Getting Comfortable with Discomfort

“One can choose to go back towards safety or forward towards growth. Growth must be chosen again and again, fear must be overcome again and again.” So said Abraham Maslow, and he did know a thing or two about personal growth, self-actualisation and the hierarchy of human needs.

Every day we are faced with the choice of whether to take the safe and comfortable option, the familiar path, or whether to do something new and challenging even though it makes us uncomfortable.  If we take the safe option, we know we will feel ok but it’s unlikely we will learn anything new about ourselves or the world. If we take the riskier option, we could fail, but even if we do we will be learning something new and growing our capabilities. To grow to our full potential we need to be challenged and exposed to new ideas and ways of thinking.

A good reflective activity is to think about what we have done in the last few weeks that has stretched us.  I’ve often sat down with clients and helped them map out their comfort zones, stretch zones and panic zones as a diagram.

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The comfort zone is those tasks that are easy, unchallenging and possibly relaxing. My comfort zone is the routine of dealing with my usual work tasks, working with my regular team, relaxing over a TV series with my family, curling up with a good book, catching up with my close friends, my drive to work, my regular yoga class. I enjoy most of these activities but they don’t challenge me.

The stretch zone is the activities which make us a little anxious, because they are challenging or unfamiliar.  My stretch zone currently includes delivering webinars, training managers on new areas of work, going to a new yoga teacher and travelling on my own.  I recently did a zip wire activity high up (with harnesses) with my kids and took my 94 year old grandmother shopping with her new buggy; the activities were challenging in quite different ways. Work activities that I haven’t done for a while often sit here (configuring the annual appraisal process, for example) as do new tasks for which I already have the skills (planning an assessment centre). Receiving critical feedback or complaints is also a stretch; it’s never entirely comfortable.  These activities made me nervous, but in the end I was really glad I had done them, and I felt more confident in my abilities as a result.

My yoga teacher has recently introduced Hanumanasana (monkey pose or the splits) to our yoga class. It is definitely not in our comfort zone but there is something exciting about it and it does create a buzz in the class.

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Every time we do these stretch activities we grow a little. We learn more about ourselves by seeing what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes we find we are capable of more than we thought. When we succeed it is a real achievement. If we get comfortable with these activities through repetition, they become part of our comfort zone and the comfort zone grows bigger.

The panic zone is the activities which are too much of a stretch and we aren’t ready for them so there is high chance of failure.  In the panic zone we can’t think straight so we may not learn so much. My panic zone includes sorting out certain technical problems with the computer, climbing without harnesses (I am a bit scared of heights), karaoke (based on a traumatic experience of auditioning for the school choir 30 years ago – I didn’t say it was rational!), picking up big spiders and dropping back into a back bend in yoga ( even with the teacher holding me, I just can’t do it).  The panic zone is generally not such a useful place for growth, and may even be downright dangerous. However, sometimes it’s possible to build up to these activities in small steps, (holding gradually bigger and bigger spiders, for example) so that what was previously in the panic zone becomes part of the stretch zone.

In yoga there is a similar concept to the stretch zone, sometimes referred to as the edge. Stretching to your full extent is definitely uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t be painful. We are always looking for this point of challenge in yoga, and then using the breath to find steadiness and ease at the edge of our current ability.  We bring mindful awareness to all the physical sensations, recognising when to keep stretching and when to back off. We also notice thoughts and feelings that arise (“when can we stop?”, “I think I’m doing quite well”, “why am I so stiff?”, “I used to be able to this better”) and learn to let them go, bringing focus back to the breath and body. The impulse might be to come out of the pose but we learn not to mindlessly follow the impulse but to notice it and then decide what to do for the best.

This can be a great bit of yoga learning to take off the mat and into real life. In our working lives and in making career changes we often need to put ourselves in the uncomfortable stretch zone area to achieve our goals. A young person might need to pluck up courage to travel on their own to an open day. A career changer might need to approach a potential employer to find out about opportunities. A competitive job interview is rarely in the comfort zone.  A new manager will be in the stretch zone as they work out how to relate to colleagues in different way. A manager might need to have a difficult conversation with a team member or introduce changes to their area of work. Organisational change always brings a level of discomfort to everyone involved.  Uncomfortable situations provoke anxiety, and our anxiety can impact on those around us if we are not aware enough to manage it.

