November 01, 2018

Using Mindful Leadership to Build Bridges

Identifying your biases, minimizing your reactivity and looking for commonalities enables you to build bridges in even contentious situations.

Janice Marturano

I confess I have been a news junkie for most of my life. As a young business lawyer, I used to read most of the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times each day as I rode the train to and from New York City. I relied on in-depth journalism to stay well-informed about the world around me. I used this knowledge base to help me connect more effectively with my clients, colleagues and friends. Over the years, as life’s complexities began to grow and available time became scarce, I was more selective in my reading and had to rely more on newscasts for brief summaries.

I found those shortened news reports provided less substance but, I told myself, I could always find more details elsewhere when I needed more information. Not ideal, but it was the best I could do. Then I noticed something happening over the past few years. True journalism with unbiased, factual reporting became increasingly rare and was often replaced by emotionally charged headlines and righteous commentators.

I didn’t really notice the effect it was having on my life for quite some time. The loss of information was clear, but it took a while to notice that I was feeling increasingly agitated while watching the news. Physically, I began to see that it was not unusual for me to start feeling tightness in my stomach or at the base of my neck. Mentally, I noticed my own righteousness arising, along with feelings of frustration, sadness or anger. And yet I continued to watch and listen. It was what I always did; it was how I was conditioned. As I said, I am a news junkie.

Eventually, it would be my mindful leadership practices that would help me to see what was happening. Cultivating an ability to meet each moment with greater clarity and compassion is at the core of mindful leadership training. When I finally began to look at my relationship to this “news” with greater clarity and compassion, I began to be able to make the conscious choices needed to live with today’s societal shifts with greater ease.

Before I dive into those choices, let me say that ease does not equate to ambivalence. My passion for some of the issues that seem to be dividing our society in profound ways has not diminished. I am adamantly opposed to the attempts to undermine the U.S. Constitution or tolerate racism, sexism or homophobia. In fact, if anything, I am more committed than ever to find ways to skillfully oppose these things and to find a way to go forward as a country and as a global community. So, how did I begin to more skillfully meet the things that “hooked” me? Let’s begin with a definition that explains the framework for the journey.

The Definition of a Mindful Leader

“A mindful leader embodies leadership presence by cultivating focus, clarity, creativity and compassion in the service of others.” This is the definition used by the Institute for Mindful Leadership.

The four qualities stated in the definition—focus, clarity, creativity and compassion—are called the fundamentals of leading and living with excellence. For this article I focus on two fundamentals especially important to those practicing law: clarity and compassion.

Clarity: turning off the autopilot.

Cultivating the mind’s capacity to see things clearly requires us to begin to see those things that are “hooking” us. We can learn to pay close attention to those words or actions that set off a cascade of mental and physical reactions and that prevent us from meeting such moments with our best response. For example, when we are not mindful, we might meet those moments with anger, defensiveness or judgment.

Clarity is also influenced by living in an external world that is so busy and distracted that we often go on autopilot. We are not making conscious choices because we are distracted most of the time. In one of the Institute for Mindful Leadership’s research projects, we asked a large group of professionals to respond to the statement “It seems I am running on automatic, without much awareness of what I am doing.” More than half said this was frequently true for them. Those are startling numbers when you consider the gravity of the situations being influenced by professionals, including lawyers, every day. We get hooked, we react, and we often don’t even realize we are doing it.

Compassion: showing kindness to self.

Cultivating compassion invites us to deeply understand a person or a situation. It’s not sympathy or empathy. When we stop and pay attention, we gain some important information, and we then often notice a pull toward a positive action. For example, if we can stop long enough to check in with our self, we might acknowledge that we are always tired. Along with that understanding, there might arise a pull to take better care of ourselves, to get more sleep or to learn to say no.

In my work with lawyers, I usually find that self-compassion, which is the starting point for cultivating compassion, is a very difficult quality for them to cultivate. Lawyers have to-do lists that are miles long, yet they rarely have themselves on the list at all. They have no trouble seeing the need to cultivate compassion toward others, but they are not well-versed in acts of kindness toward themselves. As with love, if we do not know how to be self-compassionate, we will find it much more difficult to be compassionate toward others.

Applying this to the news junkie.

Noticing the signals from my body was the first wake-up call I had. I could directly correlate watching the news with tightened muscles, queasy stomach and headaches. As I spoke with family and friends about what was happening in the day’s headlines, I could hear my voice begin to sound tightened and agitated. Paying attention to my body and beginning to explore more intentionally what was happening were the first steps to clearly seeing that I was being caught—hook, line and sinker.

