Change Work January 2011

A definite maybe!

Isn't this a great time of year? January's nearly over but there's still most of a new year ahead of us, so it's a time for optimism, for new starts and for new goals. Maybe you experienced a sense of running out of time as the old year drew towards its close, of not being in control of events. Now it feels like that's all over and you're back in the driving seat. Above all, there's choice: of goals, of priorities, of direction. And choice is the key to well-being.

Now, given a choice of directions to set off in, how do you decide which to take? Or, offered a choice of political, philosophical or moral alternatives, how do you know what's right? What internal process do you follow to make up your mind about anything?

Before tackling that, let's just look at some basic ideas about thinking and senses.
I've previously written about "representational systems": the different ways in which people think. These reflect the different sensory
channels through which we receive information about the world. Those channels are visual, auditory and kinesthetic. (For simplicity I'll relegate the gustatory and olfactory senses to sub-types of kinesthetic.) So, for example, the visual representational system consists of mental images, either created from sensory data (things you've seen) or created by your imagination.  Similarly, the auditory system generates internal sounds and the kinesthetic generates touch (taste, smell) experiences.

There's also a fourth system that is not related to any sensory channel.  It's sometimes called "digital" and consists of abstract concepts and logical connections.

We all tend to have a preference for one, or maybe two, of these systems.  So, perhaps you tend to think mostly in pictures.  You understand things quicker and more easily if you can see them.  You probably draw diagrams to explain your ideas to other people.  You tend to use visual references in your speech: "I see what you mean", or "Look at it this way".

And you probably find it difficult to believe that some people don't think like that.  They actually tend to think in sounds!  They can tell from the characteristics of a friend's voice on the 'phone what emotional state the friend is in.

Others translate everything into kinesthetic form and "feel" their way around situations and ideas.  For them, the internal sensations they experience in response to visual or auditory stimulus are just as real and intense as those that result from touching a hot surface or banging a knee on a chair. It's no coincidence that we refer to emotions as "feelings".

My preferred representaional systems are visual and digital.  I find telephone conversations hard work because I'm starved of visual information.  My unconscious mind fills the gap by making it up!  That's OK if I'm talking to a friend and I know the place they're calling from. With a stranger though I formed the habit long ago of imagining an unfriendly person who was annoyed by my interruption.  Needless to say I've worked on changing this and it no longer dominates - although I still catch myself doing it on occasion.

Going back to how you make choices, how you know what's right, it probably won't surprise you to learn that representational systems are involved! Typically, one of them will be your "convincer".  You'll have to see it, hear it or feel / do it to believe it.

I always considerd my convincer to be primarily digital. I accept things that "make sense" and often use that phrase.  I also talk about things "looking right" or I say "I see what you're saying" (because I actually do "see" words!) but it's logic that settles the issue for me. (And I have to admit that the idea of having a digital convincer appeals to my intellectual conceit!)

The trouble with this reliance on making sense is that it's often written on water.  A new piece of information can completely change the conclusion.  So my certainties change all the time. I see both sides of the argument and tend to favour whoever spoke last!

(Sorry if you've heard this one before but there was once a theoretical physicist who took a call one evening from his colleague, an experimentalist, who was working late finishing an experiment they'd planned together.  "It worked", he said, "we found A is clearly greater than B."  "Oh that's completely understandable", replied the theoretician, "my theory shows .."  His colleague interrupted, "Sorry! Did I say A's greater than B?  I meant to say B is greater than A!"  "Oh right", said the theoretician, "That's even more understandable ...")

So, certainty based on logic, on digital thinking, is only as secure as the data it's based on. And that's usually incomplete and often wrong.

And yet, there are some things I just know are right. Beliefs about good and bad for example. These stick, even in the face of much contrary evidence. And their strength comes from being rooted in my kinesthetic system, in "gut feel".

Now I've already said that I primarily think visually and digitally. I ignore the kinesthetic channel. So how do I ever get enough gut feel to be sure of anything? Well, the truth is I hardly ever do!

Is it like this for you too? Or do you quickly come to a firm view on anything? As always, there are pros and cons to whichever pattern you follow. Most important though is to recognise that there are different "convincer strategies" and that you'll meet people every day who don't use yours!