Andy Paice podcast interview: mindfulness and facilitation

Andy Paice

In Episode 26 of the Together London Podcast, I talk to Andy Paice about mindfulness and facilitation. You can follow Andy on twitter @natural_insight.

To learn more about these themes, come to #dareconf: people skills for digital workers, 22-23 September 2014 in London.

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Jonathan Kahn: I’m speaking to Andy Paice, who’s joining me from North London today. He’s a mindfulness trainer, and a coach.

Andy, thanks for taking the time to join me today.

Andy Paice: Thank you very much, Jonathan. It’s a pleasure.

Jonathan: You now train people in mindfulness. Can you talk to us about how you came to this practice?

Andy: Yeah. These days, I’m training people in mindfulness, which is a secular presentation of some techniques, which had arisen out of more ancient traditions, particularly the Buddhist tradition. I, first of all, got interested in Buddhism quite a while ago. About 20 years ago, I picked up a book from a library, and started trying out different meditation techniques, and really became very interested in it. I found a sense of clarity and spaciousness. It really called me to investigate that further and find out more about meditation, which eventually led me to meeting some Buddhist lamas, who are kind of experts in meditation.

Bit by bit, my interest just continued. I ended up going out to France, and finally ended up becoming a Buddhist monastic. I lived in a monastery for nine years, in France, and had a very rewarding and enriching time out there. Then at some point, things were calling me back to live back in society.

Now, I’m back in London, and I’m teaching secular mindfulness and helping people to become more self-aware. As you know, it’s a big buzzword these days. A lot of people are getting interested in it. That’s something we’re going to talk about in this interview.

Jonathan: Where I hear people talk about mindfulness is…One of the topics that I’m exploring on these podcasts is the challenges we have as professionals and experts in working with other people. The challenges that we have, not just in the thing that we’re supposed to be doing on our own, but the thing we’re supposed to be producing with many other people.

When you hear people talk about people skills or soft skills, often, techniques that they recommend are a version of mindfulness, whether that’s something that you can use in the field, when you’re talking to somebody, having a conversation or facilitating a group, or perhaps as part of your own habit change. If I choose to try and change the way that I’m managing my time, maybe I’ll say, “I want to be more mindful of what’s going on in my own brain,” that kind of thing.

Andy: If we want to work with others, and in any situation where we’re interacting with other people, it’s difficult to really be present for others and communicate effectively, work effectively, if we haven’t first of all done some work on ourselves.

If our own inner space is so chaotic, then it’s difficult to really be present to somebody else. Mindfulness is really all about coming back to ourselves. Getting in touch with a state of simplicity in ourselves, so that we can really be more aware of what’s going on within us.

There’s a large element of learning to accept ourselves. There’s all kinds of different exercises that mindfulness practices can teach us that bring us back to, really, a state where we can learn to listen to what’s going on inside ourselves. We’re able to separate, also, from that.

It enables us to notice what’s going on within ourselves, and to step back from that, as well, so that it’s not impeding on what we do. Mindfulness, I suppose, is the first step is really learning to listen to ourselves.

That leads on to the next aspect of, which enables us to really be able to listen to others. It helps us to get out of the way of ourselves when we’re talking to somebody else. Listening to others, then, becomes easier, because we’re more available, somehow.

Jonathan: That makes sense to me, intuitively. Everyone has got stuff going through their head, but if the stuff going through my head at this point is overwhelming me or is very strong, then I’m going to have much difficulty in listening to what you’re saying.

Right now, for example, if all I could think about is that I’m late for my next meeting, I probably won’t have picked up anything you’ve said. I can immediately see how that would make it more difficult for me to really be open to what you’re saying.

Andy: That’s exactly right. In terms of listening, mindfulness is really about being completely present to what the other person is saying. For example, when we’re listening to each other, it’s about, right now, we’re creating an intention that I’m really going to be listening to what you’re saying to me. My focus is going to be on what you’re saying.

Obviously, now and again, there are going to be thoughts that are coming up that are not congruent with that intention, but it’s all about noticing that and then coming back to the focus.

Basically, in describing what mindfulness is, it’s learning to focus on a particular object. In terms of doing an exercise, it could be simply learning to focus on one’s breathing and honing in on that aspect, and then becoming aware when the mind wanders off that object. Then, very gently, and with a kind of state of acceptance and kindness when we realize we’ve wandered off, bringing it back to the breath. That skill is absolutely transferable for so many things, particularly listening.

