Understanding your mental models sparks the clarity you need to speak your truth in the workplace with confidence and courage.
In the first part of this series, we explored why it might be so hard to speak our truth at work, as well as some tips, techniques and mindset shifts to help you start owning your truth more and more in the workplace. In this part, we’ll dive deeper into this topic by getting up close and personal with our mental models, why they have such a hold on us, and what we can do, from a practical perspective, to shift those models, empowering ourselves to fully own our truth, and bring it forward with respect and professionalism.
What are Mental Models and How do They Impact Our Truth?
Mental models are your thought processes. They are built out of all your experiences, assumptions, beliefs, old patterns, and so on. You already have mental models, whether you’re aware of them or not, and they are highly influential in how you show up and respond to your environment and circumstances.
Have you ever worked with a computer system and wanted it to do something, but… it just wouldn’t do it? Even a basic program like Word. We’ve all tried to fix formatting, add an image, edit a table, and the darn thing just won’t do what we want!
Mental models can be a lot like that, especially when we aren’t aware of them. We want to speak up, but it’s like our brain is saying, “Cannot perform function. Error. Error. Error…”
Your brain is so used to thinking in a certain way that trying to force it to think in a different way might crash the system! Except… not really. Just like a computer or piece of software can be reprogrammed, you can, in a way, reprogram your mind with updated mental models.
Why do Mental Models Stop us From Speaking Our Truth?
Ok, so we get what a mental model is, but why do so many people’s models hold them back from speaking their truth? I would venture to say that 100% of the people I’ve worked with have struggled with bringing their truth forward – saying what’s on their mind, sharing ideas, having difficult conversations, disagreeing with others, and so on. Why is this so universal?
The fact is, there’s a lot we don’t know about how human thinking evolved and why it evolved the way it did. But I ask you to consider this: so much of human evolution has been in the direction of survival. What if that’s how thinking evolved as well? What if it evolved to avoid difficult, painful, uncomfortable interactions as a survival mechanism? It would then make sense that, when our brains sense a potentially threatening situation, they hold us back from engaging.
In a way, if you consistently avoid speaking your truth, you are an evolutionarily successful human!
The problem is, our environment seems to have evolved faster than we have. Boardrooms are not battlefields. For the most part, we are not actually unsafe at work. Yet, our brains are still locked into that “do not engage” programming.
On top of that, much of the professional advice of past decades has aligned with those same mental models: tow the line, respect authority, etc. That old advice no longer works in today’s workplaces.
We need to give our evolution a little nudge; to intentionally override that default programming. Just as we learned in childhood not to lash out physically or scream at the top of our lungs when we’re angry, we can also learn to stop over-protecting ourselves. By educating ourselves on our own mental models, we can make powerful, intentional shifts that reeducate our brains to better understand genuine threat vs. just an uncomfortable interaction.
Mental Models Can Create “Roadblock Conflict”
Our mental models are basically made up of everything we’ve experienced. Which means, two different people can perceive the exact same situation in two completely different ways. If both people believe that their perception is THE truth, that can create what I’ll call “roadblock conflict”.
Conflict, as I’ve discussed before, can be an opportunity to explore different perspectives and co-create better solutions. That only works when we recognize that OUR truth may not be THE truth. When each party believes that their perspective is the only one – or only valid one – that creates roadblock conflict; a conflict where neither party is open to curiosity, flexibility or co-creation.
However, when we’re aware of our mental models, we understand that what we see as truth may be different from what others perceive as the truth. When we combine awareness of our mental models with awareness of our own values and confidence in our role as Hero in our own stories, speaking our truth – anywhere, anytime, even at work, even with our boss – becomes a lot less threatening. We’re able to bring out our truth with curiosity and have better, more progressive conversations that fuel our sense of purpose, meaning and engagement.
Identifying Your Mental Models
Identifying your mental models can be as simple as filling in a worksheet. The catch is, you have to do it for each subject you want to address, AND you have to be fully honest and open with yourself, AND fully open to the fact that the other person also has a mental model that you don’t have full insight into.
Below is an image of a mental model worksheet, which you can download here as a printable sheet. This worksheet was inspired by one that was shared with me by a trainer.
Here’s how to use the sheet:
1. Be clear and granular on the subject.
If it’s a decision to be made, a problem to be solved, an idea to share… be really clear on what you want to discuss and enter that into the “Subject to explore” section. Drill down and get granular. You don’t feel right about a new corporate policy, for example. What, specifically, do you not feel right about? Drill down to the exact point (or points).
2. Determine who else is involved.
In a workplace setting, the “who” can be an individual or a full team. Teams often function as complete systems with their own personalities, beliefs, expectations, value systems, etc. If you are butting heads with an individual over a subject that actually impacts a full team, it can often help to consider the team as the “who”.
3. Get curious about your truth.
In the “My Truth” row there are 5 categories with questions and prompts to help you excavate what’s going on for you. Start with the basic facts. The other 4 categories can be done in any order, but it’s key to get clear on the subject and facts first, so that you stay on topic.
