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Book Review-Parental Alienation: An Evidence-Based Approach

Kids should be first.  When parents get a divorce or separate, the primary concern should be that of the wellbeing of the children.  However, too frequently, parents are more interested in “winning” the popularity contest and ensuring that their ex doesn’t have a better relationship with the kids than they do, so much so that they’re willing to sabotage the relationship.  Parental Alienation: An Evidence-Based Approach reviews the psychological and legal research on the topic and creates a framework for evaluating the presence of parental alienation as well as informing responses.


Parents don’t typically set out to alienate their children from the other parent.  There’s a conversion of their hurt and disappointment with the other parent that led them to overt and covert behaviors that create alienation.  In my post, The Progression of Parental Alienation, I explained how parents can alienate children through a normal progression and in ways that may not be completely transparent.


One of the criticisms leveled against parental alienation’s legitimacy is that the APA refused to include it explicitly in DSM-V.  The DSM-V is the diagnostic manual used to code patient concerns for billing.  There are two issues with this.  First, is that DSM does not primarily include relational diagnoses.  It’s focused almost exclusively on individual diagnoses.  The few relational diagnoses that exist are correlated to individual diagnoses.

Second, “parental alienation” as a name isn’t called out, but there are the codes V995.51 for “Child Psychological Abuse” and V61.29 for “Child Affected by Parental Relationship Distress.”  Both of these are applicable.  Given that we know children are better off with relationships with both parents, depriving the child of the relationship of the other parent is abuse.

In short, a surface look at the DSM-V would lead someone to believe that parental alienation should be called out but isn’t – but a deeper look reveals why it doesn’t meet the criteria for inclusion.

Frequently, the ICD codes published by the World Health Organization correspond to the DSM for behavioral health issues.  ICD codes are for all medical issues, including both physical and mental health issues.  However, there are some differences.  ICD includes a code for burnout where DSM-V does not.  ICD calls it an “occupational issue” to avoid it being something related to a person that should be included in DSM-V.

An argument could be made that ICD should include a separate code for parental alienation.  There is a precedent for including codes not listed in the DSM-V.  So why not in this case?  While there’s no clear answer, having appropriate codes that can be used, the lack of explicit call out in DSM-V (despite a petition), and the relational nature of parental alienation may all play into it.  Given that there is a code QE52.0, “Caregiver Relationship Problem,” which covers many of the associated problems with parental alienation, it may also be that the World Health Organization believes they have it appropriately covered.

Would it be ideal for parental alienation to have codes in both DSM-VI and ICD 12?  Yes.  However, the lack of inclusion hasn’t stopped parental alienation from being used and accepted in progressively more court cases over the past several decades.  It seems that the courts are accepting the premise without an explicit mention – because there’s sufficient research to demonstrate validity.

Digging Deeper

McCartan makes the point in Parental Alienation that it seemed impossible to write about the topic without checking every detail.  Numerous accounts were distorted to fit the narrative that authors wanted to portray – that there’s no such thing.  Her comment and the discrepancies that she discovered had a striking resemblance to the denial that occurred when Sigmund Freud first identified childhood sexual abuse and then recanted to save his career.  (See The Assault on Truth.)

Even in the previous section while discussing DSM-VI and ICD-12, it’s easy to search for “parental alienation” and not find it, then decide it’s not addressed.  It’s only by looking deeper into what is available can you recognize that searching for “silver maple” won’t tell you if a book contains knowledge about trees.  (See Pervasive Information Architecture for more about specificity of terms and why experts use more specific terms.)


One of the factors that pushes towards parental alienation is when one of the parents becomes enmeshed with the child.  This enmeshment creates a challenge in the beliefs about the other parent.  If the parent in the enmeshment doesn’t like the other parent, then the child shouldn’t either.  This can cause the enmeshed parent to try to shape the child’s perception to match their own.

Enmeshment isn’t healthy, particularly in a parent-child relationship because of the long-term relational damage it can do to the child and the way that they express their relationships.  (See The Gift of Failure for more on enmeshment.)

Parents Are Parents Not Friends

“Fish are friends, not food” is the famous refrain from the shark, Bruce, in Finding Nemo.  There’s not a similar refrain about parents being parents, not friends – but there should be.  In today’s world, we find that parents crave friendship and often place their children into the role of a friend.  This necessarily breaks the power dynamics of a parent-child relationship and deprives the child of the discipline and correction they need to grow.

Parents have a responsibility to shape and correct their children towards societal norms.  That is an entirely different relationship than two friends who should support and accept each other rather than shape them.


Worse are the cases where the parent isn’t capable of being a parent and requires that the child be the parent in the relationship.  While this is obviously not literally true, the roles and responsibilities are reversed to a substantial degree.  The child may be responsible for remembering important things, like paying the bills, or doing the tasks that are normally the responsibility of the parent, like cooking dinner.  In these cases, children are adapting to unstable environments and using their personal agency – no matter how small – to increase the degree of predictability in their environment.

Adult Information

Sometimes, alienation comes in the form of information that is shared – that shouldn’t be.  It can be information about court cases or other issues that aren’t something the child should need to be concerned about.  Often, the intent of sharing this information is to manipulate the perceptions of the child.  “Your father is taking me back to court” seems innocuous enough, but it leaves the perception that the father is “attacking” the mother.  What’s worse is when the reality is that the father is not the petitioner – both parents are just responding to another round of court appearances.

False Memories

An evaluator enters into the home and begins the work of assessing the situation.  Before long, the child asks if they can go ask the parent what they were supposed to say.  It’s a clear indication that the child has been coached into what they should say to make the parent appear in the way that they desire the evaluator to see them.

Other times, the clues are more subtle.  The child claims to remember events that happened to them before memories are reliable.  (Generally, memories before about age 2 aren’t reliable because of the neural pruning that happens around this time.)  Perhaps the child describes the situation using adult language – language they shouldn’t know.  Other times, they may describe the situation from a perspective that they couldn’t have possibly had.

It’s a tricky thing to determine the truth of the situation.  Research indicates that adults are only capable of identifying children lying 54% of the time – with professionals only doing slightly better.  On the one hand, we don’t want to discount a child who is telling the truth, and on the other hand, we don’t want to propagate false accusations against innocent parents.

The Blurring of Facts and Feelings

There’s plenty of research and work to support the understanding that our memories aren’t infallible.  However, we continue to believe that what we remember is the “truth.”  Without an irrefutable record of the event – like video recordings from multiple angles – we’re forced to accept what we remember as truth.  (For more on the fallibility of memory, see Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me).)

The distortion of memory is particularly prevalent when strong emotions are in place.  People believe what they believe because it justifies their beliefs or behaviors.  There have been cases in my life where it was necessary to share video evidence to shift people’s beliefs.  They believed one thing because it made them look good, yet the reality of the situation was quite different.

Perceived Abandonment

One of the outcomes of distorted memories is that the child can believe the other parent abandoned them.  This may be amplified by the alienating parent failing to deliver presents or messages to the child or fabricating appointments – but never telling the targeted parent.  The strategy of controlling communications can be quite effective at manipulating the perception of the impressionable child.

Luckily, with the advent of child phones and court requirements to allow contact, some of the strategies are less effective – however, they’re not completely out of the question, even in today’s world.

Ten Fallacies

The book lays out ten fallacies about parental alienation:

  • A child will not unreasonably reject a parent with whom they spend most of their time.
  • A child will not unreasonably reject their mother.
  • Parents contribute equally to alienation.
  • Alienation is a temporary response to parental separation.
  • Parental rejection can be a healthy coping strategy after separation.
  • A young child living with an alienating parent does not require intervention.
  • Alienated adolescents should be permitted to make decisions about their contact.
  • An alienated child who is functioning well in other areas of life does not require intervention.
  • Therapeutic intervention will be successful even if the child lives with their alienating parent.
  • Separating the child from the alienating parent is traumatic.


The question is, once alienation has been identified, what is to be done?  The answer depends on the situation, the willingness, and the patience.  The unfortunate truth is that by the time that alienation is discovered, it may be too far gone.  It may not be possible to repair the relationship in the short term.  Perhaps the issue will resolve itself over time – but it may not.

In an ideal world, the alienating parent would acknowledge their behavior and work towards reunification.  Unfortunately, even after court orders, many alienating parents continue their bad behaviors – perhaps unconsciously.

With the right cooperation between all of the parties, reunification is possible – and it is in the best interests of the child.  Tragically, too few situations end this way.

Truth or Lies

With parental alienation, it’s hard to tell what is and isn’t alienation.  It’s hard to separate the fact from the fiction.  Even well-meaning people are unaware of how their children are impacted by their responses.  I hope that neither you nor any of the people you know have to experience Parental Alienation.

Book Review-Compassionomics: The Revolutionary Scientific Evidence that Caring Makes a Difference

Sometimes while reading a book, you can be in such agreement with the concept and so frustrated by the experience of reading.  It’s hard reading.  The research support is sometimes weak, but it’s so important, it’s worth looking past these limitations.  Compassionomics: The Revolutionary Scientific Evidence that Caring Makes a Difference seeks to explain how being compassionate isn’t just the morally better approach but leads to better financial outcomes as well.

The Research

I soundly criticized The Burnout Challenge for addressing research with a waving of hands that there was “ample” evidence.  There’s a reason.  I’m in the habit of looking at the underlying research to ensure that it’s quality research – and that it says what the author purports it to say.  I want to find instances like Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit, where the research doesn’t say exactly what he wants it to say.  (Daniel Pink’s Drive is in a similar category.)

That’s why I was concerned when I routinely saw the research being referred to.  The studies I sampled all had fewer than 25 people in them.  That’s so small that you really can’t reach any sound conclusions.  Those types of studies are really designed to identify a reason to do a larger study.  They’re great for what they are – but they’re not compelling evidence, just an indication that a larger study is warranted.  (Which was their conclusion.)

The Writing

Before I start with the long list of good things about the book, I’ve got to share one more challenge.  The writing is repetitive.  It’s hard to read simply because the authors are saying the same thing over and over.  The book could probably be a booklet if it weren’t for the repetition.  The good news is that it’s not as hard of a read as Servant Leadership – which is also a good book.

Be prepared to focus when you’re reading, so you can extract the value.


Before we can get into the economic impact of compassion, we’ve got to get clear about what it is.  Simply, empathy is “I understand this about you.”  (See Sympathy, Empathy, Compassion, and Altruism and Against Empathy for more.)  Compassion extends this to say that “I understand your suffering, and I want to do something about it.”  (See Emotional Awareness for more on compassion.)

