Monday, 20 April 2020

The weirdness of language, and why you can't be in two places at once


In common language, we often talk about concepts such as self-worth, self-care and self-awareness. Yet these concepts cannot exist in the real, physical world. This is often one of the most challenging concepts for students of NLP to get to grips with.

First, a general concept of the relationship between language and experience. We can represent things and events in language which cannot exist in the 'real world'. If we try and represent some of the ideas in our heads in language, we create a stream of metaphors, which cannot be directly understood by a listener. The listener can therefore only interpret the language if we have enough shared life experience through which to translate the metaphors.

For example, if someone isn't listening to me and I say, "He's as deaf as a post" then a native English speaker will probably understand what that means. However a younger, non-native English speaker might interpret 'post' ambiguously. Their first thought might not be of a fence post, instead a social media post might seem more familiar. How can someone be as deaf as a Facebook post? And yet, in trying to interpret the concept of 'deaf' you are already thinking about how people on Facebook don't listen to each other, how their posts are broadcasts of their opinions, and so on. Through an attempt to understand each other, we have created a new metaphor.

Much of our spoken, and indeed our written language is ambiguous. I can say a word in one way, but spell it in multiple ways, and a word that is spelled in the same way can have multiple meanings. In the 'Milton Model' of NLP, we call these 'phonological ambiguities' and they are used to induce a trance state. Ambiguous words such as sea/see/si or weight/wait need context before they 'make sense'. Other words derive their context from the knowledge of the speaker, such as:

Cat (an animal)
Cat (a type of boat, catamaran)
Cat (a device that reduces vehicle emissions, catalytic converter)
Cat (a character in the TV series Red Dwarf)
Cat (a steel cable used to carry overhead electricity, catenary wire)
When a garage mechanic tells you that he's going to replace your cat, that's a very different meaning to the same words spoken by a vet.

Therefore, we make sense of such ambiguous metaphors by relating the sound or the written word to our expectations, which are a mixture of context and previous experience. This is how we are able to make sense of language which, when we look carefully at it, makes no sense at all.

I think you understand that it is not logically possible to carry yourself, because you have no point of leverage with which to pick your own body up off the floor. Therefore the phrase "he carries himself well" cannot be a description of a primary sensory experience, it must be a distortion, a judgement. It is a metaphor for how someone walks and acts. A child, hearing this for the first time, might be confused, and might ask what it means. Alternatively, the child may notice whatever seems salient at that point and attach that observation to the statement. Through this, we each learn what 'professionalism' means, and we each have our own unique interpretation. A manager in a company I once worked for would get very frustrated when sales people didn't show enough professionalism. Everyone interpreted the word differently. It turned out that, to him, it meant dark blue suit, white shirt, dark tie.

Let's assume that language follows a predictable and consistent structure of 'SVO' or 'Subject Verb Object'  or 'actor -> action -> thing acted upon', in English at least - many other languages are SOV, the subject always comes first.

Therefore, every statement relates to something with agency, another thing (a different thing), and a change over time observed taking place between them. According to Noam Chomsky and Stephen Pinker, every language in the world follows the same structure, so we might from that assume that every human being observes physical change in the world in the same way, and describes it in the same way, at least in terms of structure.

We might say that the subject always comes first, so the entity that has intention is the first thing that we comment on, and that is usually the speaker, "I". Some languages omit the opening "I", and if the subject is omitted, it is assumed to be the speaker. "Going to the shops" means "I am going to the shops", for example.

If we substitute a different subject/object in our carrying example, based on the above assumption, e.g. the suitcase carries itself, we can again observe that this action can't exist in the world. A suitcase cannot carry itself.

I can imagine a marketing agency coming up with some kind of suitcase with an electric motor and advertising it as 'the suitcase that carries itself' but that is obviously a distortion, the suitcase is not carrying itself, it is rolling on motorised wheels. Carrying is the human action being replaced by the wheels. The case is not carrying itself, but it is doing something as a substitute for being carried.

Now if we substitute 'action' for 'carry' based on the assumption that the above structure always applies, we get 'thing 1 action thing 2', e.g. the suitcase acts upon the suitcase. When you picture this abstract example, you see two different suitcases, yes? And you replace 'acts upon' with something that one suitcase is doing to another.

How about 'the person acts upon the person'?

Again, you see two different people, yes?

How about 'the person cares for the person'?

'I' and 'myself' or 'me' are self references that can occupy either the subject or object position, but not both in a single verb structure, simply because that would require the same person, at the same time, to be both the actor and the thing acted upon.

"I carried the suitcase"

"The suitcase carried me"

Both examples can be described in the physical world. I carried myself cannot.

The laws of physics exist in the real world, yet in the subjective, distorted world of my internal reality, I make judgements and descriptions of events which cannot take place in reality, they can only take place in my imagination. Those laws don't change depending on what word we're using. The structure of experience for "I hit him" doesn't change when we change the word to "I hit me". We can change the word, we can distort the meaning to make it fit, to 'make sense' of it, but that doesn't change the laws of physics.

In computer programming, I can say "The document is sent by magical fairies to the printer" but that doesn't make it happen. The following piece of computer code would make something happen:

<?php
print "Hello";
?>

Well, I said that, and my printer isn't printing. What the hell? It didn't work. I said print and my printer doesn't work. Nothing is happening. It's broken.

