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Robert Bogue

Book Review-Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most

Getting along with others is the biggest challenge of our human existence.  Sure, there are easy conversations – but there are difficult ones, too.  Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most is a guidebook for walking through the conversations that matter.  It comes as a long line of writings from the Harvard Negotiation Project.  The most popular book to come from this work is Getting to Yes.  Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen also wrote Thanks for the Feedback, which describes how people can learn to accept feedback better.  This work is about how to give feedback and have the hard conversations.

It’s important to note that others have tackled this difficult problem as well.  For instance, Crucial Conversations and Radical Candor take different approaches to these same hard conversations.

Three Parts

There are three critical parts to any difficult conversation.  They are:

  1. What Happened?
  2. What Was Felt?
  3. What Does This Mean?

These are fundamentally the same feeling, meaning, and power that Bill Issacs speaks about in Dialogue, which builds on David Kantor’s work discussed in Reading the Room.  The different framing is that, here, the focus is on the parts of the conversation that are needed rather than the perspectives that someone can take in the middle of a conversation (or dialogue).

While the process starts with what happened, it’s possible that this is the least useful aspect of the conversation.  While it sets framing, it is almost never what the difficult conversation is about.  Difficult conversations aren’t about the facts.  They’re about the perceptions, interpretations, and values.

That’s where we move into the land of feelings, or affect.  The goal is to understand and validate everyone’s feelings.  There are no wrong feelings, though there are some wrong behaviors.  We must accept that people feel they way they feel for good reasons – even if we don’t understand it.

The third part is understanding the meaning to our relationship.  It can be something as simple as wanting to be heard or to create awareness or something more concrete and tangible.

Battles and Learning

Often people get into battles about what the facts of the situation are.  One person sees something from one direction and the next person sees it differently.  Instead of accepting both perspectives, an argument ensues to determine objective truth and reality.  This locks horns and prevents the conversation from progressing towards learning.  Learning conversations are fundamentally based on the desire to understand the other person’s experience – not to agree with it.

The key perspective change is for everyone to get curious.  When we move to a learning perspective and step aside from the need to agree, we can learn more about the other person and their perspective in a way that allows for greater unity – and better relationships going forward.  If we can’t get curious about the other person’s perspective, we may find it hard to get to any kind of a resolution.

Three Reasons

Difficult Conversations proposes there are three reasons for disagreement:

  1. Different information
  2. Different interpretations
  3. Self-interest

For years, we’ve been teaching conflict resolution, and we simplify this into two simple reasons:

  1. Perspective
  2. Values

We believe that perspective is inclusive of our information but encompasses the deeper meaning that we’ve assigned through our experiences.  We further believe that it’s values that drive our interpretations – primarily of the meaning.  We believe that self-interest is encapsulated in the concept of values.

We find that we can generally quickly identify what’s different in perspectives.  Values are harder to understand.  Using frameworks like Reiss’ 16 basic motivators from Who Am I? and Jonathan Haidt’s foundations of morality as explored in The Righteous Mind, we can generally identify the value systems that cause people to reach different conclusions.

Lack of Faith Leaps

Daniel Kahneman explains in Thinking, Fast and Slow that we’ve got a fundamental attribution error, which causes us to assign someone else’s behaviors to their character rather than the circumstances.  However, our leaps don’t stop there.  Chris Argyris developed a ladder of inference, and it’s how we infer things that aren’t in the conversation.  (See Choice Theory for more.)  It’s this process that moves us from bad intentions to bad character and, ultimately, condemning people as though they had wronged us.  We develop stigmas on irrelevant details in an attempt to protect ourselves.  (See Stigma for more on stigma, and Leadership and Self-Deception for more about protecting ourselves.)

Intention Switchtrack

In Thanks for the Feedback, Stone and Heen explain that a switchtrack is where one topic in a conversation suddenly becomes two, as someone introduces a second topic to the conversation – generally unintentionally.  This can happen when someone is expressing their feelings and the other person responds with their intent without acknowledging or reflecting the understanding of what the other person is saying.  In an ideal world, listeners would share an Effective Apology before sharing more context in the form of their intentions.

The problem is that the intent of the person may be of little solace.  Certainly, people feel the way they feel – regardless of the others’ intentions.  It’s also possible that the consequences of the interaction may mean that there’s a real problem to be solved – regardless of the intentions.  That isn’t to say that you should never share intentions.  It’s a good part of an effective apology when coupled with proposed actions to prevent further harm.  However, there are times when the practicalities may be more important.

The Blame Game

We’ve all been in the meeting where the question gets asked bluntly: “Whose fault is this?” or “Who is to blame?”  The problem, in addition to being unhelpful for moving things forward, is it focuses on the person or people who caused the problem.  In our complex world, there’s rarely one cause.  (See Focused, Fast, and Flexible and Cynefin.)  It’s more about contributions than cause.

It contains the implicit judgement that something or someone isn’t up to the standards of conduct.  It implies that some moral or societal code has been broken when this is rarely the case.  Finally, it implies the need for punishment if there has been a breach.  This may – or may not – be the case.

A better approach is to speak about the contributions that people have made to the problem.  It recognizes that many things are interacting systems.  (See Thinking in Systems.)  It’s only through the interaction of the system that the results were achieved.  If we change any variable in the system, we have the possibility to get different outcomes – without the need to identify that someone did anything wrong.

The blame game is a waste of time.  It doesn’t really work to get to the root of a problem, because there’s no psychological safety – and there’s no help in going forward.  (See The Fearless Organization and Right Kind of Wrong for more on psychological safety.)

Contribution to Trauma

In my post Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, I teased out the concept of making choices that lead to bad outcomes as compared to appropriate vulnerability.  The challenge with having conversations with people where trauma is involved is that it may not be possible to separate the sense of blame from the sense of contribution to the situation.  It may be that the person takes on too much responsibility – or not enough.

While it’s certainly not appropriate to “blame the victim,” that may be what someone hears when you’re trying to sort out contribution to a problem when trauma is involved.  (See Becoming Trauma Informed and People in Crisis for more about the tendency to “blame the victim.”)

Focused on the Wrong Thing

It’s a tragedy.  Kids are jumping out of windows and dying.  The cry goes out that we need to address the problem.  People are mobilized and inquiries are started.  Progress continues trying to convince kids to not jump out of the windows, until someone finally realizes that they’re jumping out of the windows because the building is on fire.  The negative outcome has us focused on the last step instead of looking at the broader factors and the bigger picture.

This myopic view prevents us from working backwards along the causal chain to discover what people really want (freedom from the fire) instead of the ends they achieve (a fatal fall).  (See Collaboration and Moral Disengagement for more on means vs. ends.)

Negotiating our Feelings

Most people believe there’s a great difference between their feelings and their thoughts, but neurologically speaking, they look identical.  When being scanned there’s no way to separate a thought from an emotion.  (See Feeling Good.)  While emotional reasoning can be bad – that is, allowing our emotions to determine whether something is good or not – negotiating with our feelings can be powerful.  (See How Good People Make Tough Choices and Moral Disengagement for the ethical implications.)

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most widely validated approaches to psychological treatment, and it’s fundamentally based on the concept that you can use your thoughts to shape your emotions.  We can’t think that our thoughts and feelings don’t influence each other, because they are intertwined.  (See Brief Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Suicide Prevention and Cognitive Therapy for Suicidal Patients for more.)

Identities

One of the biggest challenges with difficult conversations is the possibility of tripping over some aspect of someone’s identity.  (See Thanks for the Feedback for more.)  It’s difficult to identify how someone sees themselves and their identity, because our identities are multifaceted.  Some of our identities are born into us.  Some identities we choose.  Other identities are imposed upon us by our cultures.

The best intentioned of us can’t escape the chance that we’ll be shaken from our identity.  Consider the story: After observing Ōsensei Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido, sparring with an accomplished fighter, a young student said to the master, “You never lose your balance. What is your secret?” “You are wrong,” Ōsensei replied. “I am constantly losing my balance. My skill lies in my ability to regain it.”

