Updated: Apr 13
As you walk into the office, you put on your trademark smile, but everyone avoids eye contact with you. You try to act silly or tell a joke, but the fish still aren't biting. One of your coworkers scowls at you, asks you to sit down, and makes a snide remark about your bubbliness. You're not sure what that was all about.
What do you do? Has everyone gone insane?
Maybe, but probably not. Think of you and your coworkers as a team of mountain climbing expeditionists. No matter how prepared everyone tries to be before the climb, mistakes are bound to be made and you won't always have the tools you need to reach the summit. Coworkers will disagree about one thing or the other and there will be more than enough bumps in the road caused by outside forces that put you and your team's cohesiveness to the test.
Not every day will be a good day, and that's okay!
Practicing mindfulness at work can help you navigate through the toughest of times because it trains you to think critically about the things you say and do.
Here are some powerful mindfulness techniques to use when tensions run high.
Consider shifting your attention to your breathing when handling workplace tension. Observe the content of your breaths. Are you taking labored shallow breaths during and after workplace conflicts? Have you noticed lately that your breaths have become labored while you're at work? What would it take to bring your breathing back to normal?
Mindful breathing creates that much-needed space between your feelings about a situation and the reality of the situation which exists independent from your feelings about it.
Shifting your attention from the problem to your internal state—even if only for a second—creates space between you and the problem.
Mindful breathing in action
As the day progresses, you find out from your boss the reason why everyone was giving you dirty looks was that a mistake made in your department trickled into the rest of the office staff's daily workload.
And you were blamed for it.
Your thoughts begin to race. You feel angry at your boss for chastising you for something that was someone else's fault. How dare he write you up without allowing you to explain yourself. You're mulling over whether or not to leave this company and apply for other jobs before you get fired for other people's incompetencies, but then you think back to the time you read this post—
—You decide to take my advice and shift your attention to your breathing. You notice how labored your breathing has become. Your chest feels heavy. Your forehead is sweating. You try taking a few deep breaths hoping it will calm you down. You notice that as your breath slows down, your thoughts follow suit. Somehow, you feel a little more centered and in control of the situation.
You are calmer. You feel better. Maybe, you think, it isn't such a good idea to give up on your boss and this company just because of a misunderstanding. This isn't fair, you think, but maybe there are other ways to look at this. You realize the way you felt before—especially when it came to your breathing—was shaping your interpretation of reality.
Now that you are calmer, you realize how you felt about the situation wasn't the situation at all.
Mindful breathing creates that much-needed space between your feelings about a situation and the reality of the situation which exists independent from your feelings about it. This prompts you to be more mindful at work so you can respond to adversity using your logical brain instead of your emotional brain.
There is a major difference between listening to respond and listening to understand. The former comes from a defensive place while the latter comes from a receptive place.
Listening to respond
When you use this method of listening—also known as un-empathic listening—you are editorializing, a term in psychology used by Clinical Psychologist Greg Lester in his book Power With People. Lester says when you are editorializing, there is a committee in your head full of opinions and expectations about what other people should say or do to you.
You want people to say the things you want them to say so you can talk about the things you want to talk about in the way you want to talk about them.
Can you see why this kind of listening isn't very effective? Why it creates more conflict? Listening to respond is a lower-order form of listening because it prevents you from seeing the bigger picture, over-inflating your sense of importance. You only hear the things you want to hear.
Whether you are aware of it or not, you are competing against the other person because you are waiting for them to finish talking so you can get a word in edgewise.
Listening to understand
Just listening. Sounds simple, right? It is.
But just because something is simple, that doesn't make it easy. Listening to understand, also known as empathic listening, requires more effort than un-empathic listening because it can oftentimes feel uncomfortable to ignore the committee in your head that cares more about being right than being pleasant.
Instead, Lester says, "—you absorb what they're saying. You take it in, you consider it, you examine it, you look at it."
You are showing the other person that you value what they say even if you don't always agree with them.
Empathic listening is a powerful tool because you are not just being quiet and waiting for your turn to speak. You are opening yourself up to the other person's experiences. You are absorbing their experiences into your own.
By doing this, you are telling the other person—without using your words—that their experiences are valid. You are showing the other person that you value what they say even if you don't always agree with them.
Consider this quick two-minute skit from The Big Bang Theory where Amy is switching between un-empathic listening and empathic listening. Though this scene displays a gross exaggeration of these two extremes, it highlights the obvious difference in effectiveness between them.
Amy has an ulterior motive. She doesn't care about what Sheldon is talking about and desperately wishes he would shut up and pass her the butter. But watch how she shifts her attention from what she wants—for Sheldon to pass the butter—to what Sheldon wants—to talk about the disparity in specs between the PS4 and Xbox One.
Amy realizes the only way she'll get what she wants from Sheldon is to first give him her undivided attention. Though Amy's sarcasm is made clear to the audience, Sheldon is convinced she is just as passionate about this topic as he is. He feels validated when she mirrors his energy and asks him relevant questions.
Sheldon is caught off guard when Amy finally diverts the attention away from their passionate conversation, smacks the table and screams, "Please pass the butter!"
She is pretending to listen to understand but she's actually listening to respond. Though, she is doing an excellent job at masquerading as the former. Empathic listening is effective even when it is being used as a weapon, but that's not very mindful, is it?
Let's face it. You won't have very many friends left if you make a habit of weaponizing empathic listening.
First, forgive yourself. When handling workplace tension, it's easy to get wrapped up in your emotions and sometimes you say things you'll later regret. Acknowledge that this is normal.
If you are trying to be perfect—stop. It's impossible to be perfect. And it's not fair of you to expect other people to always behave the way you want them to behave. Instead, consider practicing graciousness.
Graciousness is a quality of being where you say thank you when others are kind to you and you don't take their kindness for granted. You remember to stay cognizant of their past good deeds even when you feel betrayed by their most recent actions. You realize that other people have the capacity to be kind and fair even when they aren't displaying those qualities now.
So choose to act with grace and admit fault even if you believe the other person should apologize first. Choose to be the kind of person you know they can be and it will remind them that they can be good, too.
Forgive the other person even if they aren't willing to apologize in return.
You don't have to take full responsibility if you are only partially at fault, but your boss and your coworkers will trust and respect you more if you're willing to set your emotions off to the side, step down from your pedestal and make amends. Forgive the other person even if they aren't willing to apologize in return!