Meeting a person for the first time, can either be a positive or negative experience and the way someone interacts with this person can also show both positive and negative behaviours. So the question is, how can mental models about a person’s world, both aid them and also limit their perceptions when meeting a person for the first time. Through exploring how and why these perceptions can be assisted and limited, we can start to question the reasoning behind our mental models.
Throughout the years, academic literature has defined a mental model in many ways, however the best way to understand what a mental model is, is the deeply imbedded ways of thinking or even certain images, that trigger assumptions and generalisations, ultimately affecting the way a person responds too or behaves in the world, be it towards a person or a life situation (Senge 2006). A good example of a mental model is, the generalization that only rich people live in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. This generalisation may be true in some cases, but in other cases, other people may live there because they have lived their all their lives, and so, we can see this particular generalisation or “mental model” has not be thought through. Not questioning mental models, can often lead to false generalisations, this situation can also arise when meeting a person for the first time.
When meeting a person for the first time, our mental models can help us both understand and ultimately get along with the person or they can limit our perceptions, meaning we make assumptions or generalisations that eventually alter our perceptions about this person or how we act towards them. Very often, we see that we are not consciously aware of our mental models and the affects that they can have on our behaviour (Chermack 2003), this in turn, restricts our perceptions. Mental models are often vague, incomplete and imprecisely expressed (Karp 2005) however, once believed, mental models are extremely difficult to change (Chermack 2003). This is highly due to the fact that people are unaware of their own mental models, and the only way for a person to change their mental model, is for them to acknowledge that they have one to start with.
Mental models can be useful as they can help us to process information and make decisions quickly (Unknown 1997) and they can also be imperative foundations for building knowledge about the world we live in (Karp 2005). For instance, when an individual has a mental model that all take away food is bad for their health and wellbeing, when given the option of either having take away food or a healthy meal at home, the individuals mental model will therefore lead them to quickly decide to eat a healthy meal at home.
However, very strong mental models can hinder active thinking and the acceptance of new ideas (Unknown 1997), and often arise problems when they are tacit, meaning that they are below the level of awareness (Senge 1992). Using the example of the Detroit auto maker, not recognising that they had the mental model that all that customers cared about was styling, believing that “all people care about is styling”, evidently shows us that their mental model had become tacit. This mental model continued to be unexamined, and because this mental model remained unexamined, the model remained unchanged, and thus as the world changed the gap grew between the mental model of this Detroit automaker and the world (Senge 1992). Clearly, mental models can perform as filters that screen incoming information that come to us, limiting our ways of thinking and also our perceptions (Unknown 1997).
An individual’s mental model represents their view on the world, it also provides them with the context in which they view and interpret new material and also new people in which they meet for the first time (Kim 1993). It not only helps us to make sense of what is going on around us, but it can also restrict our understanding of a certain situation. For example, when someone has been labeled as not a nice person, with never questioning the validity of it, people create a mental model that, that person is not nice, and so when they do or say something nice it goes unnoticed, and therefore, the behaviour does not fit with the mental model people have towards this certain individual. These untested assumptions or mental models can eventually cause conflict and misunderstandings between people.
Developing skills in reflection and inquiry can aid us in realising our mental models and also with dealing with others. When we use skills of reflection we slow down our ways of thinking and acknowledge how our mental models are formed and how they affect our behaviour. Where as skills of inquiry, is concerned with how we operate in face-to-face situations with others, especially when we are dealing with complex and conflictual issues (Senge 2006). Together with the tools and methods used to develop these skills these constitute the core of the discipline of mental models, which consists of; the distinctions between espoused theories and theories-in-use, recognising “leaps of abstraction”, exposing the “left-hand column” and balancing inquiry and advocacy (Senge 2006).
When an individual says that they value or desire something, that is known as espoused theory, however, what they actually say or do, is known as theories-in-use (Bocham 2010). Acknowledging the gaps between what we say and what we do, can be seen as an effective reflective skill in becoming more aware of our mental models. Someone may profess their view (espoused theory) that people generally are trustworthy, but their actions (theories-in-use) show differently, as they never lend out money and keep their possessions to themselves (Senge 2006). As evident in the example above, there is a gap between the individual’s espoused theory and their theory-in-use. By recognising the gap between espoused theory and the theory-in-use, learning can occur, as we as individuals question whether or not we really value our espoused theory (Senge 2006).
