Updated: Apr 17, 2020
Before you started reading this article (which I'm grateful for) your brain has already taken in millions of data points and observations around you. Not just externally but the responses you made internally. It's logged it all.
The challenge is our brain can only hold a limited number of 'chunks of attention'.
In order to make sense of the huge amounts of information that our senses take in each moment from the world around us, we unconsciously filter it.
We have to do this filtering. If we didn't, our brains would be overloaded and the world would appear as a booming, buzzing riot of smells, feelings and colours, just as it must appear to a new-born baby.
These are some of the filtering processes that our brain uses to protect us:
* Deletion. We just don't notice certain things, especially if we are not interested in them. So in every situation, there is more going on than you realise. Most of the information we delete may be irrelevant, but sometimes we overlook things that would help us if we noticed them.
* Distortion. Psychologists have identified various 'cognitive biases' that distort our view of the world:
Confirmation Bias - we pay more attention to evidence that supports our beliefs, and downplay or ignore evidence that doesn't.
The Bandwagon Effect - we are more likely to do or believe something when we see many other people doing or believing it.
Illusion of Control - we believe we can control or influence outcomes, even when we can't.
The Halo Effect - if we like one quality or trait of a person or thing, we tend to view their other qualities or traits more favourably.
* Generalisation. We look for commonality and predictability. What we expect to happen is influenced by our perceptions of previous events. For example, gamblers and stock market investors tend to see a 'winning streak' after three good results, even though 'streaks' are a natural feature of any random sequence
Usually, these 'cognitive shortcuts' work in our favour. Thinking is time-consuming, and expensive in energy terms. If we had to think every single thing we did through from first principles, we would be unable to act at all.
But sometimes, these shortcuts work against us - we miss relevant information, jump to conclusions, or view people through a lens of prejudice. How conscious we are of our environment, thoughts and feelings make a big difference to the quality of response we make.
What you experience is not reality.
By the time you become aware of experiencing something, it's already been filtered. So your 'reality', as you are experiencing it right now, is subject to the deletions, distortions and generalisations of your filters.
A good map is one that is useful.
Since all maps leave out information, the real issue is not "Is this map true?" but "Is this map useful?" A map is useful to the extent that it helps you find your way to where you want to get to.
Yours is not the only truth.
Each person has a different viewpoint. They will notice things that you have missed, and vice versa. Their view of 'reality' is as valid to them as yours is to you. People who believe that everyone sees the world in the same way that they do are setting themselves up for constant bewilderment; people who believe that others should see the world as they do are setting themselves up for constant disappointment.
People's actions make sense from their map,
Which we can never fully know or understand. Often their actions would seem crazy or wrong when judged in the context of our map - so when coaching or communicating with them, suspend judgement.
How do you combat the challenge of Deletion, Distortion and Generalisation?
1. See other people's point of view
When you have a disagreement with someone or you just don't understand why they have done something, put yourself in their shoes and look at the world, and yourself, from their point of view. Aim to adopt their map rather than just thinking 'What would I do in that situation?' You will get better-quality information if you match their 'physiology' - stand as they stand, breathe as they breathe and so on.
To avoid the cognitive error of 'mind-reading', remember that the intuitions you get from this exercise are just a guess about what the other person is thinking and feeling. Always check out your intuitions against what the person actually does.
2. To influence someone, start from their map of the world
Don't expect them to jump to your map. Why would anyone want to do that? Instead, start from a position which makes sense to them and is compatible with their values and beliefs, and build bridges to where you want the person to get to.
3. Explore the boundaries of your map
Where are the limits of your map? What do you feel you can't do, or that you don't deserve? The areas in your life that are not going as well as you would like may indicate that your map could do with some tweaks. So:
a) Where you have a belief that is not serving you, actively look for examples where that belief is not true
b) Where you tend to make generalisations, actively look for counter-examples
c) When you think you can't do something that you would like to do, ask yourself "What would happen if I did?"