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We don’t often think about it, but it is such a gift to be able to be a participant and an observer of a conversation at the same time. As humans, we have this wonderful capacity to be witnesses to our own lives. By observing ourselves in action, we can remember where we’ve been, recognize where we are and envision where we want to go. Our amazing brain is able to multi-task by sorting, evaluating and selecting our path forward. Our mind can be our own travel guide as we interact in the moment. What a powerful skill for leadership and life!

I was in Europe this week facilitating a leadership workshop with executives from several different countries. And I was reminded once again how important this skill really is, especially in the world. I had to keep one foot fully engaged in the present moment, carefully facilitating the conversation and navigating the complex cross-cultural dynamics playing out on the table. Yet I also had to step outside myself, observing how my U.S. lens was influencing my remarks, determine whether people were fully engaged and staying focused on where I was going to take the conversation next.

As human beings, our prefrontal cortex – commonly known as our executive brain – enables us to step outside ourselves in real time. By creating neural models of our past, present and future, we are able to think about our own thinking, to reconfigure the future we’re designing, as our circumstances and desires change. This form of thinking is called “metacognition.” It’s like having an objective bird’s-eye view of our lives and how we’re moving through them. Unlike any other primate, we can see patterns, assess our effectiveness and measure our progress. We can ask ourselves, “How am I doing? Is the strategy working? What can I do differently?” This allows us to learn, adapt and improve ourselves right on the spot.

Imagine all the times during the day when this skill would be incredibly valuable. For instance, you are presenting to a prospective customer and suddenly, he or she throws you a curve ball question that takes you off your script. You are giving what seems to be friendly feedback to a colleague, and she suddenly gets defensive and takes it personally. You are sitting in a meeting when you look at your phone to see an upsetting email, just when you’re ready to make your big point. Each of these situations requires you to be a participant and an observer at the same time.

Here are a few ideas I find helpful for operating in these two worlds simultaneously:

Stay focused in the moment. As soon as we let our minds wander into the past or start to anticipate or worry about the future, we have lost our capacity to be a full participant in the conversation. This makes us vulnerable when arrows come flying which they always do.

Develop interpersonal agility. This requires that we always have an agenda yet stay completely flexible to course correct on that agenda, depending upon what happens in the room.

Take yourself out of the conversation and observe what’s going on. Learn to see the emotions, relationships and interactions as data, and let it inform your next move.

By being the engaged participant and the wise observer, you will get more of what you want and avoid getting sidetracked by the situation.


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