Thought Bubbles

 We have all been there.  You are in the middle of an important discussion at work and you wonder what the other person is thinking, but not saying.    To be fair you are thinking, but not saying, too and you have your own assumptions and stories bouncing back and forth in your mind.

Imagine if we could invoke “thought bubbles” to appear over each of us as we talk to each other.  These thought bubbles would detail all the assumptions we are making and the specific thoughts we have, but do not say.  Now that would be an interesting conversation!

An influence early in my business career was the work by Peter Senge and his colleagues involved with the Learning Organization and his Fifth Discipline Book.  One of Senge’s five disciplines is Mental Models.  It is messy to be human – we are judging our environment and others all the time.  How we think and interpret the world around us is crucial to our success and at times can hinder our progress.  As Senge says in his book:

Mental models are the images, assumptions, and stories which we carry in our minds of ourselves, other people, institutions, and every aspect of the world.  Like a pane of glass framing and subtly distorting our vision, mental models determine what we see.  Human beings cannot navigate through the complex environments of our world without cognitive “mental maps”; and all of these mental maps, by definition, are flawed in some way.

I will not go into much depth today on Mental Models.  That scope goes beyond one blog entry.  I do invite you though to read and study further the work involved with the Fifth Discipline.    I added several links at the end of this post to get your started.  Trust me, this level of understanding is important for leaders at all levels.

There is a practical tool associated with mental models that I do want to present for you today.  It is called The Left-Hand Column.   This tool in a way brings those thought bubbles to life.  Here is how it works.  In retrospect think through a tough conversation you had recently.  Take out a piece of paper and draw a line down the center of the page.  On the right side list out the dialogue that occurred as best you remember it.  Then on the left side of the page list out what you were thinking and feeling at the time, but not saying.  The left side of the page should follow along with the actual dialogue on the right.

As you review the left-hand column on your sheet of paper ask yourself how these thoughts contributed to the issues during the conversation.   How could you have brought this thinking to the surface?  Potentially you can re-engage the person and this time include these before-hidden thoughts and assumptions as part of the effective conversation.

I have not directly presented this tool to my current team, but I plan to do so now as we have had examples recently  where I believe our mental models are getting in the way.  The left-hand column approach will help bring this thinking to the surface and that is where the discovery is possible.

With past teams the left-hand column was known and used.  A powerful use of this communication tool is during a challenging group discussion when one person states, “I do not think we are focused on the real issue.  Can we check our assumptions?  Here is what is in my left-hand column”.  I have been there and this level of deeper discussion does indeed lead to improved understanding and developing better decisions.    I have seen team members ask someone (as nice as possible), “What is in your left-hand column right now?”  If both folks are familiar with the tool then this process typically goes well.

The best leaders are good communicators.  They strive for effective, skilled discussions and true dialogue to understand issues, and the people they interact with each day.  As leaders we can introduce concepts and tools such as The Left-Hand Column to others.

I invite you to learn more through these links:

 Society For Organizational Learning

Fifth Discipline Fieldbook

Peter Senge on YouTube – Introduction to Systems Thinking

Case Example of Left-Hand Column

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4 thoughts on “Thought Bubbles

    1. Excellent – please do use it without fear. It is great just to check your own thinking as you reflect on tough discussions as well as with others.
      All the best – Michael

  1. Good post Michael. In situations where the Elephant is in the Room but no one is talking about it, I hit it head on and break the ice. “We’re struggling in trying to advance on this cause and I believe that I may have contributed to it. Does anyone else have any thoughts on what the underlying problems are and how we can advance.”

    1. Thanks David – yep, watch out for the elephant in the room. You are right, call it out and get others to dig deeper as we share more of what we have on the left-hand column from our own commentary.
      Cheers – Michael

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