PRACTICING LINGUISTIC ASCETICISM
In Thinking Fast and Slow, Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman tells us three things about the human mind. First, that we have a pronounced intuitive sense that gives us immediate answers to our questions (thinking fast); second, that we have a more logical, probing aspect that has us reflect on our decisions; and, third, that our brains are basically lazy.
This last part is particularly disturbing. Kahneman claims that the brain primarily seeks relief from anxiety. The primal brain asks “Am I in danger?” If the answer is yes, the primal brain is in charge, and will react either by Fight – Flight – Freeze – Appease urgency to get us out of the danger zone. If the answer is no, the brain then asks us why we feel what we feel. Apparently, it doesn’t take much to satisfy the “why.”
Kahneman performed 25 years of research that hypothesized that all decisions are made in the limbic brain. That part of the brain is primarily driven by the amygdala, which rules our feelings. Once the emotional decision has been made, the rational brain (prefrontal cortex) kicks in to justify our decision. Because the brain is lazy, the rational decision does not need to be deep and probing. Whatever satisfies the brain to make us comfortable is sufficient. We now have an answer, and the brain doesn’t need to expend more energy being concerned about the question.
Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in 2002 for his research. The prize was not for science, but for economics, because his research was being used primarily by marketing departments to improve advertising. At about that time, fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance imaging) had been improved to the point where testing Kahneman’s hypothesis was possible. By having people make decisions while hooked up to a brain scanner, neuroscientists could confirm that the amygdala indeed was activated a split-second prior to the prefrontal cortex.
This research, and the realizations it has produced, is profoundly disturbing in many ways. What it basically tells us is that our mind, if left unchallenged, will accept the first explanation of any situation if that explanation provides us with comfort. This is what allows politicians to get away with ludicrous sound bites rather than actual answers: We just want to feel safe!
In our benevolent desire to help other people feel safe, we frequently ask questions designed to do exactly that. The way we ask the question determines the answer we get. For example, in a meeting, the CEO asks his executive team, “Sales are down for three of our product lines. It seems to me we are being hit by sequestration cutbacks, competition from China, or really lousy marketing. Which is it?”
Assuming the CEO actually wants an answer, he has just prevented the executive team from thinking. His multiple choice question forces all the team’s energy into the left brain. The brain says, “The boss is upset. I am in danger. I can fight – tell him he is wrong. I can flee – claim that I have an urgent phone call. I can freeze – hope he doesn’t ask me directly. I can appease – suck up to his brilliant analysis of the situation.
No matter which reaction predominates, the CEO has quashed any actual thinking. The executive team’s collective brain is only seeking avoidance of danger. If the CEO had asked an essay question instead of a multiple choice question, he might have actually gotten some new insight.
If the statement/question had been, “Sales are down for three product lines. I’m wondering why. Any ideas?”, there would be an opportunity for a response rather than a reaction. The right brain is now activated. All the CEO (or you) has to do is pose an open-ended question, then practice linguistic asceticism. Ask the question, and then hold your tongue!
In working with nearly 200 companies over the past 15 years, I have seen the first pattern repeated consistently. We claim to want open communication, and then suppress it with our interrogatory style. A simple adjustment in attitude and language can transform meetings from browbeating to inspiration, delving into the part of our brain that actually revels in deep thought.
Kahneman reminds us that intuition is faulty, based on our emotional experience and memory, not on logic or rational consideration. How we, as mentors and leaders, frame our questions determines whether our organizations think fast or slow. Thinking fast, in Kahneman’s terminology, is telling ourselves a story that we are predisposed to believe. Thinking slow is examining that story to determine which part is fact, and which part is fiction.
In our work with clients, it is often apparent that they fully believe their story. That has become their truth. The question we must ask is, “How do you validate that truth?” For that, outside observation is nearly always necessary. My truth is just that: MY TRUTH. In any truly dynamic organization, THE TRUTH is an ongoing dialogue.