Should you practise mindfulness as a mentor?
It seems the whole world has gone mindfulness-mad!
Schools are jumping on the mindfulness bandwagon with projects aimed at training staff to deliver mindfulness sessions to staff and students. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), which provides national guidance and advice to improve health and social care, recommends that mindfulness can be introduced safely into many therapeutic interventions. Enthusiasts claim that mindfulness enhances resilience and helps to relieve stress.
This sounds great. Surely we should all be doing it if we are to reach our full potential in life. Should you therefore be practising mindfulness as a mentor? Will it perhaps make you a better mentor?
Mindfulness and being mindful
I like the idea of being mindful, and I think it’s important to establish that outside the ‘mindfulness’ domain we are usually mindful of something – heedful, thoughtful, regardful. A mindful person pays careful attention to their responsibilities in the world around them. I think these are excellent attributes for a mentor to cultivate. Be observant. Be careful. Be respectful. The more I discover about mindfulness, however, the more I realise it is not just about being mindful or self-aware.
Mindfulness gurus seem to agree that mindfulness is a mental state achieved by:
focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. By being fully present in this way – not forcing things or hiding from them, but actually being with them, we create space to respond in new ways to situations and make wise choices (http://bemindful.co.uk/)
Some people practise mindfulness as a form of meditation; others apply it as a kind of 'brain training' that helps you to keep negative or counterproductive responses to situations in check. Mindfulness also allows you to be kind to yourself. In any work situation, mindfulness can provide a strategy for dealing with your inner critic. Although I don’t understand the practice of meditation too well, I can see that any tool that helps you to improve your wellbeing in life and work must be a good thing.
Identifying negative mind chatter
As a mentor, if you can cultivate the ability to notice your thoughts and feelings without judging yourself, you may find it boosts your confidence. Mindfully listening to your own thoughts allows you witness these thoughts as separate from your deeper self. You can gently step aside from this negative mind chatter and learn the distinction between you and your thoughts.
A mentor who is skilled in mindfulness can improve their ability to come across to their mentees as calmer, more balanced, and less volatile emotionally. Achieving this sense of balance can make it easier for your mentees to approach you with ‘silly’ questions or admit to making a mistake. If you are avoiding a difficult conversation with your mentee (perhaps in which you need to inform them of low competence), mindfulness can help to prepare you for that.
Mindfulness techniques help you to develop more perspective on your feelings, and this can be particularly helpful at times of stress. New perspectives give you new ways to feel and respond to situations that would normally cause a lot of stress. If you feel troubled by the gap between where you are and where you need to be as a mentor, perhaps mindfulness techniques can help.
Some of the simplest mindfulness techniques involve sitting, relaxing your body, and focusing on your breathing . Online resources such as this one https://soundcloud.com/mindfulmagazine/guided-breathing-exercise can give you an idea of how easy and simple it can be. When the only thing you have to do is to count your breaths, you can notice all the other distractions invading your consciousness. All you have to do is notice them, not have an opinion on them.
Being fully present
The concept of ‘being fully present’ is the one I have most difficulty in grasping. It means you are focusing on the ‘now’. You don’t ruminate on past events, wishing you could have done differently. And you don’t worry about what is going to happen. My previous studies of Heidegger’s phenomenology have led me to understand that human beings cannot possibly separate out the past, present and future in any moment – how we understand any ‘present’ is based on accumulated past experience and the possibilities open to us that will take us forward from this moment. So I have to acknowledge that this technique of focusing the mind is one of acceptance more than anything. Accept that you can’t change the past, and you don’t know what will happen tomorrow, and your thoughts don’t necessarily define and constrain who you are.
Is mindfulness harmful?
In the wrong hands, anything can be harmful. Some people certainly have concerns about employers instigating mindfulness programmes in the workplace as a ‘quick fix’ for unfeasible workloads, poor management or low morale. As a mentor, you may need to take a reality check every so often to ensure you are not being too accepting of poor working conditions. You cannot take individual responsibility for managing all sources of stress at work.
In the therapeutic setting, NICE warns against the application of mindfulness-based interventions for people with social anxiety disorder, despite much advice to the contrary elsewhere. Perhaps the evidence is not yet sufficiently persuasive, or perhaps the risk of doing some harm is greater in this case. NICE’s reservations about applying mindfulness in cases of social anxiety disorder will presumably also impact on schools. In the UK, anxiety disorders are estimated to affect 5-19% of all children and adolescents
and a significant proportion of those will be social anxiety.
If you have ever toyed with the idea of introducing a mentee to mindfulness techniques, it is worth considering the potential risks. However, if you haven't already done so, it is certainly worth exploring how mindfulness can help you at work and in your mentoring. If you have tried any of the techniques, did they help you, and if so how?