I view the transition to a new year as a time for new possibilities. Instead of asking you to embrace new initiatives, I invite you to bring a fresh perspective to your current way of thinking.
There is a term for this that comes from Zen Buddhism – “shoshin” or “beginner’s mind.” It means having an attitude of openness and a lack of preconceptions. This in turn means a willingness to see other people’s perspectives, and an ability to set aside our own judgments and assumptions. If we can do this, we are more likely to communicate effectively with others and reduce or avoid conflict.
Imagine you have arranged to meet a colleague for coffee at 10:30am. He shows up 15 minutes late and doesn’t explain why. In fact, he doesn’t even act like he’s late. What reaction do you have? Is your first response to get annoyed, followed by thinking that he’s rude and inconsiderate? You may have filled in the blanks in other ways, like wondering if your colleague thought the invitation was for 10:45am, or assuming he didn’t realize what time it was. Or what if you learned that he arrived to work only just now because he got into a fender bender on the way, and thought that you had heard? (You’ve been at work for a few hours, after all).
“Beginner’s mind” reminds us to look at each situation with fresh eyes and a fresh mind. To distinguish what is known from what is unknown, and to discern when we are adding on our own stories. This is a worthwhile aspiration, but how can we bring this mentality into our everyday?
Chris Argyris, who was known for his seminal work on learning organizations at the Harvard Business School, created the Ladder of Inference to help illustrate and understand our thinking process. Data, or facts, are something that can be verified; assumptions are the judgments we impose on the data and are often different from person to person. For example, we can both see that the thermostat reads 70 degrees; I think it’s warm in here, but you think it’s cold. The Ladder of Inference helps us understand common pitfalls to good communication, such as:
- We confuse facts and assumptions
- We do not realize that we may not have all the facts
- We do not challenge the reasoning that led to our conclusions
- We do not recognize that there are other potential interpretations for the same set of facts and assume that everyone adds the same meaning or assumptions
Think about the impact of each of these things when people are engaged in typical work situations such as addressing issues, solving problems, and resolving conflict. We can be more successful in these situations when we are able to instead:
- Acknowledge that there may be additional facts that we do not currently have
- Distinguish facts from assumptions, opinion, or interpretations
- Ask ourselves if there are alternate conclusions we could draw
- Be curious when others have a different perspective. Ask them to share their reasoning, and listen openly.
The Zen Buddhism teacher Shunryu Suzuki writes, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” When you step back from your existing mindset, you open yourself to more opportunity for mutual understanding, effective communication, and collaborative problem-solving.
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