Mindfulness can be a powerful conflict resolution tool

Taking time to consider disagreements non-judgementally can make all the difference when things get heated at work, says Gillian Higgins

Whether managing employee expectations, ensuring compliance with new legislation or resolving conflict in the workplace, the burden on HR is heavy. Overflowing inboxes, tight deadlines and competition for work are contributing to the rise of conflict. The search has begun for new ways of managing people and their problems. Aside from grievance procedures, investigations and mediation, how else can conflict be managed in the workplace? An increasing number of companies are turning to 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-judgemental attitude. It sounds easy, but increasingly it’s 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. It encourages us 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 are significant. Research shows that regular mindfulness meditation 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 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 out-breath. Do this every time the mind wanders – with kindness to yourself. With practice, 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 arrival at your desk. By pausing and staying present with the moment, you might notice the aroma of your drink or the comfort of the seat beneath you, taking in your experience fully. So often, the uniqueness of the moment is lost as the focus shifts to simply getting through the day.

Resolving conflict

Conflict is an innate part of life. Even so, it can be hard to tackle it in a way that transforms relationships for the better. When a conflict arises, mindfulness invites you to approach it non-judgementally. Rather than lashing out, or reacting habitually, it invites you to pause, take a moment and breathe slowly. This helps you assess how to respond rather than knee-jerk react. Among colleagues, this could mean the difference between an angry row and a robust exchange of words. 

Mindfulness grows your self-awareness and helps you refrain from leaping to assumptions about others you might otherwise make. This ‘one step removed’ approach helps to de-escalate conflict and leaves room for the benefit of the doubt. It’s easy to attribute motive to another’s actions, but if you’re able to leave judgement aside for just a few moments, you have a chance of seeing the situation for what it really is, rather than what you think it’s about. It also helps you take disputes less personally.

One of the great benefits of mindfulness is its ability to repair the consequences of conflict. This can be vital where people work side by side everyday. It doesn’t necessarily mean they argue less, but rather they engage with greater awareness and empathy for the other’s point of view. People become more willing to accept that everyone falls prey to strong emotions, such as anger, pride or jealousy. They become less attached to the emotions themselves and more able to work on the heart of a disagreement. The teaching of mindfulness within the workplace helps to grow self-awareness, compassion and resilience. 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.

Gillian Higgins is an international criminal barrister at 9 Bedford Row. She is also the founder of Practical Meditation and the author of Mindfulness at Work and Home