Gervase Bushe’s ‘Experience Cube’ (part of the Clear Leadership model outlined in his excellent book, Clear Leadership: Sustaining Real Collaboration and Partnership at Work) is a useful tool for reducing anxiety, communicating more clearly, and increasing self-awareness.
This article is my take on how it works to get these results.
What Is The Experience Cube?
In Bushe’s model, our experience moment to moment has four components:
- Observing – what we can actually see, hear, etc
- Thinking – what we believe, what we tell ourselves
- Feeling – physical sensations and emotions
- Wanting – what we want to happen, what we want to do, goals etc.
Bushe noticed that people very often get these quadrants confused with each other. We mistake our generalisations and assumptions for reality, we talk about our thoughts as feelings (as in “I feel this is not going very well”), and we let what we want to happen distort our expectations of the future.
Of course this model is just one possible way of analysing experience. Other ways of ‘slicing the pie’ are possible.
The Cube is a useful way to look at our subjective experience for the purposes of being more aware of what’s actually going on, and the difference between reality and our beliefs and prejudices about it.
Consequently it’s good for reducing confirmation bias, and – since the stories we make up for ourselves when we’re not sure what’s going on are usually worse than the reality – for reducing anxiety.
This article is based on ideas from Dr Gervase Bushe’s Clear Leadership approach. We will be running a full Clear Leadership online training in the autumn. You can register your interest in the training here.
(You’re not committing to anything at this stage, but you will qualify for a 20% discount on the training fee)
How To Use The Experience Cube In Coaching
In this and subsequent articles, we’ll consider what happens when we explore each quadrant of the Cube in coaching.
Observations are what we can actually see and hear in our environment – my colleague Elar Killumets often describes this quadrant as “what a video would pick up”.
You may be wondering about other senses, such as touch. For the organisational context in which the model was developed, the kinaesthetic sense is of less importance.
With sight and hearing, it’s reasonably easy to agree on what is objectively there. When we try to perceive the world via the kinaesthetic sense and its subdivisions (like temperature, pressure, etc), our thoughts and judgements often intrude.
For example, someone might say “This room is hot”, perhaps following up with a demand to lower the air conditioning temperature. Is this an observation?
It might seem that way, but what if someone else in the room says “No, it’s cold”?
Both are correctly describing their own experience, but the description of the room as “hot” or “cold” is a judgement coming from their own thoughts, rather than objective observation.
It’s important to note that observing happens in the here and now. If the client is talking about something that happened a while back, their recollections are already influenced by their Thoughts, Feelings, and Wants. Observations only happen in the moment.
So, when we ask a coaching client to focus on their Observations with questions like:
- “What do you see?”
- “What do you hear?”
- “What happened next?”
- “What happened just before that?”
we are assisting them to reconnect with the external world around them, and pay more attention for a while to their situation right now and less to their internal dialogue, musings, and ruminations.
The benefits could include:
- A greater awareness of the situation, providing better quality information for making decisions
- The updating and expansion of the client’s ‘mental maps’ and a dilution of confirmation bias, as they compare previously untested beliefs and assumptions with reality
- An improved ability to distinguish between observing and thinking
- And potentially, as the stories we make up for ourselves as we try to make sense of things are usually worse than the reality turns out to be, a reduction in anxiety resulting from any or all of the above.
Additional things to note about Observing:
- People often think they are talking about something they observe, when in fact they are describing their assumptions – they might say something like “I see you’re worried” or “I notice that you’re performing well under pressure.”
These are not observations. Rather, they are interpretations – a guess at someone else’s experience, or a value judgement the speaker has made.
- To help a client distinguish between observations and stories/assumptions/judgements, the coach may find NLP’s Meta Model set of questions useful.
The Meta Model includes questions like “How do you know?” (to investigate a guess about another person’s state of mind presented as a fact) or “Performing well compared to what?” These should of course be used with enough ‘softeners’ to maintain rapport with the client.
- The question “What else do you notice?” invites the client to observe in more detail than usual, or to cast their attention a bit wider or in different directions than they habitually do.
Next: How The Experience Cube Works In Coaching Part 2: Thinking