A programmer might say, "Well, that's not what print means, print means send to the standard output, if you mean print on your printer, that's more complicated you need to...." etc.

The key is reproduceability. Could we write a software program that will always work, will always do what it is asked to do? For example, add two numbers and display the result. Regardless of the numbers I feed in, will it always work? Or does it only work with some numbers, with the 'right' numbers? Does it sometimes not work at all, or display the wrong result? And does it then say, "Well, that's not what I meant".

No, if we write a program that allows the user to input two numbers, and the program then adds those numbers and displays the result, the function of the program would be consistent, reliable, and wouldn't change depending on what numbers the user entered.

Our goal with modelling in NLP is reproduceability. What are the conditions under which a person would always get the intended result, regardless of input?

Could we write a program to care for someone? Yes, if we very strictly define first what that means. If we know what 'print' means, we can get a predictable result. If we know what 'care' means then again, it's predictable. Could we therefore program a medical robot to provide care? To do everything that a human nurse could do? Probably, yes. But would the robot 'care' in the way that a human does? Would the robot experience caring? Let's assume 'no'. But then, why would we want the human nurse to 'care'? We want him or her to provide care, but I'm sure that many very good nurses, doctors and vets actually don't care about their patients, because that would make the job far too traumatic for them. We talking about the caring professions, but we need to focus on the actions of care, not the intentions.

Let's try another example, "I made myself a cup of tea". If I observed you, I would see you 'making' a cup of tea. I would not see your intention. What if you made it with the intention of drinking it, then someone else drank it? An observer might say "He made tea for someone else" because that was the observable sequence of events. Intention is not visible to an observer. The phrase I often hear at home is, "I was going to do that" or "I was about to do that". I can only observe action, not intention. It would be more accurate to say, "I had a thought about doing that but didn't put that thought into action".

Your intention cannot be observed, and so only exists in the way you compare experiences to form judgements. Eating organic soup is 'self care', whereas eating chocolate is not, for example. On the other hand, eating anything at all, whatever it is, is surely 'self care'. Breathing is 'self care'.

So does care mean what I think it means? Or does it mean something else? Is care a way of saying "takes care of my physical and emotional needs as if I am valuable"? And if that is the case, can I say, "I care about I" or "Me cares about me"? I can say it, but does it means what I think it means? How about "I care about me".

If we're picky we could say that I and me are two different words and therefore different things. I can act. Me is passive. I sits in the subject position, with free will. Me sits in the object position, as the passive recipient of an action. We therefore need to split "I care for me" into its physical world sequence: "I care for x and x cares for me". Does that not describe a normal relationship? Because two people are now involved, both can care and be cared for at the same time. When we take away person x, when they are no longer available to care, and we try to replace that by looping the sequence internally, we loop the program back in on itself. In computers, that will usually cause a crash or a race condition. "A race condition is an undesirable situation that occurs when a device or system attempts to perform two or more operations at the same time, but because of the nature of the device or system, the operations must be done in the proper sequence to be done correctly."

Perhaps I and me are two different entities. Perhaps I is the intent, the actor, and me is the recipient, the sensor. But they are inseparable within us.

How about "I feed myself". We say it about babies, because as with the self-carrying suitcase, the baby learns to do something that the parent had previously done. For a few weeks after the baby first grabs the spoon, the proud parent says, "She's feeding herself now!" but as soon as the novelty wears off, that changes to, "She's having her breakfast".

The baby is eating. The child is eating. The adult is going out for dinner. I can't imagine that you have your lunch at work and people say, "Aw, look, you're feeding yourself". Your first reaction on reading these words is to imagine it. After that comes the tension of being mocked, because that is one interpretation of the scenario, one explanation for why someone would say that, and finally comes the joke to break the tension and restore control, to put I back in the subject position.
The problem in all of this really arises when we take a higher level judgement, based on "when I felt cared for in the past, these are the kinds of things that someone did for me, and when someone doesn't do those things, they don't care about me" and we then directly translate that abstract, distracted commentary back into primary, concrete, sensory reality. You only have to spend 5 minutes on Facebook to see people arguing over such subjective distortions of reality. And to reiterate the point I made in the group, counsellors and therapists are trained to interrupt people from getting lost in their distortions and ground the client back into "What actually happened? What did you see and hear? How did you feel? What must your experience or expectation be for you to feel that way? Are there other ways to feel? Could it have meant something else?" and so on.

Where does all of this leave us with self-worth, self-care and self-awareness?

You cannot value yourself, because you cannot be both the valuer and the thing being valued at the same time. Every major religion in the world seems to advocate the same message; if you want to know your worth, do something valuable for others. If you want to feel loved, love others. If you want to feel cared for, care others. Charity, giving and helping seem wired into our basic social instincts.

How can you care for yourself? If you cared for yourself, you wouldn't need others to care for you. Perhaps self-care is a substitute for being cared for. Which would you prefer? A mutually supportive relationship is one in which I care for you and you care for me; we take care of each other. You physically cannot 'watch your own back', and every police, military and superhero movie has a theme of people being responsible for each other's safety.

The self-help industry (don't get me started on that one) promotes self-awareness. I put it to you that there can be no self-awareness, there can only be awareness of others. By being aware of others, and the impact that we have on others, we become more aware of our effect on the world.