Understanding what compassion is, we also need to understand how it came to be that we are – generally – compassionate creatures.  Adam Grant in Give and Take explains that givers are at both the top and bottom of the performance curve.  Sometimes givers end up on top, and sometimes they end up on the bottom.  To understand how this can happen, we start with Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, which basically says that our genes do the things that allow them to replicate.  That makes sense.  Those that don’t replicate don’t get passed on.  However, the “how” they are most effective at replicating is more complicated than it appears.

It’s more of a discussion than is appropriate here, but Robert Axelrod uses computer simulations to understand the best strategies in The Evolution of CooperationDoes Altruism Exist? and SuperCooperators more fully expose the mechanisms that allow cooperators to come out ahead and how they protect themselves from takers who threaten to destroy them.

The language shifts from compassion to “give and take” or “cooperation,” but fundamentally the concepts are the same.  Are we better off caring for others?  The answer across evolution and even Jonathan Haidt’s work in The Righteous Mind seems to say yes.

Mechanical Precision

Medicine, in its search for efficiency, has turned to shorter and more tactical appointments.  Doctors have, unfortunately, responded by interrupting their patients more quickly as they describe their primary complaint and their environment.  In short, they’ve made the decision that there’s not enough time to listen to the patient.  In the process, they’re alienating the patient, making poor diagnoses, and driving higher levels of healthcare access than are needed.

How quickly are they interrupting?  It varies over time – but within a minute.  In the standard 15-minute appointment, it’s a non-zero percentage – but if you believe Einstein, understanding the problem is the key thing in any problem-solving activity.

More challenging is that doctors are rarely listening to the broader context of the person, problem, or environment.  As a result, they’re often prescribing things that just don’t work.  They may not be solving the real problem – but more frequently, they’re proposing things that patients just won’t do.  It will get labeled as patient non-compliance, and that’s not their fault – or is it?

Patient Non-Compliance

It’s a big problem in healthcare.  The failure to follow the prescribed protocol for medication, exercise, or diet leads to a substantial amount of medical costs.  (Change or Die informs us that five behaviors drive 80% of the healthcare system cost.)  When the doctor prescribes a medication that is too expensive for the patient’s means, isn’t covered by insurance, or there’s no way to get it at a price the patient can afford to pay, the patient won’t take the medication.  It seems obvious, but if you’re not listening to the patient – and their entire situation – it isn’t.

Emotional Factors

When a doctor asks you how you’re feeling, you expect that they’re asking about your perception of pain – not your emotional state.  Despite better standardized screening, most of the time, doctors don’t ask about your psychological or emotional state.  They don’t believe that it’s any of their concern – or business.  It’s like the brain is the passenger in the vehicle called the body and that the passenger doesn’t have any control.

We know that the way we think, what we perceive, and our emotional state has a huge impact on physical health, but it remains undiscussable in most visits.  Those are the sorts of things that behavioral health is supposed to handle, not the doctor – or so they think.  Loneliness explains that being lonely can have a more significant health impact than smoking or abusing alcohol combined.  It matters, and it’s something doctors should be doing something about – but aren’t.

The Curriculum

Though, today, the need for compassion is seen as more essential than any other time in our history, it’s still common to hear of programs that explicitly or implicitly teach that nurses listen to patients, not doctors.  Doctors are the expert – and the patient would do well to listen to them.  Carl Rogers, a prominent psychologist, would likely disagree.  He believed that the client (or patient) is the expert on their life.  The practitioner knows their field, but they don’t know the person’s details.  This recognition that the client/patient is the expert is at the heart of Motivational Interviewing – which is effective at resolving substance use disorder (SUD) in ways that neither medicine or traditional counseling can be.

Sometimes the message sent in the curriculum is that the science of medicine – knowing the right values, drugs, and systems – is the only part of medicine that matters.  However, without patients, none of that information will matter.  Another explicit or implicit message may be that you must remain distant and detached from your patients.  However, compassion requires that you understand their pain – and want to resolve it.  You can’t do that if you’re detached.  You won’t have any patients if you don’t demonstrate the “art” of medicine through compassion.


Unfortunately, the authors head off into places where they don’t fully understand the space, including burnout.  They insist that personal connections protect people from burnout – despite limited evidence that relationships alone are sufficient.  In fact, it’s special relationships that seem to have protective effects, not just any relationship.  While depersonalization of patients will reduce compassion, it’s not a one-to-one relationship.  It’s the depersonalization that matters – not the degree to which they’re burned out.  Sure, it has a negative impact on care, but it’s tangential to the compassion problem.

Part of the confusion is equating burnout with compassion fatigue; though they’re similar, they are still distinct.  (See Is It Compassion Fatigue or Burnout?)


Similarly, the authors speak as if they are authorities on PTSD, but they fail to understand it at more than a cursory level – and don’t understand the factors that drive it.  (See Trauma and Recovery, Posttraumatic Growth, and Trauma and Memory for more about how trauma functions.)

Concealing Major Errors

The final error that is worthy of mention is that they equate anonymous surveys as being able to generate honest responses.  First, the providers need to believe they’re anonymous – and they’re often skeptical.  Second, they must overall feel psychologically safe enough to admit a problem even anonymously.  (See The Fearless Organization.)  Finally, they must believe that there was a “major error.”  What constitutes a major error anyway?  Maybe everything short of a mortality event isn’t major.  Even if they define major error more conservatively, they may not believe it’s their fault.  (See Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) and How We Know What Isn’t So.)

In the end, the authors made some major errors – and some valid points – in Compassionomics.

Understanding Trust and Betrayal

There’s a lot of talk about trust, but how much do we really know about trust?  We speak of trusting others, but do we really know what we’re saying?  Trust is both deceptively simple and infinitely nuanced.  Trust is simply our perception of our ability to predict the behavior of someone else.  Betrayal is when our prediction doesn’t match the actual behavior.  Okay, but what does that mean, practically speaking?  It means that you can be more conscious of what you mean by trust, learn to trust more, and to protect yourself more from betrayal.

Trust Can Be Negative

For the most part, when we speak of trust, we speak in terms of positive outcomes.  We believe we can trust our accountant to do our taxes, and we trust our babysitter to faithfully protect our children.  However, we’ve all had situations where we expect that what the person will do will be negative.  We expect that the thief will steal from us if not monitored.  We expect the person who has struggled their whole lives with substance use to return to use again.

In these cases, we have the expectation of a negative outcome.  It’s still trust – but it’s framed negatively.  We trust that we can predict their behavior and the outcomes for them, us, or humanity will be bad.  We say that we “know” that someone will behave badly when that’s clearly not knowable in a literal sense.  Of course, if trust is negative, then betrayal could be positive.  It would be great to see our friend who has struggled with addiction succeed even if we didn’t expect it.

It’s recognizing that we can trust in negative outcomes that allows us to simplify trust to our ability to predict someone else’s behavior.  By removing the attachments to the word “trust” and replacing it with “prediction,” we can look objectively at the situations and decide how confident we are in our predictions.  The more that we believe in our positive predictions, the less we must invest in mitigating the impacts or the more we should be willing to risk for the predicted positive outcomes.


Prediction is what human consciousness does.  The evolutionary advantage of consciousness is that it allows us to prepare, predict, plan, and protect ourselves in ways that other organisms can’t.  While it’s an amazing feat, it’s also subject to numerous limitations and biases.  It was Lorenz who wrote about the butterfly flapping its wings setting off a tornado.  Small, and unobserved, events can ultimately change a set of progressively larger events in a chain reaction that makes a large difference.

It’s not just weather that exhibits these characteristics.  People, too, have hidden recesses of their psyche that we’ll never see or understand, and they can – and often do – change their behaviors.  When we’re trusting, we’re expecting something from others based on the information we have – which will always be incomplete and limited.  However, in many cases, this limited information is enough to generate positive value through trust.

Trusting Is Risky

However, inherently, trusting someone is a risky proposition.  It requires a bit of mental algebra to calculate the amount of risk involved.  On one side of the equation, we have the probability of betrayal and the potential impacts that the betrayal will have on us.  On the other side, we have the probability that our prediction is correct and the benefits that it brings.  We assume, for instance, that our accountant will do our taxes well and won’t steal from us.  The benefits are that we get our taxes done without the painful learning process – and we don’t have to worry about an IRS agent showing up at our doors because we’ve not paid them.  For most people, this is simple.

Babysitters are a bit more complicated.  Here, we have a potentially high impact event.  What if one of our children would be harmed or even die while they’re watching?  The probability is very low of course, but it’s not zero.  On the trust side, we get to go out to dinner and rejuvenate our relationship with our spouse.  It’s frequent that two partners don’t evaluate these risks (or rewards) the same way.  The result is that for one of the pair, there are more verification steps built in.  Before the babysitter is selected, we look for certifications and references to increase our confidence that they’ll take good care of our precious children.  During the date, we may call to check in – and verify.  In today’s technological world, we’re also likely to check in with cameras and other forms of monitoring to ensure our expectations are being met.

No matter how mundane the opportunity to extend trust, we’ll find this basic algebra in operation.  What’s the impact and probability of betrayal against the benefits of deciding to trust?

Trust Is Contextual

Algebra doesn’t change based on the context, but trust is different.  While we speak as if trust is a constant, it’s highly contextualized.  For instance, you can trust your babysitter to watch your children and your accountant to do your taxes – but woe to the person who trusts the babysitter to do their taxes and their accountant to watch their children.  When we trust we really are saying that we can predict behaviors inside of a narrow band of established circumstances.  You may trust the babysitter to watch your children while their love interest is out of town, but do you trust them when their love interest is in town, and you predict that they’ll have them over and become too distracted by them to appropriately monitor your children?

Whenever we’re evaluating trust, we must know what context that we have the trust – under what conditions we believe we’re able to predict the end behavior.  Kurt Lewin said that behavior is a function of both person and environment.  If we’re trying to predict behavior, we need to take both into account.


Much has been made about people who are trustworthy – that is, worthy of trust.  However, we often confuse the way trust works when we speak of people who are trustworthy.  Even if someone is trustworthy, that doesn’t mean I must trust them.  It means that they – and perhaps others – believe they should be given trust because they’ll do what they say they’ll do.  It’s still your choice on whether you’re going to trust someone – and to what degree.

