· Illustrations by James Yang
Workplace communication challenges can undermine our equanimity, sap our satisfaction, and hurt our success. A renowned mindfulness teacher shows us how to build stronger, more successful relationships — with our colleagues and ourselves.
When you took the job that you have now, did you hope it would make you happy?
If so, perhaps you’ve been surprised — or even disappointed. Though some people are fortunate enough to love what they do for a living, the majority of us face routine challenges that undermine our efforts to enjoy our jobs.
Whether it’s a difficult boss, competitive coworkers, excessive time demands, or work that’s simply not engaging, the stresses we face at work are real and consequential.
Dealing with coworker incivility is detrimental not only to the employee but also to his or her significant other, according to a 2011 Baylor University study. It can even have a ripple effect that extends to the partner’s workplace. (See “Work Stress Hits Home”.)
Yet our workplaces also offer myriad opportunities to learn and grow — and even become happier.
As former Wall Street executive Michael Carroll, author of The Mindful Leader, puts it, “Maybe problems arise at work not as interruptions or intrusions, but as invitations to gain real wisdom.”
One way to develop workplace wisdom is by improving the way we communicate — whether it’s posting to online forums, sending an email, or having a face-to-face conversation.
The ability to connect with our colleagues plays a critical role in our happiness at work, not least because there is a vital link between skillful self-expression and integrity. Communicating effectively with colleagues allows us to maintain higher levels of trust, which creates more collaborative — and enjoyable — work environments.
These efforts can have an impact beyond the workplace, as well. Successfully managing our emotional states at work can help us be more effective in all areas of our lives.
So how can we practice skillful self-expression at the office?
It starts with mindful self-awareness. Staying present during those inevitable moments of tension gives us the opportunity to assess our thoughts and emotions before reacting.
As the following challenging workplace situations show, a little mindfulness at work can go a long way.
Challenge: Being Honest at Work — With Yourself and Others
It’s almost inevitable that we will find one or two people at work who are hard to tolerate, but honest self-expression does not require that we tell these difficult people what we think of them at every opportunity. That would be self-indulgence, not skillful self-expression.
Still, integrity entails speaking up — if only to yourself. That may sound like an oxymoron, but it isn’t.
We often lie to ourselves about our true feelings. We believe that if we tell ourselves the scary truth about how we really feel about someone, we will be forced to change our lives in uncomfortable ways. This paranoia about being fully honest fosters unhappiness in many workplaces. Still, we can be fully honest without blasting the boss or causing disorder.
Here’s one example: I had a meditation student whose colleague appeared to steal an idea from him. Rather than confronting him immediately, my student sat with his feelings for a couple of days. During that time he was totally honest with himself — he felt angry, hurt, and that his trust had been damaged.
By the time he took action and reached out to his colleague by email, he no longer felt heated, even if he was still hurt. His note was short, direct, honest, and respectful. In the end, the colleague apologized and explained. The two of them went on to have an excellent working relationship for many years.
Even if the outcome hadn’t been so positive, my student learned that he could sit with his painful feelings until he felt less reactive. He was honest with himself instead of avoiding the difficulty, which helped him find clarity. Waiting and reflecting allowed him to communicate in a way that was much more effective. And it was the way he treated his own feelings that made the difference — he didn’t have to change anyone else.
Exercise: Pause and Reflect
The next time you experience hurt feelings after a workplace interaction, consciously refrain from reacting for 48 hours. During that time, set aside some time for reflection. Do your best to refrain from focusing on the other person involved, instead directing your attention to your own feelings. What emotions do you feel? See if you can consciously accept them, which may help loosen their grip. After the strong -feelings have subsided, reach out to your colleague. You’ll be in a much better position to communicate your concerns.
Stealth Meditation: Set an intention for the day before beginning work. For example: “May I treat everyone today with respect, remembering that each person wants to be happy as much as I do.”