This is where mindful awareness of reactions to stretching activities can be so helpful. When asked to do a challenging activity, one impulse might be to make an excuse for why it can’t be done. However, by noticing that impulse as it arises, we can chose whether to respond in that way, or choose another response. In approaching a difficult conversation, mindful awareness of bodily reactions and facial expressions can serve as a reminder to ground ourselves first with some deep breaths and compassionate thoughts before tackling the conversation. We can spot a self-critical inner voice that only serves to make us feel anxious about a high stakes event, and choose whether to believe it or not.

By learning to pay attention to our reactions in uncomfortable situations we can learn to feel our way through them mindfully. We can learn the difference between uncomfortable stretch and the sort of pain or panic that means we should back off. We can learn to notice our thoughts and know that they are just temporary mental events rather than reality. By being more aware of impulses, we can take control of them rather than mindlessly responding to them. Self awareness helps us to find a level of comfort in discomfort.  It is ok to be uncomfortable!

 

 

 

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Intuitive Decision Making

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Career decisions can be tough decisions. We are often choosing between two or more options, with incomplete information; we may not know exactly what each option will really be like once we are immersed in it or how we will handle the challenges. We may have two or more good options, and we have to decide what kind of person we want to be – a freewheeling creative or a steady organiser, for example. On the other hand, we might be choosing between a rock and a hard place, and not be sure which option will best allow us to survive today and thrive tomorrow.

A logical way to make a decision is to list the pros and cons of each option and then analyse which option has the most weight on the benefits side. Most of us have probably done this at some point! It may or may not have helped.

A more sophisticated version of this would be to create a table, and list the main options in each row, and then have a series of columns to represent the main factors that you want to take into account (for example, pay, location, creativity, values). You can then score each option against each factor and add up the total score for each option.

Now, both these exercises can be useful thought experiments, but the latest research on how we make decisions suggests that we shouldn’t expect to make a good decision immediately after doing an exercise like this. (Blink by Malcom Gladwell is a great read on this subject).

The rational, logical parts of our brain can only analyse up to seven factors at a time, according to research, whereas most career decisions involve many more than seven factors (will I like the people? can I dress how I like? is there flexitime? what aspects might be boring but necessary? what will be challenging? what will my boss be like? is there a direct bus?), all of which will be differently weighted for us depending on our priorities.

For complex decisions, we generally make better decisions when we access our intuitive brains, which are able to sift through hundreds of factors, checking how they relate to our previous experiences, and then coming up with an answer which is signaled to us as an emotional reaction or physical sensation, our gut feeling. Logical processes can actually lure us into paying too much attention to certain factors, while missing out the more subtle factors and the weight we attach to each factor. For example, we might start to focus too much on pay, and ignore the impact that a tedious commute would have on us.

So after doing any kind of logical analysis of the options, we should put it away for at least a week, forget about it and allow our subconscious time to mull things over while we get on with our daily business.  Good tasks that allow the subconscious to get to work include complex puzzles, running, walking, yoga and meditation.

Liane Hambly introduced me to an exercise which is designed to help us access our intuitive decision making abilities. It can be done as a solo meditation, or a practitioner can guide a client through the process. The client does need to be willing, as this may be rather unexpected!

To work through the exercise, the decision-maker needs to close their eyes, and visualise one of their options. To make the vision seem more real, they can be guided to add a lot of detail – background noise, smells, how they are dressed, who is with them, colours, what exactly they are doing, how their whole day has been, what they have liked, what they have not liked, what family and friends are saying about it.

Once they have created this strong image of themselves inhabiting one of their options, they can be guided to take note of any physical sensations or emotional reactions. For example, they may notice a churning in their stomach, which could be anxiety or excitement or both. They may notice a light feeling of relief at being in the right place. There may be tension in the jaw, shoulders or face, suggesting some aversion to the situation.

The exercise can be repeated for a second option, again taking time to build up a strong sensory picture of what it would be like to inhabit the option, and taking note of the reactions.

Regular meditators will be used to concentrating and noticing their physical reactions, whilst other people may find it a bit more difficult and need more guidance. Before using this exercise with a client it’s important to get comfortable with it as a solo exercise.

