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  • Writer's pictureCarole Stizza

The #1 Way We Sabotage Ourselves (hint: know the difference between WHAT and HOW)

It started with a podcast

Mike Rowe has a podcast called “The Way I Heard It” and on a recent visit to the mountains of CO I listened to episode 205. (P.S. I’ll let you listen to it and not ruin how cool of a story teller he is).

Lesson of #205

In this episode he shares what he wrote in his recent book about one of the most influential teachers he had in his life. The main lesson he still uses today was to always concentrate on WHAT instead of HOW. This was a way of thinking about these two words very differently than I had before. I was transfixed.

Minimize drama

Chris Vos brought the topic of What and How questions to my attention in his book “Never Split the Difference.” And I shared how this applies to the work environment and in everyday life situations to minimize drama (to see how I brought it to work grab my book, launched this month: The Ask Framework).

What?! How?

These two words have proven to be so monumentally effective to keep a conversation professional and thoughtful, while moving it forward, that I was surprised to learn a different application to using them as a mental choice too. But it has profound merit! Here’s how I’ve recognized this at work.

Concentrating on WHAT you are doing naturally encompasses how to do it so that you stay focused on what is. This if vastly different than concentrating on how. When we concentrate on HOW we lose focus on what we want to accomplish and get derailed in analyzing how successful we are at doing the ‘thing’ in front of us.


If an actor concentrates on what they are as a character they can stay in character and react and respond accordingly. If the actor starts to concentrate on how to act, they get lost in their own assessment of their acting success and can lose the character all together. The HOW mindset is often seen in an actor who believes their success is in HOW they act so they get stuck always acting with certain characteristics regardless of their character. Contrast that to other actors who can get so lost in playing their character you are surprised to learn who they are in real life (they become WHAT their character is).

HOW creates self-sabotage

If you are an actor, understanding WHAT vs. HOW is a challenge to overcome as you learn your craft.

But what about those of us in the workforce, who don’t have to act, but still have to collaborate, adjust, adapt, and compromise to get projects completed? This applicable concept still applies.

This is where concentrating on HOW you are doing will sabotage your success. Instead of focusing on WHAT you do in your role, WHAT you provide as a skill, and/or WHAT you’ve promised the client as an outcome, you will sabotage your success, including your own confidence, and your ability to meet deadlines with less stress.

Moral of the story:

· Concentrating on HOW gets in your way.

· Focusing on WHAT paves the way organically – the how you do it naturally occurs without overthinking.

· Concentrating on HOW leads to concentrating on what you are TRYING to do.

· Focusing on WHAT leads to DOING.

As a Leader

“Do or do not. There is no try.” (thank you Yoda)

As a leader, if you were to concentrate on HOW you lead, you would organically stop concentrating on leading and, instead, spend unnecessary time assessing HOW you were doing and debate the metrics that analyze your success. You get stuck in the trying to lead.

If you were to concentrate on the fact that WHAT you are is a leader, then you naturally set about to lead. You do.

It is essential to always analyze the metrics that assess good leadership, but you must first concentrate on WHAT you do as a leader before HOW is even a relevant metric.

As a Coach

As a coach, my WHAT is that I am a coach. What I do is offer a safe place to uncover what the client is wanting to authentically say, ask questions to reveal why this person is sharing the present information, and ask more questions to help them unpack why the problem they are presenting is a problem for them at this time.

Whenever I get caught concentrating on HOW, I suddenly start to take possession of the client’s issues, their outcomes, and their processes and that is NOT productive or helpful to the client as it often leads to offering unnecessary advice, telling, or instructing. HOW sabotages my client’s experience.

I have to concentrate on my WHAT no different than anyone else.

WHAT stops self-sabotage

In this month’s book review of ‘Positive Intelligence’ you can take a free assessment in the ways you self-sabotage your own success. The results offer a variety of Saboteur characteristics unique to you.

After reading about What vs. How, read your results through the new lens of which ones keep you concentrating on How. This was eye-opening for me, and I clearly understood where concentrating on HOW hypnotizes me to get in my own way.

The way to manage your own saboteurs is to concentrate on WHAT each one helps you do and recognize when each prompts you to think about HOW. This is the balance. One is positive and serves you well as a strength, the other turns that very strength into a sabotaging challenge.

Learn the difference.

Thanks for reading.

· Carole Stizza is an International Speaker, Bestselling Author, and an Executive Coach concentrating on leadership, positive influence, and team engagement.

· If you enjoyed this blog, one is offered each month in my newsletter, to get or share my newsletter click here.

· To get Carole’s new book, click here.

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