Here’s How Mindfulness Can Help You To Unlock The Secret to Better Professional Relationships
One of the significant areas that form part of my Mindfulness teaching is showing how alike we are and that understanding this helps us to realize we are not alone. This especially pertinent for many of my clients who are chronic pain sufferers, or have a long-term illness which can make them feel isolated and lonely. I draw on my journey of developing greater self-compassion and how that has helped me to build better, more authentic relationships at work and beyond.
Everyone here knows what a good relationship feels like! It is visceral. We are biologically wired to read each other body’s. Not just at a physical level but at a subtler and more complex level that lies at the root of lasting empathy and social connection. This process is called ‘resonance’ and is so automatic and rapid that it occurs subconsciously. Like an acute sounding board, our brains echo what others do and feel. The so-called ‘mirror neurons’ that are a key to empathy so when someone smiles you automatically smile and when someone frowns well… you know what happens.
Before you have begun talking to someone you have downloaded loads of information about them on a subconscious level.
As Paula Niedenthal, Professor of Psychology at Wisconsin-Madison “We are programmed to read each other’s states so we can more appropriately interact, empathize or assert our boundaries according to the situation.”
The primary function of this brain area is to alert us to threats to our survival. It makes you realize how powerful and the importance of social connection. We are hard-wired to be social creatures, and as women, we have a head start, social connection and friendship are part of our genetic heritage. Our hunter-gatherer society women formed communities to protect their families. It is less of survival of the fittest and more of survival of the ‘kindest or most connected.’ Darwin used the word ‘love’ 95 times and ‘survival of the fittest’ only twice. The natural order of things is to connect and build relationships to survive.
Often it is the little social moments, the chit-chat that we engage in that builds stronger relationships. Sometimes in our busyness and task-focused environments, we can dismiss these moments as time-wasting. Increasingly technological situations, where it is easier to email or Facebook your colleague or friends than to talk to them we need to make space for those little moments.
Twelve years ago, when I migrated to Australia, everything had to start again. There is nothing like setting foot in a new place with no family, no networks and where your past was exciting but not more relevant beyond that it demonstrated skills. It was like being reborn, and it was also a little scary. I had invested a lot to come to Australia and felt under-pressure for this move to work. I was pretty scared of failing, and that does not help relationship building. Fear is the enemy of relationships, and so the relationships I had with colleagues and friends were a little transactional rather than connected and empathetic.
I was finding relationships stressful and was getting stuck in my head, working out what I was going to say next and not attending to another person.
A colleague of mine gave me some straight feedback, and this was an ‘aha’ moment. More than anything in my rush to make everything work perfectly I was trying to connect, but I was not making myself available to build relationships. I was going through the motions. Two crucial things were not working I was not listening to others, and I was closing myself off from deeper connections on which great relationships are founded. I was finding relationships stressful and was getting stuck in my head, working out what I was going to say next and not attending to another person. Also, I was avoiding the unstructured moments where a real connection could occur. I was using the need to rush to the next meeting, to go to pick up from childcare as a way to avoid having that coffee or after-work drink where I could be ‘me’ and build more authentic relationships.
The first steps on the journey for me were to build more significant self-awareness that wasn’t just a head-driven mental thing but developing the capability to bring my awareness back to a physical experience in the body. I got back into yoga and using simple mindfulness exercises where I could learn to listen to how my body responded to people and situations. I began to pay attention on purpose to the present moment. In building that attention, I started to listen to others, make space for them as well as learning to able to make choices about I how responded to people. I learned to trust in myself, and in so doing more authentic relationships started to unfold. The most significant hurdle was to develop greater self-compassion. I suppose like many women we are harder on ourselves than we are on others and in my case, I was not making any room my nervousness/anxiety to do well or acknowledging my introvert nature.
Now I would say that my relationships with people are more honest than in previous times. I can stand up to stressful situations but from a more centered place. I can say No to things without feeling guilty; I stay open to people who are making themselves available to me, wanting to builder a deeper relationship and I can step away from relationships that are ‘toxic.’ This is self-compassion. In return, I notice people are kinder to me and more willing to go out on a limb for me.
This an ever-unfolding journey but if I was to point anyone towards some critical areas for building better relationships that have worked for me these are some of them:
- Find the Good in Yourself
Rick Hanson, an American psychologist well summarise this:
- Let be: be mindful and present without automatically reacting
- Let go: acknowledge when things or people are challenging and choose to shift your awareness to more positive and sustaining emotions, thoughts and feelings
- Let in: seek out the ‘good ’in you and decide to rest your awareness there, so you grow and develop stronger positive emotions
- Body Language Matters
When we make contact with someone, we should come to that space from a connected and loving perspective. Slow down, take the other person ‘ín’, be open and self-aware. Use eye contact as the crucial first step for and smiling is a close second these are first positive steps towards openness, courage and the willingness to go out on a limb. The well-known fact that it’s not just what you say but how you say it matters, Body language matters and working towards creating a positive feedback loop.
- Cultivate Curiosity
We are all naturally curious. Watch any child, and you will see that in action. Learn to embody curiosity. Roll back your shoulder, relax your body, take a risk, and ask questions beyond the superficial. If the person seems hesitant, you can encourage them to open up without being personal. In response to their answers experience how you feel, engage that the sense of wonder that follows from this action. Be grateful for the connection and express genuine appreciation for the relationship.
- Another’s Shoes
Take on the perspective of the other person. Too often we are about creating separateness and cynicism is rife in our culture. We seem to focus on finding reasons not to like people instead of reasons to like them. Shut that cynical voice off, and concentrate on looking for the good in any person. For one thing, that keeps you from writing someone off too soon, but more importantly, when you expect the best from people, they are likely to deliver it. Instead think this person is just like me, “cognitive empathy,” you can perceive the edges between you and the other person as porous without losing your autonomy even if you do not agree with them you can acknowledge their viewpoint.
- Pay More Mindful Attention.
One giant thing that keeps us from connecting with other people is that we do not listen. Instead, we are thinking while the other person is talking. We are so focused on what we are going to say or how what the other person is saying is going to affect us that we fail to hear what is said. The words come through, but the meaning is lost. You have to learn to silence this inner voice if you want to connect with people on a meaningful level. So what if you forget what you planned to say or if the conversation moves on before you have a chance to make your point. Your real goal is to connect with a person. Therefore, you have to shut off your soundtrack and focus on what they are telling you.
- Be Willing to Be Vulnerable
It is not wrong to show your vulnerability, but the resist the urge to make yourself look good. Doing so may stroke your ego, but it does not help you to connect with them.
The good news is we’re programmed to connect, and if we give ourselves, space and practice compassion connection can flow.