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The Power of Surprise

Nick Marson notes, “The essential truth is that we change one conversation at a time.” He emphasizes that coaching is essentially a conversation with a purpose and that one such purpose is to access a client’s resourcefulness. But what if you could turn your comment into a formative moment for your employee? Can you identify your formative moments? Most of us can name a few, but many of them take place automatically and outside our conscious awareness. I’ve studied formative events for over three decades and discovered that many of them share a common trigger: the element of surprise. As it turns out, surprise comments produce a neurological boost of dopamine. That’s our motivator neurotransmitter. Here’s an example of how it works.

Imagine that you have an employee, Sarah, who worriers that she doesn’t learn her protocols quickly. You call her to your office. She will be probably be nervous, expecting criticism. But you surprise her by saying matter-of-factly, “Your ability to carefully learn new protocols thoroughly, makes you a valued employee. Have a nice day.” That’s a thoughtful, positive, and constructive comment, but if you used the element of surprise, it just might produce a formative moment for Sarah.

Before we examine that comment to Sarah, you need to know a little about the science of surprise. It’s essentially a neurological error signal that tells you that your understanding of some aspect of the world is suddenly incorrect: “What just happened?” From an evolutionary point of view, surprise often meant imminent danger or immense opportunity. Accordingly, we evolved to learn instantly during a surprise. Those that thought about it perished, along with the genes to think during these unexpected events. An intense surprise produces a two-phase burst of dopamine. Phase One, lasting less than a second, is salience (Something really important is happening, so pay attention). Phase Two is the longer lasting valence (Is this good or bad? Should I approach or avoid?). This second phase initiates a belief formation. Now that you know a little about the science of surprise, let’s take a closer look at the Sarah comment.

Note that it’s merely a positive comment unless you used the element of surprise. If you did, she experienced a two-phase burst of dopamine telling her something important is taking place, and she’d better learn instantly. Because the comment challenged her belief, she must either dismiss or accept it. She accepts it because it seems genuine and was stated descriptively, like stating the color of her eyes. (Praise doesn’t work because it isn’t surprising and it is often perceived as manipulative.)

After this comment what happens when she learns new protocols? Let’s step back to how her prior belief worked before the comment. Previously, she worried that she didn’t learn her protocols quickly, so when faced with new protocols, she became anxious and hesitant (low dopamine). We know from research that such a timid mindset interferes with learning. This belief actually created the very conditions that sabotaged her own success. Consequently, she would perceive her errors as imprudent mistakes. This is how mindsets perpetuate themselves with self-affirming perceptions. Post comment. With her new belief, that she learns her protocols thoroughly, her mindset shifts. Here’s why. When something surprises you, you instinctively test it. If you see a celebrity while shopping, you’ll stop and take a closer look to confirm if it is indeed that luminary or only someone who looks similar. This is called the Positive Test Strategy; we instinctively look for affirming evidence rather than disconfirming indications. So when she instinctively tests to see if she learns her protocols thoroughly, her mind automatically searches or, and inevitably finds, evidence that it is indeed the case. Mistakes are now learning opportunities that help her learn thoroughly. She approaches the new protocols confidently (higher dopamine). After all, she learns them thoroughly. That mindset actually supports a more thorough learning. If done artfully, with surprise, your comment actually creates the conditions for a productive mindset to flourish. That’s a formative moment.

Here’s a real-life example. Nick himself actually used this strategy masterfully with me. I sent him my TEDx talk for a review. I was pleased with my performance, but worried that my pauses were too long and a distraction to the audience. Nick watched my talk and sent me the following comment. “I enjoyed your fascinating and absorbing presentation. You use your pauses masterfully.” Kaboom! His comment surprised me. He turned my presumed deficit into a powerful asset. Now when I speak . . . I use my pauses strategically . . . and confidently. After all, I am the master of the pause.

Before that comment, I would invariably use pauses hesitantly (hesitance indicates a low level of dopamine, low motivation). After that comment—remember that a surprise is a dopamine burst—I now use my pauses confidently and strategically. Now when I use one, I get a little tag of dopamine as a reward telling me I’m good at it, keep it up. I lean into a confident use of a pause.

That simple comment, because it was a surprise, made me a more confident speaker. He turned what I thought was a deficit into an asset. That’s the best way to trigger a surprise strategically.

If you see a colleague give a presentation and falter, tell that person, “Your ability to persevere shows professionalism.” Turn that misstep into a hidden golden nugget. It still feels pretty crappy to falter, but you’ve boosted a feeling of perseverance by linking it to the presentation. If you didn’t surprise the person, no neurological boost, but you still accentuated something positive.

You could also say, “Your ability to take risks displays immense courage.” Now you’ve neurologically boosted their feelings of courageousness, but only if you surprised that person. State it like it’s irrefutable.

With both of these comments you’ve shaped a mindset that perceives taking risks, faltering, and even failing as a prospect for growth. In today’s jargon that’s called a Growth Mindset.

So, how does one go about using surprise strategically, to produce that powerful dopamine burst? One way is by doing what I did in the examples I used. When someone is feeling down, tell them what particular strength they exemplified (e.g., perseverance or courage). When someone hears how something they thought was a weakness is actually an asset, it’s surprising. That’s what Nick did with me. I can’t overstate this feature: Say it like it’s a fact. You’re not trying to soothe. You’re just stating the indisputable evidence. If you try to sell it, then it moves from surprise to sales—no dopamine.

Interesting side note: If I were to interview Sarah at a later date and ask her about learning her protocols, she’d probably tell me that she learns them thoroughly. Would she be able to identify that comment as a formative moment? Probably not. As far as she knows she’s always learned them thoroughly; just ask her boss.

Another interesting side note: When Sarah received this comment, it also triggered the release of oxytocin which engages rapport. It feels good to have someone notice a strength. It also sets you up as an observant expert. You see what so many others have missed.

Put this tool in your toolbox and use it regularly. The element of surprise exponentially increases the effect of a comment. You may not see immediate results; you’re setting productive seeds for future growth. Caution: Surprise can also cause devastating harm with a careless negative remark.

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