Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Observations again

A recent kerfluffle on a couple of online communities (one of them focusing on conflict resolution -- HA!) have me musing once again on the concept of what are called "observations" in NVC and "clean sensory channels" in NLP.

It's amazing how much of our own self-talk we accept as coming from "out there." We know, without even thinking about it, when someone is angry, sad, puzzled, or delighted.

But those realizations are based on something. That something is sensory experience: information that comes in through our eyes, ears, skin, nose or mouth. You know the drill: sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste.

Most of this information comes in and is processed subconsciously. You don't typically notice or analyze, with your conscious mind, how you know what you know.

When you're in a struggle, either with another person or with yourself, this can lead to deepening conflict, rather than resolution.

Take a step back. Ask: What am I noticing? Is it something I see or hear? What conclusions am I coming to? Could I possibly come to different ones? (We'll explore that question in an upcoming blog entry on reframing.

This can be extremely difficult to do in a moment of upset; human brains and bodies react to emotional threats the same way they react to physical ones, and the flood of stress hormones creates obstacles to rational thinking. So if you've ever "lost your head" in anger, don't beat yourself up about it. Just know that you can take steps to keep your cool, and you can do it without squashing your emotions or denying what's bothering you. (Emotions feed you information about whether a situation is healthy or dangerous -- you don't want to cut yourself off from valuable information!)

Of course, it's best to practice on a daily basis, when stress is low or mild, to develop the mental and emotional muscles you want to come into play when you're in a situation where you really need them.

So: Do a check-in exercise. Set an alarm, or find a way to signal yourself, to stop periodically throughout your day. Do a body scan. Are you relaxed? Tense? Happy? How do you know? Which muscles are tight, and which relaxed? (Pay attention to your face muscles, too -- when you're relaxed, happy, worried, annoyed.) What's you're posture like? Scan your senses. What are you seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, or taking in with your skin? (Many people focus on texture, but don't ignore pressure and temperature.) Lastly, what sort of internal dialog have you been running since your last check-in? What have you been telling yourself about what things mean?

The point of this exercise is to practice separating sensory awareness and internal dialog. If you did this all the time, you'd never get anything done, because you'd be paying attention -- consciously -- to the way the light hits the water cooler, the cooler's proximity to other objects, the amount of dust or moisture that has collected on various surfaces of the cooler, the amount of pressure you need to use to press the dispenser bar, the sight of the water level rising, how the cup and water and breath smell and the texture of the cup and water on your lips... you get it, right? All this normally happens in 15 or 20 seconds, and you're oblivious, thinking about the work you did or haven't done or the questionable dating choices your kid is making or your lunch forgotten on the counter at home or whether you need to get any last-minute groceries for dinner...

Learning to notice the boundaries between sensory experience and internal experience can boost your ability to shift between the two, so the next time you're about to accuse someone (maybe yourself) of something you'll regret, you can more easily switch gears to a more productive and resourceful solution.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Book Review: Stumbling on Happiness

Daniel Gilbert's book ought to be required reading for every college freshman, and for everyone considering a major life change... or where to go for dinner.

Gilbert says we're astoundingly poor predictors of what will make us happy in the future. As we decide on career pursuits, marriages, restaurant reservations, transportation, and what to plant in the garden this spring, biology conspires to make life simple, and in doing so, thwarts many of our efforts even as the electricity whizzes toward those little light bulbs in our brains.

Happiness! Who doesn't want it? But what is it, really, and how do we get there? Are there standards we can use to measure? Is there a blueprint for having more happiness in our lives?

Well, yes and no. Gilbert's hilarious book runs us through the processes of perceiving where we are, predicting where we want to be, and all the pitfalls along the way. From magicians to man-on-the-street, Gilbert describes the way brains sense and organize the present, imagine what will come next (seconds from now or years later), and how we think we'll bridge the gap between the two. It's fascinating and funny stuff.

What makes us happy? Is one person's idea of happiness different from another's? How do we make comparisons between where we are and where we want to be? Although we spend our lives thinking about this stuff, Gilbert illustrates how we think we think is largely an illusion; the brain covering its tracks to save us time and trouble.

With amusing and compelling stories, Gilbert shines the laboratory light on everyday decisions and planning strategies, and yes: He even provides a formula for attaining happiness, which he claims most readers will never accept or use.

(But if you're reading this, you're not "most readers," are you?)

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Vision boards and the Portland Pen Show

I spent some of this past weekend at the Portland Pen Show, where fountain pen collectors from all over the country buy, sell, trade, and admire new releases by pen manufacturers and vintage models lovingly preserved or restored from the 1960s, '50, '40s and earlier.

When I began collecting fountain pens, I made a collage in Photoshop and put it on my computer desktop. The pens I wanted to purchase were there for me to look at every moment I was at my computer. All day long, I stared at those pens, imagining how each one would feel in my hand; what I would be writing; how others would look at them and at me.

According to some gurus who recommend vision boards, I should have some of those pens in my collection, right?

Well, I don't. Does that mean I did something wrong in my "vision board"?

No. I listened to feedback as I made my collection plans. After I created the vision board on my computer desktop, I learned that some of the pens I wanted weren't worth having. Some turned out to be too large and heavy for my hand. Others, although pretty to look at, had flaws that prevented the ink from flowing evenly. Nevertheless, I now have a fantastic collection of fountain pens that bring me a lot of joy.

Knowing your outcome is a terrific starting point. By making your goals visible, a vision board can help you stay focused and motivated. Make room for course corrections, though. Be willing to say, "This -- or something better!" By focusing too exclusively on one factor, rather than the big picture, I've missed opportunities.

Treasure your goals; stay flexible and alert.