By Steve Wirth
Mindfulness and the many good ways of noticing and centering one's awareness are such important and powerful works for individuals and the world. Yet, I've often had the experience that individuals with rich mindfulness practices don't necessarily add up to communities, organizations, or families that embody those same qualities. Individual practices of mindfulness are an essential starting point without which we are collectively blind, but at the same time, they are not enough to create the functioning 'us' — the wiser collective that we aspire to be.
The Often Bumpy Nature of Group Dynamics
In all walks of life, good people show up and bump into group dynamics that may not bring out their best. I’ve often experienced good people misunderstanding one another, or winding up in polarized relationships where ‘my group’ or ‘my department’ was sitting in a meeting politely resisting, if not outright battling, the ‘they’ of the other group. It was deeply troubling to notice how often a group of highly trained professionals could fail to be as wise as they were individually.
Frustrated by the gap between our good intentions and the reality of our separation, I developed the mindfulness practice we refer to as Active Engagement. While it is not the answer to every problem, groups and individuals say that Active Engagement makes a noticeable difference in how they show up, how conversations go, and how much easier it is to reach better outcomes with relationships and integrity intact.
Basic Practices for Improved Group Relationships
Here are two base assumptions and practices I find necessary to create improved group relationships:
- Understanding one another and working with our differences is universal challenge, one that’s common to the human experience. It’s not just the laggards or the belligerent ones who have trouble; it’s a natural byproduct of the very giftedness we all possess and how we make sense of the world around us.
- Showing up in ways that support ‘us’ by engaging mindfully requires some counter-cultural shifts. Listening to others as they are without seeking to change them is the first such shift.
Why Our Interactions Often Don’t Build Consensus
It’s helpful to notice how frequently our interactions at some level are attempts to change / help / improve / fix each other. This may seem necessary to get things done, and suggesting we not do this may seem confusing or counterproductive. Isn‘t it good to help, motivate, or improve someone? It could be, but seeking to change another to suit my preferences, or to get the outcome I want, naturally sets up a guarded response in the other.
Most of us don‘t want someone to ‘fix‘ us to suit them. What we want is to be understood and valued for who we are. Give us a real choice and we may choose to change or cooperate, but force it on us and we‘ll resist. Yet in how many of our daily interactions is this what we attempt to do to each other?
How Active Engagement Changes the Conversation
Accepting one another as we are creates the necessary safety and trust that invites mutual engagement. Of course the rub here is the need to do this skillfully in real time, in the real world of everyday demands, and in a way that still allows us to get things done.
In order to foster acceptance, we need to effectively notice what is before deciding what should be or could be. Engaging in this mindful way slows down our rush to judgment so we can notice our own assumptions and invite those of the other person.
Taking this approach changes how we listen. We often listen with busy minds, preparing our responses as another person speaks while missing so much in the process. Then we later wonder why misunderstandings arise. Active Engagement is a discipline not just of sharing conclusions, but also the assumptions and experiences that they’re rooted in. Rather than speak in abstract images and sound bites, it’s an invitation to slow down and help others understand how we arrive at the conclusions we hold.
Sharing our assumptions rather than just the ‘truth‘ as we see it can be unsettling at first. We may feel that our positions are weakened. But in truth, when was the last time someone converted you to his or her viewpoint just by stating it conclusively or more forcefully? Most of us are willing to consider other possibilities if they make sense to us. And even if we don‘t agree with someone‘s conclusions, it still changes the way we relate if we at least understand why they see things the way they do.
Developing the skill and practice of showing up in this dialogically mindful way changes how we engage and how others respond to us. It is one necessary step in overcoming the climate of ‘individuals’ contending and creating a space for a true ‘us’ to develop.
Steven Wirth is founder of the Centre for Contemplative Dialogue. Active Engagement is the descriptive name used for the practice of Contemplative Dialogue in public or for-profit organizations. He has shared this approach with positive outcomes in healthcare, government, corporate, faith-based and culturally diverse human settings around the world.