The simple concept which I have attempted to explain here is that the physical world contains objects which interact, and as humans we perceive those interactions as taking place in time, and we describe those interactions using language. Language distorts what we have observed, but those distortions cannot change the physical world, even though we often pretend that they do. We think that ignoring a problem will make it go away. We think that hiding a mistake will correct it. We think that arguing over religion and politics actually changes anything.

We can, of course, change the world, but to do that, we have to be much more specific about what we actually intend to do, and then we have to do it.


Saturday, 28 March 2020

There is Now or there is Know

Humans are compelled to structure time. We might even say that humans create time, through the way that we perceive sequences of cause and effect. Without a human mind to observe the universe, the universe exists only in the now. It has no past or future.

Through millennia of scientific research, driven by our need to structure time and to understand ‘why?’, we have come to understand the nature of the physical world. We understand the laws of physics well enough to send probes to other planets. We understand chemical processes well enough to combine elements and estimate the passage of geological time. Detectives will look at a crime scene in the present and deduce what must have happened in the past. A fingerprint says that someone was here. How did that person get here? Where did  they come from? Where did they go next?

Our ability to structure time creates two illusions which we commonly call ‘past’ and ‘future’.
Just as the rocks in a cliff face contain a memory of the passage of millions of years of time, our minds and bodies are built upon layers of foundations created by past events. Those past events are not happening now. Your lifetime of worry and laughter isn’t happening now. The wrinkles around your eyes only exist now. We can deduce what muscle movements caused those wrinkles. By examining the structure of the connections in your brain we could even deduce what experience led to those muscle movements.

Your mind is a map of reality – your reality, up until this moment. Everything that you have seen, heard, felt, experienced through your many senses is encoded in the connections between decision making cells which we call neurons. If you cannot begin to imagine how your entire life experience is stored in this way then you are beginning to understand how bad humans are at handling very big numbers. You have 90 billion neurons, each with up to 10,000 connections to neighbouring neurons. You have more connections in your brain than there are observable stars in the universe. But you cannot imagine such a large number, and so you find it hard to believe that your brain is nothing more than a densely packed flowchart, a decision making matrix that consistently and predictably takes whatever sensory input is presented and generates a motor output; an action.

Everyone human on this planet (and orbiting around it) is consistent, habitual, ritualistic. Except you. You are the only unique, free-thinking, rational member of the species. You can see others’ habits. You can see how your friends set off the same sequence of events when they  compete for status. You can see your parents repeating the same arguments, over and over again. You know what loved ones will say before they say it. But you? You are the master of your destiny, you are the only person on this planet who is truly unique, who lives in the moment. And when you think of it like that, it doesn’t seem plausible, does it?

How can we explain this disparity between what you see and what others see? It’s really very simple – you are the only person in the world who has never seen and will never see you. You exist only in the now. You are reacting to this moment only. You are not aware of what past events have led you to this moment.

Your family, friends and colleagues see things differently. They remember the last time you reacted this way, and the time before, and the time before. They notice similarities, connect them together and declare that you are “always doing this”. “Doing what?” you ask in frustration. Your consistency is, of course, what gives you friends, colleagues and family. People who are unpredictable are hard to live with, they make us feel unsafe, and we operate from fear rather than security. If you’ve ever known someone who had a ‘quick temper’ then you know what this means and how this feels.
Imagine if you could not replay your memories. Imagine if your life experience was encoded into your mind and body but you could not directly access it. You would still make the same decisions, but you wouldn’t be able to explain why. You would know how to make tea or sing your favourite song, but you wouldn’t know how you know. No doubt you have heard of cases of amnesia in which people, as a result of physical or psychological trauma, can remember how to get to their house but can’t remember where they live.

One reason for this interesting phenomena is that we don’t possess just one type of memory. For example, you have a memory for remembering sequences of events, and you have a memory for remembering actions. This enables you to remember physical skills long after you’ve forgotten how you learned them.

When I was a teenager, I played the flute in a concert band. I stopped playing when I started work, and 30 years later I rejoined the same band following a reunion event. Every few years, I had found my flute and played it briefly, so I knew that I could still play. However, at the first rehearsal I attended after rejoining, I realised something that worried me – I could no longer read music. I saw patterns of lines and dots on the page and I had no idea what they meant. The band was still playing some of the same music from 30 years ago, and if I knew the music I could play along without having to think about it. But for music that I hadn’t played before, I had to go back to the very first thing I learned about reading music aged 11; FACE and Every Good Boy Deserves Food, the mnemonics for remembering the notes on a musical stave.

If I looked at a black dot on the middle line, I had no idea what note it represented. I had to count – Every, Good, Boy. B. If the subsequent notes followed the first with only slight changes then I could play for a while, but if the notes jumped to begin a new theme, I was back to counting.

It was as if my conscious, thinking, rational mind had completely forgotten how to play music, but my unconscious, unthinking, irrational mind still knew. What was actually happening was that the motor movements to press my left thumb and forefinger together to produce a B were still wired into my motor cortex. My brain still had the ability to produce the same output, but its ability to decode the input was missing.

