Posts Tagged ‘Psychology’

Most of our thinking happens out of awareness – it is unconscious. Most of the data that pours in through our senses never reaches awareness either – but that does not mean it does not have an impact on what we remember, how we feel and what we decide and do in the future. It does.

Improvement Science is the knowledge of how to achieve sustained change for the better; and doing that requires an ability to unlearn unconscious knowledge that blocks our path to improvement – and to unlearn selectively.

So how can we do that if it is unconscious? Well, there are  at least two ways:

1. Bring the unconscious knowledge to the surface so it can be examined, sorted, kept or discarded. This is done through the social process of debate and discussion. It does work though it can be a slow and difficult process.

2. Do the unlearning at the unconscious level – and we can do that by using reality rather than rhetoric. The easiest way to connect ourselves to reality is to go out there and try doing things.

When we deliberately do things  we are learning unconsciously because most of our sensory data never reaches awareness.  When we are just thinking the unconscious is relatively unaffected: talking and thinking are the same conscious process. Discussion and dialog operate at the conscious level but differ in style – discussion is more competitive; dialog is more collaborative. 

The door to the unconscious is controlled by emotions – and it appears that learning happens more effectively and more efficiently in certain emotional states. Some emotional states can impair learning; such as depression, frustration and anxiety. Strong emotional states associated with dramatic experiences can result in profound but unselective learning – the emotionally vivid memories that are often associated with unpleasant events.  Sometimes the conscious memory is so emotionally charged and unpleasant that it is suppressed – but the unconscious memory is not so easily erased – so it continues to influence but out of awareness. The same is true for pleasant emotional experiences – they can create profound learning experiences – and the conscious memory may be called an inspirational or “eureka” moment – a sudden emotional shift for the better. And it too is unselective and difficult to erase.

An emotionally safe environment for doing new things and having fun at the same time comes close to the ideal context for learning. In such an enviroment we learn without effort. It does not feel like work – yet we know we have done work because we feel tired afterwards.  And if we were to record the way that we behave and talk before the doing; and again afterwards then we will measure a change even though we may not notice the change ourselves. Other people may notice before we do – particularly if the change is significant – or if they only interact with us occasionally.

It is for this reason that keeping a personal journal is an effective way to capture the change in ourselves over time.  

The Jungian model of personality types states that there are three dimensions to personality (Isabel Briggs Myers added a fourth later to create the MBTI®).

One dimension describes where we prefer to go for input data – sensors (S) use external reality as their reference – intuitors (N) use their internal rhetoric.

Another dimension is how we make decisions –  thinkers (T) prefer a conscious, logical, rational, sequential decision process while feelers (F) favour an unconscious, emotional, “irrational”, parallel approach.

The third dimension is where we direct the output of our decisions – extraverts (E) direct it outwards into the public outside world while intraverts (I) direct it inwards to their private inner world.

Irrespective of our individual preferences, experience suggests that an effective learning sequence starts with our experience of reality (S) and depending how emotionally loaded it is (F) we may then internalise the message as a general intuitive concept (N) or a specific logical construct (T).

The implication of this is that to learn effectively and efficiently we need to be able to access all four modes of thinking and to do that we might design our teaching methods to resonate with this natural learning sequence, focussing on creating surprisingly positive reality based emotional experiences first. And we must be mindful that if we skip steps or create too many emotionally negative experiences we we may unintentionally impair the effectiveness of the learning process.

A carefully designed practical exercise that takes just a few minutes to complete can be a much more effective and efficient way to teach a profound principle than to read libraries of books or to listen to hours of rhetoric.  Indeed some of the most dramatic shifts in our understanding of the Universe have been facilitated by easily repeatable experiments.

Intuition and emotions can trick us – so Doing Our Way to New Thinking may be a better improvement strategy.

One of the biggest challenges posed by Improvement is the requirement for beliefs to change – because static beliefs imply stagnated learning and arrested change.  We all display our beliefs for all to hear and see through our language – word and deed – our spoken language and our body language – and what we do not say and do not do is as important as what we do say and what we do do.  Let us call the whole language thing our Rhetoric – the external manifestation of our internal mental model.

Disappointingly, exercising our mental model does not seem to have much impact on Reality – at least not directly. We do not seem to be able to perform acts of telepathy or telekinesis. We are not like the Jedi knights in the Star Wars films who have learned to master the Force – for good or bad. We are not like the wizards in the Harry Potter who have mastered magical powers – again for good or bad. We are weak-minded muggles and Reality is spectacularly indifferent to our feeble powers. No matter what we might prefer to believe – Reality trumps Rhetoric.

