There are few things at work as stressful as feeling that you can’t communicate with someone who has an impact on how well you do your job and on the quality of your experience at work. How many times have you thought carefully about something you want to communicate to your boss, a colleague, or subordinate, only to find yourself leaving the conversation feeling angry or frustrated by how it went?
Karen (not her real name), a program officer for a nonprofit organization, had an experience like this when she first tried to convince her boss, Maria, to let her work from home three afternoons per week. She had thought carefully about how to make the most persuasive argument. She was prepared with a rationale that addressed her own needs as well as her employer’s, details of how she would manage communication while physically absent, and buy-in from colleagues.
Here’s how the meeting unfolded:
Karen: Maria, I have a 14-year-old son who’s struggling. It’s causing a great deal of stress in my family and making it more difficult for me to perform at work. By being around more in the afternoons, I could provide the structure he needs to focus on his schoolwork. So I’d like to telecommute three afternoons per week. I’m confident that I can work effectively from home. I’ve checked in with everyone I work with and no one has any objections. I have the technology I need in place. I think that I will actually be more productive without the interruptions that go on in the office. I’ll be able to write my reports more quickly, which should be a help to you as well.
Maria: I don’t have kids, but it sounds to me like helping your son with his homework would be a pretty big distraction during the workday!
Karen: I’m not going to be sitting next to him helping him do his homework, I’m just saying that by being present at home, I’ll be able to redirect him to his homework if he needs structure.
Maria: Aren’t there any after-school programs you can put him in?
Karen: No. Look, my kid is having a really hard time, socially as well as academically. You know I’m totally committed to my job. I work many more hours than I’m paid for, and I’m happy to do it. Can’t you please just let me have this? It’s really not a big thing, but it would mean a great deal to me.
Maria: I’m not comfortable with putting an arrangement like this into place on such an ad-hoc basis. It’s really important that senior leadership sees our program area as solidly professional. I don’t want to give anyone the impression that we’re not totally focused on achieving our goals. You know how people talk in this organization.
Karen left the meeting feeling defeated. Why, she asked herself, did Maria have to be so rigid?
You Can’t Just Debate—You Have to Relate
Karen fell into the same trap that ensnares leaders daily: thinking that a strong argument alone is the key to effective communication. Equally important is the relational agility to work with whatever comes up in the dynamic environment of human interaction, especially all that is felt but not articulated by both parties to the conversation. The trap shows up in Karen’s defensiveness when Maria pushes back on her argument as well as in Maria’s discomfort with Karen’s request.
The first step to building relational agility is to become more aware of how you think about and interact with others, especially people you find difficult. The second step is developing curiosity about and compassion for their perspectives and experiences. A simple and effective tool for building these capacities is the practice of metta (“loving-kindness”) meditation.
2 Benefits of Loving-Kindness at Work
Practicing loving-kindness meditation yields two substantial benefits for increasing relational agility. First, it helps you to become much more aware of yourself and of how you relate to the other person. You learn to recognize thoughts (such as “I don’t trust him”) when they enter your mind and to let them go without judging or reacting to them. This prevents you from being ensnared by thoughts that can trip you up when you’re navigating a high-stakes conversation.
You learn to recognize thoughts (such as “I don’t trust him”) when they enter your mind and to let them go without judging or reacting to them. This prevents you from being ensnared by thoughts that can trip you up when you’re navigating a high-stakes conversation.
Second, the meditation exercise helps to cultivate greater awareness of and compassion for the other person. This is especially crucial in relationships marked by frustration or resentment because those emotions narrow our perceptions and make our interactions more clumsy, rigid, and prone to failure. Like caricaturists who exaggerate their subjects’ most prominent physical features, we mentally distort our perceived opponents, reducing them to a narrow collection of traits and behaviors. (Perhaps you work with someone you think of as an ogre, a witch, a fool, or a snake.) Then we interact with that caricature rather than with the whole person. Meditation opens up our view to include the person’s many facets, roles, and the experiences that may have shaped their patterns of thinking and behavior. The practice also helps us see how we engage in ways that break down communication. With awareness and compassion, it’s much easier to find common ground.
Reading this article alone won’t develop your relational agility. Indeed, intellectual learning can be a crutch for inaction. I see this time and time again in leaders who say, “Oh, yes, I’ve read about how important mindfulness is,” but who have no direct experience of it themselves. Practice is essential to developing and maintaining relational agility. As with physical exercise, a single session of loving-kindness meditation won’t make you fit, even though it may well yield tangible short-term benefits.
Mindfulness Practice: Loving-Kindness Meditation
Before you head into your next stressful meeting, take ten minutes to clear your mind and tune your brain for interpersonal effectiveness. Here’s the practice:
Find a quiet place to sit or stand comfortably. Close your eyes if you wish. Breathe in, filling your lungs with oxygen. Exhale slowly, releasing any tension you may be holding. Let your mind settle gently on your natural breathing, paying attention to the feeling of air flowing in and out of your body. When your mind wanders off, gently bring it back to your breath. Lift the corners of your mouth into a slight smile. Continue this mindfulness meditation for two minutes.
Loving-kindness meditation begins with a focus on the self. Without self-compassion, it is difficult to cultivate compassion for others. Continuing with your breathing, slowly repeat the following phrases to yourself multiple times:
May I be safe, may I be happy, may I be healthy, may I be free from suffering.
As you repeat the phrases, settle into the intention of goodwill they convey. Connect your breath to the positive intentions you are directing toward yourself. Smile if you wish to.
Now bring to mind a person who has cared deeply for you, such as a mentor or close friend. Focusing on that person and continuing with your breathing, slowly repeat the following phrases to yourself multiple times, settling into the positive intentions you are directing to this person:
May you be safe, may you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be free from suffering.
Next, repeat the phrases and positive intentions while focusing on a person with whom you are acquainted at work, but don’t know well.
Finally, focus on a person with whom you have difficulty. Notice what sorts of thoughts and emotions arise. If they are negative, it may help to repeat a few phrases such as the following:
You have hopes and dreams, just like me.
You have anxieties and fears, just like me.
You have known suffering, just like me.
You wish to be happy, just like me.
Then, continuing with awareness of your breathing and focusing on the person, repeat the phrases several times:
May you be safe, may you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be free from suffering.
Conclude your meditation practice and continue with your day, carrying with you the intentions of goodwill for yourself and others.
How Thoughts Become Habits
To understand why we get clumsy in difficult relationships, consider that habitual patterns of thinking and behavior are like the deep grooves that get carved into a dirt road by the repeated passage of tires. The deeper the grooves, the more likely we are to get stuck in them. This is why we tend to have the same argument repeatedly with certain people, and find ourselves unable to free ourselves from the familiar script. Loving-kindness meditation improves our ability to see those grooves more clearly, to lift ourselves out of them, and to intentionally choose a better, more effective pathway.