The Observant Project Leader

Engineering mindful self observation and mindful other observation

As engineers, it is not the technical problems that drive us crazy. It’s the miscommunicated requirements, the broken commitments, the capricious change requests that make us insane. If everyone just saw things the way we do, wouldn’t everything be so much easier? But they don’t. We’re all different, so we have to compensate for what looks like, from our perspective, other people’s’ “idiocy.”

Poor communication is the cause of most team problems. And that is what we should expect. You were hired for your engineering and technical prowess, not public relations or customer service skills. But if we are going to get through this together and make the project a success, we are going to need to become better observers and better communicators. Surprisingly, that doesn’t start with communication though. It starts with detailed mindful observation so that we can tell when things go off the rails. You can’t fix a problem you don’t see!

In 27 years of running team based projects and coaching project managers, I have come to the conclusion that getting good at this stuff is up to each of us, individually. Observing our own internal and external changes in behavior makes it easier to notice those changes in our team partners. Being able to read their unconscious micro expressions is the most valuable tool in establishing effective communication. It makes it possible to recognize when the words a stakeholder is saying do not reflect what they are actually thinking.

For example, being able to predict that a person is becoming angry, annoyed, tense, tired, motivated, excited, or any other intense emotion, gives you a chance to decide how you want to respond to these stressful situations. You might ask more clarifying questions, take a break to reset emotions, or steer the discussion toward a more detailed description of requirements or commitments, for example.

Observing your own behavior and managing it is different from observing someone else’s. If a manager has just “jerked your chain” for the umteenth time by changing work-product specs while demanding that the deadline must stay the same, it is valuable to observe yourself becoming frantic, so that you can calm yourself before your emotions affect the way you communicate to that manager, or to your subordinates who count on your support.

Careful observation of another person increases your ability to respond respectfully to their mood, when you can read the clues to their emotions. The best professionals depend on this skill to time critical communications so that they are more likely to elicit the responses they need from their bosses, peers, team members, and customers.

We all try to predict how others will respond. But our theory of their minds is only as good as our ability to understand our own mind and notice how other minds differ from us. That is why we must start by studying our self. The Buddhists call this “mindful self-observation” and it is easy to describe but can be difficult to do. We all have a tendency to get so caught up in what we are thinking that we forget to notice that there is an “us” who is doing that thinking and feeling. This is where mindfulness training can help.

Begin by trying to notice what goes on with you at all times. Start with low risk situations and exercise your awareness for short periods like say 4 or 5 minutes at a time. Watch how your own mind works. Not only your responses to yourself, but your responses to others. I like to do this at meetings when I am not the person leading the discussion.

Notice when something triggers an emotion inside you. Notice how you evaluate it as positive or negative, how it is being triggered, what behavior does it manifest in you, and ask yourself, “Is this the behavior that I want to represent?”

If not, determine what you want instead, and take steps to change toward a more appropriate response. Avoid “judging” yourself. Notice what makes you happy or sad, and notice what happens in life that prevents you from being present in the situation before you— what throws you back into memories or forward into future hypothetical possibilities?

The main function of this personal observation is to improve communication between you and your team and to better understand your own attitudes, feelings, and habits of thought.

Researchers have shown that much of communication is nonverbal. To understand another person’s nonverbal behaviors it is paramount that you really understand your own. Then you can pay attention to another person’s body language, understand better how they are reacting, and respond with choice to their total communication. Instead of just the words that they use. Mindful self observation is the beginning of this self understanding.

Once you can watch your own behavior, you can practice keeping up with the content of a conversation at the same time.

Then it is time start to study the other person’s facial gestures, body language, hand gestures, posture, movements, etc. These are almost always outside of the person’s conscious awareness. So if you can keep track of your own inner responses while tracking the person you are communicating with’s non-verbals, you will be lightyears ahead of them in project discussions and stakeholder negotiations. It can begin to look almost like you can read minds. What you are really doing is picking up on their nonverbal micro communications.

For example, there are many ways to say “yes”. Depending on the pitch, tone, rate of speech, and the volume of the way it is said, the word “yes” can mean “yes,” “YES!”, “no”, “maybe”, “I don’t know,” “probably,” etc. Perhaps they shake their head slightly “no” while saying “yes.” People regularly change their outside expressions before they are consciously aware on the inside. This allows you to respond to their experience even before they are fully aware of it themselves.

Learn to watch for the following personal observation clues:

  • skin color changes,
  • muscle tone changes,
  • changes in breathing,
  • lip size changes,
  • changes in posture,
  • changes in voice tone,
  • volume changes,
  • rate of speech, and
  • incongruity between any of these.

When you learn to pay close attention to not only what a person is saying but also to how they are saying it, as well as their outer behaviors that are accompanying their words, you become a powerful force for communication clarity. Like all worthwhile skills, it takes some practice. But as a super-observer you improve your chances of guiding your team and the projects that you take on to real success.


If you find this interesting and would like to learn more, please get in touch. We offer hands-on, experiential workshops to refine your team and management skills, and we specialize in working with technical people and engineers who never wanted to learn this fluffy stuff but were so good at what they were doing that they were asked to lead others. Call or WhatsApp +1-512-507-5464

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