On Feeling Uncomfortable as Information

Two experiences in the last 48h have caused me to redesign some of my language and communication patterns in a pretty serious way. I suspect that these are generally applicable and very useful, so I’m sharing!

Before I get into it, take a moment and see what comes to mind when you read the phrases “that made me feel uncomfortable” or “I noticed some discomfort while reading that.”


Okay, turns out that I’d been using phrases like that, and they were totally backfiring, because they communicated something totally different than what I was intending to communicate.

In a community: around “offensive” “jokes”

On a mailing list I frequent, someone offhandedly made a remark that was intended to be humorous. I felt uncomfortable reading it, which I shared with the group, along with an explanation for why I consciously endorsed that feeling of discomfort. Fortunately, I edited the subject before replying, because it prompted a massive email thread about (among other things) whether or not it makes sense to be offended by things and whether or not it makes sense to avoid saying things that will make people uncomfortable. And a bit about the content-level topic itself.

Someone else shared that their perception of this conversation was that I was trying to shame the OP for what he had said, to which I responded:

Thanks for the feedback that that was how it looked. I will maintain, as one of the main this-made-me-uncomfortable-sayers, that I was not intending to send any guilt or shame.

However, I’ll drink my own medicine, noting that this whole conversation happened because of person A saying something that was interpreted by person B in an unexpectedly negative way.

So I just did the same thing!

*sheepish look*

This was the point when I realized that what I had said was causing confusion. But it wasn’t until a conversation with my partner the next day that I realized that the confusion was related to the word “uncomfortable” and how I had framed my response.

With my partner: apologies and compliments

I’ve been in a relationship for a few months, and fairly early in the relationship, I said something to the effect of “I feel uncomfortable when you apologize” and another time something similar about a certain class of compliment. In both cases I gave some reasons for why I felt uncomfortable, and examples for what kinds of language would not have that effect.

Today, we finally realized that my partner was understanding my use of the word “uncomfortable” to essentially mean “unbearably uncomfortable” (on a magnitude similar to where I would place the word “triggering” in a trauma context) when in fact I meant the opposite—very bearably uncomfortable!

When this fully sunk in, I groaned: “Agh, okay, can we take all of the communication that we’ve had around these subjects, and anything involving this notion of comfort or discomfort and just throw it out?” I made gestures to indicate balling stuff up and jettisoning it. “We were using the same word to mean totally different things, which means all of that communication is basically garbage.”

It was pretty ridiculous. To give an example, I brought up a recent memory. My partner had delivered some compliments followed by, “Did any of that make you uncomfortable?” at which point I searched through the available sense I had of my experience and found that while most of it was really connective and pleasurable to hear, there was indeed a tiny phrase at the beginning that I found a little off-putting.

From their perspective, what I was saying was a mix of “I’m really sensitive / easily upset” and “you still aren’t doing it right”. From my perspective, I was giving em really nuanced updates for their model on what kinds of thought and language patterns got caught on the hook I’d installed.

Wait, what hook?

Thought hooks

This model suddenly came to mind tonight, during a conversation that appeared to be about something completely different. It comes from the idea that you might want a *hook* to catch certain thought patterns before they get said or even believed. (If you’re familiar with git hooks, that’s where I got the name, but don’t worry if not.)

A thought hook is a module in your brain that gets activated by you thinking/saying/hearing a certain phrase or structure of sentence.

A possible addendum is that it obstructs the free flow of that information (in or out) until it gets clearance, possibly with preprocessing.

So one example (that will be familiar to some CFAR alumni at least) is when you encounter the word “later” and your brain instantly responds “THAT’S NOT A TIME.” Val, a CFAR instructor, while teaching a course on the planning fallacy and contingency planning, has described how he’s very averse to the word “later”. Why? Because it’s dangerous. It looks like a time but doesn’t act like a time. You can schedule something for “later” but that won’t actually cause the thing to happen because later never comes, *even though* the word works grammatically and type-sensitively (“schedule for X” requires that X refers to some point(s) in time, which “later” does).

There are a bunch of other examples, including having thoughts like “I don’t experience [thing that most people experience]” prompt the question “is it possible that it just doesn’t feel like I experience that thing from the inside?” This helps you avoid phenomena like bias blind spot, where you think that you’re less susceptible to biases than most people. Turns out that most people think this, so the fact that you also do doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re right!

But going back to Val—the discomfort that he feels when he hears the word “later” is similar to the kind of discomfort that I feel when someone (in particular, someone close to me) apologizes to me—it is a deliberately installed hook designed to cue me to the presence of certain thought patterns and relationship dynamics that I want to avoid because of my experience in what’s possible when apologies are abandoned in favour of more nuanced consideration for one’s own impact and other’s needs.

Who’s offended? What’s “offended”?

So in this case, the fact that I’m having a response of discomfort is… actually not particularly relevant! That hook is just a little mental hack to cue me to notice the thing that was said. This means that sharing the discomfort can be very confusing, because it sounds like a trigger or something. Now, direct reference to discomfort is hardly necessary to cause people to jump to “I’ve offended you.” But it definitely doesn’t help. And I think that this is really important for consequentialists or other impact-oriented people: if people interpret that you’ve been offended, you’ll typically get one of two responses:

  1. “I’m sorry; I won’t say that again [if I think you’re in earshot]”
  2. “I don’t believe in political correctness; I should be able to say whatever I want”

If you are indeed triggered by something but don’t think that there are broad negative consequences to saying it (beyond your own discomfort) then #1 is potentially a pretty good response, although I don’t think offended is the best word for that.

But if you think that the remark in question is symptomatic of beliefs, attitudes or paradigms that you would prefer to nudge, then those two characteristic responses are useless and distracting.

