Mindfulness Meets Evaluation: Insights from Jim McDavid

Mindfulness Meets Evaluation: Insights from Jim McDavid

In this episode, I talk with Jim McDavid, Ph.D., about his experience with mindfulness and meditation practice, how it has influenced him, and how it affects how he views and practices evaluation. Our conversation also covers practical wisdom, Jim’s interest in the environment, and challenges associated with determining cause and effect in evaluation.

Jim is Professor Emeritus at the School of Public Administration, University of Victoria, which he joined as faculty in 1980. He was a recipient of the University of Victoria Alumni Teaching Award, and he received the University of Victoria’s highest academic honor, the UVic Distinguished Professorship Award. He has contributed significantly to the field of evaluation, and the reason I reached out to him related to his work related to mindfulness and evaluation.

Definition of Mindfulness

Dr. Jim McDavid explains that his definition of mindfulness has evolved over time. He first learned about mindfulness through Transcendental Meditation but now uses John Kabat Zinn’s definition. Kabat Zinn’s definition focuses on paying attention to the moment in a nonjudgmental way. One can use an object or process as a way to focus one’s attention, such as the breath or body.

The Ethical Dimension of Mindfulness

Jim explains that the ethical dimension of mindfulness involves adding the values and commitments that go along with practicing mindfulness, such as being compassionate, doing no harm, and having a commitment to being ethical in one’s personal and professional life. The ethical dimension of mindfulness is related to suffering and involves being mindful of how one interacts with others and having a sense of putting oneself in the other person’s shoes.

Connection Between Mindfulness and Ethics

Jim explains that the connection between mindfulness and ethics has to do with the idea of suffering and what one does in the world. Mindfulness practice is intended to create a sense of distance between the thoughts and feelings that can produce suffering in one’s life and the practice of mindfulness itself.

Mindfulness Practice Evolves Over Time

He explains that his mindfulness practice has evolved over time and has become more of a lifestyle commitment. Jim initially started with Transcendental Meditation and has more recently learned Vipassana Meditation after a 10-day retreat. He finds that each meditation is different and tries not to judge or compare them.

Differences between Transcendental Meditation and Vipassana Meditation

Jim explains the differences between Transcendental Meditation and Vipassana Meditation. Transcendental Meditation involves using a mantra, focusing on the mantra, and coming back to the mantra when distracted. Vipassana Meditation involves body scanning, starting with focusing on the breath and then scanning through different parts of the body. Vipassana Meditation connects the mind and body in a way that Transcendental Meditation did not for him.

Impact of Mindfulness Practice

In terms of the impact of meditation on Jim, he believes that it has helped him relax and reduce tension, and he now looks forward to meditating twice a day. He has found that his practice has evolved over time to become a more integral part of his lifestyle and has helped him cultivate a sense of calmness and focus. He also mentions that meditation has opened a door for him to explore new ways of thinking, such as the subjective nature of causality and how people perceive causes and effects in their everyday lives.

Benefits of Mindfulness for Evaluators

Meditation has given him more clarity and a different approach to problems, as it allows him to observe things without being attached to his own theoretical speculations. We talked about the issue of cognitive bias and how it can lead to incorrect conclusions, which is a major problem for evaluators, especially in situations where there is an expectation for a program to be effective. Furthermore, he says that evaluators often find themselves in advocacy domains and can be captured by patterns of evidence that are consistent with their beliefs, which can be a problem.

Jim believes that mindfulness can be an important tool to develop self-reflection and self-awareness for evaluators, but it is not sufficient on its own. He suggests that working in teams is important to challenge and question one’s own findings and interpretations, reducing the likelihood of confirmation bias. Additionally, he also connects mindfulness to the concept of practical wisdom, which he defines as ethical action that considers both one’s professional skills and knowledge and a worldview consistent with ethics.

In terms of interactions with others in evaluation situations, we discuss how mindfulness can help mitigate evaluation anxiety. Jim acknowledges the tension between the role of evaluators as judges and the stance of a practitioner of mindfulness, who does not judge themselves or others.

He believes that mindfulness can have a positive impact on evaluators’ views of themselves and their professional behavior. He suggests that listening with a sincere desire to understand is a key benefit of mindfulness and helps convey an open-minded and respectful attitude.

Suggested Resources

Jim suggested the following resources related to mindfulness:


00:00 Introduction
01:57 Jim’s definition of mindfulness
05:20 The ethical dimension of mindfulness
08:49 How Jim’s mindfulness practice has evolved over time
11:46 Difference between Transcendental Meditation and Vipassana
15:33 The spiritual dimension of meditation
22:10 Subjectivity of cause and effect
29:34 How mindfulness opens up the mind
35:52 Mindfulness can support evaluation practice
40:32 Connection to practical wisdom
44:45 Importance of being present and really listening in evaluation contexts
49:20 Judgment and evaluation
50:46 Starting a mindfulness practice

Also, see my posts about Measuring the Impact of a Mindfulness Program and Using AI to Improve Mindfulness and Evaluation Practice.

Please reach out with comments and questions. Thanks!


James Pann smiling at the camera, sitting in front of green trees

James Pann, Ph.D. is a Professor at Nova Southeast University and a highly experienced psychologist and evaluator with nearly 25 years of experience. He conducts research and evaluation projects with non-profit organizations in the fields of health, human services, and education, and has received funding from multiple government agencies.

James holds multiple degrees including a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology, an M.S. Ed. from the University of Miami, and a BBA in Accounting from the University of Texas at Austin. He is also the host of the EvalNetwork podcast, a frequent conference presenter, and has published several peer-reviewed research articles and co-authored a book. James currently resides in Miami, Florida with his family and enjoys backpacking trips. Find out more about his work here.


Retrospective pretest designs

The Power of Retrospective Pretests to Address Common Survey Research Challenges

James Pann interviews Melanie Hwalek, Ph.D., a program evaluation consultant, to discuss the retrospective pretest (RPT) design, focusing on its practical applications and the findings from her recent research detailed in the paper, “Designing a Questionnaire with Retrospective PrePost Items: Format Matters.” RPT is particularly useful for evaluating changes in participants’ perceptions or self-assessments following

Read More »
Empowerment Evaluation

Empowering Change: David Fetterman on Using Evaluation to Build a Better World

David Fetterman is a leading expert in empowerment evaluation, an approach that emphasizes collaboration, participation, and capacity building. He has written extensively on the topic, and his work has been used in a wide range of settings, including government agencies, non-profit organizations, and businesses. David focuses on helping people evaluate their programs and initiatives. Moreover,

Read More »