September 20, 2017

Discerning patterns, seeing what’s going on

Barely readable street signsHave you ever noticed…?

If you can just faintly hear some music being played in a noisy place… If you know the piece of music, you can make it out, whereas if you don’t, you can’t. It’s just part of the noise.


If you know what some barely visible lettering says, you can read it, whereas if you have no knowledge of what’s written, you can’t decipher it.


If we have some idea of the patterns of behaviour we might expect to see in a situation or an organisation, we can make sense of what’s going on, even with little information. It can even be very obvious.

We might misread things, of course: We do need to be aware of that danger. We might see what we expect to see. But knowing what patterns might arise is a good start.

Contrary to what we usually assume—and as the first two examples show—our sensory experience is actually partly created. We fill in the gaps with what we already know.

What patterns are you looking out for? And how diverse are they? Enough to cover the true span of possibilities?

Blending the intervention

Four people speaking in front of a laptopWe don’t have all the answers. That’s true whether we’re on the outside of the issue looking in or on the inside looking out.

The leadership team knows its business, whereas the change agent knows something useful the insiders don’t currently have. Neither has all the answers, nor even all of the pieces available collectively.


The way forward needs to be a blend of both—both what the leadership team already has and what the change agent is bringing, but not usually all of either.

For the necessary co-creation to happen, both parties need to let go of something—to give up part of their model.

Are you ready to do that?

Is trust an all or nothing thing?

Three people, two shaking handsOne idea leads to another. Quickly the project takes shape. It’s all quite unexpected and the end result is way beyond the initial starting point. Why? Because the individuals involved trust each other absolutely, not so much about money though that is important, but about sharing the risks of vulnerability and relying on the other’s support. And, by the way, they have never met face-to-face.

In contrast…

The parties cautiously suggest minor changes, protecting their position at all times, giving little away, trying various gambits, manipulating the numbers, always on their guard. The end result is an improvement on the starting point, but only just. And it’s slow. Being face-to-face doesn’t seem to help much.

In a workshop on “information overload”, participants seem to like the idea of deciding whether individual relationships are trusting or not, and dealing with them one way or another if they aren’t, because relationships without trust consume energy and generate excess information to be handled.

There’s no rocket science here, but I’ve been struck by what a huge difference absolute trust makes in a working relationship – not so much a factor of 2 as a factor of 10.

Of course…

Trust is one of these “be the change you want to see” things. If we want other people to be trustworthy, we need to be that way ourselves. We need to be on the high ground. No use trying to get other people to trust us, if we’re not trustworthy ourselves. (I’ve heard people say they don’t trust such-and-such a person, having just revealed how they’ve manipulated their own numbers. Funny that.)

But what about when it seems unclear?

Can you have degrees of trust? Can you half trust someone (or a business)? Or a quarter, or three-quarters?

Here’s an angle…

On-line, I believe it’s an absolute, more than off-line. On line, anything less than 100% trust is no trust at all. So our attitude to trust is increasingly important.

What do you think?

What a shocker: Trader acts in accordance with what he values

City traderAs do we all.

Did you hear the surprise?

If the world wide web could gasp, you would have heard it from mid-ocean. A city trader said candidly that he hoped for another recession because he could make a lot of money from one.

Various commentators then rather missed the point and started discussing whether the “man in the street” could make money from a recession, which of course they mostly can’t.

This episode brought into sharp focus a vital principle: Individuals always, always, always act in accordance with what matters to them – not what matters to us, and not what matters to that averaged expectation we call the “public interest.” Expect anything else and we will be disappointed. And what’s worse: Pretend that this isn’t so and we make our thinking and our dialogue worse than useless.

And yet…

It’s extraordinary how often we hear policy makers, commentators and others talking as if we can expect individuals to behave in the common interest – traders to always want economic prosperity. Now they might, but only in so far as they personally value the “public interest,” and they may well be under-delivering for their employer in doing so.

Please forgive me if all this is obvious to you.