Challenge: Navigating Office Gossip
Gossip is nearly impossible for people in groups to resist. This is partly evolution: Our early ancestors used gossip to protect the group from traitors, cheaters, liars, and thieves. We gossiped as a form of social control; rather than physically beat others up, we could just ruin their reputation. Still, however natural, gossip can devastate relationships, since by definition it is usually negative.
One way to avoid the negative effects of gossip is to set good boundaries. When another of my meditation students discovered her boss was having an affair, she made two decisions: 1) She would not help him deceive his spouse or anyone else; and 2) she would not share her knowledge of the affair with others at work, because it was not their business. Her decision not to support the situation and to refrain from gossip provided her with a safe refuge where she was able to maintain her integrity, because she successfully avoided any conversations that would result in betraying someone’s trust.
Exercise: Resist the Urge to Pass It On
The next time someone shares a juicy piece of gossip with you, notice how hard it is not to repeat. Then see if you can sit quietly, bring awareness to that temptation without judgment, and let the desire to share the story fade. Later, try to notice whether setting boundaries around gossip provides you with your own safe refuge. (The good news is you don’t have to stop others from gossiping — your only task is to examine your own response to it.)
Stealth Meditation: For an upcoming one-on-one conversation, resolve to listen more and speak less.
Challenge: An Aggressive Workplace Culture
Many work environments today seem to be modeled on the blood sport of the Roman Colosseum. This is not surprising, given that the culture at large seems to be one of disparagement, where we revel in seeing each other lose and fall into despair. Gladiator-style reality-TV shows like The Apprentice are just one example.
In such a paradigm, there are winners and losers and little belief in collaboration. When we emphasize power over compassion, and disparagement over cooperation, in our work environments, we weaken our connections with our coworkers and make skillful communication less likely.
Still, we don’t have to play by these rules, even if it seems expected of us.
Another meditation student of mine learned this from a surprising interaction with her restaurant manager. My student had behaved rudely to a customer, and the manager asked to speak with her privately. She geared up to defend herself, since — like many people — she had experienced workplace discipline that was delivered in belittling terms. But she was completely disarmed when the manager began the conversation by complimenting her with utmost sincerity on her work at the restaurant and her general character.
By the time the subject of the problem interaction came up, she was open to hearing what the manager had to say and agreed she could’ve handled it differently.
The problem was resolved without anyone having to win or lose, and without either party resorting to aggressive or disparaging tactics.
Exercise: Offer Positive Feedback
We can diffuse negativity and competition by affirming our colleagues whenever it’s appropriate. Be happy for them when things go well, and supportive when they don’t. When we take joy in others’ successes instead of their losses, we step outside the win–lose equation. Once we’ve grounded ourselves in positive appreciation as a practice, we can offer critical feedback in a more direct and straightforward fashion, without the negative charge.
Stealth Meditation: Notice how you are holding something — a steering wheel or cup, for instance. What is the quality of your grip? Sometimes we exert so much force holding things it exacerbates our tension without our realizing it.
Challenge: The Defensive Colleague
When someone at work routinely acts defensively, engaging with him or her can seem impossible. Still, a little attention to word choice can do a lot to reduce friction.
It might sound formulaic, but the use of “I” language is a skill worth practicing if what we want is dialogue and authentic communication. The word “you” is almost guaranteed to trigger defenses and reduce a person’s ability to listen effectively. The difference between “You never meet your deadlines” and “I was planning to work on this document today but it wasn’t ready” can be profound.
Exercise: Use the First Person
When you have critical feedback to offer a colleague, especially one who is habitually defensive, avoid framing the conversation around his or her defects. Instead, focus on the effect on your work or performance. The easiest tactic is to simply remember to use “I” instead of “you,” as in, “I had to work over the weekend on that project, because I didn’t receive the information I needed on time.” Notice if your listener seems better able to receive what you have to say.
Stealth Meditation: Look for ways to acknowledge someone’s accomplishments. Praise promptness, diligence, or efforts to collaborate, for example.
