April 30, 2009

The invisibility of what works

(Repost from 7/10/08)
As a solution-focused coach, one of the main things you do is to help people rediscover what is already working and was has already been going well. Many clients feel more confident and proud of themselves afterwards because they noticed that they already had solutions to improve their situation. At the same time, they are sometimes surprised by this fact, saying things like: "How could I not have thought about this myself?" It seems people easily overlook things that have worked before while they notice right away when something goes wrong. The same thing seems to be the case at a macro level, in organizations for instance. We easily notice what has gone wrong and was has yet to be accomplished but we seem partially blind to successes and to what works. Robert O'Brinkerhof, author of The Success Case Method: Find Out Quickly What's Working and What's Not, even says: "Successful practices can go unnoticed for years." Put like this, it almost seems like there is some kind of design mistake, doesn't it? Knowing what works is so valuable, how can it be that we so easily overlook it? Actually, there may be an explanation.

I think that the number of things that work is so overwhelmingly great that it would be impossible for the conscious part of our brain to remain aware of them. As psychologists and neuroscientist have discovered, the capacity of our conscious attention is rather limited. We use it to focus on what is really important and urgent. The large majority of our judgments and actions are guided by unconscious mental processes. This automaticity of being helps us through most of the situations we encounter (you type without consciously knowing where exactly the letters on your keyboard are; you'd have to 'ask your fingers` to know where they are). What's more, it is even so that we can process and be influenced by unattended information (for instance you had not noticed someone talking at a party until s/he mentioned your name, then you suddenly noticed this). Furthermore, we often unconsciously continue processing information regarding problems (after having stopped trying to remember a name, we sometimes 'suddenly` remember it). For more information read this and this.
It is normal to not be aware of the overwhelming amount of things that work well which surround us for second to second as we go through our lives. That our brains deal with these things automatically is an example of great efficiency. This efficiency has a downside, too. Sometimes, we are suddenly confronted with a problem and we don't have a clue about how to solve it. We may think we are not capable of solving it because we don't see what we can do. But we often underestimate ourselves. As solution-focused practice often shows, we have far more solutions than we consciously know. What solution-focused practice does is to focus your deliberate attention to find out what has been working well in relation to this specific problem (or goal). When we shine a light on what has worked well, we only begin to see what is there, which is often much more than we had hoped to find.
In sum, we are often blind to what has worked well and this is a normal and a good thing. Because the number of things that work is so overwhelmingly great, dealing with them automatically is a highly efficient solution. Moreover, it helps to keep us modest. Sometimes, we need to bring a selection of all that works back to our conscious thinking. By deliberately focusing on what has worked before, we consistently rediscover patterns of effectiveness which then become available to our consciousness.

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