I started exploring the implications of a simple question: what is within my power to choose?
This is something that we have to learn as infants and toddlers and kids—oh, I can choose to clench my fist… but I can’t choose to clench yours. Ooh… I can choose to look at something, but I can’t choose to make you look at something. Ah! I can choose to point at the thing, and maybe you’ll look, but I can’t directly steer your gaze or attention. In some sense, this is precisely where the boundary of self and other is located! And it’s also connected to how when we’re wielding a tool that works for us and it fades into the background, it becomes part of ourselves.
I can’t directly control you, although I might be able to invite or persuade or coerce you. And while I can’t quite control you, I can be trying to control you. Or I can be allowing you to be you and honoring the obvious-once-you-look-at-it reality that my choice ends at the edges of me. Society has historically involved a lot of the former, at great cost but also with meaningful results: lots of civilization was built by someone telling someone else what to do, on some level.
Then I considered that same structure, but applied internally to my own mind, and I realized that I have different parts that have different wills, and these parts also can’t control each other. They each have their own choice-making faculty, in this sense. To be clear, this line of thinking doesn’t require reifying these parts as persistent named entities as one might in IFS (Internal Family Systems). That’s an option, and might be helpful, but most fundamentally we’re just talking about some sort of subsystem that in a given moment is doing some perceiving, some wanting, some steering, etc.
And if those subsystems want something that’s compatible, I simply do it—no choice required.
But if one subsystem wants one thing and one wants another, and on a given level both aren’t possible—suppose part of me wants to keep writing and another part wants to go eat dinner—then neither system can simply enact its will since the other will oppose it. If one urge is particularly strong, eg because of a deadline or the smell of pizza in the oven, then that urge might overpower the other—it seems there are systems that track the size of urges as part of prioritizing and preventing such inner gridlock. Anyway, at that point, if the overpowered part releases and allows the first thing to happen, I’ll have full energy to do whatever it is I’ve found myself doing; if not, then I’ll experience friction and distraction—thoughts of food while trying to write, or thoughts of my blog post while eating. Or some more subtle indigestion of the mind and/or body.
What choice do each of these parts have, while in a conflict?
They can’t simply choose to do what they want to do—the other part is preventing them. They can choose to try to dominate the other, but they can’t choose to succeed, and this often results in gridlock internally (which we call things like “procrastination” or “distractedness”). Something they can fully choose to do is to let go of their own aim, thereby allowing the other part to do what it wants to do.
Another thing they can do is to choose to stop struggling against the other part, while continuing to maintain a sense that their aim is important. In other words, they can choose to coexist with the other part—to allow it to want what it wants, to allow it to see what it sees and feel what it feels, and so on. Rather than seeing it as an obstacle, tool, or distraction, a part can open to the larger whole that it and the other part are involved in.
In Perceptual Control Theory terms it seems like this move involves moving up the levels of abstraction, but it doesn’t necessarily feel like an explicit move of goal-factoring and asking “why do I want this specific aim” to find the level above. It’s more about unfixating the sense of how the aim will be achieved, and allowing something else to emerge in service of that aim or whatever it’s for. This unfixating and allowing creates way more possibility of dialogue and perspective-taking with other subsystems. This is perhaps more visible on the level of perception than action: it’s a both/and move that switches from “I’m right, you’re wrong” to “I’m seeing something real, you’re seeing something real… how do we see the deeper reality?”
For example, suppose I’m considering growing my business, for which I need to do activities that we might broadly refer to as marketing. If part of me sees marketing as meaning manipulating people and trying to force them to buy something, and another part of me sees marketing as dialogue with people, learning about the world, and finding the people for whom buying a subscription for my intentionality app would be a huge win… then the whole process of orienting towards marketing is going to invoke an internal conflict that’s partially motivational but is partially perceptual. I’ve been working through this a bit in the last year, and wrote about it here.
On the level of behavior the conflict looks like: either I decide to manipulate people in order to grow my business, or I decide to give up on the growth to stay in integrity with my values. On the level of perception, there’s a loosening of the idea of what “marketing” might even mean, into open up to the possibility of non-coercive marketing. For each part to stay true to itself while relaxing its assumptions and seeking a way to collaborate.
It seems to me that this choice, on whatever scale, whether internal or interpersonal (or international), might be what is meant by choosing the collaborative mindset.
Only you can choose it—equivalently, you can’t choose for the other to be open to dialogue etc—that’s their choice, by definition. But, having chosen it, you might be able to invite the other into dialogue. And you also might not! But it’s still different than an orientation that overrides the sensemaking of another system.
Here we get back to mindset choice is a confusion, since as far as I can tell the overriding always produces a kind of unwanted fractal tangle (I suspect “karma” is the technical term for this). It makes a narrow kind of sense to the part doing the overriding, but the friction produced as a result dramatically decreases the available energy in the larger system. This means that if you can see the choice clearly between overriding and being open to collaboration, and the impacts of each choice, then the choice is obvious: openness. This full stance of openness still has the power to conclude that it can’t collaborate with another agent and (in the case of multiperson agents) defend itself physically, or leave an abusive situation, or whatever else. It just does so without negating the sense that the other’s thinking and behavior makes, from the inside.