Trust is always a choice that you make.  It can’t be demanded.  Whether a person is trustworthy or not isn’t the point.  The point is your decision to trust and that can be based on several factors, not just the trustworthiness of someone.  In fact, even if someone is outwardly not trustworthy, the choice to trust them may be the difference between a continuing relationship and not.

Experience and Fear

Some people, through genetics and childhood experiences, are more likely to trust – and be betrayed.  It can be winning the genetic lottery or developing a secure attachment with their guardians or other factors that we don’t fully understand.  Conversely, individuals have grown up in unpredictable and relatively hostile environments where their very survival was in question repeatedly.  They are thereby primed to expect a lack of safety and the need for fear.  These extremes obviously make someone more – and less – likely to trust.  For most of us, our experience growing up was somewhere in the middle – but it still influences our ability to take the risk of trusting.  It’s better to not get the rewards but not take the risks for some of us.

At the heart of the difference between those who are more and less likely to trust is the degree to which we feel we have the coping skills if we are betrayed.  These coping skills can come in the form of the things that we can personally do, or it can be in the form of the people that we believe (trust) will support us.

There are also factors about the way that we process that can make us over (or under) estimate the probability and impact of betrayal.  Obviously, the larger the impact and the less likely we are to be able to cope, the less likely it is that we’ll extend trust.

Basic, Blind, and Authentic Trust

Most of the trust that we have in the world is so low stakes and normal that it falls well beneath our conscious radar.  We expect that cars will stop at stop signs and stop lights even though we’ve heard cases where this hasn’t been true.  We expect that our bank will have our money, that our credit card transactions will go through, that our phones will work, and the electricity will stay on.  There are thousands – if not millions – of things daily that we simply trust because it’s easier.

Consider the situation of asking your colleague to look after your luggage at the airport while you go down the hall to buy a sandwich or use the restroom.  Most people wouldn’t give it a second thought.  That’s true whether we trust and respect the colleague or not.  It’s simply too much trouble to make conscious decisions to trust about everything.

Sometimes, this gets converted into blind trust, where our trust is disconnected from the signals that might warn us that our predictions of someone’s behavior might be off.  The owner who doesn’t follow up on the strange disconnect between profitability and assets.  The wife who notices lipstick on her husband’s collar or handkerchief that isn’t hers but ignores it – or buys the weak story she’s told.  This is where we’ve stopped looking at validating our predictions – and we’re putting ourselves at greater risk of betrayal.

In other times, we’ve got lots of data that reaffirms that the trust that we have in someone is well founded.  There are those few people in your life who are always there without fail.  The people that you know you can count on no matter what.  You authentically trust them to continue their behaviors, because you’ve seen them do it again and again in a variety of different circumstances.  Authentic trust is earned through having gone through bad things with people and knowing they’re there for you.

Building Trust – Make, Meet, Renegotiate

People wonder how they can make people trust them instantly.  This isn’t possible, because other people are always deciding whom to trust and whom not to trust.  However, you can build trust with other people.  Benjamin Franklin had a simple way to build trust.  He’d ask for someone to extend to him a small amount of trust.  Often, he’d ask to borrow a book from someone.  He’d read it and promptly return it.  This simple act of meeting his commitment to return the book paved the way for larger and larger opportunities for trust.

Franklin’s model was simple.  As for something small, make a commitment, and then meet the commitment.  Keep doing that to continue to build trust.  I’m sure there were times when Franklin couldn’t keep his commitment and he’d be forced to renegotiate.  Perhaps to ask for an extra week or month to read the book before returning it – or maybe even to take it with him to France.  By renegotiating, he continued to build trust because the other person knew Franklin was serious about his commitment and that he wanted to make sure that he met it enough to be willing to have uncomfortable conversations.

Franklin’s simple model of making a commitment and either meeting it or renegotiating before it came due helped people learn to trust him.  Eventually, his name preceded him, and his reputation made it much easier to build trust with new people.  They’d ask others for their perspectives, and the word “trust” would naturally arise.


Knowing that, as humans, we’re wired to find shortcuts and be strategically lazy makes the reputational aspects of Franklin’s life make sense.  When faced with a difficult decision about whether to trust Franklin – with things much more valuable than a book – it’s easier to look for markers than to do a thorough evaluation.  Instead of personally gaining progressive experience with commitments, people would ask others.  If I trust someone as a judge of character, and if they trust someone, then I should, too.

We see proxying trust today.  Websites proclaim the brands they work with.  Speakers show pictures of them speaking to presumably large crowds.  Wealth experts are always seen speaking in front of mansions and expensive cars or on yachts.  They are sending subtle signals of wealth to an audience trying to determine if they can be trusted.  Instead of thoroughly evaluating people and personalities, we look for simple ways to accept their claims – or to reject them.

When we’re struggling to believe other people, a good question to ask is what subtle signals are they sending that is eroding their credibility?  What credibility markers are they using that you either don’t understand – or don’t believe?  For instance, I can claim 19 years in the Microsoft MVP program, which likely means nothing to you.  It’s only in explaining that it’s a very reserved award for at most a few thousand people that must be renewed each year that you begin to recognize it’s a big deal – even if you still don’t know exactly what it means.

Contract, Communication, and Competence

Knowing whether to trust someone or not – to predict their behavior – is evaluated along three dimensions.  First, there’s the contract.  Will they honor their word, or will they do what’s right?  Second, there’s the communication aspects.  Will they, as Franklin did, notify us when things are changing and create the opportunity to shift our predictions together?  Third, there’s their competency.  They may have committed to something, but can they actually deliver?

Contract weasels are maddening.  You think that your agreement – and therefore your prediction they’ll honor it – is air-tight.  You’ve specified all the SMART things – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic/Relevant, and Timebound.  However, somehow these people find a different way to interpret something in the agreement, and therefore you find yourself betrayed.  Sometimes there are different interpretations without anyone being a weasel.  The contract terms – explicit or implicit – weren’t clear enough to ensure a single, unified perspective.

Communication, as was already explained in Franklin’s example, is best done openly and particularly when a commitment can’t be met.

Jimmy Bakker’s Fall

Reverend Jimmy Bakker was revered by my grandparents.  They religiously watched his 700 Club and PTL Club.  That was until 1987, when allegations of sexual misconduct and improper use of ministry funds landed him in jail.  It was 1961 when Bakker and his wife, Tammy, left college to become evangelists.  It was decades of building trust, working hard, and convincing people to trust him with their money.  It was undone in a matter of months.  From riding high on the continuing waves of trust to getting crushed by a complete lack of faith in him.

This is at the heart of trust.  It takes a long time of making and meeting commitments to build trust – and only a few moments or a single scandal to lose it.  Once the bubble of trust has popped, it’s suddenly possible that people – or a person – may not be as predictable as they appeared.

Reciprocal and Reinforcing Trust

One of the quirky aspects of trust is that it seems to belong to the mutual admiration club.  That is, we trust those people who seem to trust us.  The more trust that people place in us, the more we’re likely to place in them.  That’s why if we want to get trust from others, another strategy is to trust more.  All other things being equal, the more we trust someone, the more they’ll trust us.

This reciprocal nature of trust often sets up a second factor for trust – its reinforcing nature.  When the flywheel is spinning in a positive direction, we get more and more trust between people who trust each other.  Each trust bid – each time we trust the other person – when completed reinforces that our predictions were well placed and allows us to increase our probabilities for the next cycle.

Trusting More

If you want to be trusted more, there are some simple tools you can use:

  • Grant trust to others more frequently and in as large of degrees as you feel comfortable with.
  • Evaluate the conditions that would cause your trust to be well-founded and cases where it would be ill-founded.
  • Offer small opportunities for trust before larger opportunities.

If you want to know more about how trust, safety, vulnerability, and intimacy are related, you’ll want to see Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy, Revisited.

Book Review-A Grief Observed

Loss and grief spare no one.  When loss cast a long shadow across the literary giant C.S. Lewis’ door, he wrote about it.  A Grief Observed is the collection of thoughts after the loss of his wife.  It’s an unfiltered account of his feelings, and the thoughts that troubled him are cataloged while he was working his way through the grief.


C.S. Lewis was – because of his great intellect – very isolated.  Sure, he had his Inklings literary group with J. R. R. Tolkien, but according to his stepson, he struggled to relate to much of mankind.  His comments were not a criticism but rather a recognition of the struggles of the man he called “Jack” (for no reason made clear by the introduction).

However, Lewis’ isolation is only one aspect of the isolation that permeates the book.  The other form of isolation is the expectation that “British boys don’t cry,” separating them from their emotions.  While Lewis was more in touch with his feelings than most, there’s still this eerie sense that the struggle to find, name, accept, and process emotions was difficult for Lewis and the others with whom he associated.

Thinking About Endless Grief

“I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief.”  This sad statement encompasses hopelessness.  Grief may remain for a lifetime, but it will change and, in some ways, get better.  However, in the depths of despair, when hope has gone away to a far away land, it’s hard to believe that the pain of today will be any less tomorrow, or the day after.  Instead of seeing the natural ebb and flow of life, we become fixated on our momentary pain and sit mourning without sense of recovery.

Like anything gradual, it’s hard to see change.  It’s hard to see moments that happiness peeks through the pain like flowers emerging in the spring.  Slowly, not all at once, grief is transformed.  When you are able to look at grief across a period of time, you begin to see and understand that it’s not the same grief you initially felt.  Lewis’ writing allowed him and now allows us the opportunity to see the gradual turning of grief as it becomes less painful and more reverent to those we’ve lost.

An Embarrassment

“An odd byproduct of my loss is that I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet.”  The man Lewis was couldn’t escape the boy he had been nor the cultural expectations of the time.  No man could possibly hide the excruciating pain of the loss of a spouse, and he saw his failure to hide his emotions as an embarrassment.

We know today that the loss of a significant person in our life requires our brain to literally rewire itself.  Over time, we begin to separate aspects of our total experience so that one person does some functions and other people do other functions.  Everyone needs to do things like eat and take care of themselves, but they often reduce their capacity for cooking or other duties as the other person picks them up.  We naturally allow people to become experts in areas, while we mostly ignore them as a part of our optimization.

However, the death of a spouse means that we are severed from those parts of our shared thinking that, though external to us, we’ve come to depend upon.  It’s as if we’ve lost a part of ourselves – and we have.  We wouldn’t admonish someone whose physical pain involuntarily caused tears in their eyes as we do with those who grieve at an emotional loss.