(Whether international policy makers and regulators should allow large markets in financial instruments that contribute nothing to public good is another subject.)

Here are some everyday takeaways…

If people behave in ways that surprise us, it means we don’t properly understand what’s driving them. So what are we missing?

If we want people to behave in a different way, we need to change what they see as important somehow.

The most deep-seated drivers of behavior are usually unconscious ones, long since programmed in, probably around age 10. As Milton Erickson said “most of your life is unconsciously determined.”

You probably see lots of examples of people not understanding the drivers in a situation, or even not realizing that they need to. What tales have you to tell?

Bullying in the workplace – often due to weak relationship skills?

The onlookers hold their breath…

Frank has worked in the organization for years. He’s just queried the young, new manager’s request to undertake a task in a particular way. Frank doesn’t think it’s the most effective approach. In fact, he doubts it’ll work at all. The rest of the team knows there’s going to be an explosion and every one of them is suddenly engrossed in something else entirely.

The manager practically screams at Frank, “Do what I say or I’ll have you fired!” Frank controls himself with difficulty and sets off to do as he is bid, telling himself that’s the last time he’ll try and keep the boss out of trouble. Who was right? Who knows?

We’ve probably all seen it – perhaps even been guilty of it ourselves – shouting at somebody to get something done when we can’t cope with their reactions to what we say.

We call this bullying, usually.

Interventions tend to focus on eliminating the behavior, but that’s generally not an effective approach. We need to displace the problem behavior with something that is wanted instead.

As Robert Dilts says in one of his books, it’s better to respond to the positive intention behind a behavior rather than the behavior itself. The positive intention of the “bully” is usually to achieve an outcome that is wanted by all or at least most, but they don’t have the ability to handle relationships in a resourceful enough way in extreme situations. Few set out for work planning who they’ll be unpleasant to today. The problem stems from a lack of skill in dealing with people.

So to eliminate bullying, work on relationship skills, would be my suggestion.

What about you? How do you deal with bullying behavior in your organization? How many perpetrators are just simply uncaring and how many “lose it” because they run out of skills to deal with challenges resourcefully?

(May you outwit the bully wherever he or she may be found.)

What can we learn from a stalled career?

Carol still applies for senior jobs that come up, but she’s lost count of the interviews she’s been to over the years only to be disappointed. She doesn’t tell her family anymore when she’s in the running for a new position. They can tell though.

Carol’s well-qualified, with plenty of relevant experience and good results to show for it. Her face just doesn’t seem to fit. That’s what she tells herself anyway, not noticing her victim mindset. The self-talk keeps her self-esteem up.

If nothing changes, she’ll see out the rest of her career at  her current level.

But wait, maybe the explanation is all wrong…

Maybe it’s because her attention is mostly on herself; maybe she doesn’t hear other people out; maybe she doesn’t focus on what’s important for them. I may be wrong, but that is my personal experience of her. Perhaps the interviewers somehow sense that Carol could be difficult to work with – focused on her own issues and oblivious to theirs.

It’s likely others experience Carol as not really attending to other people, but do any of them ever tell her? I doubt it. So they help sustain her misconception about her lack of advancement.

I’m complicit too…

I haven’t told her my hunch about what may be holding her back. I feel I don’t know her well enough.

And so Carol carries on with her behavior, oblivious to what’s holding her back, and what other people can see.

So what’s my takeaway?

Well, there’s the obvious one: “Attending to others” (listening and more) is a vital behavior. That’s a reminder for me too, having failed to do this with a friend recently.

But there’s a bigger learning…

We can’t depend on other people telling us what we’re doing wrong, even if they can see it.

So we need to develop our own self-awareness and sensitivity to feedback. We need an attitude of personal mastery – an openness to learning about how we interact with other people.

How do you tackle this? How do you track your own effectiveness

North Korean leadership – irrational or just not understood?

North Korean leadership – irrational or just not understood? And a suggested takeaway (no, not a Korean carry out (!) – an idea to use).

