If someone saw you at the beginning of your typical work day, what would they see?
Are you looking forward to the day ahead, or is there a sense of dread that something will inevitably go sideways?
If people were honest, I think they face some sense of dread because they envision an inevitable conversation with a co-worker. Isn’t it ironic that as HR professionals, whose entire existence is connected to people, that we get sinking feelings about interacting with others? To be honest, this sinking feeling captures the majority of people as they enter their work day regardless of their role, their level within the company or the department where they work.
Why is that? Are we destined to start each day at the bottom of an emotional hill just anticipating a barrage of boulders to rain down upon us? I think we have a negative approach going into the day because we are not sure how to “handle” conversations when people want to share about their lives.
Act III The Community Series- How are you?
We echo the sentiments of the incredible new wave giants, Depeche Mode, and their epic song People Are People in the lyrics –
“People are people, so why should it be
You and I should get along so awfully”
We assume the worst is going to happen even before a single word is uttered. In fact, we bristle even when we greet each other. We hope and pray that the interaction happens quickly and in a passing by manner. Most greetings go like this . . .
“Good Morning, Steve !! How are you?”
“Hi Michelle, I’m fine. You?”
And then we quickly pass each other thankful that we got that out of the way so we can get on to more “important” things like work, email, or anything not involving any personal sharing. I think this is a HUGE miss !! People want to be seen, heard and connect. This isn’t a matter of introversion or extroversion, it’s a fact of being a human. When organizations consistently say that people are their number one asset, value, etc., but don’t encourage genuine interactions between folks, it’s a giant corporate catchphrase of hypocrisy.
When we keep cloaking our interactions under the veil of only talking about work or the tasks at hand, we honestly get less then ideal results and production. It’s true. The more we are formal, aloof and only converse about “things” we miss the intelligence, creativity and imagination of the people we’re talking to.
The value of taking the time to talk about personal happenings in the lives of those around us is the best time investment you can make in any day.
The reason it’s so valuable is that the few minutes it takes to check in and see what’s going on in the life of the person you’re talking to gives you a deeper connection. You’re filling the emotional bucket of each other and your conversations will be more open, candid and forthright. I understand that you need to be respectful, appropriate and professional. Those are given foundational blocks of any interaction. Again, come at this from a positive aspect to start.
Remember – people are people. So, let’s start making our interactions intentional, meaningful and valued !!
For more information about Steve Browne click here
In part 1 of this post, I introduced you to the two modes of mind, doing and being. We also looked at an example of how we can get stuck in unhelpful patterns of thinking, revisiting an experience we have had and allowing this to dominate our thinking, and how this can affect our mood and our lives. When we get stuck like this, we are in the doing mode of mind, dominated by judging, analysing, etc. and this usually very helpful mode of mind has, instead, turned an unpleasant situation into something that is causing us stress, anxiety, irritability, etc. long after the event has passed.
Act II- The Community Series – How are you ?
Having a mindfulness practice can be beneficial to us in situations like this for a number of reasons. Firstly, as we practice mindfulness and become more aware of how we have been conditioned over time to react in certain ways to certain types of situations, we can notice when our minds enter these unhelpful thought patterns. Secondly, mindfulness provides us with the approaches that can help us to let go of these thought patterns.
Well, if we return to our situation above, we can see we are stuck in the past, ruminating over an event that occurred hours or days earlier. When we approach this experience mindfully, we bring a warm, open, curious, awareness to our present moment experience, which includes these thought patterns. We experience them in the wider context of what is going on for us right now.
Bringing an awareness imbued with these qualities to our present moment experience helps in the following ways: First, cultivating the qualities of warmth, openness, and curiosity helps us to move towards our present moment experience in its entirety, into being with it. Secondly, our experience cannot be dominated by thinking about the past at the same time as we are paying attention to what is going on in the present moment. We stop ‘feeding’ the thinking process and our minds begin to settle down. If anyone has ever played ‘SwingBall’ on your own, it’s a little bit like that. When we are stuck in a particular pattern of thinking, returning to the same event over and over, it is like hitting the ball each time it comes back around to us. We are giving the ball (our thinking) energy to carry on. When we turn to the present moment we are, by default, letting go of the thoughts and so we are no longer maintaining them and, like the ‘SwingBall’, they begin to lose momentum and eventually don’t bother us. It is important to note, though, that mindfulness is not a ‘distraction’ technique. When we enter the being mode of mind we are not pushing out the thoughts and replacing them with sensory experience. We are just acknowledging their presence in the wider context of all that is going on for us in the present moment, so that they do not dominate our attention, and our energy.
