Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Delivering bad news in good ways: The "magic" of your mind

In the previous section of the book I'm writing called Delivering Bad News in Good Ways on Projects that is posted here, we considered how to define the situation in front of us as part of the Separate step of SED the process. The next part of the chapter explains what's happening in the background of our mind as the first impression of the situation takes shape.

The thinking (and feeling) process explained

Many years ago I was curious about how our mind can react so instantly to people and things around us. At the time, it seemed to me impressions and thoughts came out of nowhere like magic, but I knew that didn't make sense. So I started doing a bit of research to understand the process. My hunch was if we better understood this seemingly magical process we might have an opportunity to respond more thoughtfully and intentionally when communicating with and responding to others.

So, how long does it take to form an impression of someone? Well, if you believe recent research, it takes between 100 and 150 milliseconds. To give you a sense of just how brief that is, we can use an example from language. All languages have phonemes which are sounds unique within that language. In English, we have the phoneme "cha" which takes about 250 milliseconds to say. Yep, that’s fast, but how is possible that impressions can pop up so quickly?!?

The brain has three major parts - the brainstem, the limbic area, and the cortical area.  The brainstem is the oldest part of our brain, and it is the bit we share with the lower ordered creatures on the planet like snakes and other reptiles. This is the part of our brain that takes care of autonomic functions like breathing, digestive processing, eliminating waste, etc. The brainstem regulates all those functions and keeps them in check which simply means we don't have to chew up our awareness with saying, "Come on, heart, pump" or "Breathe, lungs, breathe..."

The limbic brain is what one of my children affectionately refers to as the “feeling” brain. This section is the seat of our memories. When events occur, it is this part of our brain that tells our mind and our body how to feel in response. So when we encounter a long lost friend, see tear-jerking commercial on television, or hear someone crying or screaming, it's this part of our brain that calls up a memory which then triggers the chemicals inside of us to flood our body with emotion.

The cortical brain is the newest part of our brain, and it is considered to be our “thinking” brain. This is the part that uses logic to sort information and give it some order. It allows us to assess what we’re experiencing in our environment and then respond which is obviously critical to survival. The rub here is that it’s slower than the limbic brain. Remember that 100 to 150 milliseconds stat? Well, it’s the limbic brain that’s quick on the trigger. The cortical brain needs a bit more time - about 3.6 seconds to be exact.

I think you know where I’m going with this...

Flowing out the 100 millisecond to 3.6 second process

Just like most things in life there is a process and first impression response is no exception. There's a lot of science to this process, but to keep it simple, I’ve clustered the thinking/feeling process into three groups:

- Collect
- Respond
- Filter

Collect, Respond, and Filter have lots of things going on in each. What's interesting about the process is how it gets developed, and what's even more interesting is it doesn't just get created and stop. It actually grows, changes, and evolves over your lifetime. Your experiences, the people in your life, the things you do all inform this process. What does that mean to you and someone with whom you are working on a project?

Well, when you sit down to have a conversation with that person, you might think you and the other person are the only two people there, but actually that’s not the case. The reality is that you BOTH are bringing loads of people and experiences into the conversation. It’s these past experiences that help you make sense of the current experience.

In the next installment, we'll take a deeper look how these three groups work to deliver such a "magically" quick response. 

Friday, March 8, 2013

Delivering bad news in good ways: Get a handle on yourself first

Almost everyone wants to write a book until they really start writing it. That's me - I'm actually writing two: A nonfiction and a novel. 

For many years I've had the pleasure of working with some fantastic people in corporations and government agencies around the world. They have shared their stories and concerns with me in a search of solutions to very real problems. Interestingly, the problems they face are less about the mechanics of work and more about the human side of getting work done. In response I've made a concerted effort to learn and share as many facts, best practices, and processes as possible in a effort to address the behavioral aspects of their work that chew up much of their day. 

Now I'm finally doing it, and it is just as daunting, tedious, and scary as I thought it would be. I'm soldiering on despite knowing I'll have scores of revisions before the final product is finished.

The title of the nonfiction book is Delivering Bad News in Good Ways on Projects. Being the bearer of bad news is never fun whether it's in your professional or personal life. Some people don't have an issue with delivering bad news, and that's fantastic. I'd love to hear about your approach and technique. But there are those of us who do have a harder time sharing and responding to bad news. These are the people I hope this book will help.

Over the years I've experimented with an approach that is the foundation of this book. In an effort to get your response and feedback, I thought I'd start publishing pieces of the book chapters here. Writing can be a lonely endeavor so I'm looking forward to sharing the journey with you. 

