“It’s not denial. I’m just selective about the reality I accept.”
This quote is attributed to Bill Watterson, the American cartoonist, and author of the famous Calvin and Hobbes comic strip. It’s not clear if he intended humor or philosophy, or perhaps both, but I wonder if he understood the fundamental neuroscientific truth of his statement. We are selective about the reality we accept … and we usually don’t realize it.
Reality is different for each of us, and that holds implications for the workplace or for the coaching environment.
In a post on this blog last year, a post entitled Attention Creates Reality, we examined how what we pay attention to on a conscious level can affect our reality. If we concentrate on positive thoughts and messages throughout the day, we will perceive our lives as happy and successful while a focus on negatives results in the opposite perception. We also noted how our brain chemistry would change to reflect our attitudes.
But perception affects our personal reality at a much deeper level, a level that we are not consciously aware of. And it means that we all experience reality in a different way even if we are in the same room.
Bits and Pieces
Our reality isn’t an accurate recording of everything around us. Rather, it is a jigsaw made up of bits and pieces, assumptions and extrapolations. This is because our brains just cannot process all the data bombarding us.
To experience an incredibly simple example of this, try this exercise for a few minutes. Focus intently on one sense; touch for example. Notice everything you feel on your skin. Perhaps it’s a little warm, but as well as being warm you may notice your skin is slightly damp as you sweat to regulate your body temperature. Or if you are cold you notice how the hairs on your arm are erect. Feel all the different degrees of pressure on your skin. The touch of your clothing. The solidity of the chair you are sitting on. Perhaps the slight movement of a breeze. And there is much, much more sensory input from just that one sense, but let’s just stop there.
Now, when you were focused on touch, did you notice anything else? Maybe, more correctly, what did you not notice?
As you concentrated, I bet you became less aware of what you were seeing. Perhaps you even closed your eyes to minimize visual input.
What about that television program you were watching? You now realize that it has moved on and you don’t know what happened or what has been said. And on and on. Your other senses didn’t shut down, but your brain began to decide what was important.
Similarly, think of a time when you were highly focused. Say you’re reading a book or you’re listening to music with your eyes closed and something startles you … a loud bang or the dog starts barking. Your attention snaps back to assessing your total environment. Where are you? What is around you? Is something or someone behind you? Every sense directs itself towards discovering the source of a potential threat.
You forget the words you just read. You may not even hear the music anymore.
And when you try going back to reading or listening to the music, you can’t. You’re still on high alert, and you can no longer concentrate.
The point of this exercise was to alert you to how things considered unimportant at any given time are filtered out, and it is just a tiny example of what your brain is doing without you being aware. This filtering is how your brain deals with the information overload it constantly suffers.
To address this overload, your brain filters the data it is receiving for what it considers necessary. It takes small elements, a bit here and a bit there, and tries to create a whole. If there is something it doesn’t recognize it searches memories for a close fit and inserts that into the picture. If there is something present—a color, a smell, a sound—that is closely connected with a previous situation the brain might change your mood to that which you experienced in the original event. And so on and so forth. In reality, your reality is a stitched together best guess.
Implications for a Coach
You may think that when coaching an individual, especially in a small enclosed environment, you are both experiencing reality in the same way. But that is highly unlikely.
What if the temperature of the room is comfortable for you, but the client experiences it as being slightly cold? Think of the last time you felt even slightly cold. You become more and more focused on being cold. You become acutely aware of feeling uncomfortable. You shiver, and each shiver seems to increase in intensity. You fidget and start to shift position partly because the muscle movement causes a minuscule rise in heat. You become so focused on the success or failure of these strategies, you don’t hear what is being said to you. All you know is that you are cold. And it doesn’t take a lot to make you feel like this.
Taking this into account, why would you expect your client to be able to focus on you just because you feel comfortable? Worse still, what if it is the client that feels comfortable while you are slightly cold. Now you can’t focus on what you are doing, and the client, who is ready to experience what you have to offer, is aware that your mind is elsewhere. This is not a good impression to create!
Something as simple as you being positioned between the client and the door can be threatening for them. He or she may not understand what they are feeling or even be aware of it, but their brain is. And you as a coach are now dealing with a fight or flight response. The client’s brain is filtering information, focusing on data useful to escaping or neutralizing the perceived threat. What you say may not be heard. Or you may unintentionally say something that reinforces the feeling of danger.
Suddenly, rather than facing a cooperative and enthusiastic client, you face a loud, angry individual unconsciously focused on survival.
It is vital that you realize these little differences in personal reality exist and that you can adapt to whatever wrenches they throw into your relationship with your client. They can emerge suddenly and without warning. You may be with a familiar client in a familiar place, and the color of your shirt changes everything. Or a tune you are humming. Or, has been mentioned already, the client’s shirt or a song they are humming results in a change in your attitude.
Perception, as they say, is reality.