The Connection Between Clarity and 'Experience'

We've talked about the importance of interpersonal clarity as a business imperative, and that clarity comes from sharing the truth of your experience. But what do we really mean by 'experience' and why is it important?

Simply put, a person's experience is made up of their Observations, Thoughts, Feelings and Wants. We create our experience from our 'internal history' (memories, culture, education, biochemistry, mental maps) which forms the basis for our perceptions. This internal world then meets the external world (sights, sounds, taste, smell, touch). People differ in the depth of awareness they have about what they think, feel, want and observe; and the speed at which they access that awareness.

Our experience is more a function of what is coming from the inside out than the outside in. Because our internal worlds are different, two people can see the same thing and have a different experience of it. If there is confusion that does not get clarified, employees will make up their own story. Getting clear is important because once clear, everyone is then really working from the same information.

Let's take a look at each element of experience...

Observations

Simply an objective view of what you see and hear. Observations become thoughts once you move away from objectivity and add interpretation or judgment.

Thoughts

Of all the elements of experience, thinking is the most developed in western cultures. It is what we spend most of our time cultivating in school. We prize the capacity for good thinking. Considered to be the truth, but is subjective based on our internal world of judgments, assumptions, values and beliefs. It is the meaning we give our observations.

Feelings

'The F word' . Feelings are the least developed element of experience in Western cultures; so we will pay a little more attention to them here. Feelings are often thought of as unprofessional, inappropriate or unacceptable. Try inevitable! Where you have human beings, you will have feelings. This is the territory of emotions which at their core are versions of: mad, sad, glad and scared.

Feelings are very subjective, and can be hard to handle. So can a multi-million dollar merger of companies, yet there can be less apprehension in doing that than including feelings as part of one's true experience at work. Business people talk about logic and analysis, but what they actually decide and do includes feelings. Anxiety is a powerful feeling that rarely gets talked about in organizations. This is well evidenced in a quote from Gervase Bushe in his book Clear Leadership:

"From observing hundreds of groups make and avoid making decisions I have come to the conclusion that the strongest force in organizational behaviour is the avoidance of one feeling: anxiety. The profit motive pales in comparison. I have seen decisions taken where millions of dollars have been left on the table or wasted so that people would not have to deal with issues that made them feel anxious."

Common examples of anxiety avoidance are not confronting non-performing managers or departments, not exploring new ideas that are outside of people's competence or comfort zone, silencing views or perspectives that challenge the current accepted view of things, ignoring signals that competitive threats are increasing, and avoiding making decisions when there are strongly held differences of opinion. A common form of anxiety that we seem to want to avoid at all costs is embarrassment. Yet it's not necessary to embarrass in order to get clear. Ignoring these situations will not make them go away. Not addressing them just keeps them out of awareness, where they can't be dealt with choicefully.

Avoidance of feelings leads to a lack of engagement because we know we're being numbed down. As if to say ‘turn that part of yourself off'. Is it logical to create an environment where your high cost resources are less available than they could be? Since feelings are a key determinant in what moves employees to act and become engaged, they are worthy of business attention. By being curious, leaders can transform numbness into engagement.

Are feelings as sensitive as we think?

The 'Sensitivity' Myth

The myth is that you will hurt others feelings by addressing sensitive situations; and that dealing with the truth of people's feelings has no place in the 'hard' world of business. The truth about the truth is that people want to be seen and heard, even when it does hurt a little, because it brings relief. It's as though they had been holding their breath and when the truth comes out, they can expel the toxic carbon dioxide. It hurts more to avoid the truth.

So while feelings can be sensitive, and it’s important to respect them, people are not as sensitive as we think. It’s all in how it’s done. And when people don’t know how, it is they who are anxious, so they avoid speaking up altogether.

Consider the energy that is wasted avoiding the truth? Without the truth, decisions are made with only part of the full picture, the rest gets made up. This leads to decisions that are not bought into, and that never result in successful implementations.

Wants

Like feelings, wants are often left out of the expression of our experience. They include expectations, needs, desires, goals , aspirations, motivations and intentions. We are all born with a clear sense of what we want at any moment. Think of how young children demand what they want! The process of growing up in our society, however, leads many of us to lose awareness of our wants. We feel cautious about expressing our wants. We may have been taught that it is selfish, or impolite to express wants. Others have learned that it causes problems in relationships when they talk about their wants, so it is better to just say nothing.

What makes "wants" sensitive?

The problem isn't in the expression of the want, it's that you expect it to be satisfied it you dare ask it; or, that you as manager have to satisfy all that is asked of you. Managers need to have boundaries around what they can and can't do. However, managers cannot effectively motivate and lead people if they don't know what they want, so it helps to be curious about what they want, as well as clear about what you expect from them. Your chances are greatly increased when you ask for it.


What is important about this?

Operating from all 4 elements of our experience helps us get clear on what's going on, and certainly helps others understand us. Leaders and their teams will be working from the same information and get more of what they want. The more we become aware that our experience is just that, our experience; the more likely we are to get curious with our teams and co-workers. When we 'check in, and check it out' we can unwind tangled messes, or better, not let them develop in the first place. Being clear also increases the level of engagement and accountability within a team.

The bottom line here is that your truth, is not the truth, but it's critical to put it out as part of the picture to achieve alignment. This is particularly important to be cognizant of when a problem pattern has emerged, but useful in all day-to-day interactions. You can learn how to master these skills through our Clear Leadership program.

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I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe;
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

- William Blake,
A Poison Tree

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