Once you or client have noticed intuitive reactions to each option, the next stage is to explore their meaning. Fear of the unknown does not necessarily mean this is the wrong option. What would happen if the fear was overcome? How would that feel? Excitement does not necessarily mean something is the right option. Is there enough excitement to create the motivation to overcome practical difficulties or limited opportunities? More research may be needed.

Sometimes a strong intuitive sense of the right decision will emerge, and you or your client will be able to move forward confidently. Sometimes the choices are harder, perhaps because there are there are two equally good options. The intuitive voice may be more of a whisper, harder to hear in the chatter of daily life.  It’s important to create the quiet mental space to hear the intuitive whisper.

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Self Compassion as a Career Management Skill

Self-compassion is a skill that is often lacking in the workplace. We often drive ourselves very hard to achieve or simply to keep up, even when it damages our health. We don’t always cut ourselves a lot of slack when we struggle to balance our work life and family life or cope with challenging problems. Many people are dogged by a self-critical voice that pipes up every time a mistake is made with variations on the theme of “you just aren’t good enough” or “you should be ashamed to have made that mistake”. When faced with a new challenge, the inner critic reminds us that we probably won’t succeed and may just end up making a fool of ourselves.  Moreover, we often believe that we are the only people who suffer in this way.

Self-compassion is our ability to be kind, forgiving and accepting of ourselves.  It is our ability to care for ourselves in the same way we would care for a child or dear friend: with tolerance, warmth and nurturing. We can  be self-compassionate whilst recognising that we make mistakes and have many imperfections and limitations.

In that sense, it is different to self-worth, self-esteem and self-confidence, which all invoke more evaluation of how good or bad a person we are (often in relation to others) or how good or bad at doing something we will be. There is a judgement involved and the positive evaluation of ourselves is often dependent on us achieving certain things.

Self-compassion is a warmth towards our selves simply based on the fact that we are human. We don’t need to be good at anything or successful at anything to be self-compassionate; we care for ourselves just as we are. In this respect, it is rather like Carl Roger’s concept of unconditional positive regard except it is directed towards ourselves instead of others.

There are many meditation practices that help people to develop self-compassion. One example consists of visualising a wise being who sees our inner most thoughts and secret actions and offers us warmth and acceptance just as we are.  You could also try this guided Befriending Meditation by Danny Penman.

In yoga, we learn to cultivate steadiness and ease in our bodies rather than strain, and learn to accept our physical limitations with kindness. It is a good lesson that can be taken off the mat and into our lives.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapists help their clients to be more aware of how their inner critic may be sabotaging them and teach their client to replace this voice with a more positive and encouraging voice. The client can learn to recognise where their internal narrative is critical, unkind or even abusive, and learn to challenge it. So if the inner voice says, “you are going to mess up this presentation” they can become aware of this thought, and consîder what evidence there is that the thought is actually true. There may in fact be evidence, perhaps previous successful presentations, that can be use during to challenge the inner critic.

So, why is self-compassion an important career management skill?  Self compassion helps us to be more accepting of difficult emotions, including fear, shame and anxiety. Most career changes involve some level of fear and anxiety, as we may worry that we could be making the wrong decision, that we might not be up to the job, that we might not be able to make a living, or that we will find it hard to adjust to a new environment. Self-compassion helps us to accept these difficult emotions as a normal part of life, rather than something to be avoided or hidden. If we accept them we can explore what they feel like rather than try to repress them or mask them as something else (possibly resentment, apathy, irritation or stuckness).

Self-compassion can also help us to take responsibility for mistakes,  be willing to listen to feedback and be more accountable for our actions. Instead of beating ourselves up for getting something wrong, we accept that mistakes are part of being human and we learn from them rather than hide them. This willingness to learn and develop helps us to cultivate the growth mindset which has been shown to be an important element for success. Wouldn’t any employer want to employ or develop the person who asks for feedback, takes responsibility for the outcomes of their work, and owns up to their mistakes whilst trying to put them right?

Self-compassion is also closely linked to compassion for others. Warmth towards ourselves is likely to increase feelings of warmth for others too, as we realise we are all on the same journey, experiencing the same range of feelings. Being able to form warm relationships with others is an important skill for networking, management and customer relationships. Warm and genuine relationships can help to generate opportunities, as others are more likely to approach us if they feel there’s is a genuine connection.

