Fun with Company Culture

It’s surprising to me that this problem arises so frequently in American business. A company may have an overarching corporate culture, an overall attitude that pervades the business at all levels. Yet within a company there may be several such cultures, divided by role. One of the challenges I’ve seen is where those cultures clash inside the company, damaging its overall success. A frequent example is the conflict between Sales and Legal, two teams who, at first glance want the same things: a positive outcome for the company, often have, when we peel back the veneer, have opposing needs.

The Legal department is tasked with protecting the company’s legal interests. This means that contracts have to be favorable to the company and any details of a deal and its corresponding agreements must similarly favor the company. Sales is, by definition, concerned with closing the deal. It wants to successfully complete the business with the customer and move onto the next deal. from a Sales team member’s perspective, the contract is a formality, something that only delays closing the deal and getting paid. From the other team’s viewpoint, the contract is a pivotal document that ensures the deal will go as planned and that the company is protected.

For this reason, I’ve often heard, “Lawyers kill deals.” Of course, both teams have valid points and a compromise makes sense here.

I also often see, in technology companies, a similar conflict between Sales and Engineering. The Engineering team may be tasked with designing technology that is effective, reliable, and valuable to the company’s customers. Often, such teams are pushed to accelerate going to market, getting the product “ready” before it’s been fully tested. The advent of so-called “agile” development has made this a reality in the software industry, for example. Shorter development cycles require shortcuts somewhere and Engineering teams are required to do this. Particularly in high tech, such shortcuts can result in a flawed product: a defective device or buggy software.

If you are an executive or manager trying to solve a productivity issue, it pays to learn the interdynamics between the company’s teams. If there is a culture clash between them, and they are at odds, they’re likely not only ineffective, but potentially working against one another, ensuring both teams’ failure. And ultimately, who suffers? The company overall. To sharpen the point a bit: You suffer.

Influencing change in such teams is not as difficult as it’s made out to be. We all do what is reinforced, so if someone is using a behavior, it’s worked for them reliably enough in the past that they count on it now. Remove that reinforcement. Introduce a new motivator. Bonus engineers on the number of “bugs” they fix, which removes a commonly-seen problem: Developers refusing to acknowledge such bugs in the first place. If they make bonuses for not only acknowledging bugs, but for fixing them, you now have a motivator in place that will encourage them. One company I met used a method I myself wouldn’t condone or recommend, but it did work for them: a “Wall of Shame” on which, when bugs were reported, the developer responsible (using their own internal criteria) would be listed with a little sticker of an insect on the wall. The more stickers, the more “shame” or suggestion the developer lacks skill. This was a proud bunch, so it was an effective punishment.

The reason I wouldn’t recommend it is that punishment has been proven to only be effective in decreasing a behavior, not increasing anything. So in most sentient beings, not just human, punishment would not increase attention to detail, care with testing, and pride in work. For most technical employees, it would be ineffective in shaping the desired behavior. I also see the potential for an unexpected side effect: denial. There’s one way to overcome getting a bug sticker attached to your name on the Wall of Shame: produce fewer bugs. Sure. But there’s at least one other: Deny that the reported bug is in fact a bug.

A more effective way, using positive reinforcement, that overcomes this is the aforementioned bonus idea. When a bug is identified, the Engineer would now be reinforced for acknowledging the bug as this represents an opportunity to fix it and win the bonus. Denial would no longer make sense.

From another team’s perspective, Sales, the bugs represent a problem. Yes, they may have closed the deal they wanted. But Sales is a reputation-based domain. Once your reputation is tarnished, it can have devastating impact. When the salesperson calls on that customer again, the customer will assign part of the blame for the buggy software to the company name, itself, but also a good part to the salesperson. Meaning they will no longer be willing to just trust the advice of that salesperson. The mythical “trusted advisor” lost his or her status. So sales professionals who think beyond the current quarter care very much about quality and customer perception. If you alter the reinforcements for everyone else in the relationship, you can bring them all into sync, all working toward the company’s shared goals–which is true leadership.

Saying Goodbye

I lost both of my parents in the past few years, and between those two experiences, I’ve gained a few surprising, and subtle, aspects of healing under such circumstances. In 2017, my wife and I said goodbye to her father. As my dad has been deceased for over a decade, Pat had become a surrogate father to me. His wisdom, business acumen, and sense of humor have been constant friends since my own dad’s passing.

Then in 2018, I said goodbye to my wife–not to death, but to another “d” word, divorce. 

Much has already been said about the grieving process, and to be fair, this site’s raison d’être has much more to do with finding the silver lining than with noticing the clouds. However, sometimes life seems to ask a price of us before we gain something great.

