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Meditation: Breathing New Life into an Ancient Practice

California has always been open to the next new thing, whether a technology, a vintner’s innovation, or what the cultural winds blow in from over the Pacific. That’s how I first tried meditation, back when I was a student at the University of California in Berkeley, then the epicenter of the try-any-new-thing attitude.

As a competitive undergrad, my first impression of meditation was that it eased my worries. I used it as an anti-anxiety measure. Like a pill, I took it morning and evening. Those late in the day sessions proved another benefit: as a chronically sleep-deprived sophomore, I would nod off for a nap as soon as my meditation started.

When I went on to study psychology at Harvard, I did my doctoral research on how meditation helps us recover from stress. But I was ahead of the curve in my interest; my professors thought I was a bit batty to take a serious interest in what was then an exotic method.

Now, though, the meditation story has changed. Several decades of research, including state-of-the-art brain imaging, reveal that this simple method trains the mind and shapes the brain, with a basket of benefits that ranges from sharpened concentration to lower blood pressure. Medical clinics routinely teach meditation to patients with chronic diseases from arthritis to diabetes to help them live better with their symptoms. And businesses are offering their employees the chance to learn meditation in order to improve performance.

Meditation refers to a range of techniques, from mantra repetition to mindfulness, which all share a common cognitive method. It boils down to retraining attention. Research at Harvard has found that our minds wander on average 50% of the time, that is, when we’re trying to focus, our minds are elsewhere.

Meditation trains attention by having us focus on one target (such as a mantra or the breath). Then comes the crucial difference between meditation and other ways to relax, whether exercising or spacing out online: in meditation, when we notice our minds wandering, we bring them back to a mental target and keep them there. Then when it wanders again, repeat. And again and again.

Brain imaging studies of this simple mental process, done at Emory University, find that the mental circuitry for focusing on what’s important becomes stronger. Attention is a mental muscle, and every time we repeat this cycle it’s like lifting a weight: each repetition makes us just a bit stronger. And focusing on what’s important is what every leader, student, coach – anybody – needs to thrive.

The research shows that this mental gym pays off after the session, throughout our day: meditation enhances people’s ability to concentrate, to keep their minds from wandering too much, and to focus in general. “Every time my mind wanders off during a business meeting,” one executive told me, “I ask myself, What opportunity did I just miss?”

A bonus here is that the same strips of neurons that help us focus also are crucial for managing our distressing emotions. The longer people have been meditators, the better their bodies become at recovering from the agitation of stress.

The biological advantages from a faster physiological recovery from upsets include a stronger immune system, lower blood pressure, and more stable blood sugar levels, just to mention a few.

When researchers at the University of Wisconsin taught mindfulness to stressed-out workers at a biotech startup, they found remarkable changes after eight weeks (average daily practice time: 30 minutes). Mindfulness led to a shift in the centers that control moods: they went from anxious and stressed to upbeat and enthusiastic. Spontaneously, they recalled what inspired them about their work. And, to the researchers’ surprise, their mindfulness also resulted in a boost in immune effectiveness.

A caution, though, if you’re thinking of starting meditation. Many people expect that they will somehow experience a high during the session. But the practice is more like going to the gym: at first it can be a struggle, though it gets easier over time. Many first-timers report, for instance, that their minds are more wild than ever during meditation, actually a sign that they are finally paying attention to how often our minds wander.

The real payoffs come during your day, not necessarily during the meditation session. Don’t expect miracles; the changes are gradual and can be subtle. Dan Harris, the ABC news anchor, calls it “ten percent happier” in his account of why he meditates. But the improvements are real, as research studies verify.

The CEO of a construction firm, a meditator himself, asked me to share these methods with those working at his headquarters. Understandably many were dubious. But I approach the method as a way to train the mind, not as some woo-woo magic, and the science behind it brought people around enough to give it a try. The CEO later told me the most enthusiastic person turned out to be his head of HR; she organized an ongoing meditation group there. And she was initially one of the skeptics.

Now that I’m in my 60s, the finding I like best comes from Harvard Medical School: some parts of the brain that shrink with aging actually seem to grow larger and their neurons more densely connected in meditators!

This article originally appeared in The Private Journey Magazine.

Additional resources:

The Meditative Mind: The Varieties of Meditative Experience

Relax: 6 Techniques to Lower Your Stress

Working with Mindfulness CD

Working with Mindfulness Ebooks

Training the Brain: Cultivating Emotional Skills

Bridging the Hearts and Minds of Youth 2012 and 2013 Conference Videos

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IQ or EQ? You Need Both

IQ versus EQ

The CEO of one of the world’s largest financial companies told me, “I hire the best and brightest – but I still get a Bell Curve for performance.” Why, he wanted to know, aren’t the smartest MBAs from top schools like Stanford, Harvard, and Wharton all highly successful on the job?

The answer lies in the interplay between IQ and emotional intelligence – and explains why you need both for high performance.

More than a century of research shows IQ is the best predictor of the job you can get and hold. It takes a high ability level in handling cognitive complexity to be in a profession like medicine, a C-suite executive, or a professor at one of those prestigious business schools.

