COB: another TLA

Anyone who knows me, knows that there is little I like more than a good TLA, (Three-Letter Acronym). Today’s candidate is C.O.B., or Chain of Behaviour. The COB is a simple framework for better understanding why we do the things we do. The COB, is made up of three links — Cognition, emOtion, and Behaviour. Let’s dive into this simple, yet powerful way of examining why we do the things we do.

So often, my clients recognise they have a behaviour or habit they would like to change. Notice I said Change and not Understand? There is a good reason for this. It is very common in humans to want to jump to a solution before we even fully know what the problem is. We have come to expect that our impression of the thing needing a solution is an absolute reality. And when our solution or behaviour when responding to this reality results in unappreciated consequences, we jump again to a premature solution by focusing on the the behaviour that we believe was the cause of the unappreciated consequence.

The COB model forces us to stop and really look before we leap into solutions. As mentioned above, it is a chain that is made of three links — Cognition, emOte, and Behaviour. In my following posts I will go into detail on each of these links, so here I will give the overall context of the chain and how we use it to drive meaningful change.

Cognition is the initial link in the chain of behaviours and many feel it is the most important one — fail at this step and nothing you will do in the others can save the situation. Cognition is not just observing something, it also involves interpreting what is experienced and attaching meaning to it. When I say a failure of this step, I mean a failure to attach an appropriate meaning to what is experienced. Like any chain, the following links rely upon a secure first link.

Emote is the second step or link. In this step we react to the cognition of the first step. Whatever meaning we apply to what we experienced in the first step, we respond to emotionally. And it is that emotion, that feeling, the shapes our behaviours.

And no matter how logical you think you are, you, like everyone else, behaves in response to an emotion that was triggered by cognition. This chain works beautifully and mostly automatically. We happily tick along making sense of the world around us, experiencing feelings based upon those and past experiences, and then behaving in response to those feelings. Simple, eh?

Well, it is as long as the consequences of those behaviours meet our desired outcomes. Sadly, they often do not. So what do we do about that? Mostly we promise to ourselves that we will learn from the experience and do things differently next time — which we often fail to do. Or we respond in a different way that is equally unhelpful. The lesson here is that as long as we keep focusing just on our behaviours we are unlikely to find lasting and satisfying change.

We must open ourselves to unpeeling the COB and really looking at why we do the things we do. We must ask ourselves if we are really assigning appropriate meaning to the things we encounter in the world — things, places, people, other’s behaviours or words. We must also be honest with ourselves in understanding what underlying emotions are triggered in us when we observe or encounter things in our lives that tend to trigger inappropriate or unhelpful behaviours. Finally, we must look then at our behaviours and understand which of our behaviours we feel drive unhelpful consequences and do our very best to understand why that is.

It is only when we master our understanding of how we see the world, how we feel about it and why, and then why we react the way we do to those feelings, that we can identify effective change tactics. This can often mean unpicking experiences in our past that have formed deeply held, almost invisible understandings, and emotional attachments to those understandings, and then question whether or not these are valid or helpful — this can be a very involving journey, and a life changing one.

If you think that this seems a lot of work and of questionable value, let me share with you an eye opener: real leaders are not only analysing their own COB every day, but they are also doing the same with everyone around them. Great leaders do this instinctively. And they are not the only ones — if you have ever met a really good negotiator, you have met someone who has mastered the COB. So if you think the COB is a nonsense, I would say that your chances of being a really great leader are slim. That is how important it is.

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