Challenge: Unconscious Body Language
Only a fraction of what we communicate comes through the words we speak. Our facial expressions, posture, and tone of voice all play a role. We also communicate emotionally and energetically. If two people sit together in a room, an EKG can measure how the electronic energy of one person’s heart affects the other.
If you can become aware of the fact that your body sends messages of its own, you’ll gain insight into the response of others toward you. You can also gain control of the messages you send.
Here’s how that might look: Say your boss says something annoying to you in passing. Instantly, your sympathetic nervous system is aroused, your heart rate increases, your respiration rate shoots up, and the stress hormone cortisol is released into your bloodstream.
If you don’t pause and attend to your physical response, you may not be able to control your verbal response — and you may say something you regret. But if you stop the moment you notice you’re upset, and conduct a mental review of your body sensations, you’ll have the chance to take a breath and relax. Relaxing under pressure allows for new responses and possibilities, so you can choose the best verbal reply and course of action.
Exercise: Body Check
The next time you feel annoyed at work, pause and conduct a brief mental body scan. Take the time to unclench your hands, relax your jaw, catch your breath, and step back a couple of feet (literally), rather than sending an inappropriate physical — or verbal — response.
Stealth Meditation: When walking to a meeting or to lunch, feel your feet against the ground and the sense of your body moving through space. Do not text or take calls while doing this.
Challenge: Email Communications
It can be difficult to accurately convey an emotional tone in an email, which makes it easy for misunderstandings to happen. All the previous suggestions can help you become more skillful with email, from communicating positive sentiments to practicing body awareness. You might also practice resisting the urge to “fire off” emails in rapid succession.
“When you type an email, before you send it, sit back, take three deep breaths while not thinking about the email, then return to the email and reread it — not so much for the data but for the emotional effect it will have on the reader,” says Google visionary Chade-Meng Tan. “Imagine being that reader and try to look at the impact it might have. Then change it accordingly and send it.”
While it might seem time consuming to write an email this way, it is far easier than trying to retrieve a regrettable message.
Exercise: Mindful Email
Before sending an important email to the intended recipient, send it to yourself first. When you read it as the recipient, you’ll take in the tone, implications, and omissions that you might otherwise miss when you’re focused on composition. This will also give you the time you may need to reassess your own emotional state and revise the message (if necessary) before sending it off.
Stealth Meditation: We all receive upsetting emails. Resolve to wait at least two hours to respond to anything that makes your heart race.
Challenge: Constant Interruptions
Research shows that the number of good friends an employee has at work correlates with how engaged and happy he or she is. But some may find too much engagement counterproductive, since being crammed into a room (as so many of us are in open-office floor plans) is not everyone’s ideal environment for productive workdays.
One study found that people whose work is constantly interrupted make 50 percent more mistakes and take twice as long to finish their tasks than those who work undisturbed.
A happy workplace requires that employees working in close quarters respect the privacy of their coworkers. The key to working in disruption-prone environments is to set a good example: We can practice being mindful of our colleagues’ mental space and not dominating the environment with unhelpful chatter, nosiness, and interruptions. We can also practice patience.
Exercise: Make Peace With Interruptions
If someone consistently interrupts your work flow, and you’re becoming agitated, see if you can put the irritated feelings aside and deal with the present moment’s needs. The goal is not to reject your own irritability as “bad”; you’re just making the choice to pay attention to something else.
This also doesn’t mean you never seek resolution with a chronic interrupter. It means you can do so at a time and place of your choosing. The best time for an honest, constructive conversation about workplace boundaries is when tensions have subsided. You’ll be more charitable to your colleagues’ feelings and more creative when considering solutions.
Finally, use the power of nonverbal communication. Wear headphones to signal that you’re concentrating. Post a sign next to your computer stating what time you’ll be available for conversation. And if someone still interrupts you, remember to take a deep breath before replying.
Stealth Meditation: Try to perform a conscious act of kindness every day. It can be as simple as holding an elevator door, saying thank you in a sincere manner, or listening to someone with a clear and focused mind.