By the time we got to Fairbanks, our last big fight had been in Whitehorse, about 3 weeks before. We’d also had a few scuffles of one size or another in Kenai Fjords, Anchorage and Denali. The topic of each fight could be boiled down to the same as Whitehorse, about our commitments.
- Bryan: don’t dismiss Lisa’s ideas outright. Consider, talk through them and explain reasons for disagreeing. Avoid being condescending.
- Lisa: don’t assume the worst about Bryan’s intentions. Give feedback (note: not criticism or insults) in the moment rather than letting resentments build.
The problem both of us were having with meeting our commitments was that the behaviours we were trying to change were unconscious, and were based on underlying assumptions that both of us had tucked away deep in our subconscious minds.
Let’s talk a bit more about these problematic underlying assumptions. These are examples of mental models. Peter Senge, one of the originators of Organizational Learning theory, defined mental models as follows.
“Mental models are deeply held internal images of how the world works, images that limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting. Very often, we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effects they have on our behavior.”
Remember the Ladder of Inference? If you have not yet read our previous two pieces (Great Dish Brush War and Whitehorse (Fighthorse)) about the ladder, you probably should, as this will make more sense with some background.
Our mental models make up the side rails of our ladder; they are the way our mind climbs up our ladder. Really simple examples are:
Now imagine another scenario:
You are driving on the highway, and there are two lanes going in your direction. You are in the left lane, and there is construction ahead in the right lane. People in the right lane dutifully start merging early, in a very Canadian fashion. As you get close to the construction zone, though, you see a guy driving a souped-up pickup truck speeding along in the now-empty right lane. He pulls up in front of you, signals to merge and wants to get in. You get mad, jamming your car up against the car in front of you, refusing to let him in. He merges a few cars later. You spend the rest of your drive in a bad mood.
What are your mental models here? We’ll give you some space to think about it.
Let’s say that your mental models are something like this:
- Guys in trucks often drive like jerks
- People in expensive vehicles who “cut the line” think they are better than everyone else
- It’s not right to let someone cut the line, as that kind of behavior should not be rewarded
Well, in many cases, your mental models are correct. That is, after all, how they have come to be deep-seated beliefs in the first place. But how do you know they are right in this case? What if the guy is a father, and he’s late to pick up his kid from daycare?
Then you might also have this mental model:
If you are a responsible parent, you will leave work on time to pick up your child, accounting for potential traffic issues.
But what if he was kept late at work by his boss, and was not able to leave on time? If you knew that, then what would you do? Would you let him cut the line? In this case, you probably would, right? So what good would your mental models do if you assumed the worst about him?
Now imagine if you were to challenge your mental models when this guy drove up. You imagine a variety of possibilities that would cause a rational, “good” person to do what he did. Maybe he has to make it to his wife’s doctor appointment. Or maybe his mom is sick. Or maybe he just really has to go to the bathroom. Now you have some empathy for the guy. You smile at him and wave him in to your lane. He merges, and you get home 5 seconds later. But you are in a good mood because you helped out a fellow human, and you didn’t let negative emotions or judgment of others ruin your mood.
Bryan did this exact exercise after he moved to Houston, to help deal with the stress of commuting on the crazy highways there. This mindset shift transformed his commute from a terribly stressful and anger-inducing experience into a relatively peaceful drive during which he could really enjoy rocking out to his favourite metal albums.
So What Does This Have to do with Fairbanks?
A couple of weeks earlier, we had an argument about the same issues as always. At that point, Bryan explained to Lisa that he was doing his best to change his behaviour, but he needed time to really make a big improvement. So Lisa agreed to try to cut Bryan some slack, and let him “get away” with some infractions.
After arriving in Fairbanks, we checked in to our AirBnB and then headed out to the nearest Fred Meyer grocery store (cue ominous music). During the drive in, Lisa had suggested that we check what kinds of spices, condiments and cooking implements were available at our AirBnB, and then go shopping, armed with some useful knowledge about what would work best for us. Bryan agreed that this was a good idea. But in the process of checking in, we forgot, and rushed off to the store as we were both hungry for lunch.
On the drive to Fred Meyer, Lisa suggested that we just get groceries for a few meals to get us started, since we had forgotten to check out our AirBnB kitchen, and weren’t yet sure if we might want to try any restaurants in town. She figured it would be easy enough to stop by the store again when we were out and about anyway, after having time to do some more planning. Plus, given our history of conflict in grocery stores, it would probably be safer to do the bulk of our planning/shopping later on when neither of us were on the verge of being very hangry.
Bryan immediately disagreed with the idea and said so. It was just not very efficient to go to the grocery store more than once – why not just get everything now? (Although he is taking a break from working as an engineer, Bryan has not taken a break from thinking like an engineer).
This set Lisa off – here was Bryan just doing things his way, and dismissing her ideas AGAIN. This in turn really frustrated Bryan, because he had been doing well at changing his behaviour, and this one thing had come up, and now we were back to fighting. Didn’t Lisa remember that she was supposed to give him a break sometimes? So Bryan got piping mad about Lisa being mad at him, and as angry Bryan is wont to do, retreated into his shell of giving the silent treatment, making theatrical sighs, and occasional application of biting sarcasm.
