Ever have one of those moments where you were just so frustrated that you couldn’t think straight? Where all you could think about was the problem or source of your anxiety or anger? Where you couldn’t stop thinking about it – milling about it – no matter how hard you tried? Of course you have, and if you haven’t then congratulations because you’re either a Zen master or you’ve had a very serene life, indeed!
Well, those moments are one end of the psychoemotional spectrum, and some psychologists would argue that the other end of the spectrum is when you are truly “mindful,” or completely at peace both internally and with the world around you. One of the newest waves of psychological research and practice involves this concept of “mindfulness,” and how it affects everything in our lives from relationships to bodily health. More practically for professional dispute resolution professionals, learning basic mindfulness techniques can help us guide parties through tense situations, and can help us be more receptive to and instinctually aware of the dynamics surrounding us as we work.
Mindfulness is the idea of being fully “present” in a moment – being able to calmly and lucidly focus on the stimuli around us, to fully “take in” moments as they occur, and to be able to train our brains to perceive and process situations more fluidly. Based originally on many Eastern traditions of meditation, the concept has evolved into highly organized programs for stress reduction, even the treatment of disorders such as bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and ADHD, among others. Many clinical psychologists currently use mindfulness techniques to help patients more ably cope with stressful life-situations and problems. In fact, neuroscientists have found that the brains of individuals who regularly practice mindfulness refocusing techniques actually gain tissue mass in the areas of the brain responsible for our abilities to relate to others and feel empathy. Study participants have even found that practicing mindfulness techniques have revolutionized clients’ personal relationships, helped them become more assertive, and helped them become more “in tune” with the day-to-day experience of their everyday lives.
Sounds overtly Buddhist, doesn’t it? In many ways, it is. But think about this – study participants’ brains literally transform to help them relate to others, to become more empathetic … relationships are revolutionized, and individuals become more assertive about their interests and expectations. I don’t know about you, but this sounds like a recipe for potential benefit as we help clients learn how to deal with conflict on a daily basis.
One of the central tenants of mindfulness is being able to purposefully pay attention to one particular thing at a time, without hesitation. This is harder than you may think. Have you ever laid awake at night and not been able to control your racing thoughts? Yeah, I thought so. Or, have you ever tried to sit quietly in a room, void of any distractions, and clear your mind for more than thirty seconds? If you haven’t, try it some time. If you’re an average person you will quickly find it almost impossible to “quiet” the fleeting thoughts that inevitably flow through your mind. I call it my mental “conveyor belt” of ideas. It is this ability to quiet our thoughts and thus become more fully aware of the nuances in our minds and bodies that can help us become more receptive to the thoughts and feelings of others – whether they be coworkers or our loved ones.
But our lives are rarely quiet, unless we purposefully seek solitude. Most people rush through almost every day of their lives and are constantly surrounded by numerous stimuli competing for their attention, both internal and external. In our “developed” world, working professionals are valued for their ability to multitask while loaded with caffeine to avoid the “inefficiencies” of their circadian rhythms. By the time we get home, our spouses and children require mental and emotional faculties of a completely different sort, and then there’s daily errands, chores, bills, the list goes on. It’s no wonder that by the time most people actually sit down on their couches they are exhausted.
It’s also no wonder that people often communicate poorly both at work and at home. With all of the mental and emotional energy required to live with even a basic work-life balance, there’s no energy left for being receptive to subtle communication cues from others. There’s no energy left for being patient. There’s no energy left for being open to suggestions or for being considerate of others’ needs. It’s no wonder that people often get into conflicts – our own society trains us to focus on only ourselves and only our needs.
Is this to say that no one has the ability to balance the demands of daily living and still have gas in the mental-emotional tank for others? Of course not. Most of us are taught at a young age to treat others politely no matter our mental state, and most professionals are at least pretty good at interpersonal communication most of the time. The key words here are “most of the time.” It’s those “other times” when communications fail, when conflicts develop, and when those conflicts cost corporations millions of dollars and families unnecessary stress. Fortunately, in many conflicts some basic “mindfulness” tools can help both conflict resolution professionals and parties work together to not only resolve the conflict, but also to prevent conflicts in the future.
For instance, mindfulness breathing and relaxation training is designed to help us clear our minds while listening, and thereby increases our ability to absorb and process the environment around us. For conflict resolution professionals, this means being able to wholly focus on all of the communication we perceive throughout the mediation process – whether it is a verbal indication from a client that they are willing to offer $325,000, a non-verbal cue from the lawyer that indicates we might need to step out of the room for a moment, or anything else within the vast layers of communication always flowing our direction as we work. This also means parties can learn to quiet their minds and become more naturally receptive to what other parties are communicating — creating an entirely new, rich structure of dynamic communication that may have not been there before. Psychologists call these our “attentional capacities,” or our ability to focus on multiple stimuli at a time without distraction.
Mindfulness techniques not only allow us to pay better attention to others, they empower us to more-readily convey genuine empathy toward others. It makes sense that if we are better-able to fully comprehend what others are communicating, we have a much greater chance of understanding and empathizing with them. As I mentioned before, practicing some simple mindfulness thought exercises can actually build brain capacity to become more empathetic. In this way, mindfulness helps us build rapport with our clients as they feel better heard and appreciated, and gives us more “tools” in our bags to help clients prevent conflicts going forward.
I realize that I’ve only spoken abstractly about “mindfulness” techniques as vague principles, but rest assured that most mindfulness exercises are simple and can be taught at the work place or at home, either with a written guide or instructional CD. For instance, simply meditating every so often (or better yet, once a day) for a few minutes each session, has shown to drastically increase the ability of participants to focus their attention when required. As conflict resolution professionals, this means increasing our ability to focus on what clients are saying – even if the mediation has lasted 10 hours, even if we are low on sleep, even if our minds would otherwise be distracted by the unproductive caucus we just had with plaintiff. As corporate advisers and trainers, empowering participants with basic mindfulness tools and homework can be a simple, powerful tool in helping employees learn to communicate and resolve conflict more effectively.
While mindfulness techniques are often used in therapeutic environments, the methods and ideas are widely applicable in occupational-training and other skills-enhancement settings. For more information on mindfulness, try researching some of John Kabat-Zinn’s numerous works on the topic. Dr. Kabat-Zinn is a former neuroscientist who has dedicated his life to helping people quiet their minds and learn to communicate more effectively through mindfulness training. He is one of the pioneers of the field, and has written many books and articles on the subject. I encourage you to pick up a book on the topic and take a glance. See if it piques your interest. After all, for many of us every task, meeting, phone call, and meal simply precedes the next. Some people can’t even turn off their phones while lying on the beach. It’s no wonder that with many of us living such “conveyor belt” lifestyles our minds have become (loud) conveyor belts, too.