How We Limit the Calibre of Our Thinking

When I teach persuasion or negotiation, the first day of class I write a word on the board.  That word is “assume.”  It is the enemy of effective persuasion and negotiation, and yet most of us rely on assumptions much of each day.  Some are necessities.  We need to assume that the sun will rise and set, other drivers will stay largely in their lanes and when they signal left will not go right.  We assume certain rules will be followed lowering the risk for all.

Then there are assumptions about people.  Many of these are based on very sparse evidence, inferences, generalizations and often stereotypes.  I wrote yesterday about the hazards of stereotypes.  Like all patterns, they can become modes of thought that cease to be challenged.  When that happens, our choices are influenced by very weak observations.

Not only are stereotypes potentially harmful as we see throughout the world now, they limit the complexity of our thinking.  They’re like crutches that we’ve continued to use long after we could have been moving fine without them.  They cause us to limp when we could run.  Stereotypes hold us back.  They demean others and reduce us to small thinking.

There are ways to break out of reliance on stereotypes.  These ways are much like those we’ve discussed regarding “choice points” and unwanted repetitive episodes (see categories of blogs in right column).  Breaking free of stereotypes, at least not allowing them to function as fact when so often they are largely fiction, raises the calibre of our thinking.

See Big Think blog here

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Vulnerability as a Skill

“The Power of Vulnerability” is my latest post on Big Think.  We don’t often think of vulnerability as anything other than something to be avoided.  Yet, communication cannot work effectively if none of the parties involved is willing to relinquish some power.  Paul Watzlawick and his colleagues developed a perspective on communication which included recognizing utterances as complementary or symmetrical.  If two people are constantly trying to one-up each other, retaining power over the direction and nature of talk as well as the relationship, then disagreement, argument and even dissolution of the relationship are almost inevitable.  When people engage in some degree of complementary interaction in which power is occasionally given to the other person, then listening and learning from each other is given a chance.

Here is where vulnerability comes in.  If you must always be in control or be right when interacting with others, unless they are obsequious, in awe or frightened of you, the likelihood is that they will either resist by countering your one-up moves with their own (symmetrical), retaliate in some way, or leave the relationship entirely.  The skillful communicator knows that other people must be given a chance to be right and to lead conversations.  Being wrong or not having seen what the other person provides, and admitting that, can do wonders in opening communication and improving relationships.

And so, it pays to look at how you talk to others — even to children.  It’s easy to fall into habits of being in charge or, as discussed in the Big Think blog, defensive routines.  In my studies with colleagues at UMass Amherst and in subsequent books, problematic patterns are often called “unwanted repetitive episodes” (URPs).  The most effective way to break out of such patterns is to say something slightly different — to utter the unexpected.  It’s fascinating to watch how even small tweaks of our normal modes of interacting with others can change the entire course of conversation and even of relationships.

We are constrained by others in our lives, by their communication choices.  This is especially true at work if bosses are overbearing.  But we always have the prerogative to extricate ourselves from such ruts.  First, you have to notice you’re in them.  Then the fun and benefits begin as you alter what the other person expects you to say or do.  This is not manipulative.  It’s engaging in thoughtful instead of  reactive communication.

Rather than get angry at someone with whom you disagree, occasionally saying something like “I’d never thought of it that way” can do wonders.  ”I can’t say I agree entirely, but I see your point” is another option.  Sometimes the other person will attempt to draw you back into the URP or routine, because that is what they know when communicating with you.  So, it may at times take a couple or several  unexpected comments to change the course of conversation.  Skillful communication requires having the patience to do this and taking the time to practice.

Posted in Choice Points, Managing Your Boss, Uncategorized, Unwanted Repetitive Episodes | Leave a comment

Are Real Leaders All That Tough?

Common wisdom is that they’re tough when they need to be.  ”Don’t let this sweet face fool you,” was one of my favorite, slightly humorous warnings now and then throughout my career.  But there’s a difference between being tough and being indifferent and outright mean.  And that’s what the blog I wrote for Big Think is about this week.

It’s time we took the time to examine when leadership needs to be commanding and insistent upon strict cooperation and when showing civility and empathy is more effective. No leader worth his or her salt is the same all the time.  My article with Kevin Reardon and Alan Rowe on the Five Stages of Radical Change used by the Air Force and many organizations, describes how different challenges requires leaders to have different strengths.  Often one leader cannot do it all.  He or she needs a team and on that team should be those who remind the more task focused that there are people to consider in any effective leadership equation.

Hope you enjoy the read. 

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Shifting Focus to the Good

I was just reading an article posted on Linkedin about the tendency women have to take on feelings of failure — to not see a bump in the road as an opportunity for growth.  You can’t really blame any of us for these feelings.  It’s hard to lose a job or not get a promotion.  Smiling through all adversity is asking too much.  But it doesn’t hurt to now and then remind ourselves of the need to focus on the positive.  So here’s that reminder, published yesterday at Big Think.  Hope it helps whether you’re a woman or a man.  We can all benefit from focusing a little more often on the good.  Here it is.


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The Hypocrisy of Killing The Messenger

It’s a rare person in business of any kind who has not heard people at the top say that failure is an inevitable and valuable experience on the road to success.  And yet, how many of these same leaders run organizations where they’re constantly protected from bad news?

