Applying Mental Models

Let me start by saying that you’re completely right–that last article on mental models was pretty abstract.  Let’s try a different approach this time and take a crack at making the idea more concrete.  We’ll consider how mental models might actually apply to our lives and work with a few examples.

At the risk of creating some kind of Inception scenario (mental models of mental models of mental models), I want to share my own experience with the idea.  I may not be typical, and you’re an intelligent reader, so you definitely don’t need to take my word for it, but it seems like once I became familiar with the concept of mental models I started seeing the idea in a lot of materials that I was reading.

To consider how the concept can be applied, let’s check out three different sources that discuss mental models in different real life scenarios.  One example involves conflict resolution and communication, one is from research on married couples, and the last is from an expert on business innovation.

Mental Models and Crucial Conversations

Although the authors don’t use the term mental model, the books Crucial Conversations and Crucial Accountability present a framework for communication and interpersonal relationships.  Their approach is based on the principle that we can handle our interactions with others more skillfully when we learn to identify and work with the mental models we hold of other people.  This idea can also be found in a number of other works on interpersonal relationships.

These authors recognize a few key points while presenting their framework: One is that relationships are dynamic human systems.  Nothing in a relationship can ever be taken in isolation.  In that system, one party’s behavior is always influenced by and always has an effect on the other party’s behavior.  Another is that our thinking, including our beliefs, assumptions, and attitudes about the other party and about the nature of the relationship, shapes how we behave in the relationship and how we treat the other party.

The authors of Crucial Conversations present this principle of working on our mental models in a couple interesting ways.  One is the recommendation to “Start with Heart.”  This step is based on the idea that a prerequisite to handling difficult interactions well is to clarify what is most important to us in the situation.  Essentially, the recommend that we clarify our mental model regarding the purpose of the interaction.  This involves working with mental models at a fairly high level.  The authors recognize that it’s possible to approach an interaction from the standpoint that our goal is to win, to save face, to prove a point, to punish the other, or to protect ourself at all cost.  The main takeaway is that intentions are not likely to produce a positive outcome for either party when we go in with this mindset.  The problem, when we accept one of these purposes (which usually happens implicitly) as our objective, is that we will tend to behave in certain ways.  And the behaviors that we’ll use to accomplish those purposes are not the kinds of behaviors that are consistent with healthy, happy, mutually beneficial interpersonal relationships.

However, it’s often the case in these challenging interactions that we’re dealing with someone with whom we have an ongoing relationship that’s important to preserve and that we hold values that go beyond and run deeper than our initial ideas of what we want to accomplish in the interaction.  When we follow the advice to slow down and reflect on these deeper values and what we really want for ourselves, for the other person, and for the relationship, we’re able to change our mental model of the purpose of the interaction.  Clarifying and focusing our thinking in this way puts us in a mindset that enables us to look for ways to handle the interaction in a manner more likely to accomplish that purpose.  (This slowing down may also help us to see that, even though we may have always claimed to hold this purpose and intent and these values, we were not initially operating in a way that was consistent with our claims.)

The next key point in the Crucial Conversation framework relevant to mental models involves the tool called “Master My Stories.”  The story framework that the authors use is really an application of the mental model concept.  The idea of stories used in these books recognizes that (a) we observe the world and filter what we observe through the lens of our mental models; (b) this filtering is a process of interpretation that produces a story that we tell about what we observed; (c) the story we tell produces an emotional response in us; and (d) we then act on the basis of the resulting story and emotion, not on the objective nature of what was initially observed.  The authors do a wonderful job of illustrating how we can begin to recognize this process, recognize that our default stories/mental models often aren’t accurate or useful, and work with this recognition in productive ways.  They offer skills to help us investigate the situation more carefully and to tentatively test our preconceived story/mental model in order to construct a new story (a new mental model of the situation, including the other person) that is more complete, more accurate, and more conducive to having a mature, constructive conversation.