Loss of Past

One of the odd things that happens is that people become severed from their past as well as their present and future.  It makes no sense that the loss of someone would create a tear in the past, but it does.  Suddenly, the places that you loved to visit together lose their luster.  There’s the twinge of pain as you feel the loss more prominently.  It makes you doubt that you were ever happy there.  How could this be a place of joy when I feel so bad now?

This doubt is even more pervasive as it challenges you about the very nature of reality.  Was what you believed was your history even real or was it a fantasy that you conjured up in your mind.  How is someone to know?


Navigating through the waters of grief, it’s important to hold on to the memories and not let the waves of doubt erase them in a blind attempt to ease the pain.  We must cherish the times that we had with those we’ve lost as a testimony to their life and to our commitment to continue their light in the world.  If you’re navigating through grief, the pictures, recordings, and creations of the loved one are precious.  In the end, it allows A Grief Observed to be a grief shared – and that makes it lighter.

Book Review-The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters

Humans have gathered since our first dawn as a species.  We did so to share our resources and to protect one another.  We’re better together than we are alone, and it’s this togetherness that has allowed us to become successful.  However, because we’re so used to being together, we hardly give gathering a thought.  Occasionally, when we think about gathering a few more people than normal or people who don’t know each other, we’ll ponder it a bit, but it’s more accidental than intentional.  In The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, Priya Parker explains that if we want to have successful gatherings, we need to put a bit of thought into it.

Go Further

There’s an old African proverb (the specific source of which can’t be traced) that says, “If you want to go faster, go alone.  If you want to go further, go together.”  It’s at the heart of why we gather.  It’s not faster.  It allows us to reach further heights.  Of course, there are a number of enabling conditions that must be just right for this to take place – but without the initial “together,” we can’t get there.

Conditions might include those that Kantor proposes in Reading the Room, those from William Isaacs’ work Dialogue, or the psychological safety proposed by Amy Edmondson in The Fearless Organization.  Efficacy may be found best using Scott Page’s approach in The Difference or Richard Hackman’s guidance in Collaborative Intelligence.

One of the most striking ways that people were brought together was in Florence, Italy, when the Medici family gathered people with different skills and interests and allowed them to work and interact with one another.  (See The Medici Effect for more.)  Their efforts to bring people together kicked off the Renaissance period.  We discovered that there were ways of teaming up and sharing that were effective at driving creativity and productivity.  (See Team Genius for more.)

Finding Purpose

Organizations which were once plagued by ineffective meetings and who have now encountered an enlightened leader require that meetings have agendas.  The agenda spells out why people are gathering, what the desired outcome is, and which items will lead to the desired outcome – at least, good agendas do this.  “Wasteful meetings” is a common disdain that comes from both internal and external large corporate surveys.  Too much time is wasted in meetings where there is no objective or agenda.  People meet because they believe they’re supposed to meet rather than to get something specific done – or to coordinate on a specific project.

Simon Sinek in Start with Why encourages us to find the purpose before everything else.  Steven Covey describes it as “first things first” in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

The Law of Numbers

The size of the group matters.  Small groups of around six offer intimacy.  Groups of 12 can build trust – and some intimacy.  Groups of 30 start to create buzz and electricity.  Groups of 150 are about the limit to the number of people that can feel like a single group.  These numbers are consistent with Robin Dunbar’s research.  (See High Orbit – Respecting Grieving.)

When planning a gathering, planning for the number of people is key to designing for the purpose of the gathering.  While you may want to invite more people, sometimes those additional people can disturb the goal.

Venue Vectors

Venues come with scripts, patterns that tend to play out over and over.  They’re expected, and that expectation drives more of the same.  Sometimes, the patterns are so ingrained that we don’t even see they’re happening.  Meet at a college, and people will expect to be lectured to – rather than engaging in a discussion.  Meet in a library, and people will expect to stay quiet.  (See The Public Library for more on library culture.)  The coffee shop implies a casual meeting rather than one with a drive through an aggressive agenda.

When you pick the venue, you’re necessarily shaping how the interactions will happen.  More than just the traffic flows and the catering options, venues veer us towards or away from our purpose.

Don’t Leave Me Alone

As the host of the gathering, there’s a tension between over-controlling the event and failing to let things spontaneously emerge and under controlling the event and leaving the participants to fend for themselves.  (See On Dialogue for emergence.)  There’s the idea that, if you don’t structure the time, people will be left to themselves.  The truer response is that they’ll be left to the mercy of the other participants – and that can have some embarrassing results.

Parker recounts an event where too much freedom was given to participants, and despite the small talk, they had managed to not get introduced to one another – and, as a result, the conversation was strained.

Social Contracts

All gatherings are social contracts.  People give up something – most notably, their precious time – and they want to know what they’ll get for it.  Sometimes, it’s the opportunity to meet someone new, hold interesting discussions, or have a new experience.  However, there’s always some implicit contract about what they’re giving and what they’ll be getting – or, at least, what they might get.  After all, in most situations when we attend a gathering, we don’t know for sure what we will get.  We get a raffle ticket and hope that our number is picked for a prize.

Failure to articulate the value proposition – or potential value proposition – for the group is a surefire way to have people fail to accept the invitation and fail to show.  With group dynamics being what they are, there’s no telling what not having the right – or enough – people may do to your gathering.

Strange Confessions

Sometimes, the groups that come together can share honestly because they don’t know each other – not despite their lack of relationship.  Sometimes, the things that people must share are too heavy to be borne inside of a long-term, caring relationship.  They must first be tested in the waters with relative strangers to provide comfort that they may be shared with closer relationships without fear of recrimination.  The strange thing about the group in which these things are shared is that they invariably end up feeling like sacred spaces.  People bond and connect quickly – even if those bonds turn out to be fleeting.

Hot or Cold

For most people, the conflict in a new group is anxiety producing.  Most people are conflict avoidant, and the sometimes candid and direct feedback that evolves between two or more participants in a meeting can make others duck and cover.  Clearly, this doesn’t allow everyone to bring their best selves.  On the other extreme, there’s the problem of groups who are too conflict avoidant, and the conflicts that the group needs to have never happen.  As a result, the group gets stuck being nice and getting nothing done.  Even in gatherings, we need to consider how the group dynamics are playing out, which conflicts need to happen to get out in the open, and which conflicts can be safely avoided because they can’t serve any purpose.  (See Radical Candor for more.)

Turning an End into a Closing

Kahneman explains how the Peak-End rule guides what we think of events.  (See Thinking, Fast and Slow.)  His research showed that the ending of any experience mattered more than it should.  While endings are often left to chance, they need to be an integral part of your planning.  Parker suggests that you not end with thank yous – those can be second to last.  Instead, end with the thing that you want people to most remember or experience.  If you do it just right, you may find that everyone has a powerful and moving experience in The Art of Gathering.

Book Review-Why Won’t You Apologize?: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts

Everyone finds places where they’ve made a mistake, done wrong, or inadvertently harmed someone else, and an apology is called for.  At some level, everyone needs to learn how to better apologize, to heal the hurts that they have caused.  Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts is a way to learn more about how to do that – and what prevents us from doing it.  Harriet Lerner’s work is familiar to me: having been referred to by Brené Brown, I’ve previously read The Dance of Connection.  When I was doing my post, Anatomy of an Apology, I didn’t know that she had written about apologies.

I’m happy to say that she didn’t disagree with anything I said – but she did add more than a few enhancements that make sense for anyone struggling with apologies.

Why Apologize?

Perhaps the best place to start is to understand why we care about apologies in the first place.  It’s simple: we want to maintain relationships.  Whether it’s the damage that permeates families when there’s an argument that splits the family, like discussed in Fault Lines, or simply friendships or community relationships that are blocked by hurt feelings, we need to find ways to rebuild relationships after a harm has been done.

Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace explains one of the reasons that we want to apologize to others: to address a betrayal.  However, that’s far from the only reason.  Anything that causes the other person pain or frustration is a reason to apologize.

Apology Math

As humans, we have a tendency to want to apologize for precisely the amount of the pain of a disagreement – as we calculate it.  However, as a comedian once said, “Anyone that believes that relationships are a 50/50 arrangement doesn’t understand women or math.”  When we try to calculate the amount of the situation that we’re responsible for, we’ll invariably calculate it differently than the other party.  As Gilovich explains in How We Know What Isn’t So, we all believe we’re better than we really are.  It’s a better strategy to work on an apology that allows for the concept that the other person may believe more of the situation is ours to own than we believe.

Ifs and Buts

“I’m sorry if…” and “I’m sorry, but…” are both non-apologies.  I called out “but” but not “if” in my post.  There’s a nuance to “if” as a part of an apology.  It indicates that the person issuing the apology either doesn’t know what they’re apologizing for – or they’re unable to accept that it’s your truth and thereby validate it.

No Golden Ticket

Another challenge with apologies is when the party issuing it expects that it’s an instant ticket for forgiveness, like it’s a get-out-of-jail-free card that they can pull out and use at any time.  This confuses both forgiveness and how it differs from forgetting.  Forgiveness cannot be demanded; it can only be offered.  The person issuing an apology cannot expect forgiveness – though sometimes that is the implicit ask when an apology is offered.

Lerner is careful about forgiveness.  She shares that forgiveness need not be binary yes or no but rather a continuum between yes and no – or zero and 100.  Her perspective on the reason for forgiveness and how it works is nuanced, and in all candor, I’m not entirely sure that I understand the distinction that she’s trying to make.  I’ve always looked at forgiveness as a willingness to let go of the transgression and move forward.

There are several versions of a story of Buddhist monks, who were traveling and came upon a woman who asked to be carried across a river.  One monk did; the other monk, after some time, confronted the first about having broken his vows to never touch a woman.  He replied that he had only carried the woman across the river, and the second monk had carried her for much longer.  Inherent in this is acceptance or completion.

The assumption that things will be the way they were before – which is another common expectation – also confuses forgiveness with forgetting.  Forgiveness doesn’t require that we trust the other person again.  We need not trust them in the same way or to the same degree.  It only means that we need to move forward.  Ultimately, the desire for forgiveness is to return to the same level of trust that happened prior to the incident.  While this may happen, it doesn’t have to if the situation warrants a change in trust.  (For a comprehensive understanding of trust, see Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy, Revisited.)

Responsibility, Remorse, Restitution, and Reassurance

Lerner quotes John Kador from Effective Apology with, “We apologize when we accept responsibility for an offence or grievance and express remorse in a direct, personal and unambiguous manner, offering restitution and promising not to do it again.”

