The power of distance

“Look within Grasshopper, and you will find the answer you seek”

Said the guru to the traveller

When I read books on self improvement and EQ, one of the first things I often encounter is the recommendation to “pay attention to how you feel and react.” I interpret this to mean, that we should notice how we are responding to what is going on, in the moment, to observe whether we are tense, angry, opinionated, or even excited.

Looking inside yourself and listening to your body is great. You start to notice your triggers, your potential bias and in particular your emotions.

Noticing your emotions means that you can manage them rather than being managed by them. it also means that you can start to notice the outside triggers and environmental factors that are driving a lot of your behaviour.

By developing a sense of presence, or self awareness, you can move from mindless reaction to mindful action.

But what about the opposite?

What if we stop being present within ourselves, we stop “being in the moment” and instead we start to look at things from a greater distance, without paying much attention to how we feel right now at all?

Is that anti-coaching or is that another source of insight?

I claim that the power of distance is, potentially, as useful as the power of being aware our selves.

Moving our focus

Here is a simple trick that you can try.

Look out a window and think about what you see. Now look at the window itself and observe what you see.

I imagine that when you look at the window, you see the window but not the landscape outside, while when you look “outside the window” you see the outside landscape but lose your awareness of the window itself.

We can also try the same exercise, but with solving problems and untangling dilemmas.

As a thought experiment – Are you more likely to see the flaws in an idea that you are explaining to a friend, or to see flaws in the ideas a friend is explaining to you?

I imagine that you find it easier to see flaws in the idea someone else is explaining and I believe it is to do with how “close” you are to the idea. When you explain your own idea, you are focused on the idea, but when you are listening to someone else, you are thinking about counter ideas, different contexts and different situations that might support or challenge the idea.

But we don’t always need a second person to help us do that.

When I coach people and they seem stuck in their thinking, I sometimes ask them what they would advise a friend to do in the same situation. It often causes people to pause and consider things from a different perspective – a more distant one.

This is not me giving them my perspective, but rather them asking themselves what perspective they would take if it was not them that was facing the dilemma.

Moving further away from a problem or dilemma means that we sacrifice detail and emotional depth, to gain a broader perspective, to see the bigger picture more clearly.

Asking what advice you would give a friend is one way to do this, but I could also ask:

  • What was your goal when you started? What is your goal now?
  • When you complete this, then what will you have?
  • How would other people in the team describe that?
  • What would someone brand new notice, that we might not be seeing?
  • How do people solve this in other organisations?

None of these are trick questions, they are just attempts to look at things from a more distant standpoint, to see if we remove the noise of our own history, doubts and emotions.

Once we see things from a distance, we might move to action or maybe we might move back to reflecting on our own perspective, by using questions like these:

  • And how did/does that make you feel?
  • And what is the real challenge here, for you?
  • And what do you want?
  • And what has been your contribution/responsibility here?

Again there is no trick here, just pausing to move from looking at the landscape to going back to looking at personal agency, feeling and accountability.

So both sets of questions are really about deliberately moving further from a dilemma, in order to gain perspective, or moving closer, in order to focus on the detail of our own reaction, action or emotion.

Moving our perspective of time

Chip and Dan Heath provide a simple thinking routine for creating some distance from a decision or problem in their book “Decisive.”

The routine is to ask yourself three questions:

Suppose you did decide to build this feature. Ask yourself:

  • How will you feel about this decision in 10 minutes?
  • How about 10 months from now?
  • How about 10 years from now?

Once again, the idea is to escape our current focus and to consider things from a greater distance, or more precisely a longer period of time.

So what?

When seeking to grow or find a new path, I can focus on my own feelings and a sense of presence in the moment.

Alternatively though, I can step away from myself and observe things from a greater distance. Sometimes it is that distance that allows me to see things that I was not seeing before, or to see patterns that I was not aware of.

One way to step away from myself is to seek the opinions and insights of others, but another way is to just move my own awareness to see things from a distance.


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