5 Mental Shortcuts to Identify and Mitigate

Life is so much easier when we use shortcuts. Just like shortcuts on your smart phone or keyboard, they make things faster. I had the pleasure of hearing Jennifer Garvey Berger speak on the topic of “Escaping Mindtraps to Thrive in Complexity” at the Global International Coaching Federation Conference recently. The mindtraps or mental shortcuts that she outlined in her presentation were compelling and shed some light on my own behavior.


As a coach, it’s important to understand my own behavior and how I react to certain traps. If I get triggered or have an emotional reaction to a client, it can be difficult to remain present and engaged with that client. These traps, or as Berger referred to them “mindtraps”, were universal to me and I can imagine we all fall prey to them at times.


Here are the 5 mental mindtraps and how to identify and mitigate them:


  1. We believe we are right. It is incredibly uncomfortable to admit I am wrong. My heart rate escalates, my stomach is in a knot and I want to hide in the nearest hole. I owed some documents to someone last week and I was positive I had sent them. When I realized I was wrong, I was embarrassed and angry at myself. Berger’s solution is to listen to learn and NOT listen to win or to fix. There was a manager not that many years ago who was told to apologize to me. I spent thirty minutes listening him explain how I was wrong. He could not give up on winning or fixing. I know I have done this myself but it is much easier to see it when someone else is guilty of it. I love CRR Global’s tenet that I use with every team alliance I facilitate, “Everyone is right…partially.” Having a ground rule that we are all partially right leaves room for everyone being partially wrong.
  2. We tell simple stories. I keep a thumbnail sketch of friends, coworkers, family and enemies. Suzy is sloppy, Jane is lazy, Jerry is a braggart, Bud is always late and Gramma is a stick in the mud. Once I form a story, I rarely if ever revise it. My son is frequently late. I don’t wait anymore. He might have a valid reason but as far as I’m concerned, he’s always late so I don’t wait. I can’t imagine ever changing my story. He’d have to be early twenty times for me to rewrite that story. Berger pointed out: “What is the simple story that others are telling about me?” What simple story am I stuck in and can’t get out of no matter how hard I try to change it? Berger’s antidote is to envision how that person is a hero. So, while I may see my son as always being late, I can see that he is a hero because he doesn’t rush a process like cooking. He carefully considers the recipe and takes all the time he needs. Disrupt the simple stories you have by seeing the hero in it.
  3. We enjoy it when we agree. I am completely a victim of this. The path of least resistance is to just go along with the crowd. I’d rather have everyone nod their head to a decision than be the sole person holding out and shaking my head “no”. Being contrary to the group think is awkward and uncomfortable. Might as well go with the flow. This happens so subtly sometimes, I will decide that I don’t like a new policy someone has proposed and by the end of the meeting, I am moved over to agreeing to it; not because it’s a great policy but because I get caught up in the group agreeing with it. Like being swept along in a river, it’s not worth the fight and so much nicer to float along with the rest. The antidote according to Berger is to disagree to expand the possibilities. I have to say that there are times that I try and question the course of a group decision but I will also try and support someone else that brings up a different solution or possibility. Just because we all enjoy agreeing with each other doesn’t mean we are coming up with the best or most thought out solution. Remain open to alternate solutions, disagree or support someone else who does to make sure the best solutions are brought to light.
  4. We like to be in control.  I have so many ways in which I try and control my world. The temperature of the room, the television channel, the time and date to schedule a meeting, the speed at which I drive my car (and the speed I want my companion to drive a car), the spiciness of a dish that I am preparing, the spot I sit in a conference (usually the back row so that I can make a quick escape, if I want), the restaurant I want to go to near the airport, the list goes on and on. I have to acknowledge that everyone in the room wants control as well. Berger espouses that to escape our drive to control, we need to think about simply trying to enable conditions for success rather than a particular outcome. A simple example is that you may be cold at this moment but instead of increasing the thermostat, go get a sweater, or a jacket, or a blanket or a parka. Perhaps success is measured by being comfortable rather than increasing the temperature of the whole building. Focus on enabling conditions for success rather than being in control.
  5. We protect our identities. I have a difficult time separating feedback from a personal affront. Any sort of feedback can feel like one more pinprick to my ego. This is probably why I end up agreeing (see number 3) so that I can protect my ego. If I go with the flow and agree with where the project is headed, I’ll protect my ego by not challenging the status quo. Imagine how vanilla every project would come out if we are all sitting around the table protecting our egos. It’s probably why a lot of projects don’t go anywhere because challenging the status quo can be scary. Berger’s antidote is to ask, “Who would I like to be next?” This is so much more transformative. Why be stuck with where and who you are? Think about who you want to be next. If we view ourselves as in a transformative process, we are less likely to hold onto our egos.

Berger ended her talk by asking which of the five traps was the trappy-est for you. I like this approach. Don’t try to take on all five at once. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. For me, there was a time when I received feedback from a team I was on. They appreciated my challenging the status quo. I have slipped away from that as I settled into the ease and “joy” of agreement. I’d like to make sure the teams I am on are optimizing the team solutions and if I challenge the status quo by not sagging into agreement, it would be one small step toward mitigating my mental shortcuts. Which of the five do you want to work on?

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