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:

» read the rest of this entry »

Understanding understanding

How do you know that you’ve been understood?

This question is one I think about a fair bit, and part of what motivated me to write the jamming/honing blog post.

If I’m saying something something really simple and hard to misunderstand, all I basically need to know is that the message was received and the listener isn’t confused. for example “Hey Carla, I left the envelope outside your room.” If Carla says “OK” then I can be pretty sure she’s understood. (Unless of course she misheard me saying something else reasonable.) A slight modification of this would be a situation where the information is straightforward but detailed—and the details matter. In these situations, often the entire message is recited verbatim. A classic example would be when a number is spoken over the phone, and the listener echoes each set of 3-4 digits.

Gauging understanding via re-generating

But when communicating something more complicated or nuanced, it’s usually not enough for the speaker to just get a “K” in response. If I’m trying to convey a model to you, one common way for us to verify that you’ve understood the model is for you to say something that you would be unlikely to be able to say if you hadn’t. This could take the form of explaining the model in a new way: “ahh, so it’s kind of like Xing except you Y instead of Z” or it could involve generating an example of something the model applies to.

I think we do this intuitively. Responding to an explanation with “K” potentially implies a lack of having engaged with the details. More like “You’ve said some things and I’m not arguing with them.”

On the International Space Station, the American astronauts would speak to the Russian cosmonauts in Russian, and the Russians would reply back in English (source). The principle is that it’s much easier to tell if someone has your language confused than it is to tell if you’ve correctly interpreted something in a foreign language.

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The Third Kind of Expectation

I wrote a post last year on two different kinds of expectations: anticipations and entitlements. I realized sometime later that there is a third, very important kind of expectation. I’ve spent a lot of good time trying to find a good name for them but haven’t, so I’m just calling them “the third kind of expectation”. On reflection, while this is unwieldy, it is an absolutely fantastic name by the sparkly pink purple ball thing criterion.

First, a recap on the other two kinds of expectations in my model: anticipations and entitlements. An anticipation is an expectation in the predictive sense: what you think will happen, whether implicitly or explicitly. An entitlement is what you think should happen, whether implicitly or explicitly. If your anticipation is broken, you feel surprised or confused. If your entitlement is broken, you feel indignant or outraged.

I made the claim in my previous article that entitlements are in general problematic, both because they create interpersonal problems and because they’re a kind of rationalization.

But isn’t entitlement okay when…?

Since then, some people have pointed out to me that there’s an important role that entitlements play. Or more precisely, situations where an angry response may make sense. What if someone breaks a promise? Or oversteps a boundary? It’s widely believed that an experience of passionate intensity like anger is an appropriate response to having one’s boundaries violated.

I continue to think entitlements aren’t helpful, and that what you’re mostly looking for in these situations are more shaped like this third kind of expectation.

» read the rest of this entry »

Transcending Blame while Hopping Mountains Together

Another personal learning update, this time flavored around Complice and collaboration. I wasn’t expecting this when I set out to write the post, but what’s below ended up being very much a thematic continuation on the previous learning update post (which got a lot of positive response) so if you’re digging this post you may want to jump over to that one. It’s not a prerequisite though, so you’re also free to just keep reading.

I started out working on Complice nearly four years ago, in part because I didn’t want to have to get a job and work for someone else when I graduated from university. But I’ve since learned that there’s an extent to which it wasn’t just working for people but merely working with people long-term that I found aversive. One of my growth areas over the course of the past year or so has been developing a way-of-being in working relationships that is enjoyable and effective.

I wrote last week about changing my relationship to internal conflict, which involved defusing some propensity for being self-critical. Structurally connected with that is getting better at not experiencing or expressing blame towards others either. In last week’s post I talked about how I knew I was yelling at myself but had somehow totally dissociated from the fact that that meant that I was being yelled at.

» read the rest of this entry »

Beyond “Giving Feedback”: Co-Attending & Attunement

The process “giving feedback” is outdated. Or limited, at least.

