If you asked me, what ONE THING could I do that would make me a better leader? I wouldn’t hesitate. This one thing can be learned in an instant, can be practiced easily every day and takes a lifetime to master. With conscious practice, this one skill can build self-awareness, improve your relationships and grow your impact.
The one thing? Attention.
More precisely, the conscious practice of harnessing and directing your attention to where it is needed at any given moment.
Most of us spend our days in a state of unconsciousness distraction, slaves to our own programming and oblivious to our impact. Even when we’re present, our ability to hear and see clearly is compromised by our unconscious filters, assumptions and biases. Distracted by the mountain of email, the constant burping and beeping of our smart phones and the endless ticker tape of must do’s running through our minds, we miss what matters most. We miss the next innovative idea, the warning signs of an impending crisis or the resistance under the silence in a room. Worse, we miss the moments of quiet reflection and connection with those we love that are crucial to feeling whole and alive.
So, how exactly do you practice attention?
There are three spheres or areas of focus where you can become more adept to lead effectively and each offers an opportunity to enhance the quality of your attention. In their seminal book, Co-Active Coaching, authors Laura Whitworth, Henry Kimsey-House and Phil Sandahl, call these the three levels of listening. We have found in our work with leaders, that listening, if practiced in its broadest sense, is like a portal through which you enter a wider and more profound world of attention and awareness that can transform your impact and your life.
Sphere #1: Attention to self
Here your attention is directed inward. The work is to become a non-judgmental observer of your own mind and body. Without engaging with or becoming lost in thought, simply notice your thoughts as they appear and dissolve.
Take yourself off auto-pilot and pay attention to the way you think and how that drives you to behave. What is driving you, what triggers you or sets you off? Observe your behaviour – not simply what you say, but what you actually do. Pay attention to the constant inner dialogue, the judgments, criticisms and the assumptions on which it is all based. Make a practice of asking yourself, “Is that true?”
Also, notice your body. Notice your physical responses to your world. Pay attention to your gut. What is it telling you?
This is not narcissistic self-obsession in which you become the star of your own internal drama. It is not self-analysis, where you create stories and rationalize why you do what you do. This is simply present moment observation in which your thoughts and actions become the object of your attention.
Dr. Daniel Siegel, author and clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA calls the skill of non-judgmental awareness of your own mind at work, “mindsight”. In his book, Mindsight, Siegel writes “…when we develop the skill of mindsight, we actually change the physical structure of the brain… This revelation is based on one of the most exciting scientific discoveries of the last twenty years: How we focus our attention shapes the structure of the brain.”
Sphere #2: Focus on relationship
The second area of focus and leadership influence is relationship. Relationship is the medium through which we connect with others, exercise influence, engage and inspire.
The next time you are in conversation, practice consciously placing your attention entirely on your companion. This is focused listening and the practice involves much more than your ears. While I talked above about non-judgmental observation, the quality of attention here is more like compassionate curiosity. The practice is to give the gift of your full, focused attention to another, almost as if you were relocating yourself over there.
This practice creates connection. Siegel says “When we attune to others we allow our own internal state to shift, to come to resonate with the inner world of another. This resonance is at the heart of the important sense of “feeling felt” that emerges in close relationships.” The ability to attune to another paves the way for the development of another critical leadership skill, empathy – that visceral and present moment experience of walking in another’s shoes. Here you listen deeply with not only your ears, but with your heart.
Interestingly, this practice also enhances productivity. Students of the Peer Leadership Program who are trained in focused listening report significant time savings when they practice this. Conscious attention in this sphere creates the ground conditions for stronger more productive relationships. It builds trust and understanding, which increase productivity and speed.
Sphere #3: 360 degree awareness
The third place in which your conscious attention is needed is on your environment and the systems that operate within it. Sometimes called global listening, harnessing your attention here demands a softer, 360 focus in which you engage all of your senses. Harvard leadership professor, Ron Heifetz, calls this getting the view from the balcony. The sensation is to lift up and take a wide-angle view of what is unfolding.
We’ve all seen leaders who are masters at reading and working with groups. That’s because these leaders pay attention, not just with their ears but with all of their senses. They can detect subtle shifts in energy; they can intuit when a conversation has run its course and needs to be concluded; they can sense what is not being said and surface it to reveal hidden information, fear or dissent. They see the content being discussed and the dynamic that is affecting it. They can see patterns in seemingly disconnected events and they can see and hold issues from multiple perspectives.
Conscious attention to both what is happening and what is trying to happen creates the foundational building blocks to the essential leadership competencies of systems and strategic intelligence.
To develop mastery of your attention, you must practice attending to the present moment, the only real place where your life is unfolding. The practice is to notice over and over again where your attention is in this moment and to consciously place it where it needs to be. It is a simple skill that takes only moments to practice, years to master and can transform your life in a single instant.
Cathy Jacob is a leadership development coach and co-founder of Fire Inside Leadership.
If you are interested in learning more about these and other practical and powerful ways to grow your leadership impact, join us for a free Peer Leadership Program Test Drive.
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