The Neutral Witness: Leadership Super Power

The Neutral Witness: Leadership Super Power

The primary agent of developing our meta competencies is our wise “Neutral Witness,” the part of us that observes ourselves, with compassion and without judgement, while we think, act, feel and be. The Neutral Witness is the stealth super power behind effective leadership; it is largely invisible and yet has tremendous impact on leadership development. Driven by self-reflection and curiosity, our Neutral Witness brings not only awareness, but “awareness of awareness.”

Eckhart Tolle calls the Neutral Witness the “silent watcher.” He writes,

Be present as the watcher of your mind – of your thoughts and emotions as well as your reactions in various situations. Be at least as interested in your reactions as in the situation or person that causes you to react. Notice also how often your attention is in the past or future. Don’t judge or analyze what you observe. Watch the thought, feel the emotion, observe the reaction. Don’t make a personal problem out of them. You will then feel something more powerful than any of those things you observe: the still, observing presence itself behind the content of your mind, the silent watcher. 149

Furthermore, he recognizes the tremendous power of the Neutral Witness, writing “Once you have understood the basic principle of being present as the watcher of what happens inside you – and you “understand” it by experiencing it – you have at your disposal the most potent transformational tool.” 150

Our Neutral Witness helps us create more space with which we can host a broader set of (our own and others’) emotions, ideas, and options. This expands the array of choices available to us. By observing our sense perceptions and being curious about how we interpret our experience (and how else we might interpret it and what we might be missing), we become aware of the mental models (filter/lens) through which we experience and interpret our lives. It is calm, curious, compassionate, engaged. It is our original source of emotional intelligence, as well as the self-awareness that empowers self-management. It is alert to instructive feedback and curious about how we, ourselves, may be inadvertently contributing to undesirable results. This internal observer scans the internal and external context for cues, data, information, feedback to help us “see more.” It notices the information flowing from our internal physiological sensations, our emotions, and our thoughts. It reads the actions, words, diction, tone and body language of others. It reads the social and power dynamics in a room. It reads broader organizational or industry trends and dynamics. It is a part of us, with our best interests at heart, and at the same time, keeps an arm’s length relationship with our ego, embodying the leadership paradox “it is all about me and it is not about me.” It is alert, without being vigilant. Our Neutral Witness takes a bird’s-eye advisor’s view of our own action, at the very moment we are engaged in the action, as if we are an athlete on the playing field who can receive tips from a coach who is seated high in the stands, with a clear view of the whole playing field, or an actor on the stage who has private counsel from a director in the balcony.

This skill of developing “awareness of awareness” is conceptualized and taught in many ways:

  • “Go to the balcony” to get a different perspective on the action (Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky)
  • Bystand (Kantor)
  • Be present / spacious awareness / openness. Notice what is. Accept what is. Let it be. (Buddha)
  • Be a neutral witness; watch your own internal mental, physiological, emotional activity. (Thurston) (I borrowed this term from her.)

The diagram below depicts several kinds of enhanced awareness across the four meta competences that are enabled by an active Neutral Witness. Each offers access to a different kind of valuable information: the mindsets, assumptions and mental models that influence how we think; how we feel physiologically; how we and others feel emotionally; and our inner knowing. Increasing awareness of this fuller array of data and using that data for insight into how we are experiencing a situation (both in the ways that are habitual and limited and the ways that are resourceful and full of potential), can create greater options for effective action 151 and connection. Presence and self-regulating capabilities are critical to being able to gain awareness of a wider set of options and purposefully choose, rather than merely react from habit.

Type of Awareness Linked to Each Meta Competency

Leadership is able to “see more” by engaging its Neutral Witness, and thereby being a curious, neutral observer of our own thinking, feeling, acting, and being. Whether calling it a “subject-object shift” 152 or “double loop learning” 153 or “awareness of awareness” 154 or “mindsight,” 155 some of the world’s leading behaviorists have created a number of approaches that powerfully engage the Neutral Witness. All of these approaches use active reflection as a springboard for finding new strategies that achieve better results. 156

