I was sweating not because of the dense humidity, but because of fear.
For a moment, I thought I might be at the end of my life and I knew that my chance of surviving depended on my ability to stay calm and control the urge of fleeing.
I was in Colombia doing fieldwork in a coca-growing area dominated by a powerful drug lord who moved his first steps under Pablo Escobar. I had been collecting the life histories of members of death squads and one of my contacts had invited me to observe the life of a town thriving on cocaine. In my book The Para-State, I detail my experience.
I had arrived the day before. I had toured the town, visited coca fields, and had a beer with young men who were coca leaves collectors and were trading cocaine paste. Listening to them, I realized how hazardous their life was, and how making money was to them far more valuable than life.
On my way home, I had also witnessed the death squads in action.
Before my eyes and that of dozens of people dwelling on the town’s main square, they lifted with force a man, beat him, and put him in the trunk of an SUV and raced away. Witnessing that shook me to the core.
Breakfast with the Drug Lord.
That morning I was having breakfast with the young man who had invited me in the motel where I was staying. A few tables from me, the drug lord too was having breakfast and holding office hour. There was a line of people who wanted to talk to him. I noticed that he had a Beretta revolver tucked in his jeans. A dozen of men armed with rifles protected the drug lord.
Suddenly, a dozen policemen on motorbikes arrived at the restaurant. The local police chief walked up to the drug lord. But not to arrest him, as I naively thought. Instead, he sat down with him and listened to him. Then he stood up and moved towards me. That’s when I started to sweat.
I knew I was in trouble. When he reached our table, the chief asked me if I knew a man I had spent time the day before and who was working for a competing drug lord. Instinctively, I denied. But obviously, they had seen me making rounds and drinking beer with him.
Then, they took away the young man who had invited me. I remained there, bathing in sweat.
But I knew that if I showed my fear and anxiety, things would have gotten worst. I needed to portrait confidence. Thus I began to read the newspaper.
The moment I thought I was going to die.
Then, out of the blue, the man the drug lord and the police were looking for, entered the restaurant and started walking towards me.
I had my heart in my throat.
I knew I could not have that man reach my table and sit down with me. That would be my end.
I also had to avoid any erratic move. Thus, I decided to walk slowly towards the back door of the restaurant as if I was going to check something in my car. I was hoping the man who was looking for me would see me and follow me.
He did catch up with me outside the restaurant and was about to greet me with a smile and a hug.
I gave him a look that froze him. “Your life is in danger. So is mine. Just leave.” I told him in a rush.
He turned pale and left. I walked back to the restaurant, sat down, and continued to read the newspaper.
Eventually, the police, the drug lord and his armed men all left. The man I was having breakfast with came back after the police and the drug lord’s men had questioned him. He was emotionally exhausted, aware that his life had just been spared.
How to keep the cool in very stressful moments.
I know that I got out of that very intense and perilous moment and that I probably saved my life because, in a situation of extreme danger and stress, I was able to keep the cool.
No doubt things would have turned for the worst if I had reacted in an erratic way and allowed myself to be a hostage of fear and terror.It was the practice of self-awareness that allowed me to keep the cool in a moment of danger.Click To Tweet
I remember a specific instance. As I was reading the newspaper, I realized that with my right index, I was mechanically scratching and peeling away the skin of my thumb. I realized that that tiny movement revealed my nervousness and insecurity. I stopped it, as I continued to breathe slowly.
And focusing my concentration on my index finger and on the rhythm of my breath, helped me to master my emotions, keeping them in check.
Of course, I was not able to read the newspaper. I just pretended. But keeping the gaze on the black ink, while remaining aware of what was going on around me through the corners of my eyes helped me to stay focused and to control the urge for reaction. It kept me calm.
In other words, it helped me to introduce a pause between stimulus and response. In fact, as the Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl once wrote:
Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
Thus, becoming aware of my feelings of fear and terror, in that very stressful moment helped me to be present in the moment. It helped not to think of the worst that might happen. It helped me not to be overcome by fear and anxiety.
