Why Mindfulness is the Answer to Unconscious Bias
By John Davisi
As a life and mindfulness coach and HR leader who also happens to be gay, the subject of unconscious bias is part of my everyday experience. I believe that my ability to lead others is contingent upon my ability to lead myself, and I can’t do that unless I have awareness of my thoughts and emotions. So the continuous journey to be aware of my own unconscious bias is incredibly important to me.
Here’s the thing: we all have unconscious bias. Every single one of us. As you read the first sentence of this article, your bias about me started churning. Did you notice? It’s not done with malicious intent. It’s just part of our brain’s tendency to process, label, categorize, and prioritize the millions of bits of data coming in via our senses. But it happens. All the time. And the only way we can do something about it is to have the awareness of when it’s happening in the first place.
As humans, we spend a lot of our day on autopilot and being distracted. Mindfulness is having the clarity, in the present moment, of two very important things: your attention and your intention.
Attention is focused awareness. It’s where you are choosing to place your energy. It’s not just about what you are looking at, but it’s also about what you’re thinking. Our thoughts impact our perception of the world around us, as well as how we experience it. So we have to be aware of the thoughts we are having to understand why our world looks the way it does.
Intention is usually associated with getting something. But it’s more than that. It’s about the purpose behind why you want it. More importantly, it’s about the feeling. Because that’s what we’re really after. We really don’t want the “thing.” We want the way the thing makes us feel.
I want to feel that my skills and talents are appreciated--that I’m being seen and heard, and that everyone who I work with feels the same. The first step in that process is seeing and hearing myself. And appreciating my own skills and talents. No one else will until I do.
The second step is using mindfulness to continuously shift my attention back to the present moment and check in with my attention and intention. Then I have the space to make a different choice if they aren’t in alignment with what I want to be focusing on and feeling. Taking this space to check in allows us to respond to a situation instead of reacting to it.
It’s also in this space where I can check in for bias. I like to use (and teach) the TALE method.
Based on a concept by Dr. Bruce Schneider, master coach and author of the book Energy Leadership, I’ve modified it slightly for my purposes.
We all have tales. We carry them around with us wherever we go, repeating them to ourselves and others over and over. TALE stands for:
L imiting Beliefs
Triggers are those buttons we all have inside us. For each button, there’s someone in our life who knows how to push it. When we’re triggered, we often have an emotional response that is more heightened than the situation warrants. Think about how you feel when you get cut off in traffic and you get my gist. But the key here is that those buttons have been in us well before the latest person showed up to push them. I know that when I’m triggered, it has very little to do with the other person. It’s an indicator of something I get to look at inside myself as an opportunity for learning, growing, and healing.
We make assumptions about every person we come into contact with. You’ve been making assumptions about me while reading this article. But the truth is, most of our assumptions are based on past experiences, and have nothing to do with the person you are interacting with in the present moment. Surrendering those assumptions and focusing on the person in the present allow me to be open to understanding who they are and what they need. It invites a new possibility to reveal itself that I otherwise wouldn’t have seen.
We hold limiting beliefs about ourselves and others without ever having experienced them personally. These beliefs are often seeded in the conditioning we’ve received over the course of our lives from family, friends, religion, history, and societal pressures. When I notice a limiting belief inside myself, I ask myself the question, “How true is this for me and why do I believe it’s true?” I can then surrender it and return my attention and intention to the present moment interaction, with an openness and gratitude that the bias filter has been removed.
For every relationship label we assign to someone (romantic or not), we automatically have numerous expectations of that person in order for them to fit that mold and make us happy. We also have a list of expectations we feel we need to fulfill for them. The minute one of us falls down on the job, we get triggered. When I take the space in the moment to understand what my expectations are, I tend to notice that I expect others to behave the way I would. If I’m judging someone because they aren’t doing something exactly the way I’d do it, I’m denying their skills and talents. I’m not seeing or hearing them. I’m also denying the opportunity for their individual gifts to positively impact me.
We may never be able to eliminate bias, but using mindfulness to take the space in the moment to understand our TALE’s helps us make our unconscious bias, conscious. Then we have the opportunity to make a different choice.
John Davisi is a certified life coach, mindfulness teacher, and inspirational speaker. He is the Vice President, People Operations & Mindfulness at BuzzFeed and also teaches workshops around the world on mindfulness, meditation, and finding your pleasure.