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Bartek Frąckowiak and Olga Kołdej discuss mindfulness in the BANI world

Olga Koldej and Bartek Frąckowiak of Strategic Dreamers discuss different aspects of mindfulness. They talk about its relationship with technologies, the present and future scenarios. They see mindfulness as one of the essential future competences that can be shaped and developed. They refer to the change we are experiencing today, i.e. the shift from a VUCA world – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – to a BANI world, i.e. brittle, anxious, non-linear and incomprehensible. How do our strengths shape our mindfulness? How can we support ourselves in this process? What helps us? And how do we use mindfulness intentionally?

Listen to the podcast on the TROP Group website.

Olga Koldej: This is the TROP Group podcast, the topic of today’s episode is mindfulness. And we’re going to talk about this mindfulness today with Bartek Frąckowiak, who is here in the studio with me. He’s a TROP Method trainer, he’s also a development facilitator and one of the aspects he focuses on is strengths. At the moment Bartek is in the process of Gallup certification, he is doing a coaching training on strengths. I met Bartek at the TROP Group Trainers’ School and I co-found Strategic Dreamers with Bartek….

Bartosz Frąckowiak: Yes, in which company we work together. Olga Koldej, let me introduce you as well. As you said, we met during the Trainers’ School at the TROP Group. I have a feeling that we somehow instantly ‘clicked’, also due to the fact that we share a background in design and creativity. Olga worked as a design manager and architect for many years. She has also, I would say, created various innovative solutions in a systemic way. Olga is also in the process of certification, she is developing her coaching competences as a coach. She is doing her ICF certification. What Olga I also feel sets you apart is your focus on supporting people who are in the midst of a career transition, who are changing, I would say, in such a strong, radical way their industry, their employment, their professional, vocational role, and hence your interest in job crafting.

Olga Koldej: That’s all right, thanks Bartek. I’ll add here that this design aspect is close to us in fact, that’s what attracted us to each other right away too. Bartek also has experience in designing institutions and working in the field of art in general. For the last few years, Bartek has been co-creating one of what I consider to be the most important cultural institutions on the map of Warsaw, the Warsaw Biennale. He was also deputy director of a theatre in Bydgoszcz, so I think that these design aspects are also something that drew us together here.

Bartosz Frąckowiak: Well, and this mindfulness. This meeting today will be about deepening a little bit our understanding of mindfulness, what mindfulness actually is. It is a concept that appears in various contexts. It is quite fashionable, you could say it is a bit of a buzzword, but it seems that the use of this concept is not always followed by a deeper understanding of it. When I think of mindfulness, I think that mindfulness is a kind of competence. A kind of competence that can be developed, which consists of very specific elements, and so perhaps I would say, at the very beginning, of intentionality. Mindfulness is something that we direct to a very specific aspect, to a person, to a strength, and at the same time we also let go. That is to say, with every act or action based on mindfulness, there is also a letting go of a certain spectrum of stimuli or things to which we do not pay attention, or to which we do not direct this mindfulness. And that seems to me to be extremely important, which is intentionality.

Olga Kołdej: That’s exactly right. It’s like you say, at any given moment an overwhelming mass of stimuli comes to us. Stimuli from the environment, stimuli from our own body, in the new modern world also information stimuli, and we are not able to just process them. We are not able to process even part of all that reaches us, so this kind of intentionality in what we pay attention to is a key aspect of mindfulness. And it’s something that absolutely can be developed, it can be practised.