Instead, becoming aware of my feelings, helped me to master my emotions, and to decide on the best course of action. It kept me in control of myself.
How to harness the power of Self-Awareness.
Now, that experience taught me a very important lesson. That is, the opportunity that acknowledging a particular emotion gives me to control that emotion and to connect with my true Self.
In fact, when I experience an emotion, it is not my true Self, my entire essence that experiences that emotion of sadness, fear, anxiety, frustration, or even anger.
Instead, it is a limited part of myself that experiences that emotion. That is, a part of me that wants to communicate with me and give me a message.
No doubt: in that restaurant, there was a part of me that set off the alarm that my life was in danger. The message was so strong and intense that it was overwhelming.
Today, I realize that I was able to master that emotion and to choose the best course of actions because I was able to establish a dialogue with that part of me that wanted to react and flee in an anxious and erratic way.
You could say that the more rational and confident part in me acknowledged the frantic “safe your life” message and influenced my actions from a space of calmness and assertiveness.
Thus, we can understand self-awareness as the capacity to influence yourself in a positive way and to lead from a space of confidence and assertiveness.
Today, whenever I experience either an empowering or a disempowering emotion, I have developed the habit to stop, acknowledge and welcome that emotion.
“Mmmm…. Isn’t it interesting?” I say to myself. “There is a part of me that feels sad right now. What’s really going on? What am I saying to myself about a particular situation that makes me feel sad? What is it that I believe about a particular situation, that makes me feel sad? Is that who I really am?”.
This inquiry helps me to increase my self-awareness, to get in touch with my true Self, and to decide how best to respond.Exercising self-awareness generates a space between stimulus and response.Click To Tweet
It’s never about getting rid or suppressing a given emotion. Rather, it’s about recognizing the positive purpose that the emotion is willing to serve. It’s about integrating that emotion as we connect more deeply with our true Self.
This way, when there is a part of me that is fearful, I see an invitation to grow my courage. When I feel insecure, I see an invitation to connect and to grow my self-confidence. When I feel down, I recognize an opportunity to count my blessings and to become more aware of the many reasons I have to be grateful.
How Self-Awareness helps you to be an outstanding leader.
You will most probably not find yourself in the stressful and perilous situation I found myself during my fieldwork in Colombia. I really hope you will never!
But we all face moments during our day when external situations trigger emotions that can be overwhelming. And the more responsibilities you bear on your shoulders, the more you’ll face a stressful situation.
Confident and authentic leaders are not defined by external circumstances. They don’t allow disempowering emotions to take them hostage and to be at their mercy. They lead from the inside-out. Especially when it gets tough and stressful.
That’s why confident and authentic leaders influence themselves before they effectively influence others.
And they do so by cultivating Self-Awareness.
That’s why when you train with me, from the beginning of the coaching process I help you to develop the habits and the skills of self-awareness. Because that’s the first step to lead from the inside-out, to increase your confidence and to strengthen your capacity to persuade.
In his book on Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman shared a Zen parable:
A belligerent samurai, an old Japanese tale goes, once challenged a Zen master to explain the concept of heaven and hell. But the monk replied with scorn, “You’re nothing but a lout—I can’t waste my time with the likes of you!”
His very honor attacked, the samurai flew into a rage and, pulling his sword from its scabbard, yelled, “I could kill you for your impertinence.”
“That,” the monk calmly replied, “is hell.”
Startled at seeing the truth in what the master pointed out about the fury that had him in its grip, the samurai calmed down, sheathed his sword, and bowed, thanking the monk for the insight.
“And that,” said the monk, “is heaven.”
The sudden awakening of the samurai to his own agitated state illustrates the crucial difference between being caught up in a feeling and becoming aware that you are being swept away by it. Socrates’ injunction “Know thyself” speaks to this keystone of emotional intelligence: awareness of one’s own feelings as they occur.
Heaven is that space that we as humans have the ability to create between stimulus and response. Cultivating that space allows us to grow personally and as leaders. It makes us more confident as we lead. And hey…. You never know…. It might even save your life!