I’ve frequently shared Richard Moon, an aikido master, saying that it’s not that the great masters never lose their center but rather that they discover it sooner and recover faster.  (See Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together, Emotional Intelligence 2.0, Resilient, and Reinventing Organizations.)

Listening

The most important part of difficult conversations isn’t talking.  The most important part is listening.  The most important part is learning how to listen with curiosity and deferred judgement.  (See Motivational Interviewing, and A Way of Being.)  In the end, if you can listen well, you can handle all Difficult Conversations.

Book Review-Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well

It became a joke.  It’s a simple response that started occurring about ten years ago.  It was “Thanks for the feedback.”  It’s a shortened version of the book title, Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well.  The product team would say this during sessions with the Microsoft MVPs.  As a group, Microsoft MVPs are passionate about Microsoft products.  We used to get some program managers who took feedback well and others who didn’t.  Somewhere along the line, they got the message, “Thank you for the feedback.”  It acknowledged the feedback and closed the discussion.

However, the most important part is the acknowledgement of the feedback.  The receiver is positively acknowledging that the feedback has been received.  They’ve taken ownership of taking the next steps.

Two Sides of the Coin

This book is another output of the Harvard Negotiation Project.  One of the well-known others is Getting to Yes.  Where it took the perspective of the communicator – the initiator – Thanks for the Feedback focuses on how you can respond better as a receiver.  It’s potentially a harder spot.

The receiver has to “let in” the feedback they’re receiving.  Certainly, there are many people we’ve encountered who have refused to let the feedback in.  The problem with this attitude is that receiving feedback sits at the intersection of our drive to learn and our need to be accepted.  We can neither learn nor remain accepted if we refuse to let feedback in.  John Gottman found that spouses who influenced one another were more likely to stay married.  (See The Science of Trust.)

Triggers

There are three key triggers that can be tripped when you’re receiving feedback: truth, relationship, and identity.  Once triggered, the only path to recovery is through acknowledging and processing the trigger to more rationally – and less emotionally – process the information.

Truth Triggers

What’s wrong with the feedback?  Maybe they said red instead of green.  Maybe they didn’t understand the broader context.  The truth is that we look for reasons to avoid accepting feedback.  Once we find that, we can “safely” reject the feedback.  In the language of Going to Extremes, the question is “Can I accept this?” versus “Must I accept this?”  The more that it goes against our beliefs, the more we’ll find reasons to not believe it.

Sometimes we bypass the rejection with humor.  In fact, Inside Jokes proposes that humor is our brain’s error checking process, detecting a fault in the logic and rewarding us for the discovery.  However, as many comedians have learned, the line between offensive and funny is razor thin.  Many comedians and entertainers have stumbled across the line and have found themselves having to apologize – or, tragically, have become “cancelled.”

While we believe that there is one objective truth that everyone believes, we often delude ourselves into a confidence in our beliefs that isn’t warranted.  (See How We Know What Isn’t So for more.)  True or not, if we don’t believe it’s true, we will struggle to accept it.

Relationship Triggers

Of course, the feedback is right, but I don’t want to hear it from you.  Like the indignant teenager who loathes to admit their parent may be right, we are triggered not by the content of the feedback but instead the fact of any kind of feedback at all coming from this person.  After all, I’m better, smarter, or wiser than they are, how could they possibly have anything to say that is important to me?

Identity Triggers

Sometimes, the feedback presses us in places that define us.  We have labeled ourselves as a good family man, and someone tells us something that is in conflict with that image.  In these cases, it’s not the feedback at stake, it’s our very being.  While having a stable core, or what Brene Brown would call “wholeheartedness,” can mitigate these responses, they can’t be eliminated.  (See Dialogue for stable core, and Daring Greatly for wholeheartedness.)

Often, we aren’t consciously aware of what our identities are or that we’ve got multiple fragmented and, in some ways, conflicting identities for ourselves.  It’s one of the things that we work on first in our Extinguish Burnout work.  We believe that until we can accept the whole of who we are, we’re less able to accept our foibles and flaws.

Sometimes, the feedback isn’t even directly about a part of our identity that we can name.  Instead, it is in opposition to the way that we’re motivated.  Perhaps we’re high on tranquility, and we’re given feedback about how we bring chaos with us.  (See Who Am I? and The Normal Personality for more on motivators.)

Understanding

We hear words and assume that we understand the meaning behind them, but language is fraught with problems.  We don’t know whether “dust” refers to something covering our furniture or the process of removing it.  We can’t tell when something is “weathered” if it survived or was worn away.  There are countless words that have multiple definitions, including too many where the definitions include opposites.

There are also some things that are difficult, if not impossible, to convey with words.  Try describing how to ride a bike without someone actually having a chance to try it.  The words simply aren’t enough to create a clean understanding of the process.

The first step in receiving feedback should be to ensure we know what the other person intended.  One way to do that is to use Chris Argyris’ Ladder of Inference to see what we are adding that the other person might not have intended.  (See Choice Theory for more.)

Too Sensitive

One of the common challenges in couples counseling is that one partner believes that the other is too sensitive.  They believe that they should be allowed to keep making the kinds of comments, gestures, and decisions they’ve been making, and the other partner is overreacting.  In the opposite direction flows claims of being insensitive.  (See The Science of Trust.)  One could easily question whether one is too sensitive or insensitive – but the right answer is to find a place where our sensitivity is range with our partner’s.

In the context of feedback, we’re constantly trying to expand our capacity to be less sensitive to the feedback when received and more responsive to the appropriate feedback.

Clear Action

Sometimes, the feedback we’re receiving isn’t actionable.  It’s a criticism without a solution.  It’s a suggestion without clarity.  For the expert feedback receivers, this is a challenge and opportunity to find out if there is a way to arrive at actionable feedback.

Sometimes, the conversion is simple.  “What would you have me do?”  The person providing feedback often pauses before answering with specific, tangible, and direct suggestions.  Other times, they may answer with something akin to “I guess nothing.”  From here, it’s harder to know if the person recognized that there is nothing to be done or if they’re giving up because they expect that you’re preparing to reject their feedback – and them.

Invisible

The famous study that’s chronicled and expanded upon in The Invisible Gorilla asks participants to count the number of players with white shorts who are playing around with a basketball on a short video.  Half the players wear white shorts, and the other half wear black.  The catch is that, in the middle of the video, a person dressed in a gorilla costume walks across the scene, beats their chest, and moves out of frame.  It’s the ultimate expression of a focus problem.  Few people notice the gorilla.  They’re so focused on white shorts that the black gorilla gets filtered out.

The benefit of good feedback is that it can help us see what we don’t even know is there.  When we focus on other things, there may be aspects of our personality or our performance that we just don’t see – things that another perspective and clear feedback may make visible to us.

Splitting

It’s a switchtrack.  We start with one topic for feedback, and the recipient replies with a slightly different topic.  I see it all the time when facilitating business conversations.  (See Dialogue Mapping.)  In fact, it’s one of the first mental checks when I listen to people speak.  I try to respond with “I think we’re speaking about a few things here.  First, …”  I proceed to list them and get confirmation before discussing how we’ll get to all of them, but we have to process them one at a time.

The problem with switchtracking is that each person when they respond tries to move the conversation back to their topic by switching it back.  It’s like the problem when people are focused on feeling, power, or meaning to the exclusion of the others, and they seem to be talking past each other.  (See Dialogue and Crucial Conversations.)

Outside the Box

“New ideas often come from those without traditional credibility…”  In other words, the filters we use to remove irrelevant feedback may unintentionally cause us to miss some of the most important feedback.  If we say that you must have a PhD in statistics to tell me how I might have misused a principle in a subtle way, we’ll miss feedback that the amateur statistician offers.  We forget that at the beginning of every area of specialty is someone who has no formal credentials.

When asked about some of the outlandish – but useful – ideas that we have, I’ll often respond that I don’t even know where I put my box to be inside of it.  If you look at the full list of book reviews that I’ve done, you’ll see dozens of topic areas.