Jonathan: I want to take you back to something you said a while back, which was that this is a secular interpretation of something that originated in the East a long time ago. In practice, when you say a secular version of that, what’s a type of exercise?

You’ve talked there about concentrating on the breath, being aware of when your mind wanders from the thing you’re focusing on and letting yourself back in. Can you talk to me about what you really mean by a secular implementation of something that came from Buddhism?

Andy: That is quite a deep subject. This is quite a tricky one. A lot of people talk of Buddhism in different ways. Some people say it’s absolutely a religion. It has a very devotional aspect. It has a lot of ritualistic forms. Others talk about it more in terms of a science of the mind. I think both perspectives have their validity.

However, if we’re looking at from the point of view of a science of the mind, a lot of what Buddhism is looking into is…You can say, in some respects, it’s a science of consciousness. It’s looking at what awareness is, and through that investigation, it’s a deeper investigation into who we actually are. It takes a very deep perspective.

It’s looking into the nature of things, the nature of reality. That takes it a step further than the secular presentation, which is the mindfulness of the moment is really looking at, first of all, how do we calm the mind down? How do we…

Jonathan: Quite practical, really.

Andy: Yeah, more practical. It might well lead on to a deeper investigation. It’s taking the first aspects of calming the mind and learning to just separate, somehow, from our thoughts, as well. Often, we’re very identified with what’s coming up in the mind, and that’s causing a lot of difficulty. In Buddhism and in mindfulness, there’s this whole aspect of seeing thoughts as something that’s just passing through us and not being us.

Jonathan: My interest in asking you about the secular thing is that you’re saying that you can think of some people talk about Buddhism as a science of the mind or science of consciousness. I don’t know if you’ve come across a book by Dan Pink, called “Drive,” which is about motivation in work. Have you come across that?

Andy: I have come across it. I haven’t read it, but I know about it.

Jonathan: I can give you the breakdown. There are three things that he says that you need at work. They’re autonomy, mastery, and purpose. He’s done this surveying stuff, sort of a stats way of looking at it. It’s a fantastic book. You can just read the summary, and you get an idea of what it’s about.

I’m really interested in the purpose side of that, because what that purpose means, he defines that as being part of something that’s bigger than yourself. He doesn’t really dig into that very much, which is, for me, a little bit frustrating. I’m like, “That’s the bit I want to hear about.” A lot of the time, people say they want their work to matter. They want their work to have meaning.

If you look at needs, a lot of this is about needs for connection with other people. You could call that spirituality, because it’s about something bigger than yourself. In a sense, we have that hole in spirituality, many of us. You don’t have a spiritual practice or something like that.

It’s interesting hearing you talk about mindfulness as something that can be incredibly practical, can literally just be “Just do this breathing exercise with me now.” It is, I think, quite quickly linked back to some level of the spirituality, or you were talking about consciousness, these types of things.

Maybe it’s a little bit taboo to talk about that in professional contexts. At the same time, I don’t think we can really avoid getting to that point when we’re trying to get more purpose in our work.

Andy: It’s interesting. We could speak of mindfulness in terms of just being more productive, more effective at work.

There is this element of purpose, as well. I think when we start to get to know ourselves better through these practices, we start to recognize what does and doesn’t make us tick, as well. We get more intimate with us. I think purpose is very interesting, this respect that often what we love doing, what we enjoy, what we get excited about is often the thing that is, in some respects, our offering or a thing that we can really benefit society with.

Jonathan: Our contribution, you mean?

Andy: Our contribution, absolutely. I’m quite interested in this American philosopher. He’s passed away now, but he’s a guy called Joseph Campbell. He talked about “follow your bliss.” He’s basically saying that our contribution is really very much based on the thing that makes us the most happy, the most excited.

If we can get in touch with that thing, then quite naturally, it brings us in touch with this bigger perspective. It’s quite interesting in that totally becoming who we are, and what we have to offer, and our contribution, by totally getting in touch with that, we also get in touch with the bigger picture. It’s like we fit into the ecosystem of reality, I suppose.

