Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Calculating differences

In grade two, students begin to learn the art of calculating differences. They are told that two take away one always leaves one. As long as the model is number systems, this is true.

Later, we discover that calculating difference is more complicated than this suggest. We cannot always accurately predict what difference it will make when we take just one element out of a process or system. Sometimes, the results are not incremental, but exponential. At other times, they are merely different than we expect.

Imagine a party where the one person you most want to see is absent. Imagine a box of chocolates, complete except for the space where your favourite should be waiting. Imagine waiting for the phone to ring.

And now, for something completely different, imagine just the opposite: the evening spent with the person whose company you crave, the taste of a favourite treat on your tongue, the sound of the voice you are waiting to hear. And then let your mind move forward to notice what comes next. Is it more of the same? Or is the course of your day, your week, your project altered by this one moment, this single interaction?

Last week, my son misplaced his keys, and we each spent hours looking for them. Today he realized he has been carrying them around in his favourite messenger bag. The keys have only moved from inside a pocket to inside his hand.

And that small movement makes an enormous difference!

Monday, February 27, 2006

Four ways to cast your mind

I started a sentence today that read "cast your mind". . . and then stopped. And wondered.

Cast your mind back to a time when life felt balanced to you. . . I might have said. As though there were feelings swimming in some metaphysical waters and you could catch the appropriate one with a cast of your mind. The results would be unpredictable - skill counts in fishing and yet does not guarantee results. You would move slowly, deliberately, gracefully. And your mind would arc out over the waters and sink and wait until a time when life felt balanced was enticed onto the sharp prong and you could reel your mind in again. Maybe what you took off the hook would be the time you were seeking, or maybe a similar time. . . or maybe a time with the right weight and nothing else in common with what you expected.

Cast your mind back to a time when life felt balanced.


Cast your mind forward . . . that would be forecasting. You'll notice right away that to forecast - to predict the future, you have to start by going backwards. Just like casting your line. You have to analyze what has already happened, what conditions exist in order to guess what will happen in a time that has not yet arrived. The results would be subject to a margin of error - skill counts in forecasting and yet does not guarantee results. Your mind would probe, spider-like, over available data, weaving it into fine, dense patterns that would begin in the past and extend symmetrically into the future. Except that the pattern would be incomplete until the future was in the past. . . and then you would find that a variation here, and an anomaly there created difference between what you could analyze and what you might expect.

Cast your mind forward.

Cast your mind in a mould so that the molten potential takes on a particular shape and character. Where will you get the mould? Will you commission it from a factory where they make precision parts or from an artist who captures energy and grace in bronze? Notice that choosing the shape of what is to come will require that you seek out models of what has been achieved in the past. Past achievements are not a guarantee of future results. Moulds degrade as they are used: a bubble or impurity might slip in with the stuff of your brain so that the mould is slightly imperfect. In all events, it is a negative to the positive it shapes, moving in where the brain will move out.

Cast your mind in a particular shape and character.

Cast your mind as you would cast a play. Which actors will best fill the parts in the internal drama that fills your consciousness? Notice that before you cast the play, you must choose the play, know whether what unfolds is tragedy or comedy, theatre of the enlightenment or theatre of the absurd. Each actor will fill the part and shape it and change the way it plays out. Sometimes, actors get a better offer, or get sick, or get out of the business. You cannot merely pick great actors; you must find the ones with chemistry - the ones who will make one another better, the ones who will give the play a dimension no one has yet seen in it. And every performance will be different; minute differences in mood and movement and audience response will change the play as it unfolds.

Cast your mind with actors who make one another better.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Models, edges, and change

A model is a complex of a multiple, integrated systems. A person also consists of multiple, integrated systems. What we call identity depends on the web formed by the composite qualities of these integrated and interacting systems. Who we are depends on the model we live.

The model changes when we find its limits. Either we recognize ourselves as having hit the limit (and so become stable and therefore different) or we defy those limits (and grow a different model). We find the limits of our model either because we go looking for them or because we run into them while trying to do something else.

How do we know when we are at the edge of the model and how do we make a choice to change models or retreat within the one we have? We recognize the edge of the model by the impact that edge has on physiology and perception. The edge represents the boundary that divides and connects two elements: inside and outside touch at the edge. This is as disorienting as being turned upside down: we receive simultaneously the information that the two sides are related and the information that they should not be interacting - they should be separate enough that one does not disturb the integrity of the other.

As edges shake us up, they influence integrity - they change what is held together by the model.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Seeing the box

The only way to think outside the box is to know where its edges are. You can think inside the box without being aware of the box: you can only make a choice to stay inside the box when you know what comprises the box, the materials of which it is made and its limits.

