To describe something is to change it

“I had been thinking about it that way, but talking to you about it now, I’m starting to see that it isn’t and could even be the opposite”. About relationships with colleagues, decisions to be made, general questions of whether something is right or wrong, I’ve heard variations of this comment more than any other during coaching sessions. Why is it that the act of talking out loud about something changes our understanding of it?

During coaching, people often discuss subjects that are either confidential are that seem too personal to talk to other people about. Doubt, motivation, anxiety, confidence, purpose are all very important issues, but for many of us, many of our thoughts on these subjects occur as part of our inner monologue, the voice inside our heads.

Secondly, if we do talk about them with other people, there’s often a natural drift in conversation towards consensus and shared experience. “I’m worried about global warming” – “So am I, they really ought to do more about it” – “That’s how I feel too” would be a common structure and dynamic. This is because speech and conversation evolved primarily to reinforce social bonds and conventions. Linguists get very serious about gossip and its role in evolving complex forms of speech as a way to create cohesion within the group. Using language to complain about colleagues is to use it for its central purpose.

But we also use language for something else: to think things through and to rationalise them. The problem is that in many ways language isn’t actually very good at doing that when we use it purely on our own. In fact it can be very bad at it indeed.

This realisation can be something of a surprise. We live in a culture that reveres the rational, where considered thought, argument and informed reading are sacred. But the key thing here is the idea of dialogue: that there is an interplay between two or more minds. When the conversation is purely personal, within your own mind it works in an entirely different way.

These are some of the things that I know that I do: I review and revisit disagreements with other people, some recent but also sometimes from a long time ago and remind myself of how right I was and how wrong they were. A lot of the time I seem to be debating with someone else who of course isn’t actually there. I wonder and speculate about what may or may not happen in all kinds of hypothetical scenarios. I consider decisions to be made and wrestle with my gut instinct. I can get quite annoyed, excited or otherwise emotional reflecting on the past and wondering about the future. Sometimes I have a realisation that comes to me very quickly and decide to do something. Sometimes I wonder about the same things on and off for many years without coming to a conclusion.

This is and I am, normal. But talking through these things out loud with someone else can create new perspective and clarity. Why had I been asking these questions for all those years? Why can a brief conversation clarify things that have previously been in an endless loop?

The answer lies in understanding how we think. We like to think that the top of our mind, the bit that verbalises stuff, is in charge, but it isn’t. This is a commentary sitting on top of the real action that’s going in below. This isn’t verbal or rational, it’s our soup of emotions and our animal nature. One part of that considers all of the options and possibilities that we’ve confronted and some of those can bubble up and surprise and shock us.

Sometimes, when I’m on a plane I sit next to the emergency exit. When I do, I often find myself going into a little dream where I worry that I might pull down the lever and open the door mid-flight. I get moderately frightened by the prospect and shocked by the fact I’m even thinking about it (again). But that’s just me, I will never open the door or even come close to it. My self-preservation instinct apart from anything else will completely overwhelm any attempt to do so. But the possibility that I could is one of those little bubbles of speculation of what could happen that floats up and shocks me into using my thinking mind, which then goes on its own little pointless but harmless journey.

In the Enigma of Reason cognitive scientists Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier argue that our capacity for rational discourse evolved as a way of explaining and persuading others of our intuition. In other words, I think we should hunt those woolly mammoth over there because, well I just know it’s the right thing to do. But what I’ll say to you is going to be rational: we need meat for the tribe, the cost benefit analysis here shows that we should expect the hunt to be successful and the safety risk to be low. Furthermore forecasts for finding further woolly mammoth later on are unreliable.

In the face of this argument, I get agreement from the group and language and the rational has served its purpose which has not been to decide whether to hunt but to convince others to follow my instinctive sense that we should.

However, Socrates had another angle on this. Rather than pitch the idea at you with the purpose being to get your agreement, what if I just talk it though with you to sense check it? If you don’t have an axe to grind either way you can help me make use of that rational process to delve deeper into the argument I’m taking to others.

And that’s what a coach does. It’s the same thing that can be done in conversation with anybody else, it’s just that the coach is skilled and trained to orient conversations in that direction. Asking open questions to delve deeper into the proposition, rather than requiring that you justify it.

The psychologist Ernesto Spinelli proposes that we interpret the world based purely on our own experiences of it and that as we proceed through life we have new experiences that can sometimes challenge the worldview that we have created.

I may know that I love ice cream but have an experience where I eat a new flavour that doesn’t actually taste very nice to me. There are a couple of ways my worldview can respond to this. One is to realise that although I like some ice cream, I now know that I don’t like all ice cream. That is rational and requires an adjustment to my outlook on the world which becomes just a little bit more complex as a result.

But alternatively I could think that, since I know that I love ice cream, there must have something wrong with me when I ate that new flavour, and that even though I thought I didn’t like it I was wrong. It was ice cream. I like ice cream. I therefore must have liked it but just not realised it because. Because? Because of something else, I’ll find a way to persuade myself I was ill or something in the air affected my taste buds. Why am I doing this? It’s because the idea of changing my worldview to accommodate this new information challenges and scares me. I’m out of my comfort zone. My anxiety drives me to defend my worldview and deny the new reality apparent from experience.

Spinelli calls this the “sedimentation of fixed beliefs” and we all do it from time to time, and often it’s quite harmless. However, if I talk to you about my ice cream experience and I feel safe to laugh at myself, it all starts to become a bit clearer. I just didn’t like rosewater liquorice flavour ice cream because it’s a bit rubbish and I have to admit, it turns out that I don’t actually love all ice cream after all.

To describe something is to change it.

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