27 April 2015

Handling stress for leaders: stretching without striving

The impulse toward stress is almost constantly present in the life of a manager. The art is learning to cope with stress. Being able to make contact with the being mode, as we did with in previous exercises, is essential for this. Learning to switch mentally between doing mode and being mode is the next skill that resilient managers will have to master. Coping means that you learn to take your foot off the gas, take a step backwards and free yourself from an impulse or a thought. Our skill in switching is inhibited by our urge to perform. The mind tells us that we mustn’t give up, that we can do it, and that the reward will be rich if we simply persevere. So push aside the signals of discomfort or limits. In the exercises of mindful movement, we learn to deal with limits in a different way: to play with them instead of breaching them. Exploring and testing instead of persisting without observing.
The experiences participants have with mindful movement are highly diverse, from relaxing to confrontational, from fear of injury to insight into patterns of action when they reach a limit:

“I didn’t pay any attention at all to the instruction to be careful. Noticed that I wanted to stretch as far as possible. I recognize that, going through the limits.”

“Two years ago, I suffered a severe back injury. My doctor told me to be careful. When I stretched my arm upward, I quickly brought it back down again. I felt something in my back and I was immediately frightened.”

“I noticed how much turmoil there is in my body. Kept on shaking when keeping balance. First I spoke strictly to myself: persevere! And suddenly I had to laugh about it…”

“For me, this was a very relaxing exercise. And a lot easier than the bodyscan. Here, I could at least keep my attention focused.”

The exercises give us insight into attitudes that are frequently found in managers. The first is dealing with limits and being result-driven. What the exercise can teach you is how to deal with “soft” and “hard” limits and how to distinguish between them. You start to experience a soft limit at the moment your body is subjected to tension in the exercise. When you stretch your arms and then go a bit further, you notice that soft limit. Then you can naturally persist in order to achieve the aim – one which, at that moment, has been subtly changed by the mind from scouting the limits to pushing them as far as possible. But it is just as interesting to remain somewhat longer at that soft limit, to observe the physical sensations and signals from the body, to see how they develop and thus to search further for wider possibilities. Naturally there is also a hard limit, namely what the body can do at that moment.
Being result-driven often becomes so absolute that limits, even the hard ones, must be exceeded, no matter how. There is another way. Managers often discover how they force themselves through this exercise and they also pass on this attitude to their team or organization. The result is a hard performance culture, where you are held to account.
Stretching without striving teaches you that normal physical sensations sometimes arouse whole patterns of thoughts and awkward reactions. Persisting no matter what, always shying away at the first limit, being mentally angry with yourself – you name it. But if you can observe the sensations and thoughts without becoming entangled in them, you develop your own body-mind system into a valuable instrument for managing yourself and your team. You learn to cope with stress instead of just bearing it. And the wealth of signals and the recognition of your reaction pattern creates space and new possibilities for development.