“Wait a minute!” I hear some of you say. “If you’re so good at influence, why did your wife divorce you?” A fair question, but it assumes a lot. For example, I determined that the relationship was in such poor shape and neither of us wanted to correct it. We had, truthfully, grown very far apart, and neither wanted to compromise the gains we’d made. It made sense to split, and I filed for divorce. Before you begin to influence anyone, including yourself, you must determine your outcome. What is it you want as your successful goal? That goal might surprise you. In our case, for example, neither Keli nor I had a goal that resembled “Being together for the rest of our lives”, previous vows notwithstanding. Our goals took us to separate continents and very different paths. The most decent, kind, and respectful thing was to be clear on our individual goals, be as gentle with one another as possible, and split amicably. That we did.

Remember: Others may perceive success very differently than you. In your own life, your own definition of “success” is the most important one. You must be proud of what you’ve done, you must love yourself and find contentment in your outcomes.

This is not much different than having outgrown a job or an employer. I’m often asked by managers advice on how to keep high performers happy and loyal. The company and employee approach the relationship very differently, so it’s not structurally like a marriage. In a marriage or intimate relationship, both parties approach the relationship as (hopefully) equals, each with their own needs, concerns, and yes, baggage. Those needs may be many, but they will have at least a handful in common. After all, they chose one another. There must be something they have in common.

Not necessarily so for a company and employee. The company needs a job done, as well as the outcome of someone doing that job for it. The employee needs income, benefits, a stimulating place to demonstrate and utilize their skills. So they trade, each giving the other something they want in exchange for what they, themselves, want. Most of the successful marital relationships I’ve seen aren’t trade as such. They tend to be equals sharing some mutual needs and goals, and working together to fulfill one another.

Yet there is something these two relationships have in common: Each party needs to have their own needs met in order to maintain that relationship. If a company decides an employee isn’t giving what is needed, they seek to correct that lack–whether through coaching or replacement. Similarly, when in an intimate relationship, one or both partners isn’t having their needs met, they come to expect that same lack. There is a tipping point at which the partner who feels disappointed begins to consider whether a different partner is the answer. Often this leads to an extramarital affair, which is seldom the answer. It needlessly complicates what is by then an already complicated situation. Am I guilty of having done this? Yes. Are you? Statistically speaking, probably. No offense to you, personally.

The most common result of this in an intimate relationship, however, is the dissatisfied person leaving the relationship. If married, this means divorce, almost without exception. Divorce is complicated and messy, and both parties typically pay a heavy price. But they have by then determined that price is lower than continuing on as things had been.

So whether you are a manager or an employee being managed, or a member of a couple in an intimate relationship, there are some basic facts you must embrace.

  1. Your needs matter. The other party in your relationship has a responsibility to respect and do their best to fulfill them. This may take work, either sharing a soul-searching conversation, or getting professional guidance from someone who specializes in such relationships. Though sometimes it’s as simple as relating to the other party exactly what you need that you want them to provide.
  2. The other party’s needs matter. Now, we flip it around and keep this fair. The other party, whether an employee, manager, or spouse, also has needs and they need for you to fulfill them. They have a right to express these needs and you must listen, just as you expected them to listen to you expressing your own needs. You must consider honestly whether you are willing to fulfill your end of the agreement–whether that’s doing the work that’s expected or give your partner something she or he needs in order to feel fulfilled and happy.
  3. It is possible that what you (or the other party) need is simply not going to be met in that relationship. If you are an employee and feel that your work and productivity warrant a raise, you may go to the other party in the relationship, the company, HR representative, or your own manager, and address item 1 above. Your need matters. But you must accept that when you do this, item 2 above also is true. The company may not have the ability to give you the raise, no matter how much it might want to. Just as with a marital partner who decides they are unwilling to help meet your needs in that relationship, you then must decide how much of a “need” that really is. If it’s a “must-have”, cannot-compromise kind of need, you have reached the point where a graceful parting may be necessary. If you’ve called it a “need”, but upon examination, decide it’s closer to a “want”, you might decide to look for an area of compromise. If you don’t find a compromise, however, you are at a decision point: Would you rather have your need met or keep the relationship?

There is no wrong answer, only awareness. Keep in mind that sometimes what seemed like a lost cause can be salvaged if both parties want that. Though if both parties are not on board, a one-sided compromise rarely works long-term. Returning to the “raise” question, maybe the company can’t afford a raise right now, but is willing to give you some other “perk” that doesn’t cost them anything. Human capital perks like telecommuting, working from home a few days a week, or additional vacation days, can be a two-sided compromise that keeps everyone happy. But in that same question, if the company says, “Sorry, but no,” the employee has only the option of a one-sided compromise or of course, saying goodbye.

