Think about the way you think–the process of thinking. Just because you have a brain no more guarantees you can think than having a mouth guarantees you can communicate.
I got tired of being misled by those who smiled at me while saying, “Trust me.”
So, as a matter of rational self-defense, I began studying the process of thinking rationally.
Conclusion: most people do not think rationally at all. They confuse rationalizing with being rational. And those two processes are polar opposites, even though they sound like the same thing.
A big difference that determines who is in control of your mind
Rationalizing: making up your mind first, then looking for information that supports what you want to believe (or others want you to believe without thinking about it).
Rational: gathering information, then processing it systematically to guide you to what you should believe about it. You are in control or your decisions.
What causes us to rationalize?
I’ve been studying the thinking process for over twenty-five years. Why? I felt that I had been misled by the biases and belief systems of others who merely adopted what they had been taught without any rational investigation into why they believed as they did.
No blame intended. They were well intentioned and just wanted me to believe the right things, according to what they had always been taught by other well intentioned people as the right things.
So I did the natural thing. I bought into their beliefs. It seemed like the rational thing to do.
Until . . . I discovered information counter to what I had been told to believe. And it troubled me.
I found out there is a term for that feeling–cognitive dissonance. The feeling you get when you realize you hold a belief that is not supported by the information you gathered, but you continue to hold that belief anyway.
I didn’t like that feeling. The quest began.
I had to come to an understanding of why I believed what I did.
As I embarked, I was astounded that so few were with me on that journey. When I told them what I was doing, some patronized me, “Good luck, and I hope you find yourself.” Others stared back blankly as if they did not understand the concept. And others outright ridiculed me as a liberal elite.
I did not know what a liberal elite was, and come to find out neither did my critics. The best I could determine was that a liberal elite is what they called anyone who contradicted their opinions.
Why bother with rational information to support what you believe when hurling derogatory insults is good enough?
There’s nothing new about that tactic. There’s even a term for it–epithet. The tactic places a derogatory label (a.k.a. name calling) on a person, an idea, a point of view, a way of doing something, or an institution, to make listeners biased against it.
The speaker is trying to get you to believe him by calling his opponents names that you would also find reprehensible. In other words, when you don’t have a rational argument to back up what you are saying, start calling your opponent names or belittling them or slurring them.
The labeling tactic pretty much works every time on people who are in rationalizing mode.
I’m assuming you do want to think for yourself. You can learn to listen to all sides of a position, educate yourself on a broad range of facts and perspectives, understand the context in which the facts exist, apply a critical thinking process, and come to an informed conclusion. Think rationally.
You’ll risk being called a liberal elite. But it’s worth it.
Take back control of your mind, and be more
Our mind plays tricks on us, and our eyes and ears are unwitting co-conspirators. They continually get us in trouble. It’s a WYSINWII kind of thing (What You See Is Not What It Is).
Remember Benjamin Franklin’s advice, “Believe none of what you hear, and only half of what you see.”
Perception is the process of interpreting sensory stimuli. So, in a literal sense, touch, taste, and smell get in on the game, too. Our sensory organs take in information from our surroundings and feed it into the brain where it is interpreted into our reality. IIWISII (It Is What I Say It Is)–EOD (End Of Discussion).
Every one of us has experienced a situation in which we were absolutely certain we had our objective facts correct, only to find out that we had been fooled again. Drats.
Misperception is the root of all kinds of unintended conflicts.
And here’s the danger zone: our misperceptions–misinterpretation–becomes our reality, and we act on it. Then, someone perceives our intentions and reacts to our actions. Then, we react to the reaction, and the vicious cycle takes on a life of its own.
What we have here is a failure to communicate: the other person obviously doesn’t understand. After all, how could I possibly be wrong about what I saw with my own eyes and heard with my own ears?
Been there? Done that? I have.
How, then, can we avoid getting fooled?
I have not found a failsafe workaround. But I have been able to come up with a few rules of thumb that help keep me balanced. Maybe they will work for you, too.
- Everyone is always right in their own mind, at any point in time. Think about it. Why would anyone intentionally be wrong? I Accept that everyone has his or her understanding of events, and they are as legitimate to them as mine are to me.