I finally went back and got both a bachelor’s degree (Computer Science) and a master’s degree (Management and Leadership), but that wasn’t until recently.  The ideas really come from 30 years of consulting experience with countless clients in dozens of industries.  I’ve been able to see simple solutions with broad applicability being used in one industry that I can bring to another.  (See Creative Confidence for a starter on how to think outside of the box.)

Loving the Flaws

One of the traps that we fall into is saying that we love someone in spite of their flaws.  But they really want to be loved because of their flaws.  This is a subtle shift, but it acknowledges that our personalities are made by our flaws.  A bunch of perfect humans walking around would be indistinguishable from one another.  We love people because of their flaws, quirks, and uniqueness, even if it’s hard to admit it.

It’s hard to say that you love some aspect of someone that seems unpleasant to you.  At the same time, there’s the real need to acknowledge that this is one of the things that makes them who they are – and why you like or love them overall.

Role Confusion and Clarity

Accidental adversaries are created by two things: role confusion and role clarity.  Accidental adversaries are people who we treat as an adversary not because of who they are but because of their role.  Sometimes with role confusion, one or the other of us steps outside of the role we should have and onto the toes of the other.  This confusion makes it hard to know who should do what and that creates unnecessary friction.

Sometimes, however, the friction is intentional.  There’s a clarity of roles, and one role’s job is the opposite of the other.  I explain that, traditionally, IT infrastructure teams want stability because they’re measured on uptime.  IT development teams are measured on their ability to implement new features.  Necessarily, developers want faster deployments, while infrastructure teams want to limit the rate of change to ensure stability.  Their roles are clear – and in some degree of conflict.

Addressing the System

We’ve all heard stories of people who continuously patched a problem rather than dealing with the core issues.  Whether it’s pouring oil into a car engine every day rather than having it repaired or bailing out a basement every time it rains rather than fixing the foundation, solving immediate problems without addressing the bigger system is all around us.  We’ll mediate the disagreements and fights between employees but never deal with the structure that creates conflict or help them to build a better relationship.

If we want to get good feedback, we’ve got to create the structure and systems that encourage it and provide a variety of perspectives, so we can correct for the distortion created by any one person’s perspective.

The Space Between

Ultimately, feedback lives in the space between us and the person providing the feedback.  It’s not always possible to determine how much of the feedback is about them, about us, or about the intersection.  Teasing out how much of the feedback is about us versus the other person often requires other feedback – with its own set of problems with where the source lies.  Systems that provide a large amount of feedback can be calibrated to help get to what we should change to be experienced better by others.

While we’re sorting out what of the feedback is about us, them, or our interactions, the best we can do is say Thanks for the Feedback.

Book Review-The Power of Attachment: How to Create Deep and Lasting Intimate Relationships

Attachment didn’t start with adult relationships.  It started with the study of children and their behaviors.  It started with an attempt to understand why some children would cling to their parents, some would avoid them, and some would explore when their parents returned from a brief absence.  However, since the humble beginnings, attachment theory has become a block of research that reveals The Power of Attachment: How to Create Deep and Lasting Intimate Relationships.

“Little t” Traumas

One of the challenges that is sometimes encountered is when people reject the idea that they’ve had traumatic experiences.  They’ll say that it “happened to them” and not me. (They weren’t the ones with the trauma, others are.)  They’ll explain that it “wasn’t that bad.”  They’ll think that, to have a traumatic experience, it had to have been something major.  In Opening Up, James Pennebaker describes his work after the Mount St. Helens eruption.  (It’s a fascinating study of the impact of sensemaking after an event.)

Most of us, thankfully, will not encounter these kinds of “capital T” traumas.  However, almost all of us will be or have been temporarily overwhelmed or felt helpless at some point in our lives.  These, too, are traumas – and they’re just as important and valid as the big kind.  We’ve had relationships fall apart.  We’ve lost jobs.  We’ve missed opportunities that we deeply desired.  These little things matter.

If not processed, they will, over time, build up and become impediments on the path to our happiness.  The good news about “little t” traumas is that they’re often easier to deal with than “capital T” traumas.  In Antifragile, Taleb explains that we need small challenges to grow.  Csikszentmihalyi says the same thing in Flow.  We need an optimal balance of challenge and skill to be the most effective, and “little t” traumas represent a great way to develop our skills.

Unresolved Trauma

Diane Poole Heller, the author, says, “Unresolved trauma, in my opinion, has led to a nationwide epidemic of loneliness and hurt.”  Indirectly, trauma destabilizing attachment and leading people to avoidant attachment styles certainly can lead to loneliness.  (See also Loneliness.)  The pain of separation from others can also cause hurt.  (See Bowling Alone for our need for social connection.)

However, more troubling to me is the relationship between unresolved trauma and both mental illness and suicide.  We continue to discover that trauma is at the root of many of the mental illnesses that we encounter.  Suicide is practically entangled with trauma with conversations about the role of pain and traumatic events.  (See Stay for more on the role of pain and Suicide and Social Justice for the role of traumatic events.)

Relevant Questions

We have a deep need to be heard.  We need to be understood by others.  Maybe it’s a side effect of the power we developed to work together, as explained in The Righteous Mind.  We’ve even got laughter as an error correction method when our understanding of another person is suddenly corrected.  (See Inside Jokes.)  When we ask relevant questions, we demonstrate our interest.  Even if our understanding isn’t perfect, the structure of a question allows it to be corrected.

Asking good questions is at the heart developing understanding.  James Spradley in The Ethnographic Interview lays out a framework of questions to aid the anthropologist who has landed in the midst of an unknown culture and needs to make sense of it.  Motivational Interviewing is built on an active listening model that encourages deep understanding of the person in session with the therapist.  Chris Argyris approached questions from the perspective of his ladder of inference.  (See Choice Theory for the ladder.)

John Gottman in The Science of Trust explains the need to attune to our significant others and the results of missing out on these opportunities for attunement.  Heller quotes the research of Ed Tronick, which states that we only need to be attuned to our loved ones 30% of the time.  (However, strangely, Tronick’s work is with children so the applicability may be questionable.)

Healthy Dependency

At its heart, attachment is about our need to be dependent on others.  In our childhood, we’re dependent.  It’s part of being a human.  As adolescents, we strive to separate and express our individuality.  (See Childhood and Society.)  As adults, we ideally enter interdependent relationships.  (See Healthy Dependency in Relationships.)  One of the pitfalls that adults can land in is called “codependency,” which is characterized by manipulation and enabling the other person’s bad habits, including addiction.  (See Boundaries and Compelled to Control.)  The anxious insecure attachment style often falls into these unhealthy patterns.

Leaning on Others

Certainly, there’s a time and a place to lean on others.  Dependency is, as was mentioned above, a good thing.  However, there’s one area where leaning on others and dependency isn’t a good thing.  That is when it comes to regulating emotional states.  When we use others to consistently regulate our emotions, we turn over power to them – and we leave ourselves helpless when they’re unavailable.

If we want to be securely attached and receive the benefits of secure attachment, we must learn to regulate our own feelings – without the impact of others.

Abandonment

For those with anxious attachment styles, anything can seem like an abandonment.  One partner rolls over to sleep after 30 minutes of cuddling, and the other partner feels abandoned.  The separation seems to immediately negate the previous time of togetherness.  This may not be caused by the first partner’s actions as much as the patterns of abandonment during the formation of the other partner’s personality.

Take in the Love

When in a relationship with an avoidantly attached person, they’ll sometimes deflect affirmation particularly in the form of love.  When a securely attached person communicates about their love for the other, it’s met with contradiction or deflection.  Instead of accepting something nice – and true – they change the subject or deflect the comment.  This creates problems for both parties.

The avoidant person never really gets the opportunity to understand how much they’re loved.  The secure person also feels invalidated.  They feel as if their feelings and their love aren’t valued by their avoidant partner.  Ultimately, this can be a corrosive force that will lead towards the dissolution of the relationship.

