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In popular parlance, mindfulness is often reduced to a buzzword far removed from its Buddhist roots. Mindfulness-based techniques can be used as a quick fix for overworked employees to paper over cracks rather than explore underlying issues in what critics call McMindfulness (Purser & Loy, 2013). To achieve transformational coaching, however, it is arguably necessary to go beyond such quick fixes and for coaches to consider incorporating mindfulness training into daily routines as part of a journey of self-exploration as individuals and as coaches. As Kabat-Zinn succinctly observed, mindfulness is “simply about being yourself and knowing something about who that is” (Kabat-Zinn, 2016, Introduction). In essence, mindfulness training embodies mental activities with a common focus on training the self-regulation of attention and awareness and thereby enhancing voluntary control over the mind (Lomas, Ivtzan, & Fu, 2015 as cited in Lomas, Medina, Ivtzan, Rupprecht & Eiroa-Orosa, 2018). Indeed, with practice, mindfulness can go beyond self-awareness and self-regulation and ultimately bring about self-transcendence, allowing for more impactful coaching. Indeed, as Chaskalson and McMordie themselves note in the introduction to their book Mindfulness for Coaches, research in psychotherapy points to the biggest variance in client outcomes not being particular processes or methodologies but “from their way of being with clients” (Chaskalson & McMordie 2017, Introduction, para. 10).
This article will thus explore how mindfulness training can impact the coach both personally and its potential to transform engagement between coach and client, thereby helping bring about transformational coaching.
At its core, mindfulness training encourages people to be more aware, in the moment, of physical sensations in the body and of thoughts and feelings (Schwartz, 2018). Kabat Zinn also encourages a certain number of attitudes as a means of deepening mindfulness practice that resonate with the underpinnings of coaching: acceptance, letting go, trust, patience, non-judging, beginner’s mind (Kabat-Zinn, 2016). These are directly applicable in coaching where the basic requirement for any coach is to show up, slow down and notice at the service of the client. As Liz Hall notes in Mindful Coaching, mindfulness can help us be more “present with, attuned to and resonant with others” (Hall, 2013, p.18). This is saying that mindfulness training can help even at this basic level as it invites the coach to leave the world at the door and enter the room with compassion and openness.
So, is there room for mindfulness within the actual coaching conversation? In Mindfulness Interventions in the Workplace, Jamieson and Tuckey explore different mindfulness constructs (state mindfulness, trait mindfulness and mindfulness practice), noting that while mindfulness itself “involves observing experiences here and now, rather than processing and elaborating on what is taking place or becoming caught up on past events or future possibilities”, a mindful state is in fact one that involves “being actively engaged” (Jamieson & Tuckey, 2017, p.181). This is in essence the ability to be in the here and now, listening to what the client is or is not saying, sitting with a silence and having access to the full range of coaching experience and intuition. Mindfulness practice also teaches practitioners how to place their attention, thereby creating cognitive flexibility. This represents “the ability to move smoothly between a focus on the larger perspective and full range of stimuli, or on the finer details of a particular stimulus” (Jamieson & Tuckey, 2017, p.181). This ability is critical for a coach where at times the larger story is the focus, at times the liminal spaces and on many occasions a specific word or term used by a client.
In fact, the attunement and resonance mentioned by Liz Hall are also conducive to creating a frame of mind that should help the coach capture more aspects of the coach-client relationship including ones that are ordinarily outside of consciousness. Indeed, in The Coaching Relationship in Practice, Geoff Pelham argues that countertransference (the view that the feelings of a coach / therapist are influenced primarily outside of awareness by the contributions of the client / patient) has “a vital role to play in understanding and working with clients” (Pelham, 2016, Relationship Management, Countertransference, para. 4). And yet this is registered outside of consciousness as what Pelham, drawing on the work of Eugene T. Gendlin, calls a “felt sense”. Gendlin himself defines this as “the body’s sense of a particular problem or situation” (Gendlin, 2003, Part One, Two: Change, para. 3). This may be a mood, feeling or series of thoughts that may be triggered by virtue of interaction with the other. It has meaning but not in the familiar cognitive or emotional way. However, once the coach is aware of this change in mood or feeling they then have the opportunity to “unpack” and explore it for deeper meaning. Chaskalson and McMordie echo this, arguing that exploring mindfulness will allow coaches to move “away from the head into the body…. to trust [their] felt sense experience moment by moment” (Chaskalson & McMordie 2017, Introduction, Become your own laboratory, para. 3).