Jonathan: I think you can talk about the need for contribution and the need for connection as being different, and they are different needs. But they are so closely linked, because when people say, “I want my work to have meaning. I’m frustrated. I can’t get buy in,” what I’m actually hearing from them, really, is “I need to contribute, and in order to do that, I need to connect.” Having meaning in your work is so similar to having meaningful connections with other human beings.

Andy: Absolutely. That’s very nicely put.

Jonathan: It’s interesting. One of the reasons I think everyone is talking about mindfulness is because you don’t need to have this discussion. This discussion about spirituality and my place in the universe, I do not need to have that in order to experience what it’s like to get some immediate benefit, to me, really, from the practice of mindfulness.

Andy: Absolutely. You don’t need to go into any of that stuff. It’s all about self-acceptance, isn’t it?

The difficult thing is that a lot of our frustration is by being round pegs trying to fit into square holes. The more that we come to start to accept ourselves and know who we are, the easier it is then to carve out our own path that feels right to us. Or to negotiate in whatever work we’re doing now, and trying to bring more of ourselves into that.

Jonathan: I want to finish with that on the “accept ourselves for who we are.” One of the things I’m paying a lot of attention to at the moment is this idea of acceptance and feeling insecure because we need acceptance. For example, trying to please other people, trying to impress other people, or trying to show that you know stuff, that kind of thing. I think what I’m hearing you say there is that one of the ways around that is to, instead of seeking acceptance, to actually give yourself acceptance.

Andy: Yes, absolutely. To give yourself acceptance. It’s a very paradoxical thing because giving ourselves acceptance means accepting the totality of who we are. I do coaching, I work a lot with a method called voiced dialog, which is all about all the different parts of who we are.

Obviously, there’s this part of us that might be a pleaser, that might want to please other people. There might be the part that’s more self-directed. There might be another part of us that feels vulnerable. Another that’s self-critical.

Our tendency is to try to make one of these parts wrong and another, opposite, right. You’re getting kind of a dualistic battle. If we can accept the fact that there is a part of us that likes to please others, often, we make that wrong. We think, “Oh, no. That’s weak.” But actually, there’s a gift in that part of us, that it wants to connect. It wants other people to be happy.

Jonathan: That’s quite a serious reframe there. When you say part of us wants to please others, I just think about trying to be perfect and trying never to make any mistakes. You’re reframing that as, “What about making that about connection, instead of being blocking connection?”

Andy: Absolutely. I think everything in us has a very positive and beneficial side to it. A lot of my work is really all about helping people to green-light everything within them, to discover even these parts of themselves that they find quite negative. We’ve all got the inner critic. We’ve all got this part of us that’s saying, “You messed up again.”

Jonathan: You’re not good enough is what it’s saying.

Andy: Not good enough, or there could be a voice in my head right now saying, “Andy, you should be saying more wise, something better.” All of these parts within us. If we just enable ourselves to be able to get in touch with those different parts and listen to them, they’ve got concerns.

The critic actually wants us to develop. It wants us to have a positive contribution. It’s all about learning to really embrace everything within us. Mindfulness has a big role in that, and also, coaching work, therapy can really help with that. I’m also really interested in group facilitation, as well.

Jonathan: That’s where I want to go next. We’ve talked about mindfulness being accepting myself, listening to what’s happening for me, listening to what’s going on in me. We’ve talked a little bit about how that can open us up to then be able to be present for others, which is like listening to other people. How do we then take that to this idea of group work or multi-person stuff, or facilitation?

Andy: I suppose there are two possible ways. One way is we can simply say, “Let’s try to work together in groups, and using these kind of methods of working on ourselves and becoming more mindful, of becoming more able to listen to others, we can try to collaborate more effectively.” I think that’s really very relevant and useful.

I’m also very interested in bringing people together to do group work, and facilitating, enabling collaboration, co-created spaces by being the designated listener. That actual process is something a little bit different. It’s saying, “Everybody in this group can now advocate for their point of view. My job, as a facilitator, is to 100 percent listen to each of them and to bring out their contribution.”

Jonathan: Hopefully, people are doing their own listening around the group, but I’m going to go in there and say, “My entire job here is listening. There’s nothing else I’m doing, apart from listening.”

Andy: Being very specific with you, I work with a method called dynamic facilitation, which is really about helping people to face an issue, rather than face each other. It’s really about drawing out their contribution, getting it down on flip-charts in front of everybody. So they’re all collectively working on an issue, rather than getting into conflictual situations, where they’re debating and getting into situations of one-upmanship.

