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Hosted by Tom Henschel

The Mindful Executive


March 2016

Having displayed physical anger during a meeting, a leader seeks help from his coach. Mindfulness hardly seems the answer – at least as the leader has defined it. The coach gives a new definition.

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March 2016

The Mindful Executive

Tom Henschel

Taming The Beast

Gerald admitted the incident had happened. He admitted he had tossed a marker towards someone in a meeting. He understood why she thought it had been hostile. He hadn’t meant it that way. He’d apologized. Sincerely. Everyone knew he felt badly. He didn’t deny it had happened.

The marker-tossing incident was only part of what had triggered our coaching. His feedback report repeatedly mentioned he also had a habit of interrupting people. And that he was getting better. Respondents also expressed much frustration about his inability to put down his phone. And that he was getting better.

As with the marker incident, he accepted the feedback. He added, “I’m glad people notice I’m getting better. I’ve been working hard to tame The Beast.”

He laughed at himself and continued. “That’s what I call calming myself down: ‘Taming The Beast’.”

“Sounds intense.”

“It has been.” He took a breath, then said, “When my daughter was a teenager, things were hell at my house. She had so much risky behavior. Drugs. Brushes with the law. We’d have these big fights. And I’m not a fighting guy. But I’d find myself yelling at my daughter. She was yelling at me, too. But I was out of control. I was up-close, spit-coming-out-of-my-mouth, yelling. That was The Beast. I knew I should stop but I couldn’t. The Beast had hold of me.”

“But things got better?” I asked.

“They did. Now I can spot The Beast when it’s just this tiny ember starting to heat up in my gut. When I feel that flame, it’s a big alarm to stop whatever I’m doing. So, for now, I think I’ve tamed The Beast.”

“Bravo, Gerald,” I said. “Sounds like you’ve gotten very mindful. Way to go!”

“Mindful? I don’t think so!”

“Why not?” I asked.

“When I hear ‘mindful,’ I picture monks and meditation and a kind of peacefulness. But I gotta tell you, ‘Taming The Beast’ feels like a constant freaking battle.”

“Oh, I see,” I said. “Well, I think of mindfulness quite differently.”

He indicated for me to proceed.

The river of mindfulness

“Here’s how I picture this.” I spread my arms as if marking a wide span. “We’re all standing in a flowing stream. The water rushing past us is all the experiences that make up our lives. Most of the time, we don’t notice the water much, because we’re busy doing whatever we’re doing. But the water is always there. And you can learn to see it. When you do, you begin to notice all sorts of things. Like that you’re doing your email at ten o’clock at night. And eating cookies. And you don’t really want to be doing either of those things. And how did that happen?”

“Or that I’m screaming at my daughter,” he said.

“Or that you interrupted someone. Or that you picked up your phone.” I paused, then spoke more quietly. “Gerald, the reason I used the word ‘mindful’ is because the feedback report says, and you say, that all those behaviors – the yelling, the interrupting, the looking at your phone – have gotten better. They couldn’t have gotten better if you weren’t noticing them. Noticing them made you mindful. And that allowed things to change.”

He shook his head. “Well, if I got mindful, it’s by accident. I gotta be honest, I don’t really have a clue what mindfulness is.”

“Oh. Well, first, mindfulness is a practice. That just means there’s no end point. It becomes part of your life.”

“And how do you do that?”

“Golly, there are hundreds of ways to be mindful. But, in essence, there are two parts. The first part is paying attention, mindfully, to whatever is happening right now, in the present. That’s how you tamed The Beast, right? By noticing it.”

He nodded. “I suppose. And the second part?”

“Curiosity and interest,” I said. “No matter what you notice, you try to be curious and interested. Say I notice I’m upset. Well, huh, that’s interesting. I’m curious about it. Or I notice I flipped a marker at someone. Well, huh, that’s interesting. I’m curious about it.”

“Except that I shouldn’t ever have done that!”

I smiled at him. “Are you going to ‘should’ on yourself?”

He laughed at the phrase. “’Should’ on myself! I did, didn’t I?”

“‘Should’ only shows up when you’re looking back at the past or out into the future.”

“And being mindful is about being in the present.” He was sorting the ideas.

“You got it,” I said. “So if you’re curious and interested, ‘should’ can’t exist. And you can’t judge yourself. Or be wrong. Or stupid. Or bad, or any of the other names we call ourselves.”

“But how does anything get better if you’re just noticing and not judging?”

“Do you think change comes from judging yourself?”

His response was immediate. “Yes. When I beat myself up, that helps me get better.”

“You’re not alone, that’s for sure. But let me ask, are you willing to consider that you could achieve the same changes without beating yourself up?”

“Sure! Why not? I’m willing to consider we’ve been visited by aliens, too. Doesn’t mean it’s real.”

I laughed. I was enjoying Gerald. I said, “Let me tell you what the research says.”

Physical and emotional benefits of mindfulness

“There’s research on mindfulness?”

