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A People Primer :
The Nature of Living Systems

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  About Shelley Roy      


1. Perceptual Control Theory
Dear Reader, Welcome to taking control of your life
2. PCT Basics
Dear Julius, Basically, it’s all about you
3. Control
Dear Jodene, Controlling is what living is all about
4. The Loop
Dear Chris, The loop is a diagram of the process of control
5. The Levels
Dear Max, We are a mess of levels
6. Disturbance
Dear Billy, So who do you want to be when “dis” happens?
7. Input & Output
Dear Johnson, Untangling the entangled loops
8. Awareness
Dear Twilight, The mystery of awareness, consciousness, and the observer
9. Relationships
Dear Linda, Relationships, conflict, and disturbance
10. Internal Conflict
Dear D.J., The secrets of internal conflict
11. Change
Dear Tomas, Change and Perceptual Control Theory
12. Reorganization
Dear Sandy, Reorganization and learning
13. Conclusion
Dear Reader, It’s the mind that moves
14. PCT in a nutshell 219  
15. TLC 220  
16. For further reading 221  

Perceptual Control Theory
Dear Reader, Welcome to taking control of your life



  Dear Reader,
      I was walking through a local bookstore the other day looking at the self-help section, and I was thinking that so many things we read about helping ourselves and others are based on Eighteenth Century thinking. We have this box-like mentality — we put people into one box or another and slap labels on the boxes. Most often this is followed by a plethora of strategies or programs that give us a list of specifically what to do and what to say based on what box we are in and what the label is. Examples of this are Phillip C. McGraw’s Life Strategies, Zig Ziglar’s Success for Dummies, and John Gray’s Men are From Mars; Women are from Venus: A Practical Guide for Improving Communication and Getting What You Want in Your Relationships. The Myers- Briggs Type Indicator, which professionals use to place people into one of sixteen boxes, is intended to help people find work that fits them, help people develop more appreciation for individual differences, and suggest how people can use the differences constructively rather than divisively.
      At times, this “box and label” type of thinking can provide some important data, but it also ignores a lot of very valuable information. Understanding how to get out of this “box thinking” will help you reach your greatest potential. In short, you need to think about the world and living systems in a whole new way.
      The box thinking that many operate under describes living organisms as having clock-like workings, and it contends that if we could just disassemble a person into his

PCT Basics
Dear Julius, Basically, it’s all about you




[Each chapter features a one or two-page introducton that provides a framework for the letter.]

     In this chapter, I address my first letter to a recent friend of mine. Julius is presently working as a security officer for an international relief organization. Prior to this he was a career military man. He is dedicated to martial arts and loves music. His work takes him around the world. He always carries his instruments along with him to keep him company as he travels for months at a time.
      After looking at my website, Julius started asking me about a course I teach called Inside Out Leadership. During his military career he had been involved in many military leadership programs. The basis of the Inside Out Leadership course is Perceptual Control Theory. When I started to explain the ideas behind the course, he became very interested in PCT. This letter reflects some of our first correspondence about the topic.
      I hope you learn it’s all about you!

Dear Julius,
      When I talked with you last, you asked if I would explain more about Perceptual Control Theory. I love to talk about PCT. And, more importantly, PCT can help you deal with frustration, happiness, friends, parents, partners, and associates more effectively. I think it will be especially beneficial in your world travels because PCT is an explanation that applies to all living things. It crosses cultural, ethnic, gender, and economic boundaries. As you learn more about PCT you begin to realize it is all about you! Think about yourself as your own body of research to test out ideas. You can be your own walking laboratory, and every experience you have can be thought of as a new set of data to process.
      This idea, that it is all about you, is the first thing I want to talk with you about. A core principle of PCT is that we control ourselves, and that’s what living is all about: controlling. We do not have the ability to control for another person. Ultimately we cannot control others, which is good news and bad news all rolled into one. The good news is this releases us from trying to control others or letting them control us. The bad news is we can’t control others, though many people are paid to try to do just that, such as teachers, bosses, and police officers. In some ways these professions are expected to get others to do things that they may or may not want to do. This usually develops into coercion, which is stressful for everyone. When people talk about controlling others, what they are actually doing


Dear Jodene, Controlling is what living is all about


[This chapter is featured complete in the Book of Readings]