Imagine approaching a job interview with a genuine sense of both self compassion and compassion for others. We would accept that we were nervous and understand that everyone else probably is too. Maybe we could even extend that sense of compassion so that instead of despearately hoping that we’ll get the job, we offer the wish to the interviewers that they have the wisdom to pick the  best candidate for their organisation, and we offer the wish to both ourselves and the other candidates that we can all give our best performances. Sounds hard to do but it would probably lower the stakes and reduce our sense of desperation. And even when we make mistakes and don’t achieve our potential, self compassion allows us to forgive ourselves, learn from our mistakes and wish the successful candidate well. With self compassion the experience is less bruising, so we will be less likely to give up.

Self compassion can help us to be more resilient, more able to bounce back from setbacks and more able to ride out difficult challenges.

Motivational Interviewing or NLP?

I have often been asked which approach a professional should take in order to build motivation with their clients.  The person asking may be wanting to help their clients or learners to be more proactive with career planning, get back into job search after a period of unemployment, maintain a new habit, make progress with a qualification or develop a daily practice.  The barrier they are encountering is a seeming lack of motivation.

Motivational Interviewing

Motivational Interviewing was first developed by Miller and Rollnick (who have written the definitive book on the subject) to work with drug addicts, smokers and alcoholics, but it is now used a whole range of settings, including health and career development.

Mindfulness teachers, for example, might use this approach to motivate a learner to do the daily mindfulness practice required for a learning programme , whilst Careers Advisers might use the approach with unemployed clients, to motivate them to look for work or proactively explore their options.

To get your head around this approach, you need to start by thinking about ambivalence.  If you find it hard to motivate yourself to do something, it is usually because you are in some way ambivalent – in some ways you want to do it, in other ways you don’t.  For example, in some ways you might want a promotion (more money, more challenge, more high-profile) but in other ways you might not (fear of failure, more stress, not sure you if have the skills).  The scales can tip from side to side, and MI works with the client to help them uncover what is on each side of the scales, and then tip the balance towards the desired action (if there is one).

There are two components to motivation – believing that something is important, and feeling confident that if you took action, you would succeed.  If either of these beliefs is weak, motivation will be weak as well, so the interviewer works to increase these two beliefs.

One of the common traps in trying to motivate someone is giving advice – telling them what you think they should do.  Often when people tell you what to do, they articulate what is on one side of the scales (all the reasons to act), and you respond by articulating the other side of the scales (all the reasons not to act), which has the effect of weakening your motivation to act.  For example, if my mindfulness teacher tells me all the reasons a daily practice is important to get the benefits from the programme, I will respond by explaining all the reasons I can’t do it (not enough time, children too young, being too bored, forgetting etc.).

So in MI, you start in the opposite place – you explore with the person why they don’t want to act, and by really listening and understanding their responses, you free them up to articulate the other side of the scales – why they should act.  Articulating the reasons why you should act strengthens motivation.

So a Careers Adviser, for example, might explore with a client all the reasons why she finds it difficult to identify vacancies she could apply for – not enough time, not knowing where to look, not seeing anything local, forgetting, lacking confidence, not seeing anything that matches her skills – and then only after this has been explored well, would the Careers Adviser use questions to elicit more positive statements from the client about the benefits of finding some vacancies.  The point is very much that the reasons for sticking to the exercises must come from the client, not the practitioner.

There are many specific questions and techniques that are used in MI, but the basics are fairly simple:

  • Open Questions
  • Affirmation
  • Reflective listening
  • Summaries

These are all basic counselling skills, used in many professions.  As with client-centred counselling, you need a lot of respect and empathy for the individual you are working with, and you need to believe that they have the potential to change.  The key thing that is different from client-centred couneslling is that the interviewer uses techniques to help the client build motivation to act in a certain direction – to manage their career, to give up smoking, to exercise regularly, to meditate, to engage with a  training programme.

There is a lot of academic research supporting the efficacy of this approach, and it seems to be most effective when the interviewer genuinely does have empathy and respect for the client/patient/learner.

