Mindshifting to Mindful Coaching: Managing Your Attention So You Can Think, Focus, and Lead
By Joshua Ehrlich
All of us are running faster and faster as technology shreds our attention. We have confused speed and urgency with impact and productivity. Information overload and fractured attention cost the US economy at least $900 billion a year.1 We desperately need to take back control by learning to stop, reflect, and focus. The discipline of paying attention has an immediate impact on performance and accelerates learning. In this article, I outline how and where to focus in order to learn critical leadership skills, and describe how reflection and mindfulness combine to form a powerful coaching model.
Linda is a senior executive who started her career as an administrative assistant. Her first role was in a branch office of a multinational financial services company. She was a fast learner with a great deal of energy and the ability to get things done. She was steadily given greater responsibility. She began managing the administrative staff in her office, and then took on the compliance and office management functions as well. Her drive and service orientation got the attention of the district manager, who picked her to run these functions for the region. After just a few years she was promoted to headquarters to run administration, compliance, and office management nationally.
I met Linda shortly after she started her role at headquarters. She was scattered during our conversation and would take phone calls and check email every few minutes. She told me she was frustrated and struggling with the huge volume of work. It seemed every employee and compliance issue in the field would bubble up to her because she knew the most and was the best at solving difficult problems. Her days were filled with back-to-back meetings because everyone wanted her time. She began falling behind on deadlines and would often be 20-30 minutes late for meetings. She would apologize profusely, but was not really aware of how destructive her behavior was becoming for her relationships and reputation. As much as she was drowning, she felt like the go-to expert. She enjoyed seeing her own impact and so it was hard for her to delegate real authority to her staff.
As Linda moved from each level to the next, she needed to change where she focused, what she valued, and how she defined her job. These changes can be described as a series of Mindshifts as you go from individual contributor to leader of a large organization. As I coached Linda to step back, reflect, and focus on her behavior, she was able to see how she had become a bottleneck because she was stuck on the first Mindshift, 'Doing to Leading' (see chart below). Ultimately she was able to shift her attention from getting things done on her own to developing her team and facilitating their work. Her job was no longer to assemble the budget and double-check it herself; it was to make sure the right people came together so the budget reflected her whole department's needs and goals.
Linda also became more aware of her impact and better at setting boundaries, including saying 'no' to problems that were not hers to solve. This gave her more time to think about how to improve her department's performance. After a few years she mastered several more Mindshifts and was ready for another opportunity. Linda is now running a rapidly growing business that is central to her company's future.
Practice: Mindshifting Self-Assessment
There are seven Mindshifts to make as you go from managing yourself to managing organizations.2 Moving from left to right along each dimension requires a change in how you prioritize and evaluate your success. First consider the Doing-to-Leading Mindshift:
- Place an 'X' where you feel your skills and focus are currently on the continuum.
- Place an 'O' where you would like to see yourself in the future given your current role as well as the requirements of future potential roles.
- Assess where you are and where you would like to be for the rest of the Mindshifts.
Building a Foundation
The Mindshifts can help you map out a development plan to shift along each dimension. However, you first need to take hold of your attention by learning to stop, reflect and focus.
Practice: Stopping the Action
Our minds need regular rest and reflection. Vacations (from the Latin vacare, to empty) are times to put out our mind's garbage so we can replenish. By temporarily putting aside our daily challenges and allowing ourselves to daydream, we are able to discover new ideas:
- Daily: stop your action at least once and ask two questions: 'What am I focused on?' and 'What am I learning?' Keep a journal of your answers and look for patterns.
- Weekly: make time for something creative or nurturing (e.g., take an art class, visit a museum, go to a concert, or take a walk in the woods).
- Quarterly: schedule a vacation, even a long weekend, and make sure not to fill it with constant activity. Decide how often you need to check your office voice mail/email and communicate that decision to your colleagues.
- Ongoing: notice how stopping the action positively affects your focus, mood, and energy.
Practice: Leveraging Others for Reflection
We need to ask for help making time to think and taking tasks off our plate:
- Assistants: If you have or can get an assistant, ask their help creating space between meetings to clear the decks and prepare for important conversations.
- Delegate: Give away tasks that bog you down. Acknowledge that control only feels safer and let go of the belief that no one can do it as well as you.
- Thinking partners: Ask colleagues and friends to be your thinking partners. Explain that their job is not to tell you what to do, but to listen and ask questions to help you think through issues. Make this a regular habit and offer to return the favor.
