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Your Brain Has a Mind of Its Own

No kidding. And you make best use of your brain when you challenge your own thinking.

At one time or another, most of us have claimed that our emotions—our feelings—are imposed on us, that we have no control. Admit it, you’ve probably said something like “He makes me so mad!”

The reality, tough though it may be to swallow, is that nobody can make us be mad, or glad, or sad, or anything else. We choose our feelings based on the stories we tell ourselves. Then our feelings lead to actions that produce results. If we don’t like our results we can challenge our own thinking, because what we think is what launches us on our path to action that produces our results.

At first blush, this idea may come across as a touchy-feely mind game. It’s not. The ability to improve our results by challenging our own thinking is one of the most powerful skills we can develop. It can unlock our true potential by freeing us from the constraints of the stories we often tell ourselves.

Let’s see how this can work.

Your brain has a mind of its own. No kidding. On its own accord, the brain tends to act more out of self-preservation than out of rationality. We have a natural tendency to tell ourselves stories that justify what we’re doing or failing to do. We have a natural tendency to allow our stories to masquerade as facts. We have a natural tendency to seek information that reinforces our view and to filter out or ignore information that contradicts our view.

When we’re not careful, some of us can jump to conclusions faster than an Olympian can do a back flip. This isn’t a character flaw, it’s just part of being human. But these natural tendencies can be crippling. The good news is that we can teach ourselves a new set of behaviors that serve us better.

Here’s an approach to challenging our own conclusions that I’ve discovered to be helpful. I’ve given it a name: FIND-IT, which stands for Focus, Inquire, Notice, Discern – Integrate, Translate.

First, let’s examine the nuances of each of these action verbs.

To Focus is to clarify, to concentrate, to define more carefully.

To Inquire is to investigate, to seek information by questioning. Effective inquiry requires an openness, a willingness to discover and accept information that differs from our first impressions or pre-conceived notions. Appreciative inquiry involves searching for solutions or explanations that may already exist and looking for the good and reasonable. That’s not to suggest that we wear blinders that prevent our seeing what’s dangerous or harmful. It’s to suggest that we honestly consider the possibility of bright sunshine obscured by the dark clouds.

To Notice is to pay mindful attention to details, to become more aware of the individual parts that comprise the whole. I recall an art gallery that I visited with my grandchildren. A major exhibit featured the playful work of Walter Wick, the photographer whose I SPY and Can You See What I See books for children are longtime best-sellers. With careful examination, I was able to notice things in Wick’s work that were completely missed in my initial, cursory look. In some situations there may be less than meets the eye. In others, there is definitely more than meets the eye. The only way to know is to notice mindfully.

To Discern is to distinguish, to recognize as distinct or different. True discernment also involves wisdom. Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz may have said it best: “You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions.” In addition to its spiritual components, discernment is an outgrowth of honest inquiry and mindful noticing.

To Integrate involves incorporating parts into a whole, giving fair consideration to the possible interdependency of the individual pieces. A related word is integral, which denotes something that is necessary to complete the whole. Another related word is integrity, which denotes a state of being that’s whole or complete, and, of course, soundness of moral character. All of these are essential to behavior that produces the best results.

To Translate is to change something’s form, nature, or condition or to explain it in terms that are more easily understood and more appropriately dealt with.

To illustrate the utility of the FIND-IT model, let’s consider my friend Stephen Covey’s classic story of his experience on a subway. At one station stop a man stepped onto the subway along with several children. The man sat down, stared blankly at the floor, the train lurched forward, and the children went nuts. They pushed and shoved each other, wrestled over sitting space, and generally made a loud nuisance of themselves. One little boy, barely able to toddle, tripped over the feet of other passengers and seemed oblivious to the possible danger. Stephen found himself irritated with the man. His conclusion was that the man was rude and uncaring and simply wouldn’t be bothered with managing his unruly children. So Stephen stepped across the aisle, sat down beside the man, and asked a couple of simple questions:

“Sir, are these your children?”

“Oh, yes they are.”

“They seem anxious about something. Are you concerned that this littlest guy might get hurt in the crowd?”

Inside, Stephen was frankly annoyed by the children’s behavior. Most of all he was annoyed by the man’s apparent indifference to the situation. But then he got a response that changed everything.

“Oh, yeah, I realize the children are out of hand. You see, we just left the hospital. My wife has been gravely ill for several weeks. She died about an hour ago. I’ve told the children that their mother is gone and I’m afraid they’re kind of in shock. I certainly am. I don’t know how I’m going to live without my wife.”

With that fresh insight, Stephen’s paradigm—his “story” or frame of reference—changed instantly. Instead of viewing the man as rude and uncaring, he now saw him for what he was—a fellow human swallowed by grief and shock. And when Stephen’s viewpoint changed, his behavior changed. His urge to judge and lecture was replaced by the urge to comfort and help. He offered to cancel his appointments and help the man, a total stranger who was suddenly humanized by more complete—and more accurate—information.

When we sincerely Focus on a situation, we begin to see things that were not at first apparent.

When we respectfully Inquire—not for the purpose of playing “gotcha” but rather for the purpose of discovering possibilities we had not considered—we are often surprised by what we learn.

When we mindfully Notice the details of a situation we begin to see and appreciate the individual pixels that comprise the landscape.

When we carefully Discern what’s going on in a situation, we honestly distinguish between the facts (verifiable data) and our assumptions (the unsubstantiated stories we tell ourselves).

When we Integrate what we’ve noticed and discerned, we’re well on our path to appropriate and useful conclusions, decisions, and behaviors.

Finally, we’re able to Translate it all in a way that leads us to productive outcomes.

The next time you’re struggling for a useful approach to a situation—as a leader, as a parent, as an employee, as a friend—do yourself and others a favor. FIND-IT.

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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