Use self-distance, not just laser-focus

by | Sep 16, 2013 | Blog | 3 comments

out of focus“Laser-focused” is this year’s jargon phase.

According to Bloomberg News, CEOs are laser-focused on sales, new products, and anything else deserving of a light beam.

While tight focus and clarity are de rigueur this year, you can experience value by stepping back and away.

Changing your perspective can help you see the situation better—even if it’s slightly out of focus as the picture above. For example, see my blog post from earlier this year, 3 ways to be clear from a distance.

There’s another brain-friendly way to improve your thinking from a distance—especially if you’ve had a negative experience.

Let’s take this example. A stakeholder you had been counting on for support for the strategic initiative you’re leading starts criticizing you for the way you’re attempting to build bridges with others. The individual says you’re railroading people rather than listening to their points of view and meeting them where they are. Furthermore, you’re acting like a world-class bully.

Note: The focus of this blog is switching. Starting this week, I’ll write more about how to apply neuroscience to leadership, especially around implementing strategic initiatives and leading other change.

Why?The virtuous answer is that I’m making more of an effort to bridge the gap between what we know about science and what we do in business. By closing the gap, we can work smarter and perform better.

The practical answer is self-preservation. I’m now serving as a Teaching Assistant and student for the NeuroLeadership Institute’s Executive Masters in Neuroleadership in addition to my coaching, consulting and teaching.

In my multifaceted role, I need to write weekly homework papers to reflect on my class learning, which will help embed the material in my brain. By adapting my homework for my blog, I’ll relate neuroscience to practical applications at work while improving my efficiency. I hope you enjoy my learning journey!


How you react can affect not only your emotional state, but also your physical well-being, according to the research. The implementation of your strategic initiative also may be impacted.

If you become laser focused, you may immerse yourself in the experience again. As you relive being called a “world-class bully,” you run the risk of making yourself more upset.

Worse, you may not gain any insights on what to do. And you may continue to rehash the conversation, whether you intend to or not. You just can’t get it out of your mind.

By contrast, if you practice self-distance, you set aside your egocentric point of view. You look at the situation from the perspective of an observer. You act as the fly on the wall.

Rather than replaying the experience, you reflect on it. For example, you might ask yourself, “When my distance-self was called a bully, what did my distance-self feel and why?”

That question can help you think more objectively about what happened, and what you may want to do to differently to build support.    

How do you change your perspective from self-immersion to self-distance?

Three ways to get self-distance that work for me and individuals I’ve coached are:

1. Physically move to a different location than where you had the experience. For example, go outdoors, visit a conference room or go to the cafeteria. The change in perspective can make it easier for you to think differently and change your perceptions.

2. Take the perspective of another person, real or imagined. Ask yourself how you would view the situation if you were someone else, such as another work colleague you admire, another individual you respect or even a fictional action hero. Putting yourself in another person’s shoes helps you shift your thinking.

3. Apply the 10/10/10 tool. The business writer Suzy Welch invented this tool for thinking about decisions on three different time frames: 10 minutes, 10 months and 10 years. It’s also useful for getting emotional distance. You can consider future emotions as well as present ones. Ask yourself: What’s the impact of this situation going to be on me in 10 minutes? In 10 months? In 10 years?

Considering that each person’s brain is unique, these three tips may not work perfectly for you. Experiment until you find what works well for you.

Meanwhile, if you want to learn about the science, check out the article Making Meaning out of Negative Experiences by Self-Distancing by Dr. Ethan Kross and Dr. Ozlem Ayduk.

Also, thanks to Dr. Josh Davis, the NeuroLeadership professor who taught this lesson. His research deals with adaptive emotional state control and mind-body connections.

How do you feel about changing your distance?


  1. Gail Severini

    Another great post, Liz. I am looking forward to reading more about the application of Neuroscience. Your last one, “Making change in a brain-friendly way” is still resonating for me. Gail

  2. Liz Guthridge

    Thanks, Gail. And thanks for the shout out about this post on your LinkedIn update. I appreciate it. I know I ticked off some with that last post. Many change management professionals are change junkies (Yes, I’m one too!). We don’t always fully appreciate how threatening change can be to others.

    Several subscribers unsubscribed from my newsletter. Rather than stew, I practiced self-distance and said it wouldn’t matter in 10 months. One of my roles is to question and challenge the status quo.

  3. Vatsala Shukla

    Tip number 1 is the most used tip that I suggest and agree as an action with clients who are prone to knee jerk reaction emails and reactions in general when dealing with difficult colleagues and people. It works. The distance gives their mind the 90 seconds needed to avoid an impulsive reaction with far reaching consequences.

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