Remember that scene in the movie, The Sound of Music, where Julie Andrews is teaching the children to sing and she’s just turned “Do Re Mi” into animals and weather and food, starting with “Do (a deer…)?” Right in the middle of their musical conversation, Brigitta pipes up and says to her, “But it doesn’t mean anything!” Watching this as a kid, I loved that line—and all these decades later, I still believe that girl was onto something important.
So what does this scene have to do with business? It’s all about our human need for meaning. For example, what does it mean to you when:
- Your boss, who you rarely see, calls you into his office first thing on a Monday morning?
- A prospect, who you hope to turn into a client, emails you to re-schedule tomorrow’s lunch meeting—for the second time?
- The promotion you felt confident was yours, goes to a younger colleague instead?
It’s not hard to imagine what each of these scenarios mean when they happen to you.
Communication experts have identified human beings as “meaning-seeking, pattern-making creatures.” Although all creatures learn in patterns, only humans create meaning for everything we experience. Science has proven that the meanings we make determine our outcomes—and this is where things get interesting.
We “make meaning” for things based on our culture, our language, and our experiences. Over time, the meanings we make become our opinions, our beliefs and even our values.
Our meanings become our truth—they’re automatic—and here’s why: We all learn how to make meaning as children—in our homes, our neighborhoods and in the schoolyard.
It works like this: somebody does something and someone says to us, “You know what that means, don’t you?” The older we get, the more we discover that our natural curiosity about everything means that we’re “just kids”—and we aren’t smart. As we grow, we discover that getting smarter means that we don’t have to ask so many questions when we know all the answers. As a result, we quickly lose our ability to respond to anything we see or hear with curiosity—because we’ve already learned what everything means.
The same truths apply to the business world.
We bring with us to work everything we’ve learned about “what means what.” When we’re unaware of it, we can get stuck in ways that don’t serve us. Why not check this out with our three business examples and see how it can happen:
- When your typically uncommunicative boss calls you into his office first thing on a Monday, you can certainly make it mean that you’re in trouble or that something’s wrong. That will instantly shut down your brain—as your body prepares to fight or fly. What’s your outcome? No matter what the meeting is actually about, you don’t have a chance to be articulate, because you’ve already decided that you’re doomed.
- When your prospect reschedules—again—you could make it mean that you’re never going to have the opportunity to do business with her. You decide that she’s just not worth the effort and you cross her off your list and move on. What’s your outcome? You’ve just lost her business.
- When your younger colleague receives “your” promotion, you could make it mean that you’re no longer valuable to this company and look for another job. What’s your outcome? You’ve just lost everything you’ve built at this company—and wherever you land, you’re now simply the “new hire.”
What would be different in your work experience if you could respond more like Brigitta in The Sound of Music? (“But it doesn’t mean anything?”) That Simple Shift allows you to change the meaning of anything that happens. Now you can discover what opportunities await you, simply by being curious. Here’s how that will change your outcomes:
- Your boss wants to see you and you think to yourself, “Hmm, I wonder what that’s about?” When you show up in his office, you’re open, curious and receptive. What’s your outcome? You’re ready for anything.
- Your client reschedules and you think to yourself, “Hmm, I wonder what that’s about?” You respond to her email with understanding and your next availability. She keeps this appointment—thanks you for your understanding of her last minute business travel—and you have a very productive meeting. What’s your outcome? You get her business.
- Your younger colleague gets the job and you think to yourself, “Hmm, I wonder what that’s about?” You’re open to discovering what this person brought to the job and what you can learn from the experience. Management notices your willingness to support the organization—and what’s your outcome? Your next opportunity for promotion gets you a job that suits you even better than the one you “lost.”