Why having a couch in your office could lead to better decisions

Blog Posts:Mu Sigma
Published On: 26 November 2014
Views: 1540

Why did Sigmund Freud make his patients lie on couches? The solution to this mystery is uncovered and on display in a fascinating exhibition in Freud’s old apartment in Vienna.

Here is what the Guardian had to say:

In Freud’s day, reclining in mixed company was an extremely risqué business. “If a visitor is announced, you are to receive him in a standing position – never lying on the chaise longue,” warned Konstanze von Franken in her Handbook of Good Form & Fine Manners, published in Berlin in 1922.

In light of such stern advice, Freud’s invitation to his patients to lounge about seems daring – so why did Freud risk opprobrium by asking those who visited him to adopt such a provocative position? The answer lies in the extraordinary things that happen when people do their thinking (and talking) lying down. Freud saw how lying down could liberate people from conventional thinking, and how it could promote a loss of control that encouraged more instinctive conversation. And no wonder – the word couch (from the French coucher) not only means to lie down, but also to put an idea into words.

Of course, the couch is one mechanism. Empathy is what bridges the psychologist to the person lying on that couch. Empathy enables us to feel as if we embody or understand the context of someone else. Through this understanding of context and the new knowledge gained in the conversation, we form insights, which in turn, can drive creative and innovative solutions to the patient’s problems.

The phenomenon of empathy has been discussed in philosophy, aesthetics and psychology for many years. But empathy is not just applicable to the realm of providing health and wellness for others. It is applicable to driving innovation and creativity in solving any problem.

Some of the most interesting contemporary research into creativity has focused on the relationship between how a problem is defined and the quality of a solution. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a pioneer in this area, in his 1996 book, The Work of Creativity, says:

“At one extreme there are ‘presented problem situations’ where the problem has a known formulation… and a recognized solution; here a person need only follow established steps to meet the requirements of the situation. At the other extreme there are ‘discovered problem situations’ where the problem does not yet have a known formulation… or a recognized solution; here the person must identify the problem itself…”

Discovered problems tend to provide a greater opportunity for more creative responses. For managers, the playing field for a problem is broad and the possibilities may appear endless. Those managers look beyond the “presented problems” and formulate the undiscovered problems leading to more creative solutions.

How does this discovery happen? By putting ourselves in the problem space, through cognitive empathy. Sparks of insights that we gain through empathy enable us to re-frame or re-define problems, discover new perspectives around the presented problems, and discover new, meaningful and creative problem-solution pairs.

As a business leader, you are likely to face many challenges – how to deal with changing customer preferences; how to work with other stakeholders who have their own priorities which may or may not align with yours; how to help your sales force sell more while market realities are changing.

What if your team that advises on sales force planning really understood what it’s like to be a sales person? What if marketing understood the challenges of a retail store manager?

You may be able to solve these problems in more creative ways if you think of yourself more as a psychologist, and less as a business leader. But the first step is to recognize the need for discovering problems and to let go of your role, status, expertise, and opinions. Instead, empathize with others in the problem space – they could be your customers, your sales team, your merchandizing team, or your store managers – and think of the process as adding a virtual couch to your office.

What does your company do to promote empathy and more creative problem solving?

Back to Top