Some thoughts about thinking

Richard Martin




Just because I think something, that does not make it a fact, it does not make it true.

In our workplace conflict resolution work we often observe how pretty much every situation boils down to a mental issue, or can be seen through a mental health lens.  While true, I think that statement might be confusingly simplistic.

What we are not saying is that anyone who finds themselves in a workplace conflict has a mental health problem, or is mentally ill.  Some of course may be, and with 1 in 6 of us experiencing a diagnosable mental illness, and a further 1 in 6 of us experiencing problems with our mental health short of a diagnosable illness, at any one time, it may commonly be the case.

What I think we are saying is that with most (if not all) workplace problems (and I think the same can probably be said for all sorts of other relationship problems we encounter), at the root of the issue lies confused, problematic thinking.  To paraphrase that great guru of thinking, Nancy Klein, our actions are all based on our thinking.  In order to achieve the best possible actions, as individuals, couples, colleagues, teams, organisations, parliaments, even civilisations, we therefore need to achieve the best possible thinking, and it is to creating the best environment for that thinking to emerge that Nancy has devoted her life work.

I think the fundamental error we all make is to mistake our thoughts for facts.  Thoughts are not facts.  They are simply a transient electrical impulse in our ever active and evolving brains.  They are the product of our mental processing, our thinking, at any one moment in time, and are based on our thinking at that moment.  They do not have to be acted upon.  When actions follow, those actions may be facts, may have a reality all of their own, but the preceding thoughts do not.  Let me take a few examples:

  •  the fact that I think I have more work to do than I can manage, does not make it true - it may be true but it may not be;
  • the fact that I think there is simply no alternative to my having to get this task done by a deadline imposed by my client does not mean that is true;
  • the fact that I think my boss has a grudge against me does not mean that s/he does;
  • the fact that I think my direct report is fundamentally useless and incapable of completing even the simplest task correctly does not mean that s/he is;
  • the fact that I think I am the highest performing individual in the team does not mean that I am;
  • the fact that I think that snide comment from Gavin in accounts was directed towards me does not mean that it was;
  • the fact that I think that I should be having much more fun than I am over an extended Easter Bank Holiday weekend, and that everyone else is having fun and is deliberately excluding me from that, does not mean that is true;
  • the fact that I think I am very (un)attractive does not mean that is true;
  • the fact that I think the intention behind my action ought to have been blindingly apparent to everyone else does not make it true, the impact my action has will often of course highlight this to me if I am open minded enough to accept it - and conversely the fact that someone else perceives my action as having had the intended impact that it did in fact have, does not mean that that was truly my intention either;
  • the fact that I think there is only one solution to my current predicament, whatever that may be, does not make it true.

Our thinking is very largely unconscious.  We are not consciously aware (most of the time at least) of how we arrived at our thoughts.  They will often emerge from the unconscious into the conscious (and often pass through there very rapidly into actions) as apparently incontrovertible conclusions (or facts).  One way of thinking about any form of counselling, and I think probably also coaching, is that it involves recognising that our thinking is largely unconscious, pinpointing possibly unhelpful unconscious thinking, bringing it into the conscious and then challenging it to assess whether it is helpful or not and, if not, coming up with alternative, more helpful, thinking.  

Our thinking at any one time will be influenced by a myriad of different factors, some of which may be contributing to helpful, healthy, balanced, objective thinking, and some of which may not.  Recognising that our thoughts will not always be objectively correct, that they are just transient electrical charges, and that crucially they do not need to be acted upon, is both vital and liberating.  Equally crucial is to seek to do all we can to maximise the quality of our thinking at all times - at least in respect of important stuff.  This is where good mental health comes in - if we have good mental health this will maximise the prospect of quality thinking.  Conversely, if we are stressed, anxious, depressed, or worse, this is likely to result in less helpful thinking, less helpful thoughts, and, assuming we act upon those thoughts, less helpful actions, which then do become facts.

Allowing ourselves a pause in our thinking can be a huge help - a time to reflect, to think about other things and to come back to an issue once we have had that time to reflect and/or are in a better, more healthy, frame of mind.  Just because I have come to a thought in this moment, does not always (in fact most commonly will not) mean I have to act on it right now.  We might also benefit from understanding that our thinking is almost necessarily subjective in nature and that further, individual, thinking may simply reinforce our original thoughts, because we lack the objectivity to explore other possible lines of thinking.  This, of course, is where we might benefit from talking to someone else to gain some third party objectivity, whether it be a friend, a colleague, a mentor, a coach, a counsellor. 

But the simplest and most helpful thing to remember, I think, is where we started - thoughts are not the same as facts and they do not have to be acted upon.  When we are exploring resolutions to workplace conflicts, a key element is often to help the individuals see and understand the thoughts they and the other had, and to recognise that they each had very firmly held thoughts or beliefs, which were contradictory and were equally capable of being true or untrue.