Laughter and Dominance: 5-year reflection on againstness training

It’s now been five years since I first attended a CFAR workshop. I wrote a 3-year retrospective 2 years ago. Today I want to reflect on one specific aspect of the workshop: the Againstness Training.

In addition to the 5 year mark, this is also timely because I just heard from the instructor, Val, that after lots of evolution in how it was taught, this class has finally been fully replaced, by one called Presence.

The Againstness Training was an activity designed to practice the skill of de-escalating your internal stress systems, in the face of something scary you’re attempting to do.

I had a friend record a video of my training exercise, which has proven to be a very fruitful decision, as I’ve been able to reflect on that video as part of getting more context for where I am now. Here’s the video. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth watching! If you have, I recommend you nonetheless watch the first 2 minutes or so as context for what I’m going to say, below:

This week, I was reflecting with Jean & Julia here at Upstart on the experience. (Huh. By total coincidence, this reflection happened to be 5 years to the day since the original incident!) We were relistening to a conversation that we had recently recorded, because Jean wanted to point out a particular pattern I was exhibiting in that conversation. We then rewatched the first few minutes of the againstness video as well.

And… something dawned on me. I pulled up the article I’d written about the experience at the time, which I hadn’t revisited for even longer than that video (which I’ve watched at least a few times since it happened). I scanned the article and found this passage:

One of the profound realizations I had was that I use laughter as a stress response. Like, I sort of knew this, but I didn’t realize how obvious and dramatic it was. Where others became frozen or defensive, I became, well, as you see in the video.

That’s what I was expecting to find. That’s indeed the update I made at the time, and it’s how I had remembered it. But watching the video now, I see something different.

The laughter is a cover

“…as you see in the video,” I wrote five years ago.

“Past-Malcolm,” I said this week, “what I see in the video isn’t about laughter. It’s about power and control. The laughter is mostly a cover for that, trying to mask the extent to which I was trying to manage my stress in the situation by dominating it. And not just trying to mask it, but succeeding, to the extent that I myself five years later still thought it was about laughter.

It was a shock to see this.

If you haven’t yet see what “this” is… notice how I keep interrupting Cat and Val, subtextually saying “this is my show” and “I’m one step ahead of you”. Another aspect is something like “if I can make you laugh, then I’m still in control here”. And even though I wasn’t yet super-worked-up, at the start when I say to Cat, “yeah I’m sure you do” and “mm”, this also has a subtle dominance thing going on.

(Also, rewatching the video again after drafting most of this post, I do think there is some laughter that isn’t really performing a social dominance thing, such as when Val says “well I do have a taurus moon…” and I crack up. That’s more nervous/awkward laughter or I-can’t-handle-this-input laughter.)

This was partly a shock because it had hidden in plain sight for years. But it was also a shock to my sense of self! I’ve long thought of myself as being high-energy yet otherwise pretty accommodating as a conversational partner, and I still think that that’s true a lot of the time.

But even a small amount of stress or fear can sometimes be enough to activate these social dominance patterns that are on full-display in the first minutes againstness video.

It’s kind of obvious how others’ stress responses of freezing up or shutting down get in the way of learning, but notice that so does the social dominance pattern!

Firstly, I’m clearly only barely taking in what Val is saying, as evidenced by me jumping in assuming that I know what he’s going to say. I think one way to think of this could be that in the state of fear I was in during the againstness training, the fear patterns were very resistant to anything that might shift my state, and was essentially trying to push it away—while pretending (including to myself) to follow along. Of course, on some level I was also genuinely interested in learning the skill, and eventually I did figure it out.

Beyond what was happening internally, the aggressive—albeit excited—response I had to Val was also adding an additional challenge for him to do his job. He had to not just maintain calm presence in order to invite me into it, but he also had to avoid the slightest bit of getting pulled into a power struggle, while simultaneously refusing to let me just run the show (which wouldn’t have gotten me what I was wanting anyway!) This is a tall order, and I think he did remarkably well.

Learning contexts for the learning process

The most challenging things to change are the ones you can’t even see. This is part of why the kind of dominance patterns that I’ve exhibited are so successful: they ride on top of my generally upbeat personality, and so many people (including me, the person running them) can be fooled into thinking that everyone is actually having fun, or at least that they should be having fun.

I imagine that some people would ask: “maybe it’s fine? like, you need to be doing something on the monkey dominance front, might as well be a relatively friendly high-status thing, right?”

I’ll be honest: there are lots of other patterns that I would not trade this one for.