Small Thawing

Sometimes, as Peter Levine explained in Trauma and Memory, people freeze in the face of fear.  For those who become catatonic – and those who love them – the process can be intensely frustrating.  Often, one feels powerless to initiate movements or break the spell they’ve fallen under.  The answer is simple – and small.  If you want to unfreeze a person, the question is what’s the smallest thing that can get them to move – and can you get them to do that?  From blinks to swallowing to twitches of fingers, slow progression can be an effective technique for unwinding a frozen state.

Sometimes, the small movements can result in a powerful transformation, just like understanding The Power of Attachment.

Book Review-The Data Detective: Ten Easy Rules to Make Sense of Statistics

We’re inundated with statistics.  We hear them in the news.  Politicians spout numbers that may or may not be based on statistics or even reality.  No matter the source, we need to be able to evaluate and validate the numbers that we’re hearing.  We need to be able to become The Data Detective [using] Ten Easy Rules to Make Sense of Statistics.  Tim Hartford walks us through ten ways to not just make sense of statistics – but to validate that what’s being said matches what the data and the statistics actually say.

Flood the Zone with Shit

Before we look at ways to make sense of statistics, we should explain why it’s so hard to begin with.  There are three key reasons why it’s so hard.  The first is the most pernicious.

The reality is that flooding communications is an effective strategy.  Even After the Ball explains that jamming is a great strategy for disrupting the status quo. (Jamming is sending other messages into the channel to disrupt the communication.)  The Organized Mind emphasizes that we’re living in a world of information overload.  Politicians and others are aware that if you flood the zone with shit, you may be able to avoid people discovering the truth until it’s too late.

Tobacco companies did this for years.  They’d question the evidence, fund their own competing studies, including studies about interesting but unrelated topics to create discussions that weren’t about the harmful effects of smoking.  It was in an effort to keep people distracted from the truth.

Donald Trump popularized the phrase “fake news.”  Unfortunately, it’s damaged our already fragile trust.  American trust has been in a long decline.  In Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order, we learned that trust has important implications to society.  Robert Putnam, in his book, Bowling Alone, spoke of the decline of social capital – and the corresponding loss of trust.  His book, Our Kids, further explores the concept and, particularly, the dynamics of inequity.  We even see echoes of the erosion of trust in America’s Generations.  Where our grandparents expected they’d work for one company their entire working life, we don’t have the same perception.  Instead, we speak of the gig economy, where loyalty and trust are ancillary.

Preconceptions

As other resources like Noise, The Signal and the Noise, Superforecasting, and Thinking, Fast and Slow explain, we often overvalue our initial perception and our preconceived notions.  We’ll cling on to perceptions that we have proven incorrect, because we’ve held the perceptions prior to the disconfirming data.  Instead of asking the question, “Can I believe this?” we ask, “Must I believe this?”  And even then, we’ll resist the change.

At some level, this makes sense.  We don’t want to think that we’ve been wrong all this time or consider the innumerable number of decisions we’ve made with bad data.  However, this causes us to often miss the importance of information that doesn’t corroborate our stories.

Rule 1: Search Your Feelings

Our perception of data is distorted by our feelings in ways that we cannot detect without first evaluating our feelings.  In How Emotions Are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett explains how easy it is to misinterpret our bodily sensations and assign incorrect emotions to them.  However, little space is given to the awareness that our feelings shape our thoughts.

In The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt explains that what we consider our consciousness is a rational rider sitting on top of an emotional elephant.  (See also Switch.)  It’s important to recognize that emotions are in control when they want to be – the rider only has the illusion of control.  Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow says that System 1 (the fast, instinctive one) will lie to System 2 by giving it incorrect or partial information.  In other words, we don’t know when our feelings are getting the best of us.

In Superforecasting, Phil Tetlock explains how one of the most common acknowledgements from superforecasters when they miss is that they became involved with the outcome, and their judgement was clouded by their feelings.  This is consistent with Daniel Kahneman’s work in Thinking, Fast and Slow, where he explains that our immediate processing can cloud the more thoughtful approach.

There’s no foolproof way to prevent it – but a good start is to acknowledge when feelings are involved.

Rule 2: Ponder Your Personal Experience

Fewer than 50% of people accept that the MMR vaccine doesn’t cause autism.  Andrew Wakefield – who started this – lost his license to practice medicine and The Lancet printed a retraction.  The problem is that it’s intuitive.  MMR is given around the same time that autism is diagnosed, so it “feels” like there should be a connection.  It becomes very hard when the statistics don’t match our personal experience.

A colleague of mine was going to a clinic during the heart of the COVID-19 outbreak where they were using ivermectin.  Ivermectin is a horse anti-parasitic.  It makes no sense as a treatment for COVID, but people believed it.  His retort to me was that no one had died who sought treatment at the clinic.  His experience was that it cured.  I kept thinking “base rate.”  On a sample size of 600, I wouldn’t have expected a death – and I wouldn’t be sure they would have known.  The clinic wouldn’t have seen the same patient again, so how would they know whether they were cured or died?  There’s no reporting requirement that would have ensured the clinic would know. I kept wondering what would have happened without any treatment.  It turns out that it probably would have been about the same.

George Washington (yes, the first president of the United States) likely died as much from his treatments – bloodletting – as the ailment he was fighting.  There are cases where we use bloodletting and leeches today – but in much narrower and more careful ways than we used to, because we know when it is and isn’t helpful.

It’s another, but related, thing to confuse correlation with causation.  In my review of The Halo Effect, I detailed the sequence of events that led to the 2008 financial collapse.  From believing that, if we could just increase home ownership, we could increase economic stability to financial services greed, we led ourselves right into a trap – because it seemed to make sense.

Rule 3: Avoid Premature Enumeration

Amy Edmondson was flustered.  She had increased the psychological safety in a hospital unit, and instead of the number of errors going down as expected, they went up.  (See The Fearless Organization for more.)  Lucky for her – and us – she realized that it wasn’t the actual error rate that went up, it was only the reported error rate.  When it looked like things were getting worse, they were actually getting better.

This problem is particularly present in suicide, where the reported rate of suicides in the United States keeps going up.  We don’t know if that’s because it’s more acceptable for a coroner to mark suicide on the death certificate or whether it’s an actual change in the rate.  (See Postmortem.)  It used to be that some coroners required a suicide note, but we know that notes are very rare. (See Clues to Suicide).  We also know that more locales are slowly employing professional medical examiners instead of electing coroners who may or may not have any useful skills.  (See Postmortem.)  With suicide, everything hinges on intent, which is hard to ascertain in a dead person.  (See Autopsy of a Suicidal Mind.)

Other statistics are harder to understand the intent.  Consider the discussion about wealth in society.  It’s a striking claim that a handful (fewer than 100 or maybe even than 10) have more wealth than the poorest half of the world.  However, as Hartford points out, it doesn’t take much to have more wealth than a billion people – he surmises that his son’s piggy bank holding $15 has more than the billion poorest people on the planet.  His point is that summing zeros still leads to zeros.

It’s for these reasons that, when we’re looking at statistics, we need to know who is doing the counting – and why.  He cites a different perspective on inequity from Thomas Piketty – author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

Rule 4: Step Back and Enjoy the View

There used to be a joke that a helicopter pilot got lost in the fog near Seattle, Washington.  He came upon a building and asked an occupant by the window where he was.  The response was, “You’re in a helicopter.”  The pilot, to the astonishment of the passengers, proceeded immediately to the landing pad for a safe landing.  When asked, he explained that the answer was technically accurate and practically useless, and therefore he knew he was speaking with Microsoft support.  (My friends who work in Microsoft support aren’t fond of this joke.)

The joke is not funny, but it’s indicative of a type of statistics that sound important but mean nothing.  It’s not that they’re inaccurate, it’s just that they’re too narrow.  They look at something that flows against the trend or obscures the larger picture – and it’s interesting, so it’s news.

