Book Review-Myths about Suicide

I was surprised when Alex took his life. I thought we knew about what the warning signs were for suicide, but clearly, we’re wrong. Myths about Suicide explores some of the common myths about suicide – including myths that we still teach people who are supposed to identify risk for suicide in the people they work with.


Joiner’s model was explored more fully in Why People Die of Suicide, but, in brief, he believes that factors related to the degree of connectedness, the degree of burdensomeness, and the ability to actuate self-harm are the three factors that make the difference between those who attempt suicide and those who don’t.

Perception is the Rule

The key with burdensomeness and connectedness is that they’re rather abstract concepts that are not about the reality of the situation but are instead about the person’s perception. Some may believe that they’re not well connected, yet show every indication that they are very connected to their families, friends, and communities. It’s not the objective measures that matter, it’s the subjective perception in their minds that matters – and that’s where things can get off track.

Similarly, people view the degree to which they’re a burden and decide that they are or are not a burden without verifying their perception with others. Instead of knowing what others think about whether they’re a burden or a help, they make their own evaluation, and the evaluation isn’t always good.

The World Will Be Better Off

There’s a Doctor Who episode, “The Wedding of River Song,” that culminates in a conversation where River Song tells the Doctor, “You’ve decided the universe is better off without you, but the universe doesn’t agree.” This is often the case for those who ultimately decide to commit suicide. They’ve decided that the world is better off without them – either because they need to relieve their pain or because they feel as if they’re a burden. I can tell you, personally and from the stories of others who have lost their loved ones from suicide, we don’t agree.


Joiner asserts that one of the better indicators of potential suicide is agitation. If you believe, as Shneidman explains in The Suicidal Mind, that suicidal people are ambivalent, then it’s easy to see the relationship between agitation and suicide. Ambivalence isn’t a lack of energy towards something but rather the presence of competing forces. Agitation is a set of competing forces that create turmoil on the part of someone – those same conflicting forces that can lead to ambivalence. Superforecasting explains that we say the chances are 50/50 when we don’t know how to rate the probabilities. In agitation, the forces are fighting in the arena of the mind to get the upper hand.

Kurt Lewin in Principles of Topological Psychology explains that it’s these competing forces that once decided propel people from one area or perspective to another. There’s reason to be concerned when we don’t know which force will win.

Lunch Money

What sense does it make for someone who is planning on killing themselves today to ask for someone to write them a check and mail it to them? The answer is, of course, none. And yet, this is one of the scenarios described in the book. The only way to explain this is the conflict that exists in the mind about whether to live or die.

If you’re going to live, you’ll need to pay the rent next month; if not, less so. When the person asked for the money, they were intending to live, but it was the force propelling them towards death that ultimately won the war.

The fact that there are two processes – one for living and one for dying – that are battling it out inside the head of the suicidal person is a strange thing indeed. Most people assume as single train of thought and a predictable path, but that’s not the case.

Momma’s Hard Liquor

Speaking of predicting suicide, hard liquor does it. The big surprise is not that alcohol influences suicide. The big surprise is, in at least one case, it was only hard liquor. Beer and wine had no correlation to suicide – but the correlation to hard liquor consumption was clear.

Even more surprising than someone’s consumption of hard liquor driving suicidal tendencies is the fact that a mother’s drinking of hard liquor had an even higher correlation. The factors at play are a mystery. However, the fact is that there’s something about your drinking and your momma’s drinking of hard liquor that leads to suicide – but not your father’s.

Talking about Suicide

Most people are scared to talk about suicide. It’s a difficult topic that no one wants to bring up. (See Crucial Conversations if you’re struggling with hard talks.) The fear is that if you bring up suicide, you’ll give someone the idea that it’s something they might want to try. This fear is, thankfully, false. You can and should talk to people about suicide, because being open about it seems to reduce the chances.

There’s an exception to the rule related to the media and cases where suicide may be unintentionally glorified. In those cases, it’s better to rethink the approach or just skip the story all together – that is, if your goal is to stop suicide.

Stopping Suicide

Speaking of stopping suicides, what happens if you thwart someone’s attempt? Will they just try again at another time or in another way? The research says no. 95% of the people who were stopped trying to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge never committed suicide. Apparently, the fact that someone stopped them reset the thinking and disrupted the cycles that told them that the world really would be better off without them.

