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Coherence and decision-making

On January 16th Professor Ben (C) Fletcher and I launch our new book:
Flex: Do Something Different.

How to use the other 9/10ths of your personality.

Here’s an extract on the topic of personal coherence, a concept that’s critical to conscious business.

Many people go through life saying one thing and doing another. Living one life but wishing for something else. Personal coherence is the mark of someone who has all parts of their life aligned. What they do and what they say are connected.  They are not held back by habits or personal limitations, and are totally at ease with themselves and their world.

Nonetheless, incoherence seems to be part of the human condition and the hallmark of the incoherent person is doing one thing and saying another. Here are a few everyday examples:

  • Craig chooses a foreign holiday but is upset when he can’t get his favourite beer and there are olives in the salad.
  • Pauline says she hates living in a mess but watches TV instead of doing the housework and is permanently untidy.
  • Julie was desperate for children but now that she has them she constantly complains about them and secretly prefers it when they’re not around.
  • Roger wears a safety helmet when cycling – then stops and has a cigarette.
  • The obese Simons family wear the latest sports clothing but never exercise.
  • Marty is obsessive about recycling but flies long-haul.
  • Almost 50% of the UK population buy fresh fruit and then throw it away.
  • Jim has renewed his wedding vows and is sleeping with his secretary.
  • Kath always tries to park as close as possible to the gym where she is going to an exercise class.
  • Sally and Richard worry about their children’s health but feed them a diet of junk food.

When people are incoherent there will always be some fallout or damage. Either to the individual or to others around them. Some of the examples above may seem rather flippant, but you get the message.

In reality people’s incoherencies can run far deeper than just a few surface behaviours. One consequence of a lack of personal coherence is that it leads to poor decisions and choices. The reasons for this include:

  1. Emotions. Emotions cloud logic and judgements. Reasoning powers seem to go out of the window for some people when the subject matter or conclusions involve emotionally laden outcomes. Emotions can also account for many of the flaws in thinking and reasoning that humans show.
  2. Habit. Inertia predisposes people to make the same choices they have made before instead of questioning their own choices. People may also have a stock of excuses to justify their decisions and behaviours.
  3. A narrow behavioural repertoire means a person will be insufficiently flexible and lack essential behaviours,and so is more likely to be distracted by the wrong options.
  4. Worrying about doing the right thing.  Being over-concerned about the reactions of others, or the ramifications a decision, can cloud judgment and make for poor choices.
  5. Fantasies of thinking. Some people live in a world of fantasy about themselves, their capabilities and how they behave. Fantasies obscure the best choices because they replace real information and insight with pretence. There are various kinds of fantasy that can get in the way of proper choices including:
  • The pretend-only fantasy. This happens when the person is not really 100% committed to a goal, decision or behaviour that is necessary to obtain the optimal outcome. Their words are empty and devoid of action. So the personal incoherence is compounded.
  • The commitment-without-expectation fantasy. A person might show all the signs of being fully committed, but does not really believe or expect to be successful. Their low expectations are usually met.
  • The hidden-effort fantasy. This is a very common cause of incoherence. It is the failure to fully consider the actual effort required to reach the goal. It is a failure to  take account of all the consequences of decision. Many people will apparently commit to a goal because they do not consider the unseen costs. So the person might commit to and expect to realise a goal but is not realistic about all that is going to be necessary to achieve it.
  • The others’-effort fantasy. This is a tendency to make a decision contingent upon other people instead of yourself. It is requiring others to do things to make something happen. This fantasy is very common with people who have low levels of self-responsibility.

Choices and decisions become easier and more obvious the more coherent you become. Coherence is about knowing all aspects of yourself – and having them all in harmony.  Our behaviour change technique, do something different, helps the harmonisation process and improves our choices. Decision-making is much easier, because it is only a lack of personal coherence that obscures the right choice.

 

 

 


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Solving ourselves

I read a great blog post recently by Tony Schwartz of the Energy Project about giving and receiving feedback.

He uses the term ‘deconstructive’ – a term I have also seen used in the book ‘Seven Languages for Transformation‘ by Harvard Professors Kegan and Lahey to describe both feedback and conflict.

The idea is much older than that, of course, and runs as a theme through much work on dialogue – including that by Bill Isaacs (Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together – one of my favourite books), who refers back to David Bohm. It is also central to the ideas of Chris Argyris and many others. In fact, I am pretty sure the idea can be traced back and back, probably to ancient thought including Taoism and beyond.

So what does it mean? Putting it into a modern context, the starting point for me is how we perceive ourselves and our relationships.

If we see ourselves as unitary figures, each with our own problems and failures, and if we adopt a critical mindset, then deconstructive criticism doesn’t make much sense. Surely our aim is to point out the failings of others and fix their problems? To be constructive – in other words to help and support them as they “grow”.

Extend that a little, and add in a little sympathy for the human condition, or perhaps guilt at our own imperfection, and the idea is now that we need to find our own flaws and figure out how to eradicate them.

But take a different perspective. Start with the idea that everything is how it should be. That people as individuals and the relationships they inhabit are fine, just fine. In fact, they are perfect – in the sense that they are in balance, in a perfect homeostasis – like everything in nature.

Take a different perspective – that we are not unitary figures, but that we are all connected, that we are part of complex systems, in fact, part of a single complex system. Unboundaried parts involved in a complex interplay, perhaps one that cannot even be understood by us – not simply cogs in some giant machine.

Then what deconstructive means is to try to understand our own role in that system. To understand how what we say and do, and even what we think and feel, joins together with what others say and do, and think and feel, to create a particular result.

Deconstruction is about stepping away from blame, stepping away from a position of superiority, or, equally, of inferiority. Away from a position of condescension, or of false innocence. Of stepping away from knowing.

I am probably misinterpreting it but doesn’t the Bible say that knowledge is the root of all evil? I know for sure that my own tendency to think I know the answers is the biggest block to my understanding. It is only when I start to suspend my certainty in my own knowledge and beliefs that some sense may start to creep in.

As Tony Schwartz, and Kegan and Lahey, and all the others point out, giving feedback to others from a position of knowledge is fundamentally flawed.

What works better is to examine our own role in the systems we inhabit. How is what we are doing, thinking, feeling affecting the results we get?

This is how problems can be helpful – not because we can identify them, solve them, eradicate them. But because problems teach us something about how we are. I can learn how superior I can be. And that might just help me start the process of starting to solve myself.