The number of people showing up in the emergency room after having a stroke are (or at least was) increasing.  It’s true – and it obscures the larger fact that strokes are going down.  The awareness campaigns that are leading people to go the ER at the first sign of stroke result in an increase in ER visits.  However, a story about how stroke awareness is up isn’t as catchy.

Rule 5: Get the Backstory

The fundamental premise of Barry Swartz’ The Paradox of Choice hangs on an experiment with jam.  Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper set up a stand to sell jam.  When they sold three kinds, they did better than when they sold sixteen.  The conclusion was clear.  Too many options, and you’d drive customers away.  The problem is that when people tried to replicate the experiment, they didn’t get the same result.  To be fair, there seems to be some reason to believe that helping people navigate complex choices is valuable.  It’s why you see all the comparison charts.

However, I was personally aware of another plausible reason for selling less jam: satiation.  The need for jam was solved in the first foray into the square, so the second time around, people didn’t really need or want any more jam.  I saw this when I had a small cadre of folks selling candy at junior high school.  It was going great until people got tired of the candy that we were selling.  No amount of price discounting mattered.

It’s called survivorship bias, and it impacts more than our perception of the benevolent dolphins that guide humans back to shore.  (See Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) for more about benevolent dolphins.)  Abraham Wald observed the same thing when asked how to improve the survivability of airplanes.  Confronted with reams of data about the planes that survived with bullet holes, he was concerned about the data that was missing – all the planes that didn’t make it back.  Perhaps the places with the bullet holes are survivable, but those without bullet holes weren’t?

Sometimes, perverse incentives lead us away from the very thing that we should be seeking.  For instance, I wrote about The Ethics of Encouraging Dishonesty, because the incentives of a particular rubric required people to lie – about using a poor framework.  In the world of academic journals, it’s led to an epidemic of repeatability problems, where one result isn’t enough – you must wait for others to replicate it.  And if you don’t find replication, you don’t really know if it wasn’t attempted or if the replication failed since null results rarely get published.  It’s even hard to get replications published.  So much for leading the way for solid science.

Sometimes the rush to create sensation means that we don’t adhere to the rules that people would reasonably expect.  Consider a contest to create the best performing financial portfolio.  Each person enters a portfolio in the hopes of a win.  Unbeknownst to the contestants, the organizers entered their own portfolios – not just one per person, but rather a cluster of portfolios.  In the end, they get some of the best results with one of their portfolios, and you believe that they’re stock picking wizards.

Except that you might have been able to get the best performing portfolio if you had twenty or two hundred chances.  I can guarantee that I win the lottery if I buy a ticket with every single number combination – but that doesn’t mean I’m good at picking lottery numbers.

Rule 6: Ask Who Is Missing

Solomon Asch created an experiment where people were asked an easy question.  Which line in a set of three was the same length as a reference line?  Left to their own devices, the accuracy was nearly 100%.  However, when confederates of the researcher gave a wrong answer consistently, so did the participant.  (See Unthink for more on Asch.)  There’s more to this story, including that even a small amount of dissention of the confederates caused the effect to disappear.  But a more interesting question is who were Asch’s participants?

Like many studies, Asch used the raw materials of his academic environment, students.  This has been a consistent criticism of research that’s WEIRD – Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.  But Asch’s sample was biased in one other way that wasn’t easy to detect.  All his subjects were male.  We have no idea how women might have reacted, because he didn’t check.  Similarly, Stanley Milgram’s famous shock experiment only used males.  (See Influencer for more on Milgram’s experiments.)

The Literary Digest invested in the development of a very large survey.  Using automobile registrations and telephone directories, they mailed out a huge number of surveys asking who the recipients would vote for – Franklin D. Roosevelt or Alf Landon.  The year was 1936, and they predicted a landslide victory for Landon.  The problem is their sample, though it was large, had a prosperity bias.

The people who received the surveys – and potentially those who responded – were wealthier than average by the nature of owning a car or having a telephone.  They quite predictably picked the Republican candidate.  George Gallup didn’t have nearly as much data.  His was tiny in comparison.

However, Gallup paid attention to the makeup – the demographics – of the sample set and produced a correct (and better) answer based on matching the demographics of those who voted.  Sometimes, it’s not who is excluded in the data but also the weightings of those who are included.

Rule 7: Demand Transparency When the Computer Says No

Spurious correlation.  Computer scientists with a strong desire to see artificial intelligence succeed turn their head from the problem.  It’s a problem where things are correlated but for random reasons – that eventually fall apart.  Artificial intelligence uses the computer to find correlations in the data.  Proponents suggest that you can trust the correlations – but experience says differently.  Google developed a predictor for influenza infection rates using only search data.

Let’s pause for a second and look at what the inputs really are.  They’re seeing people searching for symptoms and what to do.  This is the earliest signal.  When people start feeling bad, they start looking for remedies.  It seems good – and it was – until it wasn’t.  Google eventually shut down the program but not before seeing the model completely fall apart.

In cases where the false positives the algorithms detect are not harmful, it doesn’t matter.  Consider the case that Charles Duhigg covered in the Power of Habit: Target mailed pregnancy coupons to a man’s daughter, and he complained to the store manager about it – before acknowledging that there were things going on in his house that he didn’t approve of.  Certainly, it outed a pregnant daughter before she likely wanted to be outed about her pregnancy.

In singular, the example sounds spooky good.  How did Target know?  The answer is that it made an educated guess.  People who buy things like prenatal vitamins are often pregnant.  Other, less clear signals may also frequently be purchased immediately after a woman finds out that she’s pregnant.  What the story omits is the number of people who did get the same packet but who weren’t pregnant.  Some set of correlations showed up – but the predictive capacity is well below 100%.

The story is different when the predictive model has more important consequences.  Consider the idea of using it to evaluate bail risk.  The inequities that exist in the data may be reflected in the results of the system as well.  People may be temporarily deprived of their freedom based on a model that has no data.

Rule 8: Don’t Take Statistical Bedrock for Granted

It’s important to recognize who is producing the statistics and what motivations they may have – internally or through external pressure – that may impact the numbers.  Statistics themselves should be impartial.  They should be beyond the influence of politicians who would bend the numbers for their benefit, but they’re not.

When people are threatened – and killed – because they insist on delivering the truth, we can’t expect that they’ll continue to stand.  In Find Your Courage, the point is made that courage is doing the right thing in the face of fear – but it’s not reasonable to be courageous when you or your families are in danger.

Sometimes, the forces that drive us away from true and correct are the forces of commerce.  Books like Infonomics draw a clear bright line between information – including statistics – and organizational value.  That bright line can block out the beauty of the true nature of data.

Sometimes, it’s not those who make the statistics that are threatened but the very value of their statistics.  People call them “fake,” “false,” or other names try to inject doubt about their validity.  The problem is that these attacks don’t just harm the intended statistics but all statistics.  In fact, they erode the very foundation of trust (see Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order).

Rule 9: Remember that Misinformation Can Be Beautiful, Too

Just because it’s pretty doesn’t make it right.  We look at graphs that instantly allow us to understand something without pouring through reams of numbers.  Infographics have become more popular today as we have cheap and easy access to create such visualizations.  Simple “errors” can make something look exponentially worse than it is.  A number doubles, and it’s represented as area in a room, so both dimensions are doubled – creating exponentially more size.

The lesson is that seeing it shouldn’t be believing it when it comes to statistics.

Rule 10: Keep an Open Mind

It’s the takeaway from Superforecasting as well.  The people who predicted the best weren’t the hedgehogs who knew one thing but rather the foxes who kept their options and their learning open.  (See Good to Great and Should You Be a Fox or a Hedgehog?)  The more we’re able to disconnect from the outcomes of the data, the more we can peer clearly into its roots and see what it is – and is not – saying.  (See The Happiness Hypothesis for more on detachment.)

