There is another facet to dedicated awareness—self-knowledge. In fact, self-knowledge is so closely linked to mindfulness that I feel it is impossible to separate them. Awareness of self includes a knowledge of your strengths, weaknesses, abilities, limitations, biases, gifts, etc. Also included in this list, in my opinion, should be an understanding of your purpose or calling—the unique nature of the mission you are here to fulfill. (If this concept of purpose interests you, you may wish to read my series on The Why of Our Work. Also, I’ll be posting excerpts soon from my keynote address, The Why Behind What We Do, at the Inaugural ACMP conference in May.)
What is the link between self-knowledge and mindfulness? As shown in the graphic above, we are shaped by the unique mission or purpose we are here to fulfill, and the distinctive set of attributes and qualities that differentiates each of us. The more clearly we understand this purpose, and the more aware we are of the challenges, limitations, and biases we carry (in other words, the greater self-knowledge we possess), the more effectively we can operate in a mindful way. Self-knowledge allows us to recognize situations where we are likely to become distracted or mindless and identify places where mindful attention is required in order to fulfill our purpose. In addition, it motivates us to keep ourselves on track when we inevitably slip into mindlessness. In turn, mindfully interacting with the world around us offers us opportunities to learn even more about ourselves.
As we practice mindful awareness, some of the thoughts and feelings that surface may reveal parts of ourselves that make us uncomfortable—anger, fear, greed, jealousy. Some practitioners would rather not have these thoughts or emotions. Mindfulness gives us the opportunity to bring these things to the surface where we can work with them, instead of burying them deep inside and pretending they are not there. This increases our self-knowledge, enabling us to know more completely who we are as human beings. We become more in touch with our unique purpose, our individual gifts, and our reason for being in the change facilitation profession. Self-knowledge allows us to recognize situations where we are likely to become distracted and identify places where our attention is required. In addition, it motivates us to keep ourselves on track when we inevitably slip into mindlessness.
Mindfulness literally means to fill our minds with no more than one endeavor…to narrow our conscious awareness to one thing at a time…to focus on a single individual, situation, or issue without interruption. Multi-tasking, familiarity, emotional reactions, preoccupation with the past and future, and self-absorption are all powerful inhibitors to our mindfulness.
We can build our “mindfulness muscles” by becoming more and more skilled at staying in the present moment and giving it our full attention, developing self-knowledge, and being conscious of where, at any given time, we choose to invest our personal energy.
Mindfulness provides a foundation for a deeper sense of purpose and presence with our clients, and for the possibility of being a catalyst for transformation in our clients and in the world.
In my last post, I talked about using mindfulness to deepen the intensity of our attention so that we can be more sensitive to what we observe and/or act on in any given situation. I’m not suggesting we apply this kind of focus all the time. However, when facilitating important change projects, there are times when we need to apply pinpoint awareness to what we are doing.
Although mindfulness is simple to understand, it is definitely not easy to apply consistently (particularly for those new to it). Becoming more mindful as a change practitioner means continually and purposefully directing your awareness. It requires a moment-by-moment consciousness of your intent, a moment-by-moment attunement to what is actually happening in front of you, and a series of moment-by-moment decisions about where to allocate your attention.
This means that mindfulness isn’t so much about what you are doing—it is about your mindset while doing it. You can be as singularly focused when you are facilitating a meeting or teaching a class as you are during prayer or meditation.
There are deeper levels of mindfulness practice that can provide a strong foundation for change facilitators if you choose to pursue them. Meditation is one well-known path to increasing mindfulness that stems from Eastern traditions. Although many people think of meditation in terms of sitting cross-legged on the floor, you can apply the essence of the practice while walking, cooking, or participating in a conference call. It involves shifting into an “observer” state, where you watch what is happening in the moment while still engaged in doing your current activity.
Whether or not you choose to take on a deeper meditative practice, I believe, at a minimum, we should be capable of the pinpoint awareness mentioned in my last post. When involved in change-related tasks or duties that call for it, this kind of focus is an essential part of living up to our professional responsibilities. In this regard, it is vital that we build our “mindfulness muscles” by becoming more and more skilled at staying in the present moment and giving it our full attention, as well as becoming conscious of where, at any given time, we choose to invest our most valuable resource—our personal energy.
Some Thoughts on Multi-Tasking
I am aware that all this talk of mindfulness runs counter to the current tolerance for (even glorification of) multi-tasking. In fact, multi-tasking is so common for most of us that we aren’t even aware we’re doing it. Despite its widespread acceptance, when we attempt to pursue two activities at the same time, we reduce our effectiveness at both. Of course, when we engage in more than two activities at once (which is often the case), we are, at best, covering each with a thin coat of attention, while trying to convince ourselves and/or others that somehow everything is being taken care of.
I’m not indicting multi-tasking in general. There are many activities we can do while also doing something else. My question is, should practicing our craft be one of those activities? More specifically, are there aspects to facilitating change where multi-tasking is counterproductive? Is it OK to engage in several other mental and/or physical activities while also attending to our client’s change needs?
My answer is “yes and no.”
I think it depends on the task, so the issue isn’t really, “Should we multi-task?” Instead, it’s “When is it appropriate or inappropriate to do so?”
