Learning Lab: From Mindless Reaction to Skillful Response

Our thoughts, words, and actions are powerful, and have an enormous impact on our work and life, yet we rarely see, hear, or feel them clearly. Most of the time our scattered attention runs free—we don’t pause to focus and reflect on what’s going on within or around us in the moment. Harvard research shows that our minds wander 47% of the time, and that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.

As we react to things on autopilot, our wandering mind misses what’s happening right here and now, and misses the opportunity to act on what we know. So how do we bring our wandering mind to focus on what’s emerging in the moment, and to respond skillfully to what’s happening as events unfold, one “frame” after another?

As I wrote in my previous article, a group of professionals from the high tech, higher ed, healthcare, and nonprofit sectors generously participated in an online Learning Lab around the topic of well-being, leadership, and purpose. We explored, experimented with, and experienced various mindfulness-based leadership skills to develop a mind that is calm, focused and clear, and we practiced these skills to set a powerful direction and move toward what’s most essential in our lives.

In this initiative, we learned to apply what we know to what we do, and to shape who we want to become. That is, we learned to apply knowledge to not just doing, but also being—growing our inner capacity to respond skillfully to external stimuli instead of reacting impulsively out of fear, anger, or any strong emotion in the moment.

What we did together

Our time together in the virtual Learning Lab (over video conferencing) was roughly divided into thirds. We spent one-third of each session on the “content” to learn the reasons, basis, and research behind select mindfulness and emotional intelligence skills and the related tools to develop them. Another third was used to practice these tools in the online Lab with each other in real time—testing them to see what worked and what didn’t for each individual. The final third was for sharing individual experiences and reflections with others in the group about what had worked and what hadn’t during the prior week at home and work.

What we discovered

1) We can develop inner capacity to respond skillfully to outer stimuli.

Akin to scientists working in a laboratory, we can develop mindfulness-based leadership tools by exploring, experiencing, and experimenting with them in a safe environment followed by field-testing them out in the world. All of this is done with an intention to expand our inner capacity for clarity, productivity, and creativity.

As with any other skill (e.g., tennis, piano, martial arts, law, medicine, sales, etc.), developing good mental habits require practice, practice, and more practice. There is no short cut. Furthermore, we often discover a lot about ourselves while learning through practice, and that self-knowledge in and of itself is gold. The Learning Lab provided an opportunity to practice with supportive individuals, and to encourage each other to field-test new tools and skills at work and at home between sessions.

2) We can access our own wisdom to create personal solutions.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution. What works for one person may not necessarily work for someone else. Part of the learning process is creating solutions and tools that are practical for an individual by adding the signature ingredient—a combination of the individual’s experience, wisdom, and strengths.

Each participant already had what they needed to succeed in leading themselves and others at work and home. The value of the mindfulness-based emotional intelligence tools was in helping them to access their inner resources to see reality clearly “as it is” rather than as they want it to be; and to face uncertainty and uncomfortable emotions with courage. With this clarity and courage, they also gained confidence to trust their own wisdom, and do what is best for them and those who matter to them.

3) We can’t change by ourselves. Community matters.

The power of a community is real even when it’s created virtually. When we show up to support each other, and to hold a space for reflection, listening, and voicing our inner wisdom, and sharing our experiences, we can gain clarity, courage, and confidence to be the change we want to see in the world.

The feedback from the participants reflected that the balance of learning, practicing, and sharing each session worked well, and that they were most enthusiastic about the sharing component. Through repeated practices of mindful listening and generous sharing in the Learning Lab, they learned from each other’s experiences and inspired each other to try different ways to integrate practices that were introduced in the sessions. They noticed that these types of conversations and interactions were lacking in their lives, and appreciated them as one of the benefits of this online learning community.

One participant said she could imagine all of us standing with her and having her back as her “posse” as she applied her newly-acquired skills at a meeting when she found herself completely blindsided and felt the rug being pulled out from under her. Other participants also expressed that they felt the benefit of each other’s support and presence between sessions especially in moments of emotional triggers that we all experience.

How we changed

Lab participants reported many experiences of shifting their habits from reacting to responding more skillfully to unpredictable or stressful situations. They learned and practiced accessing their own inner resources to respond to unexpected and uncomfortable incidents or interactions. They developed the presence of mind to stop, breathe, and see what’s going on inside and outside of themselves, and to proceed as best as they could under the circumstances.

Instead of reacting to a situation out of habit, they shifted their usual way of thinking, feeling, and sensing. They were able to take a different perspective on what was happening, what they thought and felt about it, and where the other people might be coming from. They practiced responding in line with their highest intention. Even when they couldn’t control the outcome, they discovered that they could influence it for better or worse. They practiced choosing a better option when a challenging circumstance arose at work.

As for benefits, participants shared examples such as: “I now trust myself more.” “I didn’t have to spend as much time managing my anger after talking with a person who usually triggers me.” “I was nervous about meeting with a new executive for our first one-on-one, but took a minute to remember my highest intention before the meeting. Using mindful listening I was able to better connect with her and was pleasantly surprised to discover her vision for the organization was in line with mine.” “When the team was going all over the map in the strategic planning process, I was able to put a ‘guard rail’ around them with calm and ease, and we were able to end the retreat with success—they figured out what they wanted in the end.”

What’s next?

Knowledge and hard skills are essential, but not sufficient for knowledge workers. We also need to develop the inner capacity and skills for navigating how to work with others in our ever-expanding global workplace for results that matter to us, our teams and organizations, and our communities.

My aspiration is to provide as many leaders and organizations as possible with practical and useful tools to cope with today’s unprecedented challenges at work and in life. I envision a world where workplaces become thriving communities of people making a difference and being fulfilled while making a good living. Mindful leadership can lay the foundation necessary for individuals and organizations to build and sustain such workplaces.


I’d like to thank all of the inaugural Learning Lab participants who showed up for 8 weeks with the commitment to create a learning community; we all learned from each other in a supportive, inspiring, and safe environment. I’d also like to thank the Search Inside Yourself Leadership (SIYLI) Institute for its Engage program that provided me with the training on mindfulness-based emotional intelligence. My gratitude also goes to the SIYLI Engage community, in particular: Arnold Raizon, Dave Conley, Jackie Huntly, Jim Fallon, and Michelle Pearce in my Wisdom Circle, and Nikki Bonus, for their support and encouragement.

Change is most powerful when it comes from within and is supported by a community in the spirit of: “people like us do things like this,” as often remarked by Seth Godin. May we all succeed in connecting with the best in us and the best in others to be the change we want to see in the world.

(Image: “sunflowers” by derbokon under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license)

Intrigued? SoulCo is planning both Learning Labs which will be open to the public, as well as in-house programs exclusive for skill-building within organizations. Contact us for an initial conversation towards building greater emotional intelligence and skillful mental habits for well-being and leadership.