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Are Your Secret Decoders Helping You or Hurting You?

Updated: Feb 10, 2020

Our secret decoders are a wonderful creation of our minds that allow us to take valuable short cuts. We are bombarded by all kinds of visual, auditory, emotional, and kinesthetic information, and we are physically incapable of processing it all. So our brains have worked out many shortcuts that allow us to bypass the need to fully process all this information.

We all have secret decoders for lots of things: driving, avoiding the chatty person in the break room, how to respond to homeless people on the street corner; the list is endless. We have built up our secret decoders over our lifetimes. For the most part we are unaware that we have them and are equally unaware when we use them. That’s why we call them secret. They are decoders because usually they only require minimal input and can guide our behavior based on our past experiences.

We develop secret decoders for all kinds of situations.

Let’s say a particular individual in your office always rubs you the wrong way, you’ve had many encounters with them and just the sight of them sets you off. You walk into your next morning meeting and there they are.

You roll your eyes and sign inwardly, thinking to yourself, I have to sit here with this jerk for an hour. Nothing positive can possibly come out of this experience, and it’s going to be a complete waste of my time.

This reaction was not prompted by any action from this person other than their presence in the meeting. They have yet to utter a word. Still, your mind has already launched you off, perhaps reacting to a prior encounter, and is busy preparing you for battle.

At this point, it may not matter what this person says; you are prepared to challenge their every comment and refute any fact that escapes their lips. You have effectively sabotaged any chance of having a productive meeting. None of this response is based on any current evidence, and most of it has happened in your head. Yet, when the meeting progresses and you react as you usually do, the meeting is not productive, and of course you leave blaming that “jerk” for another hour wasted.

In reality, you may have been the one to set the course of the meeting, dooming it from the moment you pulled out your secret decoder about this person. After all, you decided at the beginning that nothing positive could come out of this meeting. That was your assumption going into the meeting. Because of that supposition, you sat in the meeting ready to refute and challenge. Were these the only actions available to you, or could you have pursued other actions? Had you taken a different tack, perhaps they would have shared some evidence that would make you reconsider some of your assumptions.

Often the people we sabotage with our decoders are ourselves.

There is no doubt that our secret decoders save us valuable time. We stop at the same gas station (because at some point in the past we confirmed they did have the lowest price). Do we continue to check their prices? Or do we just stop there because our decoder says it’s the best place to stop?

Secret decoders can be tricky too. Often buried deep inside them are the conditions that existed when they first got established. These assumptions are a critical and often overlooked part of secret decoders. Each time we use them, we should be asking ourselves, do we still believe the assumptions? Are they still valid? Are adjustments needed? But rarely do we stop to ask ourselves these questions.

Decoders are used to speed up our responses. Often, they contain programming like: “When this happens, do that.” Again, these were formed under a set of assumptions that existed at the time they were formed. If the assumptions have changed, then we may need to update our selection of choices available. In other words, our secret decoders may need to be updated but they do not come with an automatic update feature.

We actually have to think about it.

This is the hard part. How do can you remember to update something; you don’t realize you have, and you don’t recognize when you are using it?

This is where we must learn to override our brain and ask ourselves the question:

“Do I want to be on autopilot right now?”

Or should I take a moment to assess the situation and see if I should update my secret decoder based on current information and assumptions. Perhaps we should engage at a different level and open ourselves up to new opportunities.

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