Case Study: County of Sonoma, California, uses mindfulness practice to build resiliency during wildfires

SIYLI Engagement Manager Sarah Hunt chatted with Sonoma County Counsel Bruce Goldstein to learn more about his experience with integrating mindfulness and emotional intelligence into their county.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What was the process of bringing Search Inside Yourself (SIY) to Sonoma County?

Like many great ideas this started at a friend’s party where someone told me about the Search Inside Yourself program.  I was intrigued by SIY concepts of mindfulness and self-awareness and how it might be applied in a public sector workplace like the County of Sonoma.  Coincidentally, a few weeks later I received an email announcement about a SIY 2-Day program in San Francisco.  I approached the County CEO, the Human Resources Training Director, and an attorney practice group manager from our law office as potential champions to attend.  We all had a great weekend experience; they saw the potential value to our 4,000 employee organization and gave me the green light to try to put something together.

Initially, we looked for an audience who would be most open to participating in SIY. We started with the Sonoma County Administrative Management Council, who are a group of about 300 people — I approached them about sponsoring an SIY program geared towards their personal and professional growth. Organizationally, this was a great constituency to be trained first as they are right below the top leadership tier and are constantly thinking about team-building, supervisory skills, and emotional intelligence. This became the first of several SIY workshops over a two year period, some of which were used as training for a department’s entire management team.

After the initial SIY program, we started a group that originally met monthly to reinforce the practices and to check-in with colleagues about resources and challenges — similar to the space that was created in the 2-Day SIY program. 

How has the SIY program been received and implemented at the county by staff?

We didn’t initially consider the program as a ‘gift’ for the employees. However, that was the impression that developed among staff after the first training. They appreciated the investment in their development and the chance to break down barriers and be truly authentic in the workplace. As organizational leaders we saw that the focus on developing emotional intelligence skills would help lead to more effective managers and supervisors. Some managers now start their meetings with a minute to arrive mindfulness practice or take some deep breaths to realign everyone to the meeting agenda.

Tell me about the SIY program organized around the time of the Sonoma wildfires. How was that different?

We ran one SIY program just following the devastating October 2017 Sonoma wildfires where over 5,000 homes were destroyed. The facilitators customized the program to speak to resiliency and what the participants were directly experiencing during that time. The program allowed for more space to talk about the individuals’ experience and recognized that employees were in a very raw place. The sheriff and other department heads (some of whom had lost their homes) participated in the training and felt like it was an important opportunity to help people process the trauma of the recent events.  

During the fires I worked with other county managers for about two weeks in the Emergency Operations Center which was a very tense environment.  A number of people who had gone through the training came up to me and said that their SIY mindfulness training is what got them through that difficult period and allowed them to be effective while managing an intense level of stress.

Since the trainings, have you been noticing any shifts in behavior in your team?

It has helped management teams in terms of their functionality and being able to listen and be open to what others have to say. Personally, working in a law office, being aware of my triggers in high conflict situations and learning to react with choice has been most useful for me. This has allowed me to choose a reaction that can lead to the best possible outcome in the moment.

I’d love to hear more about your journey with Search Inside Yourself and what this means for you to run and lead this initiative?

This has created a more functional workplace by communicating to employees that they are valued by giving them a valuable program to invest in themselves. By maximizing the number of people from my office that attended the training it has helped foster a workplace culture of improved communication, empathy, and curiosity.  It’s then an on-going challenge to reinforce the practices and lessons.   While it’s been an important program for developing work skills, many alumni are particularly grateful for the positive impact it has had on being with their children and family. 

Personally, in addition to better self-awareness in high conflict situations, I find it useful when sitting as counsel with the Board of Supervisors at their public meetings.  When impassioned and sometimes angry or disrespectful individuals come up to comment, I find it to be effective to use the ‘Just Like Me’ compassion practice that was taught during the training to stay open minded to their remarks. The practice helps me respond from a place of empathy and compassion instead of a negative triggered response.

Organizationally, at this point the program primarily has become embedded as part of our Human Resources succession planning program where participants experience a day of SIY training that then is further incorporated into the extended training program.