in most of our leadership training work and our strategic work with Harvest Moon, we devote at least a half day to working with limiting beleifs using a process developed by Byron Katie called simply The Work.
At its simplest, the work is a process of inquiring into limiting beliefs that are unhelpful in our work and lives. Such beliefs often include judgements, ideologies and other beliefs that prevent us from really seeing the reality we are dealing with. Some of these beliefs are so strong that we take them for granted – such as “Richard shouldn’t have punched Eric” which is an excellent example of an espoused belief that crumbles in the face of the reality that Eric was just punched by Richard. As anyone with teenagers knows, just saying something “should” or “shouldn’t” happen is no guarantee that it will or won’t, and is an utter denial of what just did happen (or didn’t!). Any statement that contains “should” is an argument with reality.
Every time we enter into complexity work with clients we confront limiting beliefs: this won’t work, we’ve already tried it, it’s impossible, the boss will kill it, we don’t know what to do, the answer has to be clear, and so on. Limiting beliefs do a couple of things. First they limit thinking by exerting a powerful constraint over the mind that, left unquestioned, makes us narrow our ability to scan of possibilities. And second, they cognitively entrain our thinking with unhelful attractors, so that when the boss enters the room, so do all our thoughts about the boss’s resourcefulness and support. Doing creative work with unquestioned beliefes in the way is near impossible.
The way to deal with this kind of thinking is, not surprisingly, informed by complexity practice. So this means that it won’t work to ask a direct question about that belief. Addressing situations head on is a good strategy for complicated problems but a poor strategy for complex ones. And entrained brains will always game the system. In practice this misapplication looks like adopting an affirmation or something like “I will be kinder towards my boss” that doesn’t shift thinking at all, and in fact can bury the resent and anger directed at the boss that will come out in some passive aggressive .form when you least expect it or least desire it.
instead we inquire into the the thought by looking at how a belief lines up with reality, and then looking at what happens when we are believing thoughts – how our body, emotions and behaviours are influenced when a belief is active in our mind. From there we engage in a powerful set of exercises called “turnarounds” in which we investigate beliefs from different angles. After that, we simply sit and let the mind settle. there is no action plan. We are not fixing problems, we are rewiring our cognition. It’s a simple practice, but it works because we take an oblique approach to addressing the constraints, attractors and solidified identities that limit our ability to do good work in complex and uncertain environments.
It has been very cool developing this practice with my partner Caitlin Frost who is a master facilitator and teacher of this work. As I have been exploring the world of complexity-based design, I have been seeing more and more how this process is a strong complexity-based approach to addressed constraints and cognitive entrainment in our thinking. It’s a key piece of strategic capacity building.