“Doesn’t your team know how to accomplish a simple task without complaining?!!” Ricardo shouted. “Don’t use that tone with me!” retorted Martine. “If you’d have only let me pull the team together I saw fit, we wouldn’t have these morale problems in the first place!”
As is their habit, Ricardo reacts to Martine with frustration. Martine snaps back, triggering an all-too-usual cycle of angry, unproductive conversation. Neither leader is aware of his complicity in the conversation, how his thinking and actions have let a potential dialogue devolve into an out-of-control dispute. And neither leader has the real-time presence of mind to stand back, notice what’s happening, and get the conversation back on a constructive track.
Whether at work, at home, or anywhere else, we often act automatically and unconsciously. Like Pavlov’s dog, we respond to stimuli based on our predispositions and personal history—a look, a word, a tone of voice can ignite emotional and mental states that have no bearing on our present-day circumstances. Or, we hold unquestioned and partial views of the situations we face.
In either case, we assume our narrow state of mind is the totality of what’s going on, and this leads to less-than-optimal actions. At the very least, we work at cross purposes with ourselves and others. At the very worst, the cost of our myopia, reactivity and lack of awareness runs much higher—to the tune of lost business, lost reputation, and lost relationships.
As leaders committed to evolving, it is our responsibility to respond to complexities and challenges with fresh, more comprehensive perspectives…to be reflective rather than reflexive. This requires confronting what we think and how we think, observing how our habitual reactions can amplify problems and fail to generate healthier solutions. Because, in truth we are only as effective as our state of mind.
You Already Have The Technology
…and it is the tool of self-observation. While deceptively simple in concept, self-observation is like turning a magnifying glass on yourself. Your goal? To learn how to disengage from habitual reactive patterns, resolve impasses with others, and make choices that yield better results for you, the organization and the world at large. You can make a step-change in your leadership effectiveness by exercising this internally-directed, largely overlooked capability.
Self-observation is mindfulness in action. So, what does that really mean? It includes at least these three actions:
- Choosing Self-Awareness: Making the proactive choice to notice your thoughts, feelings, and actions is a path for learning. The deep desire to become self-aware is the first crucial step on this learning journey.
- Bystanding without Judgment: Acting as a nonjudgmental bystander means impartially witnessing yourself in action. You notice what is without getting caught up in it.
- Using Immediate Experience: This involves grounding your decisions in actual experience, rather than reacting to an issue based on past worries, unfounded interpretations, or anxieties about the future.
Imagine you’re a video camera, simply recording what is arising without commentary. This is the art of self-observation: You take note of what occurs without bias. What’s happening inside and outside you has the space to unfold more fully, offering you a broader perspective. Over time, you discover more about your unique hard-wiring—how your internal beliefs, motivations, preferences, and assumptions positively and negatively shape the results you achieve. Self-observation invites you to a greater sense of presence, engagement, and contribution as leader and human being.
Our Minds And Bodies Are Amazingly Adaptable
From beliefs to biology, we are capable of remarkable change and growth. Armenian mystic and philosopher G.I. Gurdjieff once claimed, “… in observing himself a man notices that self-observation itself brings about certain changes … he begins to understand that self-observation is an instrument of self-change, a means of awakening.” Science also proves: mindfully observing yourself creates positive neurobiological changes in the brain, and likewise in your cognitive powers and emotions. Taking stock of your thoughts and feelings—like when you become aware of that knee-jerk reaction to a loved one or colleague—builds new neural pathways of potential for new, more constructive and creative responses. In effect, through self-observation you are consciously participating in rewiring yourself for better leadership and a healthier life.
Perhaps Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg most beautifully articulates the deeper power of self-observation. Through it, we use our “mindfulness to really work with letting go, with what we feel is bringing us down and making our lives smaller and more filled with suffering, and enhancing and enriching those qualities that really bring us to the reality, which is that we’re all connected and that we need to care about one another and ourselves.”
So How Do You Become A Better Self-Observer?
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this post!
This blog is an excerpt from my article, Self Observation: A Power Tool for the 21st Century Leader. If you’d like to receive the full article or learn more about our approaches to build thriving leaders and organizations, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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