If you’re given an opportunity to take action to prevent a suicide, the chances are you’re being given a chance to save a life – if you’re willing to take it.

No Call Boxes

If we’ve got suicide prevention lines and we can place telephones on the bridge, it stands to reason that we can prevent suicides by simply adding the phones. The problem is this doesn’t seem to work. The impersonal call boxes don’t seem to get used. They’re an interesting sign about how the community wants people to live but the sign isn’t strong enough – or the suicidal person is able to ignore them well enough that they have no impact.

It seems like there must be some person reaching out to make it work.

Personally Known Impersonal

The funny thing is just the reaching out – whether it’s as simple as a smile or a computer-generated postcard – works. Sure, people acknowledge that they know the postcard wasn’t truly personal, but somehow the fact that there was a reach out is enough. We seem to be willing to give folks the benefit of the doubt. This fact opens the door for long-term care of suicidal patients and of people who are impacted by tragedy to receive automated responses that need to be only slightly personalized to be effective – that could be a good thing.

It’s not a compensation for the pain and suffering, but it does seem to help a bit.

Suicidal Nightmares

The relationship between mental health and quality sleep is well established. The better sleep we get, the more we’re able to function. The ability to clear the neurotoxins that our brain naturally creates while awake confers on us greater emotional capacity and better reasoning. It’s little surprise, then, that when we face nightmares, we see higher rates of suicide. The one last respite from the constant turmoil and stream of internal voices is removed from us by nightmares.

One of the biggest challenges with patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the inability to completely process the trauma – which can be minor – that triggered the PTSD. Patients continue to replay the events over and over but never resolve them. Whether waking or sleeping, it’s the failure to resolve the situation or process it to the point that you’re able to make sense of it that keeps you stuck. In Opening Up, Pennebaker speaks of PTSD and techniques for helping free people from the cycle. I wonder how many people who die by suicide are really PTSD victims whose PTSD was never diagnosed – which may have been triggered by something very small.

The Myths

It’s important to list the myths that Joiner confronts in the book, since I could find no listing of them anywhere else. Again, these are all myths:

  • “Suicide’s an Easy Escape, One that Cowards Use”
  • “Suicide Is an Act of Anger, Aggression, or Revenge”
  • “Suicide Is Selfish, a Way to Show Excessive Self-Love”
  • “Suicide Is a Form of Self-Mastery”
  • “Most People Who Die by Suicide Don’t Make Future Plans”
  • “People Often Die by Suicide ‘on a Whim'”
  • “You Can Tell Who Will Die by Suicide from Their Appearance”
  • “You’d Have to Be Out of Your Mind to Die by Suicide”
  • “The Death Scene Shows that the Cause of Death Was Not Suicide”
  • “Most People Who Die by Suicide Leave a Note”
  • “Suicidal Behavior and Contagion”
  • “If People Want to Die by Suicide, We Can’t Stop Them”
  • “It’s Just a Cry for Help”
  • “Animals Don’t Die by Suicide”
  • “Young Children Do Not Die by Suicide”
  • “Young Ones (and Others) Should Be Lied to about Deaths by Suicide”
  • “Breast Augmentation Causes Suicide”
  • “Medicines Cause Suicidal Behavior”
  • “Suicidal Behavior Peaks around the Christmas Holidays”

I don’t know about you, but I’m glad that I was able to discover some of the Myths about Suicide.

Streamlining Search

There was a shift that happened over a decade ago. It was the shift that moved from no good full-text search options inside of an organization to having a few good options for doing full-text search inside of documents. In a moment, people felt as if they could abandon the difficult process of entering metadata and instead just rely on full-text search to help them find whatever they wanted.

It worked when it was tested, but in practice the results generally contained too many files. It was as difficult to sort through them as it was to navigate the old structure or enter the metadata to make the documents findable. In short, it worked in the small scale, but not in the large scale, so the pendulum swung back towards a strategy that included traditional findability and browsability approaches augmented with full text search.

Today, we have tools at our disposal that can help us optimize the ways that we store and retrieve information to make it easier in both directions.

Database Queries

In the distant past (a few decades), the way that you located documents inside of a content management system was to provide a search field-by-field. If you didn’t have the locator number, you had no chance of finding the information you wanted. As a result, investments were made to ensure that the metadata was entered – and entered correctly. Quality control, double entry, and verification was the name of the game, and it was a big game.

