The Single Most Efficient Way Leaders Can Boost Effectiveness

Photo by Emma Seppala
Photo by Emma Seppala
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The Challenge:  Leaders are always looking for ways to be more effective.
The Science:  Leaders don’t give enough attention to their conversations with staff.
The Solution: These 10 steps to conversation will improve their leadership. 

Leaders can enhance their effectiveness and develop better relationships with employees in one simple way: having mindful conversations.

Executives’ calendars are often booked back-to-back all day based on the proposition that it is both necessary and leads to greater productivity, despite the evidence that it doesn’t.  The relenting demands on executives’ time can produce what is known as “power stress,” a side effect that leaves the individual physically and emotionally drained. If leaders believe they don’t have the time to work through all aspects of a problem with which they’re faced, they are inclined to be narrow in perspective, take cognitive shortcuts, and become more impulsive and reactive. Their actions, in effect, become “mindless,” unconscious and automatic.

Daniel Siegel, a neuroscientist and author of The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being, contends a corporate culture of cognitive shortcuts results in oversimplication, curtailed curiosity, reliance on ingrained beliefs and the perceptual blind spots.

A research study by Paul McDonald at the University of Wellington’s School of Management argues that today’s leaders have scant time for self-awareness through introspection and personal insight. Christopher Edgar, author of Inner Productivity: A Mindful Path to Efficiency and Enjoyment in Your Work being aware of your inner state—your thoughts and emotions—and learning how to manage and self-regulate the mental “chatter” that interferes with optimal performance, is the greatest challenge for leaders. Being self-aware means we learn how to intentionally respond to experiences in our life instead of reacting to them.

Regular practices of mindfulness can give leaders a different perspective on their world, opening them up to ways of being which are both more focused on what matters and more observant and appreciative of what is there. Paradoxically, becoming more present through mindfulness enables leaders to see reality more clearly and act more purposefully and with less of their own stuff getting in the way. This is one of the paradoxes in mindful leadership: to open up for change, it is necessary to sometimes stop striving to change things and to stop talking and listen; to stop doing and start being.

Research studies have shown that regular mindfulness practices elicit better attentional capabilities and more positive emotional states. Mindfulness trains people to increase their capacity to pay attention (beyond the 3-7 seconds that is normal) and to expand the qualitative aspects of attention. Daniel Goleman, in his book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence underscores the importance of leaders maintaining a triple focus, where an inner focus is equally important along with an outer or external focus. Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer advocates leaders developing an “environmental mindfulness”: constant questioning and listening; inquiry, probing, and reflecting; and gathering insights and perspectives from other people. This active engagement leads to smarter questions, better learning, and a more sensitive early warning radar to coming changes.

One of the casualties to an overemphasized external focus, filled with multiple meetings and agendas are meaningful and mindful conversations. In my two decades of coaching leaders and their teams, I’ve had the opportunity to observe leaders’ conversational skills in action, and found a wide contrast both in styles and results. The leaders who struggle often appear to be, or actually are, hurried, busy, almost frenetic in “getting things done,” and as a result, their conversations with others reflect these characteristics:

  • They come to conversations without actually being “present” in the conversation because their minds are full of thoughts and emotions from a previous conversation or an anticipated one—in short, their minds are either in the past or in the future;
  • They exhibit poor listening skills, being more focused on what they want to say;
  • They exercise their authority to “control” the conversation to a predetermined outcome;
  • They exhibit a close-mindedness to others’ perspectives in the conversation;
  • They are in a rush to end the conversation as soon as possible, so they can get on with other or “more important” things;
  • They are oblivious or inattentive to the emotional or feeling states of the other people in the conversation;
  • They are oblivious or inattentive to their own internal emotional state while they engage in a conversation.

The net result of these behaviors can be a lack of connection and trust with employees and others and a lack of awareness of their own internal emotional state.

So how can leaders have more mindful conversations to both avoid these unproductive and unappreciated tendencies?