My experience of MI is that it is really effective in working with reluctant or disengaged clients.  It is a great approach to working with clients who have been “sent” for an interview, and don’t want to be there.  It works really well with anyone who seems ambivalent; they say they want something but they don’t take much action to achieve it.  I’ve also used techniques from motivational interviewing on friends and family, with some success!

It’s also useful in a management situation, when you are perhaps hoping to motivate someone to make the best of their potential – perhaps do some extra training, take on a new project or role,  take control of changes in the workplace, or develop new skills.  It doesn’t fit so well, however, with managing performance in the workplace.  If you are in the position of having to set targets and ensure they are met, you are providing an external “stick” and you can’t then be neutral enough to do motivational interviewing in it’s true form.

So What About NLP?

NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) is widely used in business and management, life coaching, sports coaching and communication skills training.  The jury is still out on how effective it is – some people swear by it and others think it is a bit of a con.  There are loads of books, trainers and websites on NLP, explaining how to use NLP techniques to get the most out of life, set and achieve goals, improve your relationships and anything else you care to mention!  NLP consultants often come into organisations to improve communication skills, increase sales or improve motivation.

NLP was developed by Bandler and Grinder, and is a set of practical techniques to improve your skills in managing your thought patterns, communications and behaviour.  Where Motivational Interviewing delves around in the negative, NLP relentlessly concentrates on the positive.

So the mindfulness teacher above might work with her learner and ask her to visualise how her life would be in five years if she had maintained a daily mindfulness practice.  The learner might imagine herself as calmer and more able to deal with difficult emotions, feeling more positive in work and enjoying her family.  She would be asked to make this vision as clear as possible – what can she see, what do others say about her, how is she dressed, what colours are in the picture?  She could perhaps add some music to this mental picture.  Then she would be asked to keep this picture in her mind every day, so that subconsciously she makes choices which lead her towards it.

A Careers Adviser might work with a client to identify negative thought patterns (e.g. There’s no point in looking for a job because I’ll never get one) and replace them with more positive “self-talk” – If I keep applying for suitable jobs, I will be getting more interview practice and in the end I will find something.  

NLP is often used in Career Guidance to improve confidence in managing new situations, job interviews, presentations.  It can also be used to help clients set ambitious goals and think into the long-term about how they want their life to be.  There are techniques than can be used to help clients control negative emotions – anger, anxiety, shyness – and to improve relationship and communication skills.  

NLP techniques are great to use with clients/patients/colleagues who want to take part in the activities.  They can be adapted well to group sessions as well.  They are also good for mentoring relationships – perhaps in the workplace or in education.  I’m not completely convinced about the whole NLP package, but there are definitely tools in there that are very useful, and I’ve made small changes in my life as a result of doing NLP activities, so some of it at least has worked for me!

So which to invest in?

If you want to spend a bit of time developing your skills in one of these areas, which should you explore?

If by nature, you are an empathic listener with a more facilitative approach, MI will probably come easily to you.  If you see yourself as more a magician with a tool box of tricks, NLP is likely to be more attractive. MI will suit you better if your preference is to explore what is here right now in the present, whilst NLP may suit you better if you are future-orientated and like to have goals. Choosing approaches on this basis will build on your natural strengths.  However, there might also be something to be said for working with the approach that comes less naturally to you!

If the people you are working with are reluctant to engage at all, then motivational interviewing will be a better starting point for engaging them.  If on the other hand, the people you work with are already committed to working with you and making changes, you may find that there are plenty of techniques in NLP that will work well for you (although MI will still be useful when you hit brick walls and no progress is being made).

If you like approaches that have been rigorously tested, the MI wins on that score. If, however, you are more persuaded by what seems to work well in practice for you, then there are plenty of people who swear by NLP and you may be one of them.

Of course, you may just find that both approaches are worth learning more about and using as appropriate.

Gratitude and Attachment

Anyone who has been working in the public sector over the last five years will be familiar with those difficult periods of adjusting to budget cuts, dealing with job losses and restructuring. At these times, our resilience is tested. Can we still find it in ourselves to come to work with a positive mindset, support our teams and colleagues, get on with business as usual and plan for the future, even though we don’t know if we will be part of that future?