- Never tell anyone they are wrong. Allow their perceptions. Seek to understand the underlying information and how they worked through it to arrive at their understanding. Have a conversation, not an argument.
- I like myself more when I admit that I could be wrong about something without damaging my self-esteem. Always having to be right is too big a burden to bear. Being wrong does not mean I’m incompetent or inadequate–just human.
- Do a double-take. Most things are not quite as they initially seemed. After my initial knee-jerk reaction, which I cannot prevent because the fight or flight system hijacks me, I stop and reflect on what is happening. Reserve judgment about right-wrong, good-bad, and take another look at the situation. Focusing on different aspects of the information might result in a different interpretation of it.
- Change perspective. I shift my point of view to that of the others involved. I try to envision how I would see the situation through their eyes and experience. This also helps me to be more empathetic, and even compassionate; thus, potentially altering my response.
I have never been more embarrassed than
when I was so certain of my opinion
and told everyone so.
Your ability to more accurately perceive the reality you create
will help you to be more
And others will perceive that, too.
No one likes to admit he or she is wrong because of the stigma attached to it. But most often, the right thing to do is fess up. The problem with that is, even though confession is good for the soul, it goes against our nature.
However, once we admit the error of our ways, we can get on with setting things straight–improving, learning, and growing.
There are two things working against making meaningful personal change: blind spots and self-justification.
We have a physical blind spot in our visual field–that place on the retina where there are no photoreceptors. Anytime the eye lens focuses an image on that spot where the optic nerve exits the back of the retina, objects disappear right before our eyes.
We also have intellectual blind spots–those places in our mindset that are simply unreceptive to any ideas or points of view that are contrary to the way we have learned to see the world and position ourselves in it. Our idea receptors are missing. Because we cannot see any other variations on our reality, we cannot fathom that our view of the world could use any adjustment.
By the way, our blind spots cleverly delude us to believe we don’t have any, although everyone else seems to.
Such a blind spot can cause some vexing ethical problems. In their book, Blind Spots: Why we fail to do what’s right and what to do about it, Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel write, “Ethics interventions have failed and will continue to fail because they are predicated on a false assumption: that individuals recognize an ethical dilemma when it is presented to them.”
It does not occur to us that we could have intentionally been wrong, irresponsible, or corrupt. After all, we are good people with good intentions. Bazerman and Tenbrunsel contend that ethical judgments are based on factors outside of our awareness. In other words, they manifest from our intellectual and ethical blind spots. How could we have possibly been wrong?
Blind spot fixes
Step one: admit that blind spots exist. We can physically find the blind spot in our vision field. Finding them in our intellectual and ethical field is more difficult. Just the awareness that we are susceptible to them will put us on guard and open us up to those who try to help us see what we are missing.
Step two: aggressively seek other points of view so we can see issues from many perspectives. We can expand the field of view by expanding our sources for information.
Step three: accept the idea that everyone’s view of the world is real and legitimate to them. It is no more or no less real to them than ours is to us.
I have come to believe that everyone, in his or her own mind, at any point in time, is always exactly right.
If we end up with two ideas in mind that contradict each other, we are experiencing cognitive dissonance. This creates a psychological tension that throws us in disequilibrium. It must be resolved so we can find internal balance and feel good about ourselves again.
Psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson explore self-justification in depth in Mistakes Were Made (but not by me). They explain the connection with blind spots. “(D)issonance theory is a theory of blind spots–of how and why people intentionally blind themselves so they can fail to notice vital events and information that might make them question their behaviors or their convictions,” (p. 42).
The goal of self-justification is to tell our stories to ourselves so that we always come out OK. We are always the hero of our own story, never the villain.
The notion that one might be mistaken never enters their mind. If it does, it quickly evaporates. No change required.
Self-justification manifests in debates of all types: religion, politics, whose version of an incident is correct, personality conflicts, customer complaints, employee disputes, and on and on. Usually neither party is willing to accept blame, and all parties want to be vindicated.
I repeat, everyone, in his or her own mind, at any point in time, is always exactly right.
