Originally published in Forbes.com on August 19th 2019
“When I move half as fast, I notice twice as much,” says psychologist and mindfulness teacher Dr. Tara Brach. It’s a truth we’ve all experienced in one way or another, often when it’s forced upon us by life circumstances. Brach shared one such insight in a talk earlier this year when she described a new mother who was diagnosed with cancer and not given much time to live. The mother’s mantra became “I have no time to rush.” It was her way of savoring every last drop of her life.
These quotes can serve as a reminder of the benefits of slowing down to wake up, of the timeless and practical wisdom in this line from The Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal: “The present letter is a very long one, simply because I had no leisure to make it shorter.”
But how can the lessons of mindfulness be applied to workplace communications in the “fail fast and break things” culture of many startups, including those that are increasingly embracing remote work?
First, it’s important to note that mindfulness has become a buzzword and even spawned a thriving McMindfulness industry, where it’s often used in the workplace for “subduing employee unrest, promoting a tacit acceptance of the status quo and as an instrumental tool for keeping attention focused on institutional goals.”
With that realization out of the way, let’s establish a shared understanding of how we’re defining mindfulness.
What’s the definition of mindfulness?
Mindfulness definitions vary slightly across disciplines and speakers, but the thread remains the same. Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, considered by many to be a pioneering figure in bringing mindfulness to the West, describes it as “the capacity to be aware of what is going on.”
Having attended a retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh, I can attest that this “what is going on” applies and can extend to everything. When sipping tea, for example, it could mean being aware of the bodily sensations that arise with each sip and having gratitude for every element of the tea’s long journey to your cup.
Another definition comes from the American Psychological Association, which defines mindfulness as “a moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience without judgment. In this sense, mindfulness is a state and not a trait. While it might be promoted by certain practices or activities, such as meditation, it is not equivalent to or synonymous with them.”
With those definitions as our base, here are a few practical ways to bring mindfulness into your remote work communications.
1. Choose the medium that maximizes human intelligence.
This advice comes from a recent workshop by Dr. Donald Rothberg. During a conversation about how best to communicate with colleagues in increasingly digital environments, Rothberg explained that it’s critical to step back, consider the context of our communication and then choose the medium that gives us the best chance to establish a human connection.
If, for example, you typically use a workplace chat tool for quick back-and-forth dialogue on tasks, consider upgrading to an audio conversation or, better yet (and if both parties are comfortable with it), a video call for longer or more important matters. These upgrades can create a more mindful environment because they bring the nuances of voice and natural human contact into the picture.
I’ve recently “upgraded” from audio to video calls with a public relations firm my company works with and, even after just two weeks, I feel our overall relationship has improved dramatically.
2. Give the speaker your full awareness.
Productivity can come to a grinding halt when, for example, one party “ghosts” the other in a workplace chat app. This occurs for a variety of reasons, often because one colleague has been interrupted by a human-to-human interaction with another colleague, or because one is trying to juggle multiple chat conversations.
“Ghosting” isn’t likely to happen on video chats, but other challenges can arise, such as one colleague typing to someone else when the other is talking, or when one gives the other the “profile view.”
The profile view occurs when one colleague has two monitors and is looking into a webcam that doesn’t correspond to the one the other colleague is looking through. I’ve found that this break in eye contact can, in subtle but powerful ways, make one colleague feel as though they aren’t receiving the full attention they deserve.
3. Set your best intention before conversations.
This is especially helpful for managers whose schedules are often booked in 30-minute blocks, but it applies to most meaningful remote work communications. Before jumping on a call, take a few moments to mentally check in with yourself. Becoming aware of your emotional state, for example, can help ensure that frustration from a previous and potentially unrelated situation doesn’t spill into your upcoming conversation.
At my home office, I have a Post-it note on the wall above my desk that says, “What’s your best intention?” Before calls — and sometimes even briefly during calls — I’ll glance up at it as a reminder to bring my best, most helpful self to the conversation. On many occasions, this small reminder has helped me be a more mindful communicator, particularly during those moments when I catch myself listening more to respond or give advice than to truly listen.
Mindfulness, though it’s a practice and a state that can lead to personal realization, is also a critical communication component for high-performance teams working remotely. As Harvard professor Robert Kegan wrote(subscription required) about two companies he analyzed, “The quest for business excellence and the search for personal realization need not be mutually exclusive — and can, in fact, be essential to each other.”