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Remember To Think Before You Speak: The Berkoski Reflex

personal development
Remember To Think Before You Speak: The Berkoski Reflex

Have you ever found yourself thinking:

"Why on earth did I say that?"

"Why don't I think before I speak?"

"Why am I so impulsive?"

"Why don't I just talk less?!"

If so be assured that you're not alone. This Top Tip is about how we often fail to think before speaking and how sometimes when you're having a conversation you simply blurt out something inappropriate.

Even though you don't mean to say anything bad you still get carried away and say things you don't really mean. It could even be something that could hurt someone, words you would really regret.

Lots of people slip into the habit of speaking without thinking and end up saying the wrong things and managing to hurt others. I'm going to share with you an idea that will help us to think before we speak and say something hurtful.

It's called the Berkoski Reflex and simply becoming aware of this idea will help you to take a couple of deep breaths and choose your words more carefully before you start speaking. Awareness of the Berkoski Reflex will help you to hit the pause button and spend a little more time thinking, before you say what you want to say. 

But to introduce The Berkoski Reflex and how it came about I need to chat about eponyms; those brilliant objects and ideas named after people. 

Checking The Check List

I’m reading This Is Going To Hurt by Adam Kay at the moment. It’s a brilliant combination of hilarious and heartbreaking insights into the incredible and incredibly demanding world of the junior doctor.

One of the stylistic features of the book is that it is peppered with amusing and enlightening footnotes.

One such note informs the reader of the APGAR model - a checklist of observations that obstetricians need to make about their newborn charges. 

APGAR stands for Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity and Respiration which Kay notes seem to be fairly random criteria for assessing babies.

He also notes that the doctor who established this checklist is called Virginia Apgar. That is one hell of a coincidence isn't it!?

If there’s been any finer egotistical shoehorning I’ve not come across it. I definitely take my hat off to Dr Agpar.


Eponymous Heroes

Nevertheless, having something named after you is still pretty cool. The Pareto Principle, the Manstein Matrix and the Lencioni Pyramid are all models or concepts I use in my training. 

There are so many eponymously named ideas that are very very useful to know.

The Tuckman Model helps us understand why it’s so hard to get teams working together, but also that any conflict is hopefully just a temporary phase. 

And where would we be without Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? Well, probably busy self-actualising, actually.

Over the years I’ve coined a few eponymous models myself. If you’ve been on my training courses you may well have been introduced to the Yazoo Onion (a Vince Clarke and Alison Moyet flavoured delegation tool). 

Maybe I’ve shared the Meatloaf Triangle with you - a great negotiation tool (because two out of three ain’t bad). 

Or perhaps you’ve heard me talk about The Radiohead Rule (another constructive delegation rule which helps ensure there are no alarms and no surprises). I didn’t name this but I really like it so will keep sharing it far and wide.


Say My Name

It’s a little known fact but I also have a thing named after me. I don’t like to brag about it but because of my incredible physical prowess the body-building community have honoured my achievements by naming an important piece of gym equipment after me.

Anytime you hear someone boasting about how many weighted squats they do on the Smith Machine know that this solid piece of gym furniture is named so because of me. Pretty cool right?

To be fair having a thing named after you is not always guaranteed to be such a cool thing to happen. I mean I’m pretty sure the Streisand Effect is not how Barbara will want to be remembered. 

And I always feel a bit unsure about the undoubtedly very clever folk who have a medical horror named after them like James Parkinson. In 1817 he described the shaking palsy and since that day one of the most prevalent neurodegenerative diseases in the world has been referred to as 'Parkinson's disease'.

I’d also place bets that Mary Whitehouse was never a big fan of The Mary Whitehouse Experience but still, overall I reckon that having a thing named after you is pretty cool. 

There’s loads of really good ones that I think we all know about like:

Morse code – Samuel Morse and his dot dot dot dash dash dash form of communication.

Pavlova – Anna Pavlova and the cake named in her honour.

Pasteurization – Louis Pasteur and his bacteria killing blast of heat.