What About the Mental Models?
There are lots of mental models underlying this conflict. Here are some important ones:
- All ideas should be analyzed to find the best option, with efficiency of time and cost being primary objectives.
- If an idea is brought up, shortcomings should be talked about immediately to try and “break it” – if it is flawed, best to find that out right away. This process of analysis and discussion is normal and desirable. It doesn’t mean we are fighting.
- My ideas are often better thought out/more thorough than those of others.
- If Lisa believes that I have bad intentions, then that implies an underlying belief that I am a bad person.
- My priorities regarding meal planning at the moment are nutritional value, variety and taste. We are already saving lots of money by making our own food instead of eating out, so it’s OK to spend a bit more on good groceries. We aren’t working full-time jobs anymore, so it’s also OK to spend some extra time.
- Constant conflict/debate about every little decision reflects negatively on the state of our relationship.
- When Bryan brings up the shortcomings of my ideas and doesn’t seem interested in hearing my rationale, it means he thinks the idea overall is stupid.
- If Bryan thinks my idea is stupid, that means he thinks I’m stupid.
Obviously, some of our mental models are incompatible. Here’s a simplified diagram of how this played out.
As you can see, our mental models about various facets of this situation were in direct opposition. This led to a spiral of assumptions that caused the conflict to escalate from a small flame to a catastrophic explosion. Our differing ideas about a seemingly innocuous topic (food) were the trigger for a bunch of underlying mental models that were much deeper and more emotionally charged.
By the time we got to Fred Meyer, Bryan had come around to Lisa’s point of view, but the damage had already been done. Upon entering Fred Meyer, things devolved very quickly. Next thing you know, we found ourselves in the strange position of having a big fight in a public place where Bryan was advocating for what Lisa had originally suggested (just buying enough groceries for one day) while Lisa was advocating for what Bryan had originally suggested (buying groceries to cover the whole visit). Part of Lisa wanted to force Bryan to go through with his suggestion so that he could see the errors of his ways when it all fell apart.
It was our ugliest fight yet. We had at least two yelling matches: one in the produce section and one in the frozen food aisle. At one point, Lisa stormed off to the bathroom and Bryan thought she might be gone forever. Finally, much to the relief of other people in the store, Bryan strong-armed Lisa into going with Lisa’s original suggestion. Then we shoved ourselves back in the car and drove back to our AirBnB. The mood in the car was one of dejected silence. Here we were, both of us working so hard on our commitments, and we were back to having another big fight. What had happened?
Lisa expected Bryan to live up to his commitment, and he had not. She was hurt that he had dismissed her idea, and even though he came around to it later, it was too late. She would now make sure that Bryan suffered the consequences. Bryan expected Lisa to cut him some slack, so when she did not, he got really mad at her. This escalated the conflict into a conflagration, from which there was no returning.
As we talked about this afterwards, Bryan had a big realization. He expected Lisa to cut him some slack, but he then went and did the exact opposite – he did not cut Lisa any slack, and instead got really mad at her for not holding up her end of the bargain. So his major takeaway, which has stuck with him ever since, is that you cannot ask for someone else to do something unless you also model that behaviour yourself. It was not fair to expect Lisa to cut him some slack, if he was not willing to cut her some slack too. And if he had just cut her some slack at the outset, instead of getting mad and escalating, then we would not have had this giant fight.
Lisa also had a big realization. Even though Bryan might initially disagree with her ideas, he didn’t actually disrespect her or think she was stupid. He simply had different mental models from hers. When he questioned or critiqued her suggestions, he didn’t mean it as an attack. And, after all, it is natural to be attached to one’s own ideas and take a while to come around to a different way of thinking – Lisa was guilty of this too, so maybe she was being a bit hypocritical. Although she found it frustrating when Bryan’s automatic reaction was to dismiss her suggestions, it might be easier to deal with if she didn’t get caught up in assuming the worst about his intentions. Instead, as in the truck driver example above, she could give him the benefit of the doubt and come up with other rational explanations for his behaviour. For example, when he questioned her suggestions, his goal was to achieve the best possible outcome for both of us.
You can see from our nice illustrations the role that our mental models played here. Without even knowing it, they propelled us into bitter conflict. The bad news is that mental models are very hard to change, and that is the reason why behaviour is so hard to change. The good news is that at least we knew about our mental models and wanted to make an improvement.
The first stage to making improvement is identifying and defining the problem you want to address. But although it may seem easy to shift a mental model around some stranger driving a car, it is quite different changing deep-seated mental models around anyone very emotionally significant in one’s life.
Running Reindeer Ranch
On the plus side, we went to a cool place called Running Reindeer Ranch, so Fairbanks wasn’t an entirely negative experience. This is a family-run ranch, and visitors can join on a walk around the property with the owners and reindeer, while learning about the animals and their life cycle, behaviour, etc. It was a really fun and unique experience to wander through the woods with the herd, and to get the chance to pet the reindeer!
Join Us on Our Journey!
What deep-seated mental models do you have? What would happen if you were to start building a habit of challenging some of your own? If you want to, feel free to join us on our learning journey. Try to challenge one mental model per day. When you’re out for a drive is a great place to start, but it can happen anywhere. You may be surprised by the results! Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.