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Ordinary People Taking Action
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Is common sense common?
As a coach, a facilitator, and a mother, I have the privilege of talking with a lot of different people. Brian, a colleague of mine, has plenty of opportunities to interact with others, too, as the CEO of a medium-sized company, an amateur soccer player and a father. Brian and I both have numerous colleagues and, of course, a decent number of friends and acquaintances. The point is, we both connect with a lot of people daily.
Brian sat across the table from me and sipped his coffee. He stated, “We carry unconscious models around in our heads, which organize perception in the first place. Means that even if something is common, our perceptions are different, so it’s hard to really have common ground.”
The thing about Brian and I is that we often like to debate things – looking at concepts from different viewpoints makes our conversations richer. The topic of today’s debate? Whether common sense is really common.
What happened quickly is that we found ourselves not debating, but agreeing. Brian and I discussed the Ladder of Inference. For context, the Ladder of Inference is one of the most effective tools in explaining why we so often get into conflict and fail to find resolution. It was originally articulated by Chris Argyris and popularized in Peter Senge’s book – The Fifth Discipline. Brian and I have both referenced this book – a lot. We also agree that certain books are made to be highlighted and dog-eared, and this is one of them.
The ladder describes the thinking process we go through, usually without realizing it, to get from a fact to a decision or action. The thinking stages can be seen as rungs on a ladder. Starting at the bottom of the ladder, we have reality and facts – an image of what happened. From there we each select data and experiences – we filter. We then affix meaning, make assumptions and draw conclusions – each a different rung on the ladder leading us to form our beliefs and finally take action.
Through years of facilitation, I have taught people the concept behind the ladder, explaining that we run up and down, often without thinking about each rung – sometimes even skipping rungs or going up and down repeatedly. We have a tendency to jump to conclusions quickly.
I like to focus on the third rung, where we make assumptions. We often make assumptions based on the select data we have decided to pay attention to and what we know about that data from our own personal experiences. Experiences come from things like where we live, where we work, where we went to school, our religion, our belief systems, being able to relate because we’ve been in a similar experience – or not relate because this is new to us.
I think of this rung as the one that shows common sense isn’t really common. If it’s true that we all filter information and assign meaning to situations based on our own unique experiences – then how does common sense fit in?
Brian and I both knew to tip after we purchased our coffees, a simple example showing a situation we both have been in before. We can relate and easily agreed that we received service worthy of a good tip. Ahh, common sense.
We then came up with other examples where common sense doesn’t work so easily. Take, for example, someone who comes to the US for the first time from Ireland and tries to drive. In the US we drive on the right-hand side of the road; in Ireland they drive on the left-hand side. Until you recondition yourself to drive on the opposite side, your frame of reference, or common sense, coming from Ireland is to drive on the left-hand side of the road.
In the business context, common sense gets even trickier to spot. If you agree that common sense comes from every day, relatable experiences, then how do we expect a new employee to have common sense on business practices that they have yet to use themselves? How do we expect first-time managers to know how to handle employee conflict for the first time?
What Brian and I confirmed for each other is that often miscommunication happens in the workplace – and even our personal lives – because we expect common sense to be common. Of course, if I would do it this way – everyone must do it this way – I believe my way is common sense.
I asked Brian, “Is it really that common sense doesn’t exist or is it that people lack common sense because their intelligence overrides it?”
“Maybe people think in situations where they are supposed to feel,” he responded. “Maybe common sense isn’t knowledge or experience, maybe it’s our feeling – similar to intuition.”
Brian and I didn’t fully answer our questions to each other. As we typically do when we leave each other, we were full of more questions than answers, more reflection than action. We leave smarter because we continue to contemplate conversations like this one.
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