Seven Steps to Cultivating Mindful Relationships in the Workplace

I worked as a freelancer for 20 years. I liked my freedom, and preferred not to be tied down to one workplace. Looking a bit deeper, though, I realize that another underlying reason was my wariness about the interpersonal dynamics that inevitably arise in workplaces. When you freelance, you might not like your coworker, but the gig is going to end and you’ll soon be on to the next project. When you have a full-time job, you’re often forced to deal with difficult people five days a week.

B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT 500, author of Mindful Relationships: Seven Skills for Success—Integrating the Science of Mind, Body and Brain, has looked closely at what makes workplace relationships (and other kinds) work—or not. “One reason many of us struggle with relationships is that we’re perpetual storytellers,” speculates the psychologist, research scientist, and mindfulness expert. “We have a story about who we think people are or what kind of organization we’re working for. When we’re under stress, we don't have the wherewithal to question whether that story is accurate.”

Instead, “we react and rely on our stories to interpret people’s behavior. The resources we need to listen get inhibited, and we’re more reactive,” she says. And because we’re often unwittingly pumping stress hormones into our bodies, we either fight, flee, or freeze (metaphorically, that is) during difficult exchanges with colleagues.

How can we foster less conflict with supervisors and coworkers? Self-awareness is key. “A mindful relationship is a way of being,” Grace says. “It means being aware of your stress levels and taking responsibility for them. It means being aware of the stories you have about people, too. It means developing skills to regulate your emotions and behaviors before you communicate, rather than reacting based on past history or projections of the future.”

Rather than responding to the present moment, we tend to respond to our stories about others. For example, if your story about your boss is that she doesn’t appreciate you, you might be unlikely to take in a compliment when she does offer it. If you expect a colleague to be hostile toward you, you might be more apt to react as if he’s speaking with hostility, even when he’s speaking calmly. Being mindful is about recognizing our part in interactions. “People respond differently if you act differently,” Grace says.

To consciously cultivate more mindful relationships, Grace recommends the Breathe Model: seven skills that help us regulate our emotions and behaviors before communicating. These skills are designed to help people take responsibility for understanding how their stories and behavior contribute to harmony or disharmony in relationships—in the workplace and beyond.

B: Breath Awareness

“The breath tells you about your emotional state,” says Grace. “If you’re aware of your breathing, you can use it as a signal to help you notice when you’re getting stressed.”

Breath awareness can be very helpful in the workplace, where vocalizing anger, cutting off interactions, or leaving situations on the fly is considered unacceptable. Regulating emotions becomes especially important, and the breath can help.

To develop breath awareness, she suggests putting one hand on the chest and one hand on the abdomen and simply noticing how you’re breathing. Shallow or rapid breathing (from the upper part of the chest) indicates a higher level of stress.

R: Regulate the Nervous System Through Intentional Breathing

“I never cease to be amazed by what an incredible tool the breath is to change our experience,” Grace says. “It’s free and readily accessible. You can use it anywhere at any time. You can be intentionally breathing in a job interview and no one knows.”

  1. To begin regulating your breath intentionally, Grace suggests placing your right hand on your sternum in the center of your chest and your left hand just below your navel. Take 10 breaths, and observe whether you’re breathing more into the chest or the navel.
  2. Next, try breathing just into your right hand. Then try slowing down your inhalation for another 10 to 20 breaths.
  3. After breathing normally for a while, begin breathing into your left hand, below your abdomen, for another 10 breaths. Then try slowing down your breath.
  4. Next, try breathing half of your inhalation into your right hand, pausing for a second or two, breathing the remainder of your inhalation into the space below your left hand, and pausing again. Then exhale from the bottom up, first releasing the air below your left hand and allowing the exhalation to continue from below your left hand to below your right hand, as the breath travels up and out through either your nose or mouth.
  5. Finally, try breathing from top to bottom fully as you inhale, and bottom to top as you exhale, without pausing. Slow the exhalation so that it’s longer than the inhalation.

This exercise is intended to activate your parasympathetic nervous system and elicit the relaxation response. “The breath is the only autonomic nervous system function we can control,” Grace notes. “With greater breath awareness, you won’t go off like a loose cannon.”