I would urge managers to consider this as they attempt to prevent attrition of good people. Your employees follow the 80-20 rule like most things: 80% of your productivity comes from 20% of your people. Among that 20%, do what you can to fulfill their job-related needs or they will sever the relationship. If you are on the employee end of that relationship, determine whether you are among that 20%. If not, the negotiation is stacked against you and your needs will not likely sway the company. Find out what you need to do in order to join the 20% and you will find two things:

  1. Your needs will matter more to your employer, increasing the likelihood you will get what you want
  2. You will be more successful than you had been, and that generally translates into more job satisfaction in the first place

Taking the other party for granted is a certain recipe for a failed relationship. So giving it everything you have makes sense. Then, when you have done all you can to ensure its success, assess honestly whether your needs are being met. Then start a plan to change the relationship.

A Haunted Life

Both in my personal and professional lives, I’ve continually seen examples of past events influencing the present. This doesn’t surprise me, as our present reality is rarely one we think to create ourselves. This despite the fact that we absolutely can do so. More often, it is the product of years of experiences, both pleasurable and challenging, with seemingly endless examples of triumphs, disappointments, frustrations, and beauty. However we have turned out, as some view it (that’s a little passive for my taste – I prefer to think of it as “How we interpreted that sum of circumstances, and the ultimate meaning we’ve assigned to that interpretation”), is often based largely on our past. Many of us never notice this, as our own experience is a bit like looking at life through a fish bowl – distorted, but if it’s all we know, all we can see, we tend to assume that perception is “real”. I won’t even delve into the fact that among this mass of experiences, many of which contradict one another, we often choose a theme, a perspective, through which to filter the others. In other words, as Milton Erickson MD pointed out, we necessarily must delete a good portion of our experience in order to make sense of the rest. So those memories are seldom, if ever, even an accurate representation of our history. Still, I want to focus on another aspect of our present reality and how it can become “haunted”.

The most common example of this is when an unpleasant experience lingers with us. You might go so far–though I wouldn’t recommend it–and say that it “scarred” you for life! This is in no way to diminish the significance of a painful or wonderful experience you may have had. Most of us have experienced some form of traumatic life event, whether in our adult lives or as a child, where the trauma may have imprinted itself on our developing minds in ways it never could have to an adult. These may be incredibly painful memories for us, And beginning to forget the suffering we experienced may now be too difficult to consider just yet.  I respect where you have been and the joys as well as the pain you have experienced. My aim is not to make you forget unpleasantness, only remembering the lessons, the joy, and the important parts of every experience.

More importantly, when a bad memory has served its purpose, it has taught you the life lesson you sought, given you the life experience you needed, my suggestion would be that simply clinging to the painful aspects of the memory may no longer be in your best interest. Its useful life could have expired, and it may be time to release its ghost. Let’s use a simple example to which most of us can related. You had a painful experience as a child at school. It may have been your first time dealing with a large group of children, some of whom may have been your age, some older, some younger than you. Let’s consider that you are in no way attacked or victimized, only embarrassed. Let’s say you fall off a swing on the playground. You were hurt, perhaps you cried, but instead of the compassion and assistance you may have gotten from your parents, some of the other kids laughed at you. This embarrassment may have been a somewhat new experience for you, that at home, you could trust that you would be safe from ridicule (and your own “ghost” may be that in fact you were not safe from such things at home). For some children, such an experience could be quite traumatic, as the need for acceptance by our peers emerges early in our development. So with this alternative reaction, ridicule, we might find ourselves too fearful or embarrassed to take any risks on the playground, avoiding any likelihood of making a fool of ourselves again. That would be a common reaction.

But let’s say that this strategy works for you. We might call that a functional strategy, for whether good or bad, desirable or not, healthy or not, it does succeed in minimizing our chances for ridicule when being clumsy or foolish. What if we keep that strategy in check, so to speak, using it only on the playground, or in high-risk situations? What, on the other hand, if we begin to generalize that strategy and use it everywhere? Could it eventually lead to our being unwilling to trying out for sports? Social activities? Could it make us too shy in high school to ask someone we like to the big dance? Could it develop long-term social awkwardness? Not finding and pursuing the love of our lives? Choosing a career path we consider safer? This happens all the time. I actually knew a man who in high school took great pride in excelling at everything he did. He planned great things for his future, being a star athlete and student. Then disaster struck. He got a B. In trying to cope with his perceived failure, he made choices similar to our example above – he began choosing classes that were less challenging, and while he still went to college, he choose a much less difficult major than he had planned. His strategy was, I suppose, functional – he never got less than an A again. But he now makes a fraction of the money he would have, had he followed his original career path, gets much less respect and recognition for his job, and has in many ways settled for less in his personal and professional lives. The “ghost” of that “B” grade has haunted him his entire adult life.

