Responding vs. Reacting

When faced with tough decisions: respond!

When faced with tough decisions: respond!

A major component of mindfulness is the practice of responding to a situation, rather than simply reacting to it. It is topic written about often, and I think it is one of the most powerful tools that mindfulness can provide for leadership. We often hastily react to problems without taking in the necessary facts when we are stressed or upset. Our emotions cloud our judgments and soon our mole-hill issue is now an unscalable mountain. When unforeseen situations threaten us, it’s easy to get rattled and let fear keep us from finding the best response to the situation.

Although emotion is a powerful and worthwhile component of human nature, sometimes it’s the arch nemesis of rational and sound thought. By practicing mindfulness, you will notice a clearer perspective and deeper level of thinking when faced with significant challenges. Mindfulness makes it easier to analyze your thoughts, and how your biases, prejudices, and emotions are affecting your thinking.

Taking a moment to breathe and create space will allow your thoughts to drive your emotions, instead of the other way around. This is similar to the traditional practice of “Counting to 10” when you were really upset or angry. Creating a space to respond instead of reacting allows your brain to analyze the problem more accurately, and decide the best way to solve it.

When we look at issues like the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, we can’t help but let our emotions get in the way, but it keep us from thinking things through thoughtfully and rationally. The fear or anger we feel propels us into reacting to the situation with radical and revolutionary changes. We believe our reaction needs to be swift and powerful in order to justify the level of emotion and outrage we feel. Only moments after the news of that horrible day was broadcasted, people were calling for all kinds of radical ideas such as: banning guns, arming teachers, hiring armed officers for schools, to even locking all schools like prisons. Are any of these responses rational?

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I would argue no, that we let our fear and anger confuse our ability to rationalize and come up with responses that would accurately help the situation. What’s worse, I think when these emotional reactions subside, we think the problem is resolved. After the Newton, Connecticut shooting, gun control was an issue pushed into the limelight, but as time passes it will slowly fade away until another tragedy arises, and the reactionary emotional rollercoaster starts again. For the record, I am not for gun control, nor am I against it. This most recent tragedy is just a good example of how our emotions can sometimes effect our rational thinking, making us react hastily to problems, rather than analyze a worthwhile and impactful response.

Using mindfulness is very helpful in creating a rational response in critical situations. This could have powerful implications as a leader in business. Workers are looking to you for guidance and leadership, especially in times of chaos. As a leader you model your company’s brand and image more than anyone else, and it is critical to respond to the challenges of your job rather than react. The people around you will emulate your behavior during difficult times, and it is important to keep that in mind. Effective leadership requires keeping a level head, thoughtfully examining the situation at hand, and choosing the necessary response. We are creatures of habit, and it takes dedication to master the control of our emotions, but ask yourself this the next time a stressful situation arises: “Are you reacting, or responding?”

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Empathic Listening

Empathic Listening

Empathic Listening


As I begin to write this post, I realize it is very ironic that I am tackling the topic of listening. I used to be a horrible listener, and even now it is an area in which I still need much improvement. In fact, me writing a blog post about listening makes almost as much sense as an atheist writing a sermon.

It takes all of my effort and focus to be a good listener, I am easily distracted, or I feel I am too big of a hurry to stop and listen to those around me. Sometimes I am so self-centered that I am only waiting for whoever is talking to be quiet so I can hijack the conversation to a more favorable topic.

Through my mindfulness practice, I’ve been better at seeing my deficiencies and I am improving in these areas. My biggest obstacles have always been patience, and listening. Mindfulness meditation always gives me an opportunity to reflect on which areas of my life I need to improve upon. I feel I have become a better listener both at work and at home by using the practice of empathic listening.

Empathic listening is a form of listening and responding to another person that helps to build mutual understanding and trust. During communication you are actively attempting to understand the other person’s point of view, and taking in their information without judgment. The listener must be attentive, interested, and alert during the conversation, and provide feedback to let the speaker know that you are actively listening.

Prior to mindfulness, and attempting empathic listening, I was very quick to write off new ideas or concerns of others. It was very difficult for me to take their thoughts and feelings into consideration about a topic before I would come up with my own judgment. This would especially happen if I did not like the person on a personal level. They could make the greatest point, have a spectacular idea, or even cure cancer, and I would disregard what they would say based on my inflexible opinions. One of mindfulness’ key components it to be non-judging of the stimuli around you. To focus on the information and data at hand rather than let emotions get in the way. As my instructor would say, “It’s not good, it’s not bad, it just is.”

Being as minimally judgmental as possible is invaluable as a leader. A leader must be able to take in all information, favorable or unfavorable, and use it to make the best decision for all parties involved. Empathic listening helps to create a positive environment where ideas can be shared freely without fear.