The more your job revolves around cognitive tasks, the more strongly IQ will predict success. A computer programmer, accountant, and academic will all need strong cognitive skills to do well.

Then why the dismay of that CEO?

The more your success on the job depends on relating to people – whether in sales, as a team member, or as a leader – the more emotional intelligence matters. A high-enough IQ is necessary, but not sufficient, for success.

Just as is true for IQ, there are many models of emotional intelligence. In mine there are two main parts: self-mastery and social intelligence. The purely cognitive jobs require self-mastery – e.g., cognitive control, the ability to focus on the task at hand and ignore distractions.

But the second half of emotional intelligence, social adeptness, holds the key to that CEO’s question. As long as those super-smart MBAs are working by themselves, their IQ and self-mastery makes them high performers. But the minute they have to mesh on a team, meet clients, or lead, that skill set falls short. They also need social intelligence.

Claudio Fernandez-Aroaz, former head of research at Egon Zehnder International, spent decades hiring C-level executives for global companies. When he studied why some of those executives ended up being fired, he found that while they had been hired for their intelligence and business expertise – they were fired for a lack of emotional intelligence. Though they were smart, they were bullies or otherwise inept at people management.

Along the same lines, my colleague Richard Boyatzis, a professor at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western University, has found that the vast majority of leadership competencies that predict the performance of sales leaders are based on emotional and social intelligence – not cognitive intelligence (like IQ).

Then there’s a brand new meta-analysis of 132 different research studies involving more than 27,000 people, which I heard reported on by a co-author, Ronald Humphreys, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. That yet-to-be published analysis concluded that emotionally intelligent leaders have the most satisfied employees – if you like your boss, you’re more likely to like your job (just contemplate the opposite, morbid reality).

And reviewing all peer-reviewed research to date, the same study says emotional intelligence has been found to boost:

And then there’s general life satisfaction and the quality of your relationships.

So even though some academic studies seem to show emotional intelligence matters little for success in a job like sales, I’m skeptical.

 

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

LMC-TG-300x

Put theory into practice with the Leadership: A Master Class Training Guide. Each module offers individual and group exercises, self-assessments, discussion guides, review of major points, and key actionable takeaway plans. The materials allow for instructor-led, self-study or online learning opportunities. Includes over 8 hours of video footage with George Kohlrieser, Bill George, Teresa Amabile and more.

What Makes a Leader

What Makes a Leader: Why Emotional Intelligence Matters presents Daniel Goleman’s groundbreaking, highly-sought Harvard Business Review and Egon Zehnder International articles compiled in one volume. This often-cited, proven-effective material has become essential reading for leaders, coaches and educators committed to fostering stellar management, increasing performance, and driving innovation.

FURTHER READING

Let’s not underrate emotional intelligence

It’s not IQ part 2

Leader spotting: 4 essential talents

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Three ways to introduce focus-related learning

Daniel Goleman recently spoke with CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning) about his latest book with Peter Senge, The Triple Focus: A New Approach to Education.

Triple Focus

In the discussion, Dr. Goleman offers several ways to incorporate focus-related learning into the classroom:

  • Treat students and teachers as co-learners. Foster students learning with and from one another, and encourage them to develop responsibility for their own learning.
  • Use the real-life situations that students care about to foster reflection and growth, both emotionally and cognitively.
  • Choose teaching tools that are specific for these applications. The attention-training methods being tried in classrooms today offer a well-tested way to help children enhance their cognitive control, which is central to self-mastery. Adding a focus on enhancing empathy and concern for others adds a fresh emphasis that should lead to better relationships and teamwork. And systems learning offers constructs that can help SEL students better understand relationships, families, schools, and organizations. All three together offer an invaluable increase in the life skills learning that is part of SEL.

We’ve also put together a collection of resources for educators, school administrators, and parents to introduce the triple focus to students.

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The Triple Focus: A New Approach to Education

Consider this: most American children have never known a world without the Internet. And in more and more parts of the world, most children have never known a time when there wasn’t a handheld device they could tune in to, and tune out from the people around them. Kids are now growing up in a world that’s incredibly different from just a generation ago,and it’s a world that will change even more as technology evolves.

But the changes go beyond technology. Children are also growing up in a culture facing unprecedented social and emotional challenges that they’ll need to address. The Triple Focus is your guide to help prepare them.

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What are the tools that we can give kids today that will help them on this journey?

In The Triple Focus, Peter Senge and Daniel Goleman describe the three types of focus needed to navigate a fast-paced world of increasing distraction and endangered person-to-person engagement.

Dr. Goleman makes the case for teaching children the first two types of focus: self-awareness and self-management; along with empathy and social skills. He offers case studies and research proving how these skills benefit both personal development and academic performance. He also shares examples of how some schools are already teaching their students these vital skills.

Dr. Senge explains systems thinking: analyzing the dynamics of when I do this, the consequence is that, and how to use these insights to enhance learning. He also reveals the innovative systems thinking skills being taught in schools today, and what this reveals about the innate systems intelligence of children.

