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What thinking traps are stopping you from feeling safe to be yourself?

Updated: Oct 4, 2022

Recently a client thanked me for being fantastic.

It really struck me that with this client I'd been showing up with curiosity, creativity, compassion, and courage and as a result could truly show up at that moment as myself and as someone empowered with the ability to listen, support and guide fearlessly.

It struck me even more, that just a day before, I had shown up with none of those qualities in a conversation with a friend. It was a difficult conversation about unmet expectations and both of us were angry, defensive, and contemptuous of each other.

It didn't feel like a conversation where I felt safe to be myself. Instead, it drained me of the strength and clarity to articulate my needs and uphold my values. I couldn't hear what my friend was saying through the noisy chatter inside my head, and I couldn't understand how he just wasn't getting what I was saying - how could he not think like me?

I left that conversation resenting my friend, feeling angry, disappointed and self-critical of how I'd lacked the courage to be clear in my needs. I'd also lacked the curiosity to listen to my friend's needs. Neither of us had been able to step into the other's shoes to get perspective - it was a disconnecting conversation that sadly we have yet to recover from.

The two events contrasted so starkly.

I know that I can show up magnificently when I feel safe to do so. And I can listen to and appreciate other points of view when I feel my perspective is also being respected. And so can everyone. But I also know that so often we all show up as lesser versions of ourselves because of how easily we fall into thinking traps.

What are thinking traps?

Thinking traps are essentially the default settings or habituated responses that cause us to misunderstand each other and ultimately stop communicating effectively because we feel unheard, disrespected, misunderstood or invalidated.

When a conversation isn't going well we easily fall into any of five traps. When we don’t understand those thinking traps or the assumptions that we make, we disconnect from each other, feel less safe to show up, and lose the curiosity and empathy that enables us to be courageous, compassionate and creative.

5 thinking traps that disconnect us

Trap 1: Everybody thinks like me

If everyone thought the same way, there would never be misunderstandings between people. The reality is we all think differently because we've all been raised with different frameworks for understanding and making sense of our world. Yet we all tend to fall into the trap of thinking that because I think this way, everyone else thinks this way. Unfortunately, it couldn't be further from the truth.

We judge ourselves by our intentions. And others by their actions. - Stephen Covey

Our actions and our words are visible - but the intentions behind those actions are personal and easily misinterpreted. While our behaviours and words look and sound the same, the drivers and intent (the way we think) are often quite different.

In conversation with a client recently we discussed how the words for values like integrity, hard work, and a desire to learn, can sound the same to all of us, but how the daily behaviours can look very different - resulting in the potential for misunderstanding and mismatch in expectations.

Where her version of "desire to learn" means that she actively takes time to teach herself new skills, her employee, who also values the desire to learn, waits to be taught new skills. The mismatch in understanding "a desire to learn" had caused frustration and disappointment.

We discussed using storytelling as a way of connecting with and understanding each other's interpretations of the value. By each party telling a story to illustrate what a "desire to learn" looks like, in terms of behaviours, it enabled a better understanding of how each of them thinks, and the opportunity to establish a common understanding of the value.

When we assume that everybody thinks like us, we take away the opportunity to understand that things may be done in different ways and we often put up blocks when things are done in a way we don’t understand.

Trap 2: Feelings change our behaviours

I was in a conversation with someone recently who challenged some beliefs that have become part of my identity. I immediately felt myself tighten up and get angry because what he said was incongruent with my identity as a woman. When I noticed that I was speaking over him to shut him down, it made me aware that my feelings had changed my behaviour. I didn’t like what he was saying and instead of listening and letting him explain, I talked over him.

With great humour, he challenged me to hear him out. My initial reaction was to feel even more annoyed and came close to walking away from the conversation - but I allowed myself to stop, breathe, get out of my automated reactive mode and just listen. Very quickly I realised that what he was saying made a lot of sense, and that I was triggered to protect an element of my identity from an emotional perspective rather than because I felt truly connected to that particular issue.

When we feel safe, connected and understood we listen, we behave in a way that keeps the conversation alive.

When we feel threatened or we don’t agree with something or we don’t understand or like the way something was said, our behaviours change from listening and being curious to immediately interrupting, disconnecting or walking away.

Trap 3: Fear shuts down connection and empathy

When we misunderstand each other, it creates a feeling of being threatened. When we feel fearful, anxious or threatened, our brains immediately go into survival mode ie, fight, flight or freeze - whether we are really under threat or not. It takes conscious mindful actions to break that automated pattern and retaining a connection.

If you think of a conversation where you felt even the smallest amount of fear you will know what I mean here. That fear could relate to realising the other person didn't understand what you meant. It could relate to misreading the tone of a text or email message.

I've recently been communicating a lot over text and emails and have had numerous instances where a one-word response (or even no response) to my wordy and expressive text messages has resulted in me feeling anxious, misunderstood, even stupid.

Instead of being curious, it made me disconnect, get upset, doubt myself, and no longer want to communicate quite so openly.

It led to me assuming many negative things about myself and the other person. Ultimately it led to days of me brooding, harbouring judgement, and catastrophising, only to find out when I finally got up the courage to ask what was going on that the "stories" I had conjured up in my imagination, were truly nothing more than my imagination. All that was required was clear communication, asking for clarity and stepping into another perspective to understand the other person's intent.

Understanding other people's preferred way of communicating, as well as communicating your own needs is one of the quickest ways to cut through this trap.

Trap 4: Our internal dialogue is stronger than the other person's words

We all have an inner critic that has a knack for overriding what other people are actually trying to communicate to us. As a young adult and well into my early 40's, my inner critic had a tendency to drown out what anyone else might be trying to say with words like "Don't listen to a word your boss / client / husband / friend is saying - he / she / they might be telling you that can't have xyz for whatever reason, but it's actually because you are overweight and they don't like you because you are fat". No matter what anyone ever said to me, for years, I heard it through a filter of "You are overweight, therefore you are not good enough".

