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Thursday, January 10, 2013

You may face people interaction problem, if you do not have the right slack

When you are interacting with people - friends, shopkeeper, or colleague in the class -you have to follow certain coordination protocols to interact with each other seamlessly. Those protocols may be 'agreed'  explicitly or implicitly between you and the other person. If the other person is behaving differently than the protocol, you get confused like Manasi.

Manasi has been staying in mumbai for almost 15 years. She shifted to a big town near Mumbai, Nashik. She called up plumber to fit her Acqua guard at 4 pm. Despite promising, he did not turn up till 4 pm. Neither did he call to tell that he was getting delayed. She waited till 4.30 pm. The phone was 'out of reach'. She called at 5.30 pm. Same response. She called at 6.00 pm. Plumber replied " I am sorry. I got stuck up somewhere". Manasi ranted and raved. Ultimately she asked him if he can come the next day. He said he will come by 10 am. Same drama repeated next day.

Manasi is facing the problem of getting adjusted to the new coordination protocols of the town where she has not grown. For her friends in Nashik, this is not a problem at all. It is just a matter of 'adjusting'.

Manasi, for instance, could not adjust with the coordination protocols of the new town even afer a year.  Instead, she kept on getting 'proofs' of their unprofessionalism, the characteristics she said she wanted in people, in every interaction. For instance, according to her, people in Nashik never came at predetermined time, or when they did not come on time, they did not inform in advance. Or when she went shoppping for grocery, shopkeepers gave her oil  bags that were 'time expired'. Or  when she asked for something and it was not available, they never said so. Or when she moved with her scooter, she complained that they took left turn without showing the left indicator. They parked at wrong places, or they jumped signals. Or when she went to drama, the drama never started on 'time'. And so on and on. The evidence on 'unprofessionalism' kept on mounting with every encounter in her mind.

We seek consistency in our beliefs

What do you think is happening with Manasi? We all have beliefs about 'how people should behave'. Some of these beliefs become 'solid' as we meet people holding the same beliefs. However, we forget that they are still beliefs. They are not facts or truths. Until we find contrary evidence, we forget that they are only 'beliefs'.  Manasi forgot that it is her belief that 'people are professional only when they come in time' and this belief may not be true everywhere. Manasi forgot that beliefs depend on the country, caste, religion and status we are brought up.

Why is it difficult to change these beliefs? As psychologists tell us, to function well, we make our beliefs consistent with each other. Changing one belief forces us to change other 'related beliefs' and form 'new ones'. For instance, to change her belief of professionalism, Manasi has to rethink her definition of professionalism and define it 'newly'. She will also have to change her related belief on 'whom to trust', because she thinks that she can trust 'people who are professional'. And more she sticks to her beliefs, more strongly she 'associates' with her beliefs. When Manasi forgot this, she refused to change her beliefs, even though it hurt her for more than a year. Let us call this challenge of Consistency - we seek consistency in our beliefs and hold on to them too strongly - instead of letting them go.

Our desire to have consistent beliefs stops us from coordinating with others 

Strongly held beliefs also create unintended consequences, because they taint our eyes and attitude. As strong beliefs control our 'sight', we view everything with 'tainted eyes'. That is why, Manasi kept on finding evidence of unprofessionalism in everything she saw. Her 'eyes' were only seeing the behaviour that matched with her belief. As Manasi held on to her "consistent set of beliefs', she found more and more difficult to adjust to the coordination protocols of interacting with people. It started a vicious cycle. As her beliefs became more and more stronger,  she found it difficult to adjust with the coordination protocols of the new town. This is called Coordination versus Consistency mismatch. 

On the one hand, in order to interact easily with people, we need to be flexible in following the coordination protocols with different people. But, on the other hand, we also want to be consistent with our beliefs. We face these conflict all the time. For instance, should we interact with our neighbour with irrelevant banter or should we avoid communication with neighbour because we dislike making irrelevant talk? Or should we go to the birthdays of friends and give return gifts, or avoid birthdays because we do not believe in giving such calculated gifts? Or should we only engage with useful friends at the cost of being called opportunistic, or engage with all type of friends at the cost of wasting too much of time? Should we interact only with friends who agree with us, or should we interact with others who have strong views contrary to us? Or should we tell car mechanic the true extent of problem or should we tell 'part of the problem' to avoid being charged highly? And so on.

In other words, we face this trade off between consistency and coordination all the time. In order to remain friendly with others, we must hold our beliefs loosely so that we can change them quickly. When you hold your beliefs 'too loosely', you become a socialite whom others don't trust, because you may become a chamelon who changes its colours at the drop of hat, who sways to the wind's direction, and who will never have any conviction of your own. On the other hand, if you hold your consistent beliefs 'too strongly', you become like Manasi: difficult to relate with friends, always taking stands visavis others, and brings every issue to 'right or wrong'.  Both extremes make a person dysfunctional in having good people-interaction. Getting this balance of coordination versus consistency right is very important for every individual. Having too loose a belief set is equally detrimental in interacting with people as is too tight a belief set. Having the right slack in the belief set is important.

For individuals who automatically get this slack right , they never understand what right actions they took. But for those, who have the wrong mismatch of consistency and coordination, they have huge difficulty in interacting with people. You will either find them like Manasi: who views every situation as black and white, has very rigid views of what is right and wrong, and remain as loners even though it hurts them at a personal level. Even good communication ability does not help them. For instance, Manasi has acted in a drama and is a good communicator. But even that does not help. Or you will find some others like a socialite. No one trusts them. They have many 'relations' but of no depth. They are seen as opportunistic. Even when they want to be genuine, people do not believe their motive.


In other words, intra-personal problem ( lack of appropriate slack in belief set) causes inter-personal difficulty ( in interacting with people). Having a good communication ability is not enough to possess interpersonal ability; it requires having the appropriate slack in the belief-set. With the right amount of slack in the 'belief-set', even poor communication ability does not hinder you in interacting with people. But with too much slack in belief-set, even good communication ability is not enough. When someone adjusts to coordination protocols easily, it means he is having the right slack in his belief set.

In my coaching experience, i have found that more than 70% of the people interaction problems arise due to this inappropriate slack in belief set and not due to any 'communication-related difficulty'. Communication is just the tip of iceberg, the real cause lies somewhere. And once the problem is identified there are solutions. There are ways to 'loosen' the belief set as well as 'tighten' the belief set. But i have observed that it is more difficult to 'loosen' the belief set than tightening it. And it is more easier to 'alter' the belief set at a young age than altering it at later age.

Is your belief set slack enough to interact with people easily and gracefully? Or do you want to learn to develop the slack? 

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