Our challenge is to put things into perspective. Yes, the experience we had may have been awful at the time, and its repercussions may very well still affect us today. Many of these terrible experiences are arguably much more profound than the two examples we have so far examined. I’ve known rape survivors, people who as children were molested or otherwise abused, people who’ve suffered what no one should ever have to endure. But the question we have to ask is – Once we acknowledge that our trauma has occurred, can we similarly acknowledge that it’s ‘over’? What does that mean? Let’s say you were kidnapped as a child and abused for months. No one would likely dispute that you have endured a horrible experience. But at some point, you escaped, were released, rescued, etc. Or you would not likely be reading this right now. So it’s “over”, correct?

There are important life lessons to take from a painful experience. Sometimes it’s only the obvious – how to avoid going through that experience again. But sometimes the learning is much more subtle, something another person, one who didn’t experience the same thing, might overlook. Whatever the lesson is, by all means, learn it. The pain, the fear, the upset, was only there in the first place to help you recognize a lesson was coming. So first learn that lesson. And then consider that the time to begin forgetting all the pain, its usefulness having passed, is almost here now. When the time comes to actually let go of that ghost, to send it away, be ready to do so. Because if anywhere at all, ghosts belong in old, creepy houses…not your life!

Pay Attention II

I’m certainly not the first person to say, “pay attention!” because the information you need is already all around you. But despite the frequent reminders, examples where this advice is ignored are too numerous to ignore.

I was in my office last week, doing some paperwork, when my phone rang. The voice identified itself as calling from a “home security company”. The man asked how I was doing, and I answered, my sense of humor demanding expression, “I would be fine except that I just don’t feel that my home is secure.”

What I had just done, as most of you will recognize, is utilize his exact pitch, used the limited information he’d provided about his own value proposition, to qualify him uniquely to solve my problem.

From a Sales perspective, I told the salesperson what my pain was, well before being explicitly asked for it. So to that sales professional, I should have been an easy prospect, making it clear that I had the unique pain that he could alleviate, that he offered the very product I required.

But what happened?

He paused long enough for me to wonder whether we’d gotten disconnected. He then broke the silence with, “Oh, gosh, I’m really sorry to hear that…” He sounded very sympathetic and even uncomfortable, and we hung up. I had just informed him that I was his ideal prospect. In all honesty, I wasn’t, and my home is in fact quite secure. Though he didn’t know that, and had plenty of opportunity to help me solve my perceived problem. I’m not encouraging people to be annoying in their telesales. If a potential customer isn’t interested in speaking with you, you don’t have a right to annoy them. But in this case, I gave him tacit permission to proceed, even matching my “pain” to his solution for him. However instead of identifying the opportunity for us both, he offered sympathy and ended our communication.

I say “for us both” because ostensibly, we both had something to gain by our working together. He has a product or service he needs to sell, and I identified myself as someone whose problem that would solve. If I bought, presumably, both our problems would be solved.

We have opportunities like this all the time, and I frequently spot this as I observe conversations. One person identifies a need in himself and shares it. Now sometimes we talk with others about our problems just to talk, to find a sympathetic ear, to explore our problem. There’s nothing at all wrong with that. Though sometimes when we talk, we’re hoping the other person may offer some useful advice, a recommendation. So few human experiences are truly unique. As the saying goes, “there’s nothing new under the sun”, therefore if Person A shares a challenge with Person B, there’s a good chance that either Person B has already faced the same challenge, and has a story to share, experience to offer, OR Person C, D, or E, good friends or family members to Person B, have. Either way, the conversation can be viewed as one person reaching out to another, asking for solutions, advice, support, or encouragement. The other person, most likely, has something to offer – either from their own direct experience or indirect – such as having read about it in a book, a website, hearing it from a close friend, etc.

Structurally, the two scenarios, the person seeking help, and the sales scenario I encountered, are nearly identical. So what if the other person, Person B, were as unwilling or dense as the salesperson who called me? Person A and I would continue our search for answers, for a “hit”, and the initial attempt would have been a “miss”.

