Active Engagement: the Practice of Mindful Leadership
It took a certain type of conversation to get us in the same place. Somebody had to initiate it. My experience – training, reflection, time I spent trying to put myself in others’ shoes – think about what they’re facing, what they might be thinking about, things in their environment that might be constraining them. This allowed me to start a conversation I think we all wanted to have but couldn’t have previously because we were stuck.
Before my training and work in the skills of dialogue, it would not have been possible. Eighteen months ago, it wouldn’t have gone so well. I might have tried but it wouldn’t have worked because I would have backed people into a corner.”
“One of the things I’ve noticed is that the practice helps liberate me in my conversations from worrying that it is all about me. It is about the context or the matter we are discussing. If, for example, I need to pose a question to a deputy minister about an incongruity I perceive, I am exploring an issue that is causing me concern. I am not questioning the deputy’s judgment or intelligence. ‘Can we talk about this? How can we talk about this?’ I don’t feel so wholly invested in the matter of the discussion that I am fearful.
I’ve found that being clear in my intentions and expressing them enables me to be okay about having awkward or potentially awkward discussions with superiors. ‘I’m asking you about a specific matter; it may be uncomfortable to discuss but it’s not my intention to make anyone uncomfortable, it’s only about the matter at hand. I’m trying to improve my understanding.”
“I check my own assumptions regularly, especially regarding other people’s motives. It helps me see people more compassionately rather than jumping to a conclusion that they’re trying to make my life hell! With “difficult people”, I’m more curious about where their anger or off-putting comments/ behaviour is coming from, rather than getting defensive about it. I’m seeing people and situations much more positively.
I check other people’s assumptions. This isn’t easy, but I find that I’m often wrong and that people are somewhat relieved that I’ve done the checking. I was involved in a forestry tree improvement committee that I felt was really missing the mandate in terms of how we were spending our time at meetings. I put on the table what I was noticing about the situation. It was like a balloon popped. Some people were angry, but most were head nodding and saying I said what they were thinking. I believe the committee is on a much more productive track now.”
“This past year I had to address an employee performance issue. I found that the practice opened my awareness that I was ignoring the situation to a degree thinking that managers just focus on the positive and diminish the negative. I was ignoring the impacts of her negative behaviour. When I stopped to take a look at the entire reality of the situation fully – both positive and negative – it gave me the drive and courage to address the issue. Even though the employee grieved my performance discussions and letter of concern, I had the entire view necessary to push forth. This also tested my compassion for the person. I maintained it, even as she attacked my ‘unfair’ management. This person eventually left the department and I’m realizing now the positive impact that has had on me and the rest of my team.
“I think Active Engagement (CD) used to get a bad rap because the language put people off (“contemplative”, “non-violent engagement”). If people can see past that and focus on checking assumptions, stopping to check the reality of a situation (vs. jump to action which we are great at), I have no doubt we are more effective. I believe that has been true for myself and my team. It is the most effective tool I’ve come across in my 16 years here. This practice has helped me to ‘connect’ with people in other levels in SRD and see us as more of a team, rather than divided silos …I strongly believe if we are to ensure integration on the landscape, we need to have our own house in order. We need to stop thinking of other teams, divisions, departments as “those other guys”. I think the basics of the practice provide us some skills to see that we are one team, and to better operate as a team.”
“AE has been extremely helpful in heightening my self-awareness and breaking though the strong cultural ties and undercurrents within our organization and beyond. It has been instrumental in helping me to slow down, notice and test my assumptions in an open, transparent and less threatening way. Now rather than assuming people are resistant, the process and approach I take to engage others helps me to understand where the perceived resistance is coming from, which makes it easier for me to understand the fuller picture and find productive ways forward.”
“The whole practice was an ‘aha’ for me. One of the things I aspire to is to lead an authentic life. I want to make sure that I’m treating people with respect so I need to have the tools to do that. The exploration of Nondefended Engagement gave me insight into how this might be accomplished. It raised the question of how are you getting results from the people who work for you or that you work for? Are you pushing them around…are you manipulating them or is this a genuine ‘we’re in this together and we’re having a dialogue’ where you’re giving them the tools, you’re giving them the supports and you’re giving them the respect they deserve in order to get the job done.
I had never thought of myself as controlling but I realized I can pull out the authoritative Model 1 quite readily. To try to reframe that was a big thing. The language around assumptions and noticing is still a challenge to me. I find it really hard to make it natural but it’s definitely something that changes the stance of the conversation as soon as you start using it. It doesn’t change the dynamic in a controlling way – ‘now I’ve got the upper hand because I have this trick up my sleeve’. No, it changes it so you are getting a much more genuine and authentic response from people. Their response may be, ‘I don’t want to have a conversation with you’ and that’s entirely valid; that’s something that you have to deal with but it makes it a lot clearer. You’re not walking away scratching your head as often.”
“To me, Active Engagement [contemplative dialogue] is really situational awareness which I believe is essential for good leadership. How can you stop doing something counterproductive if you don’t even notice you are doing it? That has been the real gift of the practice for me – learning to notice.”