Activating Sensory Awareness to Create More Meaningful Connections…
Every aspect of your presence has social meaning, including your emotions, intentions, and regard for the people in the room. Especially if you are a leader, you need to develop both Cognitive and Sensory Awareness to have impact you desire.
It’s likely you spend most of your time using your Cognitive Awareness. You seek to understand, discern, and judge situations and people so you know what to say and do. You manage your interactions based on what you think other people are thinking.
When you focus your awareness on others, you are paying attention. The French philosopher Simon Weil said, “Attention consists of suspending thought, leaving it detached, empty… ready to receive.” You suspend your thinking to take in what others are saying. You might even notice how they are reacting to your words.
You need to be mindful to pay attention. When you are mindful, you notice your thoughts, judgments, and opinions and choose to set them aside or share them with others. Mindfulness is attention inwardly focused.
When you release your thoughts and focus outwardly, you are paying attention to people and things in your field of view.
Being cognitively present means you are inwardly alert while being outwardly aware.
Leadership presence must go beyond being aware
The poet Mary Oliver wrote, “Attention without feeling is only a report.” There is far more going on in any interaction than what people are saying and expressing. I often ask the leaders I coach, “What happens when you enter a room? What happens when you leave it?” The leader’s emotions, intentions, and regard for the people present will impact how everyone feels and behaves.
Leaders inspire or deflate others by their presence.
But presence is a dynamic state. Leaders must have Sensory Awareness as well as Cognitive Awareness to maintain a positive impact.
Sensory awareness includes an inward awareness of your emotions, intention and regard for people in the conversation. It also includes an outward awareness of people’s experience beyond what is apparent. With sensory awareness, you are able to receive what is going on with others and use this information to better connect, reassure, inspire, activate and invigorate everyone in the field you inhabit with your presence.
Developing an inward Sensory Awareness
Start with noticing how you feel. Learn how to recognize emotional reactions in your body so you can quickly determine what is triggering your emotions and what you need to do next, if anything.
This is where you start — be alert to your physical and emotional reactions.
Then ask yourself, “What do I want people to feel?” If you want them to be curious, calm, hopeful, or excited, discover what to focus on so you can enter the room feeling this way. You can’t expect people to react well when you are feeling anxious, annoyed, or doubtful.
Second, assess how you regard those you are speaking to. In a study of 838,151 people in 158 countries, being treated with respect was the strongest predictor of positive feelings. Respect is the number one thing people want from their bosses. I describe how to shift to feeling respect in the blog post, The Critical Factor in Achieving Relationship Success. Periodically, you need to check in with yourself to see if you are appreciating and valuing those you are with as they face their own difficult challenges. Having a high regard for people’s value and potential is critical for increasing engagement, focus, and results.
Developing an outward Sensory Awareness
Third, stay attuned to what people need from you in the moment. Do they need assurance? Do they need to a vision and path forward? Do they need space to talk about their fears and frustrations without being made wrong?
In addition to knowing how to regulate the sensory impact you have on others, you need to know how to sense their desires, disappointments, needs, frustrations, hopes, and doubts when they can’t articulate their experience themselves. This requires you access all three processing centers of the nervous system — your brain, heart, and gut.
Open your mind with curiosity. Open your heart with gratitude, compassion, and hope. Open your gut with courage. Receive what they are expressing but can’t articulate. Trust and share what you hear with your heart and gut without judging and censoring it. If you are wrong, people will tell you what they really feel. You will know more about what is needed. They will appreciate that you are listening and caring so deeply.
You can find a quick visualization on how to open all three processing centers of your nervous system on this page, taken from the book, The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations into Breakthroughs.
To summarize, in order to develop your Sensory Awareness, practice skills that help you:
- Become emotionally and physically “self-alert”
- Shift your emotion, intention and regard to create a safe, vital space for people to play in as they work and create
- Open your heart and gut to activate sensory awareness when connecting and receiving unspoken information from others
By elevating your Sensory Awareness, you help people feel seen, understood and valued. This connection can activate passion, creativity and hope.