Do You Really Know Your Own Mind?

Originally published on Forbes by Susan Taylor

Most of us think we know our own minds. We believe we understand why we behave a certain way and we go to great lengths to explain the decisions we make.

The truth is that our minds — or more specifically, our brains — can trick us, presenting “alternative facts” that we willingly believe, shielding us from obvious information, leading us down a curated path without us even knowing.

A Mind Trick Of Titanic Proportions

When the RMS Titanic was built in 1911, the luxury steamship was the largest movable human-made object in the world, longer than four city blocks. Surely a ship that big was safe, passengers thought. Even when the ship struck an iceberg and water began to flood the lower levels, passengers didn’t want to trade the assumed safety of a large steel vessel for that of a small wooden lifeboat. That delay cost lives, and when the ship sank, more than 1,500 passengers and crew died, leaving just 706 survivors.

We look back at the Titanic example and ask: Why didn’t passengers react more quickly to the situation? Why didn’t they anticipate the ship’s inevitable fate?

When businesses make disastrous decisions, we ask the same thing. How could Wells Fargo leaders and employees accept or endorse a secret practice of tricking customers? Why didn’t Uber take steps earlier to address its culture of sexual harassment?

In hindsight, the solution seems obvious — pay attention to the facts and respond effectively and appropriately to them. But the brain creates a filter through which we see those facts, and those filters influence our decisions, sometimes leading us to make incredibly bad decisions. I’m not exonerating those who make unethical, illegal or immoral decisions because of the brain’s filter. These examples simply emphasize the importance of recognizing and cleaning these filters to avoid making mistakes of this magnitude.

Why We Can’t Believe Our Brains

At the root level, the brain is designed to protect us so we can continue to live, procreate and evolve. When we feel attacked, the brain triggers a flight, fight or freeze reaction. But even when the attack isn’t physical, the brain doesn’t know the difference and it will continue to protect us emotionally. In a physical fight, we might grab a weapon or run to a safe place. When our beliefs are attacked, we build a mental wall to protect them. We argue without listening to the other side, or we storm out the door, fleeing conflict.

Looking at the current political climate in the U.S., when evidence is presented that supports one side, those who share that belief say, “Ha! I knew it all along,” while those who don’t share the belief deny information is true. And regardless of the information, each side takes it as evidence to become even more entrenched in their own beliefs.

We’re human. This is how our brain works. But as we have evolved, these blind spots can do us more harm than good. The key is to interrupt the brain’s process so we can be aware enough to make the right moves.

How to Know Whether You Need A Change Of Mind

Perhaps you’ve recently received results from a 360 assessment that surprised you. Or a co-worker, friend or family member has hinted that you’re stubborn or don’t listen. Maybe you feel frustrated that none of your colleagues understand you. Or maybe there’s been an exodus of team members from your department or company. These may be signs that you have a blind spot that needs exploring. It might not be fun to delve into, but the cost of ignoring it is much greater.

3 R’s To Awareness Of Your Own Mind

1. Recognize the situation. In the moment of conflict or decision-making, take note when you’re feeling defensive or resistant to ideas. While you certainly won’t agree to every suggestion — and you shouldn’t — you should note when your objection is knee-jerk or when you feel a tightening in your body or a sense of exasperation. Maybe you catch yourself rolling your eyes when a co-worker speaks or hear yourself shutting someone down by saying, “That idea won’t work,” or “We tried that before.” This is your brain reacting to an idea that is contrary to a currently held belief.

2. Respect your physical and emotional reactions. You’re in a meeting and you recognize an automatic negative feeling toward your direct report’s idea. Don’t berate yourself for having that emotion. Instead, think, “Good for me, I’m paying attention.”

3. Realize the need to interrupt the moment and take a different action. Take a deep breath or take a short break to calm yourself and intentionally change the pattern. Then return and address the situation. Use an approach of inquiry, such as, “Let’s take a moment to go over that idea again,” and “Tell me more about how that would work,” or “We tried something like this before — what kind of differences should we make to be successful this time?” Encourage yourself to be open to exploring the possibilities.

It takes time to alter the brain’s patterns and disrupt strongly held beliefs. But as you practice the three R’s, you will become more receptive to new information and ideas, making decisions that move you toward the lifeboat versus remaining on a sinking ship.