Answering this objectively can be challenging when we are under pressure to deliver. (“I wish I could focus on what is in front of me but I have all these other deadlines.”) Asking colleagues for advice can help, but the danger here is they may feel just as conflicted as we do. It might be better to ask those who will be impacted by the results. What kind of response would we get if we asked surgery patients, audit clients, victims of a crime, or survivors of a disaster if it is OK if those who are taking care of them divide their attention while helping them. It’s really no different for clients who trust us to guide them through the dangerous turbulence of transformational change.
If multi-tasking is acceptable, it should be defensible. Professionals who feel the urge to dilute their attention while in service to someone who is paying for their time and talents should feel comfortable telling their client what he or she plans to do. If we can justify it to ourselves, why can’t we be honest with the recipients of our work?
Go ahead. Try it.
It might sound something like this: “I just wanted you to know that for the next half hour of our conference call, while you are explaining the specifics of your concerns about the change we are working on, I’ll be answering some email and thinking about what happened this morning that really irritated me. Not to worry. I’ve been facilitating change for years and there isn’t much I haven’t heard. It’s important for you to vent all your frustrations but I only need to recognize a couple of key words and phrases in order to understand what’s going on. Because of my deep experience in this field, I’m confident I can properly address your situation with only a portion of my attention. In fact, if I didn’t inform you otherwise, you would think I was fully engaged in our conversation. I really appreciate your understanding. You know how it is…sometimes we just need to split our focus to keep all the balls in the air. Right?”
It is unlikely that many of us would sign up for “informing” our clients in this way and yet we somehow feel completely justified in applying the logic this declaration implies. In fact, many of us have become so skilled at hiding our multi-tasking that it has become an art form.
If diffusing our attention while performing professional change facilitation duties is the correct thing to do, we should feel comfortable explaining ourselves to those who are paying for the service. The very fact that we usually engage in multi-tasking covertly is evidence enough that we don’t think our clients would approve. I dare say, many of us wouldn’t approve either, if we allowed ourselves to view our behavior objectively. Who among us would agree that it’s acceptable to deceive clients into thinking they are getting the full attention they’re paying for? It’s easier (less stressful) to just not think about it.
The only way we as practitioners can justify multi-tasking on the more critical aspects of our work, is if we are willing to say either the changes we work on are unimportant or what we do as change facilitators has little bearing on implementation outcomes. Neither of these alternatives is likely to be palatable.
Does multi-tasking happen among us? Undeniably. Is it the proper thing to do in all situations? Absolutely not. The key is deciding when to multi-task and, when we engage it, to do so with forethought (mindful multi-tasking). If you are a lone practitioner, only you can make this determination. If you are part of a firm or internal change agent team, the group should set the standards. One way or the other, we need to come to grips with the fact that, regardless of the time pressures we feel, multi-tasking isn’t always the answer. There are certain circumstances where dedicated mindfulness allocated to a single activity is the only way we can honorably serve our clients and practice our craft at the proper level. The important thing is to be able to determine when these situations arise and respond appropriately.
Next post: The role self-knowledge has in mindfulness.
When practicing our craft, there are times when we must be fully absorbed in both the context and the content of the dynamics we encounter. Not everything we do as change facilitators requires this kind of intense focus, but when called for, it’s essential that we have the capacity to narrow our attention to the one person/thing in front of us. Doing so allows us to work with the uniqueness of each situation rather than either reacting out of unconscious conditioning, without giving proper thought to our response, or blindly applying concepts or models that may not be appropriate or effective for the circumstances.
The importance of being fully in the present moment, or mindful, is emphasized in many philosophical, cultural, spiritual, and religious writings. Mindfulness, though, is more than merely being attentive. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn describes it as follows:
“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally. This kind of attention nurtures greater awareness, clarity, and acceptance of present-moment reality...The key to this path, which lies at the root of Buddhism, Taoism, and yoga, and which we also find in the works of people like Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, and in Native American wisdom, is an appreciation for the present moment and the cultivation of an intimate relationship with it through a continual attending to it with care and discernment. It is the direct opposite of taking life for granted.”
Pinpoint Awareness Is Key
As practitioners, we need the ability to engage our full attention on something when the situation calls for it—to focus with pinpoint awareness on one thought, emotion, action, person, object, etc. From this perspective, mindfulness literally means to fill our minds with no more than one endeavor…to narrow our conscious awareness to one thing at a time…to focus on a single individual, situation, or issue without interruption.
The purpose of this particular feature of mindfulness is to limit our range and deepen the intensity of our attention in order to bring a heightened sensitivity to what is being observed and/or acted on in a situation. Being mindful toward someone or something means relating to whoever or whatever is in front of you with “alert participation.” Mindful change practitioners are capable of doing five things:
If mindfulness means being watchful about what is unfolding in front of you, then operating while on “auto pilot” (with only a small part of your attention engaged) is “mindlessness.” See if you can recognize these common examples of mindless behavior.
Mindlessness is seldom the result of a conscious decision. People don’t say to themselves, “I’m only going to listen to 20% of what this person has to say because I have more important things to think about.” No, mindlessness is usually due to an unconscious shift we make while we are in the midst of a task or a conversation. That is, we are mindless about going into a mindless state. Our automatic pilot takes over without our awareness.
Mindlessness can become our primary mode of operating at any time, but we are particularly vulnerable in situations such as the following:
What this tells us is that multi-tasking, familiarity, emotional reactions, preoccupation with the past and future, and self-absorption are all powerful inhibitors to our mindfulness. Yet, these are everyday occurrences for facilitators of organizational change.
In the next post, I’ll suggest some ways of becoming more mindful.
 Kabat-Zinn, Jon (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York: Hyperion.