Madelyn Burley-Allen in her book, THE FORGOTTEN SKILL lists these guidelines to be a more effective and empathetic listener:

1. Be attentive. Be interested. Be alert and not distracted. Create a positive atmosphere through nonverbal behavior.

2. Be a sounding boardallow the speaker to bounce ideas and feelings off you while assuming a nonjudgmental, non-critical manner.

3. Don’t ask a lot of questions. They can give the impression you are “grilling” the speaker.

4. Act like a mirrorreflect back what you think the speaker is saying and feeling.

5. Don’t discount the speaker’s feelings by using stock phrases like “It’s not that bad,” or “You’ll feel better tomorrow.”
6. Indicate you are listening by providing brief, noncommittal acknowledging responses, e.g., “Uh-huh,” “I see,” “Tell me more,” or even simple head nods.

7. Follow good listening “ground rules:”
a. Don’t interrupt.
b. Don’t change the subject or move in a new direction.
c. Don’t rehearse in your own head.
d. Don’t interrogate.

In my own experience, many of my coworkers are afraid of speaking to our administrator for fear that they will be ignored or chastised for their thoughts and ideas. There have been several instances when employees have been treated very harshly when attempting to bring up new ideas or strategies to our leadership teams. By receiving this consistent negative response, most employees feel underappreciated and refuse to go above and beyond their job descriptions, and withhold great ideas or information that could lead to great improvements for our school.

An effective leader sees their employees and coworkers around them as valuable resources, and should value their thoughts, concerns and opinions. By utilizing empathic listening you can be a more effective listener and leader to those around you. This will inspire your employees and coworkers to go above and beyond the call of duty and take extra pride in their work.

Listening truly is a forgotten skill, and like all skills, it must be practiced thoroughly to master. Try empathic listening today, and begin reaping rewards from the trusting relationships you build with those around you.

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Everything to Everyone

Saying no

When it comes to being an effective leader I think it is very important to realize your limitations, and avoid overextending yourself. When I first became a teacher I tried to participate, lead, and be involved with everything I could get my hands on. I was constantly overextending myself to the point where I could no longer fulfill all of the obligations I had signed myself up for. I offered to go to my students’ after school sporting events, help with a tutoring program, and worked with several leadership committees at my school.

5 Tips to Avoid Overextending Yourself

I instantly had a difficult time keeping up with all of the tasks I volunteered for. I became drained, and struggled to find energy to keep up with it all. I called this “zombie mode,” as I dragged my drained and tattered self from meeting to meeting. I never had the time or energy to put my full effort into these commitments, and I began to get frustrated at my own weakened contributions.

I tried to make everyone around me happy, but I became rather flakey as I continued to ice-skating uphill in order to fulfill my promises. I kept saying yes to everything, desiring to be a great team player, leader, and helper to everyone around me. I became frustrated and annoyed at myself for constantly letting people down, and for always overfilling my plate.

There is something very powerful about having the ability to tell people “no,” and it took me a few years to master this skill. Realizing your own capabilities and not overextending yourself is a difficult task to adjust to. At first I constantly felt that I was letting people down, but I soon realized that I was making myself more productive and efficient.

Five Ways to Say “No” at Work

Rather than spreading myself so thin and diluting my efforts to minimal levels, I was now able to give my full concentration to the most important activities and tasks. Instead of just being a warm body in the room, people began appreciating the genuine efforts I was now able to give with this lightened schedule. I may no longer have been available to these help-seekers for every job, but they were happy to know that when I did sign up for something, I would make a great impact.

Instead of running ragged from one commitment to the next, I was now finding myself with extra time in which I could spontaneously help others or volunteer for things in these random moments of unplanned space. If for some reason the obligations I signed up for took longer than expected, I now had the flexibility to give more time to them without the added stress of other pressing commitments.

Although I have been working on this skill long before I ever learned anything about mindfulness, my meditations have reaffirmed and strengthened my ability to focus on the tasks and jobs that are most important. Mindfulness meditations have provided a time every day in which I can prioritize my thoughts and actions, and get the most from every minute of my schedule.

I am now a better team member, leader, and coworker. They now know that when I commit to something they will get my full, undistracted effort, and it has helped to build a stronger bond with the people around me.

Is it better to try to be everything to everyone? Or would you rather give your all to what you can? Dare to say “no,” now and then, and find out.

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Life is as Easy as YOU Make it.

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“Life is as easy as you make it.”

(Purposeful Pause)

Do you agree or disagree? It took me many years until I agreed with that statement. Even now at my most stressful moments I don’t know if I hold this statement to be 100% true, but it is a line I can repeat in my mind to bring me back from my most trying times in life.

My mother said these words to me every time I was stressed throughout my childhood. I was wound pretty tight in my youth and would let the littlest things bother me. From problems with my peers, school projects, sports, and dealing with my father, my mom had a way of putting life into perspective and bringing me back from the edge. But having the power to make your own life easy? I still never believed her. It was easier to make mountains out of molehills, and give up without trying to solve my problems.