I dread to think how many times I have misunderstood someone and walked away from situations, or had senseless arguments about things because all I could ever hear was my own internal dialogue.

Essentially when we fall into the trap of letting our internal dialogue override the other person's words, we assume we know what they meant because we have already decided for ourselves what they meant.

Our internal dialogue is a representation of our assumptions, beliefs, insecurities, unconscious biases and it creates this noise through which we filter everything. Getting curious about your internal dialogue and starting to distinguish its voice from your own voice is a first step in reducing that noise and being able to start truly hearing and connecting to what others might really be trying to say.

Trap 5: I know what I meant, so you will know what I meant

Trap 5 is the flip side of trap 4. Where trap 4 lets your internal voice and perspective override what the other person might be trying to say, in Trap 5, as the speaker, you can get caught in the belief that yours is the only perspective that matters. IN combination traps 4 and 5 can cause a serious chain reaction of misunderstanding when neither party is willing or able to be curious about what the other might be saying or hearing.

When I assume that the words that have come out of my mouth will land within you in the same way as I understood them (Trap 5), I'm making a mistake because how you understand what I say is filtered through your internal chatter (Trap 4) and what I say might not be what you understand. Both of us may end up feeling misunderstood and anxious about not being able to be heard and in that fear may start being more defensive, stop listening, and lose empathy for the other person (Trap 3). We both might start to shout louder to be heard (Trap 2). We may start to get even more frustrated because we are unable to understand why the other persons can't just think like me (Trap 1).

I’ve always loved this image of six people looking at an elephant from their own perspective and all describing something completely different. The image comes from the parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant (captured in a poem by John Godfrey Saxe).

Bling men and the elephant

Imagine you’re in conversation with these six people and you’re all talking from your own perspective.

The entire discussion is going to make absolutely no sense whatsoever and the impact of that conversation is that everybody leaves feeling confused, in disagreement with each other and possibly feeling quite angry or anxious or disengaged from the conversation.

So how do we create safety for each other and for ourselves?

Reflect on your experiences of thinking traps

The first step is to be aware of the thinking traps. If any of these traps feel familiar to you, take some time to reflect on experiences where you were the speaker stuck in traps 1 and 5 and then where you were the listener stuck in traps 2, 3 and 4. In most conversations, all five traps eventually kick in, to some degree or another, so take some time to reflect on conversations where the traps have started to trigger each other.

Talk about thinking traps with your team

If you are a leader, talk about these traps with your team, share stories about times when you have fallen into these conversation traps as a team and create a set of rules that help you as a team to identify when you are falling into a trap.

In a recent team coaching session, we explored how the team weren't holding each other accountable. Their fear had them in trap 2 and 3, disconnecting from each other as a team, and adapting their behaviours to avoid dealing with difficult issues. They were quite capable of having tough conversations when I was in the room, but said they didn't feel safe to hold each other accountable when I was not there. We talked about establishing some safe words that would help them signal that they needed to have a tough conversation or finding an icon that can be held up when someone really needs to get the team to communicate honestly and bravely.

Clarify meaning when you are unclear

It's impossible to connect when we don't understand each other's meaning and intentions. If ever you are in doubt that you fully understand what someone means, not what you assume they mean, it's a signal to clarify and ask questions until you truly understand their meaning (and vice versa that they understand your meaning).

As someone who speaks with lots of words but very little detail, I find myself often being misunderstood. This has caused many challenges for me in delegating work as I have a clear picture in my head, but just because I can visualise it clearly does not mean I communicate it all that clearly. I've learned to conclude each delegation conversation with "Now tell me in your words what you understand that I need you to do. What will it look like, how will you know it's complete and ultimately what do you understand to be the deliverable coming from this?

Establish a social contract

'You can relax and feel free, nobody is going to bite you.' I imagine this sentence must have been delivered in a very gentle and warm tone as it was an invitation to one of my mentees, from her boss, confirming that she could relax and be herself on a Zoom call. She said it caused her to audibly sigh in relief at the realisation that she had no need for fear and that rather than being set up for failure, her boss and others on the call actually wanted to hear what she had to say.

I see those words as being the start of a social contract that invited the parties on the call to relax and be themselves.

Stay curious, courageous and compassionate

Stay curious about how the other person may be experiencing the conversation and what meaning they might make from a conversation, and equally whether what you are understanding is what was intended - especially when negative emotions are being triggered.

Stay courageous enough to ask questions, clarify your intention, and communicate what you are observing.

Stay compassionate to yourself and others - emotions will be triggered in many conversations to come - sometimes things are going on for someone that you are completely unaware of, compassionately listening to understand the other's perspective can open up a whole new level of understanding and connection.

I encourage you to get to know how your thinking preferences (and drivers) reflect in how you show up.

I have found that so much miscommunication comes from interpreting the behaviours we see, through the lens of our own drivers. When you understand your thinking preferences you have the ability to improve your communication, management and leadership capabilities. Sign up for my course on exploring the language of your listeners and learn to communicate in a way that speaks to the thinking preferences (or language) of your listeners (and a 25% discount on the course).

I thrive on conversations and would love to engage with you on your career and how you are managing yourself and your career like a business.

I believe "managing your career like a business" means having insight on where you want to go in your career, the agility and resilience to change track when necessary, competence to navigate transition points, and self-awareness to manage yourself. I help you do that through one-on-one coaching, CV and LinkedIn profile writing, topic-specific workshops and a suite of blogs and other materials available on my website. Want more information? Drop me a message and I will get back to you asap.

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