Here's a segment of Chapter 5 which addresses the "Separate" step in a model I call SED.  SED stands for Separate, Evaluate, and Deliver. I look forward to your comments either here or via email.

Separate: How you do it

Maybe you’ve experienced a situation like one of the following:

Your project sponsor has significantly reduced your funding but still expects the same scope.

A major issue discovered during testing will require an additional three months work which will impact the critical due date. Oh, and by the way, in anticipation that project would wrap up on time, you’ve already started ramping up management of a new and even larger project!

Two primary project stakeholders can’t seem to get aligned on a solution for a crucial part of system build. The situation has eroded quickly and now they are refusing to work together.

You’ve just found out your resources have been slashed by 30 percent, but the sponsor won’t budge on the workload. More with less is the mandate.

Change is a reality on projects. I’ve always said I would love for a plan to be etched in stone right out of the gate, but we all know that’s not possible. There are simply too many variables and unknowns so in the spirit of Rolling Wave Planning we lay out the plan to the best of our ability and then respond and make adjustments to new information along the way.

The management part of this is using processes to collect, integrate, and distribute information and work requirements. There are are many fine publications that illustrate in detail the processes that support this. I’ve listed recommendations for these publications in the Appendix section of this book should you like to explore them further.

What is not necessarily covered in equivalent detail is how to assess, respond, and manage the emotional experience of change on the stakeholders (and you). Because bad news is likely the result of a change, we’ll break down the parts of the SED model to help you be more effective with assessing, responding, and managing the emotional experience of it.

Step 1 of Separate: Define the situation/event
Bad news is on the table: Now what?

To put a new spin on an old quote, Alexander Pope (1688-1744) said, "To err is human; to forgive, divine," but for the sake of project management let’s make a slight adjustment:

To err is human; to separate and sort before responding, divine.

When we first become aware of a situation or event, it’s natural to jump right into a bunch of assumptions.  It is even more natural to make one of those assumptions your conclusion before you’ve fully assessed the situation. This is just the way the mind works - we use mental models to quickly assess and respond to the situation at hand.

Whether we’re aware of it or not, our mind is constantly sifting through tons of information in an effort to make sense of the environment and experiences around us. The human brain likes order and will work very hard to create it as soon as possible. It’s important to understand the following:

"Context is the reality of the situation around us. Without context, our minds have a tendency to take shortcuts & recognize patterns that aren't really there. We connect the dots without first collecting the dots." From the book The Mission, the Men, and Me

The upside of this is that it enables us to rapidly respond to a variety of situations, to innovate, and to create. The downside of this is we make a ton of assumptions that miss the mark. As a matter of fact, research shows 40 to 50 percent of the time our assumptions are correct, but here’s the rub: 50 to 60 percent of the time those assumptions are NOT correct.

Hmmm...time for a reality check, you say? Yep, you’re a quick one. :)

Let’s take a look at how that process works.

Making sense of information

Maybe you’re standing around the airport gate waiting to board your plane and a interesting person catches your eye.

Perhaps you’ve just been named project manager of a project that’s been in progress for several months. You steal a quick glance at the team before getting down to business.

You’re at a networking event and you see someone who looks like a person you met before. You walk up and introduce yourself, but suddenly realize this isn’t the same person.

What’s happening in your head during the initial moment of those situations? In what seems like an instant, thoughts creep up into your consciousness. You might reflexively make a statement about the person in your head, and then counter that thought with an “Oh, where did that impression come from?” Possibly you simply react without any forethought. Hopefully there’s no fallout from that potential “uh-oh” moment which is where you act on the thought without thinking about it.

So, how long do you think an instant is if you quantified it? Perhaps you’re thinking it is only a few minutes or several seconds.

What’s going on with your reflexive response? Maybe your response is that you “just know” or it’s “intuition.”

How can you form an impression of someone else so quickly? Where does it come from? Perhaps you simply assume that being on the planet and having a variety of experiences just gives you license to make quick decisions and conclusions without vetting them.

If any of those responses rolled through your head you’re not far off, but as with most things, there is a process we naturally follow.

In the next post, I'll address The thinking (and feeling) process explained which will address the process we following.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Quote to recalibrate

When I saw this quote earlier today, it felt very appropriate and timely. 

Helping others be successful and feel loved helps us get out of our own way and deepen our experience of living life.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Social Train Wrecks And Why We Feel Compelled to Watch

Okay, I have to admit it. I like to watch. Yes, it’ll probably come as a great surprise to many of you that a therapist watches others. 

Well, NEWSFLASH… Apparently being a watcher of others doesn’t require you to be a therapist. It only requires that you be human. The experience of watching is one of the most fundamental processes we have for learning how to be in the world with others.