The Earl of Sandwich and his . . . okay you get it.


Weapon Of Choice 

Oh, and a surprisingly large number of eponymously titled weaponry:

Uzi submachine gun - Uziel Gal

Colt Revolver - Samuel Colt

Shrapnel shell – Henry Shrapnel

Molotov Cocktail - Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet Minister of War (who the Finnish army wanted to throw them at)

And finally The Bowie Knife - named for David Bowie, whose disillusioned fans used it, in the late 80s, to cut off their own ears rather than listen to Tin Machine.

This is all vaguely interesting but is actually going somewhere. We’re slowly meandering towards to the fact that a good friend of mine, John Berkoski, also has a thing named after him. You already know what it is.

Ladies and Gentlemen, allow me to introduce to you, (drum roll please), The Berkoski Reflex.

To be fair I’m also introducing it to John today as well. Officially anyway. It’s already become a running joke between a few friends including John. So hopefully he won’t be too shocked to be reading about himself today.


Do You Think Before You Speak?

The Berkoski Reflex is your automatic response. It’s your immediate thought before you actually start thinking. It’s the thing you feel, think or say before your brain has had time to kick in.

It can be positive or negative. But it’s there and we all do it to a degree. It’s like the patellar reflex - that thing where the doctor hits your knee with a little hammer and your leg jerks out - but for your mind. 

Too often we find ourself succumbing to the Berkoski Reflex at inappropriate times.

It happens when you're at a job interview and you're nervous so you don't think before you speak.

Or you're at a public speaking event and you have something to say that is positive and funny but when it comes out you find you're saying something unkind!

Why is it called the Berkoski Reflex? Well, John has an incredible talent for consistently sharing his immediate thought as it arrives, unfettered by any form of critical contemplation. 

Now John is not a miserable git, far from it, but his natural position upon hearing something - and he may argue against this - is to say “Well, that’s a bit shit.” 

I’m paraphrasing but that’s the gist of his reflexive response. His first immediate reaction is “Nah!”

And THEN he’ll think about the notion he’s just expressed. 

And THEN he’ll decide if his initial Berkoski Reflex accurately aligns with his now considered opinion.

Only when the Berkoski Reflex has been uttered will he make comment on what he first said and clarify his position.


Speaking Without Thinking

So for example over WhatsApp, I’ll mention to him that I’m out for dinner with my wife, sitting at a table at X restaurant.

Instantly the Berkoski Reflex kicks in with John replying, before he's had time to think, immediately telling me that “X restaurant is not as good as Y restaurant.”

This may or may not be true but in the moment it doesn’t help because I’m already at X restaurant. And it’s too late for John because the reflex has triggered and been spoken aloud. 

And now the thinking can begin and the follow up messages begin.

Thirty seconds later: “Actually I’ve never been to restaurant X.” 

Forty seconds later: “Disregard what I said.”

Fifty seconds later: “Enjoy your meal.” 


Automatic Habit Of Thinking

I'm not throwing John under a bus here by the way. Well, I might be but we should all be under the wheels alongside him. All of us have ready formed opinions that kick in first and don’t actually relate to what we really think about something. That’s our Berkoski Reflex. 

They’ve been formed over time for various reasons but the point is, however they were formed, they may not accurately reflect how we really feel and what we end up telling someone.

My Berkoski Reflex isn’t pretty either by the way.

My immediate response is to either take the mickey or have a laugh. To try and make a funny quip.

These are both fraught with danger by the way, and the public speaking example I gave earlier of trying to come up with something positive and funny but somehow giving someone an impromptu insult is from my direct experience. It wasn't an isolated incident either.

A quick quip is not always appropriate and I’ve learned that more than once it will be downright wrong.

Most times I hold back but sometimes my inner filter fails and I make a joke I shouldn’t. 

This isn’t too bad in the pub with John, Grav and Keith but it’s not great in front of sixty paying delegates in a hotel conference room. With nowhere to hide.