To support myself in maintaining a positive frame of mind I decided to keep a gratitude diary. I have done this before, and it is surprisingly powerful. Cognitive behavioural therapists tell us that the triad of thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations are intricately linked. If we change a thought, we also change our emotions and physical reactions.  Getting caught up in negative thoughts or having a good moaning session will produce corresponding negative emotions. Contrary to popular belief, punching a pillow will make us feel more angry. And introducing more positive thoughts will produce more positive emotions and physical sensations. That’s how a gratitude diary works.

This time, I thought I would try a work focused gratitude diary.  I focused on my job exactly as it is right now, not how it was a year ago or how it might be next year. There are many good things about my workplace, which are easily forgotten. So here goes:

  • Lovely colleagues who are passionate about what they do, and also really nice, funny people
  • Great people to manage; they are creative, autonomous and care about the quality of their work (and they are really lovely people)
  • A boss who asks for my opinion and listens
  • The chance to make a difference to people’s lives
  • Great leave and flexitime
  • Decent pay
  • Autonomy – no one micromanages me
  • The opportunity to go to CPD events or spend time researching ideas
  • A decent computer with two screens
  • The chance to get to know some talented and inspirational external trainers

When I started thinking about it, it was not that hard to come up with ten items. But a lot of these things I usually take for granted.  Herzburg would call many of these (particularly the leave, flexitime, computer, pay and colleagues) hygiene factors. By this he means, if they are not present, we focus on them and become demotivated. But when they are present, we soon take them for granted.  They don’t motivate us in a positive way or create job satisfaction.

Doing a daily gratitude diary can help to bring these hygiene factors back into our thoughts, help us to have more positive thoughts, with corresponding emotions and physical feelings, and break up mild depression or work blues. Yogis aim to cultivate “santosha” or contentment, and this is a practical way of doing so.

However, the Buddhist teachings warn us about the dangers of attachment. Attachment to the things we value is a cause of suffering, because then we fear loosing them. If I feel attached to my computer with two screens, and then find someone else using it, I might feel little bit annoyed. If I feel attached to my work colleagues, and they decide to move on, I will mourn their passing. If I feel attached to getting praise or recognition, I will suffer when I don’t get it. Attachment to status, money or power may cause someone to move away from roles in which they would have been more creatively fulfilled.

So, if gratitude is a good thing, and attachment is a bad thing, how do we square that? What is the difference? Gratitude is a warm, thankful feeling, an appreciation of things as they are in the present moment without any expectations that they will endure, whereas attachment is a more needy feeling, a feeling that we cannot be whole without something else to complete us. Gratitude can be a general sense if thankfulness and contentment, a sense of having plenty, while attachment is always for something specific and is rooted in the fear of not having enough. Attachment can trap us, whereas simple gratitude does not.

However, I wonder if spending too much time focusing on gratitude might lead us to stay too long in jobs that really we should just move on from. We could could too zen to make a move!  I suspect that is probably not likely to happen. Being in a positive and open frame of mind has been shown to improve the chances of a person coming across a “lucky break” and it is certainly easier to do a job interview when you feel positive about your current job. Loosening the bonds of attachment can help us find the courage for change.

So, to maintain wellbeing in work, develop the gratitude, but beware attachment!

 

 

Listening with an Uncluttered Mind

As a trained counsellor and career guidance practitioner, I like to think I have very good listening skills. And put me in a quiet room with a client in need of support, and yes, I probably do. However, I am very aware that in other workplace situations, I don’t offer the same quality of listening, and I wonder what would happen if I did. I suspect that I would find work more rewarding, since the highlights of my week usually relate to connecting with people.  Maybe it is the same for you.

So how can we learn to listen?

There are several levels of listening that can be offered, from superficial listening (appearing to listen but not really paying attention) through attentive listening (listening carefully to the words) then active listening (reflecting back the thoughts and feelings) and finally deep listening (listening with all our five senses to tune into the emotions that lie beneath the surface).

In a counselling/guidance setting we are aiming for the deeper levels of listening, and we are trained to use active listening skills to help us get there. With practice we get better at noticing body language, facial expressions, tone of voice and pace, as well as the words that are chosen. Reflecting back what is heard and sensed without trying to steer the conversation is a discipline; it is much harder than it sounds. Listening without judgement can also be challenging at times.  However, listening without steering or judging frees us up to truly empathise instead of thinking about what advice to give, question to ask or information to share.