The problem was that the process of getting the right metadata in was expensive for anything except for operational records. Operational records could be output from one machine and stored in the content management system without human intervention or error. The fields that were indexed were consistently provided, because they were done by the interface as it dropped files into the system.

Enter Full Text

A boon to finding documents that weren’t emitted by a system, the introduction of full text promised that no one would have to enter the invoice number – the system would use optical character recognition (OCR), find it, and instantly display the document. The limitations of OCR and the 90ish percent accuracy and the commonality of the numbers quickly turned a search for a single document into hundreds of results, as users struggled to articulate that it was the invoice number they wanted, not the purchase order number, requisition number, or any of the thousand other serial numbers that occur in an organization.

Some organizations had already implemented prefixes to simplify identification and disambiguation, but many had not; they started doing data entry again, and users started searching specific fields. The good news for full text search engines is that they would accept a search for either the full text or the metadata and would prioritize the metadata in the results. So, while there would still be hundreds of results, the invoice you were looking for was on top.

Real Refiners

Soon after, we gained the capacity to take those metadata fields and use them to refine your search. You could search for a ZIP code 01234, and the results would appear with refiners that could be used to filter the results. If there were results from five customers, those five customers would appear in the refiners pane and – importantly – the other 30,000 customers’ names wouldn’t be there. This filters extraneous noise and allows users to pick the way they want to filter results by a small list that is easy for them to process.

While clicks are generally bad things, the added value of a focused list was worth the clicks and the wait for the revised search to complete. In short, it was quicker and easier than the user trying to sort out the right result for themselves. After a few refinements, the results list was small or the item that you really wanted on the top.

Unnecessary Clicks

While the clicks for refiners are valuable to the person looking for a document, clicks that are necessary to get them from their result to what they really want aren’t. In some cases, the search result would simply lead to a container that had what the person was looking for. This is the case particularly often when the information has a listing or summary on the page that was returned but also occurs when the folder or container has metadata on it that the items themselves don’t have.

Soon, users wonder why they must do all the extra clicks at the end of the search. It feels wasteful and frustrating.

Pogo Sticking

The extra clicks problem is particularly frustrating when the person doesn’t exactly know which document they need and are forced to do a few clicks per result to evaluate whether the result is what they wanted or not. This pogo sticking problem is one of the reasons why modern search results include previews of the document right in the search results window (usually as a popup), so that users can quickly hover over a result and, ideally, discover whether the result is what they want or not.

Extra clicks between the results and the desired documents breaks this functionality and makes it harder for users to get the results they need.

Slick Search

A slick search is aware of the context in which you issued the search and the social network around you to identify what things you’re most likely to be looking for, and it makes suggestions for common mistakes. However, more importantly, the search leverages the metadata from containers and pushes the appropriate metadata to the documents, so that search results are the actual documents the users are looking for rather than containers.

Getting to a slick, streamlined search is about making it easy for people to get the right result. That means providing easy ways to reduce the results to a manageable number and evaluate individual results quickly.

Book Review-The Suicidal Mind

After someone close to you commits suicide, the nearly universal response is to try to understand what they were thinking. How did they come to view suicide as the only (or best) option? That’s the question that The Suicidal Mind seeks to answer. What is it that makes people commit suicide? Shneidman’s description is robust, but it all comes down to psychological pain that he calls “psychache.”


We know from our neurology that our minds and bodies make little distinction between physical and psychological pain. While there are distinctions, it’s important to recognize similarities first. Basically, all the same brain regions light up in the same general way. The body, on the direction of the brain, responds to psychic pain in the same way that it responds to physical pain.

Consider, for a moment, that when you watch a scary movie – or just an action-packed one – your heart races. Obviously safe in your home with locked doors, you’re in no real threat. However, because your brain is simulating what is happening on the screen, adrenaline and other chemicals are released, and the body responds.

Similarly, when you’re in psychic pain, your body responds as if it’s in real pain. The stress response is activated, including adrenaline and cortisol. The net result is both risk for long-term, stress-induced complications (see Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers) and a cognitive narrowing of options, as described in Drive. We’ll come back to the narrowing of options soon, as it’s called “cognitive destruction” or “cognitive constriction,” and it plays a major role in the risk of suicide.