Of course we can side step this uncomfortable feeling by resorting to the belief of One Truth which is often another way of saying My Opinion – and we then assume that if everyone else changed their belief to our belief then we would have full alignment, no conflict, and improvement would automatically flow.  What we actually achieve is a common Rhetoric about which Reality is still completely indifferent.  We know that if we disagree then one of us must be wrong or rather un-real-istic; but we forget that even if we agree then we can still both be wrong. Agreement is not a good test of the validity of our Rhetoric. The only test of validity is Reality itself – and facing the unfeeling Reality risks bruising our rather fragile egos – so we shy away from doing so.

So one way to facilitate improvement is to employ Reality as our final arbiter and to do this respectfully.  This is why teachers of improvement science must be masters of improvement science. They must be able to demonstrate their Improvenent Science Rhetoric by using Reality and their apprentices need to see the IS Rhetoric applied to solving real problems. One way to do this is for the apprentices to do it themselves, for real, with guidance of an IS master and in a safe context where they can make errors and not damage their egos. When this is done what happens is almost magical – the Rhetoric changes – the spoken language and the body language changes – what is said and what is done changes – and what is not said and not done changess too. And very often the change is not noticed at least by those who change.  We only appear to have one mental model: only one view of Reality so when it changes we change.

It is also interesting to observe is that this evolution of Rhetoric does not happen immediately or in one blinding flash of complete insight. We take small steps rather than giant leaps. More often the initial emotional reaction is confusion because our experience of the Reality clashes with the expectation of our Rhetoric.  And very often the changes happen when we are asleep – it is almost as if our minds work on dissolving the confusion when it is not distracted with the demands of awake-work; almost like we are re-organising our mental model structure when it is offline. It is a very common to have a sleepless night after such an Reality Check and to wake with a feeling of greater clarity – our updated mental model declaring itself as our New Rhetoric. Experienced facilitators of Improvement Science understand this natural learning process and that it happens to everyone – including themselves. It is this feeling of increased clarity, deeper understanding, and released energy that is the buzz of Improvement Science – the addictive drug.  We learn that our memory plays tricks on us; and what was conflict yesterday becomes confusion today and clarity tomorrow. One behaviour that often emerges spontaneously is the desire to keep a journal – sometimes at the bedside – to capture the twists and turns of the story of our evolving Rhetoric.

This blog just such a journal.

Have you ever had the experience of trying to help someone with a problem, not succeeding, and being left with a sense of irritation, disappointment, frustration and even anger?

Was the dialog that led up to this unhappy outcome something along the lines of:

A: I have a problem with …
B: What about trying …
A: Yes, but ….
B: What about trying ….
A: Yes, but …

… and so on until you run out of ideas, patience or both.

If this sounds familiar then it is likely that you have been unwittingly sucked into a Drama Triangle – an unconscious, habitual pattern of behaviour that we all use to some degree.  This endemic behaviour has a hidden purpose: to feed our belonging need for social interaction.

The theory goes something like this – we are social animals and we need social interaction just as much as we need oxygen, water and food. Without it we become psychologically malnourished and this insight explains why prolonged solitary confinement is such an effective punishment – the psychological equivalent to starvation.

The  emotional food we want most is unconditional love (UCL) – the sort we usually get from our parents, family and close friends – repeated affirmation that we are OK and with no strings attached.

The downside of our unconscious desire for UCL is that it offers others the power to control our behaviour and who can choose to abuse that power.  This control is done by adding conditions: “I will give you the affirmation you crave IF you do what I want“.  This is conditional love (CL).

When we are born we are completely powerless, and completely dependent on our parents – in particular our mother.  As we get older and start to exert our free will we learn that our society has rules – we cannot just follow every selfish desire.

Our parents unconsciously employ CL as a form of behavioural control and it is surprisingly effective: “If you are a good boy/girl then …“.  So as children we learn the technique from our parents.

This in itself  is not a problem; but it can become a problem when CL is the only sort available and when the intention is to further only the interests of the giver.

When this happens it becomes … manipulation.

The apparently harmless playground threat of “If you don’t do what I want then I won’t be your friend anymore” is the practice script of the appentice manipulator – and implies a limiting-belief in the unconscious mind of the child – the belief that there is a limited supply of UCL and that someone else controls it.

And because we make this assumption at the pre-verbal stage of child development, it becomes unconscious, habitual and unspoken – it becomes second nature.


Our invalid childhood belief has a knock-on effect; we learn to survive on CL because “No Love” is the worst of all options; it is the psychological equivalent of starvation.

We learn to put up with second best, and because CL offers inferior emotional nourishment we need a way of generating as much as we want, on-demand.

So we employ the behaviour we were unwittingly taught by our patents – and the Drama Triangle becomes our on-demand-generator-of-second-rate-emotional-food.

The tangible evidence of this “programming” is an observable behaviour that is called “game playing” and was first described by Eric Berne in the famous book “Games People Play“.