Bartosz Frąckowiak: I think to myself, because you also talk about incentives. We also want to put this attentiveness precisely in the context of the future. Talking here before the meeting, we said that mindfulness, in our opinion, is a competence of the future, that is, in general, such an extremely important competence, whose role and importance will grow even more in the future. And I think of such a context, I would say, a little bit not obvious. Because when we talk about mindfulness, mindfulness and so on, for example, we rarely talk about technologies. And technologies significantly shape our perception, how we perceive reality. There is also something called the attentional economy. This, of course, refers more to attention than to attentiveness, but the point is that our attention is an extraordinary resource and a great many entities, companies, are trying to redirect our attention to various stimuli, impulses. The kind that, for example, will make us make a certain decision. Or we behave in a certain way. Or we buy a certain product. Note that very often our attention is something that is very precisely analysed, quantified and converted into data. Many times, what we look at, what we react to, what we give like to, what we bestow on our attention, is measured. On this basis, various psychological profiles of us as individuals are created, and then this behavioural data is converted by various artificial intelligence systems into what is called, in professional technological language, prediction. That is, we get various recommendations, the system tries once again to appropriate this attention of ours and redirect it towards something that is important, relevant to the entity that is doing it. This is professionally called behavioural manipulation. And now, as in a world like this, every now and then someone tries to keep our attention on something, to redirect it. They attack us from all sides with various stimuli and on top of that, they stimulate it in a significant way. How do we stay attentive in this reality?

Olga Kołdej: Exactly. I’ll just add, Bartek, because you’ve summed it up beautifully, I’ll just bracket it like this, that this attention has simply become a commodity. Because this data is traded on the advertisers’ markets, so there is a lot of money behind it. However, to make the problem even more acute, I would add that our brains are designed in such a way that we simply react to these stimuli because we have not kept up with the evolutionary pace of technological change. Technology is accelerating, but we still act in such a way that everything that is new, that is different, that is strange, simply attracts our attention. Because in the past, our survival depended on seeing new information, because new information could mean food, it could mean a partner or it could mean danger. So it was crucial to focus on that. So with this knowledge about ourselves, that this is how our brain works, how do we protect ourselves from this? This is a good question, while we believe that there is hope, and that it is absolutely possible to work on mindfulness, that is, on managing one’s own attention, such a conscious, intentional one. And it is possible to develop these competences, and we also deeply believe in this at Strategic Dreamers.

Bartosz Frąckowiak: An important aspect of mindfulness is also to recognise that it is not such a passive observing of the world. As I was thinking to myself yesterday about mindfulness, I thought I would pose this question to such an artificial intelligence system that generates images based on natural language commands, DALL-E. I asked for an image of mindfulness. And what came up were images of very much this kind of passive attentiveness, passive action. On the other hand, there were very few images that would make us think about being proactive and active. I think very strongly that attentiveness is about creating reality, because if it intentionally directs attention to something, it is to develop it, to strengthen it, to build it, and it is not just passivity. I have the feeling that just a lot of these first associations with mindfulness are related to passivity.

Olga Kołdej: Yes, that’s exactly what I think too, I have a similar situation. Having just typed ‘mindfulness’ into Google, it brings up these people in the Lotus position. Definitely meditation is one way of developing mindfulness, whereas when I think to myself in such a way, how to unpack this concept, for me it is built from such two aspects. That is, the first is mindfulness, for me personally, in the choice of content, or what I take in. Some kind of very conscious filter of applying to reality. I’ve even heard such a phrase as attention diet. That is, that what I consume as content, all this information has the same effect on me in my mind as the ingredients from food have on my physical body. So the first aspect is just being attentive in choosing content, because content builds my reality. Well you become what you focus your attention on. And the second piece is being attentive to yourself and to others. That is, attentiveness to what is happening to me. This is where we come to emotions and all the things that modern business is already starting to notice that actually matter. So in this world of VUCA and BANI, that is… VUCA is an acronym that describes a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. And it is an acronym that has functioned in the language of business for the last few decades. Recently, it has been said that it should be replaced or supplemented by the acronym BANI, which is this world that is brittle, that causes anxiety, that is anxiety-inducing, that is non-linear and full of internal contradictions. So in this world, this competence of intentionally focusing our attention and filtering out content that does not serve us becomes crucial. It is also this anxiety, from the acronym BANI, for which empathy, or the competence to consciously pay attention to other people’s emotions and respond appropriately to those emotions, becomes such a remedy, such a solution. And for me, attentiveness to myself and to others is the basis of empathy, in fact. Because I first have to notice what’s happening to me, name those emotions, name what’s happening to my body, what I’m thinking about, and only then am I able, as if bouncing back from that, to find in myself an adequate response to it. Whether it will be my emotions or whether it will be someone else’s emotions.

