Gillian Higgins: How mindfulness can help you manage conflict in the workplace

HR professionals are increasingly required to be masters of many trades. From compliance with new legislation, to managing employee expectations to helping resolve conflict in the workplace, the pressure on HR is mounting.

Conflict in the workplace is also on the rise. UK businesses now spend around £33 billion each year resolving workplace disputes, losing 370 million working days as a result. Meanwhile, stress levels within the profession remain high. A survey of HR professionals last year found that 37 per cent of the 641 individuals polled felt ‘extremely stressed or overwhelmed’ because of work at least four times a month. A further 50 per cent said that they were overwhelmed at least once a month.

So, what can be done to de-escalate conflict and reduce stress? An increasing number of firms are looking to mindfulness to help protect the mental health of their employees.

What is 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-judgmental 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.

Research shows that our minds wander 46.9 per cent of the time, and that a wandering mind is, for the most part, an unhappy one. We may find ourselves routinely staggering around our mental ‘To Do’ list trying to remember to update records, file reports, help resolve a dispute between colleagues and somehow leave the office on time. The fact that our brains are burdened with a negativity bias doesn’t help as it means that we tend to remember the bad, the difficult and the ugly. When we practise mindfulness, we’re encouraged 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 of a regular mindfulness meditation practice are significant. Research shows that it improves your concentration, decision-making and working memory. It reduces stress, lowers your heart rate and blood pressure, strengthens the immune system, alleviates insomnia and reduces anxiety and depression. Mindfulness also encourages emotional stability by enabling you to observe your feelings rather than getting caught up in the drama of how you perceive life to be.

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 your 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 the 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 taking of your morning shower. By pausing and staying present with the moment, you might notice the aroma of your drink or the sensation of the water as you take in your experience fully. So often, the uniqueness of the moment is lost as the focus shifts to simply getting through the day.

How can mindfulness help in conflict situations?

Conflict in the workplace is an innate part of life. While being constantly on alert is not healthy, many people feel the stress of conflict every day, to a greater or lesser degree. People fall out, disagree and feel affronted. It’s easy to become embroiled in arguing with colleagues and clients, on a regular basis. Everyone deals with conflict differently and many have learned to identify the triggers that set them off. Even so, in the workplace it can be hard to tackle conflict productively in a way that transforms relationships for the better. So how could mindfulness help HR professionals to help others?

When a conflict arises, mindfulness helps you to approach it non-judgmentally. Rather than lashing out, or reacting instinctively, you can choose to pause, take a moment and breathe slowly which helps you to assess how to respond. Amongst colleagues, this could mean the difference between an angry row and a robust exchange of words. Mindfulness helps you to become more self-aware and reminds you to refrain from leaping to assumptions about others that you might otherwise make. This one-step-removed’ approach helps to de-escalate conflict and makes room for the benefit of the doubt when disputes arise. It’s easy to attribute motive to another’s actions, but if you’re able to leave judgment aside for a few moments, you have the chance of seeing the situation for what it really is, rather than what you think it’s about. It also helps you to take disputes less personally.

One of the great benefits of mindfulness is its ability to repair the consequences of conflict. This can be vitally important where people work side-by-side on a daily basis. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they argue less, but rather that 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. In the end, 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.





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Gillian is Head of the International Practice Group at 9 Bedford Row. As an international barrister, she has represented leading political figures before the International Criminal Court (ICC) and UN international tribunals. Gillian's practice areas include UK and International fraud, international criminal law, extradition and Interpol Red Notice removal work. She is an accredited civil and commercial mediator and a member of the faculty of the London School of Mediation and teaches civil and commercial mediation every month. Gillian is skilled at navigating complicated factual and legal situations and is innovative in helping those involved to find creative solutions to difficult situations. Mindfulness at Work and Home is Gillian’s first book, published in September 2019 by RedDoor Press