Explore how to increase self-awareness and create sustainable change.

“I’m having a hard time focusing and that’s not like me,” my client said.  After successfully navigating a protracted challenging business environment, he couldn’t understand why his productivity had declined.  As we explored the underlying factors, it became apparent that he was stuck in a cognitive tunnel.

 

Immediate Focus

In Smarter Faster Better, Charles Duhigg explains that “cognitive tunneling can cause people to become overly focused on whatever is directly in front of their eyes or become preoccupied with immediate tasks…Once in a cognitive tunnel, we lose our ability to direct our focus. Instead, we latch on to the easiest and most obvious stimulus, often at the cost of common sense.”  This is why my client was distracted by cleaning out his inbox and responding to yet another text message.

Guess Again

Between back-to-back meetings and juggling multiple priorities, it’s easy to fall into reactive mode. To break out of that cognitive tunnel, Duhigg suggests the following approach:

  1. Second guess the story you’re telling yourself – consider what you could have done differently
  2. Encourage others to second guess you – ask someone to help you think about other options
  3. Leverage the feeling of control – empower yourself to make better decisions

When my client imagined the clarity and improved productivity he could have at the end of his cognitive tunnel, he was able to take the first step in that direction.  What do you see at the end of your tunnel?

 

 

Pema Chödrön is an American Buddhist nun and a teacher at the first Tibetan monastery in North America established for Westerners.  In her audio book Don’t Bite the Hook, Chödrön teaches that biting the hook of habitual anger is self-destructive.  She explains that the more we strengthen the habit of anger, the less often we find things that please us.  Chödrön recommends that we practice not getting hooked by small irritants — like slow drivers — to build our muscles for the big ones.

Awareness

As I growled my complaint about the slow driver in the fast lane, Chödrön’s voice and wry sense of humor helped ease me into awareness of the negative energy I was creating.  She encouraged me to get curious about what triggered my anger.  Was I afraid someone would think less of me if I was late?  That’s my innate shame trigger – not wanting to be shunned goes back to my ancestors who couldn’t survive on their own.

Acceptance

Once I became aware of my trigger, I could accept the need to change my response to it.  Instead of getting hooked and making up stories that would fuel my anger (that person is such a terrible driver they shouldn’t even be on the road!), I needed to reframe my attitude toward the discomfort of going too slow.  Practicing patience could help me strengthen my tolerance for the next time I encounter an annoying situation.

Action

Chödrön acknowledges that resisting the urge to act on our anger causes us pain, but pain can wake us up and make us more compassionate.  That worked for me — I was able to move from acceptance into action by using compassion and curiosity.  I wondered what might be happening with the person in the slower car.  Might they be lost or having car trouble?

Mastering this approach to avoid getting hooked by anger will take some of us longer than others.  Chödrön’s advice is to get comfortable with the idea that things and people are changing all the time.  Each new encounter gives us a fresh opportunity to practice awareness, acceptance and action.

Watching my two year old granddaughter dancing and singing these lyrics from the Disney movie “Frozen” was a moving experience:

“Let it go, let it go
Can’t hold it back anymore
Let it go, let it go…”

I hope my granddaughter will continue to embrace the concepts long after she knows all the words and what they mean — letting go of worrying about what others think of you.  Of course, that’s easier when things are going well and we feel like we’re making good decisions.  It’s much harder not to worry about what others think when we make a very public mistake.

I Am Enough

Self-acceptance requires acknowledging our imperfections, which can be pretty uncomfortable.  My introduction to Brené Brown’s work was her book The Gifts of Imperfection.  It was a gift to me to be reminded that I am enough even though I’m imperfect – and so is everyone else.  All my clients struggle with feeling inadequate at times.

I Need Grace

Self-compassion is vital to self-acceptance.  Kristin Neff’s Self-Compassion Scale is great tool for assessing how we can improve this skill.  It reminded me that I need to keep working on giving myself grace.  One of Dr. Neff’s Self-Compassion Exercises invites us to treat ourselves the way we would a close friend who is struggling – with empathy and compassion.

We are so much more effective when we let go of the need for approval from others and practice self-acceptance.  I am motivated to get better at this so I can set a good example for my granddaughter.  What will motivate you?

The organizers of a recent conference I attended sent out some great questions to jump start conversations in the networking session.  One of them was, “When was the last time you amazed yourself?”  I had to think about that for a few minutes before deciding that packing the car for a 12 day road trip qualifies.

I Don’t Want to Brag

Although fear of appearing arrogant or egotistical can cause us to focus on our failures more than we celebrate our successes, we wouldn’t have one without the other.  Albert Einstein said, “Failure is success in progress.”

Shift Your Focus

How can you shift your focus to align with Einstein?  Try this formula: “ I achieved this success by learning from these failures…”  When you acknowledge your amazing self, you might find:

  • Inspiration
  • Motivation
  • Courage

…and more opportunities to amaze yourself!

You can tell your car is out of alignment when it pulls away from the center line.  How can you tell when you’re out of alignment as a leader?  My clients tell me they don’t feel aligned when they make a decision that supports the financial health of the business but damages the trust they worked hard to build with their team.  Or when they are too quick to trust their gut without rationally examining the options.  It’s easier to stay on the right road when we align our head, our gut and our heart.

What is Your Leadership Model?

The first step toward alignment is defining who you want to be as a leader.  In his book The Blueprint: 6 Practical Steps to Lift Your Leadership to New Heights, Doug Conant explains the importance of building your own leadership model.  Your model might be inspired by others but it must align with your values, beliefs and competencies.

Whose Story are You Living?

Conant’s journey on the road to aligning his head, gut and heart required owning his story rather than the story someone else had in mind for him.  This shift enabled Conant to turn around Campbell Soup Company by boldly making tough decisions and honoring the successes of individual employees.  Campbell’s  employee engagement went from the worst to the best in the Fortune 500 but it took ten years.  Conant fulfilled his promise to “win in the workplace before we can win in the marketplace.”

If you’re feeling off-center, I invite you to take a deep breath and imagine aligning your head, gut and heart.

  • What is the first thing you would do?
  • What obstacles might prevent you from doing that?
  • How can you manage those obstacles?
  • Who will hold you accountable?

It was so moving to hear my client’s story about his new approach in dealing with a subordinate who had been his peer and friend for many years.  We talked in advance about how he wanted this person to feel and how he wanted to feel at the end of the conversation.  My client wanted to be careful not to hurt his friend while addressing some negative behaviors that were likely related to competition and resentment.  The client put himself in his friend’s shoes and the preparation paid off – his friend became more at ease, self-confident and trusting.  He is now disclosing information more readily which enables my client to be more effective in his role and ultimately impacts the bottom line.

To Infinity and Beyond

This same client also described how he handled a difficult situation with a neighbor in a way that prompted her to tell other family members about it.  Then his wife complimented his interaction with a plumber who made an expensive mistake.  When you start multiplying the impact of my client’s new behaviors, the ripples are endless.

Make A Choice

Of course, the opposite is true as well – our negative behaviors have equally strong effects on those around us.  We see the results in schools, workplaces, communities and families over multiple generations.  When you envision what ripple effects you want to create, what behaviors will you choose to generate benefits beyond yourself?