Imagine a box. The box has a top painted like the sky, and a bottom that rests on the ground. The sides are painted to show a reasonable facsimile of the horizon in all directions. You can live inside the box indefinitely as long as you do not explore its limits. All the choices you make will be based on assumptions about the world that are based on what it is like inside the box.

Everything is fine until you come to the end of your world. In most stories, there is water at the end of the world, a way of saying metaphorically that the edges are more fluid than they look and it is possible to flow over them and into something bigger than the box we thought was the whole of the world. Sometimes things flow into the box from the other side, and the walls of the box have to grow. Telecommunications, for instance, came from somewhere outside the box and changed how we live inside it. The impossible became improbable, and then possible, and then habitual.

Some of us live in narratives that act like boxes. We are the heros of adventure stories, or hard luck stories, or success stories. We hit the limits of the story when someone wanders into our life from a different kind of story entirely: they are happy in the midst of a tragedy; they are magicians in a scientific experiment or scientists in a world governed by ritual or money. We have to decide whether to kick such people out of our stories or to rewrite our stories to include new elements.

Think of a particular problem. Allow yourself to become aware of everything you know about the problem, and then of all the beliefs and presuppositions that sit just outside what you know, supporting what you know by giving it walls and limits. The limits keep the problem within bounds: otherwise, the whole universe might go off-kilter and there would be nowhere to go for new resources to solve the problem. The resources must come from outside the walls, and you cannot find them until you run into one of those walls and notice where it is and what it is made of. Only then can you go under it or over it or through it, to get what you need. And then you will repair the wall.

There is nothing wrong with the box. Or with being inside the box. Or with being outside the box.

It is good to explore the box. So you can move walls instead of running into them.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Scary agreement

In an email this week, I recommended developing a pattern of 'yes' responses to build agreement. One person wrote to call me 'scary' and another (in a training session) associated the technique with telemarketers. It's an interesting dilemna. If we naturally encourage agreement, we are scary and manipulative. If we do not encourage agreement, we are unable to fully connect.

Evolution has clearly weighed in on the side of connecting. It is widely accepted that the human brain has evolved to develop our abilities to 'mind read' - to guess at someone else's experience by interpreting their tone, gestures, facial expression, postures, actions and language. Through this mind reading, we have been able to form incredibly complex systems for living and building and generally developing capabilities far beyond what one could predict from an animal that is not fast, or strong, or ferocious. Connection only works because we use it as a test for saying 'yes' - if we could only say 'no' then we could never agree to do anything together, and no systems would form. We owe our evolution to powerful agreements.

What happens when 'yes' becomes a danger signal? No one would argue that there have been periods of time and historical contexts when people have said 'yes' to bad things. No one would argue that there are people in our own lives who would encourage us to say 'yes' when 'no' is a more appropriate answer. We know that 'no' is protective.

That's why the onus is on the person asking the question to frame it in a way that allows for a 'yes'. It's not so easy to do repeatedly. Most of us can mind read well enough to ask one or two questions in such a way that the answer is 'yes'. To form a pattern of connection, we would need to ask many more questions to which the answer remains 'yes.' In order to maintain the pattern, we would have to be able to enter into someone else's experience so thoroughly that we could 'mind read' accurately the response. In order to do that, we would have to open ourselves to communicating through multiple systems and multiple dimensions with someone whose experience is different than our own.

What happens when we so thoroughly enter someone else's experience (or frame of reference) that we can repeatedly and accurately predict their response to choice (all questions present choices)? Is it possible to do this without developing empathy for that person? Think now of the people you already know well enough to predict answers for: are they people close to you or strangers? Are they people who share your interests and priorities or people who are very different from you?

And then consider this. If we allow patterns of 'yes' to become dangerous and patterns of 'no' to seem protective, who will say 'yes' when we need help? How will evolutionary patterns shape groups where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts if our habitual response is 'no'?

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Happy Valentine's Day

What happens when you think about romance? Are you a romantic who loves the notion or someone who can't quite imagine themselves in that picture? Think back to the time when you first knew that romance was or was not really for you.

Some of you will have no memory of when or where your attitudes to romance formed. In the eternal present in which we all live, the rules of use it or lose it often apply. If you missed out on romance when you were young and impressionable, you will not have any anchors to stabilize the experience. There will be nothing to use, and so romance itself is lost. It's possible there is even a critical period for romance, some point in human development where we are either captured by the notion of aesthetically pleasing passions or we miss it altogether.

