Social Mindfulness – When Great Minds Think Together!

By Ruth Pearce

In our United in Strengths live session a couple of weeks ago, Dr. Ryan Niemiec explored the concept of “social mindfulness” in which we would turn mindfulness outward toward relationships, family and community rather than taking the focus inward as is our tradition. As Ryan pointed out, mindfulness is very often a solitary practice even when we do it in a group. It is focused on our experience in the moment rather than the experience of others. Social mindfulness then would take account of the moment by moment experience and presence of those around us. We would consider their experience

It seems obvious to think that social mindfulness could be beneficial to individuals and groups, but what might it look like? Is it part of loving kindness? Is it a group practice? How do we apply it?

As I was contemplating these questions, I remembered an experience that I can only describe as “social mindfulness” in the workplace.

Our team worked in an open plan space informally divided up into project spaces using movable partitions. Although the overall space was quite large for our group of 40 people, once we divided it up it seemed cramped. One side was dark, the other too bright – and hot. Only one part of the room had a projector, the other part had the printer.

Added to this was the challenge of noise. In this open plan space, with so many people working side by side, the noise could rise to painful and certainly distracting levels. Often because of visitors – people from other teams coming to consult and collaborate. There would be team meetings taking place with a speaker phone while other people working singly or in pairs would be trying to make progress on our deliverables. It was hectic, chaotic and although the team was well integrated, it was annoying to most of us at some time or other.

We paused.

I remember watching one of the team stand in the doorway and survey the space. He looked at me and said, “Can we talk?”

We went to a small meeting room down the hall and he said, “I want us to bring the entire team together to redesign our space, and time. I was curious – and impressed and readily agreed,

We arranged a time the next day when everyone would be in the room at the same time and made an announcement. “We are redesigning our space and before we do, let’s take a moment and take in what it currently looks and feels like, what works and what doesn’t and ideas for making it better.

Surprisingly the room went silent. Team members could be seen scanning the room Some people walked to different spots in the room to get a new perspective. Then as one they seemed to rise up and start rearranging the room. Some of the choices were surprising – for example they TOOK DOWN the partitions and made the room even more open! As each change was made, the group paused, looked around the room, then at each other. They were collectively mindful of the changes and the progress. There was a single-mindedness about the group even with very little conversation. Of course, by now they knew each other’s top character strengths, so they had a feeling about who to look to for different parts of setting up the room.

Building on social mindfulness. Over the next few days, I could see them evaluating and re-evaluating. One afternoon, one of the team called everyone together and they pondered what else they needed in order to make the space a community working space instead of a noisy, disruptive gathering of people.

Creating group focus, attention and peace

A delegation came to see me and made three requests of me as the program manager:

  1. To find them four individual desks outside the space that could be used for quiet work.
  2. To designate a time each day for quiet work and advertise that to other teams.
  3. To mandate that during quiet time, we could have NO visitors. We would take appointments during that time and any meetings were to be held outside the room.

I happily agreed and started spreading the word – and made signs for the doors – with our colleagues in the organization. I advocated for the four individual desks – management thought I was crazy because we had “so much space” already. However, they agreed to a trial period.

What we recognized in this process was that we were balancing the needs of the group against the needs of the individual. We wanted each individual to be comfortable enough in the new arrangement – and preferably at least as comfortable as they had been with the old arrangement. And we wanted the group as a whole to feel better about the workspace, work practices, ground-rules.

The effect was HUGE. Productivity was up, stress levels (measured by smiles, attendance, enthusiasm and mutual support) went down. Creativity increased as measured by the stream of innovative solutions to long-standing problems. And the team seem to adopt a sort of “hive” mindset where there were more attuned to one another and to themselves. Everyone for example, became more considerate about eating “smelly food” in the room!

We had regular check-ins to ensure that the changes were working, and we saw the ripple effect as what initially seemed restrictive to other teams (not being able to wander in a start up a conversation at any time) became a new norm. More social mindfulness.

Where have you seen social mindfulness at work?