In my exploration I could see that it wasn’t the substance of what was being said, although that was something I was interested in; it was all the trappings. It was the commentators who spun theories, who painted the other side in certain, unflattering ways, who often spoke of “crises” that would tear apart the very fabric of our society. I could begin to see how my own mind would pick up their threads and begin to write my own full-length feature films. I was throwing gas on the fire.

This is classically what happens to us when we don’t pay attention. We are bombarded from the outside with moments that are unpleasant, and then we enhance the experience of that unpleasantness with our own story-telling about it: judging, dismissing, insulting, etc. This creates the swirl that is the precursor to our reactivity, divisiveness and smallness.

Conscious choices to connect, not divide.

As I began to see with greater clarity, I also began to make some conscious choices about this part of my life. I began to look for sources of information that were less about entertainment and politics and more about facts. I began to become more vigilant about noticing when the rhetoric was creeping back in. For me, this also meant much less news time in front of the television. And guess what? I began to see the stark difference in how I was feeling.

How did compassion fit in? One discovery I focused on was my own feelings about those who disagreed with me. I noticed how quickly I could feel confused by the actions and words of others. The inner dialogue would begin with indignation. How could they think that way? Don’t they see that their views are harmful? This reactivity was the opposite of seeking to understand.

I wondered if cultivating compassion toward those I found difficult to understand could help heal some of this divisiveness. Could it help me begin to deeply understand a group of people that didn’t seem to share my principles or aspirations for the country? I began to explicitly look for the common threads we, as Americans and as human beings, share. Rather than looking for the differences, what might happen if I focused on the things we have in common, the threads that connect us? I quickly began to create a long list. I began with classic compassion practice by recognizing that each person wants to be safe, happy and healthy. That led to remembering that there are many ways to achieve these things. As I spent some time with this insight, I began to soften my own voice so that there was more room to hear others. When I listened with less judgment, I was better able to connect. This ability to connect is a cornerstone of mindful leadership. When we truly connect, we can begin to build strong, intricate bridges, the kind of bridges that form lasting connections. The bridges that give us a path to move forward together.

Starting With Small Steps

Whether you notice yourself getting hooked by a client, judge, colleague, family member or the divisive nature of a group’s rhetoric, you can begin to take some small steps to meet your life more skillfully.

  1. Pay attention to those moments when you notice that you feel uneasy. Perhaps you notice a nagging pain in your neck or lower back or an overall feeling of tightness. Is it familiar? When does it show up? Answering these questions may help you to see when you become hooked.
  2. What do you know about how you meet those moments when you are uncomfortable? Do you write your own full-length feature film about it?
  3. Take some time to reflect on this question: Is there a conscious choice I can make right now that might positively affect the way I meet these moments? Experiment with your ideas.
  4. Finally, begin to look for the common threads. Can I keep in mind that he or she just wants to be happy, healthy and safe? How does that recognition affect my encounter with him or her?

Final Thoughts

Mindful leadership training is no longer a nice-to-have. It’s an imperative. The complexities of leading in today’s often divisive, fast-paced culture, coupled with the 24/7 connectivity of the workplace, simply demand that we cultivate our innate capabilities to be present. As lawyers we can be brought into the divisiveness in our society today in many ways. We need the courage to see our own biases, our own reactivity and our own vulnerability. It is unrealistic to believe that we will simply ignore our personal feelings about issues or that we are immune to the propensity to slip into autopilot mode. Lawyers are uniquely positioned to model the power of mindful leadership. We can choose to undertake this training of the mind to become more focused, clear, creative and compassionate as we turn toward the many conflicts in our lives and the many opportunities to build bridges.

As for my journey, I am still a recovering news junkie. I want to absorb the news each day, but I am now more discriminating about its source—and more conscious of the need to filter out the hype. Little by little, I continue to evolve the way I meet these challenging times. I still can get hooked, but I like to think most times I can catch myself a little more quickly before my reactivity causes too much harm. And, most importantly, I have begun to listen more deeply and am beginning to build the first tenuous threads of connections I hope will contribute to those bridges.

Janice Marturano

Janice Marturano, a former vice president and deputy general counsel of General Mills Inc., is the founder and executive director of the Institute for Mindful Leadership. She is a certified mindfulness teacher and author of Finding the Space to Lead: A Practical Guide to Mindful Leadership. Email her.

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