How to avoid being controlling

Written by
Dr Dalton Kehoe

29 Nov 2016

29 Nov 2016 • by Dr Dalton Kehoe

The flow of talk: connect

As I pointed out in, “It Takes Two Minds to Connect” (posted 25 July, 2016), when our elephant mind instantly reads situational cues that potentially represent openness and warmth, it automatically prompts our rider to generate the appropriate courtesy rituals to start the flow of connect talk. As the other collaborates, the emotions of trust emerge between us. 

Also, in everyday connect talk when we exchange stories, we speak plausibly not accurately because the rider thinks too slowly to carry on a fluent conversation. What we say may not be “right” in any objective sense, but it “feels right” to us - and our listener - when we say it, because it maintains the flow of conversation. Daniel Kahneman calls this the “affective” heuristic – a thinking shortcut provided by the Elephant to the Rider to carry normal talk forward. As he notes, we may not be able to quickly articulate what we think about something but we can always say what we feel about something, and frame it as a thought. 

The other flow: control

In an article on the second process – “How to limit controlling behaviour” (Posted on 29 September 2016) I described the second automatic flow of talk that emerges when our Elephant anticipates a threat to our sense of being as valuable, competent and influential - of being “right!”  Threats to our sense of “rightness” happens when: 

(1)    Differences occur between what we expected people to do or say and what they actually did or said - momentary disruptions to our sense of rightness or, 

(2)    Disagreements occur about how we, and they, see common problems and what should be done about them – more persistent challenges to our sense of what’s right – and finally when

(3)    Disorder occurs. That is, when the processes we oversee or the situation we’re in simply falls apart – a complete disruption of our sense of what’s right.  

When facing uncertainty about, or a direct threat to, our sense of self or our sense of how a situation should work, we use defensive control talk. It begins with a critical judgment – “you are wrong” and flows naturally to publically laying blame.  

In 3D situations the “affective heuristic” based on fear and anger narrows our perceptions and drives our feeling-thoughts. As with connect talk our words and thoughts don’t emerge from the present situation we’re in but from our processing this particular moment through our past – the elephant’s emotional memory banks. In reality, we speak to control the thoughts and actions of others by speaking in sweeping generalities and accusatory judgments that are not directly connected to the actual situation we are in. We do this to get what we want but most importantly to lay blame and make the other wrong, so we can feel right.

Consider this the Donald Trump version of your elephant mind: charging into a situation and speaking as if you know the truth about what’s really going on. What's interesting is that the fear and anger that drove Trump’s sweeping generalities and blame were not his. They belonged to sectors of the US public he rightly believed no one else was speaking for and who saw themselves as having been made less – wrong - by decades of economic and social change. Like all demagogues, he feigned outrage to fire up his audience’s anger; pointed to an enemy; described the problem they were supposed to have created in sweeping negative generalities and offered himself and his plans as the solution. 

Defensive control at work

Of course, if we do a “Donald Trump” in the workplace this form of automatic talk could go very badly because the person we’re attacking will automatically defend themselves. The fear-threat emotions we feel will be real not feigned and may become so overwhelming we could have an “emotional hi-jack” that would turn our arguments into purely personal attacks to get them to shut up, give up and take the blame for the situation.  Of course, this is disastrous for effective managerial leadership. There is a better way to deal with difficult situations.

Get out of flow mindful dialogue

he better way is called mindful dialogue. And unlike connect and control talk it is not a product of the elephant mind but of the rider mind. It does not flow automatically, that is you don’t start at the top of the model and as the next element automatically comes to mind, it comes out of your mouth. In fact, as you’ll see, mindful dialogue requires that you start at the bottom of the element list where you need to rediscover the power of your conscious rider mind before you speak. 

Mindful management: the essentials

In everyday talk, speed connects and speed kills. The speed with which our elephant mind can read other people and produce images and words in unthreatening situations - allowing us to speak fluently and connect – is the same speed that kills our connection in situations that our elephant decides are threatening. We need to slow down. Below you have three pairs of speech elements that cannot be believably reproduced in a quick, automatic fashion. You must start at the bottom of the model before you can effectively use it. The mantra of mindful dialogue is last things first!


D. Descriptive Language - Use facts and/or data and make few assumptions
I.  Messages – Frame your descriptions in the present. Say, I see, I feel, I need, I think...

A. Ask Appreciative Questions - First ask the 4W2H questions, but not why
L. Listen Actively – Give the other your undivided attention and understanding feedback

O. Open Acknowledgement – Say what you see in the situation, the other, yourself
G. Genuine Support – Offer appreciation, compliments, recognition

Built on this base

U. Understanding First - Ask before telling, Seek information
E. Emotional Self-Management - Calm, breath, Adult voice

Create a mindful moment

Use the conscious calming beath (described in my article of 5 January 2016) before a difficult meeting. If you don't have an office then on the way to the meeting, step into a bathroom stall. If you’re already in the meeting and you feel threatened, take out your phone, hold it below table level, look down at it – and breath. Everyone will think you’re keeping on top of your work when you’re actually calming your elephant mind.

Seek understanding first: talk to yourself

 While taking a conscious calming breath, get your rider on top by silently asking yourself questions about the situation - and answering them. Ask yourself: “I wonder what’s really going on here?” Notice the present emphasis in, “here” and the trick built into the “I wonder … really” form. The rider mind seems compelled to answer this type of question. It may say, “I don’t know, but they look mad.” Whatever it describes, this simple internal dialogue keeps the rider’s attention involved in the moment.

Keep talking to yourself: the rider calms the elephant

Now that you have the rider involved keep it talking. Lengthen your next outbreath and say to yourself, “They may be coming ‘at me,’ but their words and feelings are ‘about them.’ I don’t need to agree or disagree, I just need to understand.” 

Changing your view of a low-level threat to a learning moment reduces its power. Many great leaders and thinkers throughout history have commented on the positive power of reappraisal. One of the most famous quotes is: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” 

Next name your feelings to yourself. This act of “affect labeling” is the most powerful way for you to get control of your emotions. Silently say, “This is really pissing me off or scaring me.” Although most people naturally think that saying the words makes your feelings more intense, research data shows that it does just the opposite. By turning our feelings into thoughts we calm our amygdala so that it stops pushing your body’s self-regulation system into flight-fight mode. 

Calming yourself and focussing on the present changes the sound of your voice to the well-modulated, pleasantly anticipatory sound of the problem-solver. Now you are prepared to use mindful dialogue.  In my next article, I will explain how.