Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Strategy must begin with deep, curious attention

I've been starting my college term by asking students to think about two things: how people are motivated and how people respond to problems. In both cases, the challenge is to get them to think through what they believe to be the right answers until they begin to notice the elements of their actual, lived experience.

All of them are willing to give me a strategy for motivation or problem solving. The difficulty is that few of them are able to generate a strategy based on experience. They start with theory and generalization, and produce more generalization.

I wouldn't want to say that many adults with much more experience than my students make precisely the same mistake. They generate strategy based on what they think should be true, and miss the rich store of data they have about all those quirks presented by lived experience.

For example, when encouraged or nudged, my students would frequently admit that their first response to a problem was frustration or irritation, followed by a period of searching for alternatives. Only after they had done those two things were they able to either accept the problem or change it. None of them were easily able to move from that insight to a strategy for communicating problems that included allowing time and space for both the frustration and the cooling off.

Human beings are better at knowing what we have done than we are at knowing what we will do. Much of our decision making happens outside of conscious awareness. We know it by its results. When we want to formulate strategies that will be effective, we base them on real information about the whole, complex process of motivating or managing. It's not enough to have ideas that make sense: we need a detailed appreciation for the reactions that are predictable but not logical.

There is no reason for a student to be frustrated by new information. Students invest time, money and effort so that they can access new information. That doesn't mean that students are not frustrated when presented with new information. It means that teachers must be curious about the nature and timing of that frustration so that they can work with it to engage students with learning.

You might not be teaching. You might be managing or selling or collaborating. You need to develop strategies to get desirable results from your work. When you begin with deep, curious attention to your experience and the experience of those you observe you will be able to craft strategies that do more than look good on paper. They'll get results.

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