The Art of Paying Attention

I have been working from home for over two months now. It is late spring, and my lakeside home has been a hub of activity. It is not the sort of activity most of my coworkers have in home schooling, piles of dishes and fighting over what to binge on Netflix. The hub of activity is the birds, reptiles and furry mammals that happen by my backyard. The thing is, I must assume that all of this has gone on for the almost two decades I have lived in this home. Perhaps it is the lack of distraction of getting kids to soccer practice, or worrying about getting to work on time, or maybe it’s that the pandemic induces a pause button that has been pressed–overall, I have been paying attention to all that surrounds me a lot more recently.

Here are some thoughts on the art of paying attention:

Turn off the distractions

Turn off the television, the phone, the computer and the tablet. I can remember way back to when I first lived alone after my first divorce. I always came home and turned the television on for background noise. It helped me cope with being alone. Now, I have the compulsion to look at my phone for notifications. It’s all just distractions from being present and taking notice of what is around us. As Harriet Griffey wrote for The Guardian: “Continuous partial attention – or CPA – was a phrase coined by the ex-Apple and Microsoft consultant Linda Stone. By adopting an always-on, anywhere, anytime, anyplace behaviour, we exist in a constant state of alertness that scans the world but never really gives our full attention to anything. In the short term, we adapt well to these demands, but in the long term the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol create a physiological hyper-alert state that is always scanning for stimuli, provoking a sense of addiction temporarily assuaged by checking in.” This is difficult for me but I am trying to keep my distractions to a minimum.

Single tasking

I have taught a terrific class by Franklin Covey called 5 Choices. In that class, I’ve done an exercise where we time everyone task switching from writing the number 1, the letter A, then the Roman Numeral one and then back to the number 2, letter B and Roman Numeral two and so on, up to Roman Numeral ten. When they are then asked to write the list by each category numbers, letters and then Roman Numerals, they cut their time in half. It’s a dramatic example of how task switching slows you down. Multitasking is a myth. We are just slowing ourselves down and getting less done. I am completely guilty of sending a text to answer a colleague in the middle of a meeting or scanning through my emails. But when I focus on the present moment and pay attention, I feel less scattered, more involved in what is happening and much more aware of my surroundings. Try and focus on just one thing.

Look outside

I’m not sure if it’s because the four walls in my house are the same every day and seem to feel like they are closing me in as I cope with working from home, but I have found myself looking outside with increased frequency. My home faces northeast and the sunrise each day is something I have always looked forward to. It may influence why I typically get up at 5AM but I really enjoy the surprise of what kind of sunrise it will be. Will there be clouds, fog or clear skies? Will there be rain or wind? Will there be pinks and orange or just deep blue before the sunlight streams through? I never know but I look forward to that moment. I meditate facing the window to look out at the sunrise and am always surprised that each one is so unique. It changes minute by minute as the colors morph and spread or succumb to the sun. Looking outside gets me to focus on paying attention.

Take notice

Every year, the dynamics of my backyard changes. This year, we have had a contentious battle between three male mallards and one female mallard going on for the past week. The female seems to be mated with what appears to be the middle-aged male. The middle-aged male is constantly running off the younger male if he gets within ten feet of the female. The oldest male by contrast is sitting around napping most of the day oblivious of the fighting between the two younger males but if he walks towards the spot where the female is, the couple flies off. I can get completely caught up in whether they are parents to the younger male or if he is just the pestering younger brother. There is the gymnastic squirrel who is able to access any bird feeder known to man and the stress it causes my poor dog, Baci. There were eight turtles hanging out the other day, bobbing their heads above water. What brought the turtle convention to my backyard that day? There is the regular family of swifts who nest in a drain pipe next to the lake and they always put on a show in the early evening by grabbing insects swooping above the water. This is likely because now I am home all day every day but noticing what is going on has really connected me with the nature around me.

Express gratitude

I put my hummingbird feeder out about a month and a half ago.  It sat vacant for weeks. And weeks. I started googling hummingbird sightings on the east coast and eastern North Carolina seemed sparse. I began to panic that my feeder was clogged up. My boyfriend Roy brought me a new feeder and reported that his mother had plenty of hummingbirds just an hour east of me. I never know what attracts a species to inhabit my backyard or to not. Last year I had a nesting pair of Little Blue Herons and this year they are gone. Three years ago, I had battling hummingbirds dive bombing each other over the feeder. There is a Great Blue Heron who is a constant. They are frequently standing on my lake bank or strutting around my boat slip.  Tall and majestic and glorious in flight. I am so grateful for each sighting.  When I was sitting at my kitchen table yesterday, there it was, the elusive hummingbird scouting out the feeder. A tear came to my eye. They were back. Pay attention but be grateful for what shows up.