“Mindfulness research is still relatively new, but there are lots of results and they all point in the same direction.”

“Which is…?”

“Well-being. For example, people who practice as little as five minutes a day for just thirty days report substantial reduction in things like chronic pain, stress, anxiety and addictive behaviors. To me, that’s a tiny investment for a big payoff.”

“Sounds like it.”

I went on. “Other studies show the immune system improves and positive emotions increase.”

“Does that mean people don’t get angry as often?”

“Exactly,” I said.

“Well, I’m up for that!”

“Here’s a result that stuns me. There was a study done on people who’ve been practicing mindfulness for years. Those people had increased grey matter. Think about that! Their brains grew new cells! Who wouldn’t want to grow their brains?”

“OK. So how do I do this?”

“Well, there are two different ways to practice. One is just living more mindfully all day long. Noticing what you’re doing. The other is practicing in a disciplined way.”

“Can you teach me both?”

“I can certainly teach you the first. Absolutely. As for the second, yes, I can give you a little taste of it during our sessions, sure. And I can give you some resources. Then it’ll be up to you.”

“Fair enough,” he said. “So with that first way, are you saying I can be more mindful at work?” He shook his head. “I keep picturing monks and bells. I don’t see how this fits in at work.”

Mindfulness at work

“I bet it’s not all that different from what you’ve already done, Gerald. So tell me, how did you learn to interrupt people less?”

“I started noticing when it happened. Then I noticed it had a feeling attached to it. When I interrupted people, I usually felt impatient. Or was thinking they were stupid. Or both! So I taught myself that when I felt that way, I should shut the hell up.”

“Gerald, that’s a mindfulness practice. I imagine mindfulness as having three parts. And you’ve already done two of the three.”

“I have?”

“You have!” I raised three fingers. “The three parts are connected like a triangle. It doesn’t matter which one you start with.” I ticked each word on my fingers. “Mind. Body. Heart. Those three points are the water rushing by us that we often don’t notice.”

Gerald drew a triangle on his pad, then labeled each point. He looked up, ready for definitions.

I said, “Each point has a question attached to it. Mind is: ‘What do I think about what I’ve noticed?’ Body is: ‘What do I sense in my body right now?’ And Heart is: ‘What am I feeling right now?’”

“’Feeling’ like an emotion, not like feeling in your body, right?”

“Right,” I agreed. “So let’s take interrupting. You noticed you were feeling impatient. Well, that’s Heart. And you noticed yourself think the person was stupid. That’s Mind. Did you notice anything in your body?”

“Yes,” he said, a little surprised. “I’d take in a breath and hold it, ready to start talking.”

“Do you see how much you noticed? That’s being mindful.”

He laughed. “I actually did something like that this morning. I suddenly realized I was pounding my keyboard like I was trying to hurt it. As soon as I noticed, I stopped.”

“What else did you notice?”

“Well, I didn’t have to notice how pissed I was. I knew that!”

“So that’s ‘Body’ and ‘Heart’. What about ‘Mind’? What were you thinking?”

He laughed again, a little sheepishly this time. “That this damned regulation process is completely screwed up!”

“Did you send the email?”

“Are you kidding? Of course not!”

“Why not?”

Develop a practice

“Because…” He stopped and actually considered. Then he spoke slowly. “Because it would’ve been a big mistake. In so many ways. But I used to send those sorts of emails. I used to hit ‘send’ so hard it would rattle the desk.”

“But no more?”

He gave a shrug. “Not as often.”

“Because you’ve gotten mindful.”

He nodded. “OK. I see how to do the ‘Mind-Body-Heart’ thing during the day. But that’s different from the disciplined practice you talked about, right?”


“So what about that?”

“As I said, there are hundreds of different mindfulness practices out there. They’re all good. You can’t do them wrong. None of them will hurt you. You have lots of choices. I don’t know what will feel good to you.”

“What kind of choices are we talking about?” he asked.

“Some people prefer mindful movement, like yoga or t’ai chi. Some people practice meditation. Some people practice while walking. Choices like that.”

“And then I practice, like, what, five minutes a day?”

“That would be great. Some people do more. Like any discipline – going to the gym or managing your food or whatever – the benefits come when you do it regularly.”

“Being mindful about it!” he said with smile.

“Exactly,” I said.

During our coaching, I did some mindfulness exercises with Gerald. He found them pleasurable although not easy. After one, he said, “This feels like one of those ‘minutes to learn, lifetime to master’ sort of things.” I agreed.

I also gave him resources to help him explore different practices. (See below.) Because Gerald had already guided himself a good distance down the path of mindfulness, I was certain his continued journey would move him even further towards The Look & Sound of Leadership.TM


Learn more about meditation


Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness
by Susan Smalley and Diana Winston

How To Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind
Pema Chödron


Search your apps store for “how to meditate” and you’ll find dozens of titles.
Two easy, friendly apps are:

Mediation Studio


A quick search of “how to meditate” will yield dozens of sites.
Here are just a few:
How to


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