Leadership is all about awareness and focus, and the latest research into neuroscience is showing us that the key to success is the skill of thinking about our thinking.  Most of the time we are just doing the thinking rather than taking a step back and observing it for what it is: a myriad of electrical impulses making connections between a vast number of mental maps.

Sometimes these connections are flashes of insight that give us an excellent answer to a difficult question or brilliant solution to an awkward problem.  But when we are tired, or over-stressed our brain makes ‘accidental’ connections between unrelated mental maps and we think they are real.

Making up stories

This is where it gets tricky because while we can usually tell when we are tired, we are rarely aware of when we are getting over-stressed.  It tends to creep up on us, and without focussed awareness on the sensations in our body it is easy to get so wrapped up in the situation that we don’t even realise that we are making accidental connections. 

When you think about it, most misunderstandings at work are due to people making accidental connections when they are stressed.  For example, we think that our most important client is not getting back to us with an important decision because they are looking for another supplier to replace us (when they are probably just busy). 

We think staff or colleagues are neglecting us on purpose because they haven’t responded to our email.  Within seconds we can make up a whole story about what is going on, when in fact what we need to do is become more aware about the sensations in our body, and what those sensations are doing to our thinking. 

Defensiveness is natural

It is not unusual for concern, anxiety or worry to create sensations that trigger previous memories of when those feelings were experienced in the past, and before we know it our brain is mixing old memories with assumptions about the present and reality goes out the window.  Reading and writing emails in this state can create serious misunderstandings!

Defensiveness is just a natural reaction to uncomfortable sensations triggered by neurochemicals when there is a perceived threat.  This often happens when giving or receiving feedback and when we challenge someone’s ideas or suggestions, or someone challenges ours.  It’s just our brain at work and part of being human. 

Wise leaders and managers are recognising that the skill of thinking about our thinking is becoming one of the most important skills for the 21st Century.

Developing the skill

Developing the skill of thinking about your thinking is actually not difficult.  Remembering to do it is! You can start by learning to be aware of your breathing – is it deep and even or rapid and shallow?  Are you breathing at a steady pace or holding breaths while thinking?  Slow and deep breathing has a natural calming effect on the body, helping to metabolise any of the neurochemicals that can put us in a tizzy.   As few as 3 calm deep breaths can help us think more clearly.  It also creates a pause for us to focus on the sensations in our body and ask what they are triggering.  So rather than being ‘in your thinking’ you can begin to ‘think about your thinking’.

This is not a new concept, ancient wisdom has been teaching it for thousands of years!  But it was often shrouded in mysticism.  Back in the 1970’s when I first learned about it, it was still seen as a ‘Hippy Thing’.  However, in the early 1990’s the late Dr. Steven Covey mentioned it in his best seller, ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People’, he called it ‘Creating a Gap’. 

More recently the Neuroscientists have become fascinated with the power of thinking.  They are discovering what the mystics have always said; our thoughts and even the way we use our posture, generate neurochemicals that can either enhance our wellbeing and the quality of our thinking, or significantly reduce it.  Only last month it featured on the cover of TIME Magazine with a major article about how this critical skill is finally becoming mainstream.

Find your Inner Director

The researcher and author Dr. David Rock refers to it as discovering your ‘Inner Director’.  I like this term because it fits well with business and my clients can accept it more easily than the concept of meditation.  In his book ‘Quiet Leadership’ Rock talks about the need to be more mindful and to develop the skill of observing your own thinking so you can help others observe theirs.

Over the coming month you may want to consider practicing a more mindful approach to your thinking by noticing your breathing and the sensations in your body.  Notice how you are breathing when you are feeling good and when you are feeling anxious, frustrated or irritated.  Play with changing your breathing patterns and notice what happens.

If you are interested in exploring more about mindfulness you may want to join over 300 Directors, Managers and Consultants who have downloaded the Inspired Working Mindfulness programme. Just click here for more.

And if you have any questions or comments, or you are interested in exploring our online resources or in-house Leadership and Management development programmes don’t hesitate to contact me.

Remember . . . Stay Curious!

With best regards

David Klaasen