Mindfulness is about paying attention, as experts both East and West will tell you. Another way of looking at this is: Mindfulness isn’t free – you PAY attention. Is the opportunity cost worth it? In most cases it is worth it. If you are depressed, you should not engage in mindfulness practices; but for everyone else, mindfulness appears to have enormous benefits.
The mindfulness practice that I illustrate below is not the kind that leads to detachment from your life or psychosis (the only true downside that research shows, and in very few people, all of whom were clinically depressed). Quite the opposite; it is designed to more fully engage your life and grow by facing a natural challenge.
I will show you a way of paying attention that actually pays you dividends far beyond the “stress reduction” and “mental wellbeing” praised in non-religious contexts. You might not become enlightened, but you’ll get far more than lowered stress and good mental health. And it starts with a goal that you already have.
Most of us face a version of one of the following two goals: learning to speak more assertively (to stand up for ourselves) or learning to listen better (to engage more when listening). Speaking up and listening better are foundational development goals, with roots in creating more confidence or humility (respectively).
Here, I introduce the spectrum of mindfulness as a general platform for using two unique spectrums of mindful practice – one for speaking up more and one for listening better. Working on confidence requires a totally different set of steps than working on humility, yet the same spectrum of mindfulness practice will help you achieve either one of these.
My executive coaching clients on Wall Street work in alternative investment firms (hedge funds and private equity firms). You might be surprised to learn that they, too, often fall into these categories. They must deal with the same developmental challenges as you: marshalling their courage to speak up or suspending their preferred path when listening.
These two challenges reflect a balance we all must strike between “humility and confidence.” Back and forth we go throughout life, and just when we get good at the one, we realize we must focus again on the other.
It’s easy to get stuck at the one you were best at when you became successful, however you define “success.” But as Marshall Goldsmith famously wrote, what got you here won’t get you there.
Speaking up (standing up for yourself) and listening better (engaging others with empathy) are not static traits of personality, they are skills that can be developed. The reason a spectrum of mindfulness is useful is because deep changes (often involving our very identity) are best done incrementally. You may feel like you are “only paying attention,” but you’re actually investing in yourself.
Train Like a Professional Tennis Player
World class coach Jim Loehr uses a metaphor from his time spent working with professional tennis players. For Loehr, we all have a “backhand and forehand” of either “humility or confidence.”
In other words, people tend to have a forehand, like humility, and this helps them listen well. Other people have a forehand of confidence, and this helps them to speak their mind. People with a forehand of confidence may lack humility even when the situation calls for it. The same goes for people with a forehand of humility who need more confidence to advocate for their views.
Notice that no matter who you are, no matter what position you are in, it is likely that you are dealing with one or the other. Most of us are a little out of balance. It is natural to rely on your strengths and to avoid working on your “backhand.”
Time pressures at work seductively offer us a “reason” for leading with our strengths. We will often double-down on our forehand instead of working on our backhand in the face of a challenge. Like a professional tennis player who “runs around their backhand” to hit their preferred shot, you will use more and more energy to play to your strengths.
You will continue to do this even after the point of diminishing returns. Tennis players regularly trade errors for perceived safety by running around their backhand. We are all blind to reality when the objectively worse choice FEELS safer to us. We ignore evidence that it’s time to work on our backhand.
People who confidently speak up will often, when faced with a challenge to listen better, become arrogant and seek to get their point across even more (“This isn’t rocket science!”). People who humbly listen will often, when faced with a challenge to speak up for their agenda, become insecure and seek to gain more understanding (“I know we need a decision, but I need more perspectives!”). The more challenged we are, the more likely we are to make errors when running around our backhand. Your forehand is not always safe, but it will always feel safer.
An Outline for the Method of Mindful Practice
Which brings me back to the spectrum of mindfulness practice. The following is an outline of the small growth steps required to move towards greater balance, by improving your backhand (whichever one you might have; detailed versions for each backhand to follow). Generally speaking, this process begins as an idea, moves into feelings, and only then becomes new behaviors. It all starts with simple noticing:
- Record occasions when you double-down (i.e., being insecure or arrogant).
