Mindful Service Is An Inside-Out Game

Originally published here for the Institute of Organizational Mindfulness.

Expand Your Communication Skills

Have you ever gone to eat somewhere and everything is “perfect”? The person serving you recommends a wine pairing with a sniper’s precision. It arrives with surgically-executed food, both of which are timed like a Swiss monorail. And yet the experience was somehow empty, strained. The person serving you was doing their job, but just doing their job, probably while imagining what they’d rather be doing with their time. Or perhaps resenting you for one reason or another. What is missing here?

The standard training for any service profession is focused almost entirely on the technical maintenance aspect of the customer experience. In the restaurant industry (where I come from), this maintenance has to do directly with co-ordinating what lands on the table in front of the guests (and when). And how to communicate. Servers are taught what to say in any given situation (just as service department employees are). And by “communication” I mean largely the language part. Though the emotional element is also a factor in how a professional is expected to present themselves, the way that they are taught to manage and present their emotions is usually misunderstood. And also, though some professionals are skilled hustlers (and manipulators), the teaching on how to manage and interact with guest’s emotions is pretty elementary.

Communication is important, but the training is biased towards the outflow of communication.

  • What you’re saying.

  • How you’re saying it.

  • How well you’re indicating that you’re listening and understanding.

  • The effect that your general demeanor has on the people you are serving.

It’s preoccupied entirely with how you are perceived by others. This external dimension of service is important, but only is half of the medallion.

Serving Others Requires Self-Awareness

The internal state of the server (the health, happiness, enthusiasm, sense of purpose, etc.) is the only reliable foundation from which to serve. And, crucially, the fulfillment they get from their work. But so often we don’t pay attention to our internal state. You may be aware of the thoughts spinning around in your minds, telling you stories about the situation (“this person is such a jerk”, “oh no, things are going so wrong”, “my co-workers are so inconsiderate”), but those thoughts are not you.

You can get through it without self-awareness. You can keep believing all the negative ideas running through your head so long as, externally, you stick to the script and can parrot out the “right” thing to say in any situation. But if you’re not also able to communicate with yourself, then you are lost. By self-communication, I don’t mean the mentally-ill variety (that will definitely not tick the “make others feel comfortable” box of the service imperative), I mean awareness of yourself. What is your state of mind? What do you need right now? Are these thoughts that seem so strong, really what you believe? Truly knowing yourself, beyond your thinking, requires the willingness to question your thoughts and beliefs and say, “Does this really matter? Is indulging this thought as valuable as the joy of connecting with others right here in the present moment – even (especially) if they’re making it difficult to do so.”

Service that really feels life-giving to receive (even if whatever is delivered is far from the technically perfect choreographies of a fine dining experience) doesn’t just come out of nowhere. It comes from the person serving’s connection to the value of what they are offering the people they serve – the human value of their caring hospitable role, not just the quality of the things that they are serving. This doesn’t come from training in presenting oneself well on the outside. This kind of professional has established something internally. And they notice when something inside of them gets in the way of their genuine desire to serve – the natural joy one gets from connecting with others and uplifting them in some way.

Always Growing Through Service

Service makes you a better person. Not “better” in the universal sense, but more of the person that you want to be…whatever that looks like. It’s an opportunity to test and observe universally-valuable skills in the realms of listening, understanding, compassion, adaptability, problem solving, emotional stability and nimbleness, you name it. But very little service training, mentorship or professional development of any sort offers any understanding of how this works and how to maximize this potential. The priorities of service training tend to be oriented towards simply getting the job done. But guess what? The priorities of being in a monastery or part of a spiritual community are the same: getting the job done. There is always work to be done. Life in a monastery consists largely of daily chores and life in a community often involves large amounts of service work.

The difference is, spiritual communities are aware of the value of the work they are doing, no matter how small it seems. And they know the importance of the state of mind of the person doing the job (most spiritual paths seek to improve the state of one’s mind and mindful work is one of the mediums to do so). Having a clean, inspired intent while you work means both you and the people you serve gain more from your actions. In your seemingly insignificant service role in a restaurant, hotel, service department, fast food chain, etc., the value that your organizational culture places on your work may not be clearly stated (i.e. few fast food managers will say, “If you are present, kind and well-intentioned with the people you serve, it can be transformative in subtle but power ways”) the possibility of claiming that value is still there.

Don’t Wait For Your Managers To Reveal Your Power

Even if your workplace doesn’t highlight the importance of your state of mind, you still have the power to transform your work into a vehicle for growth and happiness. The very nature of service (action that helps another and ourselves) provides you with constant potential – constant invitations – for your work to be inspired and self-actualizing no matter your professional station. Mindful service means that actions that seem like you’re simply ”getting the job done” are actually the mediums for growth and fulfillment. It’d be nice if your work culture acknowledged that – a lot of my mission through the Serve Conscious project hopes to upgrade work cultures to ones that value employee growth and fulfillment. But you don’t need your work culture to reveal to you the value of your work. You just need to claim that reality and live it.