By David Sable
I was somewhat surprised when my proposal to present mindfulness at a bank-sponsored conference for its major hedge fund clients was accepted. I had some experience in the banking industry years before, but I didn’t know anything about the unique challenges of managing hedge funds. I knew I had to prepare myself well before leading a workshop entitled, “Leadership Tools for Motivating Innovation – Mindfulness, Listening, and Inquiry.” So weeks in advance I spoke at length with friends and acquaintances in the financial services industry who had worked with hedge fund managers. I gradually built up a picture of the toughest, brightest, take-no-prisoners leaders in the financial services world. This would be a tough audience. I was a bit intimidated.
When I arrived at the posh hotel with 200 participants, I felt a little like Jonah about to be swallowed by the whale. What was I doing, trying to train these already confident executives and managers to slow down, be mindful of what people are saying, notice their assumptions, and engage in meaningful dialogue? I was told their attitude would be, “Why should I listen to you?”
At the opening night buffet my stereotypes were blown apart.
I was sitting at a round table when the person directly across caught my eye, came around to the empty seat next to me and asked what I was doing at the conference. I was mindful enough to find out a little about his work world, giving me some context to explain my workshop. He seemed intrigued, but when he used his smartphone to look up the workshop on the conference app, he said, “People won’t get it – you need a different title for your workshop.” There was no time to change the title, so he went directly to his boss, the president of a major New York hedge fund, and asked him to rank the breakout sessions in order of interest. His boss’s response ranked mine tenth out of eleven. Then he gathered his whole team and said to me, “Tell them what you’re going to do tomorrow.” I told them and one of the executives said, “Is this going to be some kind of touchy-feely thing?” I said, “No, it’s about awareness — how to look at your data with a fresh mind, how to listen without pre-judging, how to ask questions that really test assumptions.” He said, “OK, I get that,” and indeed two of them showed up at my breakout session along with 20 others.
Once in the session, I played a visual game where everyone had to interpret some fun ambiguous figures. Some people could see lots of options; others could only see one until they listened to the clues others gave them. Then I gave basic meditation instruction and after sitting quietly for a few minutes, I asked the participants, “When you have a lot of options, what enables you to make a decision?” They reflected and jotted down individual responses. Then they broke up into pairs to explore the question further by listening mindfully, and inquiring mindfully. Finally I started gathering responses. One person offered a brilliant, step-by-step decision-making process. Another said, “When I have to make a decision, I try to drop my ego.” The tennis match was on. They went back and forth and people’s attention went back and forth. They completely respected each other, even understood each other, even saw common ground.
Some people observed that slowing down, listening mindfully, and bringing up questions that really test their assumptions leads to better communication. Some people recognized how we often make assumptions unconsciously. Mindfulness is as much about awareness directed inward as outward. That is how we often get to those underlying assumptions. It may very well be how the two people with very different approaches to decision-making connected.
I learned that my second-hand notions about the audience were off the mark. I was touched that they had been genuinely interested in being helpful at the dinner table conversation, and they worked with the mindfulness techniques whole-heartedly. The whale had spat me out alive and well on the sunny beach in Palm Beach, Florida.
David Sable, PhD, is an Affiliated Instructor of Applied Mindfulness Training.