Awareness and attention to the natural world helps me escape the heaviness of this pandemic. It is ironic that I find escape in staying at home.  It takes putting aside the myriad of distractions and focusing on the present moment and what is available. What are you paying attention to?

Quantum Flirts. Are you reading the signs in your life?

I have been training for the last year with CRR Global and a few weeks ago I went to the fourth installment of my Organization & Relationship Systems Coaching (ORSC) training. This stuff is magical. The topic on the last day was Quantum Flirts which is as described by CRR Global, “a short-lived, transient, perceptual signal which can be used to provide us with insight.” It is based on the work of Arnold Mindell and Quantum Mechanics. So the way I see it, it’s like the Universe is sending you a sign. As Arnold writes, “In everyday terms, Arny explained this idea of “many worlds” by saying that when we begin to focus on something, we see its most probable state, the one that fits into our culture and consensus reality. Yet, in each and every experience there is a multitude of other experiences lying in wait, though in Arny’s interpretation, we choose one and marginalize the others. To say it very simply, the moment we call something “a” or “b” we have marginalized all of its other possible states (c,d,e, etc).”The Universe is flirting with you and you need to pay attention to catch it so that you can see the possibility of a different outcome. It may be a flicker of a bulb, the song of a bird or a flash of sunlight on a wave, but it’s the Universe winking at you; laying out hints. quantum flirts

I was fortunate to be the volunteer coached by Grace Flannery in Quantum Flirts. She asked that I bring up a current issue or hot spot that had stressed me out with someone close to me. I talked about my son and his desire to find a place to live this summer instead of coming home and there are a multitude of options and growing for staying in Miami. I further explained how his mode of communication is texting which can leave one wanting (me) for more and frustrated. She then asked me to look around the room or outside and see if there was anything that caught my attention for just a second. I noticed how a classmate was flipping his reading glasses and the glint of light from it. This was my “flirt”. Grace ask me to animate the flirt and I flickered my fingers in an arc in front of me. Grace expounded on my gesture with a “Fa la la la la”. I copied her. She said, “So when your son texts, you can just say “fa la la la la”. We did it in unison. The observing class then copied me. We were all there “fa la la-ing” and copying my gesture. I could not stop laughing. We all cracked up. The Universe flirted with me and it was hysterical. My aggravation with my son was a construct of reality but by paying attention to the spark or “flirt” I could imagine that there could be a different outcome. I could let go and see it in a different light. It’s not a hot spot, there is potential in my relationship with my son to any outcome that I chose. His constant texting and options are his way to engage. So be it.

So how do you tune into the signals and flirts around you? Here are some ideas.

1. Presence. If you aren’t living in the moment, it’s going to be pretty hard to pick up on any signals. If you have ever meditated (and if you are a faithful reader of my blog you should be by now 🙂 ) do you start to notice every sound or smell or the crazy shapes on the inside of your eyelids when shut? You are officially “present”. I always notice the sound of the clock in my office, the birds outside or the ventilation system. Get present; become present.

2. Notice. Take notice of what is going on around you. I started noticing every animal that crossed my path and not just my dog. Turtle out in the lake bobbing with its head at the surface. A glint of light off a wet leaf, the clock is at 11:11, the receipt fell on the floor to only show the word “thanks”. Start to take note of what is going on out there or in there. My dog is sleeping, my dog is sighing, my dog is running around at lightning speed because geese are in her space, my dog is out of the water. I try and remember something about the dream I just woke up from. Take notice.

3. Offer. So what does this sign have to offer? Why is the universe or a higher power or quantum physics sending a signal to you? I know that each time I see a turtle I feel like I need to slow down and be patient. When I see a robin I think of rebirth and Spring. Canadian geese are a nuisance and I’m wondering if I am pestering someone. Perhaps my children? My husband? My boss? My dog is out of the water. Maybe I need water and nourishment as well. The receipt that fell with “thanks” showing is offering me gratitude. What is the offer?