Deep listening gives the speaker the space the they need to really express themselves, but more than that, it is an experience of being emotionally held by someone who “gets” you, and it can be very moving and affirming. To open up requires trust and we are only like to do it if we are not being judged, if we feel there is a kindly acceptance of our inner most thoughts and fears.

Of course, there are many barriers to deep listening, and most of them have to do with thinking too much about ourselves and our own needs. All of the following can be roadblocks to listening:

– Thinking about how to respond

– Planning what direction to take the conversation in

– Thinking about how to persuade someone to change their point of view

– Thinking about other tasks that are competing for attention

– Feeling bored

– Evaluating what is being said (is it true, do I agree?)

– Managing the time

As soon as we start thinking about these thing we are no longer fully focused on listening, and the quality diminishes.  We are partly listening but we are not so tuned in to everything that is being expressed.

Generally, the more stressed we are, the more buzz and chatter is in our minds and the less we are able to listen. If you thinking about an email you mustn’t forget to send, you are not truly listening. If you are evaluating your own performance or criticising yourself, again, you aren’t truly listening.

Meditation has a lot in common with deep listening. When we meditate we are focusing our attention on one thing (often the breath, the body or an object). We are noticing the thoughts that pop into our mind, but trying not to latch onto them. We gently bring our mind back to whatever is the object of our attention whenever it wonders.

Active listening is much the same, except that the object we are focused on is the speaker. As we listen thoughts may pop into our heads, and we notice that but try not to get involved in our own thoughts. We may experience bodily sensations, especially if we have an emotional reaction to the speaker, and again we just notice and accept that without analysing at this point (we might want to do that afterwards!)

Practicing mediatation helps to develop powers of concentration, the ability to accept ourselves without judgement and it can free the mind of some of the clutter of thoughts and stories that prevent good listening. Likewise, practicing good listening us develop self-awareness and an open acceptance of others, listening without judgement.  It disciplines us to focus on another rather than ourselves.  For a really good listening session, it is essential to come with a clear mind.

Of course, it is not possible to be in deep listening mode all the time. If you are teaching or chairing a meeting, you have to give information and instructions, and manage the time. If your meeting has a purpose, then you have to think about how best to achieve that purpose.  You will inevitably be focused on tasks a lot of the time.

But there are many opportunities to use deep listening too, in both formal meetings and informal interactions.  A colleague may be offloading about their day or sharing a problem, an employee may be struggling with a new challenge or finding it difficult to accept change, or a group may be experiencing some conflict. These are all situations that benefit from a good listener.

Real listening can radically change workplace relationships by making people feel genuinely heard and cared for. In tough times, when everyone is stressed, deep listening is harder to do, but it it is even more needed. So, my mission this week is to see how many opportunities to listen I can find.

Tree Pose

DSC_0328This felt surprisingly high up and a bit scary! I can do tree pose (vrikshasana) easily on the floor, but add some height and uneven ground, and it was a whole different ball game! I like balances, because you have to focus and concentrate, and if your mind is as scattered as mine seems to be at the moment, that is a good thing.  I had to focus on a tree at my eye line and NOT LOOK DOWN because I am not all that good with heights and I do get a bit of vertigo.

It’s good to do things that a little bit scary from time to time, things that push you out of your comfort zone, where you need to trust yourself and your ability to meet the challenge. It’s what keeps your comfort zone growing, as things that were once scary become less so.

For tree pose, you need to be really firmly rooted down into ground, but not too rigid. You need to be able to wobble and come back to balance. A tree is firmly rooted into the ground, but can sway and bend with the breeze without breaking. The yogi needs the same qualities.

It was lovely to feel a bit of mud under my bare feet and squidge down into it, and then feel the leaves rustling around me, and be held by the strength of the tree.

Yoga isn’t just what you do on your yoga mat. Every pose can teach you something about life.  For me, tree pose is about learning to be grounded in your own values, having integrity and doing the right thing, but also being flexible enough to meet the changes and challenges that life constantly throws at you.

Happy spring, and let’s all enjoy this sunshine!