Let’s do a post-mortem on a post-mortem, to find out why…

My friend Benjamin (who works with me on both Complice and the Upstart Collaboratory culture project) and I had an experience where we were making some nachos together, and… long story short: most of them burnt. We then spent a bit of time debriefing what had happened. What was the chain of events that led to the nachos burning? What had we each experienced? What did we notice?

This yielded a bunch of interesting and valuable observations. One thing that it did not yield was any plans or commitments for how we would do it differently in the future. Anything like “So when [this] happens next time, I’ll do [that], and that will act as a kind of preventative measure.”

Given that lack of future plans or commitments, one might ask: was it a waste of time? Did we not really learn anything? Will things just happen the same way again? » read the rest of this entry »

Acts of Speech and States of Mind

Much of this post was originally drafted a couple years ago, so the personal stories described in here took place then. I’m publishing it now in part because the novella that inspired it—Ted Chiang’s Story of your Lifehas recently been made into a feature-length movie (Arrival). In some contexts, it might make sense to say that this post may contain spoilers for SOYL; in this particular one, that would be hilariously ironic. Even after reading this post, the story will be worth reading.

This post begins, like so many of mine, with a conversation with Jean, the founder of the Upstart Collaboratory, where she and I and others are practicing the extreme sport of human relating. Jean remarked that a conversation she’d had earlier that day had been really good, then noted that she’d already told me that.

I replied, “Well, yes, and it was meaningful to me that you said it again. On the most basic level, it implies that on some level you felt you hadn’t yet conveyed just how good the conversation had been.” Then I shared with her something I’d heard from Andrew Critch, at a CFAR workshop. (Quote is from memory)

If someone says “something” to you, then that doesn’t mean that “something” is true. It also doesn’t necessarily mean that that person believes that “something” is true. Incidentally, it also doesn’t necessarily mean that they think that you don’t already agree with them that “something”. It really just means that, at the moment they said it, it made sense to them to say “something”. To you.

» read the rest of this entry »

Deconstruction of “Criticism”

Earlier this week, Julia Galef posted a brief piece to facebook on unsolicited criticism. I started to reply, and then semi-accidentally wrote something blog-post length and somewhat tangential to the original discussion. Note that I didn’t start out with a specific point to make, so my post doesn’t exactly have a coherent structure or direction to it.

“Criticism” seems like a complex term, which might be worth deconstructing.

Wikipedia says “Criticism is the practice of judging the merits and faults of something.” This seems pretty uncontroversial to me, and also seems to imply that criticism is inherently ~essentialist. If A is criticizing B’s behaviour, that basically implies there’s something wrong with B (and that A has the right to judge B).

This is naturally going to put people on the defensive.

Broadly speaking, criticism is part of a larger set of things we might call “feedback”. In a really abstract sense, what “feedback” is is information flow between parts of a system. Even if we assume that all criticism is negative (which seems roughly but not strictly true of the usage of the english word “criticism”, outside of artistic contexts) it’s still not the case that all negative feedback is criticism: for instance, if your house gets too warm in the winter, a negative feedback loop from the thermostat to the furnace will cause the furnace to stop.

To take a human example, sometimes I’ve been talking excitedly and then someone has told me (with words or gestures) to be more quiet. This is clearly negative feedback: it responds to increased voice volume on my part with something intended to decrease voice volume. Often this volume feedback feels like a helpful and connective signal, but at other times it feels like criticism—like they think I’m incompetent for not already speaking more quietly. Especially if they’ve told me in the past.

What makes the difference?

» read the rest of this entry »

Use Reference Incidents to Clarify Communication of Experience

A common source of confusion in conversation is when the participants aren’t talking about the same thing. If the thing in question is a concept, it can be helpful to taboo your words so that you have to unpack the concept. Does a tree falling in an empty forest make a sound? Well, depends on what you mean by “sound”.

In other situations, where the conversation is about communicating our experiences of each other (aka “feedback”) there’s another habit that I find useful, that I call using reference incidents. The idea is to find or create a shared example of a particular behaviour or experience in question, with features known to both parties, so that you can compare notes on the incident and reveal your perspective to the other person in a way that they’re able to integrate it. This is related to the virtue of narrowness: “What is true of one apple may not be true of another apple; thus more can be said about a single apple than about all the apples in the world.”