Every time she would say, “life is as easy as you make it” it would annoy me and anger me all over again. How can life be as easy as you make it? With all of these obstacles, problems, and stress, how could someone make life easy? Life never seemed that easy, as soon as I would overcome one obstacle, another would present itself, and frustrate me down to my core all over again. Where was this easy way she was talking about?

The older I get, the more I realize how right she is. Most of the obstacles in our life are mental, but we build them up within our mind until they seem insurmountable. I wish I had a time machine to go back to the most frustrating and helpless moments in my life and shake some sense into myself. I would tell myself to calm down, put myself at ease, and realize these horrible dilemmas were really only minor speed bumps.

We are so quick to tell ourselves that we are stuck where we are at, we are not worthy of anything more, and it keeps us from daring to be great. No one likes change, and often is easier to be “comfortably miserable” than strive for something bigger and greater. How many people do you know, or maybe you’ve said it your self: “it’s just easier to keep it the way it is.”

Often the most depressing part in facing these mental obstacles is that we surround ourselves in helplessness and feel there is nothing that can be done. Settling becomes acceptable, and we feel we are destined to be miserable and that there is nothing we can do to improve our situation. I think depressing thoughts are like a stack of dominos, it can cause a chain reaction of negative thoughts that can get out of hand before you know it.

Take a moment to think about the biggest problem in your life, whether it is your career, your relationship, being out of shape, etc. What is truly stopping you from making an improvement in this area? Is someone literally blocking your doorway and not letting you out? Or have you wrapped yourself in a cocoon of self-doubt, and this fear of failure is what’s really holding you back? You are most likely not as stuck as you think you are. Maybe now is your moment to dare to be great.

“Life is as easy as you make it.”

Thanks Mom, you were right.

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The Many Benefits of Mindfulness

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Mindfulness is the act of bringing your attention to the present experience on a moment by moment basis. It is analyzing your thoughts and purpose, and focusing upon them without judgment. I think many people hear the term “meditation” and the wrong image enters their heads. I had the very same conclusion when I first heard of mindfulness meditation. I thought it was monks in Tibet chanting and sitting in the lotus position. It is nowhere near that, and I wanted to show some examples of how mindfulness meditation is being used. It is a very useful practice that has had many useful benefits to many groups:

Military:
The military has been using mindfulness meditation with returning veterans with a great amount of success. Veterans returning from overseas combat have been using mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) techniques to help alleviate post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 47% of all veterans who have been practicing MBSR have seen significant clinical improvement in alleviating PTSD. Within the past few years, the Army has been trying to improve the psychological fitness of their soldiers to better cope with combat stressors, and has been utilizing meditation with positive results. More information on how the military has been utilizing mindfulness can be found here.

Medicine:
The University of Massachusetts Medical School was one of the first clinics to use MBSR techniques to combat stress, anxiety, and chronic pain and illness. It was founded by John Kabat-Zinn in 1979 and has since treated over 18,000 patients. It provides extensive training in mindfulness meditation, and helps patients to integrate mindfulness principles into their daily activities to combat the challenges and stressors of everyday life.

They have found that their course had helped their patients experience:
• Lasting decreases in physical and psychological symptoms
• An increased ability to relax
• Reductions in pain levels and an enhanced ability to cope with pain that may not go away
• Greater energy and enthusiasm for life
• Improved self-esteem
• An ability to cope more effectively with both short and long-term stressful situations.

There have also been many other medical studies that suggest that mindfulness meditation can provide many other benefits from protecting against high blood pressure and arthritis, to reducing stress, and improving learning, memory, and emotional regulation.

Business:
Mindful leadership courses are being taught at business schools all over the country. It uses mindfulness meditation to allow future business leaders to analyze the present moment, and improve their decision making by practicing nonjudgmental thinking. The benefits of mindful leadership can best be summarized by Bill George, faculty member of the Harvard Business School:

“The practice of mindful leadership gives you tools to measure and manage your life as you’re living it. It teaches you to pay attention to the present moment, recognizing your feelings and emotions and keeping them under control, especially when faced with highly stressful situations. When you are mindful, you’re aware of your presence and the ways you impact other people. You’re able to both observe and participate in each moment, while recognizing the implications of your actions for the longer term. And that prevents you from slipping into a life that pulls you away from your values.”

Conclusion:
Mindfulness meditation is a very useful practice and can help improve your brain function, minimize stress, and even improve your leadership skills. It is a useful tool that allows you to maximize the present and see the long term implications of your decisions and actions. I strongly encourage everyone to give it a try, and to follow this blog as I continue to explore how mindfulness meditation will help you to create the space necessary to live a full and rewarding life.

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