By the way, I mention the “structure” above because in NLP, we seek to understand the surface structure and deep structure of a communication – structure can be similarly applied to situations, enabling us to quickly ascertain the appropriate strategy. A good example is that you may never have gotten into a Ferrari. You have, however, gotten into any number of cars in your lifetime. You spot the door handle, note the crevice in the body of the car that defines the door, and you match the structure of the Ferrari’s door to that of other cars. You correctly open the door, climb in, and pull the door shut behind you with no difficulty. Of course, if it’s a Lamborghini with doors that pull out then swing up, it may require a little adjustment!

Similarly, as we learn to identify the structure when we encounter a new situation, we can map it to similar structures with which we do have experience and have at least a starting point. (I offer all this because I’m often surprised by email I receive pointing out how two such scenarios are not the same.)

If I apply the structure to the other person’s perspective, the salesperson who called me would seem to be the kind of person who, when asked for assistance or advice, would just shrug and say, “Uh, I dunno. Never had that happen before, myself.” As he would learn to think more structurally, he might evolve to a point where he may say, “Uh, I dunno, I never myself had that happen, but I read in a book once that…” or “…my friend John went through the same thing last year. He found that ___ helped him get through it.” Of course, bringing that line of thinking back into focus, where he and I met on a call and he had an opportunity to sell me something, he could have said, “Uh, gee, I’m sorry you’re dealing with an insecure home…but you know, I’ve got this service I’m selling that secures your home, so it may be a lucky thing for us both that I called. Let me tell you more about it.” Or if he really gets good, he would have added “Instead of letting me tell you more about my service, why don’t you tell me more about how you want your home to be secure?”

Opportunities are often tw0- or more-sided. Not always, of course, but often, there are multiple winners. You sell your product, making your boss and your bank account happy, but I solve my problem just by making a simple purchase. So it’s actually selfish to withhold the solution if you suspect you have it. Though you won’t even reach that point until you pay close attention to what’s happening around you. Opportunity is knocking. All the time.

Reach for the door handle, remember how to open the door to it, and let it in!

The Sound of a Closing Mind

I am consistently amazed at how simple closure will satisfy most of us. As though learning or understanding wasn’t the objective, rather than merely settling our anxiety over not knowing. Think back to school for a moment. Recall what the classroom looked like, the smell of the old wooden desks (if yours were made with wood), the texture of the pages in your textbook. Imagine the smell of chalk, the sound of that chalk smoothly (we hope!) sliding across the surface of the blackboard.

There is so much we have had to learn – just to have made it this far. What else might we need to learn to get through our next big challenge? Now, consider a quick re-wording of that question… What else might we find useful to know in order to increase our readiness when opportunity strikes, to maximize our success, and to make our overall fulfillment skyrocket? Sure, it’s just a few words’ difference…but what a difference they can make!

What I so often found surprising was how, equipped with years of sophistication (you recall your young adulthood, don’t you? We knew it ALL, didn’t we?), we close ourselves so easily to simple truth. Truth that , while not entirely obvious to most of us, is easy to find if you only know where – and how – to look.

I was in a Psychometrics class several years ago, which focused on measurement of psychological potential. This included everything from intelligence quotient to standardized testing, the bane of public education teachers everywhere. The interesting thing about college for professors is that, unless they have achieved tenure, and can essentially determine their own destiny, their own courses, as dictated by their own interests (and where they themselves have a published body of work to which the course can refer), they often must compromise on the classes they teach.  This was, as I recall, not the favorite subject for my professor that term. She nonetheless was teaching what in her own words was an advanced Statistics course. I had a habit during my undergrad years, which amounted to reading through the course catalog, looking up its references to determine which were the really interesting classes. I had decided that Psychometrics sounded pretty great to me, and though a handful of introductory classes in Statistics (which I had not taken) didn’t sound like enough of an obstacle I did ask my professor that first week, if with hard work, she thought I could get over this deficiency, and she acknowledged that it could be done. My course was set.

However there was a strange and interesting twist in the story not long after that. Dr. Gail Gonzales, with long straight blonde hair, a big cowboy hat with feathers adorning it, long denim skirts, and a silver SAAB 900 turbo, was making an example, delivered entirely off the cuff. About auras.

Now as sophisticated as my classmates and I considered ourselves to be, there was no way we were buying into some hippy, new-age notion like auras! I’ll always respect and admire Dr. Gonzales, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that, at least judging by her appearance, that she had at an earlier stage identified with the new-age movement. Certainly I and my equally scientifically minded peers would not indulge such nonsense!

What should have tipped us off was that she didn’t make some grand blanket statement in a seeming effort to convince us that auras were real. She used it as an example that, in an entirely nonchalant manner, suggested she believed we all knew that such phenomena were real! Outrageous!