Over the next few weeks, my ability to read the notes in the stave came back. After that, I relearned how to read the notes that sit above and below the stave, as well as being able to decode sharps and flats, the half notes that sit between the 7 main notes. This is trickier than it sounds because, for example, C sharp is the same note as D flat, and sometimes the composer will favour sharps, and sometimes flats, and the player needs to be able to quickly switch between the two. Because of the odd arrangement of the musical scale, C flat is the same as B. My weeks of boring practice of scales and arpeggios at age 11 suddenly made sense. I couldn’t read music, but I could play it, and I retained an intuitive sense of how musical notes fit together.

The process of distant knowledge becoming increasingly within my grasp was fascinating. After a few months, I was a far better player than I had ever been as a teenager.

Amnesia is a theme often explored in literature. For example, in the Jason Bourne series of films, Bourne learns that he has self-defensive skills but he can’t remember how he acquired them. He can’t even remember who he is. Over time, he follows a series of clues that reveal information about his past. He even begins to remember fragments of it.

In the Marvel comic books and films, Dr Bruce Banner can’t remember what he does when he transforms into the Hulk, and the Hulk is unaware of Banner. You might recognise this as a modern interpretation of Jekyll and Hyde, but where and when did you first learn about Jekyll and Hyde? Did you read it in a book? Did someone use the phrase to describe an unpredictable person? Did you see the old black and white film? When did you first hear your name? How did you learn how to make tea, or slice bread, or open a packet of biscuits?

You know that you know these things because you can perform the actions. You might even make up a story to explain how you know. But even without that story, you still know.

Imagine life without past and future. Imagine being aware of only the now, and acting from the foundations of your experiential knowledge. This would be a life free from worry, and perhaps also free from dreams.

Fortunately, you can dream, and you can hope and you can aspire. You can build on your foundation of knowledge. And yet, you would do well to remember that the stories you tell yourself about past and future are merely stories, created to comfort yourself, created to present the illusion of choice, the illusion that you are the only unique, rational person, that you are not a mere creature of habit. The truth is that you don’t really know how you know what you know, but you know that you know it. The evidence is in your actions, and through your actions you touch the world, you leave a trail of evidence for future generations to follow.

Focus on now. Build on what you know. Trust others to follow.

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Failure is a Ghost Story



Failure and ghosts have a lot in common.

People are terrified of both.

Neither exist.

I have worked with so many organisations that have a cultural fear of failure. Generations of managers believe that missing a target, or losing a deal, or moving a deadline is the end of the world. Failure.

Fear of failure kills innovation, and lack of innovation kills companies. Not competition. Not economy. Not consumer behaviour. Not regulation. Lack of innovation is what kills companies. From small local businesses to global corporations.

When a manager is afraid to fail, he or she will discourage risk. They won't do this overtly - in public, they will say that they support and encourage risk. Their fears manifest in far more subtle ways.

Managers who are afraid to fail will ask their teams to come up with 'good ideas'. Not ideas.

Managers who are afraid to fail will critique those ideas and ask, "But what do we know will work?

Managers who are afraid to work draw attention to people who play safe, who follow the rules.

Managers who are afraid to fail ask "What did you achieve?" instead of "What did you learn?"

Why do these attitudes kill innovation?

If we already know that an idea is good before we test it, we're playing safe. We know what worked in the past, and we do that again, and again, and again.

If we focus on successful results, we play safe because we emphasise and reward predictable results. The only way that you can be certain of what is going to happen is if you do what you've done a hundred times before, and you do what you know will succeed. You play safe. In reality, this doesn't guarantee success, it just makes you feel safer. When your team want to try something new, unproven, that's terrifying. "What if it doesn't work?" "Just do what we know."

Failure is a ghost because it only exists in our imagination, and yet both failure and ghosts can seem very real. Failure is simply a comparison to a judgement.

You can fail an exam. In an exam, you know the subject, you have a fair idea of what questions will be asked, you know the passing grade. If you fail to reach the passing grade, what do you do? You either forget about it, because it's not important to you, or you take the exam again. Better prepared, you achieve a higher grade.

We put a lot of pressure on our children to 'get good grades' because better grades are a gateway to better jobs. If they fail, they can try again. And each time, they learn more.

We can only achieve the result of fail or pass after the event. We can only fail when we stop.

Failing - or succeeding - is an arbitrary judgement, a comparison made by someone else, to someone else's benchmark. When you fail an exam, or you fail to bake the cake you wanted, or you fail to score a goal, or you fail to catch a train, or you fail to finish your coffee, what do you do? Do you stop? Do you give up? No, you figure out what happened, you learn, and you keep going.

As a leader, you can create a language of failure in your team or organisation, simply by talking about success. When you focus on and reward success, you implicitly discourage failure. Reward doesn't mean a financial bonus, it simply means that you ask "What did you win?" instead of "What did you learn?" Just by implying what is important to you, you will create a culture where failure is feared, risk is avoided, innovation is killed and your days are numbered.

As a leader, you can just as easily create a language of learning, growth and innovation.

Wednesday, 18 September 2019

The Most Dangerous Coaching Question



The entire self-help industry is based on a simple question: "What do you want?"

With this one question, coaches and life transformation gurus conjure up your wildest dreams, innermost desires and best laid plans.

And what you don't realise is that this one question is precisely what prevents you from achieving those dreams.

In fact, the self-help industry is designed to create one result: Addiction.

Here's why.

The question "What do you want?" contains a presupposition, something which must already be true for the speaker in order for the question to be understood. Whilst all statements contain presuppositions, the important one here is 'want'. To want something presupposes that you do not have it.