  • “Double Loop Learning” 157 is the purposeful, reflective questioning of the governing principles that generate strategies. (Single loop learning takes place when you change your strategy/actions to change your results. Double loop learning takes place when you question the goals, norms, frameworks, assumptions, values, etc. that generate the strategies in the first place.) Double Loop Learning involves how you look at how you look at the world and how you think about how you think. This awareness increases the range of choices available to us in any given moment.
  • Subject-Object Shift 158 entails a shift in experiencing something as inherently part of you (subject) to experiencing it as something separate from you, that you can observe (object). The things we are subject to are invisible to us and are outside our conscious awareness. By shifting to make those things object to us, they come into our awareness. We are able to look at them and reflect on them, as separate from us. This catalyzes expanded meaning-making and paves the way for new approaches. This is quite similar to “double loop learning,” in that these shifts involve holding out for reflection and potential shift 159 the following: how I make meaning (see); how I act or how I experience somatically (do); how I relate or feel emotionally (connect); and how I experience/inhabit my inner state, resiliency (be). A “subject-object shift” is embedded in many effective practices:
    • Minds at Work’s Immunity to Change four-column exercise “makes object” our “anxiety management system” that we are using to protect ourselves from that we fear. 160
    • David Kantor’s Structural Dynamics helps us “read the room” (i.e., “make object” three levels of underlying structures of interpersonal interactions). It helps us tell neutral structural stories about how an interaction is stuck, compared to “moral” stories that have heroes, villains, and victims. 161
    • Doug Silsbee teaches us to “lift our bell jar” and thus “make object” (i.e. become aware of) and choose our meaning-making and filters.
    • “Instead of trying to change what is happening, we can shift our relationship to the situation.” 162 Here are some examples to illustrate.
     Improv encourages the practice of “seeing” information (verbal, physical, emotional) as an “offer” that we try to do something with, to move the story forward. This shift changes our relationship to information, from being an arbiter of truth to being an agent of progress.
     Diana Smith’s sage advice “Have the emotion, but do not let it have us” 163 shifts our relationship to strong emotion, encouraging both acceptance and ownership. Thus, we can accept rage as a normal human experience and we maintain responsibility for the actions we take when experiencing it.
     Dan Siegel’s Wheel of Awareness 164 helps practitioners observe their own internal processes and distinguish the core self (i.e., the hub) from what is happening outside of the self (i.e., the data points on the rim.) Thus, one’s relationship to these externalities is shifted from something that is experienced as an element of our experience, but not our core identity (i.e., I feel stupid vs. I am stupid).
    • Polarities and Non-dualities equip us to use “both/and” (vs. either/or) thinking to “make object” and embrace paradoxes, where two things in tension are simultaneously true. 165 One particularly powerful example is Dan Siegel’s “River” metaphor which he uses to help leaders “make object” the pull of the “left bank of chaos” and “right bank of rigidity and thus steer the middle course, remaining flexible, agile, coherent, energized and stable (F.A.C.E.S.)
    • The various “parts” of ourselves, who play distinct roles to support our well-being. In his Internal Family Systems model, Richard Schwartz developed this approach to helping leaders become aware of, appreciate and integrate the multiplicity of their inner selves. 166

Cultivating our Neutral Witness, helps us lead more powerfully, by helping us: 167

  • Shift our identity, so that it grows beyond our biographical narratives (what happened to us or what we did), while still honoring and respecting them
  • Slow down our so-very-quick judgments of ourselves and others
    • To examine our assumptions
    • To pair judgment with loving kindness and compassion
  • Value the experience we have, instead of seeking the one we want
  • Distinguish between an experience and the “essential me” that has the experience
  • Bear witness to the drama, instead of getting hooked by the drama
  • Self-regulate the flow of information and energy in our minds
  • Stay calm, alert, curious, compassionate, wise and engaged in high-stakes situations.
  • Align with “right” responsibility, power, motivation. 168
  • Understand the broader system in which players are operating, including the dynamics of that system, the drivers of change, and opportunities to intervene to improve how the system works
  • Glean the underlying structures of conversations and relationships that are keeping them stuck and thus discover options to help them get unstuck and move forward productively
  • Be aware of our own mental models, including their advantages and limits
  • Understand our automatic patterns of behavior (e.g., what triggers us) and alert us to the early warning signs, so we can be more responsive and less reactive
  • Understand, appreciate, and integrate the multiple aspects of ourselves that can appear to be sabotaging our success.

Our Neutral Witness is the leadership super power inside us all. By cultivating, attuning to, and acting with the aid of our Neutral Witness, we increase our external leadership capacity – to envision a winning strategy, to enroll critical stakeholders, and to catalyze action -- to achieve the results that matter most in the world. The Neutral Witness also helps us gain awareness of our mental, emotional and physical sensations to bring more space, which enables us to tap into the infinite field of intelligence and creative potential of the greater Being. 169 Eckhart Tolle tells us how our Neutral Witness helps us activate a higher level of consciousness.