While this may be the most effective apology, I rarely see it in real life.  Often, the reassurance that the person will avoid doing it again is missing.  You’ll notice that I weakened Kador’s word “promising,” because I don’t believe it’s right to make promises that people can’t keep.  In some cases, a promise is too strong a commitment, particularly when the offense is minor.

Otherwise, it’s important to take direct responsibility.  In Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), we see the impact of half-hearted acceptance of responsibility.  Remorse is carried by the words “I’m sorry.”  Restitution is also missing from most apologies, as there’s very little can be done when we’re speaking about hurt feelings.  Obviously, if there’s a tangible loss for which restitution can be offered, it should be.


Sometimes, we’ll receive a criticism for which the person may desire an apology through our actions but in ways that would be unanticipated and unfair.  I volunteered for years with a twelve-step program where there were different types of addicts and hurting people.  Once of the things we were constantly monitoring were the complaints from people about triggering comments and media.  With regularity, we’d trigger someone in the audience with a song or a media clip or the presenter for the week.  (See The Coddling of the American Mind for what triggering is.)  It became a very complicated dance.

In some cases, the offending element was clearly over the line.  For instance, I was at an event that was honoring fallen heroes, some of whom died by suicide, and a song that was promoting suicide was played.  (The good news is that I was apparently the only person in the audience who caught it, having been conditioned to look for it.)  More frequently, we weren’t sure whether the element could reasonably be considered triggering.  We ultimately learned to walk the line together to share content that we needed for the rest of the audience knowing that we would get some complaints, and we’d talk to them individually to work through them having been triggered.

The tricky part from the apology perspective is to acknowledge the feeling, say we’re sorry we caused it, and offer restitution in the form of conversations to help them become less triggered – which is good for them.  Missing would be reassurance we won’t do it again – because, in some cases, we knew the media was on the schedule in the future.

When others offer criticism, we can honestly share, “I’m sorry I didn’t see it that way.  I’m sorry it was offensive to you.  Thank you for the feedback, it’s the only way I can try and prevent this in the future.”

The Attack

Sometimes, the criticism rises above the simple and moves into a character attack.  These are obviously more challenging.  Instead of saying that we’ve done wrong, they’re saying that we are wrong.  They’ve crossed the land of guilt and moved on into shame.  (See I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) for more about the differences between shame and guilt.)  Here, Lerner shares wisdom and stories that affirm that an apology need not be immediate.  A simple response that conveys that you want to understand the feedback and process it before responding is sufficient.

The problem is that we can apologize for what we did but not who we are.  It will take time and processing to separate the characterizations from the events that caused people to make those characterizations.

The Listening

Lerner explains that even the most heartfelt apology may fall flat if the person receiving the apology doesn’t feel heard or believes their concerns were not understood.  Having been on the receiving end of someone trying to apologize but refusing to take the time to understand what it was that they did that was hurtful, it intensified the hurt and moved us further apart rather than closer together.  Instead of bringing us closer together, the failed apology moved us further apart.

It moved us further apart, because it was a strong signal that my relationship wasn’t even worth understanding my pain.

The Deception Box

The capacity of the human mind to deceive itself is impressive.  It never ceases to amaze me the extent to which one can warp their perceptions to allow them to accept their actions and maintain the personas they have for other people.  In Leadership and Self Deception, the situations that lead to self-deception are called “boxes.”  Once someone enters a space where they’re not honest with themselves, they’ll often continue the distortions and attacks on others.  Lerner explains that once we become defensive, it’s hard to get back to a place of openness where we can hear others and can respond more wholly.

When inside the boxes, it’s also hard to know yourself.  When you “believe your own press,” you can’t hear your faults or opportunities for improvement.  You can’t express yourself to others at a level that exceeds your own understanding of yourself – and that can be seriously limiting.

Accepting Inevitability

Sometimes, there isn’t an apology to be offered.  The person who was harmed may have cut off communication to protect themselves from further harm or may simply be unable to hear an apology at this time.  The person who is willing to apologize must realize that there are times when the apology could be harmful – and times when we’ll be prevented from offering it.

Ultimately, the decision to make an apology where we’ve wronged someone – or where there is a rift – is the decision about whether we want to continue to be right or whether we want to be in a relationship.  This is at the heart of Lerner’s other book, The Dance of Connection.

No matter what the circumstances, we can all find useful information in the question Why Won’t You Apologize?


Book Review-Effective Apology: Mending Fences, Building Bridges, and Restoring Trust

I’ve learned that, in legal encounters, apologies are often avoided.  Over the years, I’ve occasionally encountered situations where I’ve got contracts that are materially breached by larger entities.  The degree to which the breach caused me harm could be questioned, but the fact that they violated the terms of the agreement couldn’t.  In truth, when I confronted them on the issue, I didn’t want any restitution, I wanted them to agree to not repeat the transgression.  However, instead of an apology, I got stonewalled, and it was frustrating.

In Effective Apology: Mending Fences, Building Bridges, and Restoring Trust, John Kador explains how to do an effective apology and, more importantly, why we don’t always do them.  Stonewalling may be a very bad thing to do to a relationship, but it’s something that lawyers have been taught to do.  (See The Science of Trust for more on stonewalling.)

Legal Apologies

There’s a funny thing about apologies when it comes to legal conflicts.  Attorneys are taught not to show their hands to their opponents and certainly not to give them things they can use in court to their client’s detriment.  Apologies are treated as acts of admission and therefore reduce the burden of proof for the opposing counsel.  However, the research is emerging that apologies are often much less costly than arguing it out.  We’re finding that not only are the plaintiffs – or wronged parties – much less aggressive in their demands, juries are more compassionate to those who seem contrite.

Despite the fact that 34 states have laws prohibiting the use of doctors’ statements of regret against them, malpractice attorneys still often recommend that their clients not apologize – and, more frequently, route all communications through the attorneys.

Perfect Truth

Apologies are both a perfect solution to imperfection and a signal that we’re more interested in relationships and truth than our ego.  Apologies aren’t easy, but they’re an essential ingredient to a life that is aligned with finding truth instead of accepting our perceptions as if they’re fact.  It’s a critical resuscitation of relationships that are struggling under the weight of hurt.  As imperfect humans, we must accept that we are going to make mistakes.  What matters is how we handle them.

Compassion for the Victim

The center of an effective apology is the compassion for the victim.  That is, we must first recognize the harm caused to the victim, and then we have to have a desire to provide some form of restoration for them.  Too often, we view apologies as a ticket to instant forgiveness.  It isn’t.  We twist the apology to support feeling good about ourselves.  We take the focus away from the important issue that someone has been harmed – and, as someone we’re in a relationship with, we care.

Outcomes Not Intent

Explanations – in general – complicate apologies.  The reason for that is simple.  The victim was hurt, and that’s what matters.  They’ll have to heal, but they want to believe that they won’t be hurt again.  (See Hurtful, Hurt, Hurting for more about the pathway of hurt.)  In general, explanations don’t matter, especially if the intent was hurtful – to hurt the person intentionally, that’s worse, because it implies that it’s the character of the person and therefore it may happen again.  It gets harder as we move away from intentional hurt and towards unintentional hurt.

The next level of evaluation is whether the outcome was reasonably foreseeable.  Could or should you have foreseen the harm you might cause when you took – or failed to take – the action?  This is often where things break down.  We live in a random, probabilistic world where outcomes are never truly certain.  (See The Halo Effect for more on the probabilistic nature of our world.)  We also live in a world with diverse experiences, where it’s not possible to know what everyone who we will interact with will have been through.

Shared Experience

Decades ago, if you wanted to have something to talk about, you could talk about what was on television last night or what the community concert was like.  These helped to synchronize us by giving us all one relatively common experience that we could build from.  NBC had “must-see TV.”  Before that, the world of three television channels (if you were lucky) meant that everyone basically saw one of three things.  Today, we have time-delayed viewing of television, so we don’t know what someone has or has not seen – except for major sporting events.  That doesn’t even address the fact that people are watching YouTube and TikTok, and the variety and reservoir of content is vast.

It’s becoming harder and harder to find shared experiences and therefore a shared understanding of what might cause someone harm.  In The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff tackle trigger warnings and the relative absurdity that happens when we try to prevent people from ever being unsettled by content.  Apologies are the way we get around that.  We simply say, “I’m sorry.  I didn’t realize that would be upsetting to you.  What can I do next time?”

Prediction Engines

We are, at our core, prediction engines.  We use our massively expensive brains to predict a future that we expect to see.  Our brains, in fact, use somewhere between 20-30% of our body’s glucose (energy) while amounting for only 2-3% of our body mass.  Our brains’ abilities are keenly focused on not just basic pattern-matching type prediction, which we share with other animals, but also the ability to forecast the future and, importantly, predict the behavior of others.

We’ve emerged as the dominant life form on the planet by our ability to work together.  Our cooperation and our predictive capacity are twin benefits of our brain.  (See The Righteous Mind for more.)  That has allowed humans without extensive fur, thick skin, powerful claws, or sharp teeth to thrive.  It turns out that the ability to work together is more evolutionarily important than any of those attributes.  (See The Selfish Gene, The Evolution of Collaboration, and Does Altruism Exist? for more on evolution and the forces.)

Prediction, while being a fundamental aspect of consciousness, is far from perfect.  The Signal and the Noise and Superforecasting both lay out the challenges with predicting the future – and offer some help with what can be done to improve it.  However, neither of these really reach the depths of exploring the problem of prediction as Noise does, which lays out how our judgement is flawed.  Of course, Noise isn’t alone in this – How We Know What Isn’t So, Predictably Irrational, Incognito, The Tell-Tale Brain, and many more illuminate these problems.

Working Together

Working together is a complicated process.  It turns out that we can read people’s minds – something we call “theory of mind.”  (See Mindreading for more.)  However, we can’t read people’s minds with absolute certainty.  Instead, we can only approximate what we believe that the other person is thinking.  Our predictive capacity is based on our shared experience.  As we move to less and less shared experience, we’re increasingly less likely to be able to predict what is in someone else’s mind.

“You Should Have Known”

It’s one of those phrases that sets my hair on end.  Someone says, “Well, you just should have known.”  I wonder, exactly how?  The answer is rarely forthcoming, and the reality is that we can’t expect others to know what’s inside our heads.  In fact, when we do, it’s like we’re setting a trap for them.  If they miss the cue, or they guess incorrectly, then it means they don’t care about us or love us.  John Gottman in The Science of Trust explains how we have sliding door moments, where we can turn towards someone, away from them, or against them.  Turning away is to ignore the other person – not necessarily intentionally – and against them is to snap back.

