Mindfulness in Coaching

Mindfulness is all around us these days, and its link to Coaching is no exception: the practice of the coach can be enhanced through using mindfulness as a preparation tool and during the session: clients too can benefit from mindfulness practice in managing stress and contributing towards improved performance.

Mindfulness is the gentle effort to be continuously present with experience. Jon Kabat-Zinn ( a famous teacher of mindfulness) defines it like this: “mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non judgmentally.”

Some of the ways mindfulness can be used in coaching are:

  • Practice mindfulness (including meditation) regularly as a Coach
  • Take a systemic approach to coaching, ´being mindful´ of the wider systems in which clients and coaches operate
  • Approach coaching (and life in general) with non-judgement; openness; curiosity, and compassion
  • Prepare mindfully for each coaching session
  • Share mindfulness practices within coaching sessions and as ‘homework’ where useful and appropriate for the client
  • Attend (not solely) to the present in all coaching interactions (thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, happenings- both on the part of the Coach and on the part of the client)
  • Not to be overly-attached to outcomes

Three keys to mindful Coaching

Douglas Riddle, a well known Leadership Coach argues that good Coaches have “quiet minds” and help create in the conversation with the client a sense of open, reflective exploration. He argues that mindful coaching is better coaching, and mindfulness practices have shown benefits for clients in health, decision-making and leadership.

Mindful Coaches perfect a form of conscious and comfortable simultaneous attention to themselves, their client, the relationship between them, and the mental, emotional, and relational dynamics occurring in the moment. There are three aspects of mindfulness that have particular pertinence to coaching:

1)      an empty mind

2)      non-reactivity

3)      permissive attention

An empty mind

For the coach, mindfulness is characterized by an empty mind, a stilling of the persistent chatter and the cognitive ticker-tape of commentary. This is a challenge for most Westerners because of our devotion to activity and terror of being alone with ourselves. An empty mind is key to letting something happen in someone else. It is the essence of coaching. Like falling in love or falling asleep, it can’t be achieved through greater effort or more action.

As coaches, a busy mind sabotages our efforts to let others express themselves. Think about your conversations with colleagues or with family. How often have you had the feeling that someone was not really hearing you, not really attending to you? You may have told someone about the challenge you were facing, only to find that they couldn’t keep themselves from telling you how you should think about it, or that it shouldn’t bother you so much, or how they have had similar experiences.

Alternatively, when someone hears us with an open, empty mind, we sense our own substance and value. No matter how ‘helpful’ someone wants to be, advice or correction always implies that we lack something. We have to persuade ourselves that someone cares when they give us the impression that they think we can’t figure it out for ourselves.  Unfortunately, more than a few coaches enter the profession because they’ve never been heard themselves. They picture themselves giving important advice to powerful people and receiving their gratitude. That guiding image will never benefit the client.

Non-reactivity

Meditation and quiet thoughtfulness help coaches sense that, as they work, they are operating in a vast mental and emotional space with clients. No reaction is required, no matter what the provocation. Instead, coaches are free to perceive the needs of their clients and respond – without escalating the emotional content or misinterpreting any intent. Still, fostering a non-judgmental attitude as a coach does not mean surrendering judgment. Mindfulness in fact leads to wiser judgment about what’s important and what is not. A coach who practices mindfulness doesn’t make things worse. Non-reactivity on the part of the coach gives the person being coached room to roam from perspective to perspective, from one incomplete thought to another until they begin to become whole thoughts and the basis for growth.

Oddly, non-reactivity is often experienced quite positively by people who are being coached: “oddly” because so much energy is expended in our culture in empty encouragement that does not actually encourage. Clients often find that space to think and feel and explore while staying in relationship is invigorating. In addition, this dynamic makes true collaboration possible. The mindful coach creates an emotional space without land mines, where the client isn’t worried about being manipulated or controlled.

“Permissive attention”

A mindful coach can draw a person into a moment of connection in which all distractions disappear. It doesn’t matter whether the distractions are in the room or in the street outside or in unbidden thoughts or feelings from within the client. The ultimate challenge for most people is staying focused for more than a moment on any serious line of thinking, perceiving, judging or acting. The coach is repeatedly able to draw the attention of the client to those things of importance to him and return the attention to it without coercion.

Modern brain research has shown that we move in and out of various states of focused or unfocused attention throughout our day. Coaching allows someone to stay on a line of thought until it yields new perspectives and answers. It proves especially powerful when these are questions that might have stymied us for a long time. The coach wants to create an encounter in which the two people are in synchronized attention and vast amounts of mental and emotional energy can be directed at the development of the person being coached. This is a kind of mutual trance state, along the lines of being “in the zone” in sports, and most people have experienced it only briefly. The mindful coach can elicit this state and maintain it for the growth of the client.

As coaches, we are privileged to serve as “midwives to human change” – and can impact the performance of entire organisations. How do we contribute to the possibility of change? How do we serve as catalysts for turning experience and reflection into more effective, meaningful lives? Mindfulness offers a powerful alternative to the coercive and linear assumptions that have dominated our thinking. It might be that individual change is not so much driven as permitted. The question for the coach is this: how can I prepare myself to create a mental, emotional, and relational space in which someone may grow and develop? Mindfulness practices prepare coaches to really help instead of just trying to be helpful.

A mindfulness approach

There are lots of different mindfulness approaches and techniques, but one in particular as a good working example I have found to be very useful. It is called the wheel of awareness, and was created by Dan Siegel, author of “the mindful brain”. He uses this approach as a visual metaphor.A wheel consists of the outer rim, and inner hub, and connecting spokes (that connect inner to outer).

We develop the strength of the hub in mindfulness practice, so we are more able to detect the activities at the rim but not get lost in them. The rim could be described as having 8 segments – with different kinds of activity and information feeding into the brain:

Firstly the 5 senses

  1. Hearing
  2. Sight
  3. Taste
  4. Smell
  5. Touch
  1. Then there is the sensing of the body itself – known as Interoception, or the perception of the inner world of the body. This registers in areas of the brain known as the somato-sensory cortex, and the middle prefrontal cortex, which represents bodily states.

Opening the mind to the wisdom of the body – or the so called     ‘6th sense’

  1. Ability to sense the mind – all kinds of mental activity – thoughts, feelings, memories, complex ideas, perception. This provides us with a perceptual map of the mind of ourselves and others. Dan Siegel refers to it as ‘Mindsight’. It could be described as the capacity to have insight (i.e. to know ourselves) and empathy ( to know others)
  2. Perception of relationships with other people, beings, processes, the whole planet.

Sitting in the hub, you are sitting in a spacious receptive place and can take in the data from these other places.

Spokes – These are a metaphor of the direction of our attention.

E.g. you hear a loud sound, your attention goes away from the hub towards the sound – this is exogenous attention – the event drew your attention to it.  Imagine an arrow from rim to hub.

Choiceful attention is more like an arrow from hub to wheel – endogenous attention.

Modern life involves so many pulls of exogenous attention, mindfulness helps you to develop your capacity to direct your attention yourself. Becoming aware of your awareness. Paying attention to intention.

Receptive attention:  Insight – learning about the mind itself. The hub becomes a spacious receptive state of awareness. This happens after developing the stability of the mind. Approaching whatever arises with curiosity, openness and acceptance

Resources

Dan Siegel “wheel of awareness”; various meditation exercises using the metaphor

An interesting article on mindfulness and coaching

The role of mindfulness in coaching: a short academic article

Mindfulness; A Practical Guide to Peace in a Frantic World; a really good book and CD on mindfulness

Can you challenge yourself to spend an hour with a Mindfulness overview and training with John Kabatt-Zinn?