Isn’t it a form of hypocrisy to keep bad news away, delegate all problem-solving so negative information never reaches your door while advising others to embrace their failures?

If more senior executives and those high up in government considered this and acted accordingly, significant problems would be nipped in the bud.  The types of crises we’ve been seeing far too often lately could be largely averted.

See more at Big Think —  What If We Didn’t Kill The Messenger?

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What if Honesty Had Been a Priority at GM?

At Big Think today, I posted a blog on “The Power of Honesty.” We live in a time when it is less valued than playing along to get along, staying under the radar, passing the buck, and a host of other forms of ugly politics described in The Secret Handshake and It’s All Politics.

What if honesty had been a priority — a valued strategy even — at General Motors?  As we learn more of the faulty ignition switch known about years before now, “nods” that led to inaction and placing responsibility and blame elsewhere, it’s obvious that a culture of neglect and dishonesty permeated GM.  As a result, people died.

It would take more than a single blog to explore how such a culture takes root.  It’s an insidious process of people learning that dishonesty is rewarded — honesty punished.  No one appears to be at fault, it’s just the way things are.  But no one steps forward to put a stop to it either.  Or else those who do are silenced or fired.  It takes a crisis or whistleblower to expose the deviousness that has become second nature, often defended as a part of business.

Dishonesty corrodes individuals and organizations.  It starts small with little lies.  We learn as children to bend the truth — often to spare others.  What would society be like if everyone were to say exactly what they thought at any given moment in time?  But where is the line?  That’s what every organization, every individual, needs to decide.  And then the hard work of rewarding honest efforts at improvement can begin.



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Maya Angelou on Courage

In a blog on Big Think today, I looked at the challenge Maya Angelou took up herself and passed on us.  According to Angelou, “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.”

Virtue has been taking a hard hit of late with selfishness and greed rewarded handsomely.  The baton Angelou passed to us is one of turning this condition around —  of having the courage to stand up to degeneracy.  Courage, after all, is more often a calculation used repeatedly rather than a one-time spontaneous expression of heroism.  It involves blocking the path of  those who spend much, if not the whole of their lives, seeking to raise themselves at the expense of others. 

Posted in Leadership, Politics, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Politics and Male-Female Differences

On Huffington Post today you’ll find “Is a Female President Only a Pipe Dream” written about the subtle forms of communication that stand between women candidates and the presidency.   Facts about women in congress indicate the extent of the problem in terms of the number of women representing us in the higher echelons of government.  Certainly the problem is not solely one of communication habits that diminish the value of women, but those habits play a part.  We are shaped by our culture, no matter where in the world, and we fool ourselves in the U.S. if we think we have risen above gender issues.  The facts don’t bear this out.  Until we identify forms of disparaging innuendo and subtle, demeaning politics based on gender, bring them out into the open and reveal them as the cheap shots they are, we are not likely to see a female president.  There is no way to rid our culture of differences based on gender.  Differences do exist.  And differences do not mean better or worse.  But using them to ridicule and undermine so that women are not well represented at higher levels of government doesn’t honor those differences.  It manipulates them.  That can be changed if we’re all more vigilant about letting those who stoop to such levels know they are not doing so without notice.

Posted in Bullying, Tutorials for Women | Leave a comment

Are You On The Case Influencing Your Doctor

I published this blog today at Big Think.  It’s about how doctors and patients develop “frames” that guide how they relate to each other and that these frames have a significant impact on healthcare outcomes.  Learn how you might alter your doctor’s responses to you and how you might be contributing to ones that are dysfunctional. 

As an extra aside, communication is a lot like chess.  You may have read that here before or in The Secret Handshake.  Every action by one person, including nonverbal, limits or expands the options of the other communicator.  When we walk by someone and say, “How are you?” we are not really asking for a long answer — perhaps not any at all.  We’ve learned that this comment limits the options of the other person if they have been socialized to understand it.  They, in turn, know that their options are limited to a short reply if any is given at all.  Most of how we communicate signals other people to consider their response options based on experience.  If, when we communicate with doctors, or they with us, the response options are limited in ways not conducive to good healthcare, the outcomes suffer.  So, it’s wise to take a good look at how your doctor influences your choices as well as how you may be limiting his or hers.  Does your doctor’s manner of communicating, for example, elicit from you a tendency to agree so as not to cause upset?  Does he or she look into your eyes as if interested in what you have to say?  Or, do you feel rushed and therefore resist saying things that may be important?  These are only a few examples.  Consider how your healthcare is being influenced by communication choices your doctor and you make.  It could save your life.  It could certainly hinder or facilitate wellness.

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How Good Are You At Marketing Yourself?

With all the information that we take in everyday, it’s difficult to get a word in edgewise – so to speak.  And yet unless people know what you contribute at work, all the effort you put in can pass unnoticed and unappreciated.  While loving what you do can be enough at times, it’s rare to find someone who doesn’t care if anyone ever knows what they’ve contributed.  Yet, bragging can be very uncomfortable.  Maybe if we called it “self-praise” it wouldn’t seem to gratuitous.  The truth is that it’s important to share what you do, especially at work — and equally important to do so effectively.   There’s no need to pound people over the head with insistent claims of having done amazing things, but when it counts it’s good to know how to share what you’ve done well.  Here are a few thoughts on how to make that happen.

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