Dispel your justification-monkey with a “HWA!”

Justification—ie a normative explanation, as opposed to a causal one—is sometimes necessary. But, for many of us, it’s necessary much less often than we feel it is.

The reason we justify more often than we need to is that we live in fear of judgment, from years having to explain to authorities (parents, teachers, bosses, cops (for some people)) why things went differently than they “should have”. This skill is necessary to avoid punishment from those authorities.

We often offer justifications before they’re even asked for: “Wait I can explain—”

With friends, though, or in a healthy romantic partnership, or with people that we have a solid working relationship with, it is quite apparent that this flinch towards justification is actually in the way of being able to effectively work together. It is:

  • unhelpful for actually understanding what happened (since it’s a form of motivated cognition)
  • an obstacle to feeling safe with each other
  • a costly waste of time & attention

And yet we keep feeling the urge to justify. So what to do instead? How to re-route that habit in a way that builds trust within the relationships where justification isn’t required? How to indicate to our conversational partners that we aren’t demanding that they justify?

There are lots of ways to do this—here’s one.

Fundamentally, the issue with justification is that it’s an attempt to explain why we’re in the world that we’re in, as opposed to being in the world that we “should be” in. It indicates, therefore, that there’s a lack of acceptance of what is already real. There might be causal reasons to be understood about why what happened happened and how to do things differently in the future, but in order to actually See those without rationalizing, you first need to accept where you in fact are.

This is where “HWA!” comes in. In all caps, it sounds like a kiai, which is the japanese martial arts term for a short yell used when performing an strike. Since “hwa” is a mental move that can dispel the justification monkeys that get in the way of us co-thinking clearly, it kind of is a kiai! However, in this case the true power of the sound comes from the power of the meaning.

Adapted from a photo by Tomi Knuutila (CC BY-NC) https://www.flickr.com/photos/yourbartender/157009343/

“HWA” stands for “Here We Are”

And “here we are” is a simple, pure expression of acceptance of the reality of the present as it is. This pops out of the justification frame.

(For those tempted to get up in arms about my use of the term “acceptance”, I don’t mean the thing you think I mean. “Acceptance,” as I’m using it, doesn’t mean “allowing things to stay the same”, it means not having a sense of “this should already be different than it in fact is”. It’s too late. The present is already here! Refusing to perform this kind of acceptance here is a form of denial or regret or some other confusion.)

Here’s how to use it:

Example 1: self

The simplest situation is actually to use it with yourself. Perhaps if you catch your inner rebel attempting to justify something to your inner dictator, or just more generally you find yourself feeling that things should not be as they are. Here are some sample phrasings:

“Ahh shit I forgot to do the thing. Well, hwa.”

“Man I really haven’t been focused today. *breathe* …hwa.”

“What?! It’s noon already? I was gonna get up at—hwa. Here we are. It is noon. What now?”

In all of these cases, you’re taking a moment to let in the reality of what is so. This step is a necessary precondition to figuring out what is next. Without it, you’re just flailing.

Example 2: avoiding interpersonal blame

Alice: Man the grocery store was crowded. Anyway, here’s the Thing you said to pick up.

Bob: Oh, no, this is X Thing, this won’t work at all for the Recipe. It needs to be Y Thing.

Alice or Bob: So HWA! What do we do now?

What this does is dispel the need to figure out whose fault it was that Alice got X Thing instead of Y Thing. Did Bob assume Alice should have known that Recipe needed Y not X? Was that a reasonable assumption? Did Bob explicitly say “Y Thing”, and Alice didn’t hear? Did Bob use a synonym for Y Thing that Alice didn’t recognize? etc, etc, etc.

The answers to these questions may or may not be important, but in any case, justification is a form of rationalization and is therefore not a way to actually find the real answers to those questions.

Also, while acute time pressure stresses out your inner monkeys and tends to increase blame in these situations, the blame and justification monkey patterns are going to be in the way of actually resolving the situation by going out to get some Y Thing or finding an alternative approach, which is important when time is of the essence!