Bartosz Frąckowiak: As you’ve evoked this acronym BANI, I’m also thinking about this fragility or brittleness. This brittleness is that very often on the surface it seems that everything works, everything works. Certain things seem to have ‘always’ worked, to have ‘always’ worked, and they also seem to be certain habits, be they organisational or team habits, and then suddenly, at one moment, it turns out that due to various crises, such as a pandemic, the war in Ukraine or various migration crises, everything starts to go wrong. It happens as if in an instant, it does not happen gradually, there is no inertia or decay of the system, but in an instant we see that something that, on the surface, was functioning perfectly no longer does, from one day to the next. I think to myself that mindfulness is also the competence to see the little fissures and cracks that are happening in this system, that are below the surface, and to see that before it happens. In a sense, you talked about empathy as also a form of such resilience, resilience or preparation for various scenarios that might happen in the future. I also think of mindfulness as a very important aspect of resilience or as an important aspect of… well, psychological resilience, but also, for example, organisational resilience or the resilience of teams, because it allows us to notice certain elements, the “swallows of change”, or things that are a little bit indicative of what might happen in a moment. I think that such trained, practised, developed mindfulness can also prepare us in an important way for various crisis situations in the future. It can allow us to get through them better, based on our strengths.

Olga Kołdej: Definitely yes, and I very much agree with you that mindfulness can allow us to prepare for these changes. However, I am also of the opinion that we live in a world where change is the only constant, it is continuous. And mindfulness allows us to function in this world too, because we are not able to respond with a plan to such a changing and complex reality in which we are functioning at the moment. Mindfulness allows us to be more agile in the moment, whether as an individual or as an organisation. So I think it’s really a core competency, this has shown us especially in the last months, the last years. We can’t prepare ourselves, we can make fantastic plans for ourselves, but then reality verifies them, and it’s at this point that the competence of being attentive to what’s happening to me, to what’s happening to the world and how I can react to it, is one of the most important ones.

Bartosz Frąckowiak: I think that here, in general, mindfulness is somehow connected with reflexivity. That is to say, in some sense this world is a world of accelerated change, if it is happening all the time, and mindfulness is something that allows us to just be agile, it is also in some sense a reflex. And that again is something that shows this active, positive nature of mindfulness. On the other hand, I think to myself about how to work with attentiveness, how to develop it, how to shape this competence. I think to myself that very much this mindfulness is about habits. I mean, because habits are something we don’t usually see, we don’t notice, they have already become so our way of working, reacting, behaving that they seem obvious, natural to us and we don’t see that they are a habit at all. Recognising that there are habits that are perhaps already inadequate, noticing that in a kind of ‘agile’ way, referring to what you were saying Olga. And that kind of ability to transform habits, and actually develop new habits. Because it’s a bit like those old habits, the easiest way to work with them is to replace them with new habits. And now this ability to be so in touch with myself, to be attentive to myself precisely when something I’m doing is a certain pattern that comes from the past, which is no longer adequate in the face of this new, changing situation, is extremely important. And I think to myself that just being mindful is somehow being aware of your habits, being able to work with those habits and being able to replace old habits with new habits.

Olga Kołdej: Exactly as you said Bartek. A habit is characterised by the fact that a certain behaviour, triggered by a certain cue, becomes automated to the extent that our brain uses minimal energy to go through it. At this point, mindfulness is a very important filter to recognise this and to change those habits that no longer serve us, either as people or as organisations. It is very difficult to get rid of a habit, but it is possible to change it into something that serves us better. This can be developed and practised and, in my opinion, is one of the key competences of modern leaders.

