Learning To See

Saturday, November 11, 2017
There have been times in my life, and in my business, where I have felt that I was battling the same issue on an endless cycle. I’ve been known to sit in a quiet corner with my head in my hands, asking ‘What am I missing? Why is this happening again? What can’t I see in this situation?’ My awareness is growing (as I get older and wiser!), that when the same problems come around again and again, the common denominator in them all is me, and the pattern of thinking about myself which landed me there. 

If you coach clients on a regular basis, lead, or mentor staff in an organisation, you could probably name those people who come repeatedly to you with the same problem. The answer might be staring you in the face, but they can’t see it. Some communication models, such as the Johari Window call this having a ‘blind spot’. 
The Johari Window is a tool that explores the awareness we hold about ourselves and the awareness that others have about us. A blind spot is in operation when we can see something about someone else, but they don’t see it. Some years ago I ran a training course on assertiveness, and a colleague of one of the participants piped up in response to a discussion on aggressive behaviour, to say, “Bill, you’re often seen to be aggressive.” In response Bill jumped out of his seat, pounded his fist on the table and shouted to the room, “I am not aggressive!’

It was clear to everyone at that moment that Bill had a blind spot about his behaviour. As long as Bill refused to hear the feedback he was getting from his colleagues, he would remain blind to this behaviour. At the most basic level of perception, if we can't hear feedback about the way others see us, then we miss the opportunity to learn from it.

We all see the world differently
A critical lesson we learn while growing up is that not everyone sees the world as we do. Our blind spots are part of the way we see ourselves and the world around us. We don’t always agree with others about the way we perceive things and they don’t always agree with us.

As adults, we experience these differences in perception regularly. The leadership team don’t see the future of the company the way you do, the clients you work with perceive their issues differently to you, and the customers you serve see that another business can do more for them than yours.

Even though we learn to see the world in a way that makes sense to us, we don’t really ‘see’ it the way it is. We see it based on the beliefs that we have learned throughout childhood and which we take into adulthood. We see ourselves based on who we think we are – which may not be the way that anyone else sees us. As every brain processes beliefs differently, the patterns that you have formed about yourself, are unique to you.

Ruts in the Road
The beliefs we form about ourselves and our world are very powerful. In the brain, beliefs form patterns of neural firing which act like a rut in the road. The more we think about ourselves the same way over and over, the deeper we wire in these ruts. The result is that the synaptic connections between the neurons for this belief pattern get very strong and very fast. Like the rut in the road, we find ourselves being steered in the same direction over and over, repeating behaviours simply because they are now automatic.

Automatic behaviours due to deeply empatterned beliefs, or mindsets, are harder to change. Every time we tell ourselves a story that we are not good enough or not clever enough, we further embed this patterning. These stories we tell are usually about something we lack. You might have a story that you lack self-confidence, that you handle conflict poorly, or that you don’t have the resilience to deal with change. The more you tell it, the more you wire it in and the more you believe it.

Why the fear mindset wins
The stories we tell become mindsets waiting to be taken out of the brain and put to work. Mindsets tend to be more negative than positive because the brain tags memories with negative emotions as more dangerous than memories with positive emotions. Danger means a threat to survival. The brain’s job is to alert you to this danger. Therefore, we end up with a library of mindsets with the fearful stories at the front being checked out time and time again. The positive and rewarding stories remain hidden up the back somewhere unless we make a conscious effort to bring them forward. Simply knowing that we should choose a more rewarding story about ourselves is not enough. We first need to learn to see the stories we tell ourselves, differently.

Learn to see by ‘unseeing’
Once you realise that your brain is holding a library of empatterned mindset stories, many of which you are checking out regularly and reinforcing a negative belief about yourself, then practicing the art of ‘unseeing’ will help you identify the pattern of thinking that results in this 'rut in the road' mindset.

‘Unseeing’ things is learning to hold, or suspend, the automatic response of checking out a mindset that reinforces something you already believe. It’s like standing at the library shelf with that mindset in front of you, but choosing not to grab it. Instead you turn around and walk out empty handed! 
Walking out without your safe and familiar mindset is going to feel very uncomfortable and maybe even quite terrifying. Who will you be if you are not taking this mindset with you? Your thoughts may feel empty as if there is something missing - and there is – the automatic way that you usually think about yourself. But choose not to go back into the library just yet. 
As you stand outside your mind library, you are holding the opportunity to see something beyond your immediate visual or gut perception of a situation, freeing your mind to think differently about it. It’s not as strange as it sounds, in fact, you probably have practiced ‘learning to see’ already if you have done any of the following:
  • Suspended judgement about a situation you don’t know much about, literally waiting to ‘see’ what might evolve.
  • Reframed a situation by choosing to turn it around and view it a different way.
  • Taken an alternative point of view to the one you are familiar with, to ‘see’ it from another position.
  • Learned to ‘unsee’ yourself one way as you recognised you were growing and changing.
These techniques are powerful ways to challenge existing beliefs and mindsets while holding yourself open to seeing things differently. We don’t judge our beliefs as right or wrong, but we remind ourselves, “I can’t possibly see everything about this situation”. The space you are holding is the idea that you can repattern a belief about yourself.

Practicing learning to see
Learning to see is the key practice for shifting unhelpful mindsets, by becoming aware of how we get stuck in our thinking and seeing, limiting our ability to go beyond the fearful stories at the Library’s front door.

In coming blogs, I will explore many ways you can learn to see, all designed to identify the various thinking ‘prisons’ we get stuck in. I’ll be drawing on practices used by neuroscientists, mindfulness practitioners, leaders, coaches, thought-leaders and organisational development specialists, to curate ideas evolving from brain science, philosophy, spiritual wisdoms and organisational change. 
Through each practice, I encourage you to do the exercises and reflect on the ideas to identify where you limit what you see about yourself. Journaling your insights and observations can be a helpful way to keep track of the changes occurring within your frame of thinking, and is a useful process to see how far you have travelled. 

Let’s enjoy the journey together!