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If you are not familiar with Zen, a school of Buddhism, you may have at least encountered one or two paradoxical Zen koans like, What is the sound of one hand clapping?

Such quirky questions, called koans, are meant to help one get into the Zen state of mind, a state of enlightenment that promises to provide greater understanding and peace of mind.

zen watchAfter understanding yourself, understanding others is essential to Leadership Intimacy. We certainly could use a lot more understanding in the workplace.

I have found that several Zen principles can help anyone understand others better. If nothing else, these principles work so much better than the alternative, that is, what we normally do—respond before even trying to understand—that I bring them to your attention.

Zen Attention

Zen, its teachers tell us, has to do with living fully in the present, the now, delighting in what is in front of you as opposed to desiring what may be around the corner or what you would rather be doing.

If we apply this principle to workplace interactions, it translates into paying attention. Not just ordinary attention though. Zen attention requires experiencing the present completely. To fully experience an interaction with your boss, a coworker, a peer, or a direct report, follow these three Zen principles.

Accept what is

In the rush of everyday work, we tend to avoid or ignore what’s going on around us. In a conversation, it’s tempting to feign attention as we occupy our minds with other matters. Instead, accept the situation, attend fully to the incoming feelings and information. Don’t respond and don’t start forming your response as you listen. If you’re forming your response, you’re not listening. And you can’t understand if you don’t listen.

Seek rather than give

When it comes time to respond, that is, when you are asked for your response, ask thoughtful questions instead of countering with your rebuttal. Dig deeper for the emotions that drive the other person’s beliefs and opinions.

Go with the flow

As you listen just as attentively to their answers, remain open to wherever the answers go. Follow not just the words but the feelings of your counterpart. You will very likely discover insights that lead you to greater understanding, ways to improve your relationship, and, in turn, your workplace.

Be Like Buddha

The Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh offers some advice regarding your body language, pace, and attitude. “Smile, breathe, and go slowly.”


Helanie Scott
Helanie Scott
Helanie (pronounced yeh-LAH-nee) Scott, CEO and founder of Align4Profit in Dallas, Texas, has driven stunning leadership and cultural transformations for an impressive list of organizations. She has mastered the ability to connect with her audiences in the boardroom, classroom, on stage, or in one-on-one coaching sessions. Helanie’s Align4Profit clients rave at the way her engaging programs freshen outdated mindsets and deliver results-oriented, aligned action.