What is real? Are you sure? How can you know? What if you’re wrong?
If you ever attended a philosophy class in college, these types of questions are often used to challenge students into thinking beyond the boundaries of their own self-imposed limits. Unfortunately, most of us stop asking such questions when we complete the class.
In recent blog posts, we’ve reintroduced this type of exploration by delving into our natural inclination to impose meaning onto what happens to us. We then looked at how we create stories about those meaning-laden “facts” as if our stories were the unfettered “truth.”
In our coaching and consulting practice, we find that this tendency can become highly problematic as people become so hypnotized by their own version of the facts that they develop a form of “brain blindness” to obvious alternatives, even when those alternatives might help them resolve a dilemma.
Obviously, such a tendency can lead to mistakes, misunderstandings, or conflict because we each have our own perspectives. Depending on how tenaciously we cling to our version of what’s happening, we can increase that conflict or (if we learn the thriving skill we’ll explore in this post) diffuse it.
So, what if you could develop the ability to notice whenever you started to unconsciously fall prey to the influence of your own stories . . . or someone else’s . . . by assuming they were purely factual?
How might you develop such an ability?
Think back to an occasion where you realized you were mistaken about a situation, because you had imposed a particular meaning onto the facts that later proved inaccurate. If you take the time to do an honest inventory, you’ll remember just such an occasion. But don’t worry . . . we all do it and there’s a way to reduce the frequency with which you fall under such a spell.
First, though, it’s important to realize that this particular form of self-hypnosis is so insidious that we are rarely conscious that it’s occurring.
As we describe in our book Thriving in Business and Life, it’s because we literally get entranced by our own stories. Said another way, we fall under the spell of our own thinking.
Self-hypnosis or collective hypnosis works in several ways. We convince ourselves that our story is true or someone else can convince us that their story is true. Or we can all agree that our mutual story is the truth.
Of course, as advertising executives and political campaigners know, most people are easy to hypnotize because they are operating in some type of a trance state most of the time. From tactful persuasion, to neural linguistic programming, to subtle subliminal communication, to clever techniques for eliciting need and desire, marketers of all sorts set out to lure people under a spell. And we do the same . . . mostly unconsciously.
To be clear—and so as not to cast an unduly dim light on advertisers—everything from societal norms, to scientific “evidence,” to our day-to-day agreements about what’s “real” and “what’s not” are forms of collective spell-casting because we forget that these tacit agreements are made-up versions of a reality that can never fully be put into words.
Charismatic leaders, though, are uniquely skilled at enrolling others in their stories. And we're particularly vulnerable to this type of trance induction unless we’re fully empowered. In other words, if we are aware that our stories define our experience and are also skilled at intentionally creating more beneficial stories to generate better results.
If we are unaware of this phenomenon, though, anyone who shows up oozing confidence is likely to get our attention. They may have a program, a belief system, or a product or service to sell. But the question we really need to ask is, are they inviting us into dependency or helping us to learn how to become self-capable?
This is not to diminish the value of wise individuals who can help us learn what we don’t already know, but it’s like that old proverb about giving someone a fish instead of teaching them how to fish. Ultimately, the goal of all beneficial teaching is to help students become self-sufficient and collectively intelligent, not dependent on an outside authority.
So, what would life be like if we learned how to snap ourselves of out the trances we fall under (whether our own or someone else’s)?
Here’s what we encourage thriving leaders to do in our soon-to-be released online leadership development course, The 12 Essential Practices for Thriving in Business and Life. She or he pauses, steps back from an assumed or contested truth, and asks themselves: “Do I know for a fact that my story or their story, is totally accurate?”
The answer, if we’re totally honest, is “no.”
Because there are bound to be some details and perspectives we’ve missed and some meaning we've imposed that skews our view. Pausing for this kind of inquiry—which can lead to decreasing a potentially divisive conflict and increasing effective collaboration—can become a thriving habit. This process is sometimes referred to as “exchanging our own positions for shared interests” and it can lead to collaborative solutions we would have never arrived at on our own.
Waking up from the “delusion of certainty” requires that we become consciously aware of the position we are holding, relative to the meaning we have placed on what’s happening. Often, we are stimulated into such an awareness by encountering someone else’s firm position that runs contrary to our own. When this happens, the tendency is to butt heads, to challenge their position with yours.
Instead, we can release our own position for a moment, in favor of discovering what our shared interests are. It’s fascinating to do this and discover that someone with a wildly different position than you, simultaneously, shares common interests with you.
For example, you may identify as a “conservative,” while a friend considers themselves a “liberal.” You have different beliefs that led you to each adopt your own personal positions. But, underneath, you probably both want certain things, like wellbeing for you and your family, financial ease, a safe and enjoyable neighborhood, etc.
If you start there—identifying what matters to both of you—then you can more easily snap out of the trance of your own position and forge an agreement around shared interests, without anyone needing to compromise. In fact, what you create together, in such a solution-oriented state, will likely transcend what either of you might have created on your own. Hence the saying, “The Whole is Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts.”
Here’s your thriving challenge for the week:
The next time you encounter someone with an obviously contrary position
to yours, pause for a moment of perspective that will help you
free yourself from the spell of your own story.
Ask questions to identify shared interests and experiment
with forging agreements that don’t require compromise.
Chris Harding and Will Wilkinson