Provision #699: Awareness Matters

Laser Provision

What we illuminate, rejuvenates. Just by shining the spotlight of attention on an area of interest, we evoke subtle and, at times, profound changes. Awareness is like that. We cannot observe something without changing the dynamics. Mindfulness induces metamorphosis. What is the relevance of this fundamental principle to leadership and life? It holds the key and promise to personal, professional, and organizational development. Sound intriguing? Read on to see how this principle might be put to work for you.

LifeTrek Provision

Perhaps you have heard about the evil eye, “a look that is superstitiously believed by many cultures to be able to cause injury or bad luck for the person at whom it is directed for reasons of envy or dislike” (Wikipedia). As a teenager, I had my own version of that going on while I was in school, looking at the teacher or the board in the front of the room.

It wasn’t exactly the “evil eye,” but it was a trance-like stare, replete with a detectable aura that looked almost like a picture frame of pulsing light, designed to either enhance my comprehension of the subject or to influence the outcome of the lesson. To the best of my knowledge, no one ever knew that I was staring with such intent. But I knew, and it gave me an adolescent sense of magical powers. Just by looking, I was able to get good grades.

As crazy as that may sound, the “observer effect” is now a well-known phenomenon in physics in other domains. It’s impossible to observe a system without changing the system. Before observation, the system is unknown and unchanged. All possibilities are, in a sense, on the table. After observation, the system is grasped in but one aspect of its dimensionality. That grasping in consciousness, that awareness, is what brings things into existence • at least for us • and what shifts things in new directions.

Observations, by definition, represent an interference with the system we are observing. In quantum physics, this effect is quite pronounced because of the infinitesimal size of photons and electrons. The huge equipment and energy required to observe quantum particles changes those particles such that one can only guess what might have been going on before the observation is made. The system moves from a superposition of all possible states to a determined state of that which was measured in the moment.

Although the “observer effect” is not as pronounced in everyday life, it nevertheless applies and it is often as seemingly magical as my trance-induced attempt to get good grades in middle school and high school. Awareness is so powerful that it represents the stock and trade of coaching and leadership. Instead of teaching people and telling them what to do, coaches and leaders ask people what they notice.

The power of “just” noticing something is often surprising for people. Take losing weight as an example. People often sign up for diet programs that are full of prescriptions as to what can and cannot be eaten. Specific quantities of “good foods” are measured out and “bad goods” are banned altogether. In the face of such external regimentation and control, it’s no wonder that so few people lose weight and keep it off. The problem lies in the method.

Human beings have incredible capacity to gain and lose weight. That ability is literally in our genes. We evolved through the continuous ebb and flow of feast and famine cycles and our bodies have not lost that capacity today. What has changed is the environment. For many people, food • both natural and processed • is now continuously available. We feast all the time and continuously gain weight.

But losing weight is still in our genes. So what’s a person to do, apart from moving to environments that force caloric deprivation upon us through food scarcity? Noticing what we eat is a step in the right direction. Mindful eating can lead to enduring behavior change more often than the imposition of any diet program. The more consciously we observe our eating, the more our eating will change.

Awareness is like that. It changes things. Just like the heliotropic effect, in which plants turn and grow toward the light, our behavior is also influenced in both subtle and obvious ways when we shine the spotlight of attention on something that is happening in the present moment. This is different than both memory and anticipation, which focus our attention on the past or the future. Mindfulness focuses our attention on the here and now.

Most of what is going on the present moment is totally outside our awareness. Right now there are four blue jays outside my office window sparring for position on the birdfeeder. That was completely outside my awareness, other than, perhaps, my peripheral vision, until I looked up and noticed them. That’s when things began to change.

A smile came to my face and I stopped writing this Provision. I watched them for several minutes, enjoying their antics as well as their beauty. Then, a striking red-bellied woodpecker flew up and chased them away. I was, once again, entranced. My breathing relaxed, my mind paused, and, I would guess, my heart rate and blood pressure came down a notch. How did that happen? Just by watching. You can watch them yourself, during daylight hours, through our viewing station.

Eating works the same way. When we notice what we are eating, when we are eating, where we are eating, how we are eating, and why we are eating, our eating changes. We don’t have to work any harder than that. We don’t have to do anything more than to shift our awareness. Mindless eating, while driving a car or watching television, for example, is a recipe for overeating. Mindful eating is a recipe for contentment.

The trick is to focus our attention without judging what we see in moralistic terms. That’s easy with birds. I did not blame the woodpecker for chasing away the blue jays. I did not think there was something “wrong” either with the birds or with me. I just noticed the comings and going for what they were: happenings outside my window.

How hard it is to do that when we are observing ourselves in action! As we reach for another handful of high-caloric chips or nuts, it’s easier to be mindless than to notice what we are doing with the usual, self-critical and self-deprecating inner voices. “You idiot! What’s wrong with you?!” is an all-too-familiar refrain.

