The Two-Channels Model for Mindset Change

It can be tempting, when engaging in mindset-shifting, to dream of the day when your old mindset goes away forever. I think that that’s not the best target to aim for. It may happen eventually, but there’s often a long phase where both streams of thought coexist. Sometimes it’s even helpful to still have access to that old mindset, but in a kind of isolated way, where you can query it for its opinion but it doesn’t actually run your decisions. Knowing this is important, because otherwise you can think of old-mindset thoughts as failures.

What does this feel like on the inside? One model that my intentional community developed is the idea of there being multiple channels to your thought. So if you have a model of human experience that has steps something like this…

Stimulus → Perception → Interpretation → Feeling / Thought → Intention → Action

…then the channels model suggests that your brain generates multiple interpretations of a given perception in parallel, each of which can in turn generate distinct thoughts and feelings, which might tend you towards different kinds of action. Unless you’ve trained in this particular kind of mindfulness or phenomenological awareness, any particular experience will usually be primarily interpreted through one channel, yielding a dominant thought/feeling/intention/action that comes out of how that channel makes sense of things. I think the skill of pulling these apart is valuable.

“Personal feedback” → “Systems feedback” example

So for example, we can use this two channels lens to understand my thinking in a recent post of mine, the sticky note that wasn’t passive-aggressive. Some photons hit my eyes, and I had the perception of a sticky note reading “this was with the clean utensils” on a dirty utensil. Simultaneously, my brain executed multiple interpretations on this. The primary one was “this is a good piece of feedback for the system”, and then a less-prominent one was “this could be read as passive-aggressive”.

We can imagine how my mind might have responded if the utensil’s having been with the clean ones had been the direct result of my action. I think the first channel would have been pretty similar: “this is a good piece of feedback… I’m curious what the experience was like of the person who left the note.” The second one though, might have been stronger and either defensive (“I was in a rush this morning!”) or self-judging (“Gah, I fked up”).

If I’m aiming to have a mental operating system that doesn’t run on defensiveness or judgement (which I am!) then the experience of having those kinds of thoughts could make me think I’m doing it wrong.

The two channels model suggests that the important part isn’t so much to make those thoughts go away but to notice them and to nurture the new thoughts that I want to cultivate. That having defensive thoughts doesn’t mean that “I’m defensive” in the broad sense. This is one of the reasons that it can be helpful to share your thoughts with levels of buffers between your sense of subjective experience and the thoughts themselves… to disidentify with the thoughts.

Some of you might recognize a similarity here with the concept of subject-object notation that I blogged about last fall. I would say that subject-object notation is used to describe the relationship between the two channels in a given person in a given context. The two channels model itself is more general and points at the mere fact that you can have both mindsets operating simultaneously.

Another example: outrage vs concern

In my thought hooks post, I wrote about the experience of hearing someone say something that made me feel uncomfortable. It was a remark that tied into gender roles, on a mailing list. The discomfort, potentially, has several different qualities:

  • outrage: that’s a totally unreasonable thing to say!
  • concern: hmm, I can see why he might have made a joke about that, and I think that joke reinforces paradigms that are dangerous for the well-being of some members of the group…

Note that both of these channels care about the same thing, but one of them is operating against the person who posted the thing, whereas the other cares about them as well as caring about those who might have been affected by it.

I used to have a different example here, but I removed it because it doesn’t point as clearly to the idea that I wanted to convey. In that other example, the two interpretations are operating to get totally different needs met. This can happen, but I wanted to point at something more nuanced, which is that sometimes the interpretations are actually very very similar in what they want, but still have a distinct tone or relationship to the situation.

Why the two-channels model is useful

As I pointed at in staying sane when you can’t find the edge of the frame, it can be really valuable to disidentify from your own thoughts. This is helpful internally, and can also be really helpful for communicating with others. For reasons that probably want their own post of elaboration (try this post for now) it can be really useful to share your internal monologue with someone else, to make it more explicit.

By default, it can be tempting to mostly only share one channel: either the desired channel, so that you sound like you have your shit together; or the undesired channel, because hey, the point is to share the judgemental thoughts so we can work through them, right? For the intentional community I’m involved with in Waterloo, having this multiple-channels model has been really valuable for helping us remember that we often have multiple interpretations of a given situation.

You can also sometimes use this as a tool for nurturing a new mindset, by trying to pay extra attention to the desired channel. I have a post describing several specific ways to do this for growth mindset. But even if you don’t have specific reframings to use, the mere act of considering, “how might curious!me have responded to that situation” and imagining what kind of response that would get, can be helpful.

…I think. I don’t actually have a much data on this, but if you want to experiment with it, try writing down an event or stimulus at the top of a page, splitting it in half, and on each half trying to capture what each part of you was thinking, and what kinds of actions each would imply. You can do this in your head of course, but having it on paper might help to learn the form.

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

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