The Mush Separator – Build Trust through Conversation
If you interact with people, this skill is a must. Following this process builds trust.
As a parent, it can help you be clear about what you are seeing or feeling – positive or negative – leading to a more productive and connected conversation and action with your child/ren.
As a business leader, it can help you name what is important in the conversation to produce more clarity and results from every conversation.
As a community leader, you can identify more easily the common needs or desires of all members leading to more cohesive group decisions.
The Mush Separator deepens connection. It strengthens relationships. That is why it is a foundational skill. A must for all people, especially people who desire sustainable change.
In the last foundations of leadership development, we leveraged the skillset of active listening. When we seek to understand another before we respond, we can connect with another person.
Through understanding another’s perspective, we see the interpersonal gap in action – that the way you see the world is different than the way I see it. To seek to understand we must believe – mindset, our first foundation – that connecting with the other person is more valuable than having the answer, being right, or winning. We can still do those things, but with the mindset that other people’s perspective is important, we can bring others along, instead of isolate or disconnect.
To be a leader who builds strong cultures, these tools are essential. The Mush Separator gives you a way to put them seamlessly into action.
The Mush Separator is a conversational practice for leading. At its core it is a self-awareness tool. A way to decipher and speak about your own experience. It can also be used to deeply understand the why behind another person’s actions or responses by using the tool as a paraphrasing guide. This leads to deeper understanding and a connection that builds cohesive relationships. This is a practice to get to the heart of the matter – building trust through conversation.
Self-awareness is the foundational skill of developing Emotional Intelligence. There are many ways to practice. Examining our mindset is one. Seeking to understand is another. Meditation – interrupting our hard-wired automatic pattern of stimulus and response through training our attention – is an additional way.
Self-awareness is the abilty to recognize the self as separate from the environment. Because of the way our brain is patterned, it is impossible to see ourselves objectively until we are taught how, and we practice. Until then, we see “our” story as “THE” story. This limits our understanding of another’s perspective. We literally cannot comprehend it.
To survive, we develop ways of making sense of the world – our subjective experience. We build this from birth. It helps us know ourselves. Yet, there comes a time when the limits of our subjective experience become a liability to leading. Self-awareness helps us see ourselves and our subjective experience more clearly.
Self-awareness is also uncomfortable. As we become aware, we realize all the ways we were blind before. We begin to understand that our way of interacting may have unintentionally harmed people.
I liken this to when I had young children and would yell at them. I would see the fear in their eyes. Horrified, I tried to stop, but the automatic pattern I had built up to yell when overwhelmed took over. I had to meditate, practice something new, and literally rewire my brain to stop this pattern. I still yell, but I catch myself more quickly and work in the moment to repair the broken trust.
Self-awareness for me caused discomfort and defensiveness. I knew I was being disruptive, but still could not stop it. This part sucked.
As very few of us have been explicitly taught how to have a productive dialogue, or deal with our overwhelming feelings, revealing anything other than our thoughts and then taking action can feel extremely vulnerable. The Mush Separator provides a transferable tool to learn about the self and then use what you learn in conversation to build trust between people.
After food, water, and shelter on Maslow’s hierarchy, humans have three basic needs to thrive: safety, connection, and dignity. Though beyond the scope of this article (see my science of somatics article), these basic needs drive our behavior.
All biological systems desire to move toward health. We just might not have been taught how.
Sometimes our early family systems are anything but healthy. Yet we implicitly learn how to be in the world through their example. They teach us how to treat others and our self. They teach us how to get results in conversation or relationship. And they teach us what trust is, even if real trust is not present.
We then bring these skills and definitions to all the subsequent systems in our lives. So, do the other people we interact with. The Mush Separator levels the playing field by providing a way to understand, interact with, and resolve intra- and inter-personal disruptions.
Let me take you through a scene. A man named James, about 32 years old, is at work at his computer in his office cubicle. He is listening to music via headphones. A woman named Kristie, about the same age, approaches him on his left, holding a green folder and a cup of coffee. She leans over. Her face is about 8” from his face. She looks at James and says, “Hey.” She keeps looking at him for about 3 seconds until he takes his earphones out.
James replies in a drawn out, “What?”
Kristie, “You didn’t do these.” Showing him papers from her folder.
James looks back at his computer, points to his computer, and says, “Yeah, I’m really busy right now.” He begins typing.
Kristie, “I gave them to you a week ago.”
James still typing says, “I’ve been really busy for the last week actually.”
Another man named Rob, also around the same age, arrives. He too has a cup of coffee. He takes a sip and then leans down so his face is about 8” from James right side.
Kristie says to Rob, “He didn’t do these.”
Rob says looking at James and then his computer, “What do you mean you didn’t do these?”
James looks at Rob. “I’ve had a lot on my shoulders, on my plate, the last week.” And looks back at his computer.
Rob, “For who?”
James looking at Kristie and then back at Rob and leaning back in his chair a bit, “For various people around the office.”
Rob, “We needed those reports.”