The Golden Rule: Be Curious

The dog’s head tilt that indicates confusion is the first step.  For humans, it’s an opportunity for us to start the learning experience.  It’s confusion that can lead to curiosity and a desire to understand how something can be.  Like an Escher painting that cannot exist in a three-dimensional world, we look to make sense of things we see.  It’s this attitude that can make us The Data Detective.

Book Review-The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations

Every organization wants extraordinary results.  That’s what The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations promises.  Built on decades of research, the book lays out a framework for what James Kouzes and Barry Posner found.

The Need for Challenge

It’s hard to explain how to do something if you aren’t able to articulate what that thing is.  While they don’t go to the detail and rigor of either Rost in Leadership for the Twenty-First Century or Burns in Leadership, they provide a working definition and elevate the need for challenge.  Leadership is shown during challenge.

In Antifragile, Taleb makes the point clear.  It’s challenge that allows us to grow stronger.  We exercise muscles to break them down only to be rebuilt stronger.  Leadership has a similar quality in that leaders are led through a set of challenges that increases their capacity – without breaking them.

Of course, challenge itself isn’t a single dimension; it is often an environment of challenge that surfaces from our Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) world.  (See Focused, Fast, and Flexible for more on VUCA.)

Skills

Much like The Leadership Machine, Kouzes and Posner believe that leadership is a quantifiable set of skills that can be taught.  However, the model that they propose is substantially simpler, consisting of five principles, each with two skills.  The principles and the associated skills are:

Characteristics

Similarly the authors believe there are a set of characteristics that cause people to recognize people as leaders.  They are:

  • Honest
  • Competent
  • Inspiring
  • Forward-looking
  • Dependable
  • Supportive
  • Intelligent
  • Broad-minded
  • Cooperative
  • Fair-minded
  • Ambitious
  • Straightforward
  • Caring
  • Loyal
  • Determined
  • Mature
  • Imaginative
  • Courageous
  • Self-Controlled
  • Independent

These skills remind me of Gallup’s CliftonStrengths (previously StrengthsFinder) and the Values in Action assessments.  (See Strengths Finder 2.0 for CliftonStrengths.)

Laws

In addition, the authors believe in two laws:

  1. If you don’t believe the messenger, you won’t believe the message.
  2. Do What You Say You Will Do (DWYSYWD)

The Power of Story

It’s true that there’s power in stories.  The stories that you identify with can motivate and inspire.  (See Story Genius, Wired for Story, and Building a StoryBrand for examples.)  There’s an immense amount of power in making the people inside the organization the heroes of the stories that you tell, as Joseph Campbell discovered.  (See The Power of Myth.)

Despite the power of story, The Leadership Challenge failed to land on compelling stories for me.  They seemed dated, obscure, or glib.  While they propose that leaders should lead with stories, theirs, for me at least, fell flat.

The Guide

As a big-picture framework for thinking about leadership, The Leadership Challenge is valuable.  It paints with big, broad strokes that allow someone to get an overall sense of what they might want to see in the leaders in their organization.  However, the challenge is there’s not enough in the book to really implement any kind of real change without drawing from other sources.  You may have noticed numerous references while laying out the frameworks used by the book – they’re there because the concepts are solid, but the coverage in the book isn’t sufficient to understand or implement them.  Ultimately, it’s a good start if you’re looking to join The Leadership Challenge.

It’s a Solution and a Problem

I didn’t know it at the time, but what started as a service opportunity for me became the most important learning moment of my life.  I was helping with a twelve-step-based program when I was introduced to a very wise young man.  He taught me about addiction – and about life in ways that I both marvel at and cherish.

The man explained to me that substance use wasn’t the problem, it was the solution.

Solution

“How can something that is so problematic be a solution?” I wondered out loud.  I heard the heart of a man who had experienced deeply troubling pain.  He was debilitated by the pain.  That’s when he first started using drugs.  He wanted a brief escape from the constant, unrelenting pain of life.  It wasn’t like he had been in an automobile accident and faced chronic pain as a result.  His pain was different.

His pain was internally based.  He never thought he was good “enough.”  He felt like a failure, a letdown, and an imposter.  He believed with every fiber of his being that he was “wrong.”  His drug of choice made it all go away for a while.  He was the life of the party.  The voices of judgement in his head were suddenly stupefied into submission.  No longer could they harass him.

As with all addictions, the coping skill became an addiction.  He wanted a moment of relief and then another, until the drugs had control and he didn’t.

Fundamentally, for him, the drugs represented a solution to the problem of the relentless pain.  They offered a way out – even if it extracted a high price.

Problem

I encountered him well after his sobriety was cemented into his being.  I had no sense that the addiction was in control of his life or that he was at risk.  However, as we spoke, I heard stories about how others had consistently treated the drugs as a problem and how he didn’t see them that way.  We hear stories about how drug users – including alcohol users – are defensive about their use.  “It’s not that bad,” “I can stop at any time,” and “I am in control,” are such common answers they’re cliché.  The more that people tried to convince him that the drugs were a problem, the more convinced he became that they didn’t understand.

They were selling a message that drugs were the problem, and he was pursuing them as a solution.  The perspectives couldn’t have been more incompatible.

Suicide Prevention

I came to the topic again not because of personal conversations but the continuing research on what we can do for suicide prevention.  Thoughts of suicide come when people are dissatisfied with their life as it is, and suicide becomes the consideration to make it better.  It’s a solution to the pain they’re feeling – it may be a bad one, but it is still a solution.

Instantly, when most folks hear that another person is considering suicide, they leap to tell them that things aren’t that bad or that they’ll get better.  It’s called the “righting reflex.”  It’s an attempt to bring the other person’s perspective of reality in alignment with ours.  The problem is that, as a result, we end up invalidating the other person’s perspective.

An alternative response is fear on the part of the listener and an instant problem that they believe they must solve – after all, suicide is irreversible.  It’s permanent.  Like the game of hot potato, they don’t want to be the last person that talked with another who died by suicide.  They’d rather get emergency medicine, psychiatric care, or someone else involved, so that they don’t have to accept responsibility for a tragic outcome.

Certainly, I’m not saying to validate that suicide is a good idea.  However, until we can see that suicidal thoughts are a solution to the problem of life’s circumstances, we can’t connect with the person and help them see other solutions and other options.

The first step for us as listeners is to realize that sometimes things are problems, and sometimes they are solutions.

Book Review-Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy

It’s a classic, a 1980 classic.  Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David Burns has come up a few times as a reference over the years.  Some have described it as cognitive behavioral therapy for the masses.  Despite being easy to read, it’s long at 700 pages long.  However, it’s packed with good information that can help people find a way to accept and process their problems.

My Problems Are Real

At the heart of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the idea that the drivers for many people are the way they think about their problems. That is that the is problem – not whatever they’re thinking about.  Some who come to the precipice of CBT declare that their problems aren’t their thoughts.  Those are fine.  Their problems are real.  It’s hard to argue that someone who is unemployed without any prospects, homeless, and hungry doesn’t have real problems.  There are real problems.  However, many of the problems we face aren’t those sorts of problems.  The kinds of problems most of us lament are how much we like our job – or whether we have a stable romantic relationship.  They’re concerns to be sure, but they are the kinds of things where our perception really matters.

Pick your favorite author.  In Paradise Lost, Milton said, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”  Shakespeare, in Hamlet (Act 2, Scene 2), said, “for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”  Mark Twain said, “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, most of which never happened.”  In short, what we think about life and our circumstances is of critical importance.

Depression Signals

There’s no doubt that depression is a problem.  It’s incredibly common.  (See The Noonday Demon.)  It’s also implicated for suicide risk.  (See Suicide Over the Life Cycle.)  Certainly, there are pharmaceuticals for depression – any many people are on them – but, as Warning: Psychiatry May Be Hazardous to Your Health explains, they’re not without risks.  Other strategies, like CBT, may not seem like much, but the impact of CBT is much longer lasting than medications, which need to be continued to see the effects.

