Bringing the practices of mindfulness and dialogue to leadership conversations

Naked truth

In an unsettling week, I’ve been finding solace and inspiration in the Fife countryside. During dawn walks, I’ve watched an insouciant fox, locked gaze with deer, heard and seen a woodpecker beat out its Spring message, and stood beneath a waterfall, as early rays of sunlight sparkled through icicles as thick as my arm. In the rhythm of walking and breathing, I reaffirm my sense of life, of being part of this vibrant tapestry.

In the world of work, there have been two events involving change, disappointment and loss: I initiated one, and am affected the other. The first, and less wide-reaching, was cancelling my Pause for Breath leadership retreat: I’ve been encouraged by the level of inquiries, but decision-time arrived with bookings still short of the minimum needed. Previously, when cancelling a programme, I’ve ‘kept it quiet’. In letting people down, I fear that my reputation will be tarnished, or that I’ll be seen as unsuccessful, or unreliable, or…

This time I’m choosing to be open: the retreat, which I’m passionate about, has not generated enough interest. I’m sad, disheartened, and frustrated: something I believe in has not found sufficient resonance with leaders and practitioners. However, there’s opportunity too: in the short term, less congestion in my diary, and in the longer term, re-imagining the retreat, and perhaps creating something even more potent.

So what prompts my transparency? I’ve been thinking about the dialogue practice of ‘authentic voice’, or speaking mindfully from a place of deeper personal truth, regardless of how others receive what we say. Authentic voice puts ‘more of myself’ into a conversation. This contrasts with occasions when I’m not in good contact with myself, when I tend to second-guess what others might think or feel, and adapt, edit, or embellish my words to minimise imagined adverse reactions. In so doing, I dishonour both myself and others: I don’t trust myself, and I don’t trust others to hear and hold my truth.

The truth is an acquired taste. Authenticity can be raw, intense, naked. It reveals what we often cover-up: emotions, uncertainty, human frailty. If we are unused to speaking about our real thinking, or our feelings, or our deeper sense of a situation, then our authentic voice may be rusty, and we may feel self-conscious when we use it. Similarly, if we are unused to hearing this kind of honesty, we can experience the discomfort we might feel if someone undressed in front of us.

As a leader, when do you modify what you say to mitigate potential for discomfort, conflict, worry or embarrassment? What is the impact? In contrast, when are you able to trust your voice, and speak with candour, keeping faith with your listener’s capacity to receive what you have to say? What inspires you to do this?

For me, one of the things to get in the way of using my authentic voice is fear of damaging an important relationship. With a long history of unskilful challenge, I’m nervous when I disagree, or feel uncertain, or intend to say ‘no’ to a request. However, in working with this practice, I find that being open and genuine gives permission to others to acknowledge their own concerns or difficulties. While being more honest can be testing in the short term, in the longer term relationships are strengthened.

To find courage to speak my personal truth, I draw inspiration from part of The Invitation by Oriah Mountain Dreamer:

‘I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself; if you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul, if you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy.’

This is an uncomfortable call to arms, asking three times whether I can speak my truth, even if it evokes sadness, anger, or judgement from another. Can I be faithless to another, and so be known as trustworthy by being true to myself?

The second unsettling event, which affects me, offered an opportunity to practice receiving the intensity and raw emotion of another’s authentic voice. Wendy Palmer, who developed the embodiment practices that support and enrich my work, revealed that The Embodiment Foundation is downsizing. Wendy founded this non-profit enterprise with the intention creating universal access to the power and wisdom of Leadership Embodiment tools. Her bold vision reflects her generosity of spirit, and in an early success the foundation secured funding to work with young leaders in South Africa.

In a moving statement, Wendy and her colleagues expressed their pain in making, and implementing, the decision to downsize. While it seems as if the world has tilted on its axis, I also feel a deep sense of empathy. I appreciate their courage, and being trusted with the unvarnished truth enables me to transcend personal concerns and to consider what I can do to support this powerful work*.

It seems to me that the practice of authentic voice deepens our connection with others and builds trust through acknowledging our shared humanness. In an uncertain and complex world, we need these qualities in our leadership conversations. As leaders, we can ask ourselves:

• how will I bring more of my personal truth to my conversations; and
• how will I grow my capacity to receive and hold the truth of others, however unsettling?

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