Getting past analysis-paralysis

Jonah Lehrer writes about the power of unconscious thought under the heading You know more than you know. The bottom line: in some circumstances, experts are more effective when they don’t process information consciously for long. The more they try to work things out the worse their judgement can become.

Thoughts that occur to me: Big organisation procurement processes put an emphasis on laborious, explicit thinking about choice of contractor. Does this screw up the value of judgement of decision-makers?

Second, I wonder about training where the model is that the expert will critique the uninitiated. Often there’s a lot of feedback and the recipient is overwhelmed. The course to empower us to do such-and-such involves a big manual and it all starts to look very complicated – and harder than it needs to be.

This leads me to reflect on the workshop I ran last week with Viv McWaters and Simo Routarinne. we spent a lot of the time using a coaching format based on trying stuff rather than following a formula. Among other things, it downplayed advice and accentuated experimentation.

It’s a method I use a lot when coaching, and it draws on a variety of ideas I’ve seen over the years – things like Forum Theatre, bits of gestalt and transactional analysis, and improv games like new choice and freezetag.

With that many influences, it’s not a rigid method and we emphasised different things at different times. Our workshop was on status games in facilitation, but as if often the case most people ended up sharing stories and seeking ideas on how to deal with difficult people, or perhaps more accurately, difficult relationships or conversations.

My take on difficult issues is that the clue is in the title. They’re difficult. And no amount of theories and advice for how to deal with them will change that. In fact, this stuff often only serves to make us feel more ashamed of the difficulty we encounter.

So, instead of encouraging generalisations, we asked people to give us very specific examples of difficult encounters in meetings. And then we set them up as scenes, enrolling participants to play the various difficult characters while our protagonist played him/herself. The way I work, the protagonist is invited to set the scene up and determine the focus, so they feel they’re in charge of the risks they take, not anyone else.

Generally, the scene should be kept very short. Often it’s just two lines of dialogue, a he-said she-said. That’s enough to discover a whole variety of ways of playing the scene out. The protagonist will generally have a limited idea of all the many different ways of presenting themselves in the scene. We’ll encourage them to play with a variety of different lines or ways of saying the same line, perhaps trying very high and very low statuses in different ways.

For each effort, we’ll check with the protagonist how it worked for them. Usually, the first few efforts don’t satisfy them. We may check with other players or audience for very abbreviated feedback – too much is not helpful. Mostly it’s about getting the protagonist to try different things – and then suddenly there will be a shift. They’ll know, and the audience will also sense, they’ve come up with something that works. It’s not in response to a theory, it’s less conscious than that, but we all know it works, for some reason.

We might take that approach and explore it further, with the hope of deepening a connection to the state it embodies. Again, we don’t do much analysis.

Sometimes, we’ll set up a tag version – with the protagonist’s assent – where other participants can step in and try things out. This is particulary valuable when someone is giving a lot of authoritative advice: I’ll say, come on then, show us how it’s done – it’s often interesting to see how much more difficult it is to play the scene than to advise on how to play it.

I find this approach works on lots of levels. It supports experimentation and heads away from over-cleverness. It acknowledges that situations are difficult and it’s good practice at challenging ourselves to keep trying new things and seeing how they work. It’s very practical and we often learn a lot by seeing what others struggle and/or succeed with.

As hosts, we made sure we were willing to take on roles, try things we found difficult, and be open to failure ourselves. This helps reinforce the reality of the challenge and avoid us falling into the expert trap.

Often with this approach, there are more insights that come after the workshop as we start realising how we play out patterns that we saw others exemplify in the workshop – and in spotting the pattern, realise that we have new choices.

1 thought on “Getting past analysis-paralysis

  1. Stuart Reid

    Yep – I really like your ideas for getting out of the head, and trying things out in small ways. A good thing for me to remember generally in life as well as in coaching and training.

    Reply

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