But such evaluations are not part of the observations themselves. They come after the fact and they interfere with the heliotropic effect of awareness. It is as though they dim or even block out the light of attention that is shining on our behavior. We end up hearing nothing but the voices and we stop seeing the behavior for what it is: a hand putting chips or nuts in our mouth.

The more we can notice about that behavior, while suspending judgment and evaluation, the brighter the spotlight and the more potential that attention has for changing that behavior. How many chips or nuts are in the bowl? What do they smell like? What do they feel like in our hands? What do they taste like? How salty or greasy are our fingers? How rapidly are we chewing and reloading our mouths with food? On a scale of 0-10, how hungry are we?

There’s no end to such questions; the potential for mindful awareness is unlimited. But we don’t have to ask them all to have the desired effect. Staying with even a few of those questions, being curious without censure, inevitably and often rapidly shifts our behavior. It’s the “observer effect” all over again. We can change a whole lot, just by watching.

When people first hear of this principle, they often react with suspicion as though it’s impossible or just too easy to be true. How can we change something just by watching? How can we lose weight just by noticing our eating? How can we improve our golf swing just by paying attention to what we are doing? How we can develop our leadership just by hearing our words, intonations, and silences in conversation with others?

How can we not? There is no other way to change. Being told what to do is demonstrably ineffective. If that were the case, no one would be overweight and everyone would be effective leaders. Typing in the words “diet” and “leadership” at generates about 60,000 results in each case. “Golf” produces 23,000 results. There’s no shortage of advice when it comes to any topic of interest!

But advice fails to produce change. In fact, it can interfere with change. If we have a different idea, or if it just seems overwhelming, or if we think that we have already mastered that topic, then we can easily become resistant to the notion of change. The more advice we receive, the more resistant we become.

That’s why great coaches and leaders strive to stay out of the advice business. Advice is cheap • free in the internet age • and ineffective unless requested and sought after. Awareness, on the other hand, is the mother of all invention. By noticing what is going on, without judgment or blame, we change both ourselves and that which we are observing.

Great coaches and leaders therefore ask great questions, questions that increase nonjudgmental awareness of what is happening the present moment. Marilee Adams, author of Change Your Questions, Change Your Life, calls those “learner questions” rather than “judger questions.” And she recognizes their shining potential.

“A world of questions is a world of possibility,” Adams writes. “The spirit of inquiry opens our minds, connects us to each other, and shakes outmoded paradigms. It invites exploration, discovery, innovation, and cooperation. . . . We have only to ask the right questions to begin.”

The right questions are the questions that expand awareness without moralistic judgments. That is the beginning of all learning, growth, and changing. Whenever I am able to do that, in any area of interest, I always find my behavior changing and my life improving • even though I may not be trying to change anything at all.

That is certainly what I try to do with my coaching and in my leadership. I try to minimize tell-and-sell and maximize listen-and-learn. I try to ask questions and make reflections, with a complete absence of judgment, more than anything else. Once those questions and reflections are in the mix, things often begin to change as if by magic.

This dynamic was affirmed this past week in Atlanta when my wife and I had the opportunity to present our Evocative Coaching model to about 45 educators from 24 US states and Canadian provinces. We heard story after story about the limitations of directive coaching and get-tough leadership. And we appreciated the eagerness of people to find a better way to change through Story•Empathy•Inquiry•Design.

Therein lies the conundrum of coaching and leadership. The more we try to change, either ourselves or other people, the less change results. The more we invite awareness, without any specific change agenda, diagnosis, or attachment to an outcome, the more change is likely to take place. Sound impossible or too easy to be true? I invite you to conduct your own awareness experiments to see what happens. You may be pleasingly surprised.

Coaching Inquiries: What is your natural inclination when it comes to advice giving and question asking? How could become more of a catalyst for increasing awareness? What would it take to become more aware without becoming more opinionated or judgmental? What kind of experiments could you conduct this week that test your abilities in this regard?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form to arrange a complimentary conversation. 

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.

I wanted to take the time to personally thank you, as your last Provision, Surrender Matters, could not have been more timely. An incident involving a leadership team member came to a head on Thursday afternoon, and I have been struggling with how to respond since then. Your Provision helped me to express with clarity how I have been feeling since Thursday. I didn’t really know how to frame my conversation with the team member, but your message really helped me to mentally draft a response to this very difficult pattern that is developing on our leadership team. It also confirmed for me that leadership team development is ongoing. Thanks so much for being “just in time!”

Your Provision, Surrender Matters, put into words my experience exactly. I have been insisting on my own way rather than trusting that a better way might emerge were I to just let go of being in charge or playing the expert. That letting go is hard, because there’s no telling what’s on the other side. But your Provision helped to open my eyes and to release my fears, I can hardly thank you enough. 

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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