So, to the chorus of our song. The first line is
“May your mind set you free (be opened by the wonderful)”
This line from the chorus reminds us that just as our minds can get us into trouble, they can also get us out of this trouble. As our brains learn this process of acknowledging the presence of these unhelpful thought patterns, and then letting them go, this becomes a learned behaviour, and it becomes something we are able to do more easily over time. We are learning to move from doing mode to being mode and learning to appreciate the wonder that can be found in the present moment. Now this is something that people can have a hard time understanding, the wonderful experience that being in the present moment can bring. The only way to experience it is to try it for yourselves. As you practice being in the present moment, really noticing the detail of what is going on moment to moment, we find a richness that we overlook and ignore most of the time, and this can bring a sense of vitality to our lives that is difficult to articulate in words alone. And so to our final line which is also from the chorus of the song
“May your mind let you be through all disasters”
We have taken a look at a particular scenario above, but our lives are full of challenges and difficulties. The key message here is that trying to avoid these difficulties and challenges is what leads to many of our problems in the first place. We are trying to think our way out of something that cannot be resolved; the unpleasant feelings we experience in our lives. They are as much a part of our lives as the pleasant experiences. Living more mindfully can help us learn how to be more comfortable with the uncomfortable, learn how to ‘be’ (in the sense of entering the being mode of mind) through all the disasters of life. In this mode of mind we find that the unpleasant experiences and the associated feelings and emotions will pass if we don’t maintain them by getting stuck in trying to think our way through them. Thinking has its place, and reflecting on our experience is a great way to learn, but when that thinking becomes something that is not helpful, that is maintaining the difficult emotions and feelings well beyond the initiating event, then it is time to take a different type of action.
So, to recap, living more mindfully can help us to become better at self-monitoring and self-regulating our psychological processes (it brings far more than this to the lives of those that practice it, in my experience, but I wanted to focus on one area for the sake of simplicity). Just as we may learn how to best maintain our physical health by monitoring and regulating what we eat and how we exercise, then why shouldn’t we learn how to do the same for our psychological health? However, I think it is important for me to make it clear that practicing mindfulness does not stop you experiencing difficult and unpleasant feelings. We are learning how to minimise the effect they have on us, to recover from their impact more quickly.
Well, that’s me done. If you have made it this far without falling asleep then I have either done a half decent job or you are still waiting for the interesting bit! If it is the latter, then I am sorry to disappoint you. However, there is some really interesting content to be found if you follow the links that I have placed below, where you will be able to find out more about mindfulness and the role it can play in your own life, in the organisation in which you work, and in the community in which you live. I will also leave my contact details if you wish to contact me to discuss anything in this blog, or about mindfulness training in general.
Waltzing Along – The full lyrics from the song used in this post. James have produced some truly wonderful songs, but this is my favourite; go have a listen and decide for yourself.
The Mindful Nation Report – Published on behalf of the UK Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group in October 2015, the Mindful Nation UK report was the first policy document of its kind, seeking to address mental and physical health concerns in the areas of education, health, the workplace and the criminal justice system through the application of mindfulness-based interventions. The website also contains other useful information about the Mindfulness Initiative and their work.
Mindfulness in Schools Project (MiSP) – A project whose aim is to introduce training in mindfulness to young people in our schools to help them to develop the skills to navigate through the difficulties in life and flourish.
Mindful.org – As the name suggests, a website that contains information about all things mindfulness, including practical tips on how to practice mindfulness and information about the latest research.
Centre for Healthy Minds – If you are interested in neuroscience, this site provides lots of interesting research and information. It illustrates how a better understanding of how the brain works is informing our approaches to improving our health and wellbeing through practices such as mindfulness.
If I asked you the question “What is mindfulness?”, what would your answer be? When I ask this question at the start of courses that I run the answers I get are usually variations around a theme, and that theme is paying attention to what is going on in the present moment. This is something that we are all capable of doing, this is an innate human capability, and if someone asked you what you are doing right now, you would be able to say you are reading this blog, right? But what else is going on? What is going on in your environment? Is it noisy, quiet, dark, light, peaceful, chaotic? How do you feel? Relaxed, uptight, tired, hungry? And what is going on in your mind? The chances are, as you read this, your mind will be evaluating and judging these words, creating meaning from them and comparing them against your beliefs, values, attitudes, and most of it is probably occurring outside of your awareness. You may even have wandered off, your mind taking you to a past event or an imagined future one.