Now Dr. Gonzales had a wicked sense of humor, so none of us felt it impossible that she was simply pulling our collective leg. None were prepared for what came next.

We ordinarily met in a standard classroom, suitable for the thirty or so students in the class. (What? You’re surprised that no more people than that wanted to learn standards of psychometric measurement from a potential new-ager with an ever-present Western hat?)

Before we realized what had happened, she dismissed the class, instructing us to meet in one of the theater-style lecture halls for our next session. What could she be up to?

The afternoon we filed into that lecture hall, which was outfitted with a stool at the front, a white projection screen behind it. Dr. Gonzales had us pick up notebooks at the door as we entered and instructed us to further scatter among the lecture hall. Concentric semi-circles of auditorium seating rose in levels as though the small presentation dais was a pebble in a pool from which waves of seating rose up and spread out around it.

She announced that we would each take a turn sitting on the stool and that as she guided us through an exercise, each of us, without speaking to or sharing any observation with one another, were to simply jot down what we saw. She taught us to defocus our eyes as we watched the screen behind the subject’s head. She or he would sit in the stool and Dr. Gonzales guided each of us in turn through a series of emotions.

There were a couple of us who, whether we were just unable, or held such a bias so as to negate anything we saw. Our “notes” on what we saw were predictably blank. But as we observed the subjects’ auras expand and change color, we similarly recorded our observations. In the final analysis, all but two of us observed an energy field, a kind of glowing halo, surrounding each subject. The intensity, size and color did seem to shift as Dr. Gonzales led the subjects through a range of emotions.

With very little exception, we all saw the same things. Those two people saw nothing, several of us saw the color more clearly or less so. But once the notebooks were collected, I suspected, and later conversation confirmed that many of us suspected this, that we were guided via the power of suggestion. I was already very much enamored with hypnosis, and have observed and read accounts of numerous faith healers, mystics, televangelists, politicians, and others simply induce a trance and guide or “install” an observation that the subjects believe to be their own subjective experience. Of course, it is just that, but very heavily influenced by the hypnotist. I dissected the instructions and how Dr. Gonzales spoke to us and concluded that no, she had not done this.

How then to explain that the majority of us saw the same things? This would be easy to “rig” of course, had Dr. Gonzales simply picked up the notebooks and reported back the findings. But she had us compare our notes in groups, cautioning us to disclose anyone being a “good subject” – just going along with the experiment and making up an outcome he expects is desirable. We were startled to find that with very little variation, our observations were the same.

I now understand that by having us scatter all about the lecture hall, she controlled for projection or other light trickery. We were viewing from different angles, increasing the expected variance between our observations.

Once we all felt sufficiently less sophisticated and knowledgeable than we had an hour before, we discussed what “auras” actually are. Any physicist knows that all matter is energy. What might seem solid is at all times a swirling storm of energy. Just going by what we know of energy, even as lay-people, is it in any way surprising that we emit an energetic field? Ironically, the “new age” connotation most of us brought to the subject matter led us to close our minds prematurely, to decide that “auras” were as real as the gods many of us worship. Actually, there is more support for auras because they can be measured via instrumentation, removing human subjectivity from the discussion. So without intending any offense, because I don’t have any special knowledge about any god or spirit, if you follow a religious or spiritual path, you actually have more scientific reason to believe in auras.

Having seen this myself, and finding that I wasn’t just imagining it (over 26 of my peers had seen the same, or nearly the same, thing), my rational mind quickly rushed to defend itself, saying things like, “Well of course we have an energy field surrounding us at all times! And of COURSE our emotions, particularly intense ones such as jubilation, sadness, or anger, affect that field! As if I didn’t know that before!” But of course I HADN’T known it before. None of us had. Quite the contrary, NONE of us “knew” this to be superstitious new age imaginings. A hippy’s hallucination, certainly nothing more than that.

If memory serves, one student rushed out of the class, his religious faith terribly shaken (he seemed to have a particularly unuseful belief that God doesn’t like us having energy fields. He felt it was at odds with his religious convictions and, having seen the auras for himself, was terribly upset by it. I myself was actually impressed that he noticed at all because beliefs can be so powerful that we OFTEN do not see something that everyone else assures us is right in front of our faces. All because we just don’t believe in it. We accordingly negate it from our awareness. So the fact that this young man saw the auras at all spoke well of his ability to perceive the world in a manner that, at the very least, his peers could corroborate.

