The process “giving feedback” is outdated.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 »
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 Life—has 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.
I was having a lot of challenge figuring out where to start this one. For some reason, the Object/Process/Meta structure I used the past three years doesn’t feel like it makes sense this year. Maybe because this year a lot of the object-level “stuff I did” was itself process- or meta-level.
The first thing I need to get out of the way is that as of last week, I’m using the Holocene calendar, which means that instead of writing my 2016 CE review, I’m writing my 12016 HE review. It’s the same year, but I’m experimenting with living in the thirteenth millennium because (4-6 years after) the birth of Christ is a weird start time for a bunch of reasons. Better is about 12,000 years ago, around the start of human civilization. There might be a slightly more accurate year, but the nice thing about just adding 10,000 years is that it means you don’t have to do any math to convert between CE and HE: just stick a 1 on the front or take it off. This in turn means I can use it in public-facing works and while it might be a little confusing, it’s still easily-understood. Here’s a great YouTube video on the subject. I’ll tell you if/how this affects my thinking during next year’s yearly review, after I’ve been using it for awhile.
Okay, 12016. » read the rest of this entry »
I’m flexing my blogging muscle again, for the first time in nearly 2 months. It feels a bit weird, and kinda nice. The break I took also feels both weird and nice.
There’s a trope or something about blogs where half of their posts are just the author apologizing for not posting more often. This isn’t going to be one of those—instead, my absence from this space is something that I want to reflect on, in a similar manner to my normal blog posts. How does it relate to my own growth? How does it relate to motivation? To metacognition?
This reflection ends up spanning 5 years and touching on a lot of what’s core to me (and what was core in the past). » read the rest of this entry »
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?
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 »
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
I’m going to go through them in that order because it’s also perhaps in increasing levels of complexity.
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.
So we’re trying to upgrade our mindsets.
Here’s my formulation of what we’ve been doing at my learning community, which has been working well and shows a lot of potential to be even more powerful:
With deep knowledge of why you want to change, make a clear commitment, to yourself. Then, share that commitment with people who support you, and make it common knowledge.
I’ve written before about a hard vs soft distinction: with hard accountability, there is a direct, specific negative outcome as a result of failing to meet your commitment. This is the domain of commitment contracts (“if I don’t write this paper by tuesday 8pm, I’ll pay you $50”) and systems like Beeminder. With soft accountability, you’re making a commitment to paying attention to your behaviour in the relevant area and shaping it to be more in line with your long-term vision.
Read that post to find out more about the distinction. Here I just want to note that hard accountability has some disadvantages in fuzzy domains, for instance in changing habits of thought. One is that if there’s a grey area, it’s then very unclear if you’ve succeeded or failed at the committed behaviour, and you need to know. Furthermore, it’s likely to be the case that the behaviour change you want to make isn’t exactly the same as the one you can measure, which means that your commitment is now somewhat at odds with your goal, in that you’re optimizing for the wrong thing.
…when to correct and when to riff…
Say you’re having a conversation with someone, and you’re trying to talk about a concept or make sense of an experience or something. And you say “so it’s sort of, you know, ABC…” and they nod and they say “ahh yeah, like XYZ”
…but XYZ isn’t quite what you had in mind.
There can be a tendency, in such a situation, to correct the person, and say “no, not XYZ”. Sometimes this makes sense, othertimes it’s better to have a different response. Let’s explore!
The short answer is that this sort of correction is important if it matters specifically what you meant. Otherwise (or if this is ambiguous) it can frustrate the conversation.
The most extreme example of where it feels like it matters is if you have a particular thing in mind that you’re trying to explain to the other person—like maybe someone is asking me to tell them about my app, Complice:
Me: “It’s a system where each day you put in what you’re doing towards your long-term goals, and track what you accomplish.”
Them: “Ohh, so like, you use it to plan out projects and keep track of all of the stuff you need to do… deadlines and so on…”
Me: “Ahh, no, it’s much more… agile than that. The idea is that long-term plans and long task lists end up becoming stale, so Complice is designed to not accrue stuff over time, and instead it’s just focused on making progress today and reflecting periodically.”
Where the shared goal is to hone in on exactly how Complice works, it makes sense for me to correct what they put out.
We might contrast that with a hypothetical continuation of that conversation, in which we’re trying to brainstorm, or flesh out an idea: » read the rest of this entry »
Expectation is often used to refer to two totally distinct things: entitlement and anticipation. My basic opinion is that entitlement is a rather counterproductive mental stance to have, while anticipations are really helpful for improving your model of the world.
Here are some quick examples to whet your appetite…
1. Consider a parent who says to their teenager: “I expect you to be home by midnight.” The parent may or may not anticipate the teen being home on time (even after this remark). Instead, they’re staking out a right to be annoyed if they aren’t back on time.
Contrast this with someone telling the person they’re meeting for lunch “I expect I’ll be there by 12:10” as a way to let them know that they’re running a little late, so that the recipient of the message knows not to worry that maybe they’re not in the correct meeting spot, or that the other person has forgotten.
2. A slightly more involved example: I have a particular kind of chocolate bar that I buy every week at the grocery store. Or at least I used to, until a few weeks ago when they stopped stocking it. They still stock the Dark version, but not the Extra Dark version I’ve been buying for 3 years. So the last few weeks I’ve been disappointed when I go to look. (Eventually I’ll conclude that it’s gone forever, but for now I remain hopeful.)
There’s a temptation to feel indignant at the absence of this chocolate bar. I had an expectation that it would be there, and it wasn’t! How dare they not stock it? I’m a loyal customer, who shops there every week, and who even tells others about their points card program! I deserve to have my favorite chocolate bar in stock!
…says this voice. This is the voice of entitlement.