If you are not a romantic, there is no way of explaining its appeal. Freud tried to link the urge for sex with the urge to die - but his ideas are out of fashion. Still, the great romances, from Guinevere and Lancelot to Swan Lake and through a lineage that descends to the tabloid pages we read at the supermarket today-- the great romances end badly. The stories that end well are not romances; they are merely comedies.

There is something about flowers and candlelight and fine food and good wine and dark chocolate. If none of these are anchors to wonderful states for you, you might consider giving them some help. Men, especially, will find that the more they anchor pleasure and relaxation to these icons of romance, the more they have reason to choose and use those anchors. Or, as they say in NLP, to fire those anchors.

If you are anchored in this way and your partner is not, there are answers. One is to consider the pitfalls of romance and to shift your own anchors to more common ground. The other is, in the best romantic tradition, to take up the challenge of anchoring wonderful states to flowers or fine wine or dark chocolate. And to reinforce those anchors frequently - once a year is not nearly enough.

Or you can choose not to be anchored at all - to accept the spirit of romance instead of its trimmings and express it (and be fired) through symbols that are so uniquely yours that no one else would notice them. Except, perhaps, your one true love.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Comfort levels and productivity

As a writer, I have developed a toolkit of tricks to make me comfortable enough to write. I know how to introduce distraction, when to make coffee, when to sneak a treat. The tricks are necessary because writing is inherently uncomfortable. To distill the amorphous complexity of life into words on a screen requires an input of significant energy.

Yesterday, I was reminded again that productivity grows out of an uneasy integration of comfort and tension. Chris and I had a meeting. We consider the chance to work together a rare treat; the nature of this stage of our development is that we most often grab moments when we can out of too-busy days. Motivation is not a problem for us. We are only frustrated that we cannot work more.

Yesterday's meeting might at any point have looked like a disaster. It was not fun. It was pretty brutal. We uncovered weak spots and prodded them with sticks. We uncovered leverage points and pushed - hard. Our shared commitment and trust meant that we had enough comfort to make each other really, truly uncomfortable.

If we set the frame to include the hour immediately after the meeting ended, it still looked like a disaster. I am reminded of the picture in The Little Prince of the snake that has swallowed an elephant, an experience of being stretched too far by something that is extremely hard to digest. It is inconceivable, looking at the snake pulled out of shape and weighted down, that the snake could ever move forward again.

So it is an opportune moment to make the frame bigger, to include the next few hours. The results are unpredictable. I sat down and mapped out a new strategy, a new web site, and wrote literally thousands of words. The words did not flow easily. Each one was pulled from me, and arranged, and rearranged, in a strange time distortion that allowed for intense struggle and intense productivity. Writing is not a comfortable process.

Looking back, I begin to see the pieces shift, the flow of energy that led from cause to effect. I understand the dangers and rewards of reading a book on Emergence (by Stephen Johnson). From disparate, unpredictable elements, through a few rules of engagement, to a system more complex than the pieces would suggest.

The indigestible elephant is much smaller now, its mass converted to energy. The snake will not need to eat again for weeks. Gradually, it will begin to move again. And to pick up speed.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Talking about training

It is interesting to observe different people as they recognize that something has made a difference in their lives in ways they cannot entirely explain. We often watch this unfold over months (and even years) as people integrate the effects of coaching and training and decide what they will tell other people about their experience. At first, most people are excited about what they are discovering about themselves and about communication.

Afterwards, people evaluate what they are willing to discuss in their personal and professional lives. Is it a good thing to develop new awareness of unconscious processes? If it is a good thing, is it something to be shared, or something to be guarded as an edge?

It is both a marketing issue (for companies like ours) and an ethical issue (for us and for our clients). While we share with them a belief that progress can be ecological and ethical, we also understand that new learning is a risk, and learning in a way that sits outside academic convention is a bigger risk. The easiest way to deal with such a risk is to integrate the learnings so that they can rest just outside awareness. Consciously, one can revert to convention; unconsciously, one can reap the rewards of enhanced access to complicated patterns in information and communication.

This seems often to be the choice of people who have gained the most from conventional wisdom and conventional career paths. They are quick to point to corporate culture as a reason to avoid difference in thinking or behaviour: the differences they do experience they attribute to their own characters (we all attribute more to our unique characters than is likely to be true) or relegate to unconscious process (if you are focused on what to do next, you simply do not notice that you thought differently ten minutes ago).

People, on the other hand, who have experienced the limits of convention tend to be able to hold on to more conscious awareness of growth and difference. They notice that they have changed, and are able to talk about those changes in ways that invite other people to step into a different kind of learning. As they spend more time in their own skins (and less time in conventionally defined roles), they risk less by acknowledging that they have made new connections. They are the people who refer their friends and coworkers for training or coaching.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Hockey as the Great Canadian reframe

It occurred to me today that our national sport is a brilliant reframe of our collective past. I have studied Canadian history, and read Canadian literature (almost the same thing), and stood at the edge of a forest and wondered at people so determined and so driven that they looked at forests and saw farm fields.