- Personal Board of Directors: Contract with a select group of trusted coaches, mentors, and advisors you can rely on to give you counsel. Find individuals with diverse backgrounds so you get different perspectives. Mentors provide invaluable insider knowledge of companies, industries, and fields. Coaches offer outsider objectivity and expertise on learning new behaviors and leadership skills. Because it is so hard to see our own behavior clearly, we need objective feedback for our reflection to create accurate self-awareness.
"As a senior executive my time is no longer my own, yet I desperately need time to think. I get my assistant to schedule thinking time and then protect it. I also ask my colleagues to be thinking partners, because as an extravert, I talk to think and synthesize better out loud. It's about being disciplined and creating choice. We have choice if we exercise it." Nicoa Dunne, former SVP Human Resources, Misys Technology.
Mindfulness is both a state of mind and an attitude. The state of mind is present-focused awareness, open-mindedness, and acceptance. It takes great practice and willpower to live in the present, rather than ruminating about the past or worrying about the future. In addition, staying open to new ideas can bring up significant anxiety, and accepting reality can challenge our sense of identity. It helps a great deal to cultivate a welcoming, curious, and gentle attitude towards ourselves and our experience. It is the combination of state of mind and attitude that makes mindfulness invaluable.
Studies show that techniques to develop mindfulness enhance a range of positive emotions, emotional stability, and our ability to read social cues. In addition, mindfulness training increases immunological functioning and life expectancy, and reduces depression and chronic pain. When we can accept reality as it is, we become less frustrated by our situation, less fearful it will change, and less depressed about not achieving our fantasies.
We are just starting to appreciate the power that reflection and mindfulness have to facilitate learning. Research by Ellen Langer at Harvard suggests that individuals who apply reflection and mindfulness are able to learn more quickly, problem solve more creatively, and extrapolate their learning more flexibly across settings.3 The more we can tolerate anxiety and discomfort, the more we can take the personal risks we need to learn.
For centuries, spiritual traditions have explored ways to develop reflection and focus. Techniques for cultivating concentration and contemplation are central to the mystical teachings of Judaism, Hinduism, Shamanism, Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity. Buddhist teachers have developed a range of practices for developing mindfulness, often using breathing as an anchor.
Practice: Mindful Breathing
- Your breathing is a built-in stress barometer and focusing tool. Take a minute and just watch your breathing. Notice your stomach rising and falling as you follow your breath all the way in and all the way out. See if your breathing slows and your muscles relax without any added effort. Notice if your mind begins to clear. Observe your attitude toward yourself. Try to replace self-criticism with acceptance and gentleness.
- Next time the phone rings, become aware of how your breathing quickens. Emails and phone calls trigger a fight-or-flight stress response—increased heart rate, blood pressure spike, and shallow respiration. We can reprogram this trigger into a relaxation response. Next time the phone rings, stop what you are doing and turn away from your computer. On the second ring, take a breath. On the third ring, smile. Notice the effect on your attitude. Now pick up the phone.
Reflection and focus are fundamental to developing self-awareness, which is the starting point for developing all leadership competencies. Learning everything from communication and emotional intelligence to strategic thinking and team building depends on our ability to examine our behavior and focus our attention.
Once we can self-monitor and breathe mindfully, we open up the possibility of strategic thinking. Strategic thinking is the ability to see the big picture, collect information from disparate sources, and envision the future. Strategic thinking is one of the hardest skills for leaders to develop. It does not require genius, just focus. There are four overlapping elements:
- Acquiring a wide range of information about global trends in human behavior, technology, and business;
- Stopping to reflect in light of the new information (letting the ideas 'percolate');
- Synthesizing the information into a creative vision of the future;
- Communicating the vision in a clear and compelling form.
Leaders need to not only manage their own attention, but to capture others' attention. An inspiring strategic vision does this by aligning us around an energizing set of ideals, and by tapping into our needs, hopes, and dreams.4
"One of the chief imperatives of leadership is to have vision. Vision requires a deep understanding of your business and is inspired by out-of-the-box thinking and imagination. Leaders need to make the time to reflect in peace to let their vision come together." Ramesh Singh, former Management Board Member, UBS Investment Bank
Practice: Eliminating Obstacles to Strategic Thinking
The sheer volume of tasks and transactions we face (and take on) each day is the biggest obstacle to strategic thinking (think back-to-back meetings and never-ending email). The stream of alluring details in front of us pulls our attention and we zoom in. We need to break our attention away and zoom out in order to look ahead and anticipate. Anticipation means predicting the potential consequences of our actions, our impact on others, and changes in the business environment.
