I stumbled across a bit of research about the human brain that I think could explain most of the problems we have when dealing with people. Until recently, medical science could only take was is the equivalent of a still photograph of the brain. Based on these images, researchers could only surmise what was going on inside our noggins when we made important decisions, became emotional, or decided to watch WWF Raw instead of getting that report done for the next days meeting. Photography being what it is, a lot of their guesses were wrong.
Now, with active MRI, PET scans, and the like, we can view the brain in action. We can see which neurons are firing and which parts of the brain are active (or, in the case of teenagers, which parts aren’t active). A few conclusions fascinate me; one is that the brain’s least efficient function is information retention. How ironic, the function that is the most difficult for our brains to perform is what we ask it to do most often. Of course, we only have minute control over the actions of our brain. The majority of the time our brains guide us through life without us knowing what is going on up there. When we exercise conscious control over ourselves, however, is when we can either flow with the brain’s natural abilities, or contradict every instinct with which we were born (that’s when we invented PowerPoint).
The brain’s most efficient activity; pattern recognition. Because patterns are easy for the brain to recognize, we live a patterned existence. Patterns become so ingrained in our behavior that we not only rest on them, we become frustrated at the slightest interruption to our routine. Try conducting your morning routine in reverse and see how it shakes you up.
Human beings’ reliance on patterns has a strong impact on how we treat co-workers and customers. If you remember the last time you got frustrated with someone, it probably had something to do with them breaking your expected pattern of events. If you and a co-worker disagreed about an issue, you probably told yourself he or she was being unreasonable, stubborn, or unwilling to listen to different points of view. Of course, you were right, but they were thinking the same thing about you, and they too, were right. You were both right because you were both trying to convince the other to approach the situation in the manner in which you were already accustomed. Human beings are simply not wired to accept something that isn’t part of our expected pattern. This certainly doesn’t mean we are incapable of out-of-the-box thinking, it just takes more work to get there.
Here’s the big challenge, most of the time our work follows a fairly predictable pattern. If 80% of our day usually goes according to plan, we are really set up for failure the moment something or someone steps out of line. Think of the last phone conversation you had at work that knocked you off balance. It was probably because the person was calling about something that you have dealt with a million times before, so you knew exactly how to handle it. You started down your patterned delivery and BAM, they wanted to go a different route. They asked a question that “has nothing to do with this!” They suggested a solution that fell into the “we don’t do it that way” category. Your brain experienced a mini-short-circuit, and the conversation slid downhill. You judged the person negatively (uncooperative, didn’t trust your expertise, had to have it her own way, etc.). When-ever we judge someone else poorly; it is likely because they want to do something according to their pattern instead of ours. We are actually very lucky if ours and another person’s patterns fall naturally in synch, that why we invented marriage.
Another result of our reliance on patterns is that the brain is much better at remembering than it is imagining. Our natural tendency is to resist new and unfamiliar ideas and seek out things that are familiar to us. This can even apply to people who are seemingly adventurous. They may eat at a different restaurant every night, but that in itself is a pattern of behavior. Their pattern is to never go back to the same place twice.
Because it is easier to remember than it is to imagine, when-ever you introduce something new to someone they will try to link it to something they already know. Watch the next time you are explaining a procedure to someone, they will invariable ask, “Is it like this?” and link your information to something they’ve already done. Or when you are giving directions to your house, the other person will rarely take your directions as is without asking, “Is it close to (insert a landmark with which they are familiar)?”
Where you can make the biggest mistake with a client or co-worker is to interfere with this natural function of the brain. If you are discussing an idea with a co-worker and they say, “I think I know what you’re getting at. It’s kind of like this…” many people make the mistake of correcting the other person because their version isn’t entirely accurate. We say things like, “No, that’s not what I meant. Let me explain again.” This tendency to want someone to see things exactly as we see them actually creates less understanding and causes more confusion and frustration. It is much better to say, “You’re right on track” and continue by linking what they already know to what you are trying to introduce. The advertising world takes advantage of this by sticking to the philosophy, People trust the familiar, yet desire the novel.
Remember the last time you “got into it” with a co-worker? When they argued against your point of view, you tried convincing them with a ton of facts. New facts require the other person to imagine, not remember so you have put your partner is a natural state of resistance. It is always better to get your partner to remember by linking your position to something they have already experienced. It is difficult to know precisely what your partner’s experiences are, especially those that would relate to your topic of conversation, which points to the importance of asking more than telling. Letting the other person talk always reveals their memories. Once you grasp your partner’s memories, you can understand their expectations, then it is a simple matter of meeting those expectations.
You might say, “But knowing all this psycho-babble doesn’t mean you are always going to be able to satisfy your partner’s every need.” True, but this is not about giving someone everything they ask for. It’s about making a good connection so that even if they don’t get what they want, they still respect you, are comfortable with you, and look forward to working with you again.
There is only one way to overcome all these natural conditions in the brain, and unfortunately the advice I offer goes against everything we were taught growing up. Instead of the old adage, “Engage your brain before opening your mouth,” we must instead react without thinking. When we allow ourselves too much time to think, we usually try to defend our own position instead of our partner’s. Over thinking usually leads to trying to prove to the other person that we are right. Us being right usually requires that the other person be wrong, not a great outcome.
If instead we respond without thinking, using phrases like, “Yes, I see what you mean” or “That makes sense” or “That sounds like it would work,” you actually trick your brain into having to justify your own positive response. When your brain shifts into justifying a positive statement, great ideas follow. This can only happen if your positive response is instant and without thought. If you start thinking too much, you will fall into remembering your own past patterns, and you will get stuck justifying them. This leads right back to tired old behavior, no new ideas, and a frustrated partner. I watched this happen at an electronics store just the other day. A woman tried to propose a unique way of exchanging a defective item for a different service entirely. This unexpected break in routine caught the young clerk completely off-guard. He said, “We don’t usually do it that way.” At that point I could tell that no amount of explaining on the woman’s part was going to get him to budge.
When I present the idea of positive instant response with no forethought at workshops I usually get comments like, “But what if you don’t agree with the idea?” or “What if I don’t have a reason to support their point of view?” In every case where I have seen this technique used, once you verbalize a positive response, the mind has an amazing capacity to provide great reasons why you are right. You just have to trust that your brain will take you there, which is the reason why the majority of people find it almost impossible to implement. Unless you fully trust in your ability to command a situation to a positive conclusion, your lack of trust in yourself will cause you to distrust your partner. There is simply no way to trust your partner without first trusting yourself. The result is stubbornness, lackluster problem-solving skills, and tension. All this is because we are married to our patterns and have better memories than imaginations. So change your pattern, respond positively even if you aren’t sure where the conversation will take you. You will along much better with everyone in your sandbox.