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Mindfulness Interviews - Part Four

with Susannah Birkwood

11/09/2017

Mindfulness Interviews - Part Four



Susannah Birkwood is the global press officer for Africa at the child rights organisation Plan International.

She was previously a journalist for eight years (including for Third Sector magazine) and has lived and worked in Europe, Asia and Latin America.

 
 

Q: Susannah, how did you first get into mindfulness?
 
Susannah: I first got into mindfulness when I was about 23. I was at university and remember seeing mindfulness advertised on noticeboards as a way to be in the present moment and not get so caught up in stress and negativity. I had been struggling with anxiety and depression so that sounded like a dream to me - I joined a student group which met on a weekly basis. The group leader, who was a trained counsellor, recommended we read one of the most seminal books about mindfulness: 'Full Catastrophe Living' by Jon Kabat-Zinn. I loved the book, particularly its emphasis on the scientific evidence behind mindfulness and the eight-week programme it sets out to help beginners start their own daily meditation routine. The book and its advice retained its importance to me even after I left university and I refer to it every now and then as challenges arise at work or in my personal life. 
 
Q: Was there anything in particular you were looking for it to bring to your life?
 
Susannah: I remember a friend of a friend once telling me I was crazy to meditate. The truth was, I was actually doing mindfulness to help keep the 'crazy' away. I honestly think that is the case for most people who practice mindfulness. It requires a huge investment of time and energy to maintain a regular practice - 20 to 40 minutes of meditation a day is what's recommended - so I think it's rare for people to enter into that unless they've experienced some form of suffering they're looking to alleviate. Mindfulness can help with stress, anxiety, low mood, emotional and physical pain, concentration and self-compassion - and at some time or another I've used it for each of these purposes.
 
I first began to gain real confidence in mindfulness when I lived in Hong Kong between 2011 and 2014. There I participated in a weekly mindfulness group frequented by expats and locals and found that the reservations I'd had about it in the early days - that it was a wish-washy activity akin to pseudo-sciences such as homeopathy - began to ebb away. This was predominantly because the group was led by a psychologist called Leonie Stekelenberg from Holland who I deeply respected for her gravitas and no-nonsense attitude. She wasn't a hippy - she was a highly intelligent and educated woman who had struggled with depression and found mindfulness the most effective intervention that had helped her in any sustainable way. She was a great role model for the hard-nosed financial journalist I was at the time!
 
Q: How would you say mindfulness has impacted on your life - personal and professional?
 
Susannah: I've used mindfulness in myriad ways in both my personal and professional life. 
 
I now work as a global press officer for a child rights and humanitarian organisation. Having a mindfulness practice has enabled me to manage the self-critical thoughts I'm prone to have as I carry out my work (Did I sound articulate enough in that interview? Is my writing good enough? Am I doing as well as my colleague?) and instead of always responding to them and ruminating about their contents, to hold them in awareness and see them for what they really are: just mental events which don't need to be paid attention to. 
 
It's also helped me to feel more grounded ahead of particularly nerve-wracking challenges at work: presenting at conferences, chairing panel debates, giving radio interviews. Rather than listening to the alarmist predictions in my head, through mindfulness I have instead been able to focus on how any anxiety or nervousness is manifesting itself in my body, by concentrating on my breathing and on any sensations in the body. I therefore maintain a greater sense of control over such situations. 
 
Having a mindfulness practice has also instilled in me a greater awareness of how I behave with other people, providing me with greater options for changing this behaviour where necessary. For example, in interviews with my organisation's beneficiaries, or any other interviewee, I often find myself thinking about the next question I want to ask, before the person has finished speaking. By being aware of this, I can choose to be more fully engaged in listening to my interviewee's response, thus enabling me to connect with the individual more fully and ask more meaningful questions when they have said what they want to say. 
 
Q: How has it changed your outcomes?
 
Susannah: I can't say with any certainty that it has and any improvement in outcomes would be very difficult to quantify. 
 
That said, my own experience of having a greater handle on counter-productive self-criticism, an ability to manage stressful events more easily and an ability to connect more with beneficiaries and other interviewees does indicate that mindfulness can provide a significant boost to one's professional performance. You can't be goal-oriented about mindfulness however - if you do, you're likely to miss the point of what it's all about: being in the present moment and accepting things as they are. If you bring an attitude of striving or trying to make things better to your mindfulness - the same attitude we all usually apply in the other areas of our life - you're likely to find that it doesn't 'work'.
 
Q: How might mindfulness benefit organisations? 
 
Susannah: Having a workforce which is better able to manage and regulate its own mental health is probably the biggest benefit from an employer's point of view. An estimated 15.8 million working days were lost due to mental health issues among workers in 2016.
 
Good mental health means workers not only turn up at the office, but they're more confident, more creative, more conscientious and more able to cope with the challenges they encounter in the workplace. After stressful events, such as a presentation, an appraisal or a redundancy, they're more likely to recover their sense of equilibrium more quickly, leaving them ready to cope with their next challenge.
 
 
Q: How might mindfulness benefit the third sector?
 
Susannah: Mindfulness has the potential to enhance the lives of anyone, working in all sectors or none. In the third sector, in particular, it can help foster a greater connection between beneficiaries and service providers, and between fundraisers and donors, thanks to the greater self-awareness and listening skills regular mindfulness practitioners often develop.
 
It can also be a useful tool for people in care-giving roles, or in jobs which involve encountering trauma. For example, my role involves interviewing rape victims and child mothers living in refugee camps. Mindfulness enables me to be more aware of how I am feeling during and after such interactions, which gives me a greater chance of taking positive action to be compassionate towards myself and not neglect my needs. I can't make everything better for our beneficiaries - many of them have extremely complex needs - so mindfulness also helps me to accept the limitations of what I can do to help.
 
 

Susannah Birkwood is the global press officer for Africa at the child rights organisation Plan International. She was previously a journalist for eight years (including for Third Sector magazine) and has lived and worked in Europe, Asia and Latin America.

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Mindfulness Interviews - Part One

Mindfulness Interviews - Part Two

Mindfulness Interviews - Part Three

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