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Thinking About Thinking

So I’ve been thinking. About what? About thinking. Given that for my first newsletter, way back in the 1990s, I was most often writing about writing, and clients now pay me to speak about speaking, this feels like the next logical step: to think about thinking.

I’ve invested over 25,000 deliberate hours inside the communication triangle described in Rudolf Flesch’s How to Write, Speak and Think More Effectively: “Writing is speaking on paper, speaking is thinking out loud, and thinking is silent speech.”

I make my living inside this triangle. But for many managers and leaders, Flesch’s triangle turns into the mythical and scary one near Bermuda. While their words may be heard or read, their meaning is lost at sea. Some results include: misunderstandings, loss of productivity, and less-than-optimal relationships. This post aims to remedy that.

Below are two simple techniques to improve thinking and, thus, your communication. And the benefits to you as a business leader include attracting and retaining better talent, successfully navigating performance reviews, and even looking forward to your most challenging communication issues.

It all starts with a thought

Have you ever thought about the role your thoughts play in your life? Or, put another way, have you recognized the primary place your thoughts hold?

Our thoughts have driven everything our lives, from where we live and work, to how our most important relationships are going (or not going).

We’ve all noticed that that exactly the same incident can trigger tears of laughter in one person, tears of sadness in another, and tears of righteous rage in a third. And a fourth person may not care or react at all.

It’s the thinking each of the four people above that the event triggered, not the event itself, which led to giggles or gut-punches. You’ve seen someone being insulted for an action or words that, to someone else, are perfectly acceptable and perhaps even admirable. In the multicultural environment we work in, these misunderstandings happen every day.

Have you recognized how important it is that the misunderstandings stem from the different thoughts we hold, and how attached we are to those thoughts? And if what I’m saying is true, there are important consequences. Wouldn’t it make sense to keep a watchful eye on your thoughts, realize that they are triggering your emotions–and thus your actions–for better and for worse?

If your most important relationships and business challenges hinge on your thoughts about them, ask yourself how much time you invest in watching your thoughts. I’m pretty sure it’s not quite enough.

Three exercises

Ironically, we can get better at thinking by learning to shut down the thought process, if only for a few minutes at a time. The first way is simple meditation. The example I give in chapter 20 of my book, Get A G.R.I.P , is a meditation exercise that has been used by millions of people over thousands of years.

Relax, and focus on your breathing. Inhale, exhale. In, out. One, two. Or you can repeat a meaningful or meaningless mantra. It doesn’t matter.

But what do most people do? They try to relax, and try to focus on the breath, and perhaps succeed for a minute or to, then decide they’ve failed.

My uncle, the late great Dr. Edmond Jacobson, founded the science of Progressive Relaxation and wrote an excellent book titled You Must Relax. In this book is one of my all-time favorite lines: “Any effort to relax is a failure to relax.” So for those who’ve tried and failed to meditate, note that it is the act of trying that got in your way.

(Slightly) more sophisticated approach

Last year, I received many comments and questions on an article I wrote in the ACCJ Journal about Qigong (pronounced “chee gong”). Having since found an excellent primer, The Healing Promise of Qi, I want to share the “three corrections” that Qi practitioners use in preparing for energy work. (“Qigong” is the practice of cultivating and working with subtle energy.)

First, “correct” your posture so your spine is straight–not rigid. In most Qigong practices, this is done while standing, but you can also do so while sitting on the floor, on a chair, or even lying down.

Second, “correct” your breathing; take slow, deep, abdominal breaths. Most people, when told to take a deep breath, raise their shoulders up and do what’s called chest breathing. You must “correct” this if you want to truly fill your lungs to capacity. Your abdomen should fill first. Put your hand on it to check as you inhale.

Finally, “correct” your focus. Imagine a cascade of energy coming from above your head, the energy from the sun, or even the entire universe above you, and at the same time energy flowing up from the Earth through the bottom of your feet.

These two sources of energy (Chinese practitioners refer to them as “heaven energy” and “earth energy”) meet in the middle of your body, either right under your navel or at your heart (different schools teach different locations; choose where feels best).


A third “thought-stopping” method is gaining in popularity thanks in part to celebrity endorsements from Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen and others. It’s called “Transcendental Meditation” or TM. My family and I took a course offered in Shinjuku back in the fall of 2015, and TM’s now part of my twice-daily routine. Twenty minutes in the morning, twenty in the afternoon or early evening. If you’re interested, let me know and I can put you in touch with our bilingual teacher.

How long?

Like most types of exercise, practicing meditation, Qigong or TM is often easier with a trainer or a group of people. But you don’t need them. All you need is time. How much? A Zen monk working with us once said: “Twenty minutes is sufficient. If you don’t have 20 minutes, then you need an hour.”

While he generated laughs, it’s no joke. For 20 years or more I’d struggled and tried to meditate for even five minutes and was proud to have reached 10 minutes per session a few years ago. Now, I am only limited by other time commitments, and can easily meditate for 40 minutes or more.

How it works

How do meditation, Qigong or TM help? They slow you down. When you carry the practice into your daily interactions, you can increase the space between what others say and how you respond. In that space is greater freedom to choose.

Some results: You may feel like taking more time to confirm whether your counterparts understand you, and you may find that very often they did not catch your meaning. That’s because many, if not most, of our interactions are series of monologues rather than authentic communication. You may find yourself listening more deeply.

And when others react emotionally, you will be a little calmer than you once were. You may even start looking forward to what used to be stressful opportunities to connect with people, whether in a job interview, performance review, or presentation you will deliver.

Once we recognize that since our thoughts create stress, a simple change of thought—a minor shift—can and will change everything.

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