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5 Thinking Skills For Executive Presence

At one time or another most leaders under perform when critical thinking skills are hijacked by external triggers associated with their personal internal hot buttons. During these moments, the ability to think straight can shut off even for the most eloquent of talkers. It is obvious to those watching and listening and it can be painful to see others go through this stress sometimes as much as when it happens to ourselves.

Everyone can have a bad day now and then, but there are moments when it’s critical to stay on point and not miss the mark. These are situations when you need to speak up or speak out about an important topic to your company’s success. Fortunately (or unfortunately) we have cognitive denial that can help us recover. However denial also keeps us from learning. That’s another post though. For now, we will briefly define these five thinking skills that leaders just do not want to lose contact with – ever. Okay, that’s too high a bar. But a true leader is aware when they’ve lost one of them, and has learned ways to get back in touch with themselves so they can absorb new information that helps them grow and learn.

These opportunities occur often. Every day as a career and personal development coach, I hear how a team leader loses a firm sense of connection with their fluid thinking skills for various reasons when under pressure – could be in a meeting, giving a presentation, or simply talking to a colleague or their spouse about a disturbing event. Some people are suddenly befuddled and semi-stutter their way through thinking out loud, while others, even if they are usually fluid speakers may just keep talking but not really say anything new or logical. Some may even go on and on, not aware they just need to stop. Frankly, when leaders lose contact with their thinking skills, some need to learn how to speak up more, while others need to know how to pause and keep quiet. Both sides of these tendencies are tell tale signs of someone hanging out on a limb and trying to get back to a strong verbal footing. It is wise to know which side of the fence you fall once you’ve noticed that your thought patterns, sense of reasoning, and ability to express logically are minimized and basically, derailed off track.

This phenomenon is not peculiar to any age group or level of education. Doctorate level professionals may be even more at risk since they might think they are supposed to always know what to say at any given time. Everyone, from millennials to baby boomers and all those in between are compromised in similar ways, since this kind of hiccup is common to all people under various levels of stress and upset. The antidote is to gain more self awareness. This skill of self awareness is not relegated to any one group of individuals more than another – though some people may think so. Young people, even children, can be much more self aware than full grown adults. We’ve all seen it. The key is to learn how to be self aware at the most important moments when required to respond. It’s a response ability after all to reply, and whether we say nothing or too much at opportune times, miscommunication and misunderstanding often prevail.

It can be both interesting and beneficial to know the triggers in your outside environment that contribute to this mental stall, but for now the following is a brief and quite non-comprehensive description of the five thinking skills at risk for shut down when we least want them to.

Five Thinking Skills You Don’t Want to Shut Down

1. Degree of alertness

Everyone has various degrees of alertness that occur at different times of day. Some of this is due to tendencies and inclinations. For instance, some people are wide awake and alert as soon as their feet hit the floor in the morning, while others perk up later on the afternoon. Some people wake up with more energy right at the time others are dragging themselves off to bed. However, the degree of alertness is an interesting observation for leaders when they are under pressure to listen and take in a lot of information. For instance, have you ever been sharing a lot of information quickly with someone whose eyelids started to droop? Or have you seen someone suddenly go glazy-eyed when you mention a certain topic? Or have you been aware of your own eyes feeling super heavy and in that instant just want take a snooze? And maybe it wasn’t just after lunch or during a boring meeting; instead it was at a time you actually really wanted to know more about that topic, problem, or situation?

If you’ve seen it or experienced it, it might not be what you think. Yes, you could be tired. But in many cases it’s a sign of information overload in the unconscious and your brain needs to go internal momentarily to integrate the new information coming in. When we are faced with information that we do not expect to hear and if it is deeper than the usual surface banter, our brains need to withdraw and process to keep up. It’s like too much memory is being used up and we need to shut down to refresh and reboot. We may need a quick nap. Our degree of alertness is very connected to how we receive new information from our environment. If your boss or boss’s boss is closing his/her eyes during your presentation, it is more likely because they have spent the past few hours hearing so much that they have information overload and just can’t take in any more. Usually it’s not because you are boring, it’s that they need a break. Good leaders know that taking even a short break helps their brains cognitively process what has come in, and they can meditate or take a nap to reboot to able to keep going.

2. Use of attention

Have you ever had someone in the middle of what you’ve telling them, suddenly interrupt and point out the word you used was the wrong one? They stopped listening to what you mean and hone in on your accuracy of grammar or terms? In an instant, they react not to what you are trying to say, or mean, but try to correct you with the right terminology or proper syntax? Or perhaps they start paying more attention your demeanor, tone of voice, or even if you are looking at them or not? Maybe you are the one listening but not looking at them in the eye, and suddenly they have run off the trail of thought they were saying and now onto if or whether you are really listening. Frankly, when things get more intense, a lot of people are not able to hear and look at people at the same time. Sounds odd, but it’s true. And anyone who has dyslexia, attention delays (ADD, aspergers, etc.) definitely are compromised and have much difficulty looking at a speaker and listening at the same time. This can get them in ‘trouble’ with the person who is demanding full attention especially if /when the topic is frustrating. If the discussion is about a historically disturbing topic between them, there can be even more assumptive demands on use of attention between people. Even during good communication, we can shift our attention suddenly from the topic at hand, and find ourselves using our attention on other signals and possibly irrelevant cues. Nevertheless, when our use of attention skills are derailed, we find ourselves very keen to use our attention to look for cues full of extra meaning that may not really be there. If we start listening to our internal dialogue – our inner story – rather than using our attention to attend to the speaker for what they are trying to say, then the conversation can go haywire too. People don’t always say what they really mean, so attending to their deeper intention is very important for listeners. To do that we have to maintain an awareness of how we are using ou