Bringing the practices of mindfulness and dialogue to leadership conversations

Practice-based learning

Congratulations to Andy Murray on winning his first ‘Grand Slam’ title. I recall when, as an ungainly teenager in 2005, he took Wimbledon by storm. His raw talent was obvious, but his conditioning and discipline were not sufficient for the task in hand. Over the years, I have developed increasing respect for his commitment to enhancing his fitness, his versatility, and, most recently, his mental and emotional resilience. It has taken him 7 years of dedication, of examining his game, and of doing ‘whatever it takes’, to fully inhabit his potential. He is a model for practice-based learning.

In a similar vein, I recently read ‘The Art of Learning’ by Josh Waitzkin, who has achieved international success in both chess and T’ai Chi Chuan. As Waitzkin describes his development as a chess player and as a martial artist, it becomes clear that he is forensic in his scrutiny of both his successes and his setbacks, searching to understand what he needs to work on next. He particularly emphasises ‘investing in loss’, whereby he almost seeks out adversity in order to learn how to navigate it. It is hard to cultivate genuine resilience if you only succeed.

These two young men embody commitment to improving their ‘game’ in their chosen discipline. They understand the crucial role of conscious repetition in making progress. They also understand that generating sustainable change takes time.

Why I am writing about this? Murray and Waitzkin each show tremendous resilience in the face of losses, hiccups in their game plan, and environmental challenges such as the weather or questionable decisions by officials. They learn to recover quickly, to stay in the game. They later reflect on their experience, and make changes to their practice. Then they practise, honing those changes. They treat adversity as a feedback loop that conveys valuable information about how they can improve.

So…what if our chosen discipline is leadership conversations? What if we were to bring this dispassionate scrutiny to examining our own part in those conversations that challenge and/or defeat us, that feel unsatisfactory or frustrating, or that simply seem to go awry?

The challenge for leaders is that we typically need to introduce new practices whilst ‘on-the-job’. This brings difficulties because we are part of a complex system of performance and relationships. When we’ve reached a certain standing in our organisation or in our profession, we tend to be more used to being adept than to being a novice. In addition, we are ‘held’ as having answers by those around us, whether team members, clients, colleagues, or bosses. The pressure of the expectations we carry of ourselves, as well as those that others place on us, means it can feel risky to make changes.

Further, it’s unusual to be able to implement a new approach to a good standard at the first attempt, particularly where it involves others. A certain amount of trial and error will be required, with uncertain consequences. There is often a gap between our grasp of the potential of an alternative way of doing things, and its messy unfolding in human reality. For practice-based learning, the way we relate to this gap is crucial.

My Dialogue Practice Development Groups support leaders to increase their versatility and resilience in their challenging conversations. About half way through the programme, many feel discouraged by a perceived lack of progress. Since the ideas are easy to grasp intellectually, why is it so difficult to get them ‘right’? The participants are used to being proficient, and when the impact of their attempts to introduce changes diverges from their aspirations, it can feel disappointing. They relate to the feedback as ‘failure’ rather than as information. Using mindfulness practices, they learn to recover from this discomfort, to create space to see the experience differently, and to try again.

Another potential pitfall is the ‘gravitational pull’ of our most well-used habits in conversation, the ‘recipes’ that have worked successfully for us over the years. If we make the distinction between advocacy (making a point) and inquiry (inviting exploration), most people tend to use one more instinctively than the other. My own tendency is to advocate, which means that the advocating ‘groove’ in my mind is more deeply developed than the inquiring ‘groove’. Unless I am mindful, I will nearly always advocate. The antidote is to develop an inquiring ‘groove’ that is as readily accessible as my advocating ‘groove’. This means practising, bringing mindfulness to the potential influence of my familiar habit on my desire to expand my repertoire.

Mindfulness means to be aware of what is happening, as it is happening, with a friendly and impartial curiosity towards self and others. Bringing mindfulness to our practice in conversations can enable us to ‘stay in the game’ when we are challenged, surprised, or simply confused. It supports resilience so we can continue to practise, until we embed new approaches. If we are dedicated to developing our versatility and resilience in leadership conversations, and commit to regular, conscious practice, we may even see some improvements in 7 years. After all, that’s how long it took Murray to journey from promising newcomer to Olympic champion and Grand Slam winner!

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