Example 3: avoiding implicit accusation

What do you do when you’re already partway into an explanation (which could easily become a justification or defense?) You can use “hwa” for that too.
If you’ve got a decent amount of flow with the other person, you can sometimes combine “hwa” with a small piece of information, to communicate your understanding of a situation without that information acting as bait for the justification monkey.

You can imagine a conversation that happened a few hours prior to the one in Example 2:

Alice: Anyway, before you go back to work, shall we check in about any food you might want me to pick up for the party tomorrow?

Bob: Oh the party is moved to tomorrow? I missed that.

Alice: I think I mentioned it… but hwa. Anyway, groceries? Snacks?

It’s mildly helpful info for the parties to have common knowledge that Alice believes she said it already. But without the “hwa”, Alice’s initial impulse to say “I think I mentioned it” can easily be read as a defense on Alice’s part, implying an accusation of B.

From this space of opposition, if B is inclined towards self-blame, they might be tempted to say “Sorry! I should have listened more closely when you were talking about the party earlier. I was distracted because I was wondering if Jamie was gonna be there.” Conversely, if they are inclined towards other-blame, they might be tempted to protest “I’m pretty sure you didn’t! Or if you did then you should have made sure I was listening when you said it…”

What Alice saying “here we are” indicates here to Bob is “whether I said it or not, whether you heard it or not, it’s okay. We don’t need to fight.”

In Practice

One practical question is: does it make sense to say “hwa” or to say a full on “here we are”?

The short answer is: use both.

In cases where there isn’t common knowledge about the “hwa” concept, you’ll naturally want to say “here we are” so that people have the slightest idea what you’re saying.

And honestly, even if people never used the abbreviation, I still think that crystallizing this concept as “hwa” makes it more memorable as a move and therefore also easier to transmit as a meme.

In addition, I think that in text-based conversations (ie where the spelling of “hwa” is easy to see but tone of voice is not) hwa has a particular couple of advantages, provided that both conversationalists know what it means already. (Maybe use the full phrase “here we are” the first time, and then also link to this post.)

  • It satisfies the Sparkly Pink Purple Ball Criterion: “here we are” can mean lots of things, but “hwa” is not a phrase likely to be used by someone who hasn’t read this post (or heard about this usage), which means it will prompt awareness more.
  • Relatedly, when talking aloud, the tone of voice used to say “here we are” matters. In the context of chat conversation, there’s no tone, so it helps to have a more distinct phrase
  • It is quick to type! In a fast-paced chat conversation, typing 3 characters instead of 11 makes a difference. It makes the thing easier to say and also means that it can more easily pop in as a kind of interruption of what seems likely to lead to justification.

Note that it’s not enough to say the phrase. You have to mean it. You have to actually accept what has happened and allow yourself to be with what’s real in the present. If you need help letting go of your concept of how things should have gone, read Transcending Regrets, Problems, and Mistakes.

Also, a general tip with stuff like this: if someone tries to use “hwa” and either party slips up and you ends up getting pulled into a justification loop, that’s okay too. It’s part of the learning process. And, if the trust is available, it is important also to give them feedback if they seem to be saying one thing (”no need for justification”) and meaning another (”but things are not okay unless I get a justification”). Just… give that feedback once you’re already back on the same page, feeling good together, not while the justification pattern is live.

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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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Nancy Lebovitz » 23 Jan 2018 » Reply

This looks really excellent.

I’ve tried to explain the demand that the present be different and haven’t been able to get the concept across. I’m not sure whether it was that the other person didn’t feel it or that they weren’t conscious of it.

Misha » 23 Jan 2018 » Reply

Very useful trick – I use a variation of it with good degree of success! What I struggle with is the balance of not-justification and key-learnings. How do you transition from HWA-point to (hopefully quick and productive) discussion what we do differently next time?

    Malcolm » 2 Feb 2018 » Reply

    It depends on the circumstances. Usually helps to pause and breathe, especially if you’re in-person.

    The second thing I’d suggest is to do the opposite of your usual pattern. If you tend to blame others, start by thinking about what you could have done differently. If you’re prone to self-criticism, ask the other person if they’d like to hear your thoughts on what made the situation challenging for you. None of this is a panacea, but if both people are genuinely trying, then it helps!

    This post on co-attending and attunement may have some relevant thoughts too.

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