I’ve been reading “Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain” by David Eagleman, a book about the latest neuroscience relating to the nature of mind. In it he argues that most of our processing is done unconsciously (hence ‘incognito’) and that our conscious minds have only a limited role – that of setting direction, or a desired outcome.
The importance of having an outcome orientation when working with clients is something we emphasise a lot during our trainings. As facilitators we need to have an outcome for each question we ask and a reason for asking it that we think will help the client to move towards their desired outcome, albeit not always directly. When possible, we use our Clean Language questions to guide our clients away from thinking about their problems and encourage them to think about what they want instead.
So why is it a good idea to prioritise outcomes before problems? I can think of several reasons:
- The client’s desired outcome forms a contract between client and facilitator.
- As facilitators, if we don’t know what a client wants, it’s difficult to know what to encourage them to focus on. Developing a client’s desired outcome at the start of a session makes it easier to know what questions to ask as their metaphor landscape evolves: we know what we are trying to achieve.
- People in general are more inclined to talk about their problems than their desires; there are very few words in the English language that express ‘wants’. Developing a client’s desired outcome helps redress this balance. David Grove used to say that he was ‘an equal opportunities employer of information’, which means ensuring that all aspects of a client’s system get a hearing.
- Having a clear and well developed desired outcome creates a strong motivational pull towards it – Robert Fritz calls this ‘structural tension’… he suggests that without it, people get into structural conflict and oscillate between what they want and what they don’t want.
Of course, there are times when it is necessary to engage in problem solving rather than outcome thinking; and sometimes a problem needs to be solved in order for someone to achieve their outcome. The principle we teach is: develop the client’s desired outcome first if at all possible, and if not, listen out for opportunities to do so later in the session.
So how does Eagleman’s thinking contribute to this discussion?
He suggests that the brain is like a team of rivals:
“There is an ongoing conversation among the different factions of the brain, each competing to control the single output channel of your behaviour.” (p.107)
For example… You’re at a party and someone offers you chocolate cake. Some parts of your brain have evolved to crave the rich energy source of sugar. But other parts care about the negative consequences to your health or your weight. That puts you in a dilemma because only one side can win. You can either eat it or not eat it – you can’t do both.
According to Eagleman, there is a basic conflict between our rational and emotional systems. In addition, we have left and right hemispheres each with a different approach to doing things, and numerous other subsystems, which take care of motion detection, memory and other functions. These systems overlap: the brain has several different ways of achieving the same thing, and this creates conflict within us.
Imagine that team of rivals all vying for attention and all wanting to do things their way. It could be very chaotic. One day you forego the cake, the next day you eat it. Part of you is angry about that. Another part forgives and persuades you it was ok. You’re going round in circles, getting nowhere fast. You are at the behest of all these unconscious forces.
And that is where the conscious mind comes in. Several neuroscientists have concluded that the conscious mind exists to control the various systems. In order to avoid chaos, it has to set a direction (i.e. a desired outcome) so the rivals know what they are trying to achieve. Eagleman sites the example of top tennis players who are able to “track a ball travelling ninety miles per hour, move toward it rapidly, and orient a small surface to intersect its trajectory.” They do this unconsciously, with the team of rivals working in perfect harmony, but only because they have previously set a goal to become a tennis champion and have imagined and practised their swing thousands of times.
“Consciousness is the long-term planner, the CEO of the company, while most of the day-to-day operations are run by all those parts of the brain to which we have no access.” (p.70)
If a conscious decision followed by practice is what allows us to achieve our desires, then it makes even more sense to spend valuable coaching and facilitation time helping people to figure out what they would like to have happen and getting their team of rivals working in harmony.