“Things are not quite as they seem.” It’s a powerfully useful quote, attributed to the Roman writer Phaedrus. That’s not all of the quote, though. It continues on, “The first appearance deceives many; the intelligence of a few perceives what has been carefully hidden.”
One of the great truths of life is not just that things are not as they seem, but that they are never—or very rarely—as they seem. What you get is not just what it says on the tin; sometimes it is much less, and occasionally it is much, much more. This makes figuring out, “Just what is going on here?” one of the more fundamental questions we are faced with as we navigate through life and work.
Part of this is about perception. As human beings, we take much of what we observe at face value. This is somewhat that we take things on trust, but more that we are cognitively lazy. Our brains only have capacity for so much work, and they don’t like to do any more work than they have to. We operate on gut instinct most of the time, or System One as Daniel Kahneman described it in his brilliant book, Thinking Fast & Slow. We do this because it is efficient. We do not need and can not afford to take the time to scrutinize every action, choice and question. We simply don’t have the brainpower and processing capacity to treat every situation as unique and requiring careful attention.
System One behaviour is the reason why Phaedrus’ follow-on of “the first appearance deceives many” is true. A cynical view of this statement would be that most people are both stupid and easily fooled. More to the point, most people take things on face value unless triggered to look more closely. It’s a fact that illusionists depend upon, whether those illusionists are working a street corner or in the corner office of a marketing company. An understanding of human nature and attention—with some misdirection and sleight of hand thrown in for good measure—can go a long way in shaping how things are seen.
But what about the few? What do we make of the fact that their intelligence perceives “what is carefully hidden?” Continuing to build on Kahneman’s framework, they are the people who have been triggered to exercise what he calls System Two. They are paying attention. They are taking in and processing and working through the details; they are not doing this all the time, but because something about the situation called for it. This level of deliberation is possible and occurs in everyone; what triggers it, though, is also different in everyone. This detailed thinking shows up when we find ourselves in a situation where the stakes are high and the consequences significant. As long as we know when we find ourselves in one of those situations.
We might become aware of circumstances or cued to pay attention because of experience—whether that experience was positive or negative. “Once bitten, twice shy.” Our expertise or professional vocation may provide a signal. We might simply have the skill and insight to know what to look for because of knowledge we have developed. We may care enough about the outcome to pay attention to the details. That’s the whole point of System Two: we stop taking things at face value and start focussing our attention. Even so, we still need to know how to pay attention, what to pay attention to and how to effectively process the circumstances.
I was reminded of this by a straightforward situation. I was preparing for a workshop (one I am taking, not one I am delivering). There was pre-work, and in the notification for the upcoming workshop was the information that it would be sent to me on a particular date. Come the day of the next workshop, though, I realized that I hadn’t done the pre-work. I went and checked the notification, and sure enough there was the statement that it would be forwarded to me. I checked my email, but no notifications were received. I checked the notification again. I checked my junk mail. I checked the notification once more. And then I finally read the next sentence: “Use the login link and password above to access the materials.”
To say that I was mortified was an understatement. I was also baffled as to how I could have missed, over several readings, what was relatively clear information. The reasons, though, are on reflection fairly obvious. I had scanned the notification. I got to the part of the sentence that said information will be sent on a particular date, and my brain essentially shut down any further processing. Material would be forthcoming, and that would be my trigger to do the pre-work. Until I received the notification, I didn’t need to do anything more, including reading the next sentence. Job done.
The example I’ve shared here is incredibly simple one. At the same time, it is an illustration of what we all do all of the time. We run on autopilot until circumstances say we should do otherwise. What is an open question is whether or not we have reasonably calibrated our ability to notice and pay attention to the right things. Is the need for more detailed attention triggered when it is supposed to be, whether that’s because the situation has changed or are simply not as they appeared at first glance?
What complicates this further is that this is not just a question of whether we are paying attention to the goings-on around us. We also need to consider the intentions and motivations of others in creating the situations we encounter and the experiences in which we find ourselves. In our brains, we may see ourselves as the author of our own destiny. In reality, we are often subject to many forces and influences that are outside of our control.
