Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Role of Specificity

If you've ever read the side panel of a bottle of medicine, you've seen the words "active ingredients". The medication may contain many ingredients such as coloring and materials that allow it to take the form of a pill or a capsule. However, these are all simply packaging designed to help get the active ingredient from the medicine bottle to where it needs to be in your system to do it's work.

In applying the philosophy of happiness, all the discussion about beliefs, stimuli and responses are the packaging creating a delivery system for the active ingredient: specificity. Without specificity, the rest of the system doesn't really work.

At a high level, the framework goes something like:
  1. Identify the unwanted reaction or emotion that you would like to change (response)
  2. Identify situations in which you experience that response (stimuli)
  3. Identify what you believe about that situation that is leading to your response (belief)
  4. Disassemble that belief into its component elements looking for gaps in logic and flaws in assumption
  5. Reassemble the belief filling the gaps and fixing the flaws
  6. See how you feel based upon the new belief
Without specificity, the framework represents the drug delivery system; it's the drug without an active ingredient, a placebo. However, as we learn to apply specificity to each of the above steps, we empower the framework to help us make really big changes quickly.

Getting Clear and Specific
Let me preface the following discussion by saying that the examples below are just an illustration, not a guide to "picking the right question". Let's start with step one. In helping someone with self-exploration, you might ask, "What would you like to explore?"

And they might respond, "I'm really unhappy!"

You're next question could be any of:
  1. Why are you unhappy?
  2. What are you unhappy about?
  3. What do you mean by 'unhappy'?
  4. When do you get unhappy?
  5. Why don't you just decide to be happy?
So, which question would you pick? The answer lies in applying three basic rules of thumb:
  1. When it comes to the structure of the exploration, you're the expert helping the self-explorer shine the brightest light possible on what he wants to explore. However, when it comes to the content of the self-exploration you're 100% clueless and therefore incapable of making any reasonable assumptions. Even if you think you know what the other person is talking about, you don't.
  2. You have absolutely no answers or advice to give, not even answers or advice in the guise of a question. All you can do is ask clueless, structured questions.
  3. As the facilitator, you don't set the goals or determine the path of exploration; you simply provide structure, and help drive towards clarity and specificity.
Given the above, question #1 kind of jumps to the end game skipping the structure altogether; however, it can often be construed into 'what are you unhappy about' which can be useful. Question #2 is good in that it's leads to greater specificity and clarity, but indirectly. Question #4 moves right into step two of our process, identifying situations where we experience the unwanted response, but we still don't really know what the response is. Question #5 isn't a question.

However, coming from a totally clueless place and wanting to drive towards greater specificity and clarity, we'd want to ask question #3: "What do you mean by 'unhappy'?"

This may seem a bit counter intuitive, you know, "He said he's unhappy! So, he's unhappy. What more is there to figure out?"

However, we don't know whether unhappy means afraid of losing his job or dissatisfied with his partner or angry at the guy who just cut him off in traffic. So, before exploring the causes of the unhappiness, we might want to start with understanding what the explorer means by 'unhappy'.

Specificity Trumps Structure
Let's say that the explorer says, "I'm afraid of losing my job!"

Sometimes, in our attempts to uncover beliefs, we might stop following and start leading the explorer asking the question, "Why do you believe you're going to lose your job?"

However, the explorer didn't actually say that she believed she was going to lose her job; she just said that she was afraid of losing her job. So, the more useful question (driving towards clarity and specificity) would be, "What about losing your job makes you afraid?"

The explorer might respond with:
  1. "If I lose my job, I won't have enough money for rent", or,
  2. "If I lose my job, I won't be able to see my friends at work any more", or,
  3. "If I lose my job, I'll have to spend more time at home."
With the basic statement, "I'm afraid of losing my job", you simply don't have enough information to ask about a belief. So, you want to keep moving towards specificity.

Even with the above answers all representing beliefs about the future, we would still not want to ask, "Why do you believe that?" Instead, we would want to ask for more specificity. We might want to ask about which friends at work she'd miss or what about spending more time at home makes her afraid.

The reason for this is that getting to beliefs without specificity can lead to conclusions that lack depth and staying power. If you were to simply ask: "Why do you believe that losing your job will mean that you won't get to see your friends", you might get an answer such as, "I guess it wouldn't mean that; I could still see my friends."

You'll have modified a belief, but in a way that actually masks what's really going on for the explorer. You still wouldn't know the explorer's motivation for seeing her friends. Is it as comrades or as colleagues? Is it social or business? Without these details, the results of the exploration can feel a bit off and unsatisfying.

Dialogue Placebos
In the end, it's the specificity and clarity that we bring to beliefs that allow us to change beliefs in a way that is meaningful and lasts. Without specificity and clarity, we can end up dismissing beliefs as irrational or stupid without ever uncovering the rational and brilliant reasons we had for them.

I know a man who struggled for years to quit smoking. After a couple of dialogues in which he explored his "addiction" with great specificity and clarity, he came to the realization that he didn't smoke because he was addicted, he smoked because he used smoking to cope with anger. As he started working through his anger, he commensurately reduced his smoking, until he stopped altogether.

Smoking is a great example of something we make many assumptions about. If his dialogues had gone with those assumptions instead of driving towards greater clarity and specificity, he might still be smoking today.

Over the next couple of days, spend time in conversation working towards clarity and specificity and following the conversational thread established by the other person. Become aware of the times where you make assumptions without asking for clarification, where you redirect the conversation rather than following the thread, and where you lack the specifics to really know what the other person is talking about.

Forget about beliefs. Forget about judgments. Forget about happiness and unhappiness. Just be clueless, interested and agenda free.

I'd love to hear what you experience as you conduct this little exercise. I'd also love to hear what others experience as you conduct this little exercise.

Specifically, Teflon

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