You know that time when you encounter a routine situation or a familiar place and something is out of place. You, your brain, tries to make sense of what you are seeing and experiencing and offers all kinds of possibilities, almost none of which actually explain the “truth” of what you are seeing and experiencing in that moment.
For example, if you’ve ever had your house broken into and the door is open when you arrive home, most of us don’t think, “My house has just been broken into.” We think, “I (or someone) must have left the door open. Isn’t that odd?” And you might encounter a few other “odd” things out of place before it even dawns on you that the house was broken into.
Or like, when at the age of 46, I found out I was adopted because my sister and half-sister reached out to me in email, my brain could not compute information inconsistent with everything I thought I knew about my life up to that point. It was completely at odds with what I had known – even as there was “evidence” in my own experience and long ago memories that this might be true. In this incomprehensible moment in time, when I was asked, “why would these two people make this up?” my response was, “I don’t know. Maybe they’re crazy.” Had to be them. Couldn’t be me. My reasoning went to great lengths to explain away disconfirming “data” that was now confronting what I thought I knew and possibly everything I thought I was.
So it is with much of what we think we know. We have developed patterns that we recognize, respond to and react from. Most of the time, this is incredibly helpful and it can also get in the way of learning new things, responding more appropriately or expanding our worldview.
Patterns ingrained in us that help us accurately identify an object, a scenario, a series of events in an instant can be useful, don’t take much time or energy and can even be fun.
My parents were raised near the water. For my dad in particular, the sea is in his blood. He has, for the majority of his life, owned a boat. Summer weekends were spent out on the waters of Mahone Bay in Nova Scotia, cruising around through the islands or to the small towns that dot the coast. Both of my parents could spot a speck on the horizon, pull out the binoculars, and identify that speck as a specific boat. Me? I couldn’t even see the speck, I only saw the water and the horizon. Their life on the water, part of the history and reality of their worldview, gave them access to information not necessarily available to landlubbers.
My cousin lives on the St. Lawrence Seaway on the Gaspe Coast in Quebec. She can hear the far off hum of a marine engine and accurately name the ship that is coming down the seaway, long before she ever sees it. She recognizes the sound of the engines, informed by living on the seaway all of her life.
My partner, Jerry Nagel, identifies himself as a flatlander – an influence on his worldview. He loves the wide open spaces where you can see for miles and miles and he can feel claustrophobic when roads close in with trees on either side, geographic terrain which is ‘normal’ for me, living in a region where there are lots of trees, hills and coastlines. He can look at a field with plants just poking through the dirt and know instantly what has been planted there. Me? I just see green shoots. His ability to scan the horizon, recognize birds flying overhead and see things on the side of the road is also influenced by his history, a component of his worldview.
In each of these scenarios, pattern recognition is influenced by the history and reality of each person and their worldview. It informs their current reality. Our history can influence and shape what kinds of places we feel comfortable and uncomfortable in – geographic or otherwise. Those experiences also inform each person’s worldview and pattern recognition in a dynamic way.
There may be times when pattern recognition can be life saving. Understanding weather patterns when you are out cruising on the bay can give clues as to when it is fine to stay out and when you should find shelter.
There are other times, when we default to pattern recognition without giving it a conscious thought, that it can cause us grief. When we see the beginning of a pattern, hear the start of a conversation and automatic assumptions or responses kick in, then we are not present to the current situation. We see or experience the situation by what we are expecting to see or hear instead of what is actually happening. Anything that is not consistent with our current worldview gets explained away in logical and illogical ways.
Assuming we know what someone is going to say without really listening to them can impact our communication and relationships. Assuming we know everything about another person, culture or organization based on one or two cues, rushing to judgment, rationalizing a perspective we carry, closing the door to exploration or curiosity that might build bridges at a minimum shuts down exploration and in the extreme can do harm.
The lens through which we see and interact with the world around us is influenced by our worldview – which operates most of the time unconsciously, below our level of awareness. When we become conscious of the influence of our worldview, we can press the pause button on some of our default responses to be more intentional and more present, possibly expanding our worldview. This is as true for us personally as it is in our organizational circumstances. For the patterns that are working for us, we can continue to draw on the rapidity of information they provide. We can discern the difference by noticing our own reactions to a given situation or person, becoming curious when we are judgmental or defensive and then bring compassion and generosity to our inquiry – about our own responses and about another person or situation. This is when possibility emerges, potential is unearthed and we can meet each other in the fullness of our humanity.