The beginning of freedom is the realization that you are not the possessing entity – the thinker. Knowing this enables you to observe the entity. The moment you start watching the thinker, a higher level of consciousness becomes activated. You then begin to realize that there is a vast realm of intelligence beyond thought, that thought is only a tiny aspect of that intelligence. You also realize that all the things that truly matter – beauty, love, creativity, joy, inner peace – arise from beyond the mind. 170

When Being becomes conscious of itself – that’s presence. Since Being, consciousness and life are synonymous, we could say that presence means consciousness becoming conscious of itself, or life attaining self-consciousness. 171

Operating while connected to this higher consciousness requires a trained Neutral Witness. It requires leadership to maintain triple awareness, simultaneously being:

  1. Grounded in the realities of what is happening in the moment;
  2. Aware of the thinker/feeler/actor behind their thoughts, emotions, and actions; and
  3. Aware of their subtle inner body and the information flowing through that channel.

How to Develop the Neutral Witness

The Neutral Witness can be cultivated in multiple ways, using all four meta competencies as an entry point. For example, targeted mindfulness practices use “being” as the entry point. Methodologies that catalyze a “subject-object shift” or paradigm shift use “seeing” as the gateway. Methodologies that train leadership’s eye to see underlying structures and system dynamics engages “doing.” Cultivating empathy employs “connecting.”

You can practice accessing your Neutral Witness by calming your nervous system through slowed, deep breathing, and then placing attention on your physical experience, while you witnessing your thoughts, emotions, actions. One such powerful practice is named quite literally: “Pause. Connect. Witness. Align. Listen.” 172

  • Pause to breathe deeply.
  • Connect to your embodied, sensed experience.
  • Witness your thoughts, emotions, and actions.
  • Align with your core values, intuitive wisdom, creative potential.
  • Listen for inspiration.

As discussed, the Neutral Witness can also be trained to “see more” through methodologies and frameworks that catalyze “subject-object shifts” or paradigm shifts, such as:

  • Mental Models (Peter Senge)
  • Polarities 173
  • Immunity to Change (Bob Keagan, Lisa Leahy)

A third way of cultivating the Neutral Witness is to learn how to identify the subtle underlying structures and systems that shape our internal, inter-personal, organizational and industry/sector contexts, as discussed in the earlier doing meta competency section. Some powerful examples of bodies of work that can help us “see” these structures and systems include the following:

  • Model I and Model II (Chris Argyris)
  • Structural Dynamics (of inter-personal interactions) (David Kantor)
  • Relationship Structures (Diana McLain Smith)
  • System Dynamics (Jay Forrester)

A fourth way to cultivate our Neutral Witness is to cultivate empathy. Empathy is the identification with and understanding of another’s experience. 174 It entails “putting yourself in the other’s shoes”, trying to perceive another’s thoughts, feelings, commitments, motivations, fears, reactions, etc. Being empathetic does not mean the other’s experiences are your experiences or that you necessarily agree with the other or even that you should not make negative judgments or tough decisions about the situation. Your assumptions about the other’s experience may not even be correct. Yet, the ability to imagine yourself having the experience of the other, and caring about how that might be for the other person is a powerful way to quiet our own ego, so our Neutral Witness can help us notice things we may otherwise miss.

Key Points Summary: Neutral Witness: the “Super Power” Behind Effective Leadership

Our wise “Neutral Witness is the leadership super power inside us all. It is the primary agent that fuels growth in all four meta competencies as it observes ourselves, without judgement, while we think, act, feel, and be. Our Neutral Witness helps us connect to our core, to our authentic self, and operate from a grounded, centered, calm, curious state of being. Driven by self-reflection and curiosity, our Neutral Witness brings not only awareness, but “awareness of awareness.” Like a player/coach or actor/director, it takes a bird’s eye view as we simultaneously participate in life and observe how we participate. It scans our internal landscape for physiological sensations, emotions, and thoughts that provide important information and cues. It scans the external landscape for signs of others’ experience, emotions and ideas and the underlying dynamics and structures that can catalyze or inhibit progress. It is the master of the “subject-object shift” and double loop learning. It avoids black and white thinking, aware of shades of grey, paradoxes, and complex multiplicities.

Internally, the Neutral Witness helps us become astute students of ourselves – how we tend to act, feel, think in specific situations and which of those tendencies are more and less productive. We learn the strengths and limits of our meta competencies -- how we see, connect, do and be. By cultivating, attuning to, and acting from our internal Neutral Witness, we increase our external leadership capacity – to envision a winning strategy, to enroll critical stakeholders, and to catalyze action -- to achieve the results that matter most in the world.

The Neutral Witness can be cultivated in multiple ways, including: targeted mindfulness practices, methodologies that catalyze a subject-object shift or paradigm shift; methodologies that train leadership’s eye to see underlying structures and system dynamics, and cultivating empathy.

© 2021 Carolyn Volpe Cunningham