What’s interesting is that, by saying that the other person should have known, we’re positioning a conflict on unreasonable grounds – and that’s just not fair.

Judgement – Understanding vs. Agreement

Topping the list of things that separate us from relationships and each other is judgement.  When we judge that someone is doing something bad, we shun them and separate.  However, if want to get through an argument or apologize, we need to avoid judgement.  Instead of looking for agreement with the other person – judging them positively – we need to stop and focus on understanding.  To achieve an effective apology, we need to understand how the other person felt – even if we don’t agree that those feelings are reasonable.  We can accept that their understanding of the situation is their understanding – even when it doesn’t match reality.

We do, of course, need to make the decision about whether we try to bring reality into the situation if their perception doesn’t match reality – but often times, this makes things worse.  Tom Gilovich explains in How We Know What Isn’t So that they don’t attempt to openly accept disconfirming evidence.  Instead, they move to “must they” accept it.  That’s a very high bar that’s hard to meet.

The Five Dimensions

Kador proposes that every effective apology has the following five dimensions:

  • Recognition – Acknowledgement of what hurt the other party.
  • Responsibility – The actions (or inactions) that led to the other party’s harm.
  • Remorse – The acknowledgment that the other party’s harm wasn’t right.
  • Restitution – An offer to compensate the other party for the harm they felt.
  • Repetition – A commitment to prevent or avoid future harm.

The lack of any of these dimensions puts the apology effectiveness at risk.


One of the questions that comes up when someone apologizes is whether they have remorse – or whether they simply regret getting caught.  This doubt comes from the lack of trust in the repetition.  When someone doesn’t express any intent to stop the behavior – or the expression isn’t believed – then we’re faced with the idea that the person doesn’t regret the action or the harm that it caused but rather that it was discovered.  This often occurs when there’s a breach of trust such as infidelity.


The expression that the behavior won’t happen again is often a stumbling block to the apology.  There are some places where it’s impossible to say that you won’t make a mistake again.  Consider, for a moment, that you have friend who is transitioning gender, and you use the wrong pronouns in your conversation with them.  You can certainly commit to continued efforts to prevent using the wrong pronoun – but providing a guarantee that you’ll never use the wrong pronouns again is unrealistic.

Conversely, if there’s a behavior that clearly violated moral boundaries, it is expected that one would commit to preventing another offense.  In the extreme, if someone murders another person, it’s reasonable to ask that they commit to not murder anyone else.

Reasonable Expectations

Whether directly stated or simply implied, the apology creates an expectation that the person apologizing will not repeat the behavior.  In the interest of the relationship, whatever the expectation set by the apology is, it should be met.  Failure further erodes trust, even trust in apologies.  We have a saying “Sorry, not sorry” that describes this condition.  Someone speaks an apology without any intention of changing (or even monitoring) their behavior.

Ultimately, an apology is an attempt to recover a relationship.  Sometimes this means that we have to give up the sense that we’re right – but it always means that we need to consider the impact of the act and the apology on trust.  (See The Titleless Leader for more on “right or in relationship” and Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, Revisited for more on trust.)


The timing of an apology should be set by the person who was harmed.  They should be able to find conditions that makes them the most comfortable.  Twelve-step groups believe the person who has been harmed should control the conditions of an apology (amends) and when it should be made – including the possibility that “never” is a valid answer.  (See Why and How 12-Step Groups Work for more.)

Ain’t No Thing

If someone makes the effort to do an honest apology, the recipient shouldn’t dismiss the apology.  Telling the apologizer that it’s “no big deal” or “don’t worry about it” dismisses their commitment to the relationship.  Certainly, letting them know the apology is accepted is good.  However, dismissing the apology may be dismissing their honest attempt at improving their own behaviors.


It’s important to note two things about forgiveness.  First, forgiveness isn’t a given.  Second, forgiveness isn’t forgetting.  A good apology, Kador explains, shouldn’t ask for forgiveness.  It should be entirely focused on the harm that was inflicted.  When you ask for forgiveness, you necessarily shift the focus from the victim to you.  That’s not how it’s supposed to work.

Forgiveness isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card.  It doesn’t mean that the other person won’t be suspicious or observant in the future.  It’s just the release of the relational poison.

That’s the best hope.  If you can remove the relational poisons, then you’re doing an Effective Apology.

Book Review-SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed

It’s time to draw the line between the dots.  SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed is the final missing piece that connects the dots between Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, The Evolution of Cooperation, Does Altruism Exist?, and Adam Grant’s Give and Take.  It’s the bit that explains how givers – cooperators – can end up on both the top and the bottom.  It’s the part that explains how defectors can get the best of cooperators – or be rooted out by the cooperators depending upon the conditions.

Mutation and Selection

All the way back to Darwin, we’ve believed that the survival of the fittest that drove evolution is based on a set of twin ideas.  On the one hand, we have mutation – that is, changes from a single standard into multiple variants.  On the other hand, we had selection pruning away those variants that weren’t the best, most adaptive, and most effective in a given environment.  Where mutation diverges, selection converges.  It’s an elegant expression of a fascinatingly complex process that takes place over generations – but it’s incomplete.  If we leave only these two forces, then we’re stuck with Dawkins’ Selfish Gene.  There’s no room for cooperation.

That’s why we need to accept that cooperation is a third principle that is added to the first two.  It drives evolution as well but in a subtle way.

Survival of the Fittest Group

To explain how evolution might have favored cooperators, we’ve got to think on multiple scales.  We must think that groups of cooperators will succeed or fail.  We start with the prisoner’s dilemma and understand that the best scenario is for both parties to cooperate with each other.  From there, we must admit that the defector has the upper hand when dealing with a cooperator.  In that case, eventually, the defectors will populate a group well if not detected and removed by other means.

Consider two groups: one consisting of mostly collaborators, where the defectors have been mostly discovered and removed (expelled); and another, where the collaborators didn’t develop this capacity and were therefore all but eliminated.  The overall productivity and capacity of the group that has an abundance of cooperators will likely win a competition against a group of defectors because of their enhanced capacity.  It’s a case of to the victor go the spoils.  (See Human Capital for more.)


This, of course, relies on the idea that the cooperators have learned how to detect cheating.  As I mentioned in Does Altruism Exist?, the odds for learning to detect defectors may be long but they’re not impossible.  There are two ways that this detection can function.  The first is memory, and the second is reputation.  Direct reciprocity requires that players remember who has defected on them and who has not, so they can make a prediction about whether the other person will defect again.

Reputation requires a social capacity where someone can learn about another’s reputation – that is, the aggregate of their interactions with others.  If I can assess reputation, then I can use that as a proxy for my prediction of the other person’s behavior.

It’s important to pause here to say that these reputational forces are woven into humans deeply.  They’re at the heart of Diffusion of Innovations and the power of social marketing (see Guerrilla Marketing and The New Rules of Marketing and PR).  Since we’re using this information to predict behavior, we can’t ignore the ability for people to manipulate our prediction processes, as explained in Predictably Irrational, Noise, The Hidden Persuaders, and Influence.  Detection is hard because the defectors get better at hiding their defection.


However, there’s another evolutionary issue that must be addressed.  That is, once a defector has been detected, they must be punished.  In the indirect sense, their reputation does that.  It prevents them from taking advantage of others, but that’s not enough.  For that, we need to recognize the research around the ultimatum game, where two people are given $10 to split.  The first one gets to determine the split, and the second one decides whether both parties will – or will not – receive the money.  Consistently, when the first person splits the money unevenly at about 7/3 or 8/2, the second person decides to punish the first’s greediness by denying both the money.

From a strictly economic standpoint, this makes no sense.  However, it makes perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective where defectors – the greedy – need to be taught a lesson.  It’s generally accepted that the punishment to cost to punisher ratio needs to be about 3:1 – which lies between these two splits.

With detection and punishment, we have the possibility of preventing defectors from overtaking a generally generous group.  Vengeful punishment can pave the road of amicable cooperation.

The Makeup of Groups

This all presumes some makeup of groups.  First, there must be groups rather than one big mass of interacting actors.  Second, the groups must be sufficiently long-lived to allow for memory and reputation to take hold and defectors to be punished appropriately – that is, until they change their ways or are expelled from the group.  The key here is that cooperators need to be able to defend themselves against the defectors.

It’s also necessary to recognize that being a defector isn’t necessarily a persistent trait.  It can be that the punishment of the cooperators can convert a defector into a cooperator – exactly as we’d expect with reinforced behavior modification.

Mistakes and Generosity

The problem in any real-world situation is that we can never be sure of the other person’s intent, nor can we always assign reputation to the right parties.  We assign character traits to the other party when they were just learning.  In short, in the real world, we have to tolerate mistakes – our own and the other party’s.  As it turns out, even in the purity of computer simulations, you’re better off occasionally forgiving an offense.  Generous tit-for-tat is better than tit-for-tat and other strategies, because it occasionally forgives someone who defects against it.  It will never forget a cooperator but will occasionally forgive a defector.

The simulation result of this is that it prevents “death spirals,” where the two programs alternate between being generous and being a defector.  By occasionally giving an extra bit of trust, it stops the cycle and allows both parties to get the greatest benefit.

Simple Math, Complex Concept

The simulations and work on mathematical formulas revealed one consistent truth.  It says that when the ratio between the benefits of cooperating divided by the cost is greater than one plus the group’s size divided by the number of groups – then and only then cooperation will flourish.  Let’s tear that apart.

The ratio of benefit to cost must be greater than one as a baseline.  It’s got to have some innate value to cooperate in the first place.  In a traditional prisoner’s dilemma, with the following truth table, the ratio of benefits to cost is 1.2.  This can be calculated based on the total of 12 for years (for both parties) based on both possibilities of the other party compared to 10 total years for cooperation.

Cooperate Defect
Cooperate 2/2 5/1
Defect 5/1 3/3

What this says is that cooperation should flourish when the ratio between group size and number of groups is less than .2.

While all of this is quite abstract, it says that when group sizes are small, and there are many groups, the benefits of cooperation will likely cause it to flourish – in part because finding defectors is easier and because there are opportunities for inter-group competition.

Virus in our Genes

Evolution isn’t tidy.  In fact, it’s quite messy.  If we go back the primordial soup that existed on the planet Earth, there were plenty of building blocks from which things could start to replicate into patterns – that is, until those building blocks were consumed.  This required a different kind of replication approach – one which was more complicated.