Berne described many different Games and they all have a common pattern and a common objective – to generate second-rate emotional food (or ‘transactions’ to use Berne’s language).  But our harvest comes at a price – the transactions are unhealthy – not enough to harm us immediately – but enough to leave us feeling dissatisfied and unhappy.

But what choice do we believe we have?

If we were given the options of breathing stale air or suffocating what would we do?

If we assume our options are to die of thirst or drink stagnant pond-water what would we do?

If we believe our only options are to starve or eat crap what would we do?

Our survival instinct is even stronger than our belonging need, so we choose unhealthy over deadly and eventually we become so habituated to game-playing that we do not notice it any more.

Excessive and prolonged exposure to the Drama Triangle is the psychological equivalent of alcoholic liver cirrhosis.  Permanent and irreversible psychological scarring called cynicism.


It is important to remember that this is learned behaviour – and therefore it can be unlearned – or rather overwritten with a healthier habit.

Just by becoming aware of the problem, and understanding the root cause of the Drama Triangle, an alternative pathway appears. A healthier one.

We can challenge our untested assumption that UCL is limited and that someone else controls the supply.  We can consider the alternative hypothesis: that the supply of UCL is unlimited and that we control the supply.

Q: How easy is it for us to offer someone else UCL?

Easy – we see it all the time. How do you feel when someone gives a genuine “Thank You”, cheers you on, celebrates your success, seeks your opinion, and recommends you to others.  These are all forms of UCL that anyone can practice; by making a conscious choice to give with no expectation of a return.

For many people it feels uncomfortable at first because the game-playing behaviour is deeply ingrained – and game-playing is particularly prevalent in the corridors of power where it is called “politics”.

Game-free behaviour gets easier because UCL benefits both the giver and the receiver – it feels healthier – there is no need for a payback, there is no score to be kept, no emotional account to balance.  It is like a breath of fresh air.


So next time you feel that brief flash of irritation at the start of a conversation or are left with a negative feeling after a conversation just stop and ask yourself  “Was I just sucked into a Drama Triangle?”

Anyone able to “press your button” is hooking you into a game, and it takes two to play.

Now consider the question “And to what extent was I unconsciously colluding?


The tactic to avoid the Drama Triangle is to learn to sense the emotional “hook” that signals the invitation to play the Game; and to consciously deflect it before it embeds into your unconscious mind and triggers an unconscious, habitual, reflex reaction.

One of the most potent barriers to change is when we unconsciously compute that our previously reliable sources of CL are threatened by the change.  We have no choice but to oppose the change – and that choice is made unconsciously.

We undermine the plan.

The symptoms of this unconscious behaviour are obvious when you know what to look for … and the commonest reaction is:

“Yes … but …”

and the more intelligent and invested the person the more cogent and rational the argument will sound.

The most effective response is to provide evidence that disproves the defensive assertion – not the person’s opinion – and before taking on this challenge we need to prepare the evidence.

By demonstrating that their game-playing behaviour no longer leads to the expected payoff, and at the same time demonstrating that game-free behaviour is both possible and better – we demonstrate that the underlying, unconscious, limiting belief is invalid.

And by that route we develop our capability for game-free social interactions.

Simple enough in theory, and it does works in practice, though it can be difficult to learn because game-playing is such an ingrained behaviour.  It does get easier with practice and the ultimate reward is worth the investment  – a healthier emotional environment – at work and at home!

Have you ever have the experience of trying to work on a common challenge with a team member and it just feels like you are on different planets?  You are using the same language yet are not communicating – they go off at apparently random tangents while you are trying to get a decision; they deluge you with detail when you ask about the big picture; you get upset when their cold logic threatens to damage team unity. The list is endless.  If you experience this sort of confusion and frustration then you may be experiencing a personality clash – or to be more accurate a pyschological type mismatch.

Carl Jung described a theory of psychological types that was later developed into the Myers-Briggs Type Indictator (MBTI).  This extensively validated method classifies people into sixteen broad groups based on four dimensions that are indicated by a letter code. It is important to appreciate that there are no good/bad types or right/wrong types – each describes a mode of thinking: a model of how we gather information, make decisions and act on those decisions.  Everyone uses all the modes of thinking to some degree – we just prefer some more than others and so we get more practice with them.  The purpose of MBTI is not to “correct” someone elses psychologcial type – it is to gain a conscious and shared awareness of the effect of psychological types on interpersonal and team dynamics. For example, some tasks and challenges suit some psychological types better than others – they resonate – and when this happens these tasks are achieved more easily and with greater satisfaction.  “One’s meat is another’s poison” sums the idea up.  Just having insight into this dynamic is helpful because it offers new options to avoid frustrating, futile and wasteful conflict.  So if you are curious find out your MBTI – you can do it on line in a few minutes (for example http://www.personalitytest.net/types/index.htm) and with that knowledge you can learn what your psychological type implies.  Mine is INFJ …