Thought Transmission


Let’s try a thought experiment:

…If I say “stop”, what is the first thing that you think of?

…If I say “white”, what is the first thing that you think of?

In most cases, you thought of something other than the word I wrote in quotes…when I wrote “stop” you might have though of “go”, “sign”, “car”, or just about anything but “stop.” Same with just about any word I say or statement I may make.

I’ve used this example thousands of times with groups I speak to and the result is fairly consistent and predictable.

This experiment reveals something interesting and useful about the human psyche and it is at the heart of many communication gaps leaders experience in organizations.

The problem lies in our misunderstanding of how communication works. It is common to think that if we want someone to receive a message we just have to say it clearly. Then your words appear in their head and they receive the message. We assume that communication is a process of thought transmission. This is a concept I learned from Fournies book, “Coaching for Improved Work Performance.”

This is not really how the brain works.

What we fail to realize is that when someone says something to you, those same words don’t appear in your head. Since your brain processes information so quickly, the second you hear a message, you think something else in reaction to that message.

So, how do you get someone to think what you’re thinking?

You can do this by asking a question. If you want your thoughts to appear in their head, you can have to say something that will occasion those thoughts.

Saying, “Your goal is 30 billable hours this week” produces different thoughts for the receiver than saying, “What is your billable hours goal this week?”

This is one reason why Socratic coaching works so well. It helps the listener come to their own conclusions, observations, and reflections.

You’ve just got to ask the right questions to make it happen.

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