Eric Klein on Bringing Mindfulness to the Workplace

Today, I’m thrilled to speak to Eric Klein. He is part of my mastermind group, my brain trust, for the past 10 years or more. And I’ve had the luxury of becoming his friend and also being guided, coached, provoked, supported by him over the last decade and more.He’s also the author of a best-selling book called Awakening Corporate Soul. He brings both the understanding and practicalities of organizational life but also a deep understanding of a spiritual path as well.

In this interview we explore:

  • How our work is a beautiful platform upon which we can heal what’s wounded us in order to find our Great Work
  • The crossroads moment that helped Eric bring a more mindful approach to learning and development
  • How a coach, or manager, can act as a mirror for the person they are coaching
  • A series of sequenced questions to help people find answers to their biggest challenges


Full Transcript

Michael: I am Michael Bungay Stanier, you’re listening to the Coaching Habit Podcast. I finally got my tagline worked out on this. It is the best strategies for leading yourself and others, by tapping into the wisdom of thinkers, leaders, writers, and coaches. And in this case, a deep, great friend of mine, Eric Klein. I’m very excited to be speaking to Eric. He has been, and this is the kind of informal introduction, part of my mastermind group, my brain trust, for the past ten years or more. And I’ve had the luxury of becoming his friend and also being guided, coached, provoked, supported by him over the last decade and more.

But you need to know that Eric is actually one of the few people in the world who have not only been a best-selling leadership author, his best-selling book is actually called “Awakening Corporate Soul,” but he’s also an ordained lineage holder. So he brings both the understanding and practicalities of organizational life but also a deep understanding of a spiritual tradition and a spiritual path as well.

So that’s a fascinating combination and will make this conversation fantastic. So, Eric, welcome.

Eric Klein: Thank you, thank you, Michael. Fun to be here.

Michael: It is fun to be here. Anytime hanging out with you is a fun thing to do. So I talked a tiny little bit about your past, I mean barely really touched on it. But I am curious to know, I kind of know the answer to this because we’re friends, but I’m curious for others to know, you know, what’s the impact you’re seeking to have in your work these days? As you know, we talk about great work at Box of Crayons. The work that has more impact, more meaning. How does that resonate for you?

Eric Klein: It resonates deeply for me because I realize that, you know, for myself, and I think it’s true for all of us, actually, is that our work space, the place where we work, the environment, and the people, and the focus of our work is a beautiful platform upon which we can heal what’s wounded us and in the process also bring healing and betterment, enrichment to the world. So, that’s really the heart of what I think we’re all up to.

Michael: Mm-hmm.

Eric Klein: That there’s a deep question. Some sense of incompleteness that we’re all seeking to, one, answer and fulfill, and that the world of work is such a potent place to bring that exploration because, by its very nature, as we fulfill our deepest longing in the workspace, we’re also going to be bringing our greatest gift to the world.

Michael: And is there is there — You know it’s interesting, cause you know, I’m like, “I think I know what Eric’s going to say.” I wasn’t expecting this. ’Cause I’m not sure if I’ve heard you use the metaphor of healing before. And is that sense of a wound and healing, is that the connection to bringing and working on your greatest gift? I mean, make that make that a little more explicit for me.

Eric Klein: Yeah, for sure. So it is the, it’s the paradox of the approach that at least calls me. Which is that, the thing that we’re most avoiding — the feeling, the awareness, the situation that we’re avoiding — if we move toward it with mindfulness, with presence, if we move toward it what happens is that we gain access to the deepest resource within us that has been kind of uh dormant or has been held back.

So if I’m avoiding confrontation, you know because of fear, because of doubt, and if I can move towards that difficult conversation, not only do I have the conversation that needs to be had, but I also gain access to the places within me where the intelligence, the energy, the courage that has been held back is then released.

And in doing that, I also invite whoever it is I’m having that conversation with into a deeper, more authentic, more powerful conversation for themselves. So there’s this, whatever we’re avoiding, whatever we’re hiding from within ourselves or within our environment — and they’re always gonna mirror each other — that’s the place where, that’s the healing place. Which healing just means wholeness. It’s the place where we turn to our inherent wholeness and to bring greater wholeness to our world.

