In the moment. When is mindfulness most useful?

Free Child Walking on White Round Spheres Balance by D. Sharon Pruitt

Be aware of where you are putting your feet and they'll be less likely to end up in your mouth

Mindfulness is a cultivated state of mind in which you pay attention to the present moment. The modern usage of mindfulness is based on, but differs from, the Buddhist concept of sati (awareness). It is often linked to the practice of meditation but is now being investigated in relation to a number of different areas.

The idea of mindfulness came to prominence as a technique for stress reduction in the 1970s. Since then has been applied to a growing number of areas, such as pain management, education, behaviour management and cognitive therapy. In fact, I’m even going to be referring to it in a workshop on time management this week.

In the dim and distant past, a comment on a post discussing the concept of ‘Flow’ caused me to speculate about the difference between the notions of Flow and mindfulness. Last week, on the Advanced Guidance Skills course, I discussed mindfulness with some of the participants. This was in relation to the need to be acutely aware of what is going on moment-to-moment within a guidance or coaching discussion, where there is a constant danger of getting swept up in thinking about what you will do next with a client.

It was, therefore, interesting to come across an article in the Journal of Management (Dane, 2010) which seeks to clarify the relationship of mindfulness to other states of mind and which tries to identify the types of situation in which mindfulness might be useful and when it might not.

One of the first distinctions that Dane makes is that mindfulness involves an awareness of both external and internal phenomena occurring in the present moment. In a mindful state you are attentive to what is happening around you and to what is happening within you. So, you might notice the particular words a client uses and the changes in their body language from moment to moment. At the same time, you notice your reactions. Are you apprehensive, curious, confused? Are you trying to understand, to classify, to decide? You listen to your own words and notice the client’s reactions to them.

Thus, in mindfulness you have what Dane calls ‘wide attentional breadth’ — you are aware of a lot of things simultaneously. This distinguishes it from Flow in which your focus on the task is such that you lose awareness of yourself.

Mindfulness is distinguished from ‘mind wandering’ because your attention is directed to the present rather than ruminating on what happened in the past or speculating on what might happen in the future.

In this respect it is very much related to the various levels of listening Saiyada blogged about quite a while ago and my musings on different types of listening (pdf).

What is it good for?

As well as more precisely defining mindfulness in relation to other mental states, Dane tries to explore the potential impact of mindfulness on task performance.

There are potential benefits and dangers involved in maintaining a wide external attentional breadth. Being alert to a wide range of stimuli in the world around you can help to reduce the risk of missing out on something potentially significant because you are too narrowly focused. On the other hand, it may mean you pay too much attention to things that are unimportant. Dane proposes that the potential benefits outweigh the costs in particularly dynamic environments. When the situation is prone to change from moment to moment and when decisions have to be made on the fly, maintaining an awareness of all of the subtle factors that are present in a particular instant can be advantageous. So, mindfulness may be useful when you have to improvise in unpredictable environments.

On the other hand, in static environments where decisions are enacted over a longer time scale, mindfulness might be a disadvantage because it may too readily lead to distraction.

Dane also argues that wide internal attentional breadth can be useful in helping one to be more aware of the intuitions and gut feelings that arise from our non-conscious mental processes. In general our intuitions tend to become more accurate as we develop more expertise through experience. Because of this, mindfulness may enable more experienced practitioners to pay attention to useful gut instincts during the course of a discussion.


  • To what extent do you use mindfulness as part of your practice?
  • How have you developed a mindful attitude to your work?
  • What is it useful for and when does it get in the way?

Further reading

Dane, E. (2010). Paying attention to mindfulness and its effects on task performance in the workplace. Journal of Management, 37(4), 997-1018. DOI: 10.1177/0149206310367948

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  1. #1 by Annie Giaro on 13 June 2011 - 13:06

    Great post. There’s always the tendency, when interacting with clients / colleagues, to focus on the future – ideas and solutions going forward. In business we naturally want to move forward rather than focus on the present. We want the next big idea or product. Giving yourself the space to observe what is happening moment to moment as you say, taking note of the words clients use, their body language, your feelings may allow you to perhaps develop a ‘birds eye view’ awareness and thoughtfulness.

    I guess a big challenge for starting this mindful practice in the work place is not getting too distracted observing wrong cues and risking missing the important things. Practicing mindfulness in other areas of your life ought to refine these skills in the work place I’d hope!

    • #2 by David Winter on 19 June 2011 - 17:31

      One way to develop more awareness in the moment, ironically, is to look backwards. If you record an interaction with a client and play it back actively looking for things you didn’t notice at the time, then this can make you alert to more things in the moment with the next client. This is applying the principal of ‘reflection-on-action’ leading to ‘reflection-in-action’ that was proposed by Donald Schön.

      Another interesting reflective approach is that developed from Contextual Action Theory
      This looks at each comment by coach and client as an intentioned action which is part of one or more projects being worked on by both participants.

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