Mindfulness has increasingly become the focus of research in an effort to quantify the benefits, although hard data on mindfulness in coaching can be more difficult to find. A certain level of extrapolation from other fields can thus sometimes be required. For example, one study on Leader Development and Mindfulness Meditation found that 17 out of 20 leaders felt greater self-awareness as a result of mindfulness practice (Frizzell, Hoon & Banner, 2016). Indeed, after having reviewed their own results and other studies, the authors concluded that “mindfulness meditation has transformative potential for individual leaders who regularly, consistently, and skilfully practice” (Frizzell, Hoon & Banner, 2016, p.21).
Whilst self-selecting, a Mindfulness in Coaching survey by Liz Hall in 2012 is of interest in terms of how coaches see and use mindfulness. For example, 65% said they used mindfulness to “be more present for their client”, 73% to “be more self-aware” and 64% to “help me focus” (Hall, 2013, p.234). In the same study, of those indicating using mindfulness during sessions, 86% reported checking in on their mind/body to see what was going on. The comments by coaches also offer insights, with one summing up the potential for mindfulness: “It’s critical – part of the foundation of coaching is self-awareness and self-knowledge – and we all have moments where we are present and where we are not….. to be present for a coaching conversation is absolutely critical – it’s a duty to our client” (Hall, 2013, p.241).
Reflections on the Literature
Of the over 47,000 scholarly and peer-reviewed journal articles referencing mindfulness in the university library to which I have access around one third were published within the past three years. Such is the deluge that Crane et al undertook a ground-breaking survey of the state of mindfulness-based and mindfulness-informed interventions in an attempt to classify the vast range of programs being developed with mindfulness components (Crane et al., 2016). The rationale for their work is that for the field to be sustainable it needs “to articulate a definition of what a MBP is and what it is not” (Crane et al., 2016, p.990). Why is this such a concern? In the course of researching this area, I came across a whole series of references to studies claiming that mindfulness had this or that positive effect but it wasn’t always clear what this meant and how I, the reader, could replicate this study in an attempt to garner the same benefits. Whilst all very interesting and pointing in the general direction of ‘mindfulness’ being beneficial in general and in coaching in particular, it is clear that practitioners need to tread carefully when assessing what is beneficial and what is not.
Researching this area has opened the door to an intriguing body of work. Liz Hall’s Mindful Coaching, which has as its subtitle “How Mindfulness Can Transform Coaching Practice”, is interesting not only in how the author maps the values / approaches of mindfulness to coaching but also in terms of how she openly explores possible tensions. With coaching being focussed on helping clients define and achieve their goals, the author rightly picks out the “non-striving” attitude of mindfulness as a potential source of conflict. Amongst others, the author also mentions the present moment focus of one versus the future orientated nature of the other. I have reflected long and hard on this, bringing as many of the attitudes of mindfulness to bear as I possibly could (curiosity, openness, non-attachment to preconceived ideas….) and my sense is that Kabat Zinn was really trying to find ways in which Westerners could understand what they were being invited to do. As Liz Hall notes, “[m]any Eastern mediators and mindfulness practitioners, including the Dalai Lama, are struck by how serious we are about our practice in the West” (Hall, 2013, p.50). There is that tendency to try too hard, to try and get somewhere, arrive at a certain state rather than being, non-doing and having no agenda. It is perhaps about encouraging people to take those moments of non-striving as a sort of balance to the bustle of daily life and is not in my view saying that people shouldn’t have goals and agendas. That said, there is certainly an element of cultivating that sense of non-striving so that you are asking yourself whether a goal is meaningful for you or whether you are just on a goal treadmill, never reaching any destination. I’ve had this personally with multiple clients who had all series of goals they “should” achieve (“My friend is so good at….”, “I know I should….”). Part of the examination of these goals was around exploring the option of accepting where they are and not somehow striving to be different and seeing how that felt. Was there a genuine desire for some form of “self-improvement” (would life be better / easier…) with the consequent ownership of the goal or were these ultimately someone else’s goals. Mindfulness-informed coaching approaches including Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) where the focus is more on experiential contact with the present moment (“What is it like to talk about this?”, “How does that make you feel”?) are also beneficial at times and the skill is knowing when to use them.
