Imagine this situation. Jenny, Peter’s manager gives him the task of visiting one of the company’s small customers and finding out what they need.


Jenny does not tell Peter that although the company is small, if they are satisfied, then they are in a position to give a good referral to another large client. Jenny believes Peter does not need to know this, it might make him nervous. She also believes that Peter has been desk bound for too long and needs to go out and visit some clients. Peter, however, is resentful.

He believes that Jenny undervalues him and he always gets to deal with thesmall, unimportant clients. He does not say anything however, believing that Jenny might bear a grudge and this could prejudice his chances of promotion.

He also believes that women do not make good managers, as they are too readily influenced by their emotions.

Peter sees the client, and believing the visit to be unimportant and somewhat beneath him, does not make a particularly good impression. The client does not give the referral and Jenny is annoyed; she takes Peter to task. Jenny blames Peter for the debacle. Peter blames Jenny, ‘You should have told me the full facts!’ he remonstrates.

You can see that Peter and Jenny are going to have a lot of problems together. How do their beliefs contribute to this? Jenny believes Peter is nervous with important clients because she saw he was very uncomfortable in two meetings in the last month . She generalised from these instances to form a belief about all instances, and she forgot the times when Peter was fine.

This was not justified, Peter was simply feeling unwell those days. Peter also generalises. It is true he sees many small clients, but he also sees many important, large ones, in a ratio of about four small to one large. That is because there are indeed four small clients to every large one. Peter ignores the times he saw important clients, he is blinkered by his belief, and every time he sees a small client, it reinforces his belief. Every time he sees a large client, he ignores it as a special, unusual instance.

They do however share one belief: that someone is to blame, in this case each other. They both believe that when something goes wrong it must be someone’s fault, instead of a shared miscommunication. Blaming one person implies that the person has all the power and is totally responsible.

This distorts the reality of the situation.

These are the three key ways that beliefs are made:

By generalising from a particular example as if it represents all possibilities.

By deleting, or ignoring instances that do not support the belief.

By distorting the situation by giving it a meaning it does not support.

Let us take another example close to home. Jane and John have been married for five years. Jane is feeling neglected, John never tells her that he loves her any more and Jane believes this is important, she needs reassurance. She also wishes that he would not work so late some evenings, she needs him home to help her look after their toddler.

She does not ask him directly if he loves her however. She believes that if she asked him, then of course he would have to say ‘yes’, but this would be emotional blackmail and might not get a genuine response. She wants him to

say it without prompting, and believes he should know her well enough to do this. John believes the family needs more money now that the baby is growing, so asks for more overtime at work. John loves Jane and often buys her flowers, believing this is the best way to show his love.

Again there are the same forces at work in their beliefs. Jane believes in mind reading and also that if she asks, she will not get what she wants. John ignores Jane’s protestations that they have enough money, believing that she is mistaken. And both have made a different generalisation about how you let another person know you love them.

Honest straightforward communication between the people would go a long way towards disentangling these belief knots. However, generalising, ignoring and distorting are not bad in themselves. Let us suppose someone believes herself to be a creative person. This belief inspires her and she does good work. She has generalised from those times when she has felt creative, and ignored those times when she does not. Given that the same processes are at work, the question is – what beliefs are empowering and worth having, and what beliefs are limiting? How far can we honestly become aware of our beliefs about ourselves and others?

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