Coaching Tool 3: Meta-Awareness

Meta-awareness is a crucial element of psychology training — that is learning to converse with others while simultaneously noticing oneself conversing with others. Think of it as split awareness. You are fully engaged in the conversation but also aware of your thoughts, reactions, and the dynamics of the interaction (i.e., the dance of conversation).

In the past, meta-awareness has been called meta-cognition, but this is limited to awareness of thoughts. I am talking about thoughts, feelings, reactions — the whole shebang — and it is an incredibly valuable skill for leaders.

Consider this: If you are in a meeting, and someone says something triggering, and you simply react (even if it is a legit reaction), you are being controlled by external forces. No one likes to admit that, but it is true. [Stimulus -> Response]

Meta-awareness is noticing how you feel in that moment, what you are thinking, and making a conscious decision about what to do next. It takes a lot of self-control and a lot of energy, but it is smart because is it not impulsive.

If you become really good at meta-awareness, you can be engaged in a meeting while also noticing the vibe in the room. You can dually notice emotional undertones, communication patterns, avoidance, disengagement, group think. This knowledge is powerful because you cannot change dynamics if you aren’t aware or if your are drowning in them yourself. They will control you, and they will win.

So how do you develop meta-awareness? This is the journey part. You practice observing yourself on a daily basis without judgment or evaluation. Pay attention because this is important. This is a judgment and bullshit-free zone. The key components are honesty and acceptance. You see, meta-awareness allows all feelings, reactions, thoughts to be without telling yourself you shouldn’t think or feel a certain way. When you do this, it is the same thing as rejecting data because you don’t like it. Whether or not you like the data doesn’t make it any less valid or valuable. You cannot have awareness without acceptance. How can you begin to change something if you deny the starting point? That will never work.

How you interpret the data is another story. This is where you get intentional about your observations and make decisions about how to manage them.

One of the best ways I have found to develop meta-awareness is to take notes during the day and journal in the evening. Write it all down. Think about the data. What does it mean? How did you know you had a certain thought or feeling? Where did you feel it in your body? What was that like? What triggered it? How did it affect you? What did you do with it? What do you want to do with it? What are the themes? The more you become acquainted with your thoughts and feelings, the more adept you will be at using them in a constructive manner.

The other essential piece is being able to put an immediate reaction aside — like intentionally moving it out of the way — so you can be productive until you have had a chance to process it. Meta-awareness is not about being. robotic, yet you have to notice what is happening and be able to suspend reactions without sweeping them under the rug. You come back to them later. This is why note taking can be so helpful because you can take notes about how you feel in (or right after) the moment and process it later.

I know that being able to suspend reactions isn’t so easy as — just do it. That, too, takes practice. You can implement deep breathing. You can notice how you feet feel in your shoes. You can take a cold drink — whatever works for you in the moment to stay engaged without reacting. Meditative practice does also work if you want to put in the time.

When I am in these encounters, I intentionally tell myself to play a role of calm, and it takes all of my energy to portray that image while stepping back inside my psyche to watch what is going on. If you get good at it, I actually believe the internal stepping back is protective. Think of it as a forcefield.

If you pursue meta-awareness skills, you will see that human interactions are a treasure trove of information that will help you be a more effective leader and team motivator. There is only one path, however — practice.

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