When we meet a person for the first time, we can quickly jump into generalisations as we never think to question them. For example, when we meet a person and they say that they are a doctor, we automatically assume that they are smart, as it is a generalization that all doctors are smart we never seem to question this mental model. These are known as “leaps of abstraction”. “Leaps of abstraction” occur when we move from direct observations to generalisations without questioning them, this ultimately impedes learning because it becomes axiomatic, as what was once an assumption is now treated as a fact (Senge 2006). Therefore, this becomes another limitation, in which mental models can have on our perceptions when we meet people for the first time. However, these “leaps of abstraction” can easily be identified when people ask what their generalisation is based-on and whether or not the generalisation is inaccurate or misleading (Senge 2006)
Senge (2006) identifies the “left-hand column” as a powerful technique whereby individuals begin to see how their mental models operate in differing situations. This exercise can show individuals that they indeed have mental models and show them how those models play an active part in sometimes negative interactions with people, not only do these people become aware of their mental models, but they begin to acknowledge why dealing with these assumptions is imperative (Senge 2006).
In order for good communication between individuals to arise, people need to recognise that in order for the communication process to be effective, mental models must be managed properly, this is done by balancing advocacy and inquiry (Peggy & Bronn 2003). Advocacy is the process of communicating an individual’s ways of thinking and reasoning in a manner that makes it clear for others (Peggy & Bronn 2003). When there is advocacy without inquiry, it only leads to more advocacy, and therefore leads to two individuals stating their ways of reasoning and thinking, they both are keen to here the others views, but do not inquire into what they are saying because they believe that what they are saying is ultimately the best way of thinking. A way to tackle this, is through the process of inquiry.
Inquiry engages two individuals into the communication process in a joint learning process (Peggy & Bronn 2003). Here the objective is to understand the reasoning and thinking of the other individual, this can be done by asking them questions in order for them to determine the origin for their conclusions and statements (Peggy & Bronn 2003). Individuals can do this by asking questions such as; “What is it that leads you to that position?” and “can you illustrate your point for me?” (Senge 2006). Thus, it is evident that grasping the skill of balancing advocacy and inquiry, is highly advantageous in interacting with other individuals, especially those you meet for the first time.
Therefore, it is imperative and highly advantageous for us to question our mental models in everyday situations, such as meeting people for the first time, as it will deter us from automatically making assumptions and making generalisations. Through acknowledging ‘leaps of abstraction”, using the “left-hand column” technique and also personally mastering the skill of balancing advocacy and inquiry, we can learn to question these mental models, and thus questioning whether or not they really do hold their value in our world. Thus, when we meet a person for the first time, before we make assumptions and generalisations, we may need to recognise our imbedded mental models and learn to question them, therefore aiding the process of communication to be a positive experience.
Bochman, DJ & Kroth, M. 2010, “Immunity to transformational learning and change”, _The Learning Organization,_ vol. 17, no. 4, pp. 328-342.
Chermack, TJ 2003, “Mental models in decision making and implications for human resource development”, _Advances in Developing Human Resources,_ vol. 5, no. 4, pp. 408-422.
Karp, T 2005, “Unpacking the Mysteries of Change: Mental Modelling”, _Journal of Change Management,_ vol. 5, no. 1, pp. 87-96.
Kim, DH 1993, “The Link Between Individual and Organizational Learning”, _Sloan management review,_ vol. 35, no. 1, pp. 37-37.
Peggy, SB & Bronn, C 2003, “A reflective stakeholder approach: Co-orientation as a basis for communication learning”, _Journal of Communication
Management,_ vol. 7, no. 4, pp. 291-303.
Senge, P 2006, “Mental Models”, _The fifth discipline: the art and practice of learning organizations,_ rev. edn, Doubleday, New York, pp. 163-190.
Senge, PM 1992, “Mental Models”, _Planning Review,_ vol. 20, no. 2, pp. 4-4.
Unknown 1997, “What are Mental Models?”, _Sloan management review,_ vol. 38, no. 3, p. 13.