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Tomás, the founder and CEO of a small software company, said to John, his coach, “I feel like I need a translator every time I talk with my executive team. Every conversation seems to be 90% clarifying and rephrasing. We’re all frustrated at how much friction is involved. It’s like we’re each speaking a different language!”

After discussing the details for a while, John said, “It sounds like each of you may handle information differently than the others.”

“What do you mean?” Tomás asked.

John explained that people handle information in three phases: absorbing, processing, and communicating. Every person, John explained, has a preferred method for each of these phases. Some use the same method for all three; others might use a different modality for each.

“Which method is best?” Tomás asked. “No, wait, I know what you’re going to say,” he said, laughing. “It’s not which method is best, it’s which method works best for me.”

John had then walked Tomás through a series of exercises to discover how Tomás preferred to absorb information. Now Tomás knew he used diagrams, charts, and colors for this.

Tomás left the session with homework: he was to use the same process to identify his preferences for processing and communicating information.

1. Start with examples

Tomás stopped in the park on his way home that evening. He sat down on his favorite park bench and settled in. Then, he pulled out his favorite notebook and pen, found a blank page, and started a new mind map: How I Process Information.

From that, he added legs for recent examples of times he had processed information:

The first level of Tomás’ mind map—click to see it full size

2. Rate each example for effort versus ease

Next, he annotated each method with the amount of friction he had felt using it:

The first level of Tomás’ mind map, with each method annotated with the amount of friction he feels—click to see it full size

3. Explain each rating

Then, he added additional legs describing where the friction came from, or why the method felt frictionless:

The second level of Tomás’ mind map—click to see it full size

Next came describing the method he uses for processing information.

He had no idea.

Or, rather, he seemed to be using many methods, not just one.

Tomás knew exactly what John would say: “You may be using many methods. However, you still need to get down to a succinct description. This will be easier for you to utilize. It will also be easier to explain to your team.”

“OK. So, maybe I’m a mix,” Tomás thought. “I have low confidence that’s right. I have no idea how to describe what I do. Maybe the next step will help.”

4. Identify what causes effort

Tomás highlighted the high+medium friction items with one color and the low friction items with a pattern:

Tomás’ full mind map—click to see it full size

What was missing in the high + medium friction methods? How could he change them to make them work?

Journaling was costly because he had to spend so much time forcing his thoughts down into a linear sequence of words.

While he loved diagramming, his attempts at using tools had failed because he had to use their shapes and their connectors and their … everything. So, kind of the same problem as with journaling.

Hearing the tones people used was also so much work.

So, things needed to be easier. That didn’t seem to help.

A little frustrated, Tomás decided to switch to the low friction methods.

5. Identify what enables ease

Talking problems out with his staff: that felt easy because the interplay with his team was so free. Mind maps and the stickies were also about the freedom he had to rearrange things and the ease with which he could do so.

Hearing the harshness of wrong ideas and the harmony of right ones was also easy: it wasn’t anything he had to work at; it just happened.

“How do ease and freedom translate to how I process information?” he wondered.

He valued mind maps and stickies because of how easy they made it to move things around. Also, for how easily he could see the relationships between things.

Wait—he didn’t see the relationships. He felt them. These methods felt so easy because he felt the “rightness” of things and their relationship. So maybe mind maps and stickies were kinesthetic?

OK. Back to talking problems out with his staff. What did that enable him to do?

He remembered back to several specific situations, observing himself as though he was watching a movie.

“I react to the impact of the words and ideas on my body,” he realized, a bit surprised. “I feel more and more anxious the further from the answer they are. I feel confused when we spiral off into rathole discussions. And, I feel more happy and clear the closer we get to the right solution. The talking is how I access those feelings.”

Tomás was starting to feel happy. Three of the low-friction methods seemed to be kinesthetic. His dawning happiness, he now knew, meant he was likely on the right track.

“Hearing where my theory is wrong, am I feeling the harshness and the harmony? Is that kinesthetic too?” He wasn’t sure.

Tomás decided to stop there for the day. He’d come back to this first thing in the morning, when he felt fresh.

Partial answers are still valuable

Sleeping on his answers didn’t offer any new insight. Nor did he feel like going through the steps right now to identify his way to communicate information.

“That’s ok,” he said. “I have it far enough to do the last part of my homework: talking with my staff about what I’ve discovered. I wonder what they’ll have to say.”

Tomás decided to ask his staff to do this exercise themselves.

“Maybe I’m communicating in a way that doesn’t align with how they absorb information, and vice versa. I might really be talking in a different language than they are. Just knowing I need to translate would be a big help!”

Tomás set his notebook aside. He stretched, chuckling. This was going to be fun.

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