Bartosz Frąckowiak: I would add a technological theme here, once again. That is, some of these habits are habits that are related to digital reality, to how we use technology. These, of course, are also analysed by companies that collect our data, so, for example, our habits related to scrolling the phone screen, how we touch it, is converted into behavioural data, and on this basis it is possible to determine very precisely, for example, what kind of tendency we have towards addictions. Or what kind of personality we are. Where we pause a series on Netflix, where we circle the arrow on the screen, how we walk, for example, with what frequencies. These are all things that are indicative of our habits, whether the people who collect this data can infer what habits are. And what’s more, artificial intelligence systems, from machine learning, are able to discover certain patterns, related to habits, that we are not able to notice and that we are not able to perceive, to embrace with our consciousness. And now I’m thinking about something else, that it’s often the case that later on we get a kind of feedback, that is, for example, the system, through an advertisement, through some kind of content, through a song on Spotify, reminds us of something that was our old habit that we had already got rid of or that we wanted to work on, replace with a new one, and paradoxically it turns out that technologies very often hammer us into old habits and act in an extremely conservative way, and prevent us from really developing. Now, noticing this aspect, which is, for example, habits that are related to the way we use technology, but also how technologies are structured, how algorithms hammer us into certain old patterns, is an extremely important aspect of mindfulness if we think of it as a competence of the future.

Olga Kołdej: Yes, Bartek. This topic that you’re talking about I know you’re very familiar with, there was an exhibition that finished recently, unfortunately I can’t refer you to it anymore because it’s no longer there, but I think you can still read a little bit on the internet. An exhibition on precisely our relationship with technologies and how they shape us, our future. And here I’m thinking to myself that just knowing this is already a powerful weapon and a powerful tool. What Bartek was talking about, the moment we are aware of how the attention economy works and that our attention is a product, knowing this, we can already protect ourselves more consciously from this, by practising our attentiveness. A simple example, you can log off Facebook and the moment I intentionally have to type in a keyword, I give myself a chance to think about whether this is really what welcomes wellbeing at the moment, whether this is what I need or want in some kind of larger perspective. On the other hand, I also think about how this can be worked on in organisations.

Bartosz Frąckowiak: One way of working with mindfulness in organisations, is to work with strengths. It’s so that very often, when we think about development in organisations or there are slogans of deficits, something is missing, something is not there, something we need to correct, fix. Meanwhile, it is much better to work on resources, on what is, on what is our potential. And now, for example, seeing that there are strengths underneath certain habits is already closely linked to mindfulness. If we want to build a team, based on strengths, to understand, to identify the strengths of each person in the team, to name them and to create a certain development plan, this is something for which we need mindfulness and also something through which we can practice mindfulness. I think mindfulness is a matter of diversity, also the diversity of just talents and strengths in teams, and that each person can bring a slightly different kind of mindfulness, depending on what strengths they have. That is, someone who thinks strategically will have a different kind of attentiveness than someone who can bring people together, and will have a different kind of attentiveness than someone who sets a good mood at work. Or someone who is a maximalist, meaning they know how to create diamonds out of something that is good. I think that this aspect, the fact that we direct our attention to what we have, to our resources, and try to name it as concretely as possible, is something that, for me, is closely related to the theme of mindfulness, but this mindfulness again, which is related to a resource, to positivity, to activity, to causality. And it is this perspective that works best for me in my work with clients, whether they are organisations, institutions or business clients.

Olga Kołdej: That’s exactly right. As I think to myself about our work with organisations, what you said, which is to work on strengths, also comes through very strongly here that you’re in this Gallup at the moment, but I also think to myself about these organisational habits. Because in the same way that we as humans can intentionally build our habits, or replace those habits that no longer work for us with ones that will serve us better, it’s exactly the same way that you can design habits in organisations, and that’s what we do as well.

Bartosz Frąckowiak: The stop-frame, that is, to stop, to see what is happening, is very helpful. And it is precisely paradoxically the case that this stop-frame, which is a kind of slowing down, often allows you to accelerate, to react to the situation in a more agile way. That is, to see what is Here and Now, what is really happening here, what I feel, what I do, how I act. And it is in this way that we also work with habit and practice mindfulness.

Olga Kołdej: I think we could go on for a really long time about mindfulness, because the subject is very important and for us, for me personally, it’s certainly super interesting. I think it’s super interesting for you too, Bartek. But I think this is such a good moment to make a stop-frame, or even a full stop, and to end, because we are simply running out of time. Thank you very much. Bartek Frąckowiak…

Bartek Frąckowiak: …and Olga Kołdej. Please visit our website, strategicdreamers.com, our profile on linkedin. And we welcome communication, conversation and contact.

Olga Kołdej: To hear from you.

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