'Want' is also an 'unspecified verb', meaning that it is an action with something missing. The missing part is 'to have', so if we expanded a 'want' statement to be fully grammatically correct, the result would be "I want to have..."

Have is not an action, it is a statement of possession. However, the word 'have' shows up in language in the same place as a verb, and it is therefore an unspecified verb, and also a 'lost performative' meaning that the direct action has been lost, muddled up and hidden.

Here's an example: "My boss criticises me". Criticising is not an action, it is not a performative verb. It is a judgement on a series of experiences, edited together in a generalisation, like the trailer for a movie. Similarly, we could summarise the movie Star Wars into the statement "Boy becomes hero". It's true, but it's missing a few details. Maybe sometimes your boss does give you feedback which you don't like, and at other times that's not the case, and at other times you are not interacting with your boss at all. Your assertion is a misleading generalisation which omits the action that you are commenting on.

If I use 'have' in present tense, I might say, "I have a pen". That doesn't tell you anything about how I got the pen. Did I buy it? Steal it? Borrow it? 'Have' is a snapshot in time, and your brain will create a story to explain that snapshot. My mother developed dementia later in life and would create stories to explain unfamiliar items around her. When I bought her a clock, she said, "Oh, where did that clock come from? Oh yes, the neighbour brought it in for me". Five minutes later, my sister had brought it. Five minutes later, another story. None of them were true, from my point of view, but all of them were true for her, at least for a moment. Our brains create stories to explain the world that we see around us, like a prequel for a movie to explain the backstory to a character.

When you use 'have' in place of a verb in future tense, you miss out the steps that you'll take to get you to where you intend to be. Anything in the future is imaginary, yet we act as if it's real. We say, "This time next year I will have a new job". And what are you doing, today, right now, this minute to get a new job? Nothing.

The question "What do you want?" provokes the response "I want to have..." which means that you don't have it now, and you have no idea how to get it. You're not focusing on the first, direct action that you can take, you're focusing on the end result. You're picturing the cake, but you don't have any of the ingredients. And you don't know how to bake a cake. When I say that you have no idea how to get it, that’s based on a very simple observation. If you knew how to bake a cake, and you had the ingredients to hand, you wouldn’t want a cake, you would be baking a cake.

'Want' literally means 'lack', as in this ancient rhyme and proverb:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Focusing on what you want without considering how you'll get it amplifies your sense of dissatisfaction with where you are right now, with what you have in your life right now.

With that amplified sense of dissatisfaction, where do you go? Straight back to your guru for some more daydreaming.

We're so used to thinking in terms of goals, objectives and targets that we have largely forgotten that goals are impossible to achieve, because by the time we start taking action, the landscape has changed and the goal has changed.

Research shows that the only reliable way of making changes in your life is to DO something. NOW.

Move. Get going. Start. Begin.

Goals exist only for a far more important reason - to set a direction of travel. Focus on that instead, and see where it takes you.

As a coach, perhaps a more useful question is therefore, “Where are you going?”

Friday, 24 May 2019

How do we replicate talents?



Stop for a moment and consider everything that you know. Think about all of the knowledge that is in your mind. How did it get there? All of the facts, experiences, skills - almost everything that makes you 'you', at least in terms of your abilities and personality, is the sum total of your life experience.

When you were born, your brain was a relatively undifferentiated, densely packed lump of neurons; nerve cells which can pass information between them. Through a process called 'Spike Timing Dependent Plasticity', the neurons in your brain began to connect together. STDP is a process for connecting neurons where there is a synchronisation in their firing pattern.

Let's play a game. Imagine that on a table in front of you there are five boxes:




One of the boxes contains some coins, the others are empty. How do you work out which box has the coins in?
Simple, you say. You pick up each box in turn and shake it. Or you feel its weight.

The test really is simple, but without STDP you couldn't do it. Your choice depends on the timing between your action and the reaction from the box. What would happen if you shook box 4, but the rattling noise came from box 1? And then when you shook box 1, box 5 rattled? That would be confusing, right?

The synchronisation between your action and the reaction from the external physical world is the basis of how all of the neurons in your brain became connected.

Imagine a skill or talent that you have mastered. How would you teach that to someone else? You might demonstrate the skill while they watch. How would that help them to play a musical instrument or drive a car? You might try to describe what to do. You probably know how that works out - most of what you're doing is outside of your awareness, so you can't describe it, because you don't even realise you're doing it.

Does everyone have to learn through their own trial and error? Or can we accelerate that process, fine tune it to replicate talents more quickly and efficiently?

Without realising it, you give out clues about how you perform the skill, clues about how your neurons wired themselves together as you learned the skill. Those clues are revealed in two ways, through your behaviour, and through your language, but not through what you say, the clues are in the way that you organise and structure your language, and you won't even be aware that you're doing it. While you think you're describing what you do, you're enacting the skill through the way you translate your personal experience into language.

By understanding the structure of that translation process, which linguists call a transformation, we can 'reverse engineer' your learning process, take out all of the elements which are not directly relevant and design a highly specific, customised learning process which then enables us to transfer that talent to anyone else.



In practice, the process is quite straightforward, though it does require multiple interviews of multiple role models, cross referencing, testing and a technical understanding of the structure of language. It's all easily learnable though, and the approach will give you a very different experience of working with your colleagues and clients - hearing what's really going on for them at a deeper level rather than reacting to what they're presenting at the surface.