But what does all this mean? I’m a pragmatist by nature, and if something cannot be easily applied to some useful purpose, I rarely remain interested for long, the mental jiu-jitsu of logic and philosophy not in the least affected by this because I find value in those fields every single day. I left that lecture hall no longer doubting auras or the way our emotional state, our feelings, affect the energy we exude, demonstrate to others, and share with them. The first valuable lesson to me was that, no matter how safe we consider our bias to be, it’s possible for someone to share new information that turns that bias on its ear. Or should. If we use our bias to  negate things it doesn’t accept, but are absolutely real and filled with potential to make our lives better, then we rob ourselves of value every moment. That because such behaviors, whether they serve us or rob us, tend to become habits, our standard way of interacting with the world. Choose your beliefs well or you will likely miss out, and potentially a great deal.

The other thing that gave me a great lesson that day was that if we nurture and project outward an energy that draws others to us, makes them want to be near us, to share with us, we are vastly adding to our social skills repertoire. I’ve watched strangers draw one another with mere glances. I’ve also seen tremendous disagreements and intense fights erupt based on little more than a different series of looks and glances.

Perhaps if we take that first lesson and expound on it just a bit more, we can morph it into a third benefit. I don’t recall any among my peers or myself being even somewhat open to the notion of auras. We all dismissed it with the certainty of the young: We KNEW such things didn’t exist. What then when we saw for ourselves that they do? We can take a similar lesson right now. Hubris can lead us to make such cocky, naïve mistakes because we are overconfident. More confidence, one could argue, than is warranted. The place where, as Richard Bandler has said, “confidence exceeds competence”. Confidence, mind you, can be a wonderful thing, when warranted. If not overdone to the point where we either alienate those around us (being arrogant, cocky, etc.) or simply get ourselves into trouble, believing we are competent with a skill that we have not, in fact, mastered, or possibly even BEGUN to develop. I’ve seen relationships, both personal and professional, fall apart due to such abuses of confidence.

If we instead were willing to consider (if only for a moment!) that we might not be right…or not entirely right, we allow space in which our coworkers, spouse, children, our peers, can explore their own potential “right-ness”. Perhaps if we can all bask in and share mutual respect, we can combine our “right” answers (to us) into something greater, a collaboration that actually suits the situation even better. The first step to making that possible to to acknowledge that, though we may feel certain that we are right, we’ve been wrong before, and this person before us, whether a coworker, a subordinate, a stranger in the drug store, our spouse, anyone, might very well have something to teach us, we enrich our experience greatly.

What do I mean by “not entirely right”? Some questions are simply by nature, good examples being “digital” or “binary” options. “Either the lights are off or on”. “Either you are standing up or not”. “Either your car is stuck in the mud or it isn’t”. While some among us manage to argue over such questions, it’s far easier with complex questions. Something “analog” in nature, such as “hot” or “pleasant”, each of which could be treated as digital (i.e. “It’s either hot or not”, “It’s either pleasant or it is not”…) but in many cases, we speak more about the degree of hotness or pleasantness (i.e. “It’s hotter than it was last week, or at least it feels that way to me”, or “That’s more pleasant to me than what I felt yesterday”. Consider another example, the word “lazy”. We could state that we feel lazy or that the large meal and the hot day are leading us to feel lazy. We could also suggest that someone seems to be feeling lazy that day. But if we ask our partner to do something for us and they do not, we might decide it was their laziness that caused this. How can we know? Aren’t we just interpreting their action (or inaction, as it were). An example of the difference I often choose is that of the lights mentioned above. In a digital fashion, I could say that I switched the lights on or off. There is no in between. However if I install a dimmer on the light switch, I can adjust in an analog fashion the brightness or darkness in the room.

So returning to our point, we can learn that the person with whom we’re talking, even perhaps arguing, may actually have a point. Moreover, they may be right. It can often be tough to accept, but remembering how certain I and my classmates were that auras were a silly notion no more scientific or real than fairies or Tinker Bell, our biases have been wrong before. And maintaining a commitment to NLP’s determining criteria of value – USEFULNESS – our bias may be right, wrong, or partly both. Though its usefulness is a much more important question. Though if we dismiss the possibility, much as I and my classmates initially had, we could miss out on something very useful, indeed.

This certainly won’t be the final word on beliefs and bias. Though it’s a fun example of where I learned to retain a degree of humility, regardless of how certain I was that I was right. I urge you to remain similarly open so you’re able to explore more honestly your world, noting details, possibilities, and opportunities that otherwise you may have missed.