- Look at your calendar for last week and think about how you went through your days.
- How much thinking time did you create?
- What were the principle obstacles to thinking strategically?
- Look at your calendar for this coming week and plan how you will approach it.
- What one or two changes could you make to clear space to think?
When we start to shift our attention and think strategically, we are able to make two critical Mindshifts. We can shift our attention from Personal Accountability (monitoring our own work processes, deadlines, and goals) to Organizational Accountability (measuring the whole organization's success via profit, efficiency targets, etc.). We are also able to focus less on Task Analysis (figuring out the best way to get things done) and more on Market Analysis (looking at what business to be in and strategies to get there). Making these transitions depends on our refocusing our attention from narrow to wide. We need to open up our minds, leaving aside self-focused questions like, 'Can I complete this task?' and moving towards holistic questions like, 'Where do I want to take my business?'
Emotional Intelligence (or EI) is the ability to use the information in emotions to make decisions and reach goals. The components of EI are:5
- Expressing & managing your emotions
- Understanding others' emotional signals.
These skills are tremendously important for leaders, and underlie the Mindshift from Self-Awareness (knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your style) to Interpersonal Awareness (managing your emotions and behaviors and their impact on others). Interpersonal Awareness allows you to communicate, negotiate, and influence effectively, as well as build strong relationships and create effective teams.
Practice: Empathy and Emotional Attunement
Adopt the perspective of an anthropologist and study the culture of your organization as if it were an unknown tribe whose language you do not speak. Try to intuit what colleagues are feeling and intending by paying attention to their nonverbal signals. Focus on facial expressions, glances, eye contact, tone of voice, mannerisms, gestures, and posture. With people closer to you, take this a step further by asking them if you are right with your hunches. Though every person's signals are to some extent unique, the facial and vocal expressions of most feelings are consistent across cultures.6
Notice the impact of your colleagues' feelings on your own. Tune in to the subtle feelings in your body, particularly in your chest and gut. How do you feel the impact of a colleague's frustration, expressed in a backhanded compliment or sarcastic comment? Can you feel a twinge in your stomach or do you have some other visceral reaction? Record your observations and hypotheses in a journal. Becoming more attuned in this way provides you with information that allows you to anticipate others' needs and behavior.
We know that when we are under stress and emotionally raw we are more prone to be reactive, irritable, and insensitive. This is confirmed by research showing that the greater our stress, the less empathy we have.7 So as stress goes up, EI goes down. Conversely, mindfulness training reduces stress and anxiety, and thus is able to counteract the negative effect of stress on EI.8,9
Mindfulness training increases empathy and the ability to read others' emotions.10 In addition, mindfulness increases compassion and gratitude, along with activity in brain regions associated with positive emotion.11,12 Mindfulness may thus enhance EI via a direct effect on brain function, as well by facilitating our ability to self-monitor and course-correct through greater access to feedback.13,14 When we can accept and ride the waves of our feelings, we can make use of the information contained in emotions rather than avoiding them or overreacting to them.
Combining principles of focus and reflection suggests a model of mindful coaching.
At a macro level, there is a continuous cycle of assessment (seeking understanding) and goal-setting (planning action). This is a common feature of modern coaching and helps clients see pragmatic value because there is progress towards concrete objectives. However, over-focusing on goals and outcomes is a dangerous habit. It can lead clients out of the moment and into frustration and tension where they do not learn. Rather than always checking and worrying about the score, clients need to pay attention to and enjoy the game—in other words, they need to focus on process. Mindful coaching applies intention and attention to this process.
The coach creates a container, a holding environment of mindfulness, within which the client can think, feel, and experience without judgment, and which enables them to gradually reveal and accept themselves.15 The core of this container is silence—an underestimated source in itself, and vital because freedom from interruption and peace of mind are essential for clear and productive thought. The coach also makes the intention to get out of the way by putting aside his or her own ego in the interest of serving the client. This enables active listening where the coach goes beyond what is said to try to understand underlying themes. Focused questions direct the client's attention toward specific cues inside and around them. These questions shift perspective, challenge assumptions, and open the client up to new possibilities.
