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. 

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