When it comes to filling in the facts, avoid using qualifiers. For example, instead of, “When I bring up [subject], I am immediately shut down and that’s making it impossible to communicate”, simply write, “When I bring up [subject], I am immediately shut down.” That is your fact, as you know it. The part about communication also matters, but is more of a personal thought or belief than a fact. Instead, you could put that in the Thoughts category as, “I think this is making communication impossible between us” or in the Beliefs & Expectations category as, “I expect us to be able to share thoughts more openly and I believe this issue is making that impossible.”
As much as possible, use “I” statements throughout. This is about excavating YOUR truth so that you can bring it forward with confidence and clarity, AND about positioning your truth as simply one person’s perspective – a perspective that is worthy and valid, just as other perspectives are worthy and valid.
4. Get curious about their truth, as you know it.
You can’t know for sure what’s happening for them, but this is an opportunity for you to shift your mind into “possibility mode” and to start exploring all sides of the subject at hand. What might be coming up for the other person? What facts might they have that you don’t have? What facts might be more important to them than they are to you? What values might this touch on for them? What might someone in their position be thinking or feeling?
5. Explore the potential of “Us Together”.
For this section, think about how both sides can be brought together. Where can you be flexible without compromising what’s most important to you and/or your team? What common ground can you co-create from? What might they be willing to compromise on? What expectations, thoughts or feelings might be holding you back that you can work through? Remember, you aren’t creating the solution here. At this stage, you’re opening your own mind, getting a clear picture of your own mental model, and taking 100% responsibility for how you show up and respond.
Just by going through the worksheet, you’ve already taken a practical step towards shifting your mental models. You’ve built awareness of your current models and have gotten curious about different perspectives and possibilities. Now ask yourself:
- What have I gained through this awareness?
- In what ways was my old mental model holding me back?
- How will I use my new awareness to move forward?
Using Mental Model Awareness to Move Forward in Truth
Now it’s time to determine your next steps and take action. And this is where you need to lean into your leader within. What you do next will depend on:
- The specifics of the issue
- What you have determined matters most to you
- The new perspectives, curiosity and flexibility you have created for yourself
Here are 4 approaches to consider in bringing your truth forward:
Bring your worksheet to the other person.
You’ve gone through a meaningful thought process. Why not share that? Show the other person where you started, what your concerns are, what matters to you, what you have considered of their perspective, and areas in which you feel you can be flexible.
Try something like: “I’ve been thinking over this issue and I’d like to share my thought process with you. I’d like us to create something that works for both of us.”
Have both of you complete the worksheet separately, then come together.
If you feel the other person or team would be receptive, suggest you each complete your own worksheets separately, so that when you come together, each party’s point of view is right there to start building mutual understanding.
Try something like: “I’d like to get a conversation going on this. I imagine we each have different values at play, objectives to consider and whatnot, and I also think we can find some common ground to create from. Would you be open to a little exercise that will help us all be heard and understand each other better?”
Break the ice with vulnerability.
Vulnerability is a really powerful quality to embrace. When you show up from a vulnerable place – meaning a place with no armor, personas or self-protective habits – you immediately become non-threatening, which can help disarm that knee-jerk reaction in others to shutdown.
Try something like: “It’s really difficult for me to have this conversation. I’m not used to speaking up and I’m still getting comfortable with openness.”
Unless the person you’re dealing with is truly toxic, chances are they have the same very human fears and awkward feelings around speaking their truth. Using vulnerability as an icebreaker levels the playing field. It puts you on an equal, “us together” footing where co-creation can thrive.
When you filled out the worksheet, you had to make assumptions about the other person’s perspective. Lean into that to invite collaboration! It matters to all of us – at all levels – that we feel heard and valued. When you invite someone in with curiosity, you show them, from the start, that you want to hear them, and that you value their truth.
Try something like: “I really want to get your perspective on this because I know I’m only seeing it from my point of view right now. How do you see it? What am I missing that you can fill in?”
Then really listen as they speak. Does what they’re saying differ from your original assumptions? If so, how can you continue to be flexible? How else can you bridge the gap? What else is possible?
Mental models are strong, but they are not fixed. Through awareness, you can build flexibility into your mental models. When your thought processes are flexible AND you are confidently aligned with your values, the idea of speaking your truth becomes less threatening. In this state, you know that you lose nothing in speaking up, even if your truth is disagreed with.
One of my mantras is that truth always brings more truth. Everyone around you has their own truth, waiting for a safe space to emerge. When you start sharing your truth from a place of curiosity, you become that safe space. You allow more truth to emerge.
If you would like help getting clarity on your truth and building the confidence to bring it forward with professionalism and respect, I invite you to connect with me.
This is part 2 of a 3-part blog series on speaking your truth at work. You can read part 1 here. Part 3 will specifically guide those in leadership roles on how to cultivate cultures of truth and respect, and the value that brings to organizational success.