And thus if it seems like there is a real choice—a difficult choice, a choice that involves any straining—then this is a sign that the person is not seeing clearly enough. Actually, to be more precise, it’s a sign that multiple parts have different ideas of what this opening & allowing move would look like, and THAT conflict is encountering the SAME issue. And thus, the attempt to choose the collaborative mindset, in the face of any resistance, is necessarily going to be aligning with one part’s model of what the collaborative mindset is, and overriding the other. Thus not collaborative internally, thus unstable since in some future moment the part that got overridden will take back control again, resulting in a kind of oscillation.
That’s not to say that it it can’t be done. I have done it many times. I lost parts of myself when I did. I got them back, of course—one of the wild things about the brain, it seems, is that compartmentalization is all undoable with enough time and enough self-love and most importantly…… enough opening to the possibility of dialogue with the other.
This is giving me more clarity on one of my big open questions, actually: how is it possible that one can self-coerce into a collaborative stance? I’ve done it, so it’s clearly possible. But it seemed to me like a contradiction.
My new clarity is essentially that we need to look at multiple scales. Let’s suppose there are two sort of stable attractors for a given sensemaking system (such as a person, group, or part). In one, that system orients to the other systems with an attitude of judgment & coercion. That can be as simple as “that kind of thinking doesn’t make sense“. In the other, the system orients to others with an attitude of curiosity & collaboration. In general, the presence of either stance at one scale is going to tend to be more compatible with the same stance on other scales. Sustained conflict with another person generally necessitates internal conflict about how to engage with the situation, for instance.
But this compatibility and reinforcing across scales isn’t absolute—if it were, the entirety of humanity would have to be 100% one or the other. Nor is it the case that collaborative dynamics at one scale require perfect collaboration at all lower scales. Basically everybody has various stuck points of inner conflict due to intergenerational trauma, although some have much more than others or worse coping mechanisms to still function… and yet most of us experience at least pockets of moments where some sort of openness happens, at least on some scale.
Thus: it seems to me that essentially, against the will of some aspects of myself, I was sometimes successful at contorting the Malcolm-sized chooser into a shape that on the person-sized scale was very open to taking the perspective of the people I was talking to, in certain circumstances…
…but nobody involved was open to taking the perspective of the part of me that thought this unwise or unsafe.
I’m not sure whether to frame that as being about the Malcolm-sized perspective, or about whatever part of Malcolm was insisting that Malcolm open to interpersonal collaboration, disregarding the part that didn’t want to. It seems that both are true. The other person also wasn’t taking the distrustful part’s perspective.
All of this makes it seem to me that in some very direct sense… that the distrust from that part was appropriate and accurate! Its perceptions and values were not being accounted for in the larger system that thought it was accounting for everything. It turns out it was accounting for… everything it was aware of. Key difference.
In retrospect this looks kind of obvious, but at the time, I was taking for granted that the collaborative stance was collaborative on all scales.
I now don’t even quite think that it’s usually even fully collaborative on one scale. It continues to seem true to me that there exists a stance of full openness to collaboration wherever that’s possible—and in particular a version of such a stance that’s not vulnerable to being screwed over (any more than someone guarded ultimately is). That stance is possible, but in the meantime our attempts at the meta-protocol end up still being gripped tightly as protocols. And this means that in practice we tend to be open towards taking the perspectives of systems we roughly trust are doing things in a manner that’s compatible with our approach.
And this is fine! This is… much better than the alternative, in fact, which would involve ignoring our own distrust.
And I suppose that the whole puzzle of the meta-protocol (as beyond just protocols) is one of developing an asymmetric capacity to safely take perspectives that can’t yet take yours, to thereby find win-wins.
“Safely” is a bit of a weird word here. What does it mean for taking a perspective to be dangerous? I’m not totally sure. It seems to me like there are both external and internal versions. Externally, con men rely on spoofing certain trust signals in order to rob or cheat people, and there are lots of other ways people get taken advantage of via their own empathy.
I’ve mostly been focused on internal risks though, such as the kind that show up in close relationships with friends, family, partners, or communities… which is essentially the risk of losing touch with your own perspectives—a kind of inner violence in the same sense as “non-violent communication”.
It seems to me that the more a person has internal dialogue and trust that they won’t lose touch with their own perspectives, they’re more capable of taking others’ perspectives even when those other perspectives contradict their own.
And as I said, in the meantime, it makes sense that we don’t trust each other, and that we don’t allow ourselves to make the apparent move that “opening” would seem to refer to.
I’m very interested in hearing your thoughts on this whole puzzle. I can sense that I haven’t yet found the simplicity on the other side of complexity with some of this. Reply below with case studies or questions.
I’m running some online workshops this weekend and in January on goals, plans, inner conflict, and more, and we still have tickets available! You can learn more and/or sign up here.
Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Intend, a system for improvisationally & creatively staying in touch with what's most important to you, and taking action towards it.