It is crunch time again. Your group is facing a deadline, a board meeting, or preparing for a pitch. Game on. Pressure high. For some, high adrenaline fuels performance. For others, the stress leads to insecurity, fragility, and heightened sensitivity. These reactions, combined with different communication styles and sky high expectations, are a petri dish for interpersonal conflict. How can you protect your team from decompensating when the stakes loom large? A mindfulness based approach to communication and conflict resolution can prevent disputes and keep disagreements from sabotaging progress. Educating your team of these age old methods gives employees a toolbox of strategies when tempers flare.
Mindfulness is a term that means to be intentionally aware of the present without judgment. Most of the time our mental state is clouded by our personal history, assumptions, and anticipatory thoughts of the future. During stressful times, our tendency towards rigid thinking increases as we attempt to master control of the environment. We fool ourselves into thinking we can predict what others are thinking. In actuality, the presumptions we make are not based on what is occurring in the real world. Instead, we are mired in our own internal experience. We become stuck in our heads and lose awareness of the present moment. Ironically, when we need to be our best mentally, our protective instincts make it more difficult to think logically.
By practicing mindfulness, you can learn to restore mental clarity during crunch times. The first step is to recognize when you have entered into that "protective trance" that prioritizes control over sound reasoning. Sometimes it is possible to identify a trigger that sets off the anxiety response. Perhaps a colleague showed disrespect towards you in a meeting, you received negative feedback, or you have not hit your quarterly numbers. Pay attention to how your body feels. Most of us begin to feel our muscles contract, stomachs churn or seize up, and shoulders inch toward our ears. When you sense rigidity in your body, you are most likely thinking rigidly as well. Pay attention to your thoughts. Phrases such as "I will never be able to do this" or "I should have known" or "he never gives me the benefit of the doubt" begin to populate your thinking. This kind of mindset is often referred to as "black and white thinking." Words such as should, always, and never predominate. Lastly, we often find ourselves focused on the "what if's" of the future. We imagine worse case scenarios and potential negative outcomes. All of this serves to distract us from the important events in the present.
Once you recognize that you are in that inflexible and clouded mindset, take steps to anchor yourself. I suggest taking a meaningful pause to bring your mind back to the present. Begin by focusing on your breath. The breath constantly renews itself, and is a powerful way to direct your attention to the present moment. As you move your attention to the breath, you also move your thinking away from unnecessary negative and maladaptive thoughts. Lastly, when you breathe purposefully, you will automatically lengthen both your inspiration and expiration, whereby producing a physiological state of relaxation. As you focus on your breath, your thoughts will undoubtedly drift. When you notice this, simply bring them back to the present breath. Each time you return to the breath you create a moment of mindfulness. After 3 -5 minutes you will notice a difference. Your body might feel looser, and your thinking will become more agile. Now you have the mental space to problem solve.
Stressful times are messy, but messes are times of growth. By exercising your mindful muscle, you will learn to avoid impulsive decisions and act deliberately. Furthermore, by responding calmly in the face of difficulty, it is possible to build trust with colleagues and clients. This creates a safe and respectful environment, which can become the bedrock for future productivity and performance.