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.

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