Dear Jodene,
      I know you are the kind of person who likes practical, real life examples, and you don’t like to be buried in all that technical lingo, so I’ll do my best to keep it practical. I also know that you are really trying to understand how Perceptual Control Theory fits or doesn’t fit with what you know. One thing I keep hearing you struggle with is the understanding that PCT is not a program or something we do. This is a very common problem when people first learn about PCT. They’ll say things like “I tried it, and it didn’t work,” or “I wish I was more fluent in doing it!” What I hear you doing is comparing it to other programs you know and understand. PCT is an explanation of human behavior. It isn’t something you do, and it is not another program. Like other scientific theories, it attempts to help you better understand what is happening in the world. I’m hoping that learning more about PCT will help you to be more effective and more efficient in everyday life. PCT can also help explain why certain programs, like the Twelve-Step Program and peer mediation programs have a good chance of being successful, but don’t always work. Just keep in mind that PCT is not a program, it’s a theory.
      I’ll see if I can find an example from the art world. I’ll also try to keep my explanation relevant. I’m asking you to change your paradigm of human behavior, which will be much easier if I use examples that are familiar to you. You asked me to help you understand what I meant by controlling, and what makes it such a big deal. Well, let me address the last part first.


The Loop
Dear Chris, The loop is a diagram of the process of control




Dear Chris,
      I t has really been fun working with you over the past months, helping you use the lessons you are teaching to the elementary students in your guidance program to help you better understand Perceptual Control Theory. When I see how your personal understanding of PCT has helped you work with students, I am reassured that understanding the theory means much more than being able to describe the loop and the levels.
      You asked me to write up how I might explain a very basic loop, the diagram we use to represent the process of controlling, to a group of third and fourth graders. Know that this is a very simplified version, but it will get people’s thinking headed in the right direction. That’s what paradigm shifts are all about — seeing and understanding the world in a new and different way.
      I think I’d start by having the students think about an automatic night light or a street light. Most kids I know either have a night light or have been around enough street lights to give them personal experience to work from. If you think they aren’t familiar with these examples find something similar, or create a classroom experience to draw from. Ask them to talk with a neighbor about how the light works. How does it know when to go on and when to shut off? The basic idea is that the light has a sensor, and when the sensor records enough light it stays off and when it records not enough light it comes on. It is better yet if they get the idea that the sensor sends a signal.


The Levels
Dear Max, We are a mess of levels




Dear Max,
      Let me begin by saying what fun it was to see you the other night, truly in your element, performing the music you so obviously love. I am always a bit jealous of those who continued to take their love for music to a higher level and continue to perform. At one time I played both the piano and the saxophone. I still dabble at the piano just beyond a beginner level, and after high school I stopped playing my saxophone. It now resides under my bed. I will admit it is one of the things I wish I could “do over” in my life.
      When you and I were talking the other night, you asked me a lot of questions about the levels of perception. To better explain the levels, it is important that I first make sure that you have a few other basic concepts in place. Understanding Perceptual Control Theory is like constructing a building, a good fundamental foundation is critical to build the scaffold of the rest of the building. The cornerstone of PCT is that behavior is the control of perception.
      Bill Powers begins with the question Why do we need to control? The answer is simply because the world is not exactly the way we would like it to be. If it were, we would not behave by controlling to create specific perceptions. You see, our world is represented to us as perceptions and we act on the world to control a match between a specific reference perception (desired state) and a perceptual signal (present state). We do not do things to meet a need or because something inside or outside of us stimulated us to do so. Instead, we are simply engaged in a continuous effort to


Dear Billy, So who do you want to be when “dis” happens?