"Silence used to make me uncomfortable. Now I welcome it and let it do the heavy lifting. Silence gives my client precious room to reflect. In addition, as I listen from silence and quiet my inner dialogue, I have faith the right questions will emerge. I relax into my body and hold any emotions that come up. I feel into the coaching and trust my gut to gauge what is really going on. I can take more risks and challenge my client. Being fully present with silence gets me to the real issues, to the heart of the matter." Crista Salvatore, Learning & Development, New York Life Insurance Company
In brainstorming, the emphasis is on learning over teaching. The coach is active in providing new ideas, tools, models, and potential solutions. However, the coach is careful not to take over the client's choice by telling the client what to do. The coach ensures outcomes and results by asking the client to commit to action and execute a plan. The intention needs to come from the client for momentum to continue. The coach helps the client find the motivation to change and the courage to hold themselves accountable.
In addition to Strategic Thinking and EI, Mindful Coaching facilitates the development of a broad range of leadership skills and related Mindshifts. For example:
- Reflecting on our values and purpose helps us lead with integrity and authenticity.
- Paying careful attention to how we listen (listening to ourselves listen) enables us to communicate effectively.
- Actively changing our perspective and looking at challenges from multiple angles helps us uncover hidden assumptions and generate innovative ideas.
- Managing team members' attention so everyone is focused on achieving a shared goal is the heart of team building.
I find that coaching this way creates more sustainable change than do behavioral methods. One reason is that simply turning mindful attention to our thoughts, feelings, and behavior helps undo self-destructive habits. In addition to raising our awareness, giving ourselves and our symptoms "accepting attention" is healing in itself. Mindful Coaching also helps us reflect on our own process as coaches and manage the uncertainty and ambiguity of our role. Not being the expert and giving up control are anxiety producing and are central challenges for new coaches and leaders learning to coach.16
Linda's sanity, and my own, depended on my staying mindful during our meetings. When she interrupted herself mid-sentence to check her email, I was tempted to do the same. Instead, I monitored my frustration and observed her without judging. Reflecting back to her what I saw and asking questions about its impact helped her pay greater attention and look at herself with more clarity. Over time, she began internalizing my accepting attention and started to cultivate greater mindfulness to contain her restless energy.
Staying focused and mindful is a tremendous challenge. The exercises are not hard to integrate into our daily routine but the skills take a lifetime of practice. It takes great self-discipline to pull out of our constant swirl of activity and information, and we need a high level of awareness to know when to Mindshift. However, once we sense the power of mindfulness, for both our clients and ourselves, we see there is no higher priority.
1 Basex, Inc., (2010). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basex, accessed 7/22/2010.
2 R. Charan, S. Drotter, and J. Noel, The Leadership Pipeline: How to Build the Leadership-Powered Company (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001).
3 Ellen J. Langer, The Power of Mindful Learning (New York: Perseus Books, 1997).
4 Warren Bennis, Why Leaders Can't Lead: The Unconscious Conspiracy Continues (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997).
5 J. D. Mayer, P. Salovey, and D. R. Caruso, "Emotional Intelligence: New Ability or Eclectic Traits?" American Psychologist 63, no. 6 (2008): 503-17.
6 Paul Eckman, "SIOP 2008 Invited Address: Emotional Skills," The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist 46 (2008): 21-24.
7 Jon Kabat-Zinn, "The Science of Mindfulness," Speaking of Faith, NPR, New York, NY. 18 April 2009.
8 Ibid., Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness (New York: Delacorte, 1990).
9 Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy, "Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time," Harvard Business Review 85 (2007).
10 Daniel Goleman, "Finding Happiness: Cajole Your Brain to Lean to the Left," New York Times 4 Feb. 2003, New York edition, sec. F: 5.
11 Matthieu Ricard, "Change Your Mind Change Your Brain: The Inner Conditions for Authentic Happiness," Google Tech Talks. Google Headquarters, 1600 Amphitheatre Parkway, Mountain View, CA. 15 Mar. 2007.
12 S. L. Shapiro, G. E. Schwartz, and G. Bonner, "Effects of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction on Medical and Premedical Students," Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 21, no. 6 (1998): 581-599.
13 R. F. Baumeister and T. F. Heatherton, T. F., "Self-Regulation Failure: An Overview," Psychological Inquiry 7, no. 1 (1996): 1-15.
14 B. Alan Wallace and Shauna L. Shapiro, "Mental Balance and Well-Being: Building Bridges Between Buddhism and Western Psychology," American Psychologist 61 (2006): 690-701.
15 D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality (New York: Routledge Classics, 2005).
16 David Hosmer, "Cascading Coaching: Building a Model of Peer Development," OD Practitioner 38, no. 3 (2006): 17-20.