No Two Heads Are The Same

shutterstock_164952500 #2

No two heads are the same.  It’s obvious isn’t it?  We know it.  But then we forget to think about  it!

It was a quarter century ago, yes a full 25 years, and I was sitting with one of the deputy secretaries of the department I was then in. We were talking about a policy change he was trying to drive without much success at the time. He said “They just don’t get it!” and then to my surprise he leant forward and banged his head on his desk. He sat back upright and said “They should understand.  Why is it they just don’t get it?”   His frustration was that those who were opposing the policy were some other members of the agency’s senior executive.  He felt they had similar backgrounds, worked in the same agency, had similar responsibilities as senior executives ….. they should clearly see the merits of what he wanted to achieve.  It was blindingly obvious to him.

One could put my deputy secretary’s problem down simply to an inability to communicate on his part.  In fact it wasn’t that.  The others were coming from different perspectives.

So often since that time I have seen people communicate ideas in terms which are persuasive to them and be frustrated that others don’t see it the same way.  It comes up often in coaching conversations where coachees are relating difficulties reaching a shared vision with others in the workplace.  It happens in the work place and in our private lives.  So often the issue is that we (me too) fail to sufficiently take account of the fact that no two heads are the same.  Every one of us comes with different perspective, even if we share so much in common.

Their are too many factors at play to deal with the issue substantively here but I thought it important to share this post as a reminder, to point to some of the issues at play and provide some hints to useful resources.

The difference in individual perspective can be attributable to a number of factors including differences in our:

  • genetic make up;
  • memory of events;
  • life experience; and
  • behavioural drivers.

Genetic make up

I have included genetic make up here cautiously.  There is considerable scientific literature on the extent to which our behaviours are a function of nature or nurture.  There is without doubt a degree to which behaviours are influenced by a genetic pre-disposition.  We have, for example, evolved to respond rapidly to threat, fight or flight, as a survival instinct and the implications of this are touched on more below, under the heading of behavioural drivers.  The majority of research now seems to be leaning to the view that behaviours can be influenced by environment and conscious behaviour (see for example the book  ‘You are Not Your Brian’ by Jefffery M. Schwartz, M.D and Rebecca Gladding, M.D.)1.

For this post my focus is on the other three factors.

Life experience

Even though we might come from a similar environment in terms of country of origin, where we live, socio economic status, type of work we do, etc etc we all experience our lives differently.  Different experience through life from our very earliest years leads to the personalisation of our brain.  Try asking others the first three things they think of when you say “mother“.  You might get responses like “caring“, “home“, “children“, “cakes“, “cranky“, “caring“, “fun“, “strict“, “glamorous“, “picky” …….  You can run this simple test with a range of words.  The point is that from a very early age as we begin to experience things, like the way mother is with us, we start to build patterns in our brain about what a mother is.  This cognitive experience when repeated time and again builds increasingly stronger neural connectivity and hard-wires our brain.  As a consequence when we start to have a discussion about mothers we each have a different experiential wiring that triggers many thoughts or pictures that we bring to the discussion.  The starting point is different for each of us and will influence how we come at a discussion or issue.  Taking this into the workplace, if we talk about, say, change we will have people whose experience of change has always been bad and so they are immediately averse, people who have benefited through change and so are receptive, etc. Fortunately such hard-wiring is quasi-permanent and can be changed over time.

Asking ourselves, “What might this person’s experience have been in the past?“, and recognising where they are coming from will be an important part of being able to achieve positive communication and outcomes.

There is a great deal of literature available in this area and it is also dealt with by Baroness Susan Greenfield in her February 2013 address at the Melbourne Neuroscience Institute on The Neuroscience of Consciousness.  A video of her talk is at (her presentation runs for one hour).2

Memory of events

Not only should we be mindful of the hard-wired experiential differences each person brings to an event we also need to be mindful of how they subsequently remember events.

We have all been in situations where our recollection of events is different to that of others who were there too.

What happened was….”.   No, I was there too and what happened was ....”,  or

What I said was ….”.   “No, what you said was ….”

In his book ‘On Being Certain – Believing You are Right Even When You’re Not’, Robert A. Burton, M.D  talks about episodic memory or what he calls “I Witness, Accuracy”3.  Burton talks of reminiscing with a sibling and finding dissimilar accounts of what you thought were shared childhoods.  Try it.  If our siblings have different perspectives and memories of life in the same household from a formative age then we can’t expect it to be otherwise at other stages of life or when engaging with others.  Reflective listening is one tool we can use during a conversation but it isn’t enough in itself.  Sometimes we need to be ready to check in on what others thought was said or occurred.  Understanding what their head says about a situation or conversation is important to being able to move forward (even if you don’t think they were right!).

Behavioural drivers

One of the factors that is often not thought about is people’s behavioural drivers.  When faced by a new proposition how do others see it?  Is it in some way a threat or a reward for them?

There is a neuroscience based model developed by David Rock called SCARF (Rock, 2008)4.  SCARF provides provides insights to five dimensions of behavioural drivers for each of us:

  • Status is about relative importance to others.
  • Certainty concerns being able to predict the future.
  • Autonomy provides a sense of control over events.
  • Relatedness is a sense of safety with others – of friend rather than foe.
  • Fairness is a perception of fair exchanges between people.5

The extent to which an individual values these drivers and the degree to which they see some new idea or situation imposing a threat or reward to them in respect of any of their drivers will determine how they are likely to react.  Autonomy may not be very important to me at all but if it is important to you and you feel your autonomy is being threatened by an idea we are both going to see the issue very differently. In trying to move forward we need to be able to understand the other individual’s perspective.  I find that stepping people through the SCARF model, when they have an impasse with another at work, often delivers that “Aha” moment.6


We know that no two heads are the same but we frequently fail to take account of it when trying to drive change or get acceptance of an idea.  When I have this conversation with coachees expressing frustration about an impasse with another person I will often ask “Where are they coming from?”.  It can be a light bulb moment!  It is undoubtedly gentler than hitting your head on the desk.

Oh yes, my deputy secretary?  He finally won through.


1.   You Are Not Your Brain, Jeffery M Schwartz, M.D. and Rebecca Gladding, M.D. Avery, New York 2011.

2.  The Neuroscience of Consciousness.  Video recording of a presentation by Baroness Susan Greenfield to the Melbourne Neuroscience Institute, February 2013.

3.  On being certain, Robert A. Burton M.D.  St Martin’s Press, New York 2008 p82

4.  SCARF, David Rock first published in the NeuroLeadership Journal Issue 1, 2008.

5.   SCARF360 see

6.  Further reading on SCARF is at

Image:   ollyy/

(If you would like to receive notification of future blog posts please send an email, at the link on the contact page, with the word ‘Subscribe’ in the message field.)