I think the solution in this case is surprisingly simpl—whoops! Okay, I had a delightful little hook snag when I typed that: “is it really simple? or does it just feel/sound simple?” So I’m going to just revise that. New paragraph.

I don’t know how to mitigate this kind of confusion altogether, but I think I’ve found a strategy that’s immensely better than what I’ve been using:

  1. First of all, if you were going to say anything about discomfort, don’t. That word itself is dangerously open-ended, and even if people were to switch to “a little uncomfortable”, that might eventually feel like a euphemism for “very uncomfortable”. If you’re in a context where you know you have a shared understanding for what you would mean by discomfort, then that language is probably safe. Otherwise, avoid it.
  2. Say something more emotionally neutral that still captures your experience of hitting a snag with what they said. If you want, use the word “hook” and explain the concept! (or link to this article)
  3. Attempt to communicate the underlying tension. I totally did this step in both of the stories mentioned, but it got totally muddled because of confusion around the nature of my “discomfort”.

Communicating the tension you’ve hooked

In some cases, this will be fairly straightforward, because the other person might already be on the same page on some level. Here’s a quick example:

friend: “I’m really bad at coping with change…”
me: “Hey! I noticed you just talked about yourself negatively in the present tense, which is unhealthy for that growth mindset you’re trying to cultivate!”
friend: “Oh, true! Thanks for pointing it out! So yeah, in the past I’ve been really bad at coping with change…

I’ve done this exchange many times, including with people who aren’t actively “trying to cultivate a growth mindset,” and it has always been well-received. If you want to practice hooks, this is a great one, both for yourself and for others. (See also, this entire article on growth mindset reframing.)

There are going to be other cases though, where you don’t see eye-to-eye about the underlying paradigm in question, and you get a lot of resistance at the explaining stage. In this case, it’s up to you how you want to proceed. The key though is that you’ve gotten away from the idea that it was merely the thing they said that was problematic for you, or that you’re trying to censor them. You can decide to debate immediately, or later (eek!) or never, but at least you’re on the same page about where the point of contention is.

I think that we might have been able to avoid some of the conflict on the email thread—and a lot of the confusion—if the hook communication technology had been available to people. Perhaps not—maybe someone was just “offended”, whatever that means. But I didn’t see anyone saying that they were.

Discomfort as a source of information

What this amounts to is learning to use your feelings of discomfort as a source of information. Whether you installed a hook deliberately or not, the fact that you have an emotional response to certain thought patterns is totally valuable data on how you might feel about those thought patterns. It could be that once you bring up your perspective on the subject, you also end up changing your mind a fair bit—in fact, one would hope so, especially for hooks that you didn’t deliberately install.

There is definitely a sense in which triggers and hooks are related. They’re two (although not the only two) kinds of pre-conscious reactions to certain patterns of thought that have some amount of discomfort to them. But they have a key distinction: calling something triggering is saying that the emotions that it brings up are intense, and hard (or essentially impossible) to manage in-the-moment. By contrast, the discomfort for a hook can be very, very small—like a mild itch. So how you might want others to behave in response to them is very different. There are definitely other kinds of reactions that have properties of both, perhaps due to a trigger that has relaxed or gained coping mechanisms over time, or a hook that has become seriously emotionally charged. (Huh! It just occurred to me that an example of the latter could be my old stress response around the topic of astrology, which I have since subdued back down to hook-strength.)

One of the funniest parts in all of this, to me: I’m someone who is generally fairly well-known for doing things like Comfort Zone Expansion and so to realize that my expressions of discomfort were being read as like “whoa, we can’t make Malcolm uncomfortable…” It’s like, I walk barefoot on sharp rocks, just because it’s uncomfortable. I intentionally push toward discomfort in many conversations. But I don’t blame people for interpreting what I said that way—I think it was a very reasonable interpretation! That’s why I’m changing 🙂

Meta-hook: what’s really hilarious is that writing this post has given me a hook for the phrases I used at the start: “that made me feel uncomfortable” & “I noticed some discomfort while reading that.” Both of those now raise a little red flag that asks if I’m sure that’s really the best way to communicate what I’m trying to say.


Huge appreciation to Benjamin Ross Hoffman for helping me refine these ideas and edit them. He’s been writing some really interesting stuff lately, so I definitely recommend checking out his blog.

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

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Miri » 25 Jun 2014 » Reply

I’m curious how you would’ve changed your response on the mailing list with all of this in mind. The example with your friend and the growth mindset seems simple enough because the implication is that your friend had specifically mentioned that they were trying to cultivate it, perhaps even asked you to do them a favor and make them notice when they say or do something that could hinder their progress in attaining that mindset. When someone makes an “offensive” joke, you don’t always have that much information about their goals and motivations.

    Malcolm » 29 Jun 2014 » Reply

    I talked about this a bit with one of the people on the mailing list, and what we ultimately noted is that it wouldn’t actually have let us get very far, because of a bunch of things, including the fact that any explanation or justification kind of needs to hold up to everyone on the mailing list, which is a tall order.

    I guess this model mostly just helps us deconstruct where the disagreement/confusion came from, and respond in a way that will produce less of it.

    So, remaining fairly general, instead of

    That made me uncomfortable. Here’s why I’m uncomfortable. Here’s how I predict I or someone else might feel in that hypothetical situation you described.

    I might have said something more like:

    I’m appreciating that you’re making a joke here, and just want to note that it’s setting off alarm bells for me that the framing of the joke reinforces mindsets that I think are dangerous and that I don’t think you want to be reinforcing either. My model here is a bit hard to explain, so feel free to ask me more about it off-list and we can explore it.

    Thank you for asking me to do this, Miri. It was hard but really helpful. I still don’t think that’s perfect, but it’s definitely better.

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