Friday, July 29, 2016

Trusting the silence in conversation


Silence doesn't sound scary while you're looking at a photo of a path through the woods. Primed by this photo, you are likely to imagine silence as calming or peaceful. 

In the middle of an important conversation, this may not be your first reaction to silence. Most often, when we say something significant and get silence in reply, we are rattled. Silence is not processed as calming; it's processed as a warning. The quieter it is outside, the more alarms go off in our brains. "Danger!"

Is silence always a bad sign? Probably not.  Think of a time when someone said something and your reaction was "I need to process this." The time when you were processing was best spent in silence (processing out loud is not always a good idea, even for extraverts). This processing time could have been used to do many things: to understand; to tease out an association at the edge of your awareness; to think several jumps ahead; or to disagree.

Disagreement is only one of many options. There's no reason for it to be the one that is top of mind while you are waiting through a silence. But while the other person is processing, your highly engaged mind is looking for an activity. Waiting with a clear head and a clear heart is optimal, but for most of us, it is out of reach.

Here's what to do with your busy mind after you say something important.  Take a breath and deliberately be present with what you have just said. Observe the other person closely and non-judgmentally, noticing changes in posture, expression or colouring. Be mindful of your own state by objectively labelling what you notice in your own state. Start at the top of your head and work down, detailing the tension, temperature and movement you notice. As you do, you may notice that you begin to feel calm and curious. Now you can wait.

It is possible that the other person is using the silence to express resistance. While you're waiting, they will think about what to say next. That's probably in your favour, since it is often easier to respond to a specific, reasonable disagreement. They might be trying to understand. You can help after they've found the point where they want to begin. They might be jumping through possibilities, and you will can respond to the one that lands (not the first one that pops up).

Silence is your friend in the woods. It's your friend on a wide open beach or under a wide open sky. Perhaps it's time to make friends with the silence that shows up in conversation.

Friday, July 22, 2016

The fine line between observations, suggestions and commands

I have been watching Tony Robbins this week in the documentary called "I Am Not Your Guru." You can read a nicely ambivalent review in the Financial Times here.  I think the ambivalence is built into the process, which might be surprising given the loud celebration that characterizes the Date with Destiny in the film.

For those of us whose work has evolved from NLP, there are lessons to be learned from modelling the most famous and successful practitioner of NLP (Robbins has far surpassed all the founders by all measures of success). Because he does so much so well, Robbins lets us see how fine the line is between observing and suggesting.

Let me explain. Robbins frames his "interventions" both with the exercises and performances we do not see in the film and with his invitations. The film opens with an intervention with a young man who says he is suicidal; it is only later that we see Robbins say he is looking for someone who is suicidal to work with. Since many people go to the event with the hope that they will be directly influenced by Robbins, it is easy for them to decide that they are suffering from whatever he suggests. That's the first round of problem.

The second round happens when Robbins reframes what they say and then solves the problem as he has framed it. This is true in all the interventions. It makes for great, dramatic theatre. The participants agree eagerly that he knows them better than they know themselves, and accept all the suggestions he makes as if they were hypnotic commands. Which is what they are, because they are sensory tangible, directive statements issued from a person with power and permission.

You don't have to be Tony Robbins to be viewed as a person with power and receive permission to reframe someone else's experience so that they find new meaning in it. It's the core of influence, good and bad. Watching Tony Robbins manipulate an intervention requires all change workers to take a good look at how much of what they do is more a powerful illusion and less a response to the careful observation of another person.

The postscript to the movie tells us that the two people who were 'suicidal' have decided to dedicate themselves to helping others - essentially, to reshape their lives as Tony Robbins. A woman who was told to break up with her boyfriend as a part of an intervention is back with that boyfriend. A couple has had a baby (and the 'greatest sex of their lives') since Tony helped the husband find his roar. (Literally and metaphorically). The husband, too, has become more like Tony.

As much as Date with Destiny is framed as helping people find their personal vision and motivation, it seems to help lots of people find Tony's vision and motivation. It's full of life and power and passion. It's just not what is advertised.

That's why I said the review was nicely ambivalent. Ambivalence is a natural response to someone who creates useful ends with means that, if he understands the mechanics of what he is doing, are less than ethical. (If he doesn't understand the mechanics, then Robbins is completely in the grip of confirmation bias. He has swallowed his own koolaid).

I am willing to believe that Tony Robbins believes that making people more like him is a great thing to do. I am not convinced the change sticks (since most people aren't actually Tony Robbins) and I am not convinced the change justifies the lie at the heart of the process: the lie that tells them they are becoming themselves when they feel more like Tony Robbins.