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

You can have a fast solution, or a good solution, but you can't have both


I've found that many organisational cultures - which of course means managers and leaders - favour people who are reactive, solution focused, ready to act to solve customer problems.

This is killing innovation.

The underlying culture seems to be based on the idea that the customer is the most important person in the business, and this simply isn't true. For a start, the customer is not part of the business, they are an external connection. You don't owe them anything, and they don't owe you anything. You give them products and services, they give you money. It's a fair and equal exchange. When you start to treat that customer as if they are important, that exchange becomes unequal and unfair.

"But without customers we don't have a business!!"

Yes, you do. When you start treating customers as if they are important, you become biased towards the customers who demand attention, and since you have limited resources, your attention is no longer allocated fairly. For every individual customer who gains an advantage through discounts, concessions, better service, rushed orders etc, you actively disadvantage another customer. If you were that customer, would you be happy with a lower quality of service just because someone else was shouting louder?

If you called your internet provider to complain about slow service, how would you feel if they told you that other customers in your street were more important?

No, the most important people in a business are not customers - the most important people are the employees. You take care of the employees, the employees take care of the customers. Simple.

What has this got to do with innovation?

Believing that customers are the most important people makes managers react to customer problems. The pressure to react quickly and decisively makes managers think they know what to do, that they have 'good solutions'. A culture of firefighting emerges, because reacting to one customer neglects another, and the impact builds like a snowball.

"But we have to solve this customer problem NOW!"

No, you don't. You had to solve it weeks or months ago, but you didn't.

The pressure to act and react causes people to do what they know 'works', because it's what they did last time. You probably have a few favourite recipes, which you could whip up easily if some friends descended for dinner, and you also have some recipes for solutions for common problems at work. You know the 'best' way to get something done because you have your own experience of trial-and-error to fall back on.

When you feel under pressure to come up with a solution, you might even offer a choice - that you can either deliver a fast solution, or a good solution. But not both.

Imagine you're taking a loved one out for a very special evening. You go to a very good restaurant. Do you demand to know where your food is, two minutes after ordering? Of course not, you know that high quality food, caring preparation and tempting presentation take time. All of these things are important enough to wait for.

Now imagine you're staying out of town for work. You need to get something to eat, you don't care what, and you're in a hurry. Do you go to a fancy restaurant? Or do you go to a fast food outlet, where you can get something quickly? Do you complain that your cheeseburger isn't served on a silver platter with a fine wine?

You can fast, and you can have good, but you can't have both at the same time.

The real problem is that we cannot separate a problem from its environment. If you make the same journey to work every day, it's not the same journey. Everything around you is different, each time you follow that route. Believing that it's the 'same old same old' is an illusion that your brain creates, so that you don't have to make an effort in order to interact with the world. You might say that the differences each day are irrelevant, if you still arrive at work. Do you always arrive at exactly the same time? Do you tend to arrive early to give yourself room for delays? Do you tend to arrive on time or a little late because you don't want potential delays to eat into your well earned sleep time? So, right away, you can see that no two journeys are the same, we can only treat them as equivalent if the desired outcome is always achieved.

In organisational problem solving, we have two outcomes. One is to solve the problem, and the other is to learn. I would say that learning is actually the most important and valuable outcome, because it will largely prevent future similar problems. Without learning, you will make the same mistakes over, and over, and over again.

"But we have to act NOW, we can worry about learning later!"

Without learning, you will make the same mistakes over, and over, and over again.

"But!"

Without learning, you will make the same mistakes over, and over, and over again.

And one of the most important reasons for this is that by doing what works, what you know, what you have proven in the past, you are repeatedly applying the wrong solution to the problem, because you are applying a solution which worked once for you in a different situation in the past. It's the same old same old. In fact, you are continually recreating the same problems by repeatedly applying the wrong solutions. Because what you're applying isn't a solution at all - it's an idea. A solution is something which you can only know looking backwards. You can only know that your actions resolved a problem by looking backwards. As you look forwards into the next problem, any similarity is an illusion created by your lazy brain.

As a manager, you have to allow people space to find new ways, to create new ideas and to test those ideas the same way that you did - trial and error. That means making mistakes, and so the pain for you is in allowing the space for them to do that. There is no other way. And in any case, mistakes can only be defined as such when you have a specific outcome in mind, an expectation which has to be met. Let go of your expectations and you will create the space for innovation.

If, as a business, you want to keep doing the same old things, year after year, while your competitors move ahead, then keep applying the same solutions to the same problems. At least it's comfortable. But don't say that you want innovation, because that's not possible.

Innovation implicitly comes from what you're not doing.


If You Want Help, Tell the Truth


Imagine the scene.

You have a problem at work. A frustrating problem. A problem involving your colleagues, or your manager, or both. Over time, the problem has become worse.

Imagine that you go home and tell your partner. Or your friends. You vent your frustration at all the things your manager and colleagues are doing that are causing your problem.

Your family or friends nod sympathetically. They ask questions. And, finally, they deliver the sucker punch: they give you their analysis of the situation, and they tell you what to do about it.

Aaargh! All you want to do is offload. Why do other people insist on telling you what to do?

Just to be nice, you reply, "Yeah... but", "You don't understand", "It's different", "I've tried that", and so on.