Mindfulness is very present in my coaching. Before each session, I at the very least go for a mindful walk and free my mind of any pre-existing thought patterns or concerns. When circumstances allow I also do some formal practice before sessions. The can range from Mark Williams’ 3-minute breathing space to a longer body scan depending on how I’m feeling. Whilst what I now view as informal practice has been part of my life since childhood, I first came upon formal practice about a decade ago when exploring options for my aged mother who was suffering from chronic pain. I gifted her a copy of a Kabat Zinn CD and bought myself a second copy. I must admit that I have since dipped in and out of formal practice over the years. I have experienced a relatively high level of change in my life and particularly with changes in space (moving from one country / locale to another) I have found it hard to maintain routines but have each time recommitted to formal practice.
The literature is clear that there are a myriad of benefits to mindfulness practice. For me as a coach, this breaks down into four categories:
– Positive changes in thinking patterns. It is clear that the attitudes of mindfulness (particularly non-striving, patience, non-judging, trust…) allow coaches to truly be there for clients, listening intently at all levels of mind and body (not only to the client’s words and body language but also the coach’s “felt sense”);
– In terms of preparation for sessions. Days and lives are busy. Mindfulness practice offers a way of grounding oneself and slowing down in advance of a session. I have already seen the benefits, and constant practice before each and every session has made this a firm habit;
– Within sessions, mindfulness also has a massive role. This can be as simple as giving coaches that gentle nudge to come back to the present moment should they find themselves lost in thought or somehow distracted. The above-mentioned attitudes are also very powerful and the more they can be lived in the session the sense is the more the deck is stacked in favour of achieving transformational coaching. Mindfulness-inspired coaching techniques built around acceptance and the present moment can also be very beneficial.
– In reflection. Taking a little time after a session to sit with the body and reflect upon the session is also beneficial. Liz Hall talks of doing a Body scan just after a session and that is something I hope to incorporate into my practice (Hall, 2013).
In conclusion, as Chaskalson and McMordie argue, incorporating mindfulness training into coaching is about how you show up, hold the space and about “how you can more deeply attune to yourself and to them and how that can create transformational resonance” (Chaskalson & McMordie 2017, Introduction, Become your own laboratory, para. 3).
Crane, R., Brewer, J., Feldman, C., Kabat-Zinn, J., Santorelli, S., Williams, J., & Kuyken, W. (2016). What defines mindfulness-based programs? The warp and the weft. Psychological Medicine, 47(6), 990-999. doi: 10.1017/s0033291716003317
Gendlin, E. (2003). Focusing: How to Open Up Your Deeper Feelings and Intuition. London: Rider. [Kindle version]. Retrieved from Amazon.co.uk
Hall, L. (2013). Mindful Coaching. London: Kogan Page.
Frizzell, D., Hoon, S. & Banner, D. (2016). A Phenomenological Investigation of Leader Development and Mindfulness Meditation. Journal Of Social Change, 8(1). DOI: 10.5590/JOSC.2016.08.1.0 2
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2016). Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness meditation for everyday life. London: Piatkus. [Kindle version]. Retrieved from Amazon.co.uk
Jamieson, S., & Tuckey, M. (2017). Mindfulness interventions in the workplace: A critique of the current state of the literature. Journal Of Occupational Health Psychology, 22(2), 180-193. doi: 10.1037/ocp0000048
Lomas, T., Medina, J., Ivtzan, I., Rupprecht, S., & Eiroa-Orosa, F. (2018). Mindfulness-based interventions in the workplace: An inclusive systematic review and meta-analysis of their impact upon wellbeing. The Journal Of Positive Psychology, 14(5), 625-640. doi: 10.1080/17439760.2018.1519588
Pelham, G. (2016). Coaching relationship in practice. [Kindle version]. Retrieved from Amazon.co.uk
Chaskalson, M., & McMordie, M. (2017). Mindfulness for Coaches: An experiential guide. London: Routledge. [Kindle version]. Retrieved from Amazon.co.uk
Purser, R., & Loy, D. (2013). Beyond McMindfulness. Retrieved 24 March 2020, from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/beyond-mcmindfulness_b_3519289
Schwartz, A. (2018). Mindfulness in applied psychology: Building resilience in coaching. The Coaching Psychologist, Vol. 14, No. 2., 14(2), 98-104.