How to Use Mindfulness to Reduce Workplace Conflict

Written by Professional Academy Management and Leadership Tutor, Kathryn Knights

How did you react the last time someone asked you to do something at work that you didn’t want to do? Maybe your blood began to lightly simmer or you flew completely off the handle. This is a sign that your fight versus flight response is kicking in and it can make you behave in a way that you live to regret later. So what can you do to see problems more clearly and to make better choices about how you will react to them?


I’ve mentioned mindfulness in a previous blog, so if you aren’t familiar with the term or you’re unsure what it is, here are a couple of definitions to help clarify things:

  1. The quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.
  2. Being fully focused on the present moment

Mindfulness can help to reduce the feelings of extreme emotional highs and lows (fight versus flight) by helping you take control of your mind in the present moment.

Fight versus flight response

When there is a perceived threat to survival we fight or fly. We’re hard wired to go into this mode because when we were hunter gathers that same state helped us to make decisions quickly and get out of dangerous situations that could have seen us get eaten!

Luckily the workplace is a safer environment, but we still have modern-day stresses like huge workloads that our body still treats as threats. As a result you may feel as if you're constantly under attack and that you want to fight or fly.

When your fight or flight response is triggered your hypothalamus, a tiny region at your brain's base, sets off an alarm system in your body. Adrenaline and cortisol (along with other hormones) are released. Adrenaline increases your heart rate and blood pressure. Cortisol suppresses your immune system and curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight or flight situation.

Continual activation of the fight or flight response can disrupt almost all of your body's processes.

This is where mindfulness helps because you can catch yourself before you explode. For example, if your line manager asks you to stay late at work, rather than flying off the handle you would have a reasoned conversation with them to agree a solution.

When you think mindfully you are fully active in the present moment. It assists you with cultivating helpful thinking patterns that will help you to think more rationally and move into problem solving mode and away from emotional mode.

How a mindful approach can help you give up the multi-tasking habit

When you multi-task you make more mistakes and you take longer to do things. In fact, we never really multi-task we switch tasks.

When you switch from one task to another you would think that your attention is coming with you, but it isn’t.

Cal Newport (author of Deep Work) and Sophie Leroy (Professor at the University of Minnesota) have both mentioned attention residue in relation to task switching.

In Sophie Leroy’s 2009 paper ‘Why is it so hard to do my work?’ she states that when you switch from task A to task B there is a residue of attention on the previous task. That residue gets very thick if the task you were working on previously was a shallow task e.g. social media checking.

The more you switch the less productive you will be and the more stressed you will feel – triggering the fight or flight response.

The two-step strategy you must adopt if you want to behave more mindfully is to:

  1. Choose what you want to miss out on (and feel comfortable with letting go of the rest)
  2. Focus on just one thing at a time (by removing all known distractions)

Exercises you can try right now to help you become more mindful

As with most skills, mindfulness takes practice. The following short exercises will help you become more mindful:

  • The raisin – eat one raisin and take as long as you possibly can to eat it. Think about it tastes like, smells like and feels like to eat.
  • 5 senses – at any given moment ask yourself: what am I seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching right now?
  • Mindful listening – go for a walk and listen to everything around you. Try experience as many different sounds as you can. Have you noticed any new sounds?

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