Friday, March 31, 2017

How Long Have You Been Up Here?

There is a great mountain bike trail near my house. Actually there are quite a few nearby that really are great rides. Some run parallel to a river, some include several stream fords, and others are steep climbs that lead to awesome views. This one is a nice 3-5 mile ride, depending on where you start and stop, mostly a gradual uphill, which then leads back to a fun 3-5 mile downhill back to the car. There is a dirt road that is groomed in the winter as a cross country ski trail and which a lot of people drive up and camp along in the summer.

What makes the ride more fun than most dirt roads is that there is a single track that crisscrosses the road the whole way. Probably less than 10% of the time are you on the dirt road. The rest of the time is on twisty single track with rocks to jump off and branches to duck and banked turns. Lots of fun.

The thing is, as a multi-use canyon with dogs, bikers, horses, hikers, kids, cars, and all kinds of traffic on both the road and the single track, since it is so close to where so many people live, it's important to watch out to avoid accidents. Because I (and a former riding buddy) never cared too much about the uphill, thinking of it as the slog you have to go through to then enjoy the smooth ride down, I just ride up the dirt road, which helps avoid having to pass people going opposite directions on a tight single track. A lot of other people take the single track up and then back down again. It doesn't matter too much how you get up, but if you want to do some twists and turns up, that is great.

In the fall, the trail starts turning a bit muddy, with the upper sections in the last mile or two usually much wetter than the bottom section. Sometimes the last mile can be so muddy on the single track that you just have to stay on the road, and even the road will have huge puddles on it but they are usually more easily avoided. I was up there around deer hunting season in October, and that was the general condition of the trail. The road wasn't bad, but the upper sections of single track were a mess. I slogged up the road as usual and didn't pay attention to the single track until I got to the turnaround spot. I headed down the single track and found it pretty messy, but I go through okay. Upon descent, each section where it crosses the road is usually a little drier than the previous.

After crossing the road a couple times, I came to a crossing about halfway down the canyon where several bikers were stopped. I wondered what that section of the single track looked like since the upper sections were a bit of a mess, and I was considering just sticking to the road if the single track was a mess. Naturally, I asked the bikers who were headed up hill what the condition of the trail ahead of me and behind them down the canyon looked like. His surprised question in response to my question has stuck with me.

How long have you been up here?

It must have made no sense to him that if I was coming down the canyon that I wouldn't already have seen the condition of the single track probably within the last hour. The only possible explanation in his mind is that I must have been camping out or something to keep myself busy for a few days to not have been through recently and thus need a trail report. This was in spite of the fact that I had no significant gear, just a jacket and a small hydration pack. I told him that I had just come up the road, not the trail, and you could practically see the light bulb turn on. I had come up only within the past hour but on the road, not the single track.

Why was that not the obvious explanation that popped into his head? Because he always rides up the single track. That's just what you do if you're on a bike. Or that's what he does. And what a lot of other people do. But not what everyone does, especially those who don't want to be constantly pulling out of the way of other bikes on the trail headed in the opposite direction.

How often is that our first thought when someone says something or does something that is different than the way we say or do things? The cognitive dissonance can be blinding as we try to process some convoluted explanation for a strange event or behavior, when in fact the other person just chooses to do something that is simply different than how we do them.

How important Covey's recommendation that we seek first to understand, then to be understood. More often than not what we may blow out of proportion and make into something huge is really not what was intended. We would all be better off if there is a possible occasion for offense if we would stop and think about what the other person likely intended and if there isn't a simpler explanation than the knee-jerk story we made up in our mind. No one was offended on the mountain bike trails that day, but there was still a misunderstanding based on two people having different preferences.

By searching for the parsimonious explanation - the simplest explanation, with the least assumptions, that still gets a reasonable result - instead of doing mental gymnastics to make sense of the cognitive dissonance, one's own assumptions may be challenged. And not everyone is ready for that.

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