Mental Models and Marriage Research

I recently came across an article (here) about some really interesting long term research that has been done on married couples.  The key point of this article was to show the important role of kindness in the long term success of marriages.  The term mental models wasn’t used at all in the article, and I’m not aware that it’s used in the research findings, but consider this passage from the article [including the commentary I insert to heavy-handedly make my point]:

“One way to practice kindness is by being generous about your partner’s intentions [Have a mental model that assumes the other person’s good intentions as a default unless clearly proven otherwise.]. From the research of the Gottmans, we know that disasters [People with very unhappy marriages.] see negativity in their relationship even when it is not there [They have a mental model that consistently produces negative interpretations of situations that aren’t objectively negative.]. An angry wife may assume, for example, that when her husband left the toilet seat up, he was deliberately trying to annoy her [She has a mental model of her husband as a person who is inconsiderate, doesn’t respect her, and intends to cause her distress.]. But he may have just absent-mindedly forgotten to put the seat down [Her mental model of her husband may be inaccurate, but she can’t see that part of the situation.].

Or say a wife is running late to dinner (again), and the husband assumes that she doesn’t value him enough to show up to their date on time [He has experienced prior situations where she is late. Those situations have been used to construct a mental model of his wife as an inconsiderate person who doesn’t respect his time and efforts.] after he took the trouble to make a reservation and leave work early so that they could spend a romantic evening together.  But it turns out that the wife was running late because she stopped by a store to pick him up a gift for their special night out [His mental model of his wife as applied to this situation was inaccurate and incomplete.  The only objective information he had about the situation was that she was late and that she had been late in the past.  The rest, including his interpretation of the situation, the story he told about the kind of person she was and about her character and attitude and intent, was all a product of his mental model.]. Imagine her joining him for dinner, excited to deliver her gift, only to realize that he’s in a sour mood because he misinterpreted what was motivating her behavior [The problem is that his mental model, besides being objectively inaccurate and incomplete, was unhelpful because it produced in him a negative emotional state, which led to unkind behavior towards his wife, which contributed to an unnecessarily negative interaction.]. The ability to interpret your partner’s actions and intentions charitably [Having mental models that don’t automatically assume negative intent and bad character in others.] can soften the sharp edge of conflict.”

The mental models we hold even influence what we are able to see.  According to John Gottman, one of the primary researchers, “’There’s a habit of mind that the masters [people with strong, happy marriages] have, . . . which is this: they are scanning social environment for things they can appreciate and say thank you for.  They are building this culture of respect and appreciation very purposefully.  Disasters are scanning the social environment for partners’ mistakes.’”  In fact, they discovered that “[p]eople who are focused on criticizing their partners miss a whopping 50 percent of positive things their partners are doing and they see negativity when it’s not there.”  The thing that interests me the most about these statements is that research has shown that our mental models are not simply a matter of how we respond to what’s “out there” in our environment.  Our models actually influence what we are able or willing to see.  They determine what information we perceive in the world around us.  People with negative mental models can’t even see the positive things that the researchers observe in their marital interactions!

The point I draw from the article in order to support the narrow point I want to make here is this: The success of our relationships is determined largely by the behavior of the individuals in that relationship (again, relationships are dynamic systems).  By closely observing couples interacting with each other, the researchers were able to identify specific, tangible behaviors (many of which were fairly subtle but real nonetheless) and correlate those behaviors to the long term health and success of those relationships.  And those behaviors, it turns out, are the products of the individuals’ mental models.  The behaviors result from the way the individuals think about their relationship and about the other person–what they believe about the kind of person they’re with, what they assume about the other person, how they interpret the other person’s behavior, the intentions they attribute to the other person.  One key, it seems, to addressing some of the behavior that enables or precludes a healthy marriage, lies largely in the minds of the individuals.

Mental Models and Innovation

The capacity to work with mental models is also a popular idea among authors who study and write about innovation–the process of developing and implementing creative new ideas.