The biggest difference between psychological pain and physical pain is that we’ve got pharmacological and other pain management solutions that are effective – or at least partially effective – at managing physical pain. There are not a similar set of solutions for psychic pain, and as a result, psychic pain is often seen as something that will continue to plague a person for years. Few people are taught how to manage their psychic pain.


Someone cutting themselves doesn’t make sense on the surface. Why would someone intentionally harm themselves? That answer comes in two parts. First, some people cut because they want to feel alive. The physical pain punches through the numbness. Sometimes, that numbness is the response from the intense psychache.

The other reason for cutting (and other forms of self-harm) is because the physical pain can temporarily distract the mind from the psychache. For most people, our conception is that our brain processes all pain equally, but that’s not exactly right. There are factors that cause the brain to process pain more or less intensely. It’s possible, for instance, to “confuse” the brain into decreasing pain in an extremity by distracting it with physical contact closer to the core. (See The Gate Control Theory of Pain for more) Similarly, new inputs for pain are treated with a higher degree of attention than chronic pains. Thus, an acute physical pain can temporarily overwhelm a psychache.

To be clear, this isn’t a good coping strategy for psychache – but it can explain why people start down the road of self-harm.


While psychic pain is the fuel that drives suicide, it needs something to ignite the fire. That fuel comes in a capacity to be lethal to oneself. This is like Joiner’s concept of capacity for self-harm. (See Why People Die by Suicide.) Plenty of people are in psychache but don’t have the lethality necessary to complete a suicide attempt.

Self-harm techniques like cutting are problematic, because they move us closer to lethality. They normalize self-harm, and through habituation, it takes more and more physical harm to mask the psychache. This natural escalation makes it harder to see how you’ll continue to cope. The psychache remains, and it takes more and more self-harm to keep it at bay.

The Dialogue

Self-awareness is a gift – and at the same time, it can be a curse. (See The Righteous Mind for why it’s a gift, and The Worm at the Core for more about how it can be a curse.) Suicide is largely a drama of the mind. It’s how we speak to ourselves, our stream of consciousness, that leads us towards or away from suicide. When we look for our options for relieving our pain, we briefly float over suicide and quickly dismiss it. However, in our constrained decision making, we find ourselves coming back to it as a solution. (See The Paradox of Choice, Sources of Power, and Decision Making for more about how we really make decisions – rather than the way we believe we make decisions.)

As I mentioned in my review of The Satir Model, alcohol is often the solution to the psychic pain that exists in a family system. Similarly, suicide is the solution to the psychache that can’t be blunted. I’m not saying it’s the right solution or a good solution, but rather, in the mind of the suicidal person, suicide is seen as the solution not a problem. One could reasonably wonder how suicide could possibly be seen as a solution. The answer comes down to cognitive constriction.

Cognitive Constriction

One of the problems with alcohol use is what Al Lang from FSU calls “alcohol myopia.” That is, your perceived options and situation are severely constrained. This is like the kind of constriction that we encounter in people who are under stress – in a much more powerful form.

Cognitive deconstruction is a different way the process of suicidal constriction of thinking is termed. Perhaps it’s because our ability to make rational decisions is deconstructed and we’re only able to investigate a few options that are immediately upon us. We tend to not look for new alternatives and instead focus on a very narrow list that we already have. Like the professional game of confirmation bias, we see only those options that we’ve already considered. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more on confirmation bias.)

This constriction prevents suicidal people from realizing that self-immolation (setting yourself on fire) would hurt. As difficult as it may be to accept, people who are in a suicidal state of mind can’t process the impact of their own pain, much less the devastation that they’ll be leaving behind when loved ones are forced to live with the worry about what has happened to them or discover their lifeless body. It’s not that they don’t care, it’s that the thought literally doesn’t come to them about how their actions will impact others – or themselves.

Reports from suicide attempters include those who’ve jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge who suddenly realized that they wanted to live and that every problem in their life was solvable – except, of course, having just jumped. These are not isolated reports of a single individual but rather a repeatable pattern of remorse that takes place before the impact but after the jump.


The most dangerous word in all suicidology is the word “only.” As in, “suicide is my only option.” Only is the word that signals that someone has become cognitively constricted and they’re unable to identify new opportunities. They’ve become locked onto the idea that suicide is the only option – whether it’s really the right option or not.