Lastly, Dr. Gonzales, if you’re reading this, thank you from the bottom of my heart for humbling some pretty hubris-filled college students. You taught us many powerful lessons, though that may have been the pinnacle (I’ve also been greatly influenced by a quote she had us recite very frequently: “Correlation does not suggest cause and effect!” That’s a big one if you apply science to your world. The fun example of that she once told us was that ice cream sales are positively correlated to murder rates. Yet no one suggests that ice cream consumption leads to violent behavior. The two, murder rates and ice cream sales, are correlated and seem to have another, much more likely causal, variable in common – rising summer temperatures.

So enjoy that Rocky Road double scoop with confidence, while watching your own emotions, your own temper, as well as that of those around you. If things start to get out of hand, you can offer to buy them a double (or triple) scoop of their own.

Always Something More

As we learn a skill, then practice it for an extended period of time, it’s easy to become accustomed to our own capability. I’ve written elsewhere why taking something for granted is rarely constructive, and this is no exception. Sure, it’s great to know that we are competent, and once we have demonstrated competence for a while, it’s tempting to say that we have mastered our craft. Few fields, however, are completely developed, to the extent that no further innovation is possible. Years ago, I heard that this was true of the field of optics, but since then, further innovations have silenced such comments.

I look to  language as a model, and find that comparatives and superlatives are generally safe to use within a set, though globally, they often are not. When we have a closed system, such as a classroom of children, we can safely use comparative adjectives to describe them. For instance, “Thomas is short, but Rita is shorter. Kendra is shortest in the class, however.” Or “Dave has long hair, though Cindy’s is longer, but Cameron has the longest hair in the class.” Any time we step outside the hypothetical classroom, however, we will always be guessing. Cameron, for instance, may have had the longest hair in that class, but to say that she has the longest hair anywhere, compared to anyone, would be risky. it’s often not hard to find a counterexample, in this case, someone with longer hair.

It perhaps might seem frustrating to have to qualify every comparative or superlative statement we make, though we’re far more interested in mere linguistics and semantics, here. We care about behavior and influence, and linguistics have proven to have profound influence over both.

Let’s go back to the first paragraph above and specify that we’re talking about a technology. Once we have developed a strong proficiency with that technology, and we have demonstrated that skill for awhile, both those who observe us, along with ourselves, are tempted to say that we believe we have mastered the technology. But as with most other fields, there will likely be much further to learn. Competence might mean that we reliably can get good results as we use that technology, but it seems wise that we would qualify any statement of mastery. For instance, “I’m the BEST at x” is overused, and often meaningless. By definition, few among us can truly came to universally be the best at anything.  We might be the best in our city, our state, region, the country…or just the best in our particular clinic or office building. But once we say that we are the “best”, we invite challenge. Which itself is healthy. But consider what that statement does to us. As we think about our own proficiency with that technology, if we consider ourselves “the best”, where do we expect to grow? If we’re already the best, is it even possible to get better? Not by definition. That would be confusing the comparative with the superlative. If we were “the best as of 2014” or “the best in Texas”, we have somewhere to grow. 2015 brings new challenges and new opportunities to excel. We step out of Texas, and now we have new areas with new comparisons. We might still manage to be better than all other comers, but we can’t actually know that. Ever. “The best” or any other superlative, must be qualified in some fashion, or it invites the other person to mentally place an asterisk over it, with the simple disclaimer: ” * …so far… ”

Now let’s solely concern ourselves with the message we send our own brain with a superlative. We tell ourselves that we in essence know it all. We don’t direct ourselves to improve or refine our skill, as the implicit understanding is that we already are at the very pinnacle.

I like to preserve a degree of humility in my own attitude towards my skillsets. I’ve learned that if we don’t, life will occasionally, and often, per Murphy’s Law, at the worst possible time, remind us to be humble.  I might use a declarative statement in my own mind regarding my skills, such as “I am excellent in this area.” I’ve compared myself to no one, and I am open to becoming better. We guide our unconscious minds in many ways, not the least of which is the language we use. So in that example, I’ve owned up to what I know, I’m prepared to demonstrate it, and yet I’m also looking for enhancements, any improvements to my process. And there is always room for improvement. Unless of course you operate in a closed field as optics allegedly was. I say “humility” because nothing seems to make the aforementioned Murphy happier than waiting until the moment after a person calls himself “the best” at something before causing him to make a really dumb, amateur mistake. If we accept that, though we’re really good, we can always, as humans, make such mistakes, it ironically seems to prevent our making them.

Continual improvement is wise, and if you are willing to consider that there’s always something more to learn, you are priming your unconscious mind to seek that additional information out.

That’s “the best” advice you’ll find on the subject…in Texas!