Sunday, June 26, 2011

Why Is The Other Guy Such A Problem?

One of the major obstacles I encountered in learning collaboration and in teaching it was overcoming the desire to see the other guy as the problem. Seeing the other guy as the problem leads us to thinking that we need to somehow change them in order to be successful. I can’t urge you strongly enough to abandon any efforts aimed at changing another person’s beliefs. We need them to believe just as they do in order to maintain a useful level of diversity in the perspectives we solicit to evaluate complex problems. Also, it is very difficult for someone to change their beliefs and seldom sustainable.

However, it is not to difficult to explain where all these different beliefs come from, why we find them difficult to deal with, and how we are going to be able to collaborate successfully by acknowledging them rather than contesting them.

Conditioning, Beliefs, and Heuristics

We come by our beliefs honestly enough. We develop them based on what we see and what we are told. If someone tells us “people that are smart are not good athletes”, we may just believe that if it is told to us by someone we trust or is founded in some experience that would tend to support it. Most beliefs are formed early on, are not based on data but emotion, and are as a result of something called “conditioning".

Two forms of conditioning are Operant and Avoidance. Operant conditioning is the way we learn to do something by receiving a reward for having done it well. This is called “reinforcement” and what constitutes a reward is based on – our beliefs. Maybe money, praise, recognition, love, or anything else the individual values. If you ever worked for prize, and were disappointed by it, you know how much the perception of a reward can vary. Avoidance conditioning is about avoiding something we perceive as negative, based again on our beliefs. If you have ever started talking about politics or religion and had a negative experience, you may choose not to talk about those issues again. BOOM! A belief is born! And it may have all kinds of subtleties based on your existing beliefs (never discuss politics in a public setting, or with a woman, or with a guy wearing a suit, or whatever) because beliefs are highly interactive.

The significance of avoidance conditioning is that AVOIDING the negative reaction is the reinforcement. So, if you have a conversation with someone about, say, the weather and it is a wonderful conversation you might think “boy, I am glad they didn’t bring up politics – that would have been a disaster”. That reinforces the belief not to talk about politics, but should it?

We take our beliefs and package them up into informal models called “heuristics” for the sake of convenience. Rather than analyze each situation we encounter, we process them using these heurisitics. If we see a person acting in a way that our heuristic tells us is suspicious, we act in the way the heuristic tells us to. We may avoid the person, crossing the street; we may smile at them to show them we are friendly; we may scowl to show them not to approach; we may overtly threaten them to keep them away. We do what the heuristic says to do. If it works, it reinforces itself. We cross the street and there is no trouble, and our mind says there was no trouble BECAUSE we crossed the street. Is that what really happened?

In communication, people say what they say and do what they do from these heuristics. They treat the specific situation as if it conforms to their heuristics because that is how we problem solve. The methods I teach do some pretty powerful things in some simple ways:

1) Assure the person that their perspective, as it is, doesn’t have to change in order to collaborate. I want it just as it is.

2) Help them analyze the subject - at - hand as a specific instance and not necessarily a perfect example anyone’s heuristic model (i.e., talk about the issues surrounding THIS SPECIFIC production problem, not general production problems) in a way that guides them to use the heuristic in a tailored way and welcomes their input.

3) Help condition them to conducting relationships using a specific model by rewarding them with better results and guiding them out of “avoidance” behaviors.

Using THE SCORE sets the stage for this. The next newsletter will start a series of concrete examples for how managing the content of the conversations and the contributions of the participants.

In the interest of brevity, this newsletter makes some claims for which I offered no backing. I am counting on you, the inquisitive participant, to be curious and write comments here. I PROMISE I will answer each one.

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