The Radical Board Agenda Item: Mindful Meditation

Mindful Meditation February 1, 2016 By: Judith T. Krauthamer

Meditation at a board meeting? It sounds strange, but don't dismiss it out of hand. Consider this case for incorporating a 10-minute mindfulness exercise at the beginning of your next meeting to help board members focus and reduce unnecessary stress and conflict.

It's board meeting time again. You and your staff have spent inordinate amounts of time, focus, and energy on preparations, and you should feel relieved. Yet you have a private, unspoken concern: You can control the playbook, but not the players. The players are your board members. Among them, you might have one or more of these people:

  • The Bully. She berates other directors and stunts conversation. Agenda items get thrown by the wayside.
  • The Nice Person. In the belief that being agreeable will make him appear nice or good, he will not engage in genuine discussion, especially if it involves conflicting and sensitive points of view.
  • The Contrarian. This board member looks for any opportunity to say no. Even innocuous topics are candidates for contentious behavior. There is no way to know in advance what that issue might be.
  • The Owner. It is likely that at least one of your board members is the founder, vested partner, or owner of a business and is practiced in the "buck stops with me" philosophy of how things should be run. You know before the meeting that there will be a strong voice talking over others, demanding to be heard.
  • The Visitor. This board member is physically present at your meeting, but his brain is elsewhere. Whether he is thinking about past events or strategizing future ones, he is not actively engaged in the present, making it difficult to keep the dialogue moving.

If you recognize any of these personality types as present on your board, at least some of your hard work might be undermined by unnecessary conflict (the Bully), gratuitous confrontation (the Contrarian), personal agendas (the Owner), and lack of consensus (the Nice Person or the Visitor).

The time is ripe for a change in how we create an environment conducive to a successful board meeting. The only way we can nurture a sense of community at the meeting—where directors work in unity for the organization's greater good—is by dealing with individuals.

But how can you effect change at the meeting table? The answer is by adding a radical agenda item: At the beginning of your meeting, have a 10-minute guided mindful meditation.

When board members arrive at a meeting they are usually tired, jet-lagged, and preoccupied—perfect candidates for the benefits that come from being mindful.

Training for the Mind

Meditation is simply mental training. It trains the mind to quiet the insistent chatter of the brain. Mindfulness is "paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally," according to Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor emeritus of medicine at the University of Massachusetts.

Our minds are constantly moving from one thought to the next, creating stories, evaluations, and judgments. In mindful meditation, you focus on being in the present moment. A guided mindful meditation is a mental exercise that uses deep breathing as a focus and moves or "guides" the meditator to different relaxed states.

How does this translate to work at a board meeting?

A 10-minute session of guided mindful meditation, even for a beginner, is a tried-and-true method for increasing productivity. One single sitting can relax the entire body, quiet random thoughts, and quell the firing of the subcortical region that is a hub for pain and anger. Because it "wakes up" the brain's cognitive functioning, it leads to better decision making (helping the Visitor, Contrarian and Nice Person). Because it reduces the firing of the cortical regions of pain and anger, it soothes the irritated mind (helping the Bully). Because deep breathing oxygenates and relaxes the body, a brief meditation session removes excess stress (helping the Owner).

A guided mindful meditation for board meetings can be as simple as this: "Breathe slowly in for four seconds; hold your breath for four seconds; now exhale for four seconds. Imagine yourself in a place of great comfort. As you breathe slowly and deeply, in this place of deep comfort, notice the places in your body that feel relaxed. Now imagine in this place of physical comfort that you are there with others. If your mind wanders, gently bring it back. Feel the relaxation that has arisen from being with others. Breathe deeply."

Countering the Skeptics

Your more traditional board members may resist the idea of including a 10-minute meditation on your meeting agenda. Don't let that deter you. Here are some typical objections and how to respond:

There is not enough time for mediation. When board members arrive at a meeting they are usually tired, jet-lagged, and preoccupied—perfect candidates for the benefits that come from being mindful. They probably spend their first 10 minutes in casual conversation. This time can be harnessed for a meditation.

It's too new and unproven. Mindfulness and meditation programs have been successfully utilized by businesses for several years. They have been offered to leadership and staff at General Mills since 2006, and there are dedicated meditation rooms in every building in its Minneapolis campus.Target's "Meditating Merchants" network began in 2010 at the retail chain's headquarters, and Medtronic has a meditation room that dates back to 1974. A most compelling case for how meditation benefits leadership comes from the Harvard Business Review.

No one on the board will support this agenda item. Find a champion of mindfulness on your board. Many people subscribe to mindful meditation in their personal lives and do not necessarily share that information with their colleagues.

You are not trained in mindful meditation. This may be true, for now. However, mindful meditation is so helpful in reducing stress and gaining focus that it makes sense for organizational leaders to learn how to do it. Find colleagues who are experienced in mindful meditation to mentor you. And read Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace) by Chade-Meng Tan, mindfulness trainer for Google.

As the world changes in radically new ways, so must associations. We can open our organizations to new possibilities by opening possibility in our leaders' minds.

Judith T. Krauthamer

Judith T. Krauthamer is former executive director of international and regional science-engineering-technology professional societies. She is principal of Quietspace, a life and business transition coaching practice that specializes in incorporating mindfulness techniques.