Bringing the practices of mindfulness and dialogue to leadership conversations

Giving talk a rest!?

As I begin to write this blog post, there two strong influences on my thinking. Firstly, I was asked by my friend and associate, Julie Drybrough, to write a guest post for her blog with a theme of ‘talking well’. My response was to write mostly about listening well, which I believe to be a precondition for talking well.

Around the same time, I read a prize-winning essay by my friend and fellow coach Brigid Russell, in which she explores how coaching can feel like therapy for a busy leader. Many of my own clients have described a coaching session, or even participating in a dialogue group, as ‘therapeutic’. Up to now, I’ve simply accepted this at face value but, as I read Brigid’s essay, I began to wonder what ‘therapeutic’ means: what are leaders telling us when they say ‘this feels like therapy’?

For me, therapeutic means restful and nourishing: I let go of concerns, and gain a sense of easing, of being at peace with myself and the world, if only for a moment. Fundamentally, I feel re-energised, and this aspect of ‘therapeutic’ is supported when I check the Thesaurus on my computer, which offers: healing, beneficial, restorative, tonic.

With these kinds of words in play, it’s easy to see how a bounded time and space in which to pause, take stock, reflect, and resource themselves might feel therapeutic to a leader. In itself, the contrast with a typical workplace will feel like respite. In telling us that such spaces feel ‘therapeutic’, leaders may be signalling that they value purposeful ‘relief’ from their working environment, a counterpoint to frenetic pace and turbulence, to allow them to make better contact with themselves. This enables them to return to the ‘fray’ with renewed commitment and purpose

What enables you to make better contact with yourself? What offers you time and space to ‘make sense’ of your environment and experiences, and to ‘quality-check’ your thinking on complex issues?

For many, an absorbing activity such as sailing, cooking, riding, or gardening provides this kind of reflective space; it’s clear from my blog posts that walking meets this need for me! Coaching conversations (and other development experiences) add in elements such as witnessing, a sounding board, challenge and support. Yet these activities all represent ‘time out’, away from the workplace. I am beginning to wonder about ‘time in’, and to ask: how might it be possible to create a little more ease and sustenance within the workplace? What if our leadership conversations could feel a little more therapeutic for all concerned?

To explore this possibility, I gain inspiration from Brigid’s essay. In it, she draws on research and her experience to identify factors that influence when, how and why coaching might feel therapeutic. A key element is the nature of the relationship that coach and client create between them, the tone and quality of which is warm and trusting, with a shared belief that change is possible. Fundamentally, the quality of a coaching relationship is more important than ‘clever interventions’, and a climate of empathy, openness and common purpose enables vibrant, thoughtful, and refreshing exchanges.

In a nourishing coaching conversation, both coach and client ‘listen well’. As a coach listens deeply to their client, the client knows, viscerally, that they are heard and accepted, in both their potential and their human frailty. Simply being acknowledged may release them from the need to persuade, to convince, or to be right. This, in turn, means they can listen well internally, and they are no longer able to ignore or override their doubt, discomfort, or other subtle niggle about their strongly held opinion. Being heard can free people from their current view, and create space within for alternative perspectives.

So…what if we could bring more nourishment and ease into our leadership conversations by listening well? What further small changes might we adopt to make our everyday exchanges a little more therapeutic and energising?

Just as the quality of relationship is more important than ‘clever interventions’ in a coaching conversation, the climate we create for our leadership conversations matters more than what we say. To set the tone for what one of my clients calls ‘higher, deeper, wider’ conversations, I draw on work by Peter Garrett and others, who outline four practices to support dialogue (see Pause for Breath, Part 5). One of these practices is listening deeply and well. The other three are: respecting, suspending judgement and speaking our deeper truth.

What I notice about these practices in the context of this article is that only one of the four is explicitly about how we talk. The others reflect attitude, quality of presence and attention, and how we receive another person.

So…what if we were to commit to making two small changes to our practice in leadership conversations? We might:

• Listen a little more carefully, and with a little more acceptance of other points of view; and
• Bring a little more balance to our conversations by giving ‘talk’ a rest.

In spending ‘time in’, we might gain some of the benefits of ‘time out’ – our conversations may feel better, and be more energising for all concerned! Let me know how it goes…

Comments are closed.