4. It’s right. Don’t get caught up in perfection about what the sign or the flirt means. It means what it means to you. I know sometimes I “cheat” and Google “tornado as a symbol in a dream”. Apparently, this could be a sign of stress. Makes sense. That resonates for me. If it doesn’t, maybe the tornado is a sign of escaping danger. Animals like Robins, Herons and Turtles almost always have a Shamanic reference. Those are easy to Google as well. I dreamt about a broken bottle the other day and the reference for that symbol was “potential”. What it felt like for me was avoiding the broken glass. There was a person I was walking on egg shells for and I feel like the broken glass was the symbol I could relate to.

I’m less about everything happens for a reason and more about taking in information I do like to think that things show up at the right time and that the turtle that just stuck his head up through the surface of the lake is telling me to slow down. What signs do you see?

Are You Wearing Armor All Day?

I’ve been listening to Brené Brown‘s  “Power of Vulnerability” for the last few days.  One of the things she talks about is “wearing armor” or suiting up everyday to keep everyone (and I mean everyone) at arm’s length.  I loved it when she compares “suiting up with armor” to putting on Spanx.  I don’t know if you have ever put on Spanx but I’ve attempted it once…or maybe twice and it is an ordeal.  Trust me, it was worse than trying to zip up my Sassoon jeans while lying on a bed gasping for air when I was 15.  So this analogy really hits home.  Duke-of-Burgundy-Suit-Of-Armor-Headshot

It also reminds me of putting on my New York attitude when I was in the big Apple earlier this summer.  You put your sunglasses on, take off your smile and stomp down the street.  That cold “leave me the hell alone” look so that people don’t ask for money and you can stay on your trajectory on the sidewalk with no interruptions or course corrections from anyone.  It’s exhausting.   The antidote is vulnerability.  So how do you lose the armor? 

Here are some tips:

1.  Moment.  Instead of shutting everything out, you need to be present in the moment.  Author Olivia Fox Cabane recommends feeling your toes.  Feeling your toes brings you awareness of the moment.  I remember breaking my arm when I was thirteen.  I remember every moment, smell, sight and taste of the experience of the emergency room.  When you are really in touch with your body, you are really in the moment.  Don’t bother to break your arm, just stay in touch with your toes and you will be in the moment.

2. Eyes.  Notice the color of people’s eyes.  When you are listening to your child, your  client or your spouse, look for the little flecks of color in their eyes. But as Drake Baer wrote in Fast Company, “The Goldilocks of eye contact comes in two flavors: If you’re in a one-on-one setting, hold eye contact for 7 to 10 seconds; while if you’re in a group, shorten that to 3 to 5 seconds.” If you aren’t making eye contact you come across (intentionally or not) as untrustworthy.  So don’t give them an eye exam. and when walking the streets of Manhattan, take off the shades and connect.  Look into their eyes.

3.  Perspective.  When listening to your partner or boss, try and focus on their perspective.  This is not the time to chime in with how you got stuck in traffic for two hours and “please feel sorry for me” rebuttal.  Stay focused on their “story” regardless if you feel like they are viewing from a skewed perspective.  Feel their perspective and embrace it.  This is not the time to fight it.  Regardless of the “lens” you are looking through it’s not their “lens”.  As David Rock says, no two brains are alike, and whatever their viewpoint is, it is what it is.  Accept the other person’s perspective.

4. Nix sympathy.  Don’t respond with sympathy.  I initially found this difficult to comprehend.  As Brené says in her CD, when you empathize you get into the hole with your friend and help them back out, when you sympathize, you stand at the edge of the hole, stare down at your friend and say you are sorry they are in the hole.  Essentially, sympathizing let’s you raise your self above the person and let them wallow in the suffering.  I think there is a place for sympathy (i.e. funerals) but if you want to really help your friend that just got dumped by her boyfriend, it’s not the time for sympathy.

5. Respond.  Instead of sympathy, respond with empathy.  The easiest way to do this is to label the other person’s feelings.  “I can see you are upset that your boyfriend dumped you”.  “You are obviously frustrated that you had to cancel the meeting”. Labeling works from a brain perspective in that it clarifies  what you heard and lets them know whether or not you got it right.  They might respond, “I’m not frustrated; I’m angry”.  But it makes sure you are on the same page.  You have identified with their perspective and you’ve been open enough to “label” the feeling.  Respond to the feeling with empathy.

Being more present and vulnerable is work.  It’s not easy.  Take one step at a time.  You will get there.  Eventually, you will be able to leave your armor at home.

What are you guarding against?