North Korea’s leadership is frequently referred to as “irrational”, but maybe it only seems irrational because we don’t understand its way of looking at the world – a very different viewpoint and values. Would the Chinese call the North Korean leadership irrational? Probably not. Being that bit closer, they may see how North Korea’s actions make sense in Kim Jong Il’s “map of the world”, frustrating though they may be for the Chinese, and dangerous for everyone.

At a slightly less dramatic level – only slightly, mind – somebody recently called “irrational” another party in a dispute. Same applies. Unless a person is mentally ill (perhaps Kim Jong Il is), there’s really no such thing as “irrational”. If somebody’s decisions don’t seem to make sense, it just means we don’t understand their perspective, and instead are trying to evaluate using our map.

Here’s the takeaway I suggest…

If you think you’re dealing with irrationality, accept instead you don’t understand the other’s perspective, and look for the explanation – it’ll be there. You don’t have to agree with it, just accept their right to have their own perspective. Then you’ll stand more chance of figuring out what to do to solve the problem.

And the underlying principle…

“The map is not the territory” – so said Alfred Korzybski in 1931, with echoes by NLPers since. Our model of the world is a pale shadow of the world itself. Mine is different from yours and neither are the same as the world itself. You have as much right to your model as I have to mine, and we both know much and yet also very little.

What do you do with someone who talks about themselves all the time?

Do you have this problem?  You find that certain people just talk about themselves all the time.  You’re happy to listen and attend to them a lot, even much more than half the time when you’re together, but there are occasions when you’d like them to pay attention to you.  What should you do?

I’m often asked about this in the talks I give about my book and the ‘system for people’ it describes.  Clients, colleagues, family and friends ask about it too.  The prompt is usually when I say that one of the biggest things I learned was that to get what we want, we need to help other people get what they want first.

There are lots of way to interrupt the pattern.  Two to highlight are:

Just ask for your turn.  You can say something like: ‘It’s been very interesting hearing about your abc.  Now I’d like to tell you about xyz, because I’d like your help / opinion etc.’  Use ‘because’ to give a reason – a powerful word.

Here’s a more subtle method…

Reward the other person for the behaviour you want them to adopt, even if you haven’t seen them do it yet.  Choose your moment and say something like ‘I really like it when you listen so carefully to what I have to say and give me your opinion about it’, even when they’ve never done that.  You’d think they’d just ignore it or be confused, wouldn’t you, but it’s amazing how they start doing the behaviour you want.  They’re hardly going to say ‘Oh no. I haven’t actually done the thing you’re praising me for.’

It’s a great approach for getting all sorts of things to happen.  Show the other person what’s it going to be like when they do the thing you want them to do.  Then they’ll do more of it.

Having said all that, it’s worth pausing to ask ourselves when and where we go on about our own stuff.  If we notice the behaviour in others, chances are good we do it too.

Research suggests health outcomes could be improved by working on relationship skills

Professor Phil Hanlon, expert in public health at Glasgow University, quoted in an article by Helen Puttick in The Herald newspaper (22 March 2010), says that the ‘best shot’ at an explanation for the chronic ill-health in the Glasgow is ‘a series of factors to do with the social, cultural, political history of the city which manifests itself in chronic stress, relationship issues, attitudinal issues and behavioural issues. These biological, relational, environmental and cultural things are combining in a particularly toxic way for Glasgow.’  Comparisons with other cities (particularly Liverpool and Manchester) unexpectedly showed that levels of deprivation did not alone account for the poor health stats in Glasgow.

Interesting that ‘relationship issues’ are seen by Professor Hanlon as potentially part of the explanation.  We might conclude that working on our skilfulness in relationships could contribute to improving health, in Glasgow, at least.  This might ring true with on-the-ground experience of a city in which talking about something bad that’s happened, like an accident, is commonly employed as a means of establishing common ground with other people.  Focusing on the good things instead might help more than our state of mind.

To read the Herald article go to