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How to Bring Someone to Their Senses

A consideration of what’s involved.

Last month, Australia’s Prime Minister, the Hon Malcolm Turnbull, was reported to have called on global leaders to help bring another country “to its senses." While I don’t want my blog to become unnecessarily political, it seems that the Australian Prime Minister, perhaps unwittingly, has highlighted the importance of understanding the mechanics involved in bringing another person, or indeed another country, “to their senses."

If we suppose that people conduct themselves ideally when they have come to their senses, ensuring that people are operating “in” or “at” or “from” their senses as much as possible seems like an important goal. A fascinating explanation of the origins of “bringing people to their senses” is provided in Writing Explained. According to this explanation, there are three distinct meanings of the phrase “bring them to their senses.” The meanings are: to regain cognitive power, to be made to realize a certain point, or to regain focus.

The first meaning is the oldest. It has its origins in the 1800s and is used to refer to the situation when someone might have an experience such as: “sobering up” from a drunken state, waking from a deep sleep, or regaining consciousness after an accident or some other event. It is probably not this particular meaning that the Prime Minister had in mind when he was referring to the other country.

flickr/Labeled for reuse/Jay Huang Spring Sunrise
Source: flickr/Labeled for reuse/Jay Huang Spring Sunrise

The third meaning seems to be the most recent version of the phrase (according to Writing Explained). This particular understanding of the phrase describes the situation when someone renews or develops a commitment to important life goals. Something like this happens during an “Aha!” moment when a person realizes that they’ll lose everything if they don’t stop drinking. It also occurs when a person experiences an “epiphany” during a period of time in prison and commits to traveling a different life journey. The Prime Minister was, perhaps, not referring to this meaning of the phrase either.

The second meaning of the phrase has to do with an assumption (on the part of others) that the person who needs to come to their senses is thinking irrationally or illogically. This person is brought “to their senses” when they adopt the consensus view or at least express thoughts and ideas that are acceptable to the other party or parties. It seems to be this interpretation of the phrase that the Prime Minister had in mind.

To assume that someone needs to come to their senses is to maintain that they are thinking irrationally, illogically, or unacceptably in some way. In this situation then, perspective becomes crucial. From whose perspective is the person thinking irrationally or illogically? In most situations, it is probably not the case that things seem illogical or irrational to the person themselves. Generally, people’s worlds make sense to them even if their ideas and beliefs seem strange or bizarre to others.

I don’t want to ignore the situations when, from time to time, people, from their own perspective, behave irrationally or illogically. People behaving this way usually seek assistance and, after some internal struggle, experience an insight or realization where things, once again, seem clearer to them. These people are covered by the third definition of the phrase we are considering.

It is quite a different matter, however, when people decide that someone else is thinking irrationally or illogically. The issue in this situation is not so much about bringing someone to their senses as it is about bringing that person to our senses. There might be completely defensible reasons for seeking to have another person think as we do but it is important to understand whose senses we are referring to in any given situation.

So Prime Minister Turnbull’s statement was essentially a statement about the need to make one country think and act like other countries. That sounds like a very tall order. How do you make someone, or indeed another country, conduct themselves according to another person’s views?

Helping a person regain their own focus is not at all the same as bringing a person around to someone else’s point of view.

A person comes to their senses when they experience something like “stepping back,” or “seeing the bigger picture,” and from this altered vantage point, they realize things that hadn’t occurred to them before which allows them to put things together differently so that their life once again makes sense to them.

I’m going to suggest that, on closer examination, the second and third meanings of the phrase are not so different after all. The only way a person comes to someone else’s senses is when the other person’s perspective makes sense to them as if it was their own perspective. In fact, it has to become their own perspective if they are going to come around to that way of thinking.

There is not a stick strong enough or a carrot juicy enough that will deposit “sense” in someone else’s mind if it does not fit with their views and their life. For the most part, people just get clever at avoiding the stick or procuring the carrot on their own terms.

People only ever “come to their senses” (even when those senses are somebody else’s senses) when their own internal systems are unsettled enough that they begin to think about things in new ways. During this period of inner turmoil, they will create different ways of considering situations that will help them make new sense of the world as they experience it and act upon it.

As much as we would like to, and as beneficial as it might sometimes be, we cannot make another person or group of people think as we would like them to. We can, however, draw their attention to the bigger picture, higher-level views so that they might question for themselves the way in which they currently make sense of the world. In those higher pastures we might both be able to find fertile ground where our senses don’t seem that different after all. When we arrive at that place we will all be able to live more productively and contentedly. For the opportunity of arriving at such a destination, the trouble of understanding how people impact on each other’s senses doesn’t seem like such a bother. In fact, some great ideas to start traveling down this path are described in the book Controlling People written by myself and my good friend Rick Marken.

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