Crucial Competencies for Leadership, Healthy Relationships & Personal Development
Folks who have traveled to London and have used their train system have undoubtedly seen the signs that read “Mind the Gap” to remind travelers to use caution when stepping from the landing through the open train door, and vice versa.
For leaders of any kind and at any level, I suggest that another type of “minding the gap” can serve as the foundation for truly dramatic shifts and improvements. Here we are pointing to the ability to pay attention to… to observe… to notice… the interval (the gap) that lies:
- between Event (something happening) and Explanation (the story we make up about what’s happened)
- between Stimulus (something happening) and Response (our Interpretation of what’s happened and our further reaction to what’s happened, based on our Interpretation)
- between our Experience (something occurring) and the Beliefs that we produce as a result of that experience
We could go on and on with different terminology here and different ways to describe this situation, but they all point to the same underlying phenomenon.
One of the simplest and also most powerful distinctions I was ever taught can be summed up this way:
Event is not equal to Explanation.
What do we mean by this? I like to frame it this way: We human beings are continually confronted with Events, in all aspects of our lives, professionally and personally, day in and day out. Nothing unusual about this, of course. The critical thing to notice is that very quickly – and in some cases, seemingly on unconscious auto-pilot, we:
1. Make up a story about the Event
2. Hold our story to be The Truth
3. And forget that we made it up!
By story, of course, we don’t mean fib or fabrication. This isn’t a purposeful manipulation, and it’s certainly not a self-deception. It’s simply an Interpretation. It’s an Explanation.
In some cases, the gap between Event and Explanation is so short as to be almost non-existent, and it may not feel that we are “making up” the Explanation at all. In other cases, significant time may elapse as we think about and determine our particular way of interpreting what took place. In all cases, however, the gap exists and it reveals a fundamental separation:
Events belong to themselves. They possess no inherent meaning, in and of themselves. And our Explanations, our Interpretations belong to us. What the event “means” belongs to us. And we are producing, creating this meaning with our Explanations and Interpretations.
And of course, it’s our Explanations, our Interpretations, our “responses” – not the events or the stimuli themselves – that are the starting point for our actual Actions in the world. And from our actual Actions in the world, we end up producing Results for ourselves – in a tremendously wide variety of situations! Self-awareness and the capacity to notice this is key: it is always our Explanations – not the Events of our lives – that serve as the springboard for our Actions in the world, which lead to our Results in life.
But none of this makes any sense at all if we don’t see ourselves as making up Explanations in the first place! If we think we are always and already seeing things “objectively” – that is, as things “really, truly are” – then there’s nothing to talk about here. Self-awareness – minding this gap – is critical, and it’s a competency that can be cultivated and strengthened in all of us.
Human consciousness allows for this incredible capability that is apparently not present in other creatures (Note: I’m not including dolphins and whales in this, because it’s my understanding that the jury is apparently still out on the type of consciousness they possess and what their “interior” lives are like!)
What we do know is this: We human beings are able to think about our thinking. We are able to talk about our talking. We can turn our language on itself. We are able to look at how we look at things… we can become an observer of the way we observe, the way we explain, the way we interpret. And it is practicing this type of self-awareness that opens avenues of possibility literally unimaginable without it.
A few points, questions and suggestions that can serve all of us seeking to be more conscious and more purposeful in “minding the gap” between Events and our Explanations:
- We are each “unique observers” – which means, by definition, we are each “seeing things” (interpreting things, explaining things) in our own unique way. This is the starting point, no exceptions, no matter what. Everyone is interpreting. One of my teachers put it this way: “We don’t have objectivity… we have objectivity in parentheses!”
- We all “live in language” – that is, as a human being, our “little voice” or internal narrative is rarely if ever silent. So there’s nothing wrong with making up Interpretations – we apparently are hard-wired to do so, as it’s apparently part of human consciousness and the human condition! The problem is that we don’t see ourselves as doing this.