But what if one said, “You know, I might have been wrong about that”?
Step one: as with blind spots, admit that this happens and that we all are guilty of doing it.
Step two according to Tavris and Aronson: find a few trusted naysayers who will help us avoid operating in a hall of mirrors, “in which all we see are distorted reflections of our own desires and convictions,” (p. 66). Their job is to keep us honest with ourselves.
Step three: find new explanations that take into account honest appraisals of situations that lead us to more constructive solutions. If our need is to maintain self esteem, wouldn’t our self esteem be strengthened by knowing that through self reflection we can come out wiser, more inclusive, more balanced, more aware, and more able to deal with the complexities of our world?
Now, that’s a self I can justify.
That’s a self that is
Have you ever lashed out at someone and a split second later you wish you could take it back? You wish you had not said or did what you did which, in a split second, damaged a relationship or harmed someone–either physically or emotionally?
Join the club.
That flash reaction is not a character flaw. But one’s repeated failure to control it, is.
There is a microsecond when we have a choice–not much time, but enough time–to redirect and choose a positive response instead of a negative reaction.
What was I thinking?
This applies to any situation, not just anger. Any time you react impulsively, without thinking, you risk making a poor choice that you cannot easily take back. Have we not all been overtaken with enthusiasm about something and made a commitment or spent money that we later regretted?
The charge builds up before it flashes.
When it comes to anger, the flash of rage does not come out of nowhere. It builds up, usually little by little, then BOOM!
Lightening is the result of atmospheric conditions in which turbulence in a cloud makes the water and ice droplets bump against each other causing electrical fields to develop. The lighter positively charged protons end up in the top of the cloud, and the heavier negatively charged electrons go to the bottom. When the difference in the charge gets large enough, electrons leap across the distance to equalize the distribution, and we see the spark, or lightning.
The flash of rage is like the lightning: it comes as a consequence of the turbulence and polarization of ions.
We can feel the anger building inside ourselves as our muscles tense, our breathing becomes more shallow and rapid, and we feel the pressure building up inside our head. Our mind perceives a terrible imbalance in things that must be reconciled. If we don’t find an insulator, a flash of rage is about to spark.
The best insulator
Find an insulator. Preempt the strike.
The best way is to get your mind off whatever is causing the disturbance by intentionally engaging in an activity that distracts you from the problem. Avoid aggressive actions such as hitting or breaking things.
A number of possibilities are available.
- Focus on an object and breathe deeply.
- Take a walk and focus on something more relaxing and refreshing.
- Write out your frustrations and different ways to resolve them.
- Tense and relax your muscles slowly and feel the tension release.
- Listen to calming music or sounds.
When you become calm, your are in a better mental frame to make better choices.
These techniques work anytime you are faced with emotionally laden decisions. The goal is to clear your mind so you can think and focus on the best outcome that keeps you from making a rash decision that does more harm than good.
Not only will you become more confident in your ability to make rational choices, others will see your example and trust you to help them do likewise.
You can make a calm choice to be more
We are obsessed with being right; heads roll when mistakes are made. Sometimes we are so afraid of being wrong that we will stall instead of making a decision.
I learned a simple technique for never making a wrong decision: stop using the word, “wrong,” when describing the outcome of a decision. We can make better decisions by focusing on the process instead of the outcome.
Decisions have two aspects
There are two parts to any decision: the process of making it, and the results, or the outcome, of implementing it.
I used to use the terms, “right and wrong,” to describe the results. Then it dawned on me that some outcomes we call wrong are not necessarily 100-percent wrong. Much of what came out of it are actually good or helpful. However, anything short of perfection gets punished.
Think about it. Whenever you make a decision, you have some expectation of what will happen. You decide with some confidence that things will go as expected. But sometimes they don’t. Does that mean you were entirely wrong? No.
I now use the terms, “as expected or better,” and “less than expected.” That seems to take the sting out of results of a decision falling short, and it puts us back on the right track for getting the results we want.
No excuse for a bad decision
The process of making the decision can be good or bad.
