A Word of Warning from Sherlock Holmes

Do you deceive yourself? I do, and I bet you do too. But to be truly effective in the world and cut through the bull-sh*t, we need to be able to define situations in real and accurate terms and to avoid things called cognitive distortions – these are basically bad or erroneous thinking patterns. However, these biases are everywhere! So how do you avoid them? Read on and find out.

Most of us have heard of the famous detective, Sherlock Holmes, the fictional character invented by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Holmes once remarked to Dr Watson; “Insensibly, one begins to twist the facts to suit theories instead of theories to suit facts”.

Though a cool line in a novel, this quote alludes to a startling truth – that all of us are deceiving ourselves! “What? Not me!” I hear you cry. But yes, even the best of us deceive ourselves on a daily basis with a truck load of self-lies and self-deceptions.

The lies we tell ourselves are deeply rooted in our past experiences, upbringing, culture and even in the biology of our brains. But what are they? They come in the form of ‘cognitive distortions’ and ‘cognitive biases’. There are at least fifty of these tricks that we play on ourselves, and they occur in every area of life; decision making, memory, social contexts, personal beliefs… everywhere!  I’ll explain just four here as well as give you a tip for each to ‘reality test’ against them.

OVERGENERALISING – when we overgeneralise, we take a specific example and apply it to other areas where it may not actually be true or even relevant. It can be with both good and bad things. For example, if your boss says “Well done, you did a good job on that project”, you might overgeneralise this into the idea that everything you do is great, that you can’t make mistakes, and that what you do is always right. Without keeping this in check, you may become haphazard in your approach to things or even dismissive of other people’s ideas. Or the simplest example of overgeneralising is when one thing goes wrong, e.g. at work; and you overgeneralise that ‘the whole day is ruined’ and take your bad mood home to your family.

Tip: listen to how you speak to others (and to yourself); if you use words and thoughts such as ‘all, never, always, every, everywhere’, etc. you may be overgeneralising! Learn to hold events, feelings, ideas, etc. to their specific contexts, and of course – stay humble.

MIND READS – mind reads are when we claim to know the thoughts of others. When you hear yourself say, “I know he/she has got it in for me” … “I knew they weren’t going to say yes”, or quite simply “I know what you’re thinking”, or, “I know what you mean” – then you’re mind reading. And did you hear all of the sentence that person just said, or did you start speaking before they had finished talking? If you cut them off mid-sentence, you assumed you knew what they were meaning – another sign of mind reading.

Tip: ask yourself “How do I know? What is the real-world evidence that lets me know?” listen to others fully, and again – stay humble, you don’t know everything, none of us do! The old cliché that ‘we have one mouth and two ears so we should listen twice as much as we speak’ is a good lesson.

PROPHESYING – prophesying is a bit like ‘mind reading into the future’. You take a negative thought and project it into the future; “I just know I’ll fail” … “it won’t work, people don’t want to buy my product/service”… “they’re bound to let me down”… “she won’t hire me”“she/he won’t like me” … “I’m bound to screw it up”. The trouble with prophesying is that it stops you from even trying anything and will often become a self-fulfilling ‘prophecy of doom’! Of course, we can also positively prophesy and be over optimistic or overconfident. The distinction is the ‘over…’ bit – optimism and confidence are good, but good decisions and actions must rest on good evidence.

Tip: if you catch yourself prophesying, apply ‘tentative predictive thinking’; that means looking at the real-world evidence and asking yourself, “What could go right, what could go wrong? Based on the evidence, what are the realities of this situation and what possible outcomes could there be?” When I’m coaching people, one of my favourite questions to challenge negative prophesying is, “So what?… let’s say that that’s true, so what?” With this question I’m 1) asking my client for some real-world sensory evidence for their thinking and, 2) allowing them to realise for themselves that any real-world consequences aren’t that bad or are at least manageable with a good strategy (the strategy bit often comes next in the coaching conversation). Prophesying is an insidious cognitive distortion if not kept in check, closely related to catastrophising. But at least catastrophising is easier to identify, our friends and colleagues will often call us to account with a well-meaning, “Oh stop exaggerating!”.

JUDGEMENTS – a judgement is forming an idea based on your own assumptions, beliefs, values, prohibitions, permissions, etc. We all judge – for good and for bad – and it’s a necessary process in daily life. However, it can create conflicts and misunderstandings. You know you’re judging when you catch yourself using words like ‘should/shouldn’t’ or ‘ought/oughtn’t’ – “You shouldn’t think like that” … “people should be more like me” … “You ought not do that, it’s bad” etc.

Tip: reality test your thinking. Learn to create judgements based only on real world, sensory based information. Put your beliefs aside, step back from the situation to gain more clarity.

These thinking errors rarely stand alone and often come in ‘clumps’ – for example we make a judgment about what people are thinking (mind reading), then make assumptions about what a person’s behaviour will be in a situation in the future (prophesying) and generalise that to the person’s whole life and all their friends, family, political/group associates, or culture.

These are just four of the more than fifty cognitive distortions and biases we all have! …and people say, “I don’t need a Coach” …really?! I am a Coach, and my Coaches are invaluable in keeping me accountable and keeping me ‘real’. Friends and family are good to share thoughts and challenges with, but they won’t be able to identify cognitive distortions, and the relationship with them is different – friends and family aren’t neutral and often think the same as you, so run similar unconscious distortions and biases.

A big warning! Most of what I’ve said about avoiding cognitive distortions and biases is to ‘reality test and look for real world evidence’. But be cautious even here – your biases will often distort the ‘evidence’ that can then confirm the bias/distortion! Hence, the real value in having a Coach.

The world of communication is a minefield of potential disasters, especially for company directors and managers. Sadly, most people go through life living an un-real personal reality. The danger here is that reality will catch up with you and then the ‘kick in the arse’ that life gives you can be a very painful reality check indeed.

So be a good detective like Sherlock Holmes and don’t twist facts to suit your preferred/unconscious thoughts or feelings. I’ve been coaching people from all walks of life from CEOs of multi-national companies to small business owners, entrepreneurs, athletes, individuals, and everyone in between – helping them through tangled thinking for more than twenty years. I’ve coached clients in all the continents of the world in person and via video conferencing. If you want a good Coach, get in touch with me and we’ll talk.

Remember, ‘The mind is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master’ – Robin Sharma.

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