What those forces are and how they work varies, of course. Sometimes, we simply have a failure to communicate: what is an attempt at clear message falls on deaf or misunderstanding ears. We might also experience unclear or poorly crafted communication. In other instances, we may actually encounter an intention to deceive; that can be because of a misrepresentation of facts or an attempt to bias perceptions in a particular way or favour a specific outcome.
This is where processing what we experience gets complicated. We need to be filtering and paying attention to what others are doing and how they are communicating. We need to watch how they present and provide information. We need to sort out and identify whether what we are hearing aligns with what we expect to hear. And we need to assess whether anything that we are observing is out of alignment with those expecations.
Processing the intentions of others is where being aware of the normal functioning of System One and System Two becomes critical. We are hardwired to cruise on System One. That means largely trusting that what is being presented is in some way true. Because we don’t have reason to believe otherwise, we tend to accept the information that is provided. What emerges again as an essential question is how to recognize when probing and detail is required (and just how much is enough). When do we need to fire up System Two and pay attention?
The interesting part that complicates this situation: there is another person involved. My example earlier occurred because I failed to fully read the information sent to me. Yes, it theoretically involved communication from another person, but it was an entirely self-contained failure to recognize that I wasn’t paying sufficient attention to information that I theoretically cared about. They were words on a page—well, an email, if I’m precise—that I in no way took on board appropriately.
When we do start judging the communication of others (and our need to probe and challenge kicks in) the question of trust also kicks into high gear. We can be concerned about how our questions—and questioning—is perceived. There is the potential that questioning could be seen as critical. We might be seen as untrusting. We might be signalling that we don’t—or don’t fully—trust them. We start to orbit the awful and icky and messy world of human dynamics, in all its complicated reality.
Asking questions and testing facts is essential, though. Whether as parents or partners or project managers or group members, it is a necessary function to test facts, confirm understanding and verify reality. Recognizing when this is required is part of the art, as is knowing how to get the information that we require. Tuning our antennae to the right frequency to hear clues to probe for detail is necessary.
I serve on a number of boards. One of the essential functions of board oversight is ensuring that policies are complied with and the financial status and viability of the organization is maintained. It’s not the sexy part of board involvement, but it is an important one. Mostly that requires verifying that accounting is up to date, reports are being produced and filings are current. All of that should be a matter of course; the reality, though, is sometimes things go sideways.
Identifying those circumstances, and knowing when to probe and when to trust, might look like guesswork. It doesn’t have to be. When the organization is busy and stressed is a likely time for normal processes to fall by the way side. Transitions into and out of major projects that require different effort levels and focus is another one. Periods of personal distraction and overwhelm—and we all know what that feels like these days—is a third. Expectations can be built into the normal reporting processes that conventions are being adhered to. Annual audits provide objective reassurance that the required work is being done. All of this should be part of the regular communication process.
But what about when people are going through the motions, but the substance doesn’t match up to the expectations and assurances? This most assuredly has happened in the past. Inevitably, it will happen again in the future. And this is where it gets challenging, because we are indeed addressing questions of trust. Deception means that people aren’t being trustworthy; following up and calling it out often requires signalling an absence of trust. Many people find even the thought of that kind of conversation deeply uncomfortable.
Managing exceptions like this requires being sensitive to when things don’t quite add up. It means listening closely in the meantime, and paying attention to what is being said—as well as not being said. Implicit in this is a recognition that probing for detail is required—we are triggering System Two. But it also means recognizing that just because our spidey-senses are tingling doesn’t mean there’s an actual problem—at least not yet.
We are being sensitive to responses that we hear, and weighing them up based upon what we know. We are listening for statements that aren’t quite right—disclaimers, pauses, stumbles, qualification or dissembling. When we hear them, we can then employ follow-up questions. We can ask for more detail. We can test what we are hearing, and we can ask for verification or proof. If we get the assurances or additional information we need, we can stand down. If needed, we can also continue to follow up until we get the answers that we need.
What Khaneman (with his colleague, Amos Tversky) began with in identifying System One and System Two was highlighting their role in influencing cognitive biases around our own perceptions. They are also a fundamental way of understanding how we manage and think about our perception of others. Discovering that things are not as they seem is only possible when we trigger System Two and start probing for detail. That is the actual source of the intelligence that reveals “what has been carefully hidden.”