A short example from my life of how this sort of confusion shows up. I was talking with a housemate, and she said to me, “This experience right now reminds me of this time with Jean,” and went on to describe that incident. Then, some minutes later she mused, “…yeah, when I spoke I think I was feeling discomfort.” At this point it would be easy to assume that she meant that she was feeling discomfort in talking with me just then, but she also could be still thinking of the conversation with Jean. (Or I could have made the opposite assumption).

Of course, in this case it may simply be both. But I asked about it, because in making sense of her talking about her discomfort, I’m bringing a lot of background context based on my own understanding of the conversation in question, and so if she and I are thinking of different conversations, then it’s going to be hard for me to make accurate inferences about what she’s saying. This makes communication hard.

Here’s a more extensive, made-up example: » read the rest of this entry »

The Process Lens

A lot of things that we usually model as events or states can be thought of as processes. Depending on the context, this process lens can

  • boggle the mind
  • improve goal-orientation
  • bring clarity to communicating and relating

I’m going to go through them in that order because it’s also perhaps in increasing levels of complexity.

Some brief bogglement

When was the last time you looked at the stars at night?

I was hanging out with my friend a few weeks ago, staring at the stars while we talked about the nature of the universe.

It occurred to me that in some ways it’s less accurate to say that the stars “are bright”, and more accurate to say that they’re continually emitting light. I mean, obviously, but really stop and think about it: say you’re looking at the “North Star” (Polaris). It’s about 400 light years away, which means that the fact that you’re seeing light from that direction right now is because of a bunch of nuclear reactions in the star, like 400 years ago. A few seconds later, you’re seeing new light, made from some more nuclear reactions. And on and on.

And that light is being continually sent out in all directions. There’s a giant sphere radiating out from Polaris of light-from-400-years-ago. There’s another sphere of light-from-500-years-ago, which is a thousand light-years across (Earth is inside this sphere) and still expanding. The sphere of light-from-300-years-ago is also gigantic, but won’t reach Earth until the 22nd century. (If you’re reading this in the 22nd century or later, then OMG HI. Please forgive this claim which is now false.)

So the light you’re seeing isn’t just the state of things. It’s a process that is continuously happening.

» read the rest of this entry »

Abstracting from Experience

Some things you don’t learn by being told (or telling yourself), you learn by organizing your experiences.

A few weeks ago I was talking with a friend, Ruby, over skype. Our conversation drifted to letters one might send to one’s past self, from say 1-2 years ago. Aside from the obvious tip-off’s about stock prices or romantic inclinations or lacks thereof, what would be useful to say? Ruby proposed sending his past self a list of books to read sooner. I though that was probably better than lots of other approaches (in part because it lets you send more information than you could possibly fit into a letter) but it seemed to me like there was a non-obvious challenge to doing that effectively, related to experience. There are some books that are broadly pretty mindblowing, but I’ve found that often when books really rock my world it’s because I’m particularly ripe for them at that moment. I think that trying to send a revelation to your past self, if you weren’t ready for it, might have a bit of an Archimedes’s Chronophone effect, where everything comes out sounding kind of obvious rather than insightful.

A second story: I was talking with some friends about Robert Kegan’s Constructive Developmental Theory. The structure of CDT is about shifting parts of your experience from being [thoughts you are subject to] to being [thoughts you can take as object, i.e. think about]. I’ve blogged about this here. Its content is a set of five specific subject-object stages in how people view themselves, ideas, and other people. Anyway, one of the people I was talking to has a 10-year-old daughter, and he was wondering if I had advice on how to help her go through the shifts faster. After noting that that wasn’t necessarily a good idea (I mean, it could be, but it might make her feel more distanced from her peers), I remarked that the process is complex and it’s not enough to just teach her certain things or to get her to do certain other things.

Because each subsequent shift in Kegan’s system represents not just new knowledge or understanding, but an entirely new kind of order applied to the level below. » read the rest of this entry »

A portrait of Malcolm Ocean

I'm Malcolm Ocean.

I'm trying to figure out how humans work so I can help make humanity work. More about me.

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