Why Fear Doesn’t Work

I just got back from a conference by the NeuroLeadership Group on Results Based Coaching developed by David Rock and all I can say is, “Wow”.  Intimidation and fear have no place in the workplace; or in healthy relationships.  This may seem obvious but aren’t we all guilty of using ultimatums (eat your peas or else I’ll….)? I know I am.  We have this notion that we have to drive performance with the “whip”; much like the slave driver in the movie “The Ten Commandments”.  As Dan Pink has illustrated in his book “Drive”, unless it’s really the type of straight forward, non-thinking kind of work; threat will not drive performance. hebrew slaves building Rameses city_thumb

Paul McGinniss, an outstanding trainer for the NeuroLeadership Group, illustrated this in the training by suggesting that if the leader says “create or else”, you aren’t going to drive performance.  He also said that it takes five “towards or reward” feedback to counteract one “away or threat” responses.  So every time you criticize your employee or your child, it’s going to take five (yes, five) positive responses to get the limbic system back to equilibrium.  And you want that equilibrium.  If the brain of your direct report or spouse is in “fear” mode (when the limbic system is lit up), there ain’t no productive thinking happening.   When was the last time you made a meaningful decision when you were under stress or fear?  Yeah. right – I thought so.  Fear is not going to drive performance.

Here are some ideas on how to diminish fear in those around you:

1. Presence.  Are you aware of how your direct report is reacting or acting at this moment?  Is he tapping his foot with a furrowed brow?  He’s under stress.  If your spouse looks preoccupied; they probably are.  When your child is on the phone and takes a moment or two to reply or to answer a simple question; they might be in the “away” state.   You can’t move on.  We can’t move on, when one of us is in fear, preoccupied or as my husband says, “too many people on my stage” (the prefrontal cortex).  Being present makes you aware.

2. Esteem check.  It’s a good idea to maintain or boost other’s self-esteem (one of the Key Principles from DDI).   Criticizing and nit picking will not enhance performance.  Your teammate will not start picking up the pace or lend you a hand when they are on the defense.  Nagging your partner about mowing the lawn or asking your daughter if she’s gained weight; will not enhance either’s performance.  A thank you or specific positive feedback, on the other hand, will help bring them back to equilibrium.  If you want enhanced performance, make sure you are boosting self-esteem.

3. Steady.  Being steady or consistent is a tenet of emotional intelligence.  Be the same boss, mother, brother or team mate on Monday as on Friday.  Try to keep the team on a steady course as well.  If you are constantly changing directions or “flip flop” on decisions, you will have the team on the back of their heels waiting for the next shoe to drop.  There are times when this is impossible, and that’s OK, just remember that it isn’t the best time to introduce a new project or expect a breakthrough with the team.  Their limbic system is lit up and they are sitting in threat mode.  Wait till the storm passes and keep a steady course.

4. Justice. Hand in hand with being consistent is handing out equal justice.  The same way you need to show up and be the same person day to day, you need to treat Sam, Suzy and Old Joe the same as well.  I’m not suggesting you be a robot but handling situations with an even hand will build respect with the team.  Your family is likely to call foul on this immediately.  If I let my son take a car alone on a weekend trip and didn’t let my daughter (this actually almost happened), your child will educate you on the discrepancy.  Trust me.  Your teammates may not.  Reflect on the manner in which you dole out punishments, rewards and delegation.  Make sure you are using equal justice.

5. Let go the reins.  Let your children, your direct reports or your teammates call their own shots.  Keep your fingers out of the pie.  As I’ve written before, delegate the monkey and let the receiver of the monkey take it from there.  Self-mastery isn’t built under the direction of micro managers.  Delegate the project, figure out the available resources and let them loose.  At some point, you have to allow that 16 year old behind the wheel and Let. Them. Go.

6. Human.  People want to be recognized as human beings.  As Patrick Lencioni wrote in “3 Signs of a Miserable Job“, “People cannot be fulfilled in their work if they are not known”.  This is one of the signs of a miserable job, anonymity.  Know your teammates children’s names, if they play a sport, where their spouse works, what their hobbies are.  You don’t need to know what they had for dinner last night or when their last dental cleaning was, just be able to stay connected.  Make sure they know they are human; that they matter.

There is no need to get wrapped up in perfection with these ideas.  Don’t worry about conquering all 6 by Monday.  Try one out a week and see if you don’t get better performance around you.  One or two tweaks in your approach can go a long way.