in conscious thinking the more aware you will become of how those thoughts make you feel. Making the connection is the essence of emotional literacy. Expanding this knowledge enables you to manage your “negative” emotional triggers more skillfully and to cultivate the type of feelings that support you communicating more effectively with others.
  4. Observe Your Behavior.  We all have behavioral patterns with others, especially those people we work with regularly. Some of these behaviors work – meaning they produce a positive result. Get to know what these are. Conversely, begin to note (by getting better at more closely observing others) what signals you send that provoke weak or negative responses in others. Over time, you’ll get a clearer picture of communication habits you have (that could be specific to an individual or more general) that you may choose to change.
  5. Avoid Self-Absorption – In an era of chronic time pressures, poor attention and constant distraction, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and self-absorbed. If it’s always about you and your agenda, then it’s rarely about others. Non-verbal cues are always communicating what’s really on you mind. Paying attention to others is golden in our time-starved lifestyles. There’s no guarantee that you’ll get the full attention of the other person (they’re subject to the same cultural influences as you are in most cases) but at some level, your genuine interest will be felt.
  6. Use Language Carefully. Language is power. Often the emphasis on nonverbal influence seems to diminish the value of words. Name calling in office environments can be toxic.  I cringe when I see courses or books from well-meaning consultants who refer to “problem” employees as  “losers,” “slackers” “whiners, etc. When you label others, you de-personalize them. And when other people hear you use labels or make derogatory remarks about others, they will, at some level, assume you will so the same to them.
  7. Care About Others More. Yes, care more. How? Learn to engage your empathy, compassion and curiosity every day. Practice it. You are rewiring your brain when you forge these new habits.  Research shows that when we are stressed, our focus becomes more  internalized, resulting from anxiety that has switched on the stress response. As a result, we unconsciously switch off the part of our brains that generate empathy and compassion towards others. We’re in our own heads, trying to solve problems, make decisions and assuage our fears. Focusing on others is the last thing we’re thinking about. Often we feel and act as if changing our state is out of our control – it is not.
  8. Learn to Express Disagreements & Anger Differently –  Becoming more mindful in your relationships does not mean you have to become a saint or a pushover. The challenge is learning to be direct and assertive, where appropriate, without resorting to attacks, sarcasm or disrespect. There will be people that we work with whose behavior we do not like or condone. Being mindful in the face of such behavior can seem impossible, even unreasonable, but in response we must revisit #1 and ask ourselves – what are my intentions and what do I want my outcomes to be. If we decide that all we want is revenge, we must take the consequences. Mindful thinking about this process can be very valuable.
  9. Letting Go of the Illusion of Control – Repeat this several times a day – I do not have the power to control or change others.  Knowledge from neuroscience helps us to understand that the brain is always assessing potential threats or rewards from outside events. Most people perceive your motives at deep levels and act on them, often without any conscious awareness.  Which signal do you want to activate when communicating with others?
  10. Stop Judging Others. Your mental comparisons and evaluations are triggering your feelings – and those feelings leak through your body language. If you think I have an agenda (whatever that means) you are probably communicating that to me nonverbally. If you believe I am not as smart as you, I’m getting that at some level by how you are communicating with me.
  11. Pay Attention to Cultural Influences. All work relationships happen within the context of the organization or situation in which you work. In other words – it’s the system! The mental models that shape the dynamics of an organization shape the patterns of communication within that system. According to Quantum Shifting author John Wenger, “Behaviors at work are tempered by the systemic norms.”  The more you are aware of these factors, the better able you are to access how they influence you and your communication with others.

While you may not have much choice in who you work with, you can choose how you want to behave with them. When you behave towards other more mindfully, you’re likely to increase that others will perceive your positive intentions, even if your communication or actions aren’t perfect.

But remember intentions without actions won’t amount to the changes you would like to experience. “First, said the Greek sage and philosopher, Epictetus, say to yourself what would you be; and then do what you have to do.”

Thanks for reading,

Louise Altman  Intentional Communication Consultants
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