Unconscious Bias in just a minute!
By Catherine Hamilton, InterCHANGE Associate trainer
Listening to Just A minute, an amusing game show on Radio 4, caused me to think about Unconscious Bias in a new light.
The panellists are invited, in rotation, to speak for one minute on a given subject without “hesitation, repetition or deviation”. Over the years, the application of these rules has been inconsistent, and their interpretation sparks off the comic interplay between those appearing, who often challenge the chair’s rulings.
In a nutshell the rules are:
“Hesitation” is watched very strictly: a momentary pause in speaking can give rise to a successful challenge, as can tripping over one’s words. Even pausing during audience laughter or applause can be challenged.
“Repetition” means the repetition of any word or phrase, although challenges based upon very common words such as “and” are generally rejected except in extreme cases. Words contained in the given subject are exempt unless repeated many times in quick succession.
“Deviation” originally meant deviating from the given subject, but gradually evolved to also include “deviating from the English language as we know it, from grammar as we understand it, from the truth, and deviating from logic.
I was fascinated by how the Contestants interpreted their topic and what they focused on when listening to others. Both activities were influenced by their perceptions, experiences and beliefs.
For instance, “Out of my depth” meant to me swimming out too far and not being able to stand up! The speaker was in fact talking about work overload and taking on an enormous challenging task. I was so dominated by my assumption that is took me a while to catch up with what the speaker was actually talking about – a rather strange feeling, reminding me of a question I regularly ask delegates:
How can we really listen to what the other person is saying if we are also listening to our own internal conversation?
And yet for the other contestants really listening is the key to catching out your opponent in breaking 1 of the 3 rules.
Sometimes the speaker hears the breaking of the rules themselves other times not or not until it is pointed out to them. Of course listening out for mistakes is the purpose of the game, so opponents are primed to be in that mind-set. It makes for very different listening. Have a go next time you are listening to someone talking – only listen for grammatical mistakes or duplication. What happens to your listening? We actually zone out of what is actually being said – the sense of it, to pick up on the formation of it. It focuses the listening yes, but to what end?
So if our mind-set is primed to be negative for example when we meet someone, perhaps based on the last conversation we had with them or “hear say”, we will unconsciously and unwittingly be hearing the negative. That then confirms what we knew at the outset! The Ladder of Inference (source: The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook by Peter Senge) brings this to light clearly. We select from the data (words, body language and tone of voice) what we chose, based on our frame of reference. We draw conclusions from the selected data, from which we form our beliefs, from which we then take an action. If we are unconscious of our frame of reference then we will automatically select data without even realising there was more data to draw from.
Pausing before jumping to a conclusion and forming a belief is essential to question whether we have been selective and if our conclusions are based on all the data available.
So coming back to the rules of Just A Minute, I think these can be used positively to raise our self -awareness of any bias we may hold.
Positive Use of the Rules!
1 Hesitation: pausing before we speak helps us to acknowledge what our gut or instinctive reaction is about to be and take the time to reassess. Much of the time biases or our bases are not only unintentional they are unconscious. A pause allows us to respond rather than react!
2 Repetition: repeating ourselves is good on 2 levels.
2.1 It helps the listener understand what your message is and because we may have different perceptions “re-saying” or “re-telling” in different ways can be helpful. The listener is already decoding what you say before and as you speak and may miss the beginning or interpret it from their frame of reference.
2.2 It is also helpful for ourselves to reform new and more effective habits. To be truly conscious of our behaviours and how they impact others we need to practise new habits daily in order to ensure we become conscious of doing something different. Only when this new behaviour becomes the norm or our habit, do we become unconscious of it. That is why it is so hard to reform the way we have always done something or said something – it pushes us to become conscious of an incompetence or a bias, an uncomfortable position. Unconscious bias translates into behaviour so consciously repeating the new behaviour and noticing the impact builds a new and better competence.
3 Deviation: if we interpret this as difference, doing or saying something from a different perspective, offering an unusual or non-norm opinion then this can be a huge positive on a number of levels. Yes it may provoke an argument or disagreement, yet creates a broader discussion, better problem solving and reach a more effective decision. So often bias can lead to group think and norms emerging. This limits the scope of discussions and thinking and dampens creativity.
A high performing group or relationship in the workplace may be in blissful ignorance of any limiting beliefs held until someone else points it out. Wow does that feel uncomfortable! Done without judgement using objective evidence of what has been heard and seen allows for a more constructive conversation and the message to be heard, so that a choice about future behaviour can be considered. So we also need to value that difference around us – bias free!
Self -Awareness is Key
Bias is ever present and in literally ‘just a minute’ can lead to harmful, unfair and irrational actions, with sometimes devastating consequences for other people. And yet with raised self-awareness the impact can be avoided. So if we hesitate before we speak to check we are being objective; if we repeat ourselves (or ask others to repeat their understanding of what we have said) to ensure our message is understood and if we offer the different perspective and welcome the deviations around us how different would life be?
If you would like to find out more about unconscious bias and developing inclusive behaviours get in touch.
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