These activities of the mind relate to what is known as the doing mode of mind in modern psychology. This is very often the mode of mind we are in as we go about our daily lives, busy planning, analysing, judging, etc. Now these are all wonderful capabilities and help us to run our busy lives. Nobody is saying we should be giving them up. However, this mode of mind tends to dominate our experience to the detriment of the other mode of mind which is the being mode. The mind is capable of thought, we all understand that, but it is also capable of being aware, and these two capabilities of mind roughly relate to the two modes of mind just mentioned: Doing is when we are thinking, Being is when we are resting in awareness. Now we can be aware and thinking at the same time, but the key thing is that when we are in the being mode of mind we are aware of what we are thinking and awareness is the primary activity of our attention, not thinking. We just see thinking as another aspect of our experience, arising into our awareness as do sensations in the body or sounds arriving at our ears – we acknowledge the presence of our thoughts but we don’t react to them.
How are you? The Community Series – Act II
So, mindfulness is, at a high level, a way of practicing how to enter this other mode of mind, the being mode.
Why would we bother to do this?
Well, there has been a lot of research on mindfulness training and it’s benefits over the last forty years, and particularly since the 1990’s when research that utilised the newly developed technology of neuroimaging discovered that the brains of people who practiced mindfulness, even those who had only been practicing for a few short weeks, had changed structurally in ways that it is thought help with regulating emotions and promoting wellbeing and resilience. Why does this happen? To understand this a little bit more I am going to introduce you to a neuroscience term, which is attention dependent neuroplasticity. A bit of a mouthful, yes, but what this term refers to, in layman’s terms, is the brains ability to learn and to develop based on that learning. The brain’s ability to learn is well known, that is why we have an education system, but what we are beginning to understand now is that we can go beyond our traditional ideas around learning, those related to the external world, the sciences, mathematics, the arts etc. We know now we can influence our internal world, our emotions and wellbeing, through training our brains. Our brains develop based on our experience, so we go to school and learn about subjects by being exposed to them over and over. We learn to play musical instruments by playing them over and over. But we can also learn to relate to the world around us in unhelpful ways if we are exposed to the same types of experience over and over, and this includes our internal experience, such as moods and thinking.
Our attention is the vehicle through which our brains learn and develop. Whatever we place our attention on can, potentially, influence our brain development. The more we are exposed to something, the more likely our brain will change because of this experience. This is great for learning how to do things, like driving cars or learning how to play a sport, etc., but there is a darker, less welcome side to this. Remember our doing mode of mind, well if we develop certain patterns of thinking and these get activated regularly enough then our brains will start to change. Let’s look at an example of how this might work. It’s a little contrived, but please note how day-to-day this is, we are not looking at big traumatic events.
To help me take you through this I am going to get a bit of help from a fantastic 90’s tune called “Waltzing Along” by the equally fantastic band, James. The first verse of the song contains these two lines:
“Mood swings, not sure I can cope,
My life’s in plaster”
So, we miss a deadline at work and our boss lets us know his/her displeasure over this at a team meeting. Imagine yourself in this scenario, or something similar, how would you be feeling and what kind of thoughts would be going around in your head? Some reflective thoughts can be a good way to learn, “what could I have done better?”, “did I take on too much?”, “was this outside of my control?” However, there can be times when we get ‘stuck’ in these types of event. We carry on thinking about it hours, or even days, after it has occurred. Thoughts about what we should/could have said in the meeting to defend ourselves, about how unfair it was, going over the scenario over and over again, blaming ourselves, or maybe others. We may feel angry, hurt, humiliated, resentful. We may begin imagining similar scenarios in the future and how we would be more assertive and not be spoken to like that. We may lay awake at night thinking about what has happened, leading to tiredness and irritability. This could, in turn, lead to us snapping at people around us which leads to more conflict, anger, resentment, then perhaps guilt and sadness. We get stuck in this cycle of changing emotions and thought patterns, and maybe a feeling of helplessness, that we have little control.
All the while this is going on, our brain is learning. It doesn’t matter whether the experience is real or imagined, the brain is developing based on where our attention is being placed. So, our real and imaginary reactions to events, from a brains perspective, help it to learn how it should react in future. From our example above, only a relatively short period of time elapsed during the real world experience, the rest was going on our imagination long after the event had occurred. When similar events occur in the future, where we have similar feelings about a situation the same kind of thought patterns, and behaviour, can occur as the brain has ‘learned’ that this is how it reacted last time. The brain learns from repetition so the more times we react in this way the stronger the relationship between these types of situations and the resulting behaviour/thinking will become. We experience a similar situation and anger, resentment, helplessness, etc. arise as we react instinctively. This is how habits are formed, and bad habits form when we allow unhelpful thoughts and behaviours to go unchecked over time. So this is where our thoughts can lead us, to a situation like the first two lines in our song.