A good process has several aspects that contribute to a high quality decision, which gives us the greatest probability of getting the results we expect. Those include things like properly framing the decision question, gathering information, creating and evaluating possible scenarios, and being realistic about the potential outcomes.
A bad decision comes from a bad process. People who have no observable process and get less than expected results come across like The Three Stooges, who just kept making a bigger mess of things. Sometimes we just get lucky with a bad process; like a Guardian Angel is watching over us.
A good process makes success more likely. We like it when a great plan comes together. It makes us feel like the A-Team. Sometimes a good process still comes up short. We didn’t get all we expected. So, we debrief the process, learn, and make a better decision. That’s the Gun-Ho approach.
Nothing is for sure–ever
No outcome can be 100-percent guaranteed (outside the laws of nature). There is always a possibility that something can happen that was not accounted for in the planning.
Process, however, can be learned and executed with precision. If the process is bad, then we made a bad decision that will likely come out less than expected. For that, we should be held accountable.
Learning the difference between decision process and results is central to never making another wrong decision.
Strive to consistently make good decisions, and you will be
Fools fascinate me. Fools are invaluable to our society because they have a knack for exposing the numbskulls who, for some incomprehensible reason, end up in positions of influence in our most important institutions.
I’m not out to bash our leaders wholesale. I am, however, out to extol the virtue of divergent thinking in the service of getting at the truth we must confront to make good decisions.
By NBC Television (eBay front back) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In medieval times, fool was a licensed profession of sorts. In some cases fools were used merely for entertainment. But some monarchs and rulers used the fool, or jester, to bring up the absurd counterpoints that others were too afraid to mention for fear of costing them their head.
Our current day fools are the comedians who spoof the actions of political figures, celebrities, and those at the helms of business, educational, and religious institutions.
Fools change the direction of our thinking
Why? Because the fools invariably see the truthful nuances and absurdities we either don’t see, or don’t want to see. Fools expose the disastrous effects of numbskullery on our institutions and on our freedom and tolerance.
Margaret Heffernan’s comment from her TED Talk, Dare to disagree, struck me as especially poignant (click here to view).
“The truth won’t set us free until we develop the skills and the habit and the talent and the moral courage to use it.”
Fools possess that skill, talent, and moral courage.
The stand up comic often finds himself or herself being a stand up leader who is INPowered2 LEAD, by speaking a truth through humor. First we laugh; then, we think. Sometimes that leads to action that changes the landscape.
“Steve Martin” by Towpilot – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Comedian, Steve Martin, defined a joke as, “complete knowledge in a nanosecond.” Like the time I heard a local fool in my community say of a hometown political kingmaker, “If you aren’t under his thumb, you’re under his skin.” Complete knowledge in a nanosecond.
Sometimes, a stand up leader must accept the brunt of a fool’s truth directed at them. Like the medieval ruler who was smart enough to recognize the truth veiled in humor, and act on it to change the landscape.
Everybody needs a fool
“It’s no accident that AHA and HAHA are spelled almost the same way.” – Mitch Ditkoff
Those who can make us laugh at ourselves are some of the best friends we can have. They help us relax the tension that comes from taking ourselves too seriously. When we loosen up, we release the creative juices to explore the possibilities we would otherwise squelch.
You have permission to be a fool for the truth.
The sooner you are,
the sooner you will be
This week is the fifth anniversary of my second lifetime. I got a new lease on life five years ago on the first Monday in January. A triple heart by-pass gave me a new appreciation for fresh beginnings.
When my computer is acting contrarily, I can usually fix it by resetting, refreshing, or rebooting. Sounds reassuring. Don’t like the way things are going? Then, just click an icon; press a button. Done.
Life is a little more complicated, but we do get a reset opportunity anytime we want it. While we can’t make all the consequences of poor choices disappear, we can redirect our course to make amends and set out in a new direction.
The INPowered life is always under review for improvement. The transition from one year into the next is a reminder of that; hence, New Year’s resolutions. I believe in them.
Back to the triple by-pass. I begin 2015 reflecting on three INPowering lessons I took away from my heart surgery five years ago.
Most crises sneak up on you; so pay attention.
