This morning, driving through Wellington’s hilly terrain, I was playing ‘I-spy’ in the car with my eight-year-old son. He was trying hard to guess my word starting with ‘H’. After a few attempts (“Head”, “hands”, “horrible monsters…”) I decided to give him a clue: “They’re outside, and we are surrounded by them”. After a few more attempts, including another try with “horrible monsters”, he exasperated “Dad, I can’t see anything out there that starts with “H”!!!

Of course, the answer was “hills”, and they were in plain sight everywhere. You can imagine his face when I told him! That priceless look that said “how could I have missed something so obvious?”

We had a good laugh, and then a thought struck me: how often do we all miss the retrospectively obvious things right in front of us? Not so much things like lost car keys, but the more subtle things. Like the mood of the person we’re addressing. Or the patterns at play in our organisation’s culture, and how those patterns impact productivity and innovation over time. Those things, that if our current frame of reference isn’t attuned to them, we just won’t notice them, even though they’re there to see.

And what’s the risk of not seeing them? The ability to see more accurately what’s actually happening, in real time, gives us the opportunity to make different choices about how we can respond. And potentially those responses will be more effective than if we didn’t pick up on the clues. And that’s got to be a good thing, right?

Here’s an example. I was recently facilitating a workshop where the head of HR came in and gave a fairly scripted presentation about the organisation’s new strategic direction, and the required changes to the structure and culture. From where I sat, I could sense a rising anger in the audience, partly from listening to the tone of the audience’s questions, and in large part from their body language and facial expressions. The presenter didn’t seem to notice any of this, or if he did, he didn’t seem to care, and carried on with his pre-prepared script. After he departed, I was left to pick up the pieces. Opportunity lost.

What if he’d been more in tune with the group, and responded to what was going on? And what if he’d acted like the audience were co-creators of the organisation’s future, not merely as consumers of information? I suspect we’d have had a far more productive session.

Roll forward a month. I was working with a different group of managers in the same organisation, and the Managing Director joined us for a conversation about the challenges and changes ahead. He simply sat down and had a dialogue with the group. What was so powerful was the way he seemed to be able to meet the group where they were at (empathising with their confused, concerned state), his way of listening and summing up what he was hearing, and his ability to take the conversation somewhere useful from that place. Not a script in sight.

So how do you learn to see better what’s actually there? Here are four simple practices that I’ve seen work well, time and time again:

1. Slow Down

If you’re rushing, you’re going to miss stuff. Period. That’s fine if you’re totally confident that you don’t need to look out for anything coming from left field. But in environments where increasingly no one has all the answers, we need to look for the clues everywhere. In practical terms, here are a couple of tips: a) allow more time that you think for your most important conversations, or, if that’s not possible, cram less stuff into the agenda. b) go out at lunchtime, and sit somewhere you can practice people-watching. Notice facial expressions and body language. And notice how you interpret those signals – what do you tell yourself that they mean?

2. Be Intentional

Most leaders plan the topics and process for a meeting. But how much thought do you give to what you want to create as a result? Do you want excitement, clarity, and commitment? Or confusion, disengagement, and misalignment? Focus on what you want.

And to get that result, also consider how you want to be. By ‘be’, I mean the role(s) you need to play (e.g. ‘answer-giver’, ‘devil’s advocate’, ‘facilitator’), and the type of energy you want to project (e.g. calming, curious, high energy).

Try the ‘door framing’ exercise – as you walk through the door to a meeting, remind yourself of what your intention for the meeting is, and how you want to be. That will set the tone for everything that comes next.

3. Have A Spotter

I’ve often been asked to attend team meetings of leaders that I coach, to observe them and the dynamic in the room. Afterwards, we compare notes – what did we both notice about the dynamics? What did we both notice about the leader’s way of operating and the impact that had? It’s a great way of broadening your perspective. You can do the same thing by asking someone you trust to be your spotter. It’s particularly powerful to let them know in advance what you’d like them to focus on.

4. Let Go

You know when some problem gets all too hard, and you let go of it for a while? And later the answer comes out of the blue? That’s what I’m talking about here. I think if my son had let go of the “H” challenge, I’m pretty confident he’d have blurted out “hills!” at some random point later on.

Years ago, I was offered some great advice: “High intention, low attachment”. I took it to mean to be absolutely clear on your intent (see above) but let go of how you get there. The clearer your intention, the less you need to attach yourself to the process. Invest more of your time thinking about what you want to create, and less on the script.

Try these four practices out. Notice what you see differently as a result. You might get that same look on your face that my son did. Priceless.


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