Richard Martin is a consultant and author who has written a lot about innovation, especially about the kind of thinking that produces innovation.  Unlike the earlier examples, Martin actually uses the term mental models in his work.  To grossly oversimplify things, the basic premise of his book The Opposable Mind is that people in a given company and in a given industry tend to see the world in a particular way.  These viewpoints collectively form a set of mental models about their world that have been validated and proven successful over time (that’s why the market exists and why the current companies are alive to operate in it the way they do).  Most people, however, tend to confuse their models of reality with reality itself and therefore tend to dismiss any information that would bring the preferred model into question as the best or only model.  This approach to the world inhibits the ability to find innovative solutions to problems.

Martin contrasts this typical stance with a skill he refers to as “integrative thinking,” which he identifies as a key to innovators’ ability to come up with new and creative solutions.  He defines integrative thinking as “[t]he ability to face constructively the tension of opposing ideas and, instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generate a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new idea that contains elements of the opposing ideas but is superior to each.”  For these kinds of thinkers, “[i]t’s not a choice of this model or that model.  They’re all wrong.”  The goal therefore becomes “to combine those multiple perspectives and enhance the quality of your mental model.”  With this approach, they tend to treat opposing models as hypotheses of how the world works, not the truth of what actually is.  This strikes me as extremely humble, extremely pragmatic, yet extremely confident and hopeful approach to life.

As we’ve discussed, we have to create mental models in order to simplify the world into something that makes sense–there’s no way around this.  Integrative thinkers, however, tend to find innovative opportunities by creating mental models that account for a bit more of the complexity that’s actually present in the world.  They typically do this by taking a larger view of what information is relevant to the issue and by being able to see more of the complexity in how cause and effect works as the various factors interact and influence each other.

These innovators are able to do all this because they have a different relationship to their mental models than most of us.  Rather than carry on with what tends to be the default approach of most people (arguing for their model and defending it against attack by others with different models), integrative thinkers actually assume that their current mental model is inaccurate and incomplete in important respects.  Because of this, they purposely seek out contrary information because they believe that they are capable of producing a more accurate and more complete (though still inaccurate and incomplete) model.

The Opposable Mind offers a number of case studies to illustrate these points.  One of the main case studies involves the origin of The Four Seasons hotel chain.  When the founder, Isadore Sharp, entered the hotel business, the people in the industry shared a mental model that the only two business model options were smallish motels or large hotels that catered to business travelers.  The problem was that the smaller motels offered a personal touch that guests enjoyed but, because of their small size and the room rates they charged, could not provide business travelers with the amenities they desired.  The large hotels, on the other hand, could provide those amenities, but their large size made them extremely impersonal, which produced a less enjoyable experience for guests.  Sharp was able to question the assumptions and beliefs about the hospitality industry that everyone else took as reality and was able to develop a new mental model of what was possible in that business.  Sharp held the apparently irreconcilable tension created by recognizing the respective advantages of the two types of hotels and did research that allowed him to understand the needs of guests in a new and unique way.  By doing this, he was able to create a new hotel business model.  The Four Seasons’ model has proven extremely successful.  According to Martin, it has been successful because it uniquely satisfies customers’ needs that the other established companies could not see or serve because their mental models blinded them to recognizing that opportunity.

How Does It Apply to Us?

When things are going well in our workplaces we can typically find examples of when we’ve been open enough to question our mental models, when we’ve experimented and come up with new ways to do things.

We may not have used the terminology of mental models.  More likely it was just changing our minds or seeing things differently or learning.  But whatever we call it, it’s the kind of thing we do when we’re at our best, when we do things like handle difficult interpersonal interactions with skill and grace and character, when we do things like build and maintain high quality relationships with our clients and customers, when we aren’t afraid to innovate, to experiment, to change and improve and grow.  It’s part of what we need to do to be successful and maintain a high quality workplace.  Perhaps developing a mental model of the way mental models work can help us do this even more skillfully and more effectively.

How do you think mental models relate to what you do and how you do it in your workplace?  Can you recognize situations when your mental model of someone affected the quality of your interactions and your relationship?  Can you think of an example of a time that you benefitted from reexamining a mental model?  Can you think of one you could benefit from reexamining now?


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