And it makes me wonder: what exactly am I doing when I think I am opening up choice and healing for people? Where is that fine line between opening up possibility and shaping the choices that other people make?

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Plans are not just maps: they are tests of your commitment to an outcome

Photo Credit: Tamara Polajnar
We make a plan when where we want to accomplish something. We want change to happen, and we list the actions we will have to take to make it happen. When we do, we assume that the plan is a roadmap: it describes a territory that we will have to navigate.

I have come to believe that this is probably not what makes plans useful. In the map above, the mountains and loch are real (I visited them recently and can confirm they are there). But the steps in a plan are not real: they describe something that has not happened and that might never happen.

Actions in a plan are not like the roads on the map. They are more like thermometers that measure your commitment to your outcome. At this moment, do you want this enough to take this action? If you do, take the action and then take the next test. In NLP, we would call this a test of your congruency. Congruency requires that all parts of you are engaged in moving in the same direction.

The difference between plan as map and plan as a series of tests is important. If it is a map, then everything is stable and every step must be taken for the plan to be useful. If it is a series of tests, then at any point you might make one of three discoveries:
  1. Yes - I want the outcome enough to take this action now.
  2. No - I don't want the outcome enough to take this action now.
  3. Yes - I still want the outcome but I now see a different way to get there.
Looked at this way, failing to plan means failing to test how committed you are to the outcome. Working the plan means not only taking action, but establishing a pattern of commitment that will carry you forward even when the steps in the plan need to change.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Seeing to the bones of your message

I heard on the radio this morning that archeologists have discovered the skull of a 10 year old boy who died 17,000 years ago in Calabria, Italy.  They are going to use the imprint his brain left on his skull to recreate the brain of the boy so that they can compare it to the brains of modern children. Learn more here. 

There are always connections between the bones and the brain, between structure and meaning. Usually that connection is hidden by other stuff, the muscles and skin and decoration that make it hard to notice the frame underneath. By digging out the bones, you become aware of the meaning that sits behind your words and drives the effect they make. 

Here are the bones of this post.


A skeleton like this gives you choices. The bottom left corner is for the current situation. The top right corner is for the change you want to make with your communication.

Now make a map (use arrows and place the points strategically) of the beginning and ending of your message and at least 3 main points that you will make in between. Look at the map of this post. Is it a post about finding meaning or a post about fighting miscommunications? Who is the main character and what does that character have to do to reach the top successfully?

Whether you think you are giving instructions or an explanation or a report, your listener or reader is likely to interpret your message as a narrative that unfolds through time. The bones show you that this blog post is a story about the way I connected a 17,000 year old skull to the need to find the story in your message so that your audience will be motivated to make change. In this case, I want you to follow me through seeing the bones, making connections and hearing the connections unfold as a story so that it motivates you to communicate more effectively.

This story has bones that says you have to unearth the story in your message if you want to be effective. If I moved the elements around, these same points might say that the best way to understand the meaning of a story is to reduce it to its bones. In that story, the main character would be someone who wants to interpret a message, not someone who wants to shape one.

But either story would have this at its heart: reducing your message to its bones won't strip away its dynamics and meaning. Instead, the bones will show you how to tighten connections so that your writing means and motivates.



Friday, July 01, 2016

The two stories we tell: finding and fighting

I have been working with an advanced communication group and thinking about the quickest way to catch the story someone is telling so that you can support or change it. It seems to me that the essential question to ask is this: "Is this a story about finding something or is it a story about fighting something?" There might be other options, but for the moment, let's assume that it's useful to start with this one frame.

Finding or Fighting?
Problem solving is generally pitched as a fight against something (although some people love to explore for answers). Creativity is generally framed as a finding of something (but some people describe it as a battle). There is no set formula: you have to listen for clues in the words and structure that someone is using in a message. Once you have a working idea whether they are working to find something or to fight something, you can listen to chunk down further.

People look for things they have lost, things they know exist but do not have, things they hope exist (but they are not sure) and things they hope to bring into existence (by creating them). Sometimes they are consciously searching for something and sometimes they only know they were searching when they find what they want. Sometimes they are looking for stuff (material things); sometimes for concepts (like truth or home or identity).

People fight for things and against things. Sometimes they struggle with obstacles or opponents and sometimes with parts of themselves. They might fear the struggle or they might embrace it. They might be born competitors or they might believe that what they want is on the other side of a fight.

When you hear a story, listen for whether it is a story about fighting or a story about finding. It's your first, best clue to finding the common ground you need to understand what is being said, to make a connection, to collaborate or corroborate or contest the message.