We all have one: that cartoon-like bubble above our heads, filled with thoughts, beliefs, judgments, assumptions, fears, biases, and experiences, that colors our ability to truly be present and engaged in an exchange with another human being (who, by the way, also has their own bubble!).
Often, the chatter is so loud, we cannot attend to what is actually happening—for example, when we know we need to contribute to a group brainstorming session, when we are participating in a meeting, when we are in an interview (giving or receiving), and during performance reviews, our thoughts can distract from the matter at hand. Sound familiar?
The ability to manage the bubble is a critical success factor for cultivating presence, and creating the conditions for effective connection and communication with others. But before we can manage it, we have to know: why do we have that bubble, anyway? It’s created through a lifetime of experiences and observations, and listening to and consuming information and opinions of others—usually influential ‘others.’
It starts with our families of origin and spirals outward, as we become more independent. We observe and experience the highs and lows of interacting with peers, classmates, friends, strangers, teammates, loved ones and authority figures. We listen, watch and absorb the incessant stream of media images, commentary and directives telling us how to live our lives, and usually, how we are deficient and need X to complete us.
Unconsciously, we continually feed the bubble with what we pay attention to. We continue to feed the bubble, instead of manage it, by continually taking in the same kinds of information, biases, assumptions and judgments that formed it. Alternatively, we can choose to feed it a new, healthier diet that is more open and fluid. Ultimately, we can manage the bubble’s control over our ability to be present in a given moment.
The bubble is associated in large part with the amygdala, the oldest part of the brain, dedicated to survival. It is where the common fight or flight mechanism lives. Neuroscience has shown that parts of the brain associated with listening/hearing actually turn off when the bubble is activated too rigorously.
One powerful example of how our bubble of beliefs can be reinforced is something called confirmation bias—hearing only what confirms our predetermined beliefs.
For example, if we go into an exchange with another person, believing that they are difficult, temperamental, irrational, etc., what we most notice and remember is any behavior that validates our pre-existing belief. Our brains ignore or discount behavior that does not align with those beliefs. If we are unaware that we are doing this, we create an inaccurate and self-reinforcing distortion of the world, and people, around us.
Confirmation bias shows up most clearly in our social media community. We follow and ‘like’ that which we already agree with, while ignoring people we disagree with. We end up intensifying our position and minimizing our appreciation of different perspectives.
So, how do we manage the bubble? It takes awareness and practice.
The first step is to cultivate awareness that the bubble exists, and to acknowledge that we are often listening to the bubble and not the other person in the dialogue. It takes a continual, conscious effort to shift our attention from the bubble to the other person.
Managing the bubble is about quieting our own chatter so as to be present and respectful of the other person. We can tell when someone is not actually listening to us, either while we are talking, or as soon as they open their mouths to express their opinions, feelings, etc. with no regard for what we have just shared. Let us choose to learn to manage the bubble and lead by example.
This can be difficult at first. We want to formulate retorts, and counter-attacks, and sound smart and competent and in control. We need to learn that truly hearing another person, empathizing and engaging in a present manner, is far more powerful and sustainable than shouting our own agenda whenever possible.
When you feel your bubble getting out of control, think of the acronym CAR:
- C – Check yourself.
- A – Assess the situation rationally and challenge assumptions.
- R – Respond accordingly.
I use this acronym because it is easy to remember and easy to relate to—imagine you’re in traffic and someone cuts you off. You can easily activate the bubble and assign character traits to the other driver based on the car model, color, etc. You then start to assign intention too! They did it on purpose to piss you off, they don’t like people in your kind of car, etc. Then you react with irrational emotions (often accompanied by gestures and words). Really, you are being a slave to the bubble and no one is affected but you. You can stop the cycle in the moment by becoming more aware of your response, assessing the situation rationally, and moving forward.
In addition, for people who struggle to manage their bubbles, I recommend creating the conditions to be present in the moment—turn your phone off (or leave it behind) when you’re in a meeting. Seek out perspectives that are different from your own, and make a deliberate effort to truly engage with new ideas.
Like any new behavior, learning to manage your bubble will be difficult at first, but with sustained and deliberate effort you can learn to quiet the chatter and cultivate presence. A sense of “flow” comes to the interaction when we consciously choose to stop listening to the bubble (engaging only with our own thoughts and egos), and attend to what the other is actually saying. Carl Rogers referred to unconditional positive regard as one of the fundamental aspects of successfully dealing with others. In order to do so, you must actually care about what the other person is saying, as is. As Stephen Covey says, “seek first to understand, then be understood.”
The good news is that the bubble is dynamic and malleable. We can control it, not be enslaved to it. It is a choice: to notice, to shift, to practice, and to create new, more positive and productive ways of engaging with the people around us.
Connecting and communicating with others is at the heart of every human interaction. Managing the bubble, and getting present in the moment, helps you create and sustain more meaningful and productive personal and professional relationships.