You might even say, "I've tried everything and nothing works", when what you really mean is that you already know what to do.

So, why are you still talking about it?

Your family and friends have the best intentions when they give you advice. They pick up on the presupposition that you unknowingly transmit - that if you're talking about a problem then logically you have not solved it, so logically you don't know how to solve it. Therefore, they ask you questions to gather facts so that they can perform an analysis and deliver a solution to you.

Your family and friends each offer you a perfect solution to the problem that you have described. So why would you reject their suggestions out of hand?

It's because their suggestions were perfect solutions to the problem that you described. The real problem is that that's not the problem. You didn't tell the truth. You told them only what you wanted them to know.

The same thing happens, of course, when you're trying your best to help someone else. Imagine a colleague, or someone in your team, is telling you about a problem. Logically, they must be asking for your advice, so you draw on your own experience to suggest a solution, a solution which you know will work, because you've done it yourself a dozen times. A guaranteed, sure-fire winner.

Imagine your frustration when they dismiss your solution out of hand, or worse still, tell you what a good idea it is to then do absolutely nothing about it.

Once again, your solution was perfect, but it was a solution to the wrong problem. They didn't tell you the truth. In fact, they may have told you exactly what they wanted you to know, to get you to do what they wanted you to do.

Furthermore, it was a solution to a problem that you once had, a long time ago. It turns out that solving problems stifles innovation, and I'll tell you why in another article.

Friday, 5 April 2019

Coaches Ask Too Many Questions


Coaches ask too many questions. Far too many. They are obsessed with questions, to the point that they are afraid to give advice. I even heard of a coach who failed her ICF certification for giving advice in her assessment coaching session.

The ICF lists 'asks powerful questions' as part of their 'credentialing' criteria. Some people even say that asking good questions is what marks out a coach as being different to a mentor or consultant.

Maybe we should take a step back and ask what the purpose of a question really is.

Questions are designed to get information from someone. And therefore, a question leads to an answer, and that answer represents what the coach wants to know about, not what the client wants to talk about.

Even an innocent, 'open' question such as, "Can you say more about that?" is a leading question. The client has already told you exactly what they want you to know. They used the precise number of words that they needed. When you ask them to tell you more, they are now saying more than they planned to, which usually means that they will simply repeat themselves, or throw you a bone to lead you off in a different direction. They told you what they told you for a specific reason - it was exactly what they wanted you to know, so that you would give them the response that they wanted.

Each time you ask a question, you change the subject.

As a communication method, a question contains three components. The first is a marker that the statement is a query, which could be a word, a punctuation mark or a voice intonation. For example, if you start a statement with words such as "what" or "why" or "how" then what comes next will be interpreted as a question. If you speak an entire statement and then end with a tag question, then the entire statement is re-interpreted as a question, isn't it?

The second component is the presupposition or 'payload' of the question; the information that frames the question. If I ask, "What job do you do?" then the presupposition is that you have a job. If I ask, "When are we going for dinner?" then the presupposition is that we are going for dinner, and the query is about the time. That final query, the piece of information being requested, is the third component.

The presupposition of the question is exploited by people who seek to influence. "Why are you thinking of hiring me as your coach?" is an obvious, and perhaps clumsy example. "What are some of the things you look for in an excellent coach?" is a more subtle one.

From an early age, as your brain created an abstract map of the world around you, you created a 'critical filter' to protect you from other people's maps.



Imagine that you have a problem at work. You go home and talk to your family who then give you advice. "You should do this", "You should try that", "You should tell your manager" and so on. You reply, "Yeah... but", "You don't understand", "It's different", "I've tried that", and so on. Your critical filter is working perfectly, deflecting the advice because you already know what to do. You might even say, "I've tried everything and nothing works", when what you really mean is that you know what you have to do, but you're scared to do it.

Your family, friends and colleagues have the best intentions when they give you advice. They pick up on the presupposition that you unknowingly transmit - that if you're talking about a problem then logically you have not solved it, so logically you don't know how to solve it. Therefore, they ask you questions to gather facts so that they can perform an analysis and deliver a solution to you.

This reveals another reason why their suggestions are unhelpful - each of them is a perfect solution to the problem that you have described. It's just that the problem that you described isn't actually the problem. You told them only what you wanted them to know.

Professional influencers, expert public speakers and people who are 'good with people' know that there are two simple communication methods that you can use to bypass the critical filter.



Stories are not blocked by the filter because they are not about you, and don't tell you anything which conflicts with your map of reality. Stories are explicitly about someone else's map of reality. However, in order to understand the story, you put yourself into it, and it therefore becomes part of your map. If you have ever felt an emotional response while reading a book or watching a movie then you have experienced this process.

Questions bypass the critical filter because they do not explicitly carry information, however the presupposition within the question does exactly that, so now you can see why I called it a 'payload' earlier. The presupposition, hiding within the question like an army inside a giant wooden horse, slips past your critical defences in the dead of night and quietly infiltrates your map of reality.

Let's join the dots and come full circle back to coaches asking too many questions.

A coach asks a question because they have an intention.

The coach reveals that intention through the presuppositions in their questions.

The coach delivers that intention in the payload of their questions.

The coach influences the client through their questions.

Whether you like it or not, as a coach, you are actively directing your clients.