No one who has read any amount of Canadian literature is unaware of what winter meant to the settlers who left Europe to make homes here. What did winter leave them except rocks and snow and the bare bones of the trees?

What kind of courage and imagination does it take to turn that bleak prospect into a game? What is hockey but a field of ice on which men hit a rock with sticks? Our people - sturdy, brave, and given to conflict - turned struggle into a game about fighting and flying and more than a little camaraderie.

No one cheered for settlers in the bleak Canadian winter. But we cheer now - and raise a beer - and proclaim our heritage through hockey.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Resilience and other mixed blessings

Resilience is the ability to bounce back into shape after being stretched and pulled in different directions. If you know you are resilient, you have experience of being pulled out of shape. You only get to practice bouncing back by being knocked down once in a while.

Even as I write this, I am noticing a warning from Blogger about maintenance tonight. Blogger is resilient: it regularly experiences problems and fixes them. This means it is trustworthy. It also means someone had a really busy weekend discovering problems that could only be fixed by shutting down the system. Resilience comes with a price tag.

The price tag is much higher if we are not resilient. Resilience does not create the stretch - it merely presupposes it. Once we have been knocked down, we definitely benefit from the ability to bounce back up and keep moving. Before we have been knocked down, thinking about it will not necessarily make it more likely to happen. Or will it?

So we are left back with a choice that has to be made randomly. The choice is this: are you more resilient when you recognize your resilience and take risks knowing that you can bounce back when things go wrong? Or are you more resilient when you focus so clearly on the shape you want that you pull minor variations back into shape almost before you have noticed them?

There is no right answer and although it appears to be an either/or choice, it may also allow for both/and thinking. When we tell stories about resilient people, we notice their resilience and our connection to them without directly courting disaster so that we can bounce back from it. We experience resilience as if it were our own: studies show that our resilience is likely to be characteristic of our connections with other people. Telling stories is one way to understand that resilience comes from inside and outside simultaneously.

Of course, as most of our stories explain, the connection with other people is also likely to make us need resilience. So the argument bounces back to where we started: You only get to practice bouncing back by being knocked down once in a while.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Asking great questions

I have been talking to people who are thinking about taking the training we offer. They ask, "What will this do for me?" The real answer to that question is "How would I know enough about you to know how this will change the intricate system of your life?" The real answer is not very satisfying, so I explain how the work we do will be related to some of the things they are willing to say they want (which is only tenuously related to why they will take the training or what they really do want).

Other people ask me: "How has NLP changed your life?" I think a little, and give them answers that are true to my experience, although not always precisely what they want to hear. My life has changed a little, and it has changed radically (right down at the roots). Yet my life was rich and full and curious and challenging before I found NLP. So NLP has not made sweeping changes in my life, and I am very glad of that.

The question no one asks, and I wish someone would ask, is "Why do you love what you do?"

The question no one asks, and I wish someone would ask, is "Why will I love this training?"

Friday, February 03, 2006

Slumps, Blocks and Dry Spells

Writers are stopped cold by writer's block. Big hitters and sales professionals go into slumps. Creative types hit dry spells. It is a universal truth that high performers run into walls from time to time. Whether it's the star executive moving between high profile companies or the grade four teacher who suddenly finds it takes all her energy to go through the motions, everything that goes up comes back down. Unless we are working with the wrong metaphors.

One of the perks of integrated thinking is the ability to keep a part out of the integration so that I can observe my own thinking as it unfolds. As I do, I become aware that a 'block' or 'dry spell' is frequently a period when I am processing so much that information is not quite able to struggle towards the light of conscious awareness and language. A pregnancy is not a dry spell, although it takes nine months to show productive results.

The tension of the block might not be an irritable reaching for something that is not there. It might, instead, be the tension of ideas that are growing and zooming and colliding and embracing, all just beneath the level of awareness. These times when words have trouble holding experience might be signs that we are growing too fast to fit into the structures we have created for ourselves, signs that we are no more dormant than the bulbs which sit under snow and earth. Those bulbs are not waiting for the spring, they are growing into it.

A gardener helps the bulbs grow. That part of your mind that stays out of the integration, those conscious processes that get left out during periods of rapid growth--they can play gardener. You can ask yourself "what's growing down there?" With the steady assurance that fresh energy and fresh ideas will push their way to the surface at the appropriate moment, you can watch for the first signs of new growth, welcoming them and protecting them from marauding squirrels.