Learning to Pause

May 13, 2016

When I was a nonprofit executive director managing large scale change in our organization, one of my most persistent and difficult leadership situations was responding in the moment to challenging  questions during in-person, all-staff meetings. 

 

I knew that my words would be remembered. 

 

I knew that my choice of language mattered and would have ripple effect. 

 

I knew that my team was looking to me, not just for what I would say, but also for any hint of perceived message in what I chose not to. 

 

I also often knew that I didn't know what to say.  And that knowledge terrified me, particularly as a Type A leader who likes being right,values doing, craves gold stars of external affirmation, and doesn't deal well with anything less than perfection. 

 

My lack of knowing  what to do in those challenging encounters created a classic stress response - that fight or flight reaction that serves us well when we're hunting & gathering, but isn't particularly helpful to get caught up in when we're leading others.   In the midst of stress, our perception narrows, we eliminate options, and we find the fastest way out. That's exactly the opposite response we as leaders most often need when we're managing change, and thoughtful, compassionate, nuanced communication is what's really called for.

 

Through my mindfulness practice, I'm now connecting more deeply with my own ability to pause in any situation.  Through that pause, we as leaders can connect with the moment and make a choice about how to respond - instead of simply reacting as if a modern day saber tooth tiger is chasing us!

 

In Finding the Space to Lead: A Practical Guide to Mindful Leadership, Janice Marturano calls these moments Purposeful Pauses: moments in the day when we notice the swirl around us and choose to intentionally pay attention.   To practice these purposeful pauses, we simply stop, breathe, and notice.  

 

What is actually happening right now?

What am I feeling?

What do I notice? 

What can I hear? 

What's needed next?

 

So simple.  And so not easy!

 

That's why we practice - on the mat, on the cushion, in our desk chair.    When we intentionally practice pausing regularly throughout our day, we build the capacity to pause when the leadership stakes are high.  

 

Need some resource to help you pause?  Check these out:

 

Pausing is the first step in practicing Insight Dialogue, an interpersonal meditation practice that brings the principles of mindfulness directly into our experiences with other people.  

 

The Best Mindfulness Practice Most People Don't Know shares practical examples of pausing practices and insightful questions to consider.

 

How to Practice Mindfulness Throughout Your Work Day includes a 10-minute guided breathing exercise you can practice at the start of your day, in between meetings, or before you head home. 

 

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