Last week, my wife, Teri, and I had the chance to have coffee with one of our best friends, Karen, while we were in Wichita, Kansas for the day. As we sat across from her at the table, you could see the strong emotions in her eyes. They seemed full of sadness and dread, and were glistening with tears. Right away she said, “I think Kellen is dead.” I said, “oh, what happened?” You see, Kellen is her 18-year old son, who she has raised by herself as a single parent since he was 3. He had just left a few short weeks ago to head off to college in Tacoma, Washington. She and my wife and I have had many Facetime chats and coffee chats about the transition of our children leaving home. While everyone is aware of the empty nest syndrome, until you experience it yourself, it is hard to fully grasp the depth of emotion and loss one feels.
As we sat there intensely listening, Karen went on to say she had not heard from him in almost two days and just knew something had happened to him, so far from home and in her mind, all alone. My wife, Teri, said, “Maybe he has been busy with his classes and new friends?” Karen, nope, “I just know something has happened to him.” I said calmly, “what evidence do you have that he is dead?” She quickly replied, “He hasn’t responded to my text or phone calls in over a day.”
You could tell while she was emotionally distraught, she sensed she might be wrong in her assumption. I said, “Can I share with you something McKay (my therapist for 8 years with whom Karen had heard much about!) used to say to me all the time?” She nodded with a faint smile, and I said, “You are running ahead of the data”. This is so easy to do. We make faulty assumptions, we fear the worst, we create all kinds of wild scenarios in our minds, and we jump to conclusions.
Jumping to conclusions is a psychological term referring to a communication obstacle where one “judges or decides something without having all the facts; to reach unwarranted conclusions”— Wikipedia
This is especially characteristic of negative thinking patterns. They are commonly associated with anxiety and panic attacks. It is important to not believe everything you think. We also don’t have to act on or attach some quick behavioral response to strong emotions. Our emotions/feelings just are and don’t always need some deep explanation. We do not have to act on them. Often we need to calm our thoughts, and ride the wave of our emotions. In the words of McKay, we need to learn to “sit with our feelings.” Learning to sit with one’s feelings is not easy, at least for me it hasn’t been. Like any type of learning, it takes trial and error, it takes practice, and it especially takes not doing the same things over and over again.
We have heard the saying, “Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results”. (by the way, this has been incorrectly credited to Einstein, who never actually said it). The challenge is to recognize the negative patterns, to recognize when you are beginning to run ahead of the data, and respond differently, rather than react. Learning the difference between responding and reacting is invaluable. Do these concepts have any relevance to organizations? Since our organizations are made of up of individuals, I believe there is a connection here.
Does your organization tend to run ahead of the data? Learn how to recognize when this is occurring. Can organizations have anxiety? I believe they can. Do you work in an anxious culture? I have worked in one and it was emotionally and physically draining. Helping create healthy organizational cultures is essential as HRD/OD practitioners. What negative thinking patterns does your organization need to change? What are some strategies to bring about this change and to stop running ahead of the data?
When you find yourself and/or your organization running ahead of the data, practice the pause. Avoid the anxious urge to jump to conclusions. One of the best descriptions of this comes from Viktor Frankl, the Jewish Psychiatrist and holocaust survivor. In his powerful book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
This space, this pause, helps to short circuit the urge to run ahead of the data.
Stop running ahead of the data, just STOP.
S.T.O.P. is an acronym that stands for:
S — Stop, or pause
T — Take a breath
O — Observe the body, thoughts, feelings, emotions, and physical sensations
P — Proceed with more awareness
This is a helpful mindfulness practice that I have used. I am not sure who actually created the technique because I have seen it mentioned in numerous mindfulness books and resources.
Take time this weekend to pause and just breath