The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan


March 2014
Thinking about Thinking
Mind your thoughts for fewer misunderstandings
By Andrew Silberman

So I’ve been thinking. You may ask, “About what?” About thinking. Given that my first professional writing effort was about writing, and clients now pay me to speak about speaking, this is clearly the next step: to think about thinking.

I’ve invested over 25,000 hours inside the communication triangle described in Rudolf Flesch’s How to Write, Speak and Think More Effectively. (Flesch said: “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 looks more like the mythical one near Bermuda; while their words may be heard or read, their meaning is lost at sea. Some results: misunderstandings, loss of productivity, and less-than-optimal relationships.

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?

Your thoughts have driven everything about your life, from where you live and work, to how your most important relationships are going (or not going). If you have figured this out, super! And if you haven’t, you’re about to learn something that can change your life forever.

Further, there is a third option. You’ve figured thoughts out, because perhaps you’ve noticed that exactly the same event can trigger laughing in one person and crying in another. You have realized that it’s the thinking that the event triggered on their part, rather than the event itself, which led to giggles or tears.

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.

However, 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?

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 sure it’s not quite enough.

Back to beginnings

Before you joined your company, you thought about it. You may have struggled with the decision, just as many may struggle this year, pondering whether to take that recruiter’s offer.

You will have weighed the pros and cons. You will have faced the imaginary demons of doubt, worry, and perhaps even confusion.

And before your next performance review, whether you’re on the giving or receiving end, you will have all sorts of thoughts going into it.

The exercises
The above three interactions and countless others can be helped by learning to watch your thoughts. And, ironically, the best way to do that is to stop thinking! We 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 thousands of times over thousands of years.

Relax, and focus on your breathing. Inhale, exhale. In, out. One, two. A 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 Dr. Edmond Jacobson, founded the science of Progressive Relaxation and wrote an excellent (if dated) 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.

First, correct your posture so your spine is straight. 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 on the side of your bed. The one requirement is to get your spine straight; aligned with your head and feet.

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.

Next, 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 (qi) 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).

How long?
Like most types of exercise, practicing meditation or qigong is often easier with a trainer or a group of people. But you don’t need either. 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 60.”

While he generated laughs, it’s no joke. For 20 years or more I’d struggled and tried to mediate for even five minutes and was proud to have reached 10 minutes per session a few years ago.

Now, after experiencing an out-of-this-world visualization exercise, I am only limited by time commitments, and easily meditate for 40 minutes or more. The standing postures in qigong require more muscle work than a seated meditation session.

How it works
How do mediation, yoga, or qigong 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.

You will probably feel like confirming whether your counterparts understand you, and you will find that very often they did not catch your meaning. That’s because many, if not most, of our interactions are a series of monologues rather than authentic communication.

When others react emotionally, you will be a little calmer than you used to be. You may even start looking forward to those rare and stressful opportunities to connect with people, whether in a job interview, performance review, or presentation.

You’re going to recognize that since it’s your thoughts that create the stress, a simple change of thought—a minor shift—can and will change everything.



Andrew Silberman is an elected governor of the ACCJ and president and chief enthusiast of the AMT Group—the developers of the Global Readiness® Profile.