- By the time we’re adults, most of us tend to view our (and others’) Explanations through the Right/Wrong lens… that is, we tend to automatically think in terms of “Is this Explanation right? Is that Explanation wrong?” without consciously being aware that this is the framework we’ve adopted.
- The invitation is to instead experiment with the Effective/Ineffective lens or Powerful/Un-Powerful framework as it relates to your and others’ Explanations, and see what happens. Begin asking yourself “Is this Explanation of mine effective – or ineffective – given the Results I say I want? Is this Explanation powerful – or un-powerful – given what I’ve already said I want to be, do or have in this situation?” For many people, this shift away from the Right/Wrong framework can be extremely eye-opening and empowering!
- If we’re honest, we can acknowledge that we have all – at some points in our lives – found ourselves making up un-powerful or less-than-excellent Explanations or Interpretations, given certain events that were occurring. In these situations, we can cut ourselves some slack, understanding that we all do this from time to time… and frame this as a chance to flex the self-awareness muscle! We can then accept responsibility as the author of our Explanations, and consciously go about creating more powerful Explanations moving forward. Carl Rogers has a great quote that I believe applies here: “The curious paradox is this: Once I accept myself as I am, then I can change!”
- Our moods and emotions dramatically impact the types of Explanations we produce, and we can all point to personal examples in our lives in which we’ve experienced this. I will absolutely interpret the same Event radically differently in a mood of resentment than I will in a mood of joy! Cultivating an awareness of our own moods and emotions – and holding them as moods and emotions instead of “the way things are” – can be a starting point for more purposeful and more helpful Explanations. We can postpone coming to a key conclusion, for example, upon becoming aware that we are extremely upset at the moment and knowing how that emotional space will predictably impact the types of Explanations we will form.
- Our physical bodies and biology also can dramatically impact the types of Explanations we produce. Everything from our sleep habits to our nutrition to the effects of certain medicines and chemicals… not to mention our habitual ways of walking, sitting, standing and breathing… all clearly have an impact on the types of Interpretations and Explanations we create. “Take a deep breath” has been good advice for generations because of the innate awareness of these connections. The invitation is to explore any range of meditative practices – and stick with them over a bit of time – in order to slow the body down, get “grounded” or “centered”… and see what sorts of Explanations you produce from that space.
- For long-term relationships, a powerful practice is to share important Explanations and internal narratives with our partner… and do so as our Explanations, not as The Truth! It may sound like one partner saying this to the other: “May I share with you the story I just made up about this?” Consciously and explicitly taking responsibility as the author of our Explanations – because it’s absolutely the case that we are indeed always the author – is a move toward authenticity and vulnerability, and it creates a very different space for dialogue moving forward. It’s also a powerful relationship-strengthening practice, as the quality of our relationships is directly related to the quality of our conversations.
- I have found peer groups (and healthy leadership teams) to be particularly powerful forums for exploring different Explanations, probing them, asking about them, “poking holes” in them… all for the purpose of making better strategic decisions. The key is to begin with the understanding that the person bringing the issue before the group is a unique observer and is indeed bringing his or her Explanation (not The Truth) to the group, and that all Explanations are not created equal! A diverse group – operating within a space of Carefrontation – provides a wonderful forum for examining the unspoken assumptions or automatic inferences that may be underneath our Explanations. Everyone gets a chance to tease out and question expectations that have influenced the Explanation that may or may not be grounded in facts or actual Events. Participants are able to ask probing questions to more deeply understand the history or background that has influenced the creation of the particular Explanation… as well as the possible implications or future outcomes that the Explanation may lead to.
I hope you’ve found this brief venture into the world of Events and Explanations helpful, and that it’s given you some ideas for how you can strengthen your own capacity for self-awareness. Whether we call them Events and Explanations… or Stimulus and Response… or Experiences and Beliefs… “minding the gap” between them is a foundational leadership, relationship and personal development competency.
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“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
- Viktor Frankl