But not all watching experiences and the reasons we do it are the same.

Charlie Sheen, his tiger blood, AND his vmail rant to Denise Richards. Lindsay Lohan and her revolving jail stay experiences and vain attempts to stay “relevant.” Anthony Weiner and his bulge on Twitter. Mel Gibson and his taped racist rant. Dad’s letter and computer shooting rant on Facebook. Your high school friend’s public declaration for an old flame that ends with an even more public divorce followed up with a steady stream of sickening lovey-dovey posts between the newly betrothed. Oh, and did I mentioned that you’re Facebook friends with ALL OF THEM – him, her, the new woman and her now ex-husband???

People learn by watching others doing a variety of things essential to survival. Social learning theory is not new so it’s not some big revelation that we learn by watching others. Teachers, parents, spiritual guides, and other significant people in our lives model behavior and demonstrate socially acceptable ways of being and interacting with others.

We are curious by nature and seem driven by a need to know. That need to know varies among people. Some people have a need to know about political events. Others have a need to know about sports. Apparently many people have a need to know about celebrity. Watching others gives us something to talk about. It gives us something to do. It’s a platform for kicking around ideas, testing moral assumptions, and validating personal and social values.

Watching helps us feel connected to the world around us.

No navel gazing
“Whatever pleasure the experience of the possibility of being ignored once provided has been canceled out by the fear of being excluded, by the fear of not being counted. We don’t know ourselves through the quiet moments of contemplation where we suspend our social mimicry; instead we know ourselves when our social striving is represented back to us through social media’s scorecard.” ~From the article Selfishness and Self-absorption by Rob Horning

Now, this is the most basic way to think about watching others, but it is only a start to our watching ways. As a matter of fact, I think there are levels of watching that kick off a chain reaction of emotional and physical responses that are unique, exciting, and sometimes even scary. The experience can range from passive acknowledgement to delusions of access to the people and situations we’re watching.

We watch to gather information, to judge, to assess, to get ideas, to compare, to inspire, and even to get aroused. Our response to watching is linked to our purpose for doing so. For the longest time we only had social events to do our watching, but television and film changed all that by offering people privacy to passively consume things rarely seen or experienced in real life. This medium works well for many, but it was a one-way experience until the Internet came along.

Watching didn’t start with social media. Reality TV cut a more direct path to watching social and personal train wrecks, but with the introduction of the Internet and mobile devices, suddenly the experience of watching assumed a whole new level because it became an interactive experience.  It also took on a faster-than-the-speed-of-light pace. Pre-Internet trends would take months and even years to form. Now it can happen in the matter of days or even hours, and lucky us…we have a front row seat if we want it.

People can now safely linger in the shadows of cyberspace and not just consume experiences of their choice to their heart’s (or loin’s) content. They can now influence it, interact with it, and actually create it. Watching takes on a range of experiences from passively glancing at your friends’ Facebook posts to actively engaging adult entertainment experiences or even illicit behavior via the dark web.

There are positives and negatives to watching. The upside of watching others is when we see other people doing good deeds. Seeing others doing nice things is infectious and can put us in a better mood as it turns out.  It can also inspire people to try something new or different, generate empathy, and ignite national and global campaigns.

The downside of watching is becoming obsessed to the point of stalking or the appearance of stalking. When the behavior gets to this point, it can be considered clinical voyeurism and should to be treated by a professional.

Morbid curiosity is a natural part of the human experience. We just seem to have an attraction to what’s been dubbed “macabre voyeurism.” We are attracted to and hang with the Charlie Sheen, Lindsay Lohan, and drama-filled Facebook friend situations in search of a logical, other-side-of-chaos experience as noted in Eric G. Wilson book Everyone Lovesa Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away.

I see it as a form of entertainment. Humankind has had stories since the beginning. We’ve written them, watched them performed, and starred in them. It offers an escape, a fantasy that’s different from our day-to-day operational existence. We’re glad the dramas aren’t ours, but we do enjoy watching them because they show us the riskier, more uncertain side of living.

Maybe the social train wrecks reflect some darker or crazier side of self we all like to pretend doesn’t exist within us or we’re aware of it but simply keep buried or managed. Perhaps it’s a form of vicarious experience. It’s through others we can experience extremes without the messiness or responsibility of the resulting fall out. That’s part of the joy of Halloween, mascarade parties, and fantasy play. For just a little bit of time we can roll up our social facade and play in safety. In between those times, we can just go on watching others.

What do you find interesting to watch in social media sites?

Originally published at and