Conflict in the workplace is on the rise and the Bar is no exception.
With diaries to manage, difficult colleagues to navigate and competition as fierce as ever, stress levels within the profession remains high. So what can be done to de-escalate conflict and reduce stress? An increasing number of chambers are looking to mindfulness to help protect the mental health of their members. In this article, international barrister, mediator and mindfulness teacher Gillian Higgins explains what it is and how it could help in times of trouble.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is about paying attention to moments of everyday life with curiosity and openness, on purpose. It involves dropping into our present moment experience and being aware of what we’re doing, while we’re doing it, with a non-judgmental attitude. It sounds easy, but increasingly it seems hard to find time to pause and take stock. Mindfulness invites us to experience the ‘here and now’, rather than hankering after how we would like life to be.
Research shows that our minds wander 46.9 per cent of the time, and that a wandering mind is for the most part, an unhappy one. The fact that our brains are burdened with a negativity bias doesn’t help as it means that we tend to remember the bad, the difficult and the ugly. We spend almost half the time wandering into the past and the future where anxieties tend to lurk. When we practise mindfulness, we’re encouraged to witness the essence of the moment, just as it is, so we don’t miss out on what’s going on right now.
The benefits of a regular mindfulness meditation practice are significant. Research shows that it improves concentration, decision-making and working memory. It reduces stress, lowers the heart rate and blood pressure, strengthens the immune system, alleviates insomnia and reduces anxiety and depression. Mindfulness also encourages emotional stability by enabling you to observe your feelings rather than getting caught up in the drama of how you perceive life to be. Mindfulness is simple and can be practised anywhere. One way is to learn mindfulness meditation, by using a point of focus, such as the passage of the breath. When your mind gets distracted and wanders off into thinking, worrying or planning, simply notice where it has wandered to and gently guide it back to following the physical sensation of the in-breath and the out-breath. Do this every time the mind wanders – with kindness to yourself.
Over time, you start to recognise that thoughts are not facts and will come and go of their own accord, if you allow them to do so. Another way is to use ‘daily mindfulness practices’. These are instances during the day where you pause, breathe and bring moment-to-moment awareness to something as simple as the brewing of your tea or the taking of your morning shower. By pausing and staying present with the moment, you might notice the aroma of your drink or the sensation of the water as you take in your experience fully. So often, the uniqueness of the moment is lost as the focus shifts to simply getting through the day.
So how Could Mindfulness Help in Conflict Situations?
Conflict in the workplace is an innate part of life. Many people feel the stress of conflict every day, to a greater or lesser degree. People fall out, disagree and feel affronted. It’s easy to become embroiled in arguing with colleagues and even clients on a regular basis. Everyone deals with conflict differently and many have learned to identify the triggers that set them off. Even so, in the workplace it can be hard to tackle conflict productively in a way that transforms relationships for the better. So how could mindfulness help?
When a conflict arises, mindfulness helps you to approach it non-judgmentally. Rather than lashing out, or reacting instinctively, you can choose to pause, take a moment and breathe slowly which helps you to assess how to respond. Amongst colleagues, this could mean the difference between an angry row and a robust exchange of words. Mindfulness helps you to become more self-aware and reminds you to refrain from leaping to the assumptions you might otherwise make. This ‘one-step-removed’ approach helps to de-escalate conflict and makes room for the benefit of the doubt when disputes arise. It’s easy to attribute motive to another’s actions, but if you’re able to leave judgment aside for a few moments, you have the chance of seeing the situation for what it really is, rather than what you think it’s about. It also helps you to take disputes less personally.
One of the great benefits of mindfulness is its ability to repair the consequences of conflict. Over time, you become more willing to accept that everyone is capable of falling prey to strong emotions, such as anger, pride or jealousy. In turn, you become less attached to the emotions themselves and more able to work on the heart of a disagreement. At its core, the teaching of mindfulness in the workplace helps to grow self-awareness, compassion and resilience. In the end, the breathing space it affords is often just enough to provide the pause necessary to avert or de-escalate an argument, or even a fight.
Mindfulness at Work and Home by Gillian Higgins was published in September 2019 by RedDoor Press. The book is available at: www.practicalmeditation.co.uk, Waterstones, Foyles and Amazon. Gillian Higgins is an international criminal barrister at the Chambers of 9 Bedford Row. She is also the founder of Practical Meditation: www.practicalmeditation.co.uk. Gillian designs in-house workshops on mindfulness for chambers, companies and individuals.