Self-Observation: Change Your Thinking and Overcome Challenges Part II

Using Self-Observation to Change Your Thinking and Overcome ChallengesThe true journey of discovery does not consist of searching for new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”  – Marcel Proust (Tweet this quote)

Now that you’ve had a week to practice self-awareness, I want to introduce self-observation, which is the second piece in helping you change your thinking to over come challenges. Where self-awareness helps you to create space in your thinking, self-observation is the act of observing what is going on in that space. Self-observation is a tool that I use on myself and with my coaching clients. It is one of the most important pieces to overcoming any challenges; because once we begin to see our processes, thoughts and actions more objectively we can determine if they are truly in accordance with our desired outcomes.

The big idea here is to observe and collect data around areas where you want to improve. In the next post I will cover how to analyze and interpret the data, what questions to ask to gain clarity and how to create more options. This post is purely about what self-observation is and a couple of self-observation exercises to practice.

What is self-observation?

Observing yourself is the necessary starting point for any real change.” –Brothers Chalmers (Tweet this quote)

James Flaherty describes self-observation as this, “To self-observe means to not become attached to or to identify with any content of our experience, but to watch alertly, openly, passively.”i You need to be able to watch or be aware alertly and openly of your thoughts, emotions and moods in order to see them for what they are. The Oxford Dictionaries defines self-observation as: the objective observation of one’s own attitudes, reactions or thought process. In the most basic sense, self-observation is the ability to view yourself as if you were observing yourself from a behind a video camera. In some coaching circles they call it the big-eye. Not the mind’s eye, but the big-eye of you watching and examining your moods, emotions, thoughts and body objectively.

Be a Unique Observer to Change Your Thinking and Overcome Challenges

How do you become an observer?

At first, being a self-observer or playing two roles is very challenging. As with all exercises I introduce, it will become easier and more useful with practice. To help you get started with being a unique self-observer, I am going to share with you:

  • An example exercise on how to observe in the moment to catch immediate thoughts, feelings and emotions around a particular situation or interaction.
  • An example exercise on how to observe over a specified duration to look at longer-term patterns, habits and or behaviors.
  • How to create your own self-observations.


Self-observation in the moment
Objectives: To become more aware of my mood, feelings and thoughts during conversations with my Vice President and to begin to understand how I react to his requests.

Instructions: Prior to engaging in conversation, practice breathing to gain presence and awareness. Enter into the conversation as present as possible. Immediately after the interaction is complete, ask the following questions:

  1. What am I feeling?
  2. What are my exact thoughts, what is my inner dialogue?
  3. How did I show up to this conversation? What is my mood?
  4. What judgments and assessments do I have about this person?
  5. What judgments and assessments do I have about this conversation?
  6. What were the outcomes?
  7. Collect data and record your responses.

The idea is to start becoming an observer of these traits in the moment so you can see how they impact your actions and results. Observe yourself without judgment, write down your answers, and then take a few moments to reflect on the conversation.


Self-observation over a specified duration
This is an example of a self-observation exercise borrowed from James Flaherty in his book Coaching: Evoking Excellence in Others.ii

Objectives: To become more aware of what I am and am not accomplishing during my workday, why I may not be accomplishing, and how I justify breakdowns.

Instructions: Stop twice each day – at midday and at the end of the day – and ask yourself the following questions. I suggest that you anticipate this exercise by observing yourself throughout your day.

  1. What specific, observable outcomes did I produce?
  2. What excuses, stories or justifications do I have for not producing the outcomes I said I would produce?
  3. What events, people, or personal limitations got in the way of these outcomes?
  4. How do I feel about what I observed?
  5. Collect data and record your responses.


Steps to create self-observation exercises :
The following is very succinct breakdown of how to create your own self-observation exercises.iii

  1. Identify an opening or a situation you want to know more about (a challenge or block).
  2. List questions on how you think, show, and act in that situation.
  3. Split yourself in halves: an observer and an actor.
  4. In real life, have the observer watch the actor using one or more of the questions in step 2.
  5. Record what you observe and learn. Look for patterns and trends.

Interpret Data from an Objective Point of ViewData and the next steps

In both observation exercises you are collecting data from your observations, then stepping back and asking specific questions to dive a little deeper. For now this all you need to do. In the next post, I will give you further instructions on how to interpret this data from an objective point of view. Being able to sift through the data objectively is where you gain the clarity and begin to see different perspectives and options to overcome your challenges.

Images courtesy: Matthias Rhombergwithassociates, kevin dooley
i James Flaherty, Coaching: Evoking Excellence in Others (Oxford, UK: Butterworth-Heinemann, 1999), p.163
ii James Flaherty, Coaching: Evoking Excellence in Others (Oxford, UK: Butterworth-Heinemann, 1999), p.166
iii Christine Wahl, Clarice Scriber and Beth Bloomfield, On Becoming a Leadership Coach (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan), p.122

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