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Mindfulness at Work: Interview with Dr. Aminda O’Hare

The world is in love with mindfulness. It makes us smarter, more focused, more resilient, and more compassionate. It’s no wonder that businesses from Google to General Mills are offering mindfulness training to their employees. My twitter feed is full of articles extolling the benefits of mindfulness, from the likes of HBR and Forbes. So what’s the deal? I recently caught up Aminda O’Hare, Ph.D., a friend, professor at UMass Dartmouth, and researcher in cognitive neuroscience, to ask her a few questions. If you are new to the whole mindfulness thing, Aminda breaks down the basics in this interview:


Mindfulness researcher Aminda O’Hare, Ph.D.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is practicing the skills of paying attention to the present, or what’s going on around you, being accepting and nonjudgmental of that moment, and acting with intention.

What’s the best way to start a mindfulness practice at home?

When beginning to learn the practice of mindfulness, it can be hard to stay focused on your own without some guidance. I recommend finding a recorded guide online to help steer you as you start. UCLA Health has a list of guided meditations and is one of many great resources available. Better yet, find a class or a group with which you can practice. Just like any other skill you are trying to pick up, it will be a struggle for the first several practices, so start small, 5-10 minutes a day, and work up to longer practices. There are also a lot of misconceptions about what the experience of being mindful should feel like. While some find it relaxing, it can be frustrating, boring, or difficult. Be open to the experience and accept that it will take time before your brain can relearn the habit of staying focused on the present. If you start to mind-wander or get distracted, just take a breath and begin again.

Mindfulness is getting a lot of buzz for helping people to be more productive and focused at work. What’s the deal?

Mindfulness is becoming very trendy across Western culture right now, and for good reason. Research supports that practicing mindfulness has three main effects:

  1. Increasing cognitive capacity for sustained attention and working memory
  2. Decreasing stress
  3. Increasing resiliency, or your ability to cope

These effects have dramatic impacts on how you conduct yourself and respond to different situations, and in turn, they impact how others conduct themselves around you. For example, if you are in a meeting with a client, you usually tend to be half listening to them and half constructing a response in your head to make sure that you sound smart and prepared. The practice of mindfulness can help you learn to stay fully present with your client and what they are saying, a skill called deep listening, while letting go of the anxiety that pausing for a moment before responding to them will make you appear unprepared.

By practicing mindfulness, you get a better understanding of what your client needs and pick up on more subtle cues like facial expression, tone of voice, and body posture. Your response will also appear more thoughtful after a pause, and your client will become more aware of how engaged you are. As a result, your client can feel more relaxed and comfortable working with you. This is just one of many ways that the practice of mindfulness can transfer into your regular work skills.

Do you have any practical tips for people looking to be mindful at the office?

Something I do is take 1-2 minutes of mindfulness every time I sit down at my desk. It usually takes my computer that long to log in, so I’m actually capitalizing on time that I used to waste. You can also set intentions that are related to things you do regularly at the office. For example,

Every time I go to the printer I will think of something for which I am grateful (helps generate acceptance and compassion).” or

Every time I get a cup of coffee I will take three, attention-focused breaths.” or

Every time I go to the bathroom I will practice self-compassion.

I also believe that the best way to practice mindfulness is with a group, so starting a group at work that can meet once a week or for a couple minutes each day to practice can really help sustain your practice and create feelings of connection among your colleagues and you.

Lotus flower

An important part of Groundwork! is that our members learn how to interact as a community, and hopefully become better community members even when they leave the space. How can mindfulness help people connect and interact with others?

The practices in letting go and accepting the moment can help you to neutralize reactions that you have to other people. Imagine you had a confrontation with a colleague on Monday. Most likely, when you go in to the office on Tuesday, you are bracing yourself for conflict and becoming defensive before you even reach the door. Your colleague and others will read this and treat you with distance and their own defensiveness that day. If instead you were able to let go of yesterday’s conflict and enter the office with no expectations about how others will behave, others will be more relaxed around you and more open to communicating and working with you.

This simple act of letting go can change others through first changing yourself and how your react to different people and situations. We also know that sharing any type of experience with another person creates feelings of affiliation with that person. Imagine someone holding the door for you on your way out of the coffee shop. If you see that person at an intersection later on, you are more likely to give that person a wave or a smile, increasing your own positive mood and theirs. Sharing in a mindfulness practice with others has that same effect. You have that experience in common, so when you see each other outside of practice, you are more likely to feel supportive and a sense of community with each other.

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