The line between inanimate and animate life in the course of replicators isn’t clear.  However, we do know that the formation of the sort of programming language of genetics – RNA and eventually DNA – crossed us over into the place of individual cells, which contained all the pieces they needed to replicate on a whole new level.  The leap at this level required several different components of different replicating molecules to come together to work together and we’re not exactly clear how that happened.

It’s presumed that more replicators found themselves working together – because cooperation was good for their ability to survive and continue replicating.  These eventually became bounded inside of a membrane that we would today think of as a cell.  While we think of viruses as invaders today, it could be that these very same chunks – or ones just like them – became a part of us and the rest of the animal kingdom.

Bacteria in our Bodies

Most of the cells on the planet – and even in our bodies – are bacteria.  The truth is that our bodies aren’t pure human.  Our bodies are constantly trying to keep the bacteria in check in a delicate dance of cycles, rhythms, and defenses.  This is one of the reasons why stress’ tendency to turn down or turn off our immune system often spells disaster.  When the natural systems that we have to help us maintain the balance gets out of whack, it’s very difficult for us to recover.  (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more on the impacts of stress.)

Many of the most challenging diseases of our times are those that are classified as autoimmune.  Those are the ones where our own immune system starts attacking parts of the body, and the results are devastating.

Optimum Mobility

One of the challenges in defining the success of cooperators is their ability to address or avoid defectors and that requires a level of mobility that is neither too low – where they’re trapped – nor too large – where they cannot discover who the defectors are.  There’s a delicate balance between too much and too little.  It’s much like Richard Hackman’s explanation in Collaborative Intelligence in the need for groups to have a certain level of permeability – but not too little nor too much.

Levels of Religion

One of the most fundamental premises of evolution is that evolution operates at multiple levels.  Cooperation is beneficial, so it’s no surprise, given Richard Dawkins’ discussion of memes in The Selfish Gene, that the world’s religions are by-and-large recipes for creating greater cooperation.  They encourage us to work together and help us to become better SuperCooperators.

Book Review-The Common Base of Social Work Practice

While today we might recognize the role of the social work profession, that wasn’t the case in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  That’s why The Common Base of Social Work Practice was so important.  It helped to explain what social work meant and what the gaps are towards becoming a profession.  It might be easy to dismiss such a work either because one isn’t particularly interested in social work or because social work is so well understood.  However, it’s an interesting exposé about how professions are formed and what the resulting challenges are.  While other professions have come to their own since social work, none that I’m aware of have a seminal work that so expertly exposes the transformation.

Throughout this review, I’ll be connecting what social work was going through fifty years ago with the kinds of challenges facing change management today – because I believe every profession goes through similar cycles.


In the primordial soup of a profession, there are numerous competing hypotheses.  There are different perspectives and views that must be reconciled to reduce the options to a manageable number.  It’s not necessary that every profession subscribe to a single model.  It is important, however, that the profession settle into a set of relatively compatible hypotheses that can work in concert with one another.

But that means there have to be competing hypotheses that can be tried and tested.  It also means there needs to be enough of them that their relative merits and weaknesses can be exposed.  Images of Organization explains that, even in understanding organizations, there are multiple models that make it easier to understand some aspects and more difficult to understand others.  Professions are no different.  These views, as they evolve, must be numerous enough to cover the space that the profession intends to cover.  Without enough models, there’s no room for testing.  In The Evolution of Cooperation, we learned how Robert Axelrod’s second run of the test for programs to win the prisoner’s dilemma resulted in sixty-two entries.  In change management, there are easily that many models – many of which are covered in the Change Model Library.

Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene coined the term “meme.”  It was conceived as an idea that self-replicates and becomes popular within an environment – not necessarily to the exclusion of other ideas.  Healthy hypotheses have a meme-like quality in that they replicate between minds – and ultimately mutate and join forces with other ideas to form something new.

The obvious question – which doesn’t have a clean answer – is when the refinement process is done enough to form a profession.  No one knows.  Eventually, someone makes a statement so profound that it resonates enough to gather people behind it.

Knowledge Building

On of the threads of my world has been knowledge management, which is and of itself is a bit of a misnomer.  Knowledge management is, in part, about knowledge building – the terminology used in The Common Base of Social Work Practice – meaning that there needs to be a consistent set of knowledge that everyone in the field has.  This has an inherent problem that one must first agree to what that common knowledge that everyone should have is – and that problem is harder than it might first appear.

There’s an irony about knowledge management in that it has no association to coordinate activities and develop it into a profession, and there is no common base of knowledge (or awareness) that every knowledge management professional must have.  It suffers from a lack of clarity about what should be inside and what should be outside the circle of knowledge management.

Basic Elements

A tension exists between the need to be able to communicate across disciplines and the need to have a language and approach specific to the profession.  There’s the need to define the basic elements that are inside the circle and those elements that touch the circle from the outside.  One of the observations was that social work was taking its cues from the psychology field – which, in turn, was built on the medical model.

Social work has largely settled on an approach that addresses the person in their environment, recognizing Lewin’s formula that behavior is a function of both person and environment.  (See A Dynamic Theory of Personality.)  While awareness of psychology is expected, social workers focus more on the way that the person interacts with their environment.

Theoretical Knowledge

It’s tricky.  In learning anything, you want to know how to use what you’re learning.  It’s important that there’s an application aspect that allows you to clearly understand how you’ll use the information.  (See The Adult Learner.)  However, we also know from The Art of Explanation that we need explain the overall landscape before delving into the details, so that learners have a way to connect what they’re learning.  That overall view requires a committing to some model for understanding the landscape – and ideally multiple models to avoid limitations in any one model.  (See Images of Organization for more.)

Ultimately, we’re concerned with the idea of “far transfer,” which is the application of learning well beyond the time and space that it was learned in.  (See Kirkpatrick’s Four Levels of Training Evaluation for more.)  Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives might also look at this from an application or synthesis level when the components of learning can be combined with others in different situations to yield new and useful results.  (See Efficiency in Learning for more.)

Ultimately, the knowledge that social workers learn should be such that it can be applied to a variety of unpredictable situations.

Knowledge and Values

A profession is more than just knowledge.  While knowledge forms the foundation, professionals agree to a set of values that are consistent across the profession.  For instance, social workers explicitly agree in the need for dignity and respect of every individual.  They also believe that each culture has its own unique nuances and that cultural sensitivity is key.

Underlying every profession are a set of ethical standards.  It’s not just social norms.  It’s the challenges that Kidder describes in How Good People Make Tough Choices and the often competing foundations of morality that Jonathan Haidt describes in The Righteous Mind.

Occupation or Profession

The interesting question becomes when does an occupation or a career become a profession?  The defining characteristics of a profession seem to be a code of ethics, advanced or specialized education, and the perception of a higher level of skill or expertise.  I’d add to this definition that there must be a relevant problem that is being solved.  In Professional Learning x2, I explained that sometimes learning isn’t the point – sometimes the “paper” is.  When it comes to professions, we need solutions – not just the certification or license saying the person should be included in the profession.

The tricky part In the transition from occupation to profession – and the prestige that it conveys – is how to identify the skills and solutions that the profession will offer and what knowledge and training will be necessary to achieve that end.  Does every social worker need to be able to do individual-, group-, and community-level work?  Maybe – but maybe not.

Individual, Group, or Community

Social work broadly falls into three categories: individual, group, and community work.  Individual work is one-on-one with people who need help navigating and adapting to their environments.  Group work involves small groups of people who are being supported in growing their skills for adapting to their environment.  Community-level skills are trying to change the community as a whole.  Individual and group work is most similar to the work of psychologists, where community-level work requires a different set of skills.

Community-level skills effectively require an ability to see in systems.  Donella Meadow’s excellent work Thinking in Systems exposes the ways that stocks, flows, and loops create results in complex environments.  She explains how it’s possible to generate large impacts based on small inputs by knowing how the system functions and intervening in the right space.  Observationally, I’ll say I’ve seen a lot of social workers who are simply checking the boxes, doing the tasks, and have little or no understanding of systems or complex interactions.  (See Cynefin for more about different problem types.)  Too few have ever studied how to motivate people, how innovations are adopted, or the skills necessary to leverage a broader understanding to efficacy.  (See Diffusion of Innovations for more about adoption.)

In advanced practice nursing, there are two different kinds of roles: a nurse practitioner, who is an extender that allows medical doctors to see more patients; and a clinical nurse specialist, who helps change the relationship between the system, patient, and provider in ways that are more effective and efficient.  (I know I’m neglecting several other variants of advanced practice nursing in the service of simplicity.)  Both are advanced practice nurses, and both are trained with 80% or so of the same content, but their specialties are focused in different areas.  It’s possible that social workers need to have similar focus on whether they’re supporting individuals or systems.

Effective Helping

At the end of the day, the skill of a social worker is effective helping of people – whether they do it at an individual level or a community level.  It’s the effective assistance provided by a social worker that is the skill that justifies considering social work a true profession.  That builds on The Common Base of Social Work Practice.

Book Review-People in Crisis: Understanding and Helping

A crisis is a temporary inability to cope by means of our normal problem-solving devices.  People in Crisis: Understanding and Helping is designed to teach the means by which we can help people through their crises and to reach the other side by helping them better process their circumstances.

Danger and Opportunity

Crises are inflection points.  They’re points where there is great danger and threat of an inability to process or recover – and, simultaneously, they’re the threshold of opportunity.  The Chinese symbol for crisis is formed by the symbols for danger and opportunity.  The first step in a crisis is to help people see past the danger of the situation and to recognize the opportunity that is a part of the crisis.

Identity Issues

One of the key kinds of crises that people face are crises of identity.  Erik Erikson in Childhood and Society outlines a set of stages that he believes children go through.  Each of these stages causes us to alter our internal view of our identity, and therefore these transitions are periods of identity crisis of varying intensity.

We also face identity issues when we are not able to reconcile the way that we’re behaving with our ideal versions of our identity that we hold.  In How We Know What Isn’t So, Thomas Gilovich explains how we’re able to delude ourselves about our grandeur.  Sometimes, the gap in our self-perception is pointed out to us in ways that cannot be ignored.  Kim Scott, in Radical Candor, advises us to be direct in ways that can make it impossible for us to ignore the discrepancy between our identities and the results we’re seeing.  This all leads to a crisis of identity that may be small or may be large.

