How mindfulness can support coaching and effective leadership

March 21, 2017

Amanda Bailey

Head of Coaching, Ambition School Leadership

There has been considerable interest in mindfulness in the media in recent years, and it would be fair to say it has entered the mainstream. Mindfulness techniques are deployed by organisations across sectors, and it has widely reported impact.

This blog is part of our coaching series

Applied to coaching, mindfulness can help coaches maintain a full and non-judgmental focus on their coachee. More generally, it can be used by leaders who want to fully focus on any task at hand.  

This blog post will introduce you to the concepts of mindfulness, discuss potential benefits and start to show how they relate to coaching but can support anyone working in a busy and constantly-changing environment like a school.

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What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a form of mental training that focuses on remaining in the present and taking the time to concentrate on immediate experiences rather than rushing through life with your mind on the future or the past. A growing body of research supports a link between mindfulness and improved cognitive and emotional functions.   

Although difficult to define, mindfulness itself isn’t complicated. Next time you undertake a routine activity, try giving it your full awareness. Place all your attention on the task itself and be aware of your body and your emotional state as it is right now. If you can be aware of this – and just this – for even a second or two, you will have a better understanding of mindfulness as a concept.  

Mindfulness has demonstrated its impact across a variety of perspectives. There is an increasing proliferation of mindfulness-based courses, both face to face and online, and large companies and organisations are introducing it to their employees to boost well-being. Evidence for the efficacy of mindfulness-based approaches is growing and it has been recommended twice by the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) as an effective treatment for depression. 

However, we should also remember that secular mindfulness has its roots in Buddhist traditions going back 2,500 years and that it is certainly not a panacea for everything. It requires practise and is a skill that must learned, rather than a quick fix. And for all the current flurry of media attention there is still widespread confusion and a variety of interpretations about what mindfulness is and how it can be practised.

"It reduces reactivity and puts a space between us and our habitual patterns of behaviour to enable wiser choices to be made in challenging situations, as we step back from our thoughts. "

The benefits of mindfulness: school leadership and coaching

School leaders can benefit from mindfulness techniques both in their own performance and in their management of others. It improves focus, creativity (Google have a mindfulness programme for employees because they think it supports creative thinking), and resilience in accepting life’s ups and downs and keeping things in perspective.

It reduces reactivity and puts a space between us and our habitual patterns of behaviour to enable wiser choices to be made in challenging situations, as we step back from our thoughts. It can also support better sleep and calmer modes of mind overall.

Mindfulness can similarly benefit school leaders in their professional relationships, allowing them to adopt a more reflective attitude to 1-1s and the development of colleagues. The key role of developing others in being an effective leader, means there are strong links between coaching and school leadership,

Coaching experts Passmore and Marianetti have concluded that mindfulness training can help coaches in four areas:

  • Preparing for the coaching session
  • Maintaining focus on the coachee
  • Remaining emotionally detached from coachees issues
  • Teaching mindfulness techniques to the coachee
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Regular and sustained practice of mindfulness can aid coaches in becoming more aware of their own reactions to their clients. It can put space between themselves and their emotional reactions, allowing them to respond from the perspective of what will benefit their client rather than automatic emotion.

Mindfulness can also help empathise with clients more clearly. This enables the coach to understand what will create the best conditions for the personal change that a client may need to make. It may also help coaches to resist the temptation to share their own stories and instead apply themselves more skilfully to listening.   

After a coaching session, mindfulness can help coaches to reflect on their coaching practice. For example, mindfulness encourages a spirit of self-kindness rather than self-judgement, allowing us to acknowledge all our experiences, rather than focusing on the ones we want to see or ignoring those that seem undesirable. After this, coaches may see their coaching from a new or different perspective.  

Like much in the development of new behaviours and habits, learning mindfulness takes times but it will have a long-term impact on you and those you may be coaching or line-managing.

Try Mindfulness Out: Three Steps

But you don’t just have to read about it, so we’ve included a simple exercise that can help you try out one part of mindfulness. The steps can be performed within a minute or two or be extended into a longer practice.  

  1.  Begin by finding a location where you feel comfortable. Close your eyes and ask yourself; “What’s going on with me right now? What thoughts are in my mind?” 

    Are there any emotions alongside these? Are there any physical sensations? Are there impulses or urges to act in a certain way?

    This is a way of checking in with yourself and acknowledging what is happening right now. This may take from 10 seconds to a minute or two depending on what’s going on.

  2. When you are ready, gently shift the focus of attention to your breath. Identify where you feel movement as you inhale and as you exhale.

    Allow your awareness to settle on your breathing for a few moments. 

  3.  Now expand your awareness outwards to include your whole body. 

    Become aware of whatever you find here: breathing, sensations in the body, tensions. You may get distracted but this is normal - simply return your attention to your body.

    When you’re ready, return your focus to just the breath, and then open your eyes.

To find out more about our programmes and how they can develop school leaders at all levels to create more impact, click here.

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