Burns argues that people with depression are suffering from a problem with processing the signals that are coming to them.  He makes the analogy of a radio that isn’t tuned well and is picking up static.  (This is unfortunate, because it both dates the reference and limits the audience, since too few people today have ever listened to an analog radio that’s slightly out of tune.)  However, Burns’ analogy has a different meaning that people today struggle with.

The short version is they spend too much time listening to negative thoughts and not enough time focusing on the positive things that are happening in their world.  In Hardwiring Happiness, Rick Hanson has a methodology for changing how much time we think about positive versus negative thoughts.  You need that, because once you get sucked into the depression vortex, it starts minimizing your desire to listen to the positive and literally biases you towards thinking more things are negative.  (See Capture.)

Emotional Reasoning

It starts with the belief that you can read minds.  You believe you know what others are thinking – about you.  (See Mindreading for the reality of our abilities.)  Added to this is the belief that you’re a fortune teller.  You can foresee the future – a future of misery for you.  It extends into the belief that if you feel it, it must be true.  As Lisa Feldman Barrett argues in How Emotions Are Made, we don’t always put the pieces of emotion together well.  From a neurological standpoint, the difference between thought and emotion is indistinguishable.  Our emotions are based on our thoughts (cognitions).  (See Emotion and Adaptation for more.)  In short, our emotions aren’t credible witnesses to what is really happening.

We somehow slip into the magical thinking of a child who fears that, because they thought something should happen, their thoughts were somehow made manifest in reality.  There’s a Twilight Zone episode with this theme from decades ago.  It’s been a common belief following a loss.  A parent is killed in an accident, and the child believes that it’s because they were angry and thought that they’d be better off without the parent.  It, too often, can make grief malignant.

As adults, we recognize that our thoughts and our emotions don’t have the power to transform reality.  This is painfully obvious as you watch a mourning mother or father beside the coffin of their child.  Both are unified in their strong desire – even wish – that their child will live again, but the most powerful of emotions and desires cannot change the reality of the situation.

Inherent Value

A common misconception and perspective is that you’re only as good as what you can do for others.  Instead of being an heir to the inherent value of human life, you’re somehow excluded and must earn your worthiness by your works.  This is, of course, false.  Every human life is valuable, and this remains true for all humans – regardless of the things that they do.

The lack of worth is sometimes used as a justification for suffering.  You don’t deserve suffering.  It’s not some karmic consequence for your lack of value.  It happens.  Life isn’t fair.  Good people suffer.  However, there’s no need for you to inflict additional suffering on yourself by taking the suffering on.

A different way to think about this is what a beloved friend might say about you and to you in your suffering.  Instead of “you deserve it,” you’re likely to hear that they’re sorry, you’ll get through it, and they’ll be here to help.

Believe in Yourself

Your beloved friend believes in you – and you should, too.  We become burned out (see Extinguish Burnout) and hopeless (see The Psychology of Hope) when we can’t believe in ourselves or our capacity to get things done.  We forget that we’ve made it to this point in our lives.  We’ve encountered and conquered innumerable challenges.  We may have the scars to prove it but we’re also here.

Too often, we believe that “anyone could have done it” or “it wasn’t that special.”  The problem with this thinking is that it minimizes what we have accomplished and deprives us of the awareness that we can accomplish good work.  But maybe you’ll think that you are “just average.”

The Horrors of Being Average

We dream of being famous or a hero.  Whether it was being an astronaut or a firefighter or a baseball player, our childhoods are filled with dreams of what we can be. Society and our parents reinforce the message that we can be whoever we want to be.  We can, with hard work and determination, accomplish anything.  Part of that is the protestant work ethic – and it doesn’t always work out.  (See The Black Swan.)  Part of it that is the inherent desire to be something special.  It’s something that Chuck Underwood, in America’s Generations, explains that many – particularly Generation X – have lost.

More striking to me in my reading is the story of Ralph told in Work Redesign.  Ralph, after pushing against the system and getting struck down, decided to shut down and stop trying.  He resigned himself to being a part of the system rather than apart from the system.  The decision was irreversible.  Even when given new opportunities to be special and lead, he resisted.  He’d succumbed to the horrors of being average – but that was better than the idea that he could have succeeded but gave up too early.

The truth is that all of us are special in some way, and it may or may not be rewarded by others.  In a town 30 miles away, there is a man who is enamored by trains.  He lives for the model trains he built – and he built a business from it.  If you don’t live close or if you’re not into model trains, you’d never know that one of the largest model train businesses in the US is run from a little nondescript store in Atlanta, IN.  To some, he’s amazing – but for most, he’s average in his own way, and that’s okay.

Love Not Required

For some to be happy, they must have someone with whom they’re in a romantic loving relationship.  It’s the stuff of fairytales.  If you want to be happy, you have to pair off and live happily ever after.  However, as Anatomy of Love points out, the story is more complicated than the fairytales would have you believe.  There’s even room for the idea that you don’t need a romantic relationship to be happy.  It’s possible that you can be happy just as you are.

Dan Richo in How to Be an Adult in Relationships would say that it’s accepting.  In this case, perhaps the best answer is to accept yourself.  Maybe with that, you can look forward to Feeling Good.

Launching: One Place to Learn Myths and Facts about Suicide

Suicide is a tragic problem shrouded in myth and mystery.  It’s a topic that no one wants to speak of for fear that it will visit their family or friends.  However, the way to ward it off is to talk about it, learn about it, and discover how pain leads to it.  We’ve launched a new web site, SuicideMyths.org, designed to tackle the most pervasive myths about suicide and to help you learn what you can do.

We’re asking for your help in two ways.  First, please provide feedback about what we’ve done well and where we’ve missed the mark.  If you’ve got ideas for how to organize the content, additional myths, or what we can do to help people understand the truth about suicide, we want to know.

Second, if you have a crisis or suicide website that you have influence or control over, would you consider linking to SuicideMyths.org?  We want people to find this important content, and we know the best way to do that is from other similar websites.  If you have a website that you believe we should link to, please let us know.

Book Review-Secrets of Suicide

It’s not multiple personality disorder (now called “dissociative identity disorder”), but it’s odd when the author of the book refers to the pen name from previous books in the third person.  In Secrets of Suicide, Dr. Ken Tullis reveals that he’s also written books under the pen name of Dr. Kevin Taylor.  He acknowledges that his current book is in “collaboration” with Kevin Taylor.  It’s deeper when you recognize that Ken Tullis was a founder of Suicide Anonymous, a group modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous that seeks to create a space for people who are living with suicidal thoughts.  It makes sense that a professional would want to obscure his identity when revealing his suicidal ideation.

Perfectionism

Tullis recounts an early childhood experience and his response to it: “No way I can beat that, I thought, no matter how much I work at it. No way I can jump over a bar that high. Why even to live. No matter what I ever do, I’ll fail.”  Obviously, this is a fatalist attitude that would characterize his life going forward.  He expands the experience with, “I’m going to fail; therefore, I’ll get out by killing myself.”  At an early age, he had decided that suicide was not only an option but the natural course of events.

There’s also an element of perfectionism.  If there’s no way to win, then there’s no reason to play.  (See Perfectionism for more.)  If your father is perfect in your eyes, then you must be, too.  If he got a perfect score, you know you can’t beat him – so what’s the point?

Of course, the answer is that not everything is wrapped up in one aspect of someone’s life, and we’re our own creatures who will be better at some things than others.  We don’t have to compete on every aspect – or even the same aspects.  It’s too bad this wouldn’t be a lesson that he was taught as a child.

Secrets of Booze, Sex, and Suicide

Like many who are believe they’re not good enough and are seeking to numb these feelings, Tullis turned to booze and sex.  (See The Globalization of Addiction and Chasing the Scream for more.)  Booze numbs for a while.  Sex elevates endorphins to fight off despair – for a while.  The secret of suicidal thinking  is different and less widely used.  Though research seems to indicate that somewhere between one-in-three and one-in-six people will seriously consider suicide at some point in their lives, it appears as a less frequent coping tool.

