You are actually both – at least when you are awake!thinking

I watched a documentary recently on how we think and it got me thinking.  The documentary centred on the work of leading psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, who has won a Nobel Prize for the research he has done around understanding what influences our thinking.  The insights he has discovered over the last 40 years has opened the doors to a completely new discipline, known as behavioural economics, and has contributed significantly to the shaping of the fields of cognitive and social psychology.

I think I was engrossed in this documentary because I have an absolute fascination with people.  Having been exposed to other cultures from an early age, I realised that not everyone is the same, speaks the same language, or experiences everyday situations in the same way.  Having trained as a co-active coach, I now have the language to explain that what I had noticed were the perspectives that people had on the world we all live in.  My fascination with people is not about understanding those perspectives, its about recognising that they exist and being curious as to what thought patterns and experiences have led those individuals to their thoughts and beliefs.  What I’ve learned from this documentary has furthered my understanding of how these thoughts and beliefs occur and I’d like to share some of it with you.

Fast Thinking

We all do it, all the time.  It’s our default mode – it’s how we survive.  It’s the thinking without thinking.  It’s intuitive, emotional, and instinctive.  It’s highly reactive to the world around us.  Also known as System 1, we use it to read facial expressions, tones of voice, to recognise danger, and generally take in and make meaning of a far greater amount of information that we can cognitively process.

We are constantly responding to and forming opinions of everything around us.  When we look at a picture/scene/situation, we see more than that picture/scene/situation – in nanoseconds we have attached an interpretation to it, set a context around it, and instinctively have a version of a story of what happened before and after.  System 1 is the part of us that answers when someone asks our opinion on something.  We always have one – although we may not like it, understand where it came from, or what it means!

Some examples of our fast thinking are:  turning our heads towards a sound; reading; driving a car on an empty road; answering 1 + 1; recognising people and noises instantly; detecting tones of voice.  Most of these activities we do involuntarily, or on automatic pilot if it is a skill we have learned and embedded through prolonged practice.  In the words of Kahneman: “We are born prepared to perceive the world around us, recognize objects, orient attention, avoid losses, and fear spiders. Other mental activities become fast and automatic through prolonged practice.”

Slow Thinking

Here’s the kicker – it is our slow thinking self that we identify with as the definition of who we are as individuals.  And we couldn’t be more wrong!  In our slow thinking, System 2 mode, we have the luxury of agency, choice and concentration.  As Kahneman writes: “When we think of ourselves, we identify with System 2, the conscious, reasoning self that has beliefs, makes choices, and decides what to think about and what to do. ”

Slow thinking tasks are things like: focusing on what one particular person is saying in a room full of noise; driving a car through heavy city traffic; working out a discount in the sales; counting the number of red cars that pass you; comparing one job offer to another; or revising for an exam.  All of these require specific attention and when it is not given in appropriate measures, you fail.  The reason you fail is because your attention works on a limited budget that you can only allocate to a certain number of activities because of the effort required to complete them successfully.

The problem that System 2 poses for us is that it can crowd out our fast thinking.  When we concentrate particularly hard on a cognitive task, we direct all our attention toward that one task and stop interpreting the world around us.  It explains why we don’t hear that someone has asked us a questions when we are checking to see what updates there are on our FaceBook wall, or when delivering a presentation on a tricky subject we don’t notice that some members of the audience have stopped paying attention, or generally why multi-tasking just doesn’t work!

The gift of slow thinking is that it keeps our behaviours in check.  It’s the part of us that stops ourselves from fully reacting to a situation by closing our mouths before we say something we’ll regret.  It allows us to learn, provides explanation and assigns meaning to the world around us.  It backs up our fast thinking: “System 1 continuously generates suggestions for System 2: impressions, intuitions, intentions, and feelings. If endorsed by System 2, impressions and intuitions turn into beliefs, and impulses turn into voluntary actions. When all goes smoothly, which is most of the time, System 2 adopts the suggestions of System 1 with little or no modification. You generally believe your impressions and act on your desires, and that is fine—usually.”


How Does This Relate to Coaching?

When I watch documentaries like this, or read some of the books and articles I do on the way we think and operate as humans, I try to have it widen my expertise and understanding in my chosen field of people development and within that, coaching.  As I was watching this documentary, my instinctual thoughts were that these concepts are extremely useful in coaching.  In fact, I wish fast thinking would be given more of a voice, more frequently.  Fast thinking is probably the main driver as to why people want coaching in the first place:  You’ve recognised that something isn’t quite right in some, or several, aspects of your life, and you can’t quite put your finger on why.    My theory – this is your System 1, fast thinking, version of yourself telling you from an emotional, instinctual and intuitive place that life is not as it should be.

System 2 uses coaching and the coaching relationship to talk about and understand those conflicts.  It’s the part that helps you understand what you need to do to change your situation.  It rationally processes the questions your coach asks you so you can search for the answers you need that endorse your impressions, intuitions, intentions, and feelings.  In our co-active coaching language, we call this endorsement “resonance”.  And to get to resonance, we need to be able to articulate our values that represent who we are right now. Your values are a set of principles that you hold to be of worth in your life. They come to you intuitively, and are not chosen. They are intrinsic to you. Your individual values are as distinctly yours as your thumbprint.  And through coaching, you will have the opportunity to identify them and live more consciously with them day-to-day.


Share Your Insights

What are some of your thoughts on this?  Where do you struggle to multi-task?    Share what you’ve learned by reading this post and how it might change how you go about your daily routines.


Your First Stepping Stone

I would love to hear from you if you are interested in discovering and naming what your values are as well as finding a stronger voice for your System 1 perceptions of your world.  Contact me now for a free 1-hour coaching session to start your journey.