Becoming more mindful – is there another way?

Becoming more mindful – is there another way?

woman lost in thought

24 January 2024

Katie Crabtree shares how her research led to key insights into how socio-cognitive mindfulness can be applied to coaching, to improve thinking skills and contribute to our wellbeing.

Over the years, I have heard people who advocate meditative mindfulness, sharing how beneficial it is to their health and wellbeing, as well as their work performance. Equally, many others say they have not been able to connect with meditation and feel frustrated that they are missing out on all the potential benefits mindfulness could bring to them both personally and professionally. This was my frustration too. So when I stumbled across an alternative approach to mindfulness, I felt a sense of hope: maybe I could become more mindful after all.

This different approach is socio-cognitive mindfulness. It does not require meditation practices (although there is nothing to stop anyone from combining approaches), but instead focuses on processing the present moment with an open and creative mindset [1]. It can lead to increased flexible thinking and a multitude of physical, psychological and interpersonal wellbeing benefits.

I embarked on a journey of discovery to understand more. As I learned how to develop socio-cognitive mindfulness, I noticed how I was becoming more open-minded, creative and empathetic. I could see how this was having a positive impact on those around me, including my clients. Now, I have integrated much of what I have learned into my work as a coaching psychologist and supervisor. Before sharing the outcomes of my research, here is a little bit of history.

Socio-cognitive mindfulness in a nutshell

In the 1970s, Harvard Professor Ellen Langer was researching mindlessness and how it led people to experience narrow outlooks and a sense of helplessness. She described mindlessness as the automatic reliance on fixed and predetermined rules, rather than the consideration of new and relevant information within present situations [2]. After extensive research, she concluded that ‘virtually all of our problems – personal, interpersonal, professional, and societal – either directly or indirectly stem from mindlessness’ [3]. Rather than feeling helpless in the face of this stark realisation, Langer decided instead to turn her attention towards the prevention of mindlessness, and its ‘cure’ [4].

Langer’s socio-cognitive construct of mindfulness can be described as a flexible, cognitive process which actively creates new distinctions and draws attention to the present moment and context. For example, this approach encourages people to focus on the process over the outcome to increase engagement in the here and now. While having goals is useful for providing direction and tapping into inner motivations, if we pursue a particular outcome too rigidly and single-mindedly, we may miss out on opportunities to learn and grow in the present. Whereas, in a mindful state, people notice that their circumstances are in a constant state of flux, and they subsequently flex their attitude to embrace continually evolving opportunities and possibilities [6].

This appears to be a beneficial approach for coaching, since being mindful opens up new solutions to help us move forward more constructively, rather than fixating on problems and the past.

The research – how does it work?

To understand more about how socio-cognitive mindfulness works to improve learning, performance and wellbeing, we conducted a systematic review of the existing research. The evidence suggests that states of socio-cognitive mindfulness can be induced by activating one or more of the following cognitive processes:

  • Welcoming new information – actively attending to novelty and variability
  • More than one view – awareness and acceptance of multiple perspectives
  • Creating new categories – replacing outdated labels by noticing details and qualities
  • Control over context – reframing ‘fixed’ situations with optimistic outlooks
  • Process before outcome – responding to choices instead of fixating on outcomes

When a state of socio-cognitive mindfulness is activated via a brief exercise, it can produce a range of uplifts in wellbeing and cognitive skills. Furthermore, developing it across an extended programme has the potential of improving wellbeing and cognition on a longer-term basis. Evidence also suggests that many more advantages are possible if socio-cognitive mindfulness is embedded to the point where it develops into a personality trait. The table below provides some examples of the array of benefits that can be achieved, which appear to align with common coaching goals.


How can it be applied in coaching?

First, it is key that that a coach integrates this approach to mindfulness not just in their coaching work, but in who they are as a person. The more we adopt this mindful stance towards how we think and behave every day, it becomes an affirmative, self-fulfilling cycle of personal growth. A coach needs to understand how to activate and develop socio-cognitive mindfulness in themselves before they can help others learn how to do the same. Therefore, we designed a wellbeing coaching programme centred on evidence-based strategies from socio-cognitive mindfulness [7,8].

This six-week online group coaching programme helps coaches learn how to apply the five socio-cognitive mindfulness processes, or ‘strategies’, to their chosen wellbeing goals. The programme adopts an experiential learning approach which includes psychoeducation, exercises, discussions and reflection, which are all framed with a socio-cognitive mindfulness lens. It supports the participants with planning home-based activities to help embed the learning.

