Since 1989, I have made a career out of effectively communicating and teaching others to do the same. One of the most difficult aspects of teaching how to effectively communicate is getting people to accept that what is coming out of your mouth is not the truth. Being aware of this fact will not only make you a better communicator, but it will also allow you to engineer what is remembered by your listener.
If you do a search on the Internet for “memory recall altered”, you will find a large body of research that has shown that every time you recall a memory that memory is altered and rewritten. To further compound this phenomenon, you are not simply altering and rewriting your original memory. You are recalling the last version of your memory and altering and rewriting that version. That’s right!… Each time you recall a memory, that memory is becoming even more distorted from reality.
Because you are dealing with memories in your own mind, it is difficult for most people to take a step back and admit that a memory is a very fluid thing; and this creates a false sense of confidence. When told they are mistaken, people will insist that they are correct. People are so confident in their own memory that many will not believe they are mistaken even when presented with proof to the contrary. Cognitive dissonance may come into play at this point.
Cognitive dissonance is a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors. This produces a feeling of discomfort, and people will go to all sorts of lengths to reduce cognitive dissonance. For example, Tom may hold the belief that he has a very good memory; and Amy presents evidence that he is wrong. Now, Tom has a belief that his memory is very good and is being proven wrong at the same time. This puts Tom into an uncomfortable situation, because Tom is facing the fact that he may not have as good of a memory as he believes. Even at this point, Tom is likely to continue insisting that he is correct due to his confidence in his memory.
Now that you are aware that you alter a memory with each recall, what do you do with that information?
First, always keep what you now know at the top of your mind. When you are presented with a different view by the person with whom you are speaking, consider that you may be incorrect… within reason. For example, if you are being told that the earth is flat or that it is snowing outside when it clearly is not, then stand your ground; but if you are being told that you said last week that you would include free shipping, consider that you did indeed offer free shipping.
The obvious problem arises when you are remembering a scenario differently than the person with whom you are speaking. Do you always concede to the other person? Well, not always. Ideally, the person with whom you are speaking is aware that they could also be the one remembering incorrectly. In reality, you both are remembering incorrectly. When you both can step out of the moment and realize that it is a good possibility that neither of you are correct, then you can come up with a solution together that makes everyone happy.
What if you absolutely know that you are the one who is right? I recommend that you start by asking yourself, “Do I want to be right, or do I want to be happy?” It may behoove you to simply concede and move on. You are the one who must decide if keeping the peace is more important to you than other possible, less desirable outcomes.
Simply being aware that aspects of your memories are deleted, distorted, and generalized each time that you access them makes you a better communicator. With this information, you can make better decisions when it comes to communicating, making friends, and influencing people.
Let’s talk about influencing people using what you have just learned. I am going to give you an example of how I utilize this phenomenon in my life, and perhaps it will encourage you to brainstorm areas of your life where you can begin using it in your communication.
During the performance of my stage show, I ask several audience members to write down on a piece of paper different facts about themselves that no one in the room would know. Each person then seals their paper in an envelope. I then proceed to determine what the person wrote down by asking a few questions and reading the body language of the person. For example, I may ask someone to think of a pet that they had at some point in their life. I then tell them things like the kind of animal, the color, and even the name of their pet. This part of the performance is what brings people back again and again, and they bring friends and family with them.
Although this earns the greatest applause of the show and many times a standing ovation, I want each audience member to leave with a memory of this experience that is much better than the experience itself. To make this happen, I recap the show just before I leave the stage. During my recap, I say something like, “…And then we had Kevin think of a pet that he had as a little boy, and I was able to tell him that it was a dog named Chuck; and Karen thought of her first kiss, and I was able to tell her where it happened and the name of the boy.”
Notice that during my recap I never mention that each person first wrote down some facts about themselves or that they sealed these facts in an envelope. I simply say, “You thought of your first kiss, and I told you where it happened and the boy’s name.” By doing this, I help the audience members to alter their memories of that experience. I purposely delete and distort certain elements of the experience they had a moment ago, and the memories get encoded into their mind as a different experience than what actually happened.
After every performance, I do a meet and greet with my audience; and every night, people come up to me and ask, “How the hell did you know my pet’s name when all I did was think about it?” I also regularly have guests who attend my performance who were referred by a friend or family member. I ask them what they were told about me, and I typically get a version of, “My friend, Mary, told me you told her to think of her first kiss; and you somehow came up with the boy’s name.”
Be aware that no one is telling the truth, you could be wrong just as easily as the person with whom you are speaking, and it may be a better choice to be happy than to be right. This could prevent you from having a lot of stress and negative feelings throughout your life while helping you create countless moments of pleasure. With a little brainstorming and planning, you also have a communication tool that will allow you to engineer and experience that your listener will never forget.
Bill Gladwell is an entertainer, speaker, and trainer as well as a self-contained, one-man spectacle and Social Dynamics expert.