In attempting to help suicidal people, one of the most important aspects is to help them realize that suicide is not only not the only option but that it’s not even a good one. Gary Klein in Sources of Power, Irving Janis in Decision Making, and Barry Swartz in The Paradox of Choice all explain that people don’t develop exhaustive lists of all the potential options. Instead, they often satisfice, picking the first option that seems acceptable. The key is helping people see other options, so they see that suicide isn’t an acceptable option.

The Impact of Explanatory Style

Work going back four decades speaks about the value in the way we talk about our situation to ourselves. The work, which was contributed to by Aaron Beck, Christopher Peterson, Martin Seligman, Rick Snyder, and others, explained the benefits – and limitations – of the way that we explain things to ourselves across three dimensions. (For more background on this, see The Psychology of Hope and The Hope Circuit.) The three dimensions have been given different names, but the labels used more recently are:

  • Personal – Is it about me or things that are not under my control?
  • Permanent – Is the situation permanent or temporary?
  • Pervasive – Is this situation global in nature or unique to this situation?

The more that we describe negative things as personal and under our control, temporary, and isolated to the current situation, the better off we are. (See Why We Do What We Do for our perception of control that Deci describes as internal locus of control.) It’s relatively well established that optimists think better of themselves than those suffering from depression, and though the perceptions are slightly distorted, that this has a positive effect for the individual – if they aren’t distorted too much into narcissism. (See How We Know What Isn’t So for more.)


In the mind of the suicidal person, there seems to be a conflict. On the one side is the desire for death. It’s the desire to end suffering and pain. It’s perhaps the desire to relieve current or perceived future burden to others. On the other side, there’s the powerful force that drives everyone to keep living, the fear of death that The Worm at the Core claims drives us all. These two forces are in opposition, constantly applying pressure and creating a place of confusing behaviors as the conflicted struggle to work through the conflict as one or the other of the desires gains the upper hand.

As the result of this constant pushing and tugging, most suicidal people are termed to be ambivalent. They’re not apathetic – they do care, they’re just stuck in a conflict. It’s a conflict that they can’t escape from until they see that there are options other than death.


Marty Seligman and his colleagues first described learned helplessness about 50 years ago. The idea that animals (dogs specifically) would sometimes not escape discomfort when they should. While we call it learned helplessness in animals, we call is hopelessness in humans. Seligman’s colleague more recently used fMRI technology not available 50 years ago to discover that it wasn’t learned helplessness but a failure to learn control – or a degree of influence – that caused the dogs to freeze. In The Hope Circuit, Seligman explains this transition and his personal journey to optimism and positive psychology.

It’s the work of another scholar, C.R. (Rick) Snyder, in The Psychology of Hope that begins to expose how we might develop hope instead of hopelessness. He explains that hope isn’t an emotion – it’s a cognitive process with two components. The first component is willpower – or our willingness to do things even when it may be uncomfortable. (See Willpower and The Art of Learning for more on willpower and its impact.)

The other component, waypower, is much less recognized. Waypower is the knowledge about how something will be accomplished. It’s the map, guide, or path that leads someone from their current situation to the situation that they want.

Both aspects of hope can be encouraged. Willpower explains how willpower is an exhaustible resource, but with repeated work, it can be developed like a muscle. (See Antifragile for more on developing and improving under strain.) The problem with building willpower isn’t that it cannot be done, it’s that it takes a long time to accomplish. The other aspect, waypower, is relatively easier and quicker to influence.

Waypower is simply about knowing how to move. However, the kernel of waypower is found in the ability to explore options that may lead someone to where they want to go. There doesn’t need to be a guarantee of success, just a possibility – and even a possibility that you’ll just get closer. One of the real challenges with cognitive constriction is that it prevents options from being seen and thereby harms our ability to hope.

The good news about waypower is that we can influence the options we see both by creating places of greater perceived safety. (See The Fearless Organization for more.) We can also teach approaches and techniques that are intentionally designed to generate more options. (See The Art of Innovation, Creative Confidence, and Unleashing Innovation as examples.)

Hope is the most powerful force in the world. Whether you start with the idea of Pandora’s box and how hope helps keep all the demons of the world at bay, or you consider how hard we must work against the placebo effect because hope is so powerful, it’s a force to be reckoned with. (For more on the placebo effect, see Warning: Psychiatry May Be Hazardous to Your Health.)