Personalisation of the coaching activities is key to ensuring coaches are engaged in the process and are self-motivated to approach their wellbeing development in a meaningful manner [9]. This way, there is a higher potential of the coaches sustaining any wellbeing improvements across a longer period, and perhaps increasing trait mindfulness.

An empowering and enlightening experience

Changes to wellbeing included increases in positive affect, environmental mastery, and self-fulfilment. So were improved relationships and increased physical activity. This range related to coaches being able to pursue wellbeing goals that were personally meaningful to them and in a way that suited their lifestyles.

The coaches’ positive experiences appear to be a result of how the socio-cognitive mindfulness strategies have helped them to think more flexibly. This cognitive flexibility, ‘the human ability to adapt the cognitive processing strategies to face new and unexpected conditions in the environment’ [10], is at the heart of Langer’s method. By responding effectively to uncertainty and change, and enhancing their ability to think more flexibly in the face of challenges and ambiguity, they felt a locus of control over how they responded. This then increased their self-efficacy to continue exploring and experimenting with socio-cognitive mindfulness to enhance their wellbeing.

Transferring knowledge to the coaching space

Socio-cognitive mindfulness is a useful alternative to meditative mindfulness as it feels active, intentional and strategic in its approach. As such, coaches can see how it might support their coaching work and enable them to transfer their learning to clients. However, fully integrating this approach into coaching requires further understanding of the theoretical background and underlying processes of socio-cognitive mindfulness.

A refined version of the programme is now available, tailored for individuals or groups who are pursuing a wide range of outcomes: personal growth, professional development, wellbeing improvements, and more. There will soon also be an option to extend this learning by gaining a deeper understanding of socio-cognitive mindfulness for those coaches who wish to apply it in their work with clients.

Katie Crabtree

Katie Crabtree is a chartered coaching psychologist and registered supervisor with the BPS, and an accredited member of the ISCP. She is also an EMCC senior practitioner coach, an MBTI practitioner, a mindfulness teacher, and a strengths and resilience practitioner. Katie offers coaching supervision services and CPD opportunities through her private practice, The Coaching Supervisor. She also co-directs a coaching and consulting business, Lead North, which provides a variety of coaching and training services.

Katie previously completed an MSc in Applied Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology and is currently studying for a PhD in Population Health Sciences at Newcastle University. Katie has conducted her research under the supervision of Dr Kate Swainston, a chartered health psychologist, which has led to key insights into how socio-cognitive mindfulness can be applied in coaching to improve wellbeing. This research has been presented at national and international conferences and published in coaching psychology journals.


1. Langer, E. (2016). The power of mindful learning (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Da Capo Press. 
2. Langer, E. J., & Moldoveanu, M. (2000). Mindfulness research and the future. Journal of social issues, 56(1), 129-139.
3. Langer, E. J. (1989). Mindfulness. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.
4. Langer, E. J., & Piper, A. I. (1987). The prevention of mindlessness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(2), 280–287.
5. Langer, E. J. (2009). Counterclockwise: Mindful health and the power of possibility. New York: Ballantine Books.
6. Pagnini, F., Bercovitz, K., & Langer, E. (2016). Perceived Control and Mindfulness: Implications for Clinical Practice. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 26(2), 91-102.
7. (Accepted for publication) Crabtree, K., Papworth, J., Pennington, W., & Swainston, K. (2024). A Systematic Review of Socio-Cognitive Mindfulness Interventions and its Implications for Wellbeing Coaching. International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring.
8. Crabtree, K., & Swainston, K. (2023). Acceptability of a wellbeing coaching intervention based on socio-cognitive mindfulness: A qualitative study of coaches’ views. International Coaching Psychology Review, 18(1), 21-33. doi:10.53841/bpsicpr.2023.18.1.21
9. Spence, G. B., & Deci, E. L. (2013). Self-determination with coaching contexts: Supporting motives and goals that promote optimal functioning and well-being. In S. David, D. Clutterbuck, & D. Megginson (Eds.), Beyond goals: Effective strategies for coaching and mentoring (pp. 85–108). Surrey: Gower Publishing.
10. Canas, J. J., Fajardo, I., & Salmeron, L. (2006). Cognitive flexibility. International encyclopedia of ergonomics and human factors, 1(3), 297-301, p.296

Photo by Kevin Turcios