My job as a facilitator in that is really about green-lighting everything that goes on in the room. Even if people seem to be in polar opposite viewpoints, and potentially could get into a debate, it’s all about eliciting solutions.

If somebody disagrees, or seems to disagree, I reframe that as a concern and get it all up. It’s really all about, I suppose, green-lighting and doing this same work of enabling everything to be 100 percent accepted.

Jonathan: What I’m hearing there, in terms of you’re talking about trying avoid conflict, you have ways of reacting to things, like people arguing and stuff. What I’m really hearing there, in terms of when I’ve seen that happen, is those behaviors are defensive behaviors.

I’m afraid I might need to protect something, so I need to protect my position. That’s when I get defensive or when I start being concerned about my status or something. It’s practically very difficult for me to listen when I am being defensive, because those voices in my head are going crazy. I really haven’t got any space in my perception, I suppose, really for anyone else’s voice.

Andy: That’s absolutely true. I think there are some interesting studies in neuroscience. They’re seeing how the brain switches. There’s one state which is kind of open, accepting, in a collaborative state, but that can very quickly switch at the slightest sign of any kind of threat or criticism and go into… It’s a kind of binary thing that we’re operate in. Either we’re open or shutting down.

Jonathan: We feel tense and we have adrenaline running through our bodies, like we’re about to have a fight or something.

Andy: Absolutely. I think it’s quite interesting that it’s all linked up to the amygdala, this kind of primitive sensor in the brain that is looking out for danger.

Jonathan: When you go in there as this dynamic facilitator, you are trying to be the designated listener. I guess what I’m hearing is you’re trying to listen when people aren’t listening, and then by reframing their fears and accepting their fears, trying to switch them back out of that defensive mode into an open mode.

Andy: Absolutely. It’s enabling the group to be in a state of flow where they’re all in an open mode. Where there’s nothing that’s said that is threatening, because I’m reframing it always away from interpersonal conflict and tension, and I’m deflecting it more towards the issue, and reframing things that could potentially be an attack as just simply a concern. That’s what it is, because that’s what it is for them. Somebody’s concerned about something…

Jonathan: When you say attack, I think normally the person doing what we might see as an attack is, in their head, they’re defending. Maybe they lash out, or maybe in an extreme situation, they may use derogatory language or something, or comment on someone else’s behavior, but ultimately, they’re perceiving that as defense.

Andy: I think that’s true. I think wherever we go, whatever kind of conflicts we find around the globe, whoever’s attacking is, in some respects, trying to protect some sense of vulnerability within themselves — whatever international conflicts going on, the similar dynamics going on.

Jonathan: There’s an empathy piece there. As a facilitator, you need to have that empathy for someone who may, from an external point of view, seem to be behaving in an inappropriate way. I was thinking of an insecure boss or somebody like that, or someone using language that’s inappropriate or something.

Andy: Absolutely. There’s this very interesting model, in terms of empathy. It’s really, first of all, as a facilitator, taking their side, trying to understand what’s going on, and seeing that there’s this model of position, interests, and needs.

On the surface, they’re showing a position that looks quite, maybe, seems inappropriate, seems a little aggressive. But if we dig down a few levels, there are some needs that are really, perhaps, feeling that they’re not met within that person. If we can get to that level, we can start to understand them more as a human being, rather than somebody who’s a pain in the neck or whatever. [laughs]

Jonathan: When you get down to human needs, you will find common ground, because it’s there are a very small number of human needs. We’ve talked about some of them today. In fact, Penny Walker gave a talk at #dareconf mini in January about the positions, interests, needs model.

That’s what she uses when she does facilitation for sustainability issues. She’ll have people from the oil industry and people from a non-profit pressure group who wants to deal with the sustainability. She uses that model to try and get people to let go of their positions, decide their interests, and then work out what their needs are.

Andy: Very interesting.

Jonathan: Andy, we’ve come to the end of our time. I want to say thank you for this collaboration.
For drawing that line for us between what a practice of mindfulness might mean for me, personally, and then how that might affect my ability to work with other people. Thank you.

Andy: I’ve really enjoyed it. Thanks a lot, Jonathan.