How to Challenge Your Own Mental Models

Living in a foreign country is awesome. Every day there are situations that challenge your way of thinking. Every day something new and surprising can happen. There are always opportunities for learning. The question is just: do you make use of that? Answer that question to yourself – honestly.

I will be frank – I don’t always make use of it. Unless really necessary, I prefer speaking English instead of Indonesian. English is not my first language, so make the excuse to myself that practicing my English is important as well. The result is that I do speak Bahasa, but not fluent. It is totally fine in terms of surviving, but it could be much better. I could learn so much more about the country and its people if I would be able to follow their conversations completely.

On the other hand I must also say that living here has influenced my way of thinking a lot. Yes, I am still very individualistic (and I think that will never change), but I did learn how adapt a much more accomodative communication style. When I just arrived in Indonesia people hated me. I would be completely straightforward about everything I didn’t like. Hey, I am German, after all. This has changed a lot. I am still way more direct than the local people, but I manage not to be insulting .

“Okay all that is fine. It was nice to hear about your life story, but what do you want to tell me here?” Good question!

Like yesterday I am still devoting myself to studying Peter Senge’s work. But today I want to talk about mental models. Here we have a lot to learn from him as well. Getting out information as directly as possible is an example for a mental model. Us Germans we think that being as direct as possible is the best way to communicate – if you say everything clearly, everybody will understand. Won’t they? Well, maybe. Maybe not. But one thing is clear: at times this kind of honesty will hurt – especially in countries in which it is uncommon.

Believe it or not but the indirect way of communicating also has it’s advantages. Since people always have to look for the ‘hidden meaning’, they become much more used to look for details which are not directly observable. This makes them naturals in terms of looking at the bigger picture.

So what is the problem here? Well, the problem is when two people with two different mental models look at the same problem and see something completely different. The problem is when people do not realize that they are acting based on their mental models and when they don’t realize that their assumptions about an issue are not always the “truth”. In terms of foreigners trying to survive in a new country, this leads to a clash of cultures.

When I first came to Indonesia I didn’t like the idea of “salam” at all. Salam is the Arabic word for peace, but Indonesians use it for greetings in general. When two people of different age (or status) meet, the younger person bows and brings the other person’s hand to his or her head.  It looks just like this:


When I arrived, I could understand that husband and wife would kiss each other’s hand, but between two strangers? To me it felt like a  slave kissing his master’s hand to beg for forgiveness or something like that. I just didn’t like it. No modern society should still support slavery, right?

I learned quickly that the real meaning of this gesture was to express respect to the other person. And while I understood this on a cognitive level, I still didn’t like it. When I felt that it was really necessary, I did it. Otherwise – no thank you. Two mental models clashed. Local people saw me as a disrespectful foreigner, while I just didn’t want to be anyone’s slave or slaver. Two people can look at the same thing or behavior, but perceive it completely different.

In this case the local people did not realize that their mental model of doing salam = being respectful is not a universal assumption. They looked at one specific behavior and, based on that, generalized that Tim is not respectful. At the same time, I was aware of the two clashing mental models, but I still did not want to change my behavior. Why? Because it made me feel bad.

As you can see nobody is wrong in this situation. But the problem still existed. The only way to solve it was for me to communicate to them what “salam” makes me feel like, but this would mean that I have to tell this to every new person I meet. But no, this doesn’t work. There was no choice but for me to overcome my negative feelings towards it.

In most cases, however, communicating directly what you think about a certain problem and presenting your arguments or evidence which made you come to this conclusion, is enough to solve a clash of mental models. But you also need to combine it with asking for the other person’s perspective. Both of you might not agree with each other, but at least you are now aware of the way the other person thinks. And awareness is always the first step to finding a solution.

Peter Senge points out two important steps that can help in being open to new perspectives. The first is to slow down your thinking. Ask yourself what mental models are at work and how they affect the way you see the problem. The second is to polish your skills of inquiry. Learn to ask the right questions – those that help you to figure out what the other person’s mental models are.

All of this is important not only for people who want to adapt to a new culture, but for all those who want to increase their ability to change. Identifying which mental models are at work is the first step in changing your (and other people’s) perspective. This is an important skill to master. In “The Fifth Discipline“, Peter points out that “new insights fail to get put into practise because they conflict with deeply held internal images of how the world works”. In other words: learning to identify and change your mental models is a good way to stay creative and innovative.

Last but not least I want to ask you guys: do you recall a situation in which you were clearly restrained by your own mental models? Or in which another person was so fixed on his own way of seeing thinks that he just couldn’t see what was really happening? Share your experiences with us!



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