- Remain Curious
- Record what you’d need to see yourself doing in order to balance this out.
- Thought Experiments
- Record Insights from imagined scenarios where you act out your backhand.
- Interview Others
- Record Responses from interviewing someone whose forehand is your backhand.
- Safe Experiments
- Record Results from safe experiments: what did/did not happen when you made a small “backhand behavior change?”
- Less Safe Experiments
- Record Results from less safe experiments: what did/did not happen when you made a bigger “backhand behavior change?”
- Consolidate in a Narrative
- Create the story of your good changes.
Before embarking on a journey of change, you should know if you really want to make the change. Unless you are genuinely torn between your goals (backhand) and safety (forehand), you will lose steam. Willpower can only take you so far.
You must become aware that you are exhausted with some part of yourself, some limitation, or else you are happy where you currently are. If you are happy with where you are, then you should continue on as you are. Only by weighing the costs and benefits of changing against the costs and benefits of keeping the status-quo will you know if the change is worth it (and also, if it’s not).
Next, I will explore the specific steps along the spectrums of speaking-up and listening-better. For now, know that the heart of these spectrums of mindfulness practice is experimenting. “Safe experimentation” is the key.
After you notice what’s going on, you must gain insight. You must see all of the places where you are protecting yourself. And the people from whom you are protecting yourself. Then, you must practice.
You can practice in front of a mirror, with a coach, or with a trusted confidante. Practice speaking up, practice listening; practice your backhand! Practice feeling all the anxiety of making fundamental changes in your behavior.
It’s like going to the gym – don’t expect to pull off a backflip at the meeting when you haven’t practiced. After this, you get your feet wet. Look for someone with whom you’ve worked in the past who hits a better backhand than you. Remain curious, they might surprise you with their answers.
Only after doing the above do you start to experiment. Look for the safest place with the safest person to test yourself. This will be different for people who need to learn to “speak up” vs. those who need to learn to “listen more.” Each time you run an experiment you want to slowly turn up the volume. Robert Kegan, another world class coach, tells trainees and clients alike that they must go slow in order to go far.
Most important is that you actually record what did and did not happen every time you make a new step. You may have heard about the amazing neuroplasticity of your brain? Well, here’s what you may not have heard, we write neuroplasticity into existence!
Just as learning from a book is not as good as learning from an experience, writing down the results of your experience is far more effective than relying on your memory. It’s like writing down a dream – you are much more likely to integrate its meaning into your life.
Each time you take a small step and write down what did and did not happen, you are building neurons that compete with your old self. These learning moments, based on experience and then written down as a short phrase, helps you marshal your strength when you are torn between your goals (your backhand) and your strengths (your forehand). You’ll never develop a good backhand if you keep relying on your forehand.
At some point you will no longer need to talk yourself through what you’re doing. You will automatically assume it won’t hurt you or your life in the ways that you had once perceived – you will be able to turn your mindful attention to something else (like enjoying your new, more expansive self).
This is the time to write your story. Create a narrative of the steps you’ve taken along the spectrum of mindfulness. Don’t make it too long. After all, you’ve got a new life to live!
Two Types of Change
There are simple changes and complicated changes. I have been discussing the complicated changes needed to address a simple balance – confidence and humility. Most of the time, development requires an interpersonal commitment, because the changes are complicated.
Having another person doesn’t necessarily mean hiring a coach, but hiring a coach is the most efficient way to achieve the complicated, elusive goals that we all face in life.
Remember: these are not fixed traits we are looking at, they can be gained through experimentation. In the next two pieces, I will be looking at the specific steps for speaking assertively and listening with empathy.
The method I’ve sketched out above has almost twenty years of application in the field. It is likely that one of the two approaches to developing your backhand can help you on your path to greater maturity and success. When you have decided that the costs of status-quo safety are worse than the costs of working on your backhand, you should give this process a try.