Guest post by Robert Schaefer, VP of Client Services, Steinbrecher And Associates, Inc.
Cognitive science recognizes two distinct ways that we refer to ourselves. First, there is the extended form of self-reference. This is the concept of the self that exists across the length of our lives, often called the “narrative” self. Secondly, there is the momentary concept of self. This is the perception of “me” that is going through a specific experience at a specific moment (the here and now).
When we engage in interpersonal conflict, we often transpose the momentary and often stressful experience as something happening to our extended or narrative self. Whenever this occurs, the situation can feel like a personal threat. This common and understandable reaction makes it difficult to resolve disagreements with others in a healthy and positive manner, and as a result, we find ourselves in a counterproductive mode of conflict.
Conversely, we may simply opt-out of dealing with the conflict altogether by avoiding the situation and/or the persons involved. Leaders need to be capable of confronting difficult situations with people in a positive and steadfast manner, but that is easier said than done for so many people in a people management role.
Mindfulness training may offer a way to help leaders place conflicts and disagreements into a healthier perspective. First of all…what is mindfulness? Mindfulness can be defined as: ‘‘the awareness that emerges through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to things as they are.’’¹
In other words, when we are mindful, we are focused on the experiential (moment-to-moment) self, instead of personalizing situations by attaching it to the narrative self (who we are).
Does mindfulness training make a difference in how we deal with others?
A group of Toronto-based clinicians² conducted an 8-week mindfulness training intervention with a group of participants, comparing changes in their brains through fMRI scans compared with a control group, who did not receive the training. The results were encouraging. The untrained participants demonstrated a strong coupling between the right insula and prefrontal cortex areas in their brain compared with fMRI scans from the group trained in mindfulness.
These results suggest that the experimental group was able to dissociate the two distinct areas of the brain associated with self-awareness which we habitually integrate. Society trains us to take things “personally” by interjecting the narrative self into the momentary situations that happen to us.
In the workplace, this means removing a lot of the normal tension and stress associated with handling difficult people and difficult situations. It means creating an environment for more positive emotions to emerge when dealing with others.
Trained participants were able to engage in a process called “stepping back.” In this context, stepping back means looking at your situation, disagreements, and potential conflict from an outside perspective, similar to how you might view the situation if were happening to another person. It is used in counseling and executive coaching as a tool to help clients observe situations happening in the workplace with some objective distance.
Mindfulness training helps individuals to accomplish a state Pema Chödrön refers to as “looking at things as they are” and to avoid attaching the narrative (or existential) concept of ourselves to potential conflict situations.³
When the situation is no longer personally threatening to you, it is less likely to be felt that way by others. Leaders who embody this state of mind can create an open and positive environment where every person on the team is encouraged to speak their mind and share their ideas.
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1. Williams, M., Teasdale, J., Segal, Z., & Kabat-Zinn, J. (2007). The mindful way through depression: Freeing yourself from chronic unhappiness. New York: Guilford Press.
2. Farb, N. A. S., Segal, Z. V., Mayberg, H., Bean, J., McKeon, D., Fatima, Z., & Anderson, A. K. (2007). Attending to the present: Mindfulness meditation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2(4), 313-322. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsm030
3. Chödrön, P. (2005). Getting unstuck: Breaking your habitual patterns and encountering naked reality. Boulder, Colorado: Sounds True.