Mindfulness and Leadership Part 2

February 28, 2017 by School of Medicine Webmaster

Previously, I wrote about mindfulness and leadership through the lens of emotional intelligence (EQ), focusing on two aspects of EQ: self-awareness and self-management.  The other two aspects of EQ in the model developed by Daniel Goleman are social awareness and relationship management, and mindfulness can be very helpful in cultivating these as well.

Social awareness involves paying attention to others around us, and is based in empathy, the ability to understand another person’s experience and to pay attention and respond to his or her emotions.  The principal way we understand how others are feeling is by paying attention to how we are feeling.  We have “mirror” neurons in our brains that are activated based on seeing others’ reactions, and these result in our experiencing similar feelings.  Thus, paying attention to our own experience and how we are feeling gives us insight into how others are feeling.  If we are aware of this, we can then choose how to respond most skillfully.  If we are not aware that this is happening, we will still have the feelings, but we might react quite differently.  For instance, if we are with someone who is angry and we are paying attention we may notice that we feel a little angry too.  Noticing this with nonjudgmental awareness, we might simply respond by just listening or perhaps by naming the emotion, “Oh, I can see that you’re angry about this”.   Either of these responses may be helpful in working through the situation. On the other hand, if we aren’t paying attention, we may respond to feeling another person’s anger by just avoiding them if it makes us feel uncomfortable, or by telling them that they shouldn’t be angry, or by reacting with anger ourselves.  None of these reactions are likely to be very helpful.

A key aspect of really paying attention to how we are feeling in relation to others is being aware of why the emotion is arising.  This is very important in healthcare as we deal with people who are suffering all the time. If we are empathic, which we regularly teach our students is a good thing, we will feel the emotions of others who are suffering, and this can be very difficult. However, if in paying attention to the suffering and noticing how we are feeling we are also aware that we are feeling this way as a natural response to another, we may actually find we have greater tolerance for our own discomfort and be able to be with it more.  If we enter the room of a patient who is still in pain despite our best efforts, we may feel very uncomfortable, sometimes to the point of leaving and not further addressing their concerns.  On the other hand, if we notice their discomfort and recognize that it is their discomfort that is making us uncomfortable, and then we don’t judge ourselves or them for feeling this way, then we might recognize this connection as positive, as information that can help us provide better care, and we can then move toward the discomfort instead of away from it.  Sometimes all we can do is acknowledge this, perhaps by sitting down next to the person and saying “I know we haven’t been able to totally control your pain and that this is very hard for you.  I want you to know that we are going to keep trying.  Is there anything I can do for you right now?”

The other main aspect of social awareness is organizational awareness. While empathy involves understanding individuals and their emotions, organizational awareness refers to understanding relationships and emotions within a group.  The same principles apply as with empathy, and begin with paying attention to our own experience.   What do we notice we are feeling when we are in a group? What are the predominant emotions of those with whom we are working?  How are people relating to each other? Practicing noticing these things can be very challenging because we bring our own agendas and expectations into our workplaces, and it can be very difficult to separate our own hopes and stories from those of the group.  This really requires practice because we all interact with the world through our own lenses regarding the ways we think things should be.  Our view is conditioned by all our past experiences which influence how we see the world now.  One of the ways to begin to cultivate a more open view is to notice the tendency to judge situations and group dynamics, paying attention to thoughts about the way things “ought to” or “should” be.  “Ought to” and “should” often indicate that we feel the rules we live by are being broken, yet these “rules” are often based on our past experiences, and may not held by others with whom we work (or live).

So to increase our social awareness, we can really pay attention to how we are feeling, both with individuals and in groups, without judgment and with a sense of curiosity.  If we notice a particular feeling, especially one we would prefer not to have, can we just be with it, and perhaps think “isn’t that interesting?  I wonder why I’m feeling this way?” without judging it or trying to get rid of it. Similarly, when we notice thoughts about the way things “should” be, can we ask the related question “isn’t that interesting. I wonder why I think this way?”  As with all these suggestions, it is much easier to actually do this in real time if we’ve spent time meditating, practicing being with thoughts, feelings, and sensations as they arise, with kindness and without judging them.

Filed Under: Monthly Musings