But I’m not aiming for those other patterns. I’m aiming for something else entirely, which breaks out of the self-reinforcing dynamics of the monkey dominance patterns. I can’t do this alone, but neither can any group I’m in do it unless I shift these patterns, because if I’m operating them, they take over the situation, forcing others to deal with me. There are basically 3 ways that can go:

  • competing with me in terms of energy & power
  • retreating from me, letting me control the situation
  • holding the learning context, like Val does in the video

Jean and Julia and the others here at the Upstart Collaboratory have been doing a ton of holding the learning context space for me around this. In this case, it means neither giving up one’s power to the patterns I’m running, nor getting fixated on forcing me to do something other than what I’m doing. It has involved a mix of passive strategies (eg silently giving me a curious look until I realize what I’m doing) and more active ones like warmly interrupting me right as I’m getting going (as Val does in the video).

Note that if someone tried these responses in most situations (ie ones where there isn’t a shared learning context) any response will tend to be interpreted as one of the first two, even if the responder isn’t themselves caught up in the loop internally. The passive strategies look like retreating, and the active ones look like competing. Common-Knowledge Self-Commitments represent a kind of minimum basis for something one might call a learning context.

Note that among those 3 options above is not what we might call “collaborative flow”. Collaborative flow happens when everyone in the conversation is contributing while also allowing space for others to contribute in whatever way makes sense for them, without that kind of forcing.

So while these dominance patterns may be more “successful” than other things, they get in the way of clear thinking, both collectively by blocking collaborative flow when thinking together, and internally, because they require self-deception in order to function.

So the core thing that I’m really focusing on, in relation to this learning, is essentially the same as the original againstness training intent: when I’m experiencing fear or stress, how can I learn to consistently shift my state of mind so that I continue to be able to see other people as people and feel okay, and in the meantime, to relax the grasping-for-social-control that has been my strategy so far. That may have been a good strategy in past situations, where it wasn’t safe to lose face or whatever, but it’s not serving me now.

And I want to acknowledge something that applies in-general to adaptive learning processes:

I don’t yet know how to meet all of my needs/wants etc by abandoning this strategy,
AND I recognize that this strategy has substantial costs that I do not want to bear,
AND I have a sense that there exist other strategies that would be able to meet my needs/wants in the contexts that I’m in,
AND I recognize that to the extent that I haven’t figured out how else to get my needs/wants met, I will be inclined to engage in this old way of doing things, and that’s not a problem.
It’s a natural part of the learning process.

I’m making a lot of progress, and I’m still not there yet. And I feel excited about this learning process. Having gotten clear on what this is and why it matters, I notice an appetite for feedback from others on this (in the moment or retrospective) and I’m also taking care not to make my own mindset management other people’s job—on the contrary, it’s inalienably personal. Nobody else can do it for me, and if I’m getting entitled to that, then that’s just another way of trying to control social situations.

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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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Jess » 17 Feb 2018 » Reply

I had a friend mention how loud I speak sometimes last night, and I immediately dove into asking them to help me fix this problem, thinking it might be a lack of a particular thermostat for loudness or possibly a hearing problem. Reading this made me realise how it might be a dominance thing too, which completely changes how I might approach it. I’ve noticed that I seem to have no problem interacting with others that speak too loudly, but then cringe when watching them interact with others. This gives me a bunch more options of ways to approach it, thank you!

    Malcolm » 18 Feb 2018 » Reply

    Oh yeah! And I think the two things interact. If, like me, you spent a bunch of your formative years in a relatively competitive conversational context, you may have learned that you needed to speak loudly and assertively in order to get heard at all. In contexts where this is the norm and everyone is doing, it isn’t necessarily seen as dominance, but just the nature of the game: just like we don’t consider two wrestlers to be assaulting each other, even if their actions would be considered assault & battery outside of that context.

    But in other contexts where the game isn’t mutually understood, loud and overbearing ways of speaking tend to dominate, and if we’re not aware of this and able to be context-sensitive, we’ll end up dominating those conversations.

    And then there are of course ways in which we are already used to doing that and may not feel comfortable with taking a more spacious approach.

    On the purely volume level, one thing I definitely have gotten a lot better at over the past 5 years since the againstness training is modulating my volume (when I’m not stressed). So there may be a basic thermostat thing there for you as well. I think that the key thing to do for this dimension is to get at least a couple of people who are able to give you feedback on that in a really non-judgmental way, ie recognizing that you want to change and not assuming that you don’t care about their experience just because you’re being loud, and then responding to that feedback. Also practice noticing it in other people.

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