10 tips for having more mindful conversations

  1. Slow down. Leaders may be concerned about the conversation dragging on too long, or not being able to cover all the items on an agenda, but projecting the energy and feeling of being in a hurry in conversations gives the impression to other speakers that what they have to say, and therefore they, are not important to you. There’s a need to balance results with connection. The key here is internal, not just external. That means slowing down your thoughts and feelings not just your actions.
  2. Breathe. Often when conversations get intense or heated, participants’ breathing may become shallow, which reduces the oxygen supply to the brain, which in turn, came impair cognitive functioning. Remembering to breathe normally, and deeply when things become intense is a mindful practice.
  3. Focus your attention. It’s normal for your mind to wander much of the time, including during conversations. That’s why mindfulness meditation can help you learn to focus your attention more fully. If you notice your thoughts wandering while someone else is speaking, just note that, and gently return to the conversation at hand.
  4. Listen with your heart, not just your head.  Listening training tends to emphasize the cognitive and thinking skills, including such things as paraphrasing. Equally—and even more important—are listening with empathy and compassion. Be sensitive to others’ emotional state while they speak or respond to you. This may also require you to be keenly aware of your own emotional state.
  5. Be Open and Curious. Leaders can enter conversations having already having decided what course of action or the nature of the conversation that needs to happen. The mindful practice of “beginner’s mind,” in which the you make no assumptions about what has happened or needs to happen, but rather keeping an open mind, and seek out others’ perspectives in an open way will make the conversation more meaningful. This also requires you to make fewer assertions or speeches and ask more questions.
  6. Practice acceptance. This doesn’t necessarily agreeing with others’ perspectives or opinions, but it does mean accepting who they are, and what they think and how they feel at face value. It also means accepting the emotions you may be feeling yourself, particularly the negative ones.
  7. Be present. All to often people in conversations are not fully present. They may be thinking of the response they want to make, or the next conversation they are going to have, or reviewing in their mind past conversations. In either case, they are not really “here” in the present moment, giving their full attention to what is happening in the now. Mindfulness can enhance your ability to be and keep present in conversations. One of the most important ways to accomplish this is to turn off all electronic devices (such as smartphones) while you’re having the conversation and give full attention to the conversation at hand.
  8. Respond to others in a mindful intentional way, rather than reactive way. At times during intense, controversial or difficult conversations the defensive and protective parts of participants’ brains can be unconsciously and automatically be quickly activated resulting in a reactive response, which can negatively impact the conversation. Mindfulness can aid the leader through the process of noticing and labeling the emotion that is arising, pausing and creating space for a calm and intentional response.
  9. Temporarily set aside your personal agenda. Leaders can go into meetings with a predetermined agenda, including what they will say, how they will respond to critics, and the outcome(s) they want. While this may be desirable in some situations, making it a habit stifles conversations, and makes others reticent to participate in meaningful ways. Being able to temporarily set aside a personal agenda, being open, and not making assumptions can enrich conversations, often with a more creative outcome.
  10. And finally, start conversations with a brief check in with the other person(s). Before launching into the depths of a conversation, checking in with how the other person is feeling at that time and on that day will give the leader a wealth of information that will contribute to a fruitful conversation. For how this can be a great practice in meetings, read my article “How to Bring Mindfulness into Meetings—10 Tips,” in Psychology Today

In summary, meaningful conversations can make a significant contribution to a positive organizational culture. Leaders who practice engaging in mindful conversations can do much to create that culture.

Read more in my new book, Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces in which I describe how multiple and increasing demands on leaders’ attention can have a negative impact on their performance.

A version of this article has appeared in Psychology Today online.

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Ray Williams
Ray Williams is Owner and President of Ray Williams Associates, a company based in Vancouver, Canada, providing leadership and executive coaching and professional speaking services internationally. Ray has been a CEO, senior HR Executive, Management Consultant and Executive Coach for the past 30 years. His clients include those in the Fortune 500, Best Managed Companies in Canada, entrepreneurs and professionals. He has written books on leadership, personal growth and organizational change, and written for, or been interviewed by such media as NBC News, The Huffington Post, USA Today, The National Post, Entrepreneur, Forbes, The Financial Post, Psychology Today, and other international professional publications. He has served as the Vice-Chair of the Vancouver Board of Trade and President of the International Coach Federation, Vancouver.
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