What do you think of when you picture mindfulness? Something fluffy and soft, like a comforting pillow?
I ask this because these days mindfulness is talked of widely as a solution to almost every ill. If we’re mindful, we might eliminate depression and stress, cultivate clarity of vision, influence our surroundings to the good, run better companies, and possibly live longer more healthy lives. Practising mindfulness for even a few minutes a day could increase our sense of well-being, helping us to be comfortable in our own skins, as well as accepting of life as it really is, as opposed to being fretful because things aren’t what we’d like them to be…
If this were the full story, mindfulness really would be the ‘grand fluffy pillow’ of development interventions. The problem is that the story’s a little more complicated than that. What if mindfulness weren’t so fluffy after all?
I’ve suggested elsewhere that certain mindfulness skills can enhance the ability of coaches to deal with distractions in coaching sessions, as well as untangle what’s really at the bottom of emotional reactions which might trouble them afterwards. These ‘tools’ have benefited me greatly, and I’m very much a believer in the positive impact cultivating a mindfulness practice can have on our lives. However, I also acknowledge that the mindfulness journey is far from an easy one.
Mindfulness techniques have been shown to help us deal more skilfully with stress, depression and pain, providing the perceptional tools for us to change our experience for the better. Over time we can learn ways of encouraging ourselves to live fully in the present rather than being caught up in fretful cycles of rumination about past or future. Through learning to recognise the cycle linking thought, feeling and bodily sensation, we are able to sense very early the changes in our inner patterns which can warn us we’re heading for difficulty.
As we deepen our mindfulness practice, we’re encouraged to turn towards our inner experiences with curiosity and compassion, including those that are painful or troublesome. It can be this aspect of mindfulness which poses the greatest challenge, as we’re brought face to face with all the sticky difficult emotional stuff we may have been avoiding for years.
If we as coaches wish to practise mindful coaching, we need to think carefully how this should be achieved. Liz Hall has suggested that a key commitment we ought to make is to complete an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction or cognitive therapy programme.* I’d agree. A major benefit of such programmes is the guided training they provide in how to welcome and embrace troublesome feelings, as best we can. We need to be careful not to push ourselves too far too soon, as such experiences can be overwhelming if undertaken without the wise support an experienced trainer can provide.
Another commitment Liz suggests is to share mindfulness and compassion practices with our coachees – when appropriate. My own view is that this should be done with care. We should be very wary of sharing these practices unless we are appropriately qualified to do so.
Completing an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction or cognitive therapy programme only enables us to equip ourselves to begin practising the relevant skills. We do not become qualified mindfulness instructors. Sharing mindfulness practices requires us to be able to recognise when it’s appropriate to do so and with whom, as well as to know how to support individuals if embracing difficulty becomes too overwhelming.
We have a responsibility to keep ourselves and our coachees safe, and that includes knowing where to draw the line when probing into areas we’re not qualified to enter, and ensuring we’re able to sensitively recommend other reliable services where such a recommendation is appropriate.
Mindfulness is not fluffy at all. We need to recognise this and respect it. We are dealing with powerful techniques which over time and with patience can enable self-insight and self-compassion, but the journey toward that ‘enlightenment’ in some cases can be fraught with thorns and difficulty. If we taste the benefits of mindfulness practice ourselves, we will inevitably share our insights with our coachees – through the mindful, compassionate way we conduct our coaching relationships and coaching sessions.
Our mindful example may ignite a coachee’s interest. If it does, we can be prepared to share our own experience of mindfulness, along with information about how and where the coachee can learn about mindfulness for her or himself from trusted reliable sources, with a qualified instructor in a supportive environment.
* Liz specialises in mindfulness in coaching, and has written a key text on the subject – Mindful Coaching (Kogan Page 2013). The two commitments I refer to in this post are on her list of 10 Commitments to Mindful Coaching, which appear in an EMCC UK continuing professional development presentation Liz gave on Mindfulness & Coaching.
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The course has certainly deepened my ability to ‘be with’ my own experience, and I’m sure that will feed into coaching, deepening my ability to genuinely focus on coachees. It may also help in identifying what’s at the root of reactions to what’s happening in the moment. However, my own feeling is that one of the most important things may well be a gradual deepening of the ability to recognise when one is really being non-judgemental and compassionate. I’m content to stay with observing my own development in these respects, as these will definitely impact the experience of coachees positively (well, I hope so!). For my own part, I think trying to guide coachees in practising mindfulness themselves would certainly be a step too far, potentially distracting me from my own mindful path. I feel there’s no point losing them and losing myself as well! That wouldn’t help anyone… 🙂
Look forward to hearing from you again, and thanks again for your perceptive comments.
Great to hear you benefitted from the 8 week course. I’m sure your clients will benefit from everything you’ve learned and continue to learn 🙂
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Hi Mat, and thanks for the thoughtful comment. Mindfulness is too important a ‘tool’ for coaches to be taken lightly. If taken with proper respect, it can be transformative – especially because it helps us move closer to ‘difficult emotions’ with compassion and in our own time at our own pace. I recently undertook an 8 week MBSR/MBCT course myself so I’d get a better handle on different practises, and it helped me personally a great deal. But still not enough to pass to my coachees without mediation! Thanks again, and glad you enjoyed the post…
A very welcome and thoughtful post Alison. As both a mindfulness teacher and coach I would echo your cautions about introducing mindfulness to coachees without suitable training. Mindfulness works at greater depth than might be apparent from the simplicity of the exercises, and supporting coachees to orient skilfully to difficult emotions requires training and a well-established personal mindfulness practice. As coaches we need to know the limits of our expertise and to draw appropriate boundaries. As you say, an 8 week MBSR/MBCT course would help coaches begin to develop their own personal understanding of mindfulness but such courses do not qualify participants as teachers.
For us as coaches, the changes to our way of being that accrue from an established daily mindfulness practice will inevitably inform our coaching through the way we embody our mindfulness practice and are able to meet the experience of the coachee and ourselves with spaciousness, kindness and compassion. Our own expression of living and working mindfully can be transformative for our coachees without the need to specifically introduce mindfulness practices into our sessions or as homework. Our mindful and compassionate presence is a gift we can give without any mention of mindfulness.
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