To Disagree Slightly

Building therapeutic alliance is essential. (See The Heart and Soul of Change for more.) In non-therapeutic settings, it’s important to establish rapport. You’ve got to help the other person know that you hear them – but you don’t necessarily have to agree with them. Motivational Interviewing is a great approach for helping transition addicts to better modes of thinking. The tools, techniques, and approaches create an environment where, frequently, the addict realizes that their addiction is the central problem in their lives. However, with suicidal people, it may not be possible for them to see that their beliefs about suicide are problematic. That’s why it may be necessary to disagree slightly.

At some point, the conversation has to turn to the fact that the suicidal person believes suicide is an option – or their best option – and the other person thinks it’s a really bad idea. Rushing into this confrontation to early or too strongly can destroy the rapport and make it impossible to change the person’s mind – conversely, doing it too late, well, may be too late.

The key is to find a way to affirm the person and to disagree with their conclusions in a way that opens up their interest in alternative perspectives and additional opportunities to solve their problem.

Burn as Brightly

It was Louis Terman who converted Binet’s work from French and brought to the English speaking world the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test – commonly known as the IQ test. While the limitations of the test and its applicability to future performance has been called into question, it has had profound effects on our ability to understand intelligence. (See Emotional Intelligence for a discussion of the limits of IQ.)

Despite this, Terman’s work helped us to understand that those who were highly intelligent weren’t maladapted or physically weak. In fact, he found lower incidence of divorce, alcoholism, and mental health issues while finding that the most intelligent were taller, healthier, and better developed social leaders.

The problem comes, however, when suicide rates are considered. Of the 1,528 subjects of his study, 28 of the highest performers committed suicide – well above the 12 per 100,000 rate that occurs normally. It seems that their higher intelligence made them more susceptible to suicide. As a group, they were socially and professionally successful, but something in the drive put them at risk.

In the 1970s, Herbert Freudenberger was running a free clinic in lower Manhattan, and he discovered that his clinicians were struggling. Eventually, he’d call these struggles burn-out. His 1980 book, Burn-out, explains how he saw the syndrome play out. Even in these early writings, it was clear that his clinicians weren’t feeling effective, as people kept coming through the doors asking for help. (We’ve developed a wealth of materials at that are designed to help you recover from burnout if you need that help.)

Inefficacy is at the heart of burnout – despite some of the missteps that the discussion has taken since Freudenberger’s work. It’s that same perceived inefficacy that may have doomed Terman’s subjects. While they were by all accounts very successful, it can be that their expectations of success exceeded their actual success, and therefore the gap caused them to feel like they’d never be enough. They were hopeless that they’d ever achieve the level of success that they expected they should.


Loneliness is a powerful predictor in someone’s interest in attempting suicide. Joiner’s model (as explained in Why People Die by Suicide) contains only the ability to commit self-harm, a sense of burdensomeness, and a lack of connectedness. However, as the book Loneliness explains, the experience is different than the objective reality. I can be in a room full of people at a party and experience loneliness. Conversely, I can be alone on a mountaintop and not experience loneliness. It’s not the objective reality that matters, it’s my subjective reality of how I feel.

Emotional Processing

One of the largest challenges, I believe, in suicide today is the inability for people to process emotion – theirs or other people’s. We’ve simply not been taught how to decompose our emotions to understand what’s behind them. Both How Emotions are Made and Emotion and Adaptations explain that our emotions are based on unconscious perceptions, and it is possible to explore these foundations and ultimately to shape how we feel. (See Hardwiring Happiness for practical examples of how to do this.)

Jonathan Haidt’s perspective is a bit different in that he encourages a better relationship between the rider and the elephant. (See The Happiness Hypothesis and Switch for more on the rider-elephant-path model.)

Ten Commonalities

Shneidman explains that he believes there are ten commonalities of suicide, which are:

  • The common purpose of suicide is to seek a solution
  • The common goal of suicide is cessation of consciousness
  • The common stimulus of suicide is unbearable psychological pain
  • The common stressor in suicide is frustrated psychological needs
  • The common emotion in suicide is hopelessness-helplessness
  • The common cognitive state in suicide is ambivalence
  • The common perceptual state in suicide is constriction
  • The common action in suicide is escape
  • The common interpersonal act in suicide is communication of intention
  • The common pattern in suicide is consistency of lifelong styles

This is just one way that Shneidman believes that we can peer into The Suicidal Mind.

