Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Finding yourself through multiple descriptions

I have been talking to people who train and facilitate about how they know what they are doing is working and how they decide what to change to get better. A wise friend suggested that we all need a mirror. Maybe we all need lots of mirrors.

In one of my favourite fairy tales there is a princess who is beautiful that a thousand mirrors could not show all of her loveliness at once. We are all a little like that princess. We know that parts of ourselves that we know, and there are always lots of aspects of ourselves and our relationships that other people see and we do not see.

There are two factors at work. One is that we inevitable see what we are looking for, not all of what is in front of us. So that even when we are aware of aspects of ourselves or our connections to other people or to contexts, we miss stuff. We see what we are looking at and get distracted from the whole of the picture. What is right in front of us can still be invisible to us.

The other factor is that unconscious process is easier to see in someone else. We can see their expressions, their postures, hear the shifts in their tone, and notice correspondences between what they are saying and what they have said at other times - or what other people have said. None of this is easy to see in ourselves. We are caught up in our meaning, our conscious response, and sometimes in the reactions we think we are seeing in other people. With the best will in the world, we can let other people know parts of us that we do not know ourselves.

And so people who work in front of groups, whether as speakers or as teachers, have only an obstructed view of their performance. To work in front of a group takes a kind of commitment that means you need to know what you know strongly and to rely on your ability to let that commitment carry you through whatever reactions you get from your group. That means that there are some things you are seeing very, very clearly. Whenever you are seeing something clearly, you are missing something else. That is the nature of vision.

Of course, it's scary to open yourself to a mirror, to seek information that might weaken your ability to commit to yourself and your material in front of a room. The mirror will have different information than you have now, but that does not always mean it will have better or more useful information. That's why you might need more than one mirror.

We learn through multiple descriptions of the same thing, by overlapping descriptions until we begin to define the thing itself. Our brains create pathways that represent a thing, and those pathways get deeper through repetition - but repetition is seldom exact, and it is only the parts of the path that get used lots that get stronger. We know ourselves in the same way, through the increasing precision that comes from many multiple descriptions.

We are all in front of a group, searching for more accurate information about ourselves, our relationships and our context. We all need mirrors - because we can never be sure precisely what they will show.

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