I was recently asked by a colleague “What do mindfulness and executive coaching have in common?” It struck me as a very interesting question, and it certainly got me thinking!
As a chartered psychologist and executive coach with over twenty years’ experience, I decided in 2016 to add to my professional portfolio by training in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) at Oxford University’s Mindfulness Centre. What I learned during the programme not only helped me to flourish, but it also enhanced my capacity to deliver meaningful change to my business clients.
Before exploring the synergies between mindfulness and executive coaching, it might be helpful to define them first.
Mindfulness is a mix of traditional meditation practices blended with the science of modern psychology. It’s a highly researched discipline, and the science shows it has many benefits for those who practice it. A mindfulness teacher normally undergoes extensive training and, like an executive coach, engages in on-going development and supervision to retain their professional status.
As for executive coaching, there are many definitions out there, but I like to think of it as a ‘thinking partnership’ where the coach and client are committed to enabling the client to be the very best version of themselves at work. The focus of the coaching and the tools used are as varied as the clients and coaches themselves, although there are certain core practices such as deep listening and asking powerful questions.
One thing is certain: both executive coaching and mindfulness help us to THRIVE and to achieve our true potential. Here’s how:
Both mindfulness and coaching require time and discipline. As with anything we want to get better at, we need to practice it. With mindfulness, this means making time to be still and present every day, and with coaching it means turning up to the session with the intention of being fully engaged. In both coaching and mindfulness there is also a process of experimentation and reflection outside of the more formal sessions or practices. In the case of coaching, this might entail completing a psychometric, or keeping a reflection journal, or soliciting feedback from colleagues. In mindfulness it might be paying particular attention to a habitual daily routine, such as walking to work. Just like working towards physical fitness, both mindfulness and coaching require commitment and time, and it also takes time to see the benefits, because change doesn’t happen overnight!
Coaching and mindfulness both work with the power of positivity. For many of us, even the most successful, we are blighted by unhelpful thoughts and narratives about ourselves and others that ‘hold us back’. Through deep listening and questioning in coaching, and by becoming aware of our thinking during mindfulness practices, we can choose to switch from negative thinking to more hopeful and constructive ways of seeing ourselves and the world. This takes practice and perseverance, so that we can develop new habits which fuel motivation and happiness rather than drag us down.
There is a growing body of research that demonstrates that both coaching and mindfulness have a positive impact on the core leadership skills that foster positive and trusting relationships at work. This is important, because trust and relationship are the engine room of any high performing organisational culture. Effective leaders are marked-out by qualities such as emotional intelligence, resilience, good listening and questioning skills. When embodied, these leadership qualities create work environments that are ‘psychologically safe’ and which foster loyalty, creativity and trust. Mindfulness and coaching both create spaces within which leaders can develop these leadership qualities and begin to live them out authentically in the workplace.
Coaching as well as mindfulness encourages an honest, open, and curious mindset. By noticing and allowing (rather than pushing away) what’s happening inside us as well as in the world around us, we develop the capacity to see reality for what it is, to hold ambiguous situations or information with equanimity and equilibrium, and to pause so that we can react intentionally and wisely. Leaders and their teams benefit enormously from these qualities.
In coaching sessions, the client will often voice things to their coach that they’ve never said to anyone before. Leadership can be a lonely place, and by voicing thoughts and fears out loud, leaders can sometimes become aware of deeply buried roadblocks to success. In the coaching partnership the validity of these assumptions and fears can be assessed and alternative ways of framing the world explored.
The same principle applies in mindfulness. As we practice holding our attention on sensations, such as the breath, we soon notice thoughts and feelings arising which draw our attention away from where we want it to be. By noticing and acknowledging what draws us away, and then returning to our breath, we gradually become more familiar with our narratives and patterns. It is this self-awareness that opens the doorway to possibilities and is ultimately deeply liberating and empowering. Once we notice what’s going on inside us we can decide if it serves us or de-rails us, and if it de-rails us we can choose what to do about it.
This is a relatively easy one, because although mindfulness and coaching both use up energy, they also help us to focus our energy wisely and to develop practices that conserve and nourish energy, rather than wastes it. By practicing mindfulness, or working alongside a coach, leaders learn to look after themselves by developing sustainable and nourishing habits to feed energy in mind, body, and spirit.
I think we can safely say that both mindfulness and executive coaching give support to leaders to enhance their leadership capabilities, so that both they and those they lead can thrive.