By Susan de la Vergne
Mindfulness and Messaging
Mindfulness is a practice that’s gaining
popularity with psychologists, leadership
consultants, educators, and communication
specialists. So what is it exactly? The
leadership-consultant-standard definition of
mindfulness is “being present in the present.”
If that sounds too obvious to be useful—Of
course I’m present in the present. Where else
would I be?—consider how often you’re not
fully there. Instead, you’re thinking of where
you have to go or where you’ve just been rather
than thinking about where you are. “Present in
the present” means thinking about now and here
rather than there and then.
Other examples of not being
present: How often are you planning what you’re
going to say rather than listening? How often do
you revisit, in your mind, an unpleasant
conversation you had earlier rather than really
engaging in the conversation you’re in now? Or
how about texting with someone who’s not present
rather than talking with someone who is? Or
checking email while you’re in a meeting. All
are examples of not being mindful.
Until recently, mindfulness was
primarily the domain of spiritual
practices—notably, but not exclusively,
Buddhism. Today, everyone from politicians to
business leaders are talking about the value of
tuning into the present moment, because it
improves concentration, strengthens
relationships, and can result in a healthier
outlook on life.
But in order for mindfulness to
help us realize all of the above, it actually
has to go further than just “being present in
the present.” Being present isn’t enough.
It’s just the first step towards improving the
moment. Being totally tuned in when our state of
mind is horrible—angry or distraught, say—won’t
improve relationships or give us a better
outlook. You know from your own experience that
you can be mentally razor-focused and “in the
moment” when you’re hostile, defensive, or
anxious. The real goal of mindfulness is to get
to a better state of mind and stay there. Not to
perfect your hostility.
Practicing mindfulness is (1)
being aware of our present state of mind and
then (2) improving it. For example, step one is
recognizing I’m angry and knowing that no
angry conversation ever goes well. Then step two
is pulling back from the conversation before
it’s too late and walking away, stepping outside
for a change of scene and a breath of air in
order to cool off. (Perhaps literally! Some
research suggests the brain does actually heat
up when we’re mad, which makes “cooling off”
more than just a figure of speech.)
Talking and Mindfulness
Think about the last time you
were in a discussion with someone who was,
perhaps, bothered by you or by something you
were doing. They’re complaining and you’re the
target, and you know that even before the
conversation begins. What’s your state of mind
going into this discussion? Open and relaxed?
Ready to listen? Probably not.
Whether the complainer comes
into the conversation with guns blazing or
gritting his teeth in thinly disguised
suppression, you stand ready to defend yourself.
And an edgy, unproductive conversation follows.
Let’s imagine instead that the
complainer knows something about mindfulness.
It’s a few minutes before the conversation where
he intends to let you have it, but he takes a
moment to tune into here and now. He knows he’s
mad. He also knows that’s no way to start a
conversation, not if he wants a productive
outcome. Maybe he also knows that’s no way to
treat a colleague, no matter what injustice he
thinks you’ve done. Either way, he recognizes
his state of mind—mad—and spends a few minutes
dialing it down, redirecting his thoughts about
you. Perhaps he thinks:
important is this really, in the scheme of
Maybe he has no idea he’s annoying me.
Or maybe he thinks more broadly
about you, rather than focusing on the one thing
that’s bothering him.
wonder if he likes his boss. I wonder if he
Anything to turn down the
hostility. That’s mindfulness in action.
Listening and Mindfulness
It’s pretty easy to make the
connection between listening and being
present in the present: if we’re distracted,
thinking about something or someone else, or not
focused on the person who’s speaking to us, then
we aren’t listening.
We’re all encouraged to think we
can do two or three things at once—i.e.,
multitask. That’s fine if you’re reading a
journal while riding an exercise bike because
only one activity requires your attention. But
when it comes to performing cognitive functions,
we can’t do two things at once. That means we
actually can’t listen to our own distracted
inner voice and simultaneously listen to
the person who’s talking. It’s the same as
listening to two people trying to talk to you
simultaneously. At best it’s confusing.
Setting aside distractions and
shutting off our own inner voice is essential
for good listening. That’s pretty challenging
for most of us, since we think about all kinds
of things all the time, bouncing around
continuously from one thought to another. First
we have to shut that off so we can be attentive
to now. But remember that’s just the first step.
The second step is improving
your state of mind. When you’re defensive,
frustrated, impatient, or critical, you’ll
listen that way, and you’ll miss a lot. Example:
takes his project’s innovative preliminary
design to the Design Review Committee. He’s
defensive going in because he expects pushback,
and he gets it. In the meeting, he defends his
and his team’s proposal. The discussion heats
up. The committee insists on changes before
they’ll approve. Bob is frustrated, thinking,
These committee members are techno-bureaucrats,
committed to risk-free adherence to standards
when my team is trying to break new ground!
committee states four changes to the design that
must be made, but Bob is preoccupied with his
thoughts—How will I tell my team without
discouraging them? Who is this guy, this
committee chair, telling me what works?
So Bob misses some of the important changes the
committee is asking for. He takes notes, but
they’re incomplete. He doesn’t read the meeting
minutes because he was there and thinks he heard
it all, and so he goes back to his team with
And that’s how not-mindful
listening is damaging—damaging to the work
effort (the team gets incomplete information),
to Bob’s reputation, and to Bob’s relationship
with the people on the committee. All told, a
lot of damage.
Mindfulness and the Mad Dash
We’re convinced there’s no time
in our lives for these sorts of things—managing
our state of mind, putting distractions in their
place, becoming respectful listeners and
talkers. We have other priorities, like knocking
things off the to-do list, hitting our targets,
saving time, and maybe someday finding ways to
be in two places at once. For most of us,
mindfulness seems like a luxury, with good
payback potential but realistically not a
To that I say it’s up to you.
I’d be stating the obvious if I said our
relationships and outlooks on life are
important. Mindfulness practitioners—to a
person—will tell you that life is better on many
fronts when you tune in and improve your
internal state before interacting with others.
It is by no means a quick fix. Becoming mindful
takes two things. First, there’s the personal
investment of time (to develop the ability).
Second, and perhaps more important, is the
willingness to buck a trend, the trend that says
success comes when you multitask at a frenzied
pace every minute, attentive to nothing except
whatever’s on fire.
Susan de la Vergne is a
writer who worked in software development and
Information Technology leadership for a very
long time. Her latest book,
Engineers On Stage:
Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals,
is available from Amazon. More about Susan at
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