Two paths available to all of us, that are an inherent part of being human.
(1) The automatic path
Our bodies and minds have an exquisite ability to learn something new and then reproduce it without our having to pay much attention to it. It’s what we rely on to get us around in the world. Navigating doors, cooking utensils, cars, speaking, phones, cities, social niceties, and paying for things would all be practically impossible were it not for this capacity. Without our automaticity we would have to learn and relearn how to interact with just about everything in the worlds we have invented. Indeed, without our capacity to automatically respond to the vast and rich background of culture and tools in which we live, culture itself and tools themselves would be impossible.
(2) The responsive path
We also have an exquisite ability to make sense of and respond to the particular needs of the current moment. In any given situation we can find ourselves doing or saying something we’ve never done or said before. Sometimes our creative response can be surprising, sometimes clumsy, and sometimes we find ourselves able to respond with beautiful appropriateness to what’s happening. From this comes our capacity to invent, to respond with empathy and compassion to others, and to change the course of a conversation or meeting or conflict mid-flow. Without this capacity we’d hardly be human at all. We’d be machines.
But here’s a problem. We so often call on or demand the automatic path when what’s called for is the responsive path:
We fall into habits shaped by the strong feelings that arise in our emotions and bodies.
We tell ourselves ‘I don’t like that’ (and so don’t do it).
We say ‘I am this way’ (meaning I won’t countenance being any other way).
We insist other people stay the same as we know them, and put pressure on them to remain predictable in all kinds of overt and subtle ways.
We institutionalise or systematise basic, alive human interactions in our organisations, insisting on frameworks and codes and processes and procedures so that we won’t get surprised.
We repeat ourselves again and again – saying the same things, the same jokes, the same ideas, the same cliches.
We think rules, tools, tips and techniques will save us.
We form fixed judgements of ourselves and others which we can fall back upon when we’re in difficulty.
We turn away from anything that causes us anxiety or confusion. We prefer to know rather than not know. We’re hesitant to step beyond the bounds of what’s familiar, and comfortable.
We would often rather settle into the predicability and sense of safety that our automaticity allows. Sometimes we even call this professional or businesslike.
And all the while what’s most often called for in our dealings with others, in our businesses, in our work and in our organisations is the responsive path – our capacity to respond appropriately to the particular situation and its wider context; to be unpredictable, creative, exciting, unsettling, sensitive, nuanced and, above all, alive.