Michael: I love that. So, I mean, just to make this, uh. You’ve given a good example, but to make it kind of more real, you know, you’ve know me for ten years…

Eric Klein: Yeah.

Michael: And this is my chance to kind of show my wounds or open my kimono or whatever the metaphor is. I mean make that real for what you’ve seen of me. What have you seen me kind of struggle with, move towards, and attempt to heal?

Eric Klein: Okay. Well, one of the things…

Michael: No, don’t talk about that! Okay, no, you can talk about that.

Eric Klein: One thing is that I see that, you know, you have… For a long time you avoided sort of digging in deeply. Because there was a sense that if you commit wholeheartedly, perhaps to this, to something, that you’ll then be boxing yourself in. You’ll be imprisoning yourself. And so…

Michael: That’s so true.

Eric Klein: What?

Michael: That rings so, I mean I feel that in my body as you started talking about it.

Eric Klein: Yeah. And we’ll come back to that. But as you’ve chosen to focus and to bring all of your amazing creativity and all your innovative energy into the one space of helping managers coach in ten minutes or less I’ve seen two things happen. One is that you didn’t get, you were actually freed up.

Michael: Right

Eric Klein: In in so many ways you were liberated. Personally, professionally.

Michael: Yeah, that’s true

Eric Klein: And the impact that you wanted to have is coming about.

Michael: I love that. Thank you. So let me take you back to an early part of your journey. You know one of the quotes that I love and I reference every time we have one of these podcast interviews is, “Inspiration is when your past suddenly makes sense.” And I kind of conflate that with this idea of, what are your crossroads moments? You know that moment where you’ve kind of come to a point, and you make a decision. You go left, you go right. And it kind of sets you up on the path that you’re on at the moment.

I mean for me a crossroads moment was cracking a joke in my Rhodes Scholars interview, which won me the Rhodes Scholarship that changed everything for me. You know that’s a big example but, what about for you? What’s a crossroads moment for you? How did you get to be here?

Eric Klein: So what comes to mind right now is something that I haven’t thought about as a crossroads moment but it truly was, okay. I came, you know Devi, my wife, and my young son at the time, Nathaniel, and he was like three years old, we moved to San Diego, California, and I came here with the intention of getting a job in a training and development or leadership development division or department within some kind of corporation.

And I went around and I made a promise to meet with all of the managers of such departments in the corporations in San Diego. And I met with a woman, a young woman who had just been promoted to the role of Manager of Training and Development for a new division of a large global corporation here based in San Diego. And we began to talk and she asked me about, you know, my background, and I told her that I’d been a yoga teacher and a meditation teacher for many, many years and that was really the most inspired and sort of the heart of what I tried to bring into my work with managers which was at that time extremely limited, my work with managers.

Michael: Right.

Eric Klein: And she paused and she said, “I have always wanted to learn how to meditate. I’m going to hire you based on one thing.” And I wasn’t even applying for a job. “I’m going to hire you, but you have to give a thirty minute presentation to a group of managers and I have to watch and see that you actually can do this.”

Michael: Right.

Eric Klein: Now, why that’s important, Michael, is because it was a crossroads that this part of myself, that is the most sacred part of, but I wasn’t sure how to place in the world, was the thing that literally opened the door to this work in a very conservative, very hierarchical organization which I consider to have been my graduate school training where I learned how to translate all of these deep spiritual principles into language and practices that managers… And these are managers who have no interest in mindfulness. That word wasn’t even existing in the corporate lexicon at that time.

Michael: Yeah.

Eric Klein: They had no interest in awakening or whatever that might mean. They just wanted to be, you know, effective.But that opened up the door for me to really like, explore, in such a nuts and bolts environment, what’s the application of these principles to the world of, kind of, “real work”.

Michael: Yeah, I love this idea of opportunities for you to find the better path for yourself and the doors keep opening. And just having that moment to go, “Oh I see it and I’m stepping through it.” It just makes all the difference. You know the folks listening in, I just want you to know that there are probably opportunities for you opening up. But I think part of it comes from a sense of, “I know what’s most sacred to me.” You, you getting a sense of this yoga teaching, this meditation teaching, being most sacred to you, and that allows you to be more attuned to kind of those opportunities when they show up.