Dear Billy,
      T hanks for discussing the finer points of Perceptual Control Theory with me over the weekend. It has been an interesting adventure, and every time you ask me questions, it helps me clarify my own understanding. We both know that when we teach someone else, we gain a deeper understanding of the subject. When I teach, I find out what I know and what I don’t know, just as when you turn around to teach others, it becomes clear to you what questions you still have. Maybe that’s why we teach, because we love to learn.
      On our road trip we were discussing disturbance. You were telling me how the guys in jail, where you teach your life skills course, really like asking, “When ‘dis’ happens again, what are you going to do?” It is a great question to ask when trying to take more effective control of your life. Besides reminding us of disturbance (a PCT term) and tapping into the slang term for “disrespect,” the phrase “when ‘dis’ happens” is also a good reminder that what is out there is nothing more than information — IJI, It’s Just Information. It ain’t nothin’ ’til we call it.
      The nature of the highly restrictive environment that the inmates are in might be part of the reason why they relate so well to “dis” happening. Every minute of every day someone else is trying to control them from the outside. Their world is full of disturbances, very few of which are facilitating forces that help them get what they want. The internal strength they gain from understanding that


Input & Output
Dear Johnson, Untangling the entangled loops




Dear Johnson,
     As always, it was a pleasure to get your e-mail and find out how you, as a high school principal, are trying to model with your staff the practices aligned with Perceptual Control Theory. Your desire to understand the more technical parts of the theory is refreshing to me. When I worked with you as a trainer, you were really trying to grasp the basics of the PCT loop, and were moving towards a better understanding of the levels of perception. These concepts are the two main building blocks of PCT.
      Let me start by taking a few minutes to review the basic idea of controlling, which is the beginning of understanding “the loop.” The loop is a visual way of representing the process of control and helps scientists develop models to represent human behavior based on PCT. The theory is used to model human behavior with extremely high correlation rates. This process is much like what an architect friend of mine does when he builds a model to better visualize a building’s design. Scientists use the PCT model to see if humans in action behave similarly to the model. Modeling is a special way of testing a theory. PCT scientists are getting excellent results with correlations in the high 90s, which means that when they are using PCT to develop models, they can virtually replicate human behavior.


Dear Twilight, The mystery of awareness, consciousness, and the observer




Dear Twilight,
      Pilates class was great last night! On my way home I thought about how you always try to get us to be very precise and conscious of our movements in class, and about how you encourage us to use our minds to help create resistance in our muscles. I felt empathy for the beginner in class last night as she struggled to learn all the new positions. It is so much to pay attention to when you first start. I remember trying to get just one thing right from each exercise when I started. This is similar to ideas I try to teach about Perceptual Control Theory: observing, the phenomenon of the observer, consciousness, awareness, and the relationship these have to each other, to learning, and to helping ourselves and others. The bugger is, I will never really know if I’m doing what you are talking about because it is all a matter of perception.
      When you teach class, you continually draw our awareness to specific things: our abs, our breath, or our lower back. These parts of our bodies are always operating, especially our breathing, but we aren’t consciously aware of them all of the time. Our bodies can’t expend energy everywhere all at once. They do what they do and most of the time we just don’t pay much attention. In fact, in Pilates class, I’m always surprised that when we are doing “the bridge,” I hold my breath until you remind me to breathe. I’m not consciously aware of doing this until you say something; you shift my attention by saying, “Remember to breathe.” In a tenth-grade biology class I visited this week they talked


Dear Linda, Relationships, conflict, and disturbance




Dear Linda,
      Spending time with you at McDonalds in the morning is always fun and thought-provoking. I often think about how our common experience of being married to and now divorced from law enforcement officers has brought us together. Whenever people share a similar experience, they can build bridges more quickly. Overlapping topics that seem to keep coming up in our conversations are relationships and conflict, probably because we have a tendency to focus on what’s not working. Writing is a way I pull my thoughts together, so I thought it might be helpful if I capture on paper some of what we have talked about in terms of how we can prevent problems from arising between two control systems (two people), and how we might be able to resolve conflicts with others while taking care of ourselves.
      Perry Good, a friend who teaches with me, talks about how Perceptual Control Theory is just plain common sense, but the problem is that sometimes plain common sense becomes available to you five minutes after you really need it. What I’m hoping to do is help you access your plain common sense more often, in the moment, when you are in a relationship with someone else. It doesn’t matter if the other person is a mother, a daughter, a teacher, a student, a boss, an employee, a friend, a co-worker, or a romantic interest. In all of these cases, we need to remember that we are working with two living control systems with two different “just right” references and two different perceptions. Often these


