Dr. Alison Cohen Visits Campus For Mindfulness Leadership Training

Each of the Proctors, Prefects, and other student leaders in Davis Hall took a deep breath and two steps with their feet, grounding themselves on the hardwood floor. This technique, known as “two steps, one breath,” was only one of several mindfulness techniques discussed and demonstrated at leadership training last Sunday.

Campus visitor Dr. Alison Cohen, a certified mindfulness teacher, led students in a series of activities on how to use mindfulness to reduce stress.

Sarah Stack ’19, a Proctor in Bancroft House, said, “Before, [mindfulness] was always something I didn’t really understand and thought it was really intense. But then I saw how you can incorporate mindfulness in your own life and improve your leadership through that.”

Andrew Housiaux, Currie Family Director of the Tang Institute and Instructor of Philosophy and Religious Studies, said in an email interview with The Phillipian, “The Dean of Students Office and the Tang Institute brought Alison Cohen to campus because her previous work with students and faculty has been so well received. (This was her third time on campus.) She connects well with her audience and embodies the qualities of clear communication and empathetic listening.”

The leadership training also included a writing activity, in which students reflected on how they manage stress both physically and emotionally. Participants then partnered with someone sitting nearby and spoke for 90 seconds each about what they had written.

Mark Witt ’20 wrote in an email to The Phillipian, “My favorite activity was one where we paired up and talked about things that cause stress for us and the things we do to deal with the stress. I liked it because when I identified my own ways to deal with stress, I sort of reminded myself to actually use them in situations when I am stressed out.”

In addition to these activities, Cohen spoke to students about how to recognize stress and be better listeners in order to improve their leadership skills. 

Posie Millett ’20 said, “[Dr. Cohen] gave us a list of listening buffers, things that you find yourself doing that inhibit your ability to be an active listener, like trying to always find a solution or rehearsing what you’re going to say instead of listening to the other person, things like that to watch out for when we’re having conversations with people and dealing with stress with ourselves but also conflict with others.”

Cohen also distributed a sheet with tips for cultivating mindful awareness.

One tip read, “Observe your body and breath around people, especially classmates and friends, who you have labeled or you believe you ‘know.’ Experiment with consciously re-relaxing your body around them and really tuning into what the appropriate response may [be] in that moment, rather than acting on autopilot.”

The sheet also proposed using the acronym HALT (Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired) to notice when oneself is experiencing these feelings. Cohen then suggested addressing those feelings, explaining that they may be contributing to stress.

Cohen also explained that stress is not inherently a bad thing.

Stack said, “One thing I learned is that stress is actually good, but there’s a tipping point where stress becomes bad and can lead to a breakdown. Stress allows you to do what you want to do, but only if you don’t get too over-exhausted.”

Peter Ling ’20 said, “[Cohen] showed us a chart that had eustress, which is good stress, and then distress, which is bad stress. Fatigue was the line that separated them. We talked about how to find when you’re going towards that line, and to know the symptoms of when you pass that line.”

Cohen emphasized the importance of presence, awareness, and mindfulness in leadership, explaining that those attributes correlate to being a good listener and allow students to reduce stress overall.

“I learned that being a good leader often means being mindful and aware of yourself and being able to change yourself so that you can best accomplish your leadership goals. This resonated with me because I feel that leadership is often thought of as one person trying to command many people to accomplish a goal,” wrote Witt.

Editor’s Note: Peter Ling ’20 is an Associate Business Manager for The Phillipian.