OD’s focus on trust and transparency of intent can foster quality local truth amidst a national conversation run amok.

March 15, 2017

The Donald Trump experience is many things. For me, these are odd times because it’s so difficult to find the truth. Government and media sources of information are being called into question and dragged into political battles. Even the scientific community is experiencing a methodological conundrum and internal conflict. Fabricated information from the Trump administration is far exceeding my capacity to give the benefit of the doubt. I find myself taking in a broad variety of news, but I’m categorizing most information as opinionated and biased.

My most reliable news source has become the NPR politics podcast. I place faith in this team to report the news because they act natural on the air: they step on each other’s toes, they tease one another, they know their roles, and they are transparent about their process. I glean that they are doing their best to be hard-working, ethical reporters during these difficult times. 

 

 “The NPR Politics Podcast is where NPR's political reporters talk to you like they talk to each other.” - NPR

 

I’ve been reading a fascinating book called The Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Biology written by Daniel J. Siegel. It’s possible that his intentions are maleficent: he could be inventing insights based on half-truths in the field of neuroscience. Selling books is motive aplenty. However, as a 1-star Amazon review pointed out, the book is very boring, and without any of the sensational headlines one would expect from a fake. Also, the focus on objective facts in the book removes much room for subjective mischief. Generally speaking, I trust that boring natural scientists are trying their best to get at the truth. 

 

Siegel describes a set of neural pathways that hardwire us to make inferences about the intentions of others. Perhaps you’ve heard of “mirror-neurons”. What you may not know is that these neurons only respond to what are perceived to be intentional acts. By witnessing patterns of behavior, they help us create a mental representation of the internal intentions of others. This pattern is hardly cognitive. 

When you trace the information across neural pathways, it becomes clear how not-cognitive the process really is. As is often the case, the information comes to us through our senses, sight, sound, etc. One might make a purely cognitive decision about this data, perhaps by using body language recognition or the methods of Paul Ekman. However, those without such conscious training will process the data differently. First, we allow the data to affect our own bodies in the insula and middle prefrontal cortex. We use this awareness of our feelings to make inferences about what the other person is feeling. 

 

In the West, much of our cultural competence is built on alternate pathways. Mendelson observed that white pea flowers mixed with blue pea flowers produced white or blue pea flowers in certain ratios, and then he theorized a logical ratio to fit the observations. Then he tested the ratio against further observations and predictions. At no point did he reference his internal feelings to discover how the flowers were feeling. 

 

But in fact, our minds are hardwired to use our own feelings to understand and infer the feelings of others. The information enters through our senses, then passes through our bodies and emotions. Then we ‘map’ the internal state of others. Logic hardly enters into the process. If you like people watching (like I do), give this a try. Try to ascertain the internal state of someone else, but don’t use your mind or analysis. Try to use your own physical body to sense the internal state of someone else. You’ll find that just as your cognitive interpretations are limited by the body of knowledge you possess, your capacity to understand the feelings of another are limited by your lexicon of internal states. 

 

In this case, OD offers a tried and true feedback model to help expand and integrate our emotional/empathetic abilities. In many cases, the tools of the OD trade are based on anecdotal evidence championed by leaders in the industry. In this case, the validity of the feedback model is supported by actual neuro-scientific pathways. The feedback model contains four steps that correspond to empathetic neural pathways. To use the model, finish the stems of the following sentences:

 

I observe...
I feel...
I infer...
I want...

 

This model follows the information from sense observation, to an internal feeling, to an external projection, and finally clearly states a new intention to be perceived by others. 

 

Unfortunately, this loop is breaking down for me in my relationship with some government agencies and some media outlets. And because the information is distributed in increasingly bite-size chunks (as opposed to the NPR podcast or Roosevelt’s original, rambling fireside chats), I don’t have enough non-verbal data to form a picture of how the speaker might be feeling.  

 

As communities, we don’t need to live life in a haze of half-truths and mistrusting relationships. Organizations have the ability to develop culture with interactions that generate the most non-verbal cues: face-to-face conversations. By taking part in the creation of truth, in whatever form, organizations can create something both rare and valuable in today’s society, which will pay dividends in lasting loyalty and cultural advantage in the marketplace.
 

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