But all is not lost, the good news is that, just as our brains learned these unhelpful thought/behaviour patterns we can also teach the brain more helpful approaches to dealing with these types of scenarios. Returning to our song, our next two lines are from verse two
“These wounds are all self-imposed,
Life’s no disaster”
The first line alludes to the kind of situation discussed above, habitual thought patterns that keep us ‘stuck’ in a situation long after that situation has passed. This is self-imposed, in the sense that it is our own minds that keep us stuck, by reliving situations over and over. The second line offers us hope that life is not the disaster that we think it is when we find ourselves in these types of thought patterns, where our own state of mind affects our perception to the point where we can feel the world is conspiring against us. We can free our minds of these types of situations, but the question is, how?
Have you ever thought if you could go back to your younger
self what would you tell yourself?
It’s the 1980’s I can’t remember which year, (1984 maybe) I’d be about 7, I discovered Elton John. If you’re old enough you’ll remember the televised Montreux pop festival (youtube it for a laugh), it was probably watching that and I would pirouette around the living room in a pair of red shiny hand me down shoes from my sister. In our house we all loved the song ‘I’m Still Standing’ but I was even younger when that was released so I doubt I understood anything about what its message would mean for me many years on. Fast forward to 2019 and I am sitting in the cinema watching Rocketman. As not to be a spoiler I’ll stop there but as everyone will want a takeaway.. Tip 1- if you have not seen it go see it, the acting is amazing and it is such an amazing film and -with a bit of artistic license no doubt ……. it is based on a true story.
Community Series : How are you? Act 1
I realised through watching the film that I shared a lot
with Elton John – you might think that is a grandiose statement to make but I
mean in the sense that he spent a long time finding himself and being
comfortable with himself; he met his husband when he was older who is his rock
and he had some difficult times trying to be/find who he was and gaining the
acceptance of those around him.
Thankfully I did not turn to alcohol or drugs – the closest I got to
that was chocolate but I have hit rock bottom and importantly I bounced- hence
the apt title ‘I’m still standing (better than I ever did’). The 80s had tough
female icons -fierce, no nonsense women (Madonna etc….) I have no problem with
that but it is not the only way to be and it isn’t me.
This is not a tragic story or an ego lift, I hope it is a
source of help. To share my journey I will share 2 ‘me’s – the first is the up
to 2013 and the second is me now. Prior
to 2013 my body was telling me to slow down.
I’d developed cluster headaches and I was constantly exhausted; I was
motivated by work goals and validated by very little else; I enjoyed family
time but I’d often talk about work; I’d be asleep by 9pm; I’d feel anxious on
holiday in-case I had not done something- I saw this as conscientiousness. Whenever I was exhausted i’d just push
through it. I thought I was one of those
people who could just do that- keep going on fumes. Up to the age of 36 I was successful at it so
why would I think anything else?
In 2013 the petrol ran out.
I was planning for my wedding, the happiest day of my life in September
the following year. I was happy. I was however getting lots of colds and I
became obsessed with ridding of any illness (mainly colds) as they made me less
productive, more tired. I was reliant on
stimulants, coffee, energy drinks, high sugar etc….sound familiar?
I developed vertigo in August of that year, my balance was gone, I needed to stop working for a while, there was no quick fix for vertigo that was obvious. It was a waiting game. I did not know how to wait. The vertigo went eventually thankfully but I’d read stories of people with lifelong vertigo on the internet. Tip 2 don’t do that! As the vertigo subsided the fuel in my brain totally ran out……and I had severe anxiety and depression, that’s all I want to say about that because if you’ve had it …you’ll know and if you haven’t I just can’t explain it. There are just no words.
The 2013 me had an enemy…. and that enemy was me. The first thing now I’d say to my 2013 self is that there were so many signs that I just ignored or made excuses for as they did not fit with the ‘image’ I wanted to present… but this is not a sad story….. Quite the opposite.
The happy ending came in 2014 I got married (I still am) and
I was well again- it was fab and by now I was a little wiser but never ever
complacent. I’d now got a list of things
that I enjoyed – my 12 Rs. Without fail if the petrol gets low these become
affected and they are precisely the things I need to turn the ship.