Kristie, “A week ago.
As you can imagine, James is probably triggered right now. Two people who rely on his work are crowding him and telling him he is a week late on work for them, when he is already busy with other work.
Situations that cause disruption to our patterns of thinking and being, and cause uncertainty in our approach or response, have the potential to trigger us.
A trigger response is a reaction in the physiological system to an experience that takes us out of our form of balance. Remember, everyone has different filters, so everyone will react differently to stimuli. Some people may get very quiet and stew internally. Others may be more expressive – raising their voice or becoming more animated. We all have patterns. If we work with people long enough, we notice their patterned response.
The Mush Separator is a tool to practice turning reactive action – which erodes trust, into effective action – that is trust building.
Separating the Mush
Mush happens when we react – we get triggered by an experience – then get flooded and overwhelmed. We lose choice in our response. Our thoughts, feelings and what we want become tangled and mushy.
We react with what we have practiced to date. Historical patterns of action that we learned in our early family system. These patterns were important in the past as they maintained our particular version of safety, connection, and dignity. These patterns may no longer be useful to us, may even cause harm, but we don’t know what else to practice.
When we get flooded and react, the prefrontal cortex – the zone of critical thinking and choice in our brain – literally goes offline for about 90 minutes. We can justify our response with data – usually blaming someone else for something – therefore we think we are thinking. But really, we are reacting.
Culturally, we have been taught to move from stimulus to response. We begin with thinking, “The reports aren’t done yet….” And then move to action, “You blew it. We needed those reports a week ago!” Before and in between these statements is a lot of information that can build trust in any system, and especially complex systems.
The Mush Separator helps create space between stimulus and response, lets us digest our experience by separating our thoughts, emotions, motivations, and actions. It provides an alternate path to reactivity. Here is the model:
With this model, we begin with sensory data: what did we see, hear, feel, or say that brought on our feeling of triggered. Sensory data is indisputable facts that a video camera or a microphone would pick up. Sensory data could also reference an internal sensation that an EKG machine might pick up or someone may notice like, “My heart rate went up.” Or “My hands became clammy.” Or “My face felt hot and red.” This is all data we pick up from our senses.
We then share our thoughts. In our conversations, we often start and end with this. It comes easy for us usually. At first, we will likely get thoughts confused – and as you will see in the example – with feelings.
There is a saying, feelings – have them before they have you. When we name our feelings, they become less strong. Yet we are rarely in a practice of knowing or naming our feelings. For practice, we start with four choices mad, sad, glad, or afraid. Eventually, after you practice for a while, you can graduate to using other feelings, but for now stick with these. It just makes the whole thing a lot easier – and a bit more risky as we cannot disguise the feeling of mad with annoyed or frustrated. We have to say mad, which can be disruptive to us and others.
The next step is to state our intention, motivation, desire, or hopes. This is usually our secret. And rarely shared. It can also be hard to decipher. And it is essential to the success of this skill. It helps us and others understand where we are coming from and why we are taking this particular action.
Lastly, we can move on to action. Usually this is what we wanted to say in the beginning, but after travelling though the mush separator, it may be softened as we begin to understand ourselves and others better.
Let’s walk through what the Mush Separator might look like for James:
Beginning with sensory data: “I was working and listening to music. Then you two show up about 8” from my face holding beverages and telling me I didn’t do some reports.”
Then we move to one of the three segments in the middle circle: thoughts, feelings, or intentions.
For James we will start with thoughts, “I have a lot going on. You never told me when or why they were needed. So, I focused on other things that had clear deadlines.”
Then to feelings, “I am mad…”
Back to thoughts, ‘…because I was interrupted and spoken to like this.”
Feelings, “And I’m sad…
Thoughts again, “… for being criticized for not doing something that was not clearly outlined.”
Now onto intentions, motivations, and desires, “My desire is to be supportive of all the people that ask for my help and to be given clear descriptions of expectations.”
Finally, to action, “Can you tell me what is going on the why I need to put this in front of other requests?”
As you can see, it got a bit mushy in there as feelings travel in groups. We are likely not purely sad or mad. We are probably both for different reasons. We are likely even glad – that they brought this to our attention, and maybe afraid – that we didn’t do our job.
Our underlying desire, motivation or intention is likely noble, but the presenting behavior to others can be perceived as sneaky or disrespectful. Therefore, sharing our intention is paramount – and also the hardest part of the model for most people – to helping others understand us.
To complete the loop, Rob and Kristie would walk us through their experiences as well. With the hope that all would feel heard, understood, and new guidelines would be put in place to mitigate future disrupted expectations.
Using Mush Separator makes a good leader a great leader. It helps weave relationships of understanding. It creates less opportunity for us to be reactive as we understand people better, and they understand us. This foundation builds strong and resilient cultures – whether in a business, family system, or community – that can withstand change and disruption with grace. Leaving the people or group feeling stronger than before.
If you need help discovering your intention, or separating your thoughts, invite perspective. We love wading through the mush with people.