Order your copy here.

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Focus Coaching for the Distracted Manager

A recent Inc. article, The Kings of Concentration, warns business owners about the impact distraction can have on an organization. As you can imagine, lost productivity is the most costly side effect. According to the article, info-tech researcher Basex surveyed 1,000 office workers in 2005. It found that distractions cost U.S. companies nearly $600 billion per year in lost productivity.

Yet cognitive overload remains a real issue for managers – and those they manage. How can HR, executive coaches and leaders help others – and themselves – stay focused?

Notice when you’re distracted

In Daniel Goleman’s latest article for Human Resource Executive, he notes that a senior executive told him that “when his mind wanders during a meeting, he wonders what business opportunity he just missed.” Take note of how often you check email or social media when you’re stuck on a problem, or bored with a project. The same exercise goes for when you tune out during meetings.

Think about unplugging

Responding to endless alert chimes from apps, emails, or texts can be addictive. Try shutting your phone off, or closing a few windows on your computer screen for 30 minutes at some point during the day. Notice your productivity levels without the many electronic temptations.

Pay attention to attention

Try this exercise for a few minutes several times each day: select a single point of focus and resist the pull of anything else. It could be your breath, a picture on the wall, or a body sensation. When your mind wanders, just notice that. Bring your attention back to your focal point. This mental workout strengthens your brain’s circuitry for concentration.

Create a productive cocoon

Focus is crucial when you’re trying to come up with a creative solution. To help a person or team stay focused, carve out uninterrupted time for them to think, research, and plan.

Here are some other resources to help distracted leaders rein in their focus.

Articles:

A More Mindful Workforce

What Mindfulness Is – And Isn’t

Organizational Attention Deficit Disorder

The Two Biggest Distractions – And What To Do About Them

Resource Library:

Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence and Cultivating Focus: Techniques for Excellence – Daniel Goleman’s latest book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence uncovers the science of attention in all its varieties, presenting a groundbreaking look at this overlooked and underrated asset and why it matters enormously for how we feel, and succeed, in life. To answer the call for practical techniques to increase focus, Dr. Goleman created Cultivating Focus: Techniques for Excellence, a series of guided exercises to help people of all ages hone their concentration, stay calm and better manage emotions.

Working with Mindfulness –  Mirabai Bush, key contributor to Google’s Search Inside Yourself curriculum, developed and narrates these attention training exercises for the workplace. The practices are designed to help reduce stress, increase productivity and encourage creative problem solving.

Relax: 6 Techniques to Lower Your Stress – Chronic stress can disrupt almost all of your body’s processes. It’s been shown to increase the risk of numerous health problems including heart disease, sleep issues, digestive complications, fatigue, depression, anxiety and obesity. Daniel Goleman developed Relax, a 45-minute audio program to help listeners effectively and naturally reduce stress. The guided relaxation program is especially beneficial to those with stressful jobs, or those managing teams in demanding work environments. The techniques are also useful for any number of everyday stressful situations or life transitions.

 

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More Than Sound’s Email Campaigns: A Model Approach

Our email marketing service, Benchmark, recently profiled our campaigns in their Emails That Do Work series.

We’re honored by the recognition. Everyone is inundated with information from a variety of sources. We take extra steps to provide useful, engaging content in our emails. Here’s what Benchmark had to say about our campaigns.

“Based on the nature of their business and their email campaigns, we can safely say that More Than Sound understands how to communicate effectively to their subscribers. It’s very rare to see graphics that stray anywhere far from the usual stock photos…The friendly interaction between the people in the graphics and the product immediately communicates two messages: (1) that this book is for everyone, and (2) that someone at MTS took the time to create a visual to engage readers. Rather than to slap a few stock images that could maybe fit into the context of the email message, MTS took ownership in branding their imagery.”

You’re welcome to receive our free emails (average 3-4 per month). Send us an email at hello@morethansound.net. Write Benchmark email list in the subject line.

Take a look at our latest email campaign here, which includes links to a collection of podcasts by Daniel Goleman discussing his research for his book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence.

 

 

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Daniel Goleman’s “The Focused Leader” Wins HBR McKinsey Award

Best-selling author and psychologist Daniel Goleman is the 2013 HBR McKinsey Award winner for his article “The Focused Leader,” which was adapted from his book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. A synopsis of that section on leadership is available in Dr. Goleman’s new collection What Makes a Leader: Why Emotional Intelligence Matters. The book is a compilation in one volume of Dr. Goleman’s groundbreaking, highly sought-after Harvard Business Review articles and other business journal writings.

The award-winning article sheds new light on how leaders can direct their most valuable resource – their attention. Drawing on the latest neuroscience research, Goleman argues that leaders must cultivate a higher level of awareness about what truly matters, and demonstrates how they can do so through various methods of attention-training.

Since 1959, the HBR McKinsey Awards have recognized practical and groundbreaking management thinking. “It shows how important a leader’s focus is today,” said Daniel Goleman.