Bringing the practices of mindfulness and dialogue to leadership conversations

Staying in conversations

When did you last exit a conversation without raising something important, something you’d planned to say? What happened that left you unable to express yourself in the way you’d intended?

As an executive coach, I use Leadership Embodiment practices to look at this kind of scenario with my clients. The approach encourages us to study ourselves in our interactions with others and the world, and to identify how we react in pressured or stressful situations. It also offers an ‘antidote’, a centring practice through which we can recover our poise and effectiveness.

Leadership Embodiment was developed by martial artist Wendy Palmer. Wendy became curious about why, when she fully believed in the Aikido principle of protecting her attacker as well as herself, her body didn’t act accordingly. The bottom line is that cognitive ‘knowing’ isn’t sufficient to change behaviour when we’re under duress. Recognising this, Wendy developed an elegant framework for working with the energetic patterns that arise in our daily predicaments. The practices support systemic change, directly, efficiently, and sustainably.

While it’s great to do this work with clients, I’ve also been using the practices myself since 2010, enabling profound change in my work and life. I’m able to be more present, resourceful, and skilful in a variety of situations, particularly when the going gets tough. When I’m experiencing the discomfort of criticism, confrontation, or disagreement, I’m more able to remain engaged. After all, if I can’t stay in a charged conversation, I have no influence over its outcome.

Recall a recent conversation that bothered you in some way, where you became heated or withdrawn. What was the result? What might have been different if you’d been more able to remain present?

My experiences in T’ai Chi offer clear evidence of the consequences of being unable to stay in charged situations. I’m not a natural martial artist, and while I can be diligent in practising the solo movement sequences characteristic of T’ai Chi, working with a partner on martial applications has always been a stretch. I often step away from this to practice alone, creating a pattern in which I can’t gain more skill. This, in turn, reduces my confidence.

Through Leadership Embodiment work I now understand that, even if we’re adept at something individually, the energetic stakes are raised when another person is involved. With an additional factor in play, there’s more energy to handle, and we can become less skilful. Recognising this, I can use the practices to focus on increasing my capacity to handle the intensity of martial ‘conversations’, rather than trying to be ‘good’ at partner work.

Unsurprisingly, this tendency of withdrawing from difficult encounters shows up in my verbal conversations. Initially, I try to overcome any challenge. I’m articulate, and can speak with authority – even when I don’t have any. I can easily ‘steamroll’ someone who is hesitating, or being thoughtful. Recently, I’ve noticed that if I don’t prevail, it’s my habit to remove myself from the exchange – muttering with self-justification of course!

Baldly, if I don’t quickly win an argument, or ‘right’ a perceived wrong-doing or injustice, I walk away. While it’s sometimes appropriate to do this, it’s useful to examine motivation: am I making a considered withdrawal from a situation where expending energy would outweigh any benefits? Or am I ‘flouncing’ in a fit of pique, leaving negative vibes in my wake?

What is the parallel for you? Can you see a pattern in the way you behave in charged conversations?

The Leadership Embodiment ethos of study invites us to perceive our behaviour with clarity, and accept it with kindness. This creates space to generate options, and to be more mindful in our response. In my case, I’m more likely to be skilful, and less likely to flounce.

For example, being introverted and cerebral, it’s less natural for me to talk about emotions. When I’m upset or cross, I notice that the visceral experience immediately before I withdraw from a conversation is a sense of being ‘shrink-wrapped’. If I’m able to recognise this at the time, I can use it as a signal to recover centre.

This practice helped when a friend passed on some information that unsettled me. I felt the ‘shrink-wrapped’ urge to retreat, but was able to recover centre, and then check her motivation for sharing the information. This allowed us to explore the matter, laying it to rest. In the past I would have stayed silent, giving a slight wound the opportunity to fester.

More generally, I’ve learned that whether I’m irritated, frustrated, or self-righteous, it shows up as a ‘condensing’ experience – blinkered, closed, and short on options.

When I experience this, I align my posture, connect to my breath, and attend to space. With more perspective, and less certainty, I find I do have options. I can stay in this conversation, while acknowledging that the outcome isn’t in my gift, or exit honourably, because I don’t have the wherewithal to be skilful. Either path, taken mindfully, will bring more benefits than any reactive habit.

When you next find yourself in a charged conversation, what will support you to stay in it, mindfully, or to leave with grace?

To begin to work with Leadership Embodiment practices, join my next ‘level 1’ programme in Fife, starting on 29th September.

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