Is this a bad thing? Of course not. If the client could get what they want by themselves, they wouldn't be talking to you. However, to pretend that you are 'non-directive' or that 'the client guides the direction' is misleading. As a coach, you absolutely guide the client, you actively manipulate them to where you want them to be.

As a coach, if you have something to say to your client, be honest and say it. Don't dance round in circles trying to get the client to say it by asking them manipulative questions, just because you believe you shouldn't be giving advice or unsolicited feedback.

When you enter into a coach/client relationship, you are put into a position of trust. The client accepts that, to get to where they want to be, they have to cover some unfamiliar or uncomfortable territory, and to do that, their existing maps will be useless. Sometimes, they are asking to be led, sometimes to be pushed, sometimes simply to know that they are not alone on their journey.

If you're not going to give the client advice or feedback, who else are they going to trust enough to do that?

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Respect My Authority

Working late again?

Taking a bit of work home with you, just to catch up?

Spending some time at the weekend on that important presentation?

You know that you should really stop doing it. You know it's not good for your stress, or your family, or your career. Although you keep telling yourself that if you're seen as someone who works really hard and goes the extra mile, you'll get recognised for it, eventually.

Well, you are being recognised for it. You're being recognised as the idiot who is prepared to give more, and more, and more, while your employer reduces headcount, thanks to people like you who do the work of two people. Or maybe more. Why would you get a promotion when you're doing very nicely where you are?

You probably think that you have to put in the hours, you don't have a choice, and I'm going to explain to you now why you're wrong.

Go get your employment contract and have a look in it. What does it say your working hours are? 40 hours a week? Monday to Friday, 9-5? Something close to that?

How many days holiday do you get per year? 20? 25?

What would happen if you just decided to work 10-3? What if you decided to take 50 days holiday this year?

You wouldn't be allowed. You'd be breaching the terms of your employment contract.

When you agreed to that contract, who was it who set those terms? Was it you? The chances are that your employer told you your working hours, and told you your holiday 'entitlement', and told you lots of other stuff that you had to agree to, if you wanted the job. These were the conditions for the job offer. Once you agree to that, you do not have the authority to vary the terms of your contract.

You cannot, on a whim, decide to work 20 hours a week.

Therefore, you cannot, on a whim, decide to work 60 hours a week. If you attempt to do so, you will be in breach of your contract of employment, and can expect to receive your first verbal warning.

Now, you don't want to lose your job over something as silly as your working hours, do you? You don't want to threaten your family's security, and your own career prospects, just to sneak some extra working time in, do you? And you certainly don't want to earn a reputation as the idiot who gives and gives and gives and asks for nothing in return. Oops. Too late.

Imagine sitting an exam where the allowed time is 3 hours. What would you say if another candidate snook into the room early and added an extra hour to their exam time? Would that be fair?

So stop working late. You simply do not have the authority to do so.

_________________________________

Peter Freeth is a talent and leadership expert who used to work too much and probably still does. His book on organisational change, Change Magic, explains why, when employees are allowed to work late, they hide a resource and performance problem, and when that discretionary effort is no longer available, organisational performance falls off a cliff. Overwork leads to stress which leads to premature death, and who wants that on their conscience?

www.geniuslearning.co.uk

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Dead or Alive, You're Coming With Me

I'm sure you've heard of Schrödinger’s cat - the famous thought experiment devised in the 1930s by physicist Erwin Schrödinger. In the basic set-up you take a cat and place it in a box containing a radioactive atom, a hammer and a vial of poisonous gas. The atom decays, and this triggers the hammer to fall and break the vial, suffocating the cat.

Radioactive decays are random processes described by quantum theory, so we can’t say when one will happen. Quantum theory suggests that before you observe or measure an object, it exists in a “superposition” of all its possible states. Before we open the box, the atom is both decayed and undecayed – and the cat is neither dead nor alive, but in a superposition where it is both, neither, who knows. The act of looking seals the cat's fate, one way or another.

Part of the thought experiment is about the concept that information requires an observer. Atoms only become dots on a screen, and photons only activate cells on your retina because you exist to observe these phenomena from your unique viewpoint. These words do not exist as information without you, the reader.

You're probably wondering why I'm telling you this.

I realised recently that long before I knew anything about Schrödinger’s cat, I had an intuitive belief, an idea which seemed to serve me well, and I would like to share it with you.

Long ago, if I was awaiting news, such as a letter about a job application (in the days when we had letters, and when employers actually kept candidates informed), then I figured that up until the point that I opened the envelope and read the letter, the outcome of the interview was still undecided. I somehow felt that the letter would coalesce into reality at the point at which I opened the interview, and therefore I could somehow influence the outcome of that decision right up until the point at which I read, "Dear Mr Freeth, I am pleased to...."

I know what you're thinking. It sounds crazy, and if the letter turned out as I wanted, it just fuelled my confirmation bias, and I ignore all the times the letter carried unwelcome news.

I suppose the thought experiment that I am asking you to conduct is this: What if it were possible? What if possibilities only coalesce into reality when you the observer are present to turn patterns of matter into information? If a tree falls in the forest, you're thinking. What nonsense. Of course it makes a sound.

No, my friend. If a tree falls in the forest and no-one is there to hear it, it does not make a sound. It creates a shockwave through the surrounding air, but that shockwave is not a sound unless someone hears it.

What in your life could be influenced simply by your belief that, right up until the point that you look at the information, all bets are off?