My diagram shows some-one designing their small, safe experiment. In doing this, they are creating an opportunity to move out of their Window of Tolerance and to explore new possibilities.
What do I mean by this? Take a look at the illustration, below. It appears a few times on this web site in different forms:
The Window of Tolerance (WOT)
Safe experiments begin when we commit to moving out of the Window of Tolerance (WOT).
In doing this, we move into the working area. You can do this on your own, or accompanied by some-one you trust and/or with a therapist.
Sometimes the experiments are simple and easy to do – the word ‘experiment’ can make it all sound too fancy!!
So, consider this. You are reading this part of my web site; to a degree you have chosen to read this bit, and not another bit. You could have done something else with your time, and you’ve been reading this instead. Therefore, you have done something a little bit different and that’s a basic feature of ‘safe experimenting’.
Making a record
When you record your experimental results, you may notice how much time you gave to reading my web pages; which ones helped and which one appeared to hinder.
After all, you did not have to visit my web site. You chose to do so and that, alone, can be a safe experiment, even if you did not label it as such.
Consider: did you skip a section? Did you read the page like a book, or dip in and out? Was there one sentence, or a part-sentence, that grabbed your attention? Maybe you picked up my suggestion to read it like an old-fashioned graphic novel where there a mulitude of endings.
These different approaches can each represent a different ‘experimental design’ – a step on the way to implementing a plan to make a small change in your life.
If you were not aware of this possibility, then let me challenge you to take a note of any sentence (or idea) I have used and has had impact on you. It could be a happy impact, an unhappy one or even a puzzling one.
Making a note is important; it makes the experimental ‘result’ manifest:
Observing or just noticing you reaction to anything is an experiment in itself
Even if you are reading the material for the second time, there is still a chance your experience will have been a little bit different. There is a saying that ‘you cannot step into the same river twice‘. Rivers move – imperceptibly – the running water changes it constantly.
EXPERIMENT: Go back, or ahead, randomly, to some part of the page. Your reactions to it may change. Your feelings about what I have to offer may be different or, maybe, there are sensations in your body that are different. Perhaps you are sick of it or excited by it. I don’t know, but you will; as long as you take time to notice it and record the fact.
The point about the experiment you’ve just done is that it has an outcome. It becomes a safe experiment when you’ve noticed what that outcome is and have learned to live with the result. You’ve created a ‘result’.
Two features of an experiment are:
1. doing something a little bit different; and
2.. noticing the result or outcome.
I’ve repeated this a few times, but it’s something that may be so central that it deserves repetition.
It is easy to think that experimenting is something only scientists do. In a science laboratory, experiments are much more controlled. However, in our real world, a high level of control is not possible. What is possible, however, is to notice something a little bit different and to learn from it.
That is the ‘experiment’ and that is the reason for doing it. Experiments can be very ordinary and some can be quite extra-ordinary. Some can lead us to falter. With a following wind, you will rise to the occasion when faltering and find things are not as troubling as you thought.
On this web site, safe experimentation helps anyone to become aware of their thinking and actions and to work out how to investigate those experiences differently.
The nature of the safe experiment; a summary
- listening as deeply as we can to ourselves and to others.
- bringing a quality of openness into our lives.
- introducing some small, different behaviour into our daily action.
… and doing it without choosing sides; not being for or against the results you get!
‘Experimenting’ has become rather trendy in recent years. This arises from growing evidence that our brains are rather more flexible than we once thought. This flexibility is referred to as “neural plasticity”. The practical implications of ‘plasticity’ are becoming increasingly obvious.
It’s a ‘can’, not a ‘must’
Take a look at a book by Leonard Mlodinow’s “Elastic: flexible Thinking in a Constantly Changing World“. He has said “we must welcome experimentation – and be tolerant of failure“. Sounds a bit like me, doesn’t it, except I am saying that you can, or you cannot, rather than you must!
There is a problem with this growing interest in living with ‘plasticity’. It prompts another generation of writers and professionals to find increasingly sophisticated ways to tell you what you should do!! Beware this “mustabation”, as it has been termed; you can do as you are told or you can use any advice, from anywhere, to design your own safe experimenting, and learn to live with the consequences. Your own impulses and intuitions are able to inspire you as much as other people.
Some real world experiments
The opposite of experimenting is assuming—assuming that we already know how things are. Us humans are good at that. We establish a present normal (see my inverted tree) and work hard to stick to it, not realising that it has become an ‘old normal’. Be prepared to test the obvious; when you do, your experience may become less obvious.
Like the outcome or not, us Brits voted for Brexit and the Americans tried a large experiment by electing Trump as their President. Here – in the UK – we proceeded to allow some 80K citizens to chose a Prime Minister driven to tinker with our economy by a very large and untested ‘experiment.
I do not recommend you to do the same thing with your own life. Those ‘elections’ I list were not examples of small steps! I will le you to decide whether any of them was safe.
In 2020, we faced the global public health crisis forcing governments to experiment with unprecedented strategies. Government actions have a large knock-on for all of us so it is difficult for them to devise small and safe experiments.
We can do better when the focus is on me. We can be less cautious as long as we are willing to live with the consequences.
The main qualities of a small, safe experiment
Experiments are open trials; they have a quality of quiet and provisional probing. Think of them as generating a quality of affectionate curiosity in you. It comes out of caring about ourselves and others.
It is not a cold, superficial analysis; it’s affectionate, it’s warm, it’s intimate, and even playful. It is an investigation into the nature of your life. This quality of investigation is, of course, strong in most children. They are good at not assuming things and they are often more able to let go of a treasured perspective (often through energetic crying in the first instance!).
Each one of us has the ability to observe and that includes observing your emotional experience when experimenting. It is not an easy task to stay with a discomfort until you see it change, but it is possible to learn from it. An important part of any investigation is observing those experiences we find difficult to focus on.
With experiments we are not trying to make anything happen. We are simply open to something happening and remaining vigilant – to notice the result. This includes paying attention to important relationships and the attitudes and preconceptions we hold towards others. In a later experiment, you may notice how our attitudes, and attitudes of those close to us, can prevent us engaging in relationships in an open and direct way.
An idea of a relationship is not THE relationship
Consider this challenging assertion: when we think we really know someone, I assert that we are no longer in a relationship with a living, changing being!!
Instead we have arrived in a relationship with an idea of that person —- our own idea, at that! It is our map of that relationship. Others will likely view it differently.
Safe experimenting can bring new energy and joy to relationships when we pay attention, with curiosity, to changes in ourselves and the relationship we are generating together.
It may not be right for you, but its MY normal
The issue, here, is that I sit in my world and, however it looks, I tend to assume it is normal. This can lead to acceptance – a reduced ability to question things that are in plain sight. The context in which I operate becomes a ‘given’ – not a suitable case for treatment.
This is not a new idea: the philosopher, Wittgenstein (1953), said:
“The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something – because it is always before one’s eyes.)… and this means: we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful.”
When you design and implement a safe experiment, you are disrupting that ‘normal’ by some action. That action will expose the ‘social context’ in which we live to observation once we ‘just notice’ it. You will be using, in part, a sophisticated research method called Linguistic Ethnography!!
There is no better way to stifle investigation than to become caught up in our fears and anxieties. This can deter us from practising new skills, diluting our courage to take other actions. The aim is to remain open to the experience – being a little different with ourselves or that other person – just for this moment.
You, too, can make your own on-line inquiries if you want to deepen your research and to investigate a ‘nudge’ in more detail.
Some further leads to consider
What actions make up a safe experiment?