Religion (or spirituality a better description)
Rest (sleep essentially)
Recipes (healthy ones)
Rhythm (or music)
Responding (giving something back)
Reflection (but being kind to myself)
All of these things I am sure I or others will talk about in
my blog. They all involve being in the present and being mindful. Tip 3: what’s in your toolkit? Is mindfulness?
My mindfulness teacher is Richard Harper mentioned below.
Later I’d started to think about what I needed to avoid or what did not work for me (Tip 4) and 5 years later I still need this (my toolkit) and there are many versions of it because it is individual to you, but if I could tell my 2013 me 3 things I would say (tip 5):
Be open minded and tap into the creative and not just rational parts of your brain e.g. creativity could be craft, art, gardening, singing, amateur dramatics, colouring books…. you get the idea.
Your energy dips could be your warning light and if you need to write down what is triggering you, you can work out what you can do
Reach out to people who can be your support network who can improve your strength and resilience both professionally (a coach/mentor) or personally (those in your camp- they don’t have to think like you but they do need to understand and respect you for who you are)
so back to Elton and the killer line for me
‘And if you need to know while I’m still standing you just fade away’… that is me speaking to my 2013 self.
I hope Leaders and Managers read this because a lot of our self esteem is wrapped up in work. That’s all for now but finally my Tip 6– a few people to follow on twitter as they are just amazing:
The Thrive at Work team lead by @russells70 @publichealthbod
I have decided to use my first blog to set out my stall and introduce my first chapter the ‘How are you?’ , part of ‘The Community Series’. It needed to be a series as I have so much to say! There is so much I want to cover often largely overlooked in organisations and I also wanted to share some recent experiences that I have had with some great colleagues on this journey called life.
Chapter 1 : How are you ?
My main aim is to take a bit of time to encourage people to be self reflective and understand themselves a bit better- something I have been doing a lot- and therefore I hope over the course of the next few weeks to offer some toolkits, tips etc that I have picked up along the way. I recognise as many of you are leaders, understanding people is probably one of the most important things you can do as you are always on view and everyone will form a view of you good or bad from what they see or sometimes just what they perceive or even form based on what other people’s views are. People can be a bit lazy like that and therefore what you can do to ‘humanise’ that relationship quickly I believe is vitally important. Also, as a leader it is your view that matters most – you can have the most amazing, generous kind management team but if the top person is a total dragon… well it kinda counts for nothing.
I’m not going to jump on a bandwagon of criticising leaders as it is a terribly complex job that not many people are prepared for. I recently tweeted something that really resonated with me by Mac MacDonald. The blog looked at people in senior leadership positions and how it was common for them to struggle to see the context from other peoples’ perspectives all of the time (the larger the organisation the harder the challenge I expect). It is a tall order to hone our leadership skills to encourage social awareness (that is according to MacDonald- having the emotional intelligence to truly know the triggers, likes, dislikes, worries and aspirations of others alongside the good stuff like what makes them tick). Organisations do try and (often fail) to encourage people within their workplace to feel empowered and authorised to be honest, open, as well as challenge without inhibition. This in my view is because of the lack of continuity-it is often given as someone’s project or an exercise that does not get revisited, It is going to take a lot more than a one off topic or a standing item at a meeting as this kind of culture change resists every business self-help book I read growing up that encouraged me not to be myself and goes largely against custom and practice. It involves trust and I rarely see outspoken behaviour treated without reprisal in my humble opinion where political sensitivity still has a higher value. I see more often people being encouraged to challenge but then penalised for it. This is because leaders can sometimes not want the challenge or want the challenge to come in a certain way which kinda defeats the object.
I also see all around me exercises to find commonality like recruiting
against values, creating shared values, culture ‘fit’ etc… to me it is all a
bit cliché now but probably started with good intentions. I’d drop the need to
find ways to recruit and employ a personality type. What I’d love to see more
of is examples that would say to me ‘I appreciate you think, talk, act and are
different to me but that ok and quite refreshing’. I wonder if the pressure to
conform to a type creates as much work- related stress as the work itself? Why not
embrace people who are very different from you it may bring a much fresher
So, my next blog will explore why people who work for you care
so much and why leaders should take care as a lot of our self- esteem is
wrapped up in work. I’ll also start the journey of self -care as leaders are
people too and look at the relationship between ego and its traps and how we
can embrace our inner self and use that information to personalise our
relationship with others.