Eric Klein: Yeah. And it’s been a journey, and as you know very well, it’s an ongoing journey that; and I think the beauty of it right now for me of remembering that is that I’m also now at a reflection point in the last year or so of my work, where I am more comfortable bringing that, and I feel like the culture is certainly more welcoming of bringing the practice of cultivating mindfulness sort of into the foreground. It no longer has to be just kind of a secret ingredient that’s woven into the conversation. It can actually be the subject of the conversation.

Michael: Right. Exactly. I love that. So part of, why I love the Coaching Habit Podcast is I talk to these interesting people and if there’s one thing that’s a commonality across them is a willingness to keep doing their own work. So you know as — was it Ken Blanchard who said, “You’ve got to keep sharpening your own saw”? — whoever it was, sharpening your own saw. And what I find for myself, and this comes in part of hanging out with you and the rest of the lovely people on the mastermind group we’re in, is honestly, it just seems to be the same few patterns repeating endlessly for me. It’s just kind of, I don’t know, spiral, dynamic process that just keeps me going and showing up and meeting the same patterns in different ways. So I’m curious to know, for you, Eric, you know what’s been the hard lesson that you’ve had to learn, or maybe you have to keep learning that’s helped you become more masterful in the work that you do?

Eric Klein: It has to do, for me, it has to do with revealing my inner life in the moment with clients when I’m working with them. In other words, that I have a tendency to hide my immediate experience, to try to kind of, to try to work with it and either avoid it completely or to express it in a way that’s very oblique. And so for me just to be more open, more transparent. And as an example of that it has to do with like, when working with an executive and feeling and coaching an executive and having the experience of essentially being ignored in the moment, you know. Being pandered to, in the moment. And to be able to bring that out in the conversation as it’s happening, instead of trying to kind of weave around it, bob around it, manipulate him to be back in the conversation with me, simply to go, “Here’s what’s going on for me right now, Mr. X,” whatever. “Here’s what’s going on for me right now is that I’m having the sense that you’re just…

Michael: “Yeah, whatever.” You’re bored.

Eric Klein: Yeah, Period.

Michael: You’re playing with me. You’re using your power against me, whatever it might be, you’re speaking to the dynamic.

Eric Klein: And then just be quiet. Just like, be quiet, having revealed that. And, you know. It’s something I have to learn again and again. It’s, you know, I can recognize now the — like you were saying you feel it in your body — I recognize it in the moment when I’m now in the place where I’m about to avoid my experience and hide it. I know that what it feels like but it doesn’t mean that I…. And so it’s not that, and that’s the nature of these kinds of, like you say, repeating, repeating, repeating, or recursive challenges is that they’re very redundant. They have a similar feel to them. And if we as we get to be more familiar with that feel, we can recognize it for what it is. It’s the invitation to then, oh gosh again? Yes I have to do it again.

Michael: Nice. Yeah.

Eric Klein: Yeah.

Michael: That’s great. It’s such a, I mean this, for the folks listening in, this is really a masterful coaching skill. And the way I think about it, and like Eric it’s something I work on and I’m still not there yet, but it’s like “notice it, blurt it”. And then if you have to ask about it, so, if you can be attune to how you’re reacting and internally, physically, mentally, how you’re churning just speak to it. And put it on the table and then you know sometimes you just need to ask a question, like, “So, what’d you think?” Or, “How does that land for you?” Or, “You know, what does that mean, do you think?” And then see where it goes because, you know, a friend of mine once said, Eric, “Once is a pattern.”

Eric Klein: That’s it.

Michael: And what I think you’re pointing to here is, or at least what I’m taking from it is this sense of, if it’s happening to me just once, it happens to others, and this minor, microcosm of a relationship, in the moment, is one that plays out repeatedly for the person you’re talking to. So, and that would allow me to hold that mirror up so you see it.

Eric Klein: That’s the service of it, yes. Yeah. Cause we’re all incredibly redundant. And so it’s not like, you know, this is the first time he’s been ignoring people or, you know, exercising his power to hold them back. No. This is, this is something that’s a natural pattern for him and it’s one that has worked really well. It’s probably worked so well that no one’s ever brought it out.

Michael: Right.