Blame the Victim

One of the negative aspects of our culture today is the tendency for us to blame the victim for their misfortune.  You may have heard “ye of little faith” as a subtle attack on the piety of others.  It was believed that misfortune befell those who were in God’s disfavor.  Today, we have a view that bad things happen to good people, and misfortune happens to all of us.  Despite this, we still will tend to wonder what someone has done to deserve their fate.

Albert Bandura calls this “victim locus” in Moral Disengagement, and he doesn’t believe it’s a good thing.  It unfairly judges people when they’ve done nothing wrong.  The Halo Effect explains that we live in a probabilistic, not a deterministic, world.  That means bad things can happen to good people.  Sometimes, there isn’t someone to blame – even if that make us feel more comfortable.  We want the perception that we have control of the outcomes that befall us – even if that control is an illusion.

Perception Matters

Compelled to Control makes it clear that control is an illusion.  Despite this, it’s an illusion that we like and want to keep.  Numerous studies have shown that we have less distress with unpleasant situations when we believe that we can stop them at any time.  Whether we can stop or have influence on the situation makes little difference.  What makes the difference is that we believe we have control.  (See The Hope Circuit for more.)

The reach of perception extends beyond simply the perception of control.  If we are willing to perceive that our circumstances are neutral or good, then we’ll feel happier.  We’re not talking about delusional thinking.  We’re talking about intentionally shifting your perception towards a place of acceptance of the circumstances and reveling in the positives, as Rick Hanson explains in Hardwiring Happiness.

Navigating the Crisis Maze

We build mental maps and models of our world.  Gary Klein in Sources of Power explains how firefighting captains have learned how fires work.  They have a model for fires, and it’s disconcerting when their models predict that things will happen, but they don’t.  Sir Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes character would call it “the dogs that don’t bark.”  It’s a small thing but a noticeable one.  The fire captains generally pull people back and build a new working model for the fire – hopefully, a better one.

Crises generally involve one or more fundamental beliefs that have been called into question or destroyed.  A parent that loses a child must release the “natural order” argument that they’ll die before their children.  It’s a fundamental – if unstated – part of the rules of living and a significant portion of the mental map.  More impactful is the couple who have lived together for decades and one person dies – or chooses divorce.  The map of the world had adapted to having the other person in it – and now it has to adjust to their absence.

It’s no wonder why being in crisis is so disorienting.  Our way of navigating the world is broken or bent, and we’re not sure what parts of our mental map we can and cannot use.  Navigating a world that has become a new and uncharted maze is very scary, and it’s why people coming alongside us during a crisis makes it better – particularly if they seem to know how to navigate the maze.

Replacement Families

In an ideal world, we’d have ideal families and would have developed secure attachment patterns.  (See Daring to Trust.)  We’d have families who loved us unconditionally and never judged us.  They’d be ever-present when we needed them.  However, we don’t live in an ideal world.  In fact, there are few constants more real than the fact that all families have their own dysfunctions.  Every family has aspects that don’t work well – but we’ve adapted, because that’s the way they are.

Increasingly, we’re finding ways of augmenting our social connection needs with friends.  Our friends become our replacement families.  When we need the support that a family might have at one time provided, we lean on friends instead.  Certainly, things are changing in our social capital relationships.  Robert Putnam explained this decades ago in Bowling Alone and more recently in Our Kids.  Sherry Turkle explains in Alone Together how our dependence on technology has made us more connected – yet less personally connected.

The good news of all of this is that it’s easier for people to find support in other ways when their families aren’t able to support them the way they need to be supported.

Sick Role

It’s sometimes too easy to find others to help us.  It starts to make the role of being sick too desirable and too easy to get into.  When someone identifies themselves as ill – or they’re identified as ill by others – they’re automatically granted certain graces that wouldn’t normally be available.  No one expects people who are ill to split wood and bring it inside to man the fire.  Instead, we grant them a pass and pick up the load.

There’s a delicate balance in play here that often gets out of whack.  We should allow people time to heal, and we should support them – as we would want to be supported.  However, at some point, we need to get people out of the sick role so they can work on healing and returning to fully functional members of the society.  One of the keys to getting someone out of a sustained crisis is to help them release their victim role.  We need to help them find a way to tentatively return to the fully productive world of accountability.

The Power of Caring and Sharing

When you’re looking at how you can help people in crisis, the answers may be unsatisfyingly simple.  It can be that the best way to help someone is simply to let them know that you care and to listen to them share.  If you look at the research about the efficacy of psychotherapy, there’s one clear factor that matters more than anything else.  It matters more than the type of technique you use or where you got your training.  The Heart and Soul of Change explains that it’s the therapeutic alliance: how much you connect with and believe that your therapist really cares.

You don’t have to be a therapist to connect with other humans, and that can be a powerful way of radiating healing.  In Why and How 12-Step Groups Work, I explained that much of the power of the groups is the new communities that form around people.

The appropriate strategies for sharing can be equally helpful.  Whether you use Motivational Interviewing or something else as a strategy to engage people in the process of telling their story, there’s something to it.

Suicide by Cop

Sometimes, direct strategies don’t work.  The genetic drive for self-preservation can be a difficult thing to get past even for those determined to die.  Sometimes, self-preservation diverts things into behaviors that are harmful in the long term – but aren’t immediately life threatening.  People have taken up alcohol, overeating, and drugs in an attempt to soothe their pain but also to create a scenario where their death is more likely.  Sometimes the strategies for indirect self-harm involve other people.

I remember the first time I heard it.  My brother-in-law at the time was a cop, and we had just watched a news story about an officer-involved shooting in his basement.  I didn’t really think that it was all that interesting when he told me that it was an officer-assisted suicide – and later “suicide by cop.”  When I asked more about it, he shared that people will provoke officers to the point where they have little or no choice but to shoot – and kill – them.  Afterwards, they’d learn that the gun wasn’t loaded or wasn’t real, but the person who ultimately would die would intentionally create the perception of a real threat.

People in crisis – who want to die but aren’t able to do the degree of self-harm necessary – often do strange things.  Sometimes, it’s simply risky behaviors; other times, it’s intentionally provoking their death.

Intimate Partner Violence

The degree to which women are harmed by domestic partners – or intimate partners – is staggering.  The research seems to suggest that the problem has been going on since the earliest days of humanity and that it’s finally being discussed more.  That doesn’t make it better.  One of the key questions that gets asked is, “Why doesn’t she just leave?”  The answer to that is complicated.

In Divorce, we learned that most women’s economic status decreased after a divorce.  In short, they’re less capable of meeting their basic needs than they were when they were married.  It’s also true that, before divorce laws were changed in the US, it was harder to get a divorce without a clear reason.  Of course, not all intimate partners are married, but there’s a clear answer that the economics of the situation may play a role.

The more tragic version of this story is that, despite protective orders and social protections, women who leave are often those who are harmed.  Their departure creates an anger in their partner that erupts into violence.  That violence can visit upon them as a murder-suicide or simply battery, and it can happen no matter where they reside.


One of the things that hold people in crisis is a sense of shame.  Coming across a situation that you don’t know how to process is natural, but when you start to focus on judging yourself for the situation, it becomes harder to resolve.  Certainly, there are situations of our own making.  We make bad decisions, and we end up with consequences that we don’t like.  We can feel guilty for those bad decisions, but when it changes from we made a bad decision to we are a bad person, there’s a problem.  (See I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) for more on the difference between guilt and shame.)

Bad things happen to good people.  It’s simple truth, but it’s sometimes hard to accept when you believe that you had a hand in the circumstances that you’re in.  This is particularly hard if you’ve been struggling with the same sets of behaviors and feel as if you’re continuing to do the things that you rationally don’t want to do.

Few people have heard about Jonathan Haidt’s Elephant-Rider-Path model, which explains that our rational beliefs are a tiny rider on top of a huge, emotional elephant.  (See The Happiness Hypothesis and Switch for more.)  The rider believes he’s in control, but the elephant always wins when he wants to.  We make rational decisions to lose weight or stop drinking, but our emotional elephant has different plans.  Our rational rider holds the reins with all the willpower they have but eventually loses their grip.  (See Willpower for more about willpower.)  Sometimes, losing the grip means that we feel ashamed that we can’t keep from the thing we don’t want.

We forget that willpower is exhaustible, and if we don’t change the systems around us and deal with the emotional hurt that drives us to the bad behaviors, we’re unlikely to permanently resolve the bad behavior.  That’s nothing to be ashamed of.  It’s something to recognize, but it’s often shame-inducing for some.

Opening Pandora’s Box

Helpers’ discomfort with certain topics can prevent people from getting help.  Abuse, suicide, death, and other difficult topics aren’t the kind of things that anyone wants to discuss – but sometimes we need to discuss them, especially if we want to be helpful.  Helpers often fear that, by asking difficult questions, they’ll “open Pandora’s box,” causing harms to spill into the conversation, the relationship, and the world.  While opening up the discussion on these sorts of difficult topics can require a bit of time to address well, it’s not like these things are contagious.

The way to talk about any difficult topic is to address it directly.  The advice, from The End of Hope and others, is to open up about secrets.  Not talking about a topic doesn’t make it go away – it only makes it fester in hiding.

Learning, Earning, and Returning

One of the perspectives of human lifecycle is that it’s three phases.  There’s a phase of learning – perhaps through the time of college.  There’s a phase of earning, where you’re earning a living, making money, and generally striving.  The final phase – retirement – is a phase of returning.  It’s a time of your life when you make an attempt to give back to and support others.  Retirement is often seen in the US as an opportunity to kick back and relax.  It’s a time to stand by and watch the rat race.

These three phases are punctuated by crises between them.  Deciding how to make money, to take the leap into a corporate rather than educational environment is challenging.  So, too, is the transition into retirement and the awareness that you’re no longer earning money, or at least not much money.

The way to find meaning in this last transition is to discover your why.  Simon Sinek in Start with Why and Clayton Christensen in How Will You Measure Your Life? explain the importance of having a purpose for your life.

Death of a Child

The worst thing in my life to date is the death of our son.  However, it’s more than the acute loss that I feel because Alex is no longer here.  There’s another aspect.  It violates the way that the world should work – or that I understand the world should work.  No parent should have to bury their child.  When you lose a child, you not only face the loss, but you must also contend with the fact that the world doesn’t work the way that you believe it should work.

It doesn’t require the death of a child to be in crisis.  However, sometimes that’s the reason why you find People in Crisis.

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