Suicide as a secret was always an option.  If things got bad enough, if there seemed to be no other way out, then it was an option that could be pulled out.  Like the other secret coping mechanisms, it was designed to make things good enough for now – and to relieve the pressure of unrelenting failure to be perfect.

Twelve-step groups say that “you’re only as sick as your secrets,” and Tullis had developed a trifecta.  (See Neurodharma for more.)

Trauma

Many people’s first suicidal thoughts are rooted in trauma.  Something traumatic happens, and they think that it’s an option for them to end the game of life.  To be clear, trauma – psychological trauma – is temporarily being overwhelmed by a situation.  It relies on the intersection of the person and the event.  Things that are trauma for one may or may not be for another.  It’s important to accept that being told he couldn’t beat his father was, for Tullis, a trauma.

One of the natural defenses in the presence of trauma is dissociation, where the event is made “not me.”  However, when dissociation fades, we cannot help but accept that the event did happen, and it impacted us in some way.  Sometimes, the dissociation sticks, and we wall off parts of our personality, as No Bad Parts explains.

The Narrowing

Years ago, I was taking a comedy course.  (See I am a Comedian for more.)  At that time, I had been speaking in front of crowds for decades.  I was, at times, underpreparing for talks to get a spark of adrenaline when I’d hit the stage.  It was routine.  As a part of the course, I walked on stage in front of a real audience on an open-mic night.  It was at that point that I experienced a massive stress response.  The entire room went dark for me, except for my friend in the front row.  I couldn’t see anyone else – including my instructor, who I knew was standing in the back of the room.  My psychological defenses kicked in and narrowed my vision.

I made it through my set – but I’m not sure how.  I didn’t think anyone laughed at any of my material.  Listening to the recording afterwards helped me realize that wasn’t true.  I just had no capacity to hear it.  While I’ve only experienced this once, many people who fight suicidal thoughts are challenged with these experiences frequently.

Among the most traumatic experiences are the loss of a sibling, spouse, parent, or child.  These events are consistently traumatic for most people.  Often, the narrowing comes after these experiences; disproportionally that narrowing leads to suicide.  I didn’t experience this when I lost my brother, nor when we lost our son.  However, I made decisions fixed in stone for each.  When my brother died, I committed to support his wife and his daughters.  When Alex died, I resolved to learn how he could die by suicide.

Frustrating Attempts

With the persistently suicidal, there are often multiple attempts.  While it would seem like the failure to die would be greeted with love and appreciation, it isn’t always.  The family must live in constant fear that their loved one will decide to attempt suicide again, and that stress can be painful to live with.  It leads to the thought – that isn’t always verbalized – that the person should just “die and get it over with.”  The challenging bit of this is that the person often feels the same way themselves.

As Thomas Joiner explains, burdensomeness is a factor in suicide.  (See Why People Die by Suicide.)  The person who has made an attempt becomes aware of the strain they’re putting on their families.  They realize that, despite their value, they are at least in some ways a burden.

Based on Beliefs

Our lives are not built on reality and facts but are instead built on our beliefs – correct or not.  If someone believes that they’re not worthy of love, then they’ll fail to accept it when it comes.  If they feel as if they’re not good, they’ll resist being told they are.  Most of the time, our beliefs approximate reality enough that there’s no problem.  However, from time to time, we found that our beliefs drift from reality, and rectifying them can be challenging.

I’m not talking about the kind of disconnect from reality that schizophrenics encounter.  (See How Emotions Are Made.)  Rather, I’m talking about the everyday type of distortions that we all have.  (See How We Know What Isn’t So.)  I’m talking about a view of ourselves that is too good or too bad to match reality.

One belief that can be limiting is that emotions are bad or uncontrollable.  This belief prevents the sharing and expression of emotions, and this creates a problem, as they build up internally until they can no longer be contained.  This suppression of emotions can create psychotic breaks that are disturbing to see.

Hopefully, you can find the path to exposing Secrets of Suicide.

Book Review-The Suicide Club: What to Do When Someone You Love Chooses Death

How could you not wonder what you could have done differently when someone you love dies by suicide?  How are you supposed to feel?  How do you cope?  The Suicide Club: What to Do When Someone You Love Chooses Death is Alexandra Wyman’s story of pain, struggling, and recovery.

“The day my husband ended his life was the worst day of mine,” says Wyman.  It’s a common refrain that the pain the suicidal person carries doesn’t evaporate when they die.  Instead, the pain is transferred to those who love them.  Suicide doesn’t make it go away – it spreads it.  It’s like hitting dog poop with the mower.

Immediate Reorientation

Wyman admits that her pre-event perspective on suicide was radically reoriented.  She had to come to terms with her perspective that people who died by suicide were selfish and didn’t have their lives together.  Her judgement of people who were suicidal was colored by society’s portrayals and perspectives on suicide.  Shawn, her husband, died and forced a reevaluation of these beliefs.  While not perfect, he was far from the person that she had in her mind of the suicidal person.

Others have shared that, the moment they lost someone to suicide, they had no choice but to reevaluate their relationship to it.  Some respond with shame and keep the story of suicide quiet.  A friend of mine lost her father.  She shared that the family said it was a hunting accident.  Her candid retort after that was, “but the only thing he was hunting was himself.”  You allow such retorts for those who are grieving and angry.

The Long Reorientation

Some things take longer.  Changing the relationship you have with the deceased isn’t easy.  One moment you’re in a bidirectional relationship, with give and take; the next moment, you’re alone and talking to yourself – maybe even audibly.  Therapeutically, many schools of thought encourage communication with people who aren’t there by writing them letters and through exercises involving two chairs, where you can take the place of the missing person.

While this extreme position isn’t necessary for the long term, the truth is that some part of the other person will stay with you.  At some point, it may even feel like the presence of an old friend with whom you’ve lost touch with.  It can be a warming and affirming voice reminding you that you’re doing well or celebrating your achievements.

One Decision from a Different Life

Mel Robins said, “You are one decision away from a completely different life.”  The intent was to convey that your small decisions – go to college or start working, for instance – can radically change the course of your life.  That’s true in my life.  My world skipped the college experience and then returned to it; in that space, I found technical publishing, which taught me how to learn while working.  My life would have been different had I been able to attend college immediately after high school.

However, those who have tragically lost loved ones due to suicide recognize a second meaning.  The decision isn’t always yours.  Sometimes, the decision that changes your life is one made by your loved one.  Alex’s death radically reoriented the work that we’re doing and the way that I view the world.  The life I have today is radically different from the one I’d have had if he was alive.

Obviously, the life is worse off in the loss, but it’s better, too, as we’ve met amazing people.

Compass

Rebuilding a life in the aftermath of death or suicide death is incredibly disorienting.  The moment you believe you’re headed in the right direction, you get turned around – or knocked down.  The theme song to the TV show, Cheers, includes the lyrics, “Making the way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.”  That’s doubly true when you’re trying to navigate the world without a friend.  The chorus includes “Where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came.”  When your loved one dies, part of the “everybody” that knows your name dies.

If we’re lucky, we’re left with a compass – a mission.  Whether we’re lucky or not, no one is left with a map of how to move their life forward in the absence of the one they lost.  We’ve got to figure it out, get lost, and try to reorient.

We do have to continue life.  In the case of the loss of a spouse, it’s appropriate to “move on” with a new romantic relationship recognizing that the relationship will include the person who was lost.  There’s no competition.  There’s no replacement.  There must be acceptance that the missing person is a part of the past and the present – even though they are not physically present.

Life Happens for Us

It’s natural to think that life happens “to” us after a tragic loss.  We can feel as if we’re out of control and the world is a hostile place.  However, it’s also possible to relearn that life happens “for” us.  It’s a journey that has both highs and lows.  No one would want the lows of a death by suicide, but at the same time, we cannot have the good without the bad.

In an ideal world, we’d find our way back to the realization that life is a gift.  Then again, it would be better if no one else would have to join The Suicide Club.

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