Eric Klein: So as a coach you have that, that’s your kind of service in a lot of ways. Which is to experience the other person completely. Their greatness and their woundedness, which is a thing they’re avoiding, and for you to bring it out. Not like, “You’re being this way,” but, “Here’s how I’m experiencing you.” That holds the mirror up for them. And that’s a beautiful service.

Michael: So that is such a powerful tool to share. But I do want to ask you, is there another process, or tool, or model, you know something that’s kind of a reliable favorite of yours that you use in your conversations that are coach-like?

Eric Klein: Yeah. I mean it’s, I mean the one that comes to mind actually is from your book, Michael. Which I…

Michael: Perfect.

Eric Klein: …truly love.

Michael: Thank you.

Eric Klein: Which is because it’s a three-layered process of questioning where you say, “So what’s the challenge you’re facing?” Right? Or what’s the issue whatever, and they talk to you about it. And typically you know at that point people are typically speaking of the challenge sort of in the third-person kind of way as things in the system and whatever.

And when you ask the second question you offer, which I think is great, which is, “So what’s the real challenge here?” And you know if you read these three layers they can just look like words. A lot of it is the emphasis, the tonality, and the way you kind of lean into the line. So what’s the real challenge here? When they start to do that, very often they’ll shift into talking about some kind of cultural or interpersonal dynamic that, that is sort of underneath you know the technical problem.

Then, I love the third one, because the third one comes back to really what we started talking about which is the wound in a certain way, which is the third question is to say, huh, after feeding it back and reflecting and clarifying, and getting a yes, then you go, “So, given that, what’s the real challenge for you?” Right? And that timing piece I think is the art of it.

And once you drop them into the “for you”, you’ve taken them, boom, into their wound, into their, and also their place of resource that they need to tap into, right. And then, so I love that sequence.

Michael: Well, here’s what I love about your explanation of that sequence is, I’ve never really thought of it as a sequence before. I just. You know in writing the book, and the question we put forth in the book is that final question, “What’s the real challenge here for you?” And in the book I do explain kind of how it got built up, you know and how, each diff- Just as you’ve explained it perfectly, how each of the iterations goes a little deeper. And takes people into themselves, into the real thing that’s going on there. But I’ve never thought of using it as a sequence before so I’m like I’m loving that.

Eric Klein: Good!

Michael: You know it reminds me of, I think it was like Thomas Edison who had some sort of technical challenge with something he was inventing. Maybe a light bulb, maybe something else, the telephone, who knows. And he couldn’t crack it and then he found this technical journal in German. He had kind of okay German so he read an article and it gave him the idea. He figured out the solution. He was like, “Oh that’s brilliant.” Then he got the journal officially translated and he completely misunderstood what that article was about. But it had been, it had still provided the breakthrough. So, I love that.

Eric Klein: That was it. That’s it, man. It’s like, yeah. It’s not really about getting some sort of objectively right answer, it’s about getting on the answer that’s going to move your life forward, you know. And for, for our clients and for ourselves, you know, the idea that there’s some expert out there who has the answer, who’s gonna know this magic formula that’s gonna kind of resolve things for you … Not really. It’s like you can completely mishear that, but as long as it gets you to pay attention to what you actually already know you’re ignoring. That’s the thing about a lot of this work is we all know what we’re hiding from, otherwise we couldn’t be hiding from it. So we, Oh!

Michael: I love that.

Eric Klein: The coaching is really, it’s all of us peeking out from behind the mask going, “I see you.”

Michael: Yeah. I love it. Eric, for people who want to know you more, who want to find out more about how the work you do now and how you’re showing up in the world, where would you point them to? Give us a website or something.

Eric Klein: Okay. Two websites. If you want to bring this kind of deep, mindful work into your organization, go to If you want to explore the practice of awakening in your personal life, go to

Michael: And certainly, you know I hang out at wisdom heart all the time, I’ve learned from you about the practice of meditation, so for people who are looking to walk that path, I could certainly endorse both of those resources that Eric’s offering up.

Eric, my friend, it’s always a pleasure. That was a wonderful conversation. Thank you.

Eric Klein: Thank you.

Box of Crayons helps organizations transform from advice-driven to curiosity-led.