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Make Space To Talk to your Head and Your Heart to Lead Well

Through all of your life you will face days and seasons that bring both wonderful accomplishments and difficult challenges. And in each turn your head and your heart will have something to say. It’s natural and human to meet the circumstances as we step out our front door with some initial reaction, is this good or bad for me? how do I feel about it? … what am I going to do next?

The real art in leadership lives in the space we give ourselves between what just happened and the response we will take.  I worked with a leader who had a tough habit of firing off emails as a reaction to misunderstandings that were brewing on projects that lived between a few departments. His intention was to set everyone straight, get things headed back in the right direction, and correct any misinformation from spreading. His emotion was usually a healthy dose of robust frustration. His typical action was to dive directly into the middle of the problem and start directing people what they should or shouldn’t do (and at times what they should think.) As you can imagine his approach left many around this leader feeling disenfranchised and put down. Maybe the problem was solved at the end but everyone involved felt worse for it.  It was not an easy way to lead.

What he was missing was the strategic use of giving himself space between an event and his response and the incredible choices we can make about our true intention, our feelings and how we want to use them, and the ultimate actions we wish to take. Creating mental space to set our response is truly one of the most strategic acts any leader can take…

When we give ourselves space between the event and our response we are able to self-coach our way toward a more powerful way to lead others to healthy outcomes, here’s how you do it:

  1. Recognize the moments you need to create space and intentionally slow yourself down.  Moments that should scream to you, make some space! … are usually are tied to feeling triggered in some way. If you don’t have a sense about your own triggers I recommend this powerful read by Marshall Goldsmith. His book is about leadership and Triggers. Moments that cause you to feel out of control and disempowered or taken advantage of – you know of what I speak of – these are the moments you think there is an agenda and you are not part of it. Yet your context may be way off – this agenda that you sense may or may not be true – so you need to think through the situation with a further stance than your current view.  Moments that launched a cycle of negative ruminating – you are repeating a negative narrative over and over again in your head. Moments that you see the weight of your words and actions could have large consequences on others – maybe it is a highly visible situation, it’s dealing with a sensitive or hard issue, or along with all this – carries some complexities – there is no easy answer and someone will not be happy with the outcome no matter how it goes. All of these moments demand you create space.
  2. Once you make yourself space to regulate that head and heart, think about your real intention.  It helps to shape intention with a powerful series of outcome questions — What outcome is best for .. .the people around you, the business, for your leadership to have lasting influence, for the relationships that need to work past this event, for the kind of environment we need to weather all kinds of change?  With a series of these type of questions my emailing client realized that he was missing the art of nurturing the relationships and the environment at the cost trying to gain immediate control.  He had far more depth to his intention than he realized – he in fact truly wanted a real and true collaborative environment with all his peers.  This fundamentally changed his lens.
  3. Now consider the feelings you are experiencing and how you wish to use your feelings to reach the outcome.  Emotional Intelligence (EI) is the red line between the difference of being someone who interacts with people with random outcomes versus truly operating as a real leader.  All leaders need to become a student of emotional intelligence – if you’ve not dug into this subject area at any depth start to read and follow Travis Bradberry, author and leading researcher. It’s not theory he writes about it – it’s life, career, and the tools to do it all well. I often find with myself and others that when we feel strongly about something we can skew the context of a situation in self-deceiving ways. We can acquire confirmation bias, which means we made up our minds already and will only hear what confirms our answer.  We allow our raw and most prominent emotion to do the talking versus the emotion we choose to work from to create the best outcome. Now, honestly, it’s hard to talk yourself out of an emotion. Emotions happen like a wind that moves into you – we begin to suddenly feel something. With strategic space you can take time to call out the feeling (which right away you will notice restores a sense of self-control as you are separating yourself from the feeling and taking an objective look at the feeling all on it’s own.) Once we name the emotion we can talk to it – why are you here? What is your root? and do I need you to help me or are you going to make matters worse?  This exercise greatly helped my leader understand that part of his deep frustration had nothing to do with the event itself – part of it was all about long standing irritations that held over from past company decisions and his own career challenges. He was experiencing what author David Viscott wrote about decades ago as toxic nostalgia, the old emotions that resurface and shade the present view tied to our history. Once we talked specifically to the triggers and the role of feelings this leader was able to take a self-empowering step of becoming far less reactive and more patient in his response to future triggering situations.
  4. Once you are through examining a wider view of your intention and objectively conversed with your feelings, it’s time to plan and vision out your approach. The power of forward planning and visioning can’t be underestimated – just as an athlete prepares for a tough match might envision their performance or the Blue Angel pilots envision their defying aerial maneuvers before air shows – this is the art and discipline that leaders need most to harness.   This planning isn’t about what instructions or content to convey – it’s about how you envision the conversations, interactions, meetings, and dialogue to unfold. What questions matter most, how do I want to reach this person, what spirit do I want to create in this meeting, how should these conversations unfold, … what will I do to create safety in this dialogue?  This part of our strategic space is incredibly powerful and confidence building – as we are not winging it for conversations that require our best leadership, clearest intention, and thoughtful responses.   The leader that solved problems with a quick and sometimes painful, long emails began to shift his approach over time to more paced and thoughtful set of conversations that created even more candor and increased ownership from others. He learned that not all battles had to be won and that there were times it was better to allow folks space to learn to handle some of their own challenges even if it wasn’t entirely ideal because truly he desired to grow their leadership along with growing the business.

The better your conversations are with your heart and head the better you speak into the hearts and heads of so many that need more than your initial reaction, they need your meaningful response.

So – take your space.