E: Experience Emotion

“Our bodies store a great deal of information, often providing messages and clues about how we’re feeling,” Grace says, “but we live in a culture where we’re socialized to repress emotion—to be okay, to have no problems—so it can be difficult to experience our emotions.” When that happens, Grace adds, they can leak out.

“If I’m angry but not aware of my anger,” she notes, “I may nonverbally project anger, or I may be passive-aggressive toward someone. I may be saying one thing but communicating another.”

  1. To get in touch with your feelings, Grace first suggests breathing intentionally, as described above. Then breathe first into the heart area and then down into the lower abdomen, as fully and deeply as possible. Exhale slowly, as if you’re deflating the air out of a balloon from the bottom up.
  2. After breathing quietly for a while, shift your attention to your body. “Are there places where you feel tension or restriction?” Grace asks. “Are there places where you’re more relaxed? Are there sensations you feel more strongly?”
  3. Focus on the strongest sensation and find words to describe it. Is it sharp, dull, tight, loose, stiff, throbbing, hot, cold, uncomfortable, painful? “See if you can keep your mind on the sensation and resist the urge to create stories around it,” Grace says.
  4. Notice whether you feel emotions while focusing on the sensation. Becoming familiar with our body sensations and the emotions they evoke takes practice, but can be a powerful tool to help us understand and feel our emotions.

A: Appraise and Adjust Your Mindset

“This is a fancy way of saying ‘understand your stories,’” Grace says. “As humans, we can create physiological stress with the stories we tell ourselves.”

The next time you’re feeling insecure about your ability to take on a project at work and you feel your stress mounting, ask yourself, “Am I really incompetent? Is that really true?”

Similarly, if you find yourself avoiding a certain colleague who often seems to be in a bad mood, you might ask yourself, “Does this person really not like me?”

“When we appraise and adjust,” Grace says, “we stop the cycle of generating stress and we can be with people in the present moment.”

T: Take a Purposeful Pause

Intentionally build in time-outs. “I have a tendency to sit still and write,” Grace says, “but then my stress level goes up. If I walk around the block, though, I’m so much more able to deal with what’s being thrown at me.”

Grace recommends getting out of the office for short breaks and not eating lunch in front of the computer. And take your holidays and vacations! “A high percentage of people in the Western world don’t take time off,” she notes. “Maybe they’re afraid of working piling up or of losing promotions, but research shows we’re twice as happy if we take vacations.”

A time-out is also useful when it comes to interactions with colleagues and supervisors. Breathing before responding is another way of taking a purposeful pause, so we don’t say or do something we might later regret.

H: Humor

“Without humor, the workplace can be miserable,” Grace says, “but if we have humor about our mistakes, it lightens up the atmosphere.” Remembering that no one is going to die if the copy machine breaks down when we’re trying to print a 500-page report can help reduce or even extinguish stress.

One of Grace’s favorite ways to inject humor into the workplace is to hang a rubber chicken on her office door. The chicken communicates to her colleagues what kind of mood she’s in. If it hangs pointing up, it means, “Come on in.” If it’s pointed down, it means she’s stressed or anxious. “They can still knock in that case, but not take my mood as personally,” Grace says with a chuckle. “I highly encourage rubber chickens for office doors.”

E: Engage Others Mindfully

This step is about making a commitment to being a mindful human, which means adopting “a mindset of inclusion”—and accepting the fact that, just as we have our own stories and biases, so do others. “To coexist,” Grace says, “we need to set an intention to soften the rigidity of our position and agree to be fully present and to listen and respond to others respectfully and without judgment.”

“Whether you engage the intern in your office or your boss, be mindful of what you bring to each interaction,” she continues, noting that treating others with respect and kindness perpetuates more of the same.

“We have to take responsibility for modeling the change we want to see in the world. What you put out is what you create.”

Portland Helmich is the creator, host, and producer of the Kripalu Perspectives podcast series. She has been investigating natural health and healing as a host, reporter, writer, and producer for more than 15 years.

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