“Duh’s” and “Aha’s”*

When do your best ideas come to you? Perhaps while you are walking, showering, or having a good conversation with people you trust? Or, do they come while you are studying an issue and trying to solve it based on your past experience with solving a similar problem?

When faced with a difficult issue many of us try the latter and often come to an impasse or apply an ineffective solution. This happens for two reasons. First, many of the issues we face are new and don’t come with obvious answers. Second, trying to find a logical solution based on past experience does not open our minds to insights that arise when we combine our individual or collective knowledge in new ways. Here’s why.

Insights come 60 percent of the time as a surprise, as an unexpected “knowing” that involves unconscious processing in the brain. Focusing on solutions that have worked in the past can get in the way of the right ones emerging today.

To take advantage of the extraordinary ability of the brain to process disparate information outside of our conscious awareness and come up with new insights, we need to create the conditions that help our brains do this.

First, when you get stuck or are ready to implement a solution you sense is not the right one, stop. Consider how you are framing the issue. Simplify it and describe it in as few words as possible. For example, saying to yourself,  “I want to communicate more clearly” creates less interference in the brain than saying, “I want to communicate more clearly so my work colleagues give me the information I need when I need it.”

Second, notice if you are feeling anxious. This decreases the likelihood of insight occurring because it creates lots of activity in the brain and makes it difficult to perceive its subtle signals.

Reduce anxiety by doing something different for a while. Take a walk and pay attention to your steps and breath while walking. Or, call a colleague and talk about last night’s basketball game. What’s important is to quiet your mind, even feel a sense of idleness. Unplug yourself so your brain circuits have the time and quiet to make new connections.

When you are ready to focus on the issue again, ground yourself in your body and, with a soft focus, pay attention to the subtle signals emanating from your body (e.g., a vibration in your chest), emotions (e.g., excitement or a sense of tenderness) and thoughts (e.g., words, symbols, colors, images). In other words, relax your brain.

Take time to listen to these messages that can come on cat’s feet or show up shouting “Eureka!”

Third, converse with trusted colleagues or friends. They can evoke insight by broadening your thinking and helping you become aware of your own thinking. They can help you see the big picture that invites insights and avoid focusing on the details that get in the way. A friendly interaction can also help calm the threat of isolation you might be feeling, knowing you are not alone searching for answers.

When your colleagues have an insight that seems just right (and now obvious) you can reward them with a “ Duh” and gently slap your forehead while saying it. When you come up with an insight you can exclaim “Aha” and be surprised you hadn’t thought of it before.

Finally, when the insight comes, enjoy the rush of adrenaline and dopamine that makes you feel great. Use this energy to mobilize yourself and others to commit to action before the neurochemical “high” wears off, as it is sure to do.

What issues have you been wrestling with where you and your team seem to be at an impasse? How might you open the door to new insights? Revisit the issue and describe it to yourself in as few words as possible. Notice if you’re feeling anxious or putting undue pressure on yourself. Do something to lessen both the anxiety and the pressure. Convene a group of “insight partners” to look at the issue from different perspectives and open new avenues of consideration. Finally, enjoy the rush of energy when the insights come and use it to plan a path forward.

* Some of the material in this blog is drawn from David Rock’s Your Brain at Work.

Mary’s award-winning book “Talk Matters! Saving the World One Word at a Time” is available.  Click here to purchase it.

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