My condition developed unknown to me over time until I suddenly found myself in dire straits. I never felt ill until suddenly I was. Fortunately, I did not have a heart attack. Truthfully, I knew I was at risk for health complications long before my crisis; yet, I continued to make poor life style choices. I just denied the facts and indicators that were in plain sight.
Self-awareness turns out to be a good habit. Every day is filled with decisions about how I will live. I also have ways to observe or measure the situation in all areas of my life: health, finances, goals, and relationships.
Now, I’m more watchful of the indicators that I might be slipping into bad habits. I’m keenly aware that I make choices every day over which I have absolute control.
Extreme intervention is painful.
I carry a fading, but noticeable, seven-inch scar over my breastbone where the surgeon had to break through to make the repairs. It’s a visual reminder of the pain and discomfort for several weeks following the surgery. Extreme measures were called for. At some point there are no easy fixes.
Moreover, my situation disrupted the lives of others who cared for me during my recovery.
My conclusion: it’s better not to have to go through such drastic interventions. Most are avoidable; yet, we keep relearning lessons the hard way.
I can make better choices, self-correct, start in a new direction anytime I choose. I can do it today in whatever aspect of my life I decide to improve. Repeated small actions reap large rewards over time. Sooner is better and easier than later.
Rehab is critical to a new direction.
Rehab is a positive acknowledgement that you’ve made a commitment to set a new course and to get back on the right path. More of us could use more of it.
At first I thought it was penance for being a bad boy, and I resisted that I needed it. Then, I realized that I had actually been a bad boy for a long time, and I had a team of professionals available who could help me turn it around and establish some good habits.
When I got my attitude right and owned up to my responsibility, I was able to take full advantage of my opportunity to heal and grow.
We can rehabilitate anything: health, finances, relationships. There are pros available to guide us through the process. Seeking help is not an admission of failure, but an acknowledgement that you’ve made a commitment to a new start.
Start the new year with a commitment to
take the small daily steps that will make you
Nothing is ever as good or as bad as it seems at first glance. There is always a rest of the story. The context is larger than the event itself.
“The first to put forth his case seems right, until someone else steps forward and cross-examines him.”
Proverbs 18:17 (NIV)
One of the leadership principles I teach is that everything happens in a larger context. No single event can be separated from the circumstances that preceded it or the environment in which it happened. Leaders must be able to rise above the fray and take a 360-degree look at the situation before deciding what to do next.
Such is the difference between reacting and responding.
Reacting is a passionate, thoughtless reflex driven by the unconscious mind in extreme states. Most often, reacting is fear induced, but it can well up from a sense of euphoria or joy.
Responding is a function of the conscious mental processing driven by our brain’s analytical and rational executive center. Responding is more dispassionate, requiring some emotional distance from the event.
It’s a tough balance. Leadership lives at the intersection of the two.
Leaders have to be the cross-examiner to get to the true facts in context as they seek first to understand before taking action. They also must be sensitive to the emotional temperature of those involved, including their own.
Seeking context requires extensive questioning beyond the obvious, because the solutions often are found on the fringes and beneath the surface of the event itself.
Take the recent St. Louis County grand jury investigation of police officer Darren Wilson’s fatal shooting of Ferguson, MO, teenager Michael Brown. The grand jury limited its investigation to the event itself and information relating directly to it. However, the national question is broader and goes to the context of policing, training, perceptions of white men about black men, and vice versa, laws allowing deadly force by police officers, distribution of population by race, parenting, on going racial mistrust and misunderstanding, and on and on.
In the larger context, both Michael Brown and Darren Wilson are victims of a larger context, a systemic issue that is at the heart of the event.
Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones discuss contextual leadership in their book, Why Should Anyone Be Led by YOU? They state:
“(L)eaders are not passive recipients of the context . . . they work with their followers to socially construct an alternative reality. This capacity is what differentiates those who merely react to situations from those who have the capacity to transform them,” (2006, 89).
Who will be those transformative leaders?
Who will step above the fray instead of wallowing in it?
Who will contribute to the healing instead of further inflaming the wounds?
Who will seek to understand and help us to understand more completely?
Who will help us construct the alternative reality?
Who will step up and show us they are