By Tom Cox and Steve Hopkins
“I have looked in the mirror and have seen the enemy.”
I shared this concept with a colleague recently in the context of my ongoing journey of personal development. If you’re a highly-driven person, you might relate to my personal journey. I continuously work to remain aware of my intensity and drive, and to listen and remain present to those around me. Invariably, when things go awry in any setting, I first look at myself. In my recent post titled “I Screwed Up,” I refer to how my auto-pilot state of behavior got in the way of remaining thoughtful and present with my team.
If we are serious about growing as contributors, influencers or leaders, we must remain accountable to ourselves and others for self-awareness and growth. That requires several elements. Ideally, we strive to implement these at all times.
When you go on a trip, do you plan? I have never encountered someone who did not do some amount of planning before a trip. While we cannot anticipate all contingencies, on a broad basis, most elements of the trip are planned. For unplanned circumstances, like changes in weather, we pack additional gear. We can approach encounters with colleagues the same way, whether in meetings or one-off conversations. By stopping to anticipate the conversation, where it could go, the types of questions that may arise, we can better prepare and adjust our frame of mind for greater objectivity.
Practice: Envision the situation beforehand. What is the room set up like? Who will be there? How will you be present? What will you need to respond to? If you can role play scenarios and outcomes in your mind, then you will be better prepared in the moment.
How present are we in one-on-one and group interactions? Another way of thinking of this is “mindfulness.” It requires an active and ongoing effort. The question is, are we being mindful of our internal emotional state and how that might may elicit a certain reaction? Almost invariably, when we encounter something that makes us unsure or uncomfortable, we trigger an internal threat-response. That initial, internal reaction, while natural and designed for safety, is not necessarily healthy nor required in a professional setting. At work, we don’t typically deal with the life-and-death situations for which our primal brain was designed. So, keeping the primal brain in check, recognizing the emotional reaction and then processing an appropriate response is the root of self-awareness and mindfulness.
Practice: Mindfulness is about interrupting the emotional response. First, be able identify what triggers you have and when they normally occur. From there, you can employ a number of approaches. Most often these involve breathing. Just breathe. Slow down your breath and concentrate on it for as long as it takes until the threat response has subsided. Tensing up and holding your breath are sure signs of needing to breathe and increases the risk of being self-involved, versus remaining involved in the moment.
Reflect and Adjust
Let’s just say it, as humans we are flawed. The stress of daily work and personal life can push us into our “auto-pilot” zones. When that happens, “in-the-moment” self-awareness can get lost. Whatever our personal motivations and drives, we all revert at some point. That is how powerful the fight, flight or freeze reaction is. The question is, how quickly can we recover either during or after a situation? My recovery often involves an apology and self-reflection about what I can do differently next time.
Practice: Many people keep journals of self-reflection. By writing things down, we tend to commit them to memory and also thoughtfully identify from where challenges emerge. You can also then identify what you will do differently next time. You can also ask for feedback and process your emotions and shifts with a trusted colleague.
With reflection, we adjust. Then, the process of self-awareness and responsiveness becomes easier each time. If we can slow down long enough to start with number one above, then we mitigate the likelihood of the unanticipated or uncontrolled reaction.
Shape Your Thinking
In his book, The Thinker’s Way, John Chafee, PhD, reflects on his development of the book and curricula. He wrote them in response to the growing number of people who seem to reflect upon circumstances with a sense of lack of control. He stipulates that with proactive, critical thinking, circumstances can be anticipated, thoughtful plans and responses developed and a richer and fulfilling life may result.
Similarly, James Allen once wrote, in his treatise, “As a Man Thinketh” (1903), “Circumstances do not define the man, they simply reveal him to himself.” To what degree do we allow circumstances to define our responses? To what degree do we take responsibility?
Today’s pace, only accelerated by modern technology, places great demands on us. We must meet those demands with mindfulness if we are to not only achieve our desired outcomes, but foster those outcomes through fruitful relationships with others. Look in the mirror and ask whether you will try to implement the three approaches above.
Beyond all of this, remember, you are not your own worst enemy. The person in the mirror is deserving of compassion and by taking care of that person, you can show up in very positive ways.