Saverio Grazioli-Venier's picture Submitted by Saverio Graziol... June 15, 2017 - 10:52am

The simple power of awareness first became evident to me when I participated in a meditation course at a Buddhist temple in Washington DC. Sitting uncomfortable, cross-legged, I was asked to focus on my breath, only to be obstructed by an unhelpful flood of thoughts. 

My instinct, like many who start meditating for the first time, was to push them to one side. When that failed I tried to stubbornly engage with them. It was only when our teacher, a sparky young monk from Sri Lanka, instructed us not to fight our thoughts but to just observe them, that they slowly stepped aside, leaving me—as an observer, un-entangled from the rush of thoughts—to focus on my breath. I managed only a handful of seconds of pure awareness at first—thoughts seemed always ready to jump back in—then a few minutes, and so on until it became a comfortable practice I could rely on.

Fast forward quite a few years and I now find myself helping clients, whether business leaders, famous actors or elite athletes. They come to me because something is preventing them from performing at their highest possible level. The foundation of our work is based on this lesson I learned nearly 15 years ago: that the most powerful tool available for bringing clarity to the complexity that clouds our minds is self-awareness. In other words, the capacity to separate from our constant stream of thoughts – and observe ourselves. 

The good news is that self-observation is a tool we all have at our disposal, we can access it all times, and it’s an easy one to deploy. We just need a little patience.

Awareness of what?

I break it down into two areas:

  1. The awareness of the interplay between our rational and irrational selves.
  2. The awareness that effort, focus, and discipline, not talent, is often what allows us to achieve to the very best of our abilities.

My first step is to invite my clients to be aware of the circumstances when their irrational selves take over. To simplify what I mean, I borrow from Steve Peter’s “Chimp Management Model” in order to provide a framework they can visualize. 

Peter’s work on the chimp paradox posits that we are not alone, at least not inside our heads! As humans, we live alongside our chimp—the monkey mind—which inhabits our limbic system. The human, operating from the pre-frontal cortex, is rational, reflective and thoughtful in a way that is constructive and good for us. The chimp on the other hand, lives deep in our reptilian brain, is irrational, quick to emerge when it senses danger, and is often catastrophic. 

I ask my clients to observe when their chimp takes charge and keep a journal or log of when that happens. I also ask them to completely suspend judgment or self criticism as they are doing so. Questions we explore include:

  • Do you notice any patterns emerging? 
  • Are there any specific triggers? 
  • What behaviors result when the chimp takes over? 
  • How does it impact your energy level? 

My second step is to ask my clients to observe the activities they value and ask them to identify which of those they attribute to their successes. Do they highlight those activities that point to their innate talents or do they single out those that point to dedication and effort? If they are involved with teams or organizations, what do they value when giving feedback or coaching to those they lead?

Working with these themes, I borrow from Carol Dweck’s work on a growth mindset and the remarkable impact it can have on performance. Here too, the aim of the exercise is to suspend judgment and simply become aware of what we subconsciously value in the activities we perform on a daily basis.

These two exercises are deceptively simple but can quickly bring into focus what needs to be worked on, forming the foundation of our coaching work. These reflections can be quite eye opening and transformative, underscoring that awareness is a tool we always have with us should we choose to use it. We can call on it at anytime and anywhere: Just step outside of your constant stream of thoughts and observe the patterns, the triggers and the deeply held values that drive you from within.  Therein lies the beauty and the power of becoming self-aware. 

You can also watch Saverio's COACHx video in which he discusses unlocking Peak Performance.