Internal Conflict
Dear D.J., The secrets of internal conflict




Dear D.J.,
      It is amazing that when we get together after a long time, it feels as if we just saw each other yesterday. For me, part of the comfort of our friendship is that we experienced a lot of growth together. When I look back, I don’t know if I would have ever thought that some day you would be a manager at a nuclear plant and I would be an international consultant and author. We have faced many challenges over the years. In a way, that’s what I want to talk with you about: the times of growth when we each faced our own internal struggles, the times when we learned the greatest and sometimes most difficult lessons.
In high school, we were each trying to decide, “Who do I want to be when I grow up?” At the same time, we felt grown up and ready to face the challenges of being adults. Now, we are both facing that same period with our sons. This is a time when they are looking to the future, letting go of childhood, and learning to be responsible adults. At least that’s what we hope they’re learning. You and I, like our children, are at a turning point. For us, it is the time when our children are no longer our major focus and our aging parents are depending more and more on us, a time professionally when we are looking back on experiences and forward to the rest of our careers. Throughout this, and to varying degrees, we have experienced internal conflict — times when we want two things that cannot occur simultaneously. For example, I want my sons to be independent and I want my sons to still depend on me. And in some ways, my sons


Dear Tomas, Change and Perceptual Control Theory




Dear Tomas,
     Today, I was sitting here at my desk, thinking about change. You and I have made careers out of helping others with the change process. It always amazes me that every time we think we have a handle on life, we turn around and something is different. I’m glad that when I was younger I had a good support system and that I had opportunities to experience change and learn how to be more successful at handling it. I’d like to start with some personal reflections about change, talk a bit about the bigger context of systems thinking and then about personal and organizational change in the context of Perceptual Control Theory.
      When I was in eighth grade I woke one morning to find my whole world was changing. Or at least that is what I thought when I found out we were moving out of the only house I had ever known and going half-way across the country to California and my brother wasn’t moving with us. I was leaving behind cold winters with white Christmases and gaining a pool in the back yard. I had ridden a bus every day of my school life, and now I would be walking to school. At that moment, I learned one of the most important lessons about change: that I am not in control of my environment. I cannot plan or predict what is going to come next. This is a lesson that can be scary, and learning how to ride with it is one of life’s big challenges. Recently my older son Wesley moved back home four years after he completed high school. I think he keeps expecting to wake up one morning and have an epiphany and know


Dear Sandy, Reorganization and learning




Dear Sandy,
      Learning is such a huge topic and one you and I have discussed many times. One day you asked me, “How does your understanding of Perceptual Control Theory help you better understand teaching and learning?” I’ve thought about that a lot. Here’s the short answer: the three key elements in PCT that have most helped me understand teaching and learning are (1) how memory fits into the PCT model, (2) how the hierarchy works, and (3) how we reorganize.
     Think about what the word learning means to you. What is your personal definition? Check out the answer with a few other folks. Is learning being able to repeat what the teacher said? Is learning as simple as gaining knowledge? Does it require the ability to apply that new knowledge? Is learning being able to apply what you have learned in new and different settings? Is memorizing a list of facts learning? Think of the last thing you learned. What was it and how did you learn it? Did it require a teacher? Is learning fun? Is learning painful? What role does memory play?
      Think about how different types of learning take place. Memorizing a rule (I before E except after C or when sounded like A as in neighbor and weigh) is different from learning to ride a bicycle. Thus they require different types of teaching. Bill Powers in Behavior: The Control of Perception lists three types of learning: memory, problem-solving programs, and reorganization. Let’s take a look at these in some depth. First, let’s turn to the loop diagram that shows the flow of information in a living system and add one more component,


Dear Reader, It’s the mind that moves




There is a lesson in Buddhism about its sixth patriarch, Huineng. While traveling, he came across two monks arguing as they observed a flag. One monk said, “The flag is moving.” The other disagreed and said, “The wind is moving.” Huineng corrected them both by saying,

“Neither the wind nor the flag are moving. It is your mind that moves.”

Dear Reader,
      I hope this series of letters has helped you to better understand Perceptual Control Theory and think in some new and different ways. It’s a lot to make sense of, so give yourself time to let these ideas percolate in your mind. Use the TLC process — Try it on, Let it go, Check it out — to make small changes.* (See the TLC worksheet on page 221.) Start with one skill-building idea and practice it until it becomes a habit. Ask more questions of yourself and others. Try to catch yourself when you make a statement, and see if



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