I’ve learned to work on my Berkoski Reflex. It’s clearly a work in progress but I try to hold fire until I’ve assessed how appropriate my response would be.

My second Berkoski Reflex is to be picky and pedantic. It's not an attractive trait.

I can tell you categorically no one likes to be told “It’s actually fewer, not less.” At least not more than once a day anyway.

I've learned it's something that's not funny, definitely unwanted and that I should heed the good advice I've been given on more than one occasion "Iain, just don't say it. When you find you're about to say it . . . just stop talking!" 

But I still do it!


Automatic Reflex

I was chatting about the Berkoski Reflex with my wife. We think her BR (look at this John, it’s even got its own initialisation!) is to automatically find peace. That’s what she does, unthinkingly and automatically.

Now, ninety nine times out of a hundred this is an awesome response and the right thing to do. She is the ultimate diplomat, superbly skilled at calming troubled waters and her immediate response is to do this. She instinctively produces words that placate a situation. It's a properly useful life skill but . . . it's not always the best response. 

There are times when a more assertive approach would be better. Sometimes you have to grasp the nettle and not appease but her natural immediate response, her Berkoski Reflex, never does this.

In these scenarios she is not problem solving but automatically offering a temporary stop gap solution which really just extends a problem.


Learning To Think First

What’s your Berkoski Reflex? You’re probably thinking about it by now.

Now, if when you read my earlier sentence about the Smith Machine being named after me, your immediate thought was ‘That’s complete codswallop’ well, that’s your Berkoski Reflex in action.

If you spent any time at all considering my boast you will have reflexively decided ‘Iain is talking nonsense’ and THEN began to consider the likelihood of whether it could be true or not. But the Berkoski Reflex happened first, before the thinking began.

In this particular case the reflex would have served you well because you are indeed correct and the Smith Machine was not named for me. Sadly my grunting while lifting efforts have still not been recognised, nor celebrated, by the regular gym bunnies. I do not have an exercise contraption named after me. Yet.

But that is your very own Berkoski Reflex in action. The fact that you had an automatic and immediate reaction to my fairly unbelievable whopper is proof of this. This is what your Berkoski Reflex is telling you - before you had time to consider it.

We all have it. It just appears in different forms for different people.

But the question is, does it do what you want it to do?

Because you can train yourself to change your Berkoski Reflex. With attention and effort it can evolve over time.

Pause For Thought

I was in a discussion about the fabulous automatic response of a particular leader I know. This person is faced with multiple dramas every day from the many staff members who knock on her office door.

Over time her automatic response has changed from wanting to dive in and personally solve each problem to now stepping back, actively listening and asking for more information. I know that her Berkoski Reflex is now a learned one that she has actively cultivated and evolved. Or rather she is now able to suppress it and work around it.

Awareness of it has helped her to listen to others better, to think about what to say and how to say it. It's helped her to listen carefully and better communicate, intently and effectively with her staff. Active listening skills can be learned and developed and will in turn improve your speaking skills. It's a win win.

I said earlier the Berksoski Reflex is the thing you feel, think or say before your brain has had time to kick in. Well, to harness it, your first aim is to avoid saying it out loud. Instead allow yourself to feel or think it but, crucially, don't do anything about it. 

The leader I’m referring to worked on her Berkoski Reflex until it became an automatic and natural response to hold back from speaking aloud, never mind taking action or establishing emotional involvement.


Exercise Mindfulness

Crikey, this is a long Top Tips! I’ve talked enough so let’s wrap up. 

Your immediate response, whatever you may call it, can either help you or hinder you. And you have some agency over that. You have the ability to control your tongue and avoid blabbering in a way that could reduce your credibility or even harm your relationships.

It's more than just trying to watch what you say. Give yourself time to respond appropriately, and choose more thoughtful communication ensuring you avoid misunderstanding. This is much better than accidentally uttering something bad that you have to apologise for and hastily retract.

What would you like it to do? And what would need to occur in order for that to happen?

Have fun reflecting on your Berkoski Reflex.


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