When Browsability is Broken

It’s familiar and convenient to browse for files – until it isn’t. Our human brain has limits; even with the familiarity of having created the files ourselves, our ability to remember, recognize, and retrieve the right file at the right time is limited. So how do we know when we should stop trying to browse for files and should lean on search? Perhaps more importantly, how are our small decisions pushing us towards a browsability approach when we need to be more focused on how search can help us find the documents we need?

The Magic Number 7 +/- 2

It was 1956, and George Miller at Harvard had done some research about our working memory. He concluded that we had the ability to maintain in our heads about seven items. More specifically, he identified seven plus or minus two. What this means for the way we process lists is that we’re capable of processing about seven items in a list. Later replication of Miller’s findings in European languages seemed to a suggest a slightly lower number (five), which was later attributed to the fact that we have about a two second audio buffer in our heads, and European languages take slightly longer to convey the same information. This is close to Gary Klein’s later work as documented in Sources of Power, where he explains that we can simulate a system with three factors and six states.

The short version is that the human brain seems effective at processing small lists but is inefficient at processing large lists. In fact, what appears to happen is that when we encounter a large list, we start to scan subsets of the list to look for the items that we’re interested in.

Hicks Law

As the world wide web was growing, there was a great deal of interest in Hick’s Law and the need for everything to be accessible within three clicks. Hick’s Law says, in brief, that in well-ordered lists, one large list is more efficient than two smaller lists. Many people used this to justify very long lists of menu items and countless links on navigation pages.

However, the important caveat to Hick’s Law is that the listing must be well-ordered. The argument has been made that an alphabetical listing is a well-ordered list, because it follows a very predictable pattern. In that sense, it’s true; but there’s a larger problem, and that’s the problem of synonyms. (See Pervasive Information Architecture for more about Hick’s Law.)


The reality of our mental processing is that we think in concepts and then later apply words to those concepts. Is it a shirt or a blouse? Conceptually it’s a “top” or covering for the top of the body. It’s only when we begin to think about the context we’re using it in that we can find the “right” word for the situation.

The problem with ordered lists is that they must be contextless – rather, it’s not possible to perfectly correlate the context of the designer of the list and the consumer of the list. The result is that we need to consider synonyms when searching a list. Shirt, top, and blouse occur in radically different positions in a single list. This invalidates the work that leads to Hick’s Law and put us at the mercy of the anxiety created by the paradox of choice.

The Paradox of Choice

More choices seem like a good thing. However, as Barry Schwartz elegantly explains in The Paradox of Choice, this isn’t always the case. In fact, the research seems to indicate that there is an anxiety created when there are too many choices and no clear directions to move in. Certainly, our goal in creating systems isn’t to create anxiety in our users, but that’s what we do when we create large lists.

So, while Hick’s law implies that we should have larger lists, the paradox of choice pushes back on this assertion with anxiety. Collectively, this effectively invalidates Hick’s argument in the context of unstructured data. As a result, we’re back to finding ways to shrink our lists towards the kinds of numbers that our brains can handle well.

Folders and Directories

In addition to the human factors, there are technical reasons to restrict any given file directory to a few thousand entries. Whether the technology is traditional file systems or content management systems based on relational database engines, more than a few thousand files in a single directory (or query) can be problematic. For performance reasons, it’s best to keep entries at a few thousand entries or fewer – even if the users never directly access the files by browsing.

As a result, in addition to the natural foldering that might be used to separate files with different metadata, there are often time-based foldering strategies that keep individual directories to only a few thousand files.

Collectively, this makes finding files by browsing harder – even if the human factors limiting the number of items is ignored.

The Browsability Number

There is no one number between the magic number seven that Miller proposed in 1956 and the technical limitations around thousands of files that can be browsed in a single directory. As the number of files increases, the anxiety and frustration increase. The subset scanning strategy that we as humans use tends to break down by about 100 files, so any situation where we can’t reach fewer than 100 files is unlikely to be easily browsed regardless of any file naming conventions or other organizational techniques that may be in use.

The Search Solution

The solution to the problem is to switch from a browsability strategy to a search focused strategy. Browsability-based solutions are focused on single-dimensional naming strategies and large directories. A better strategy is to develop a rich search strategy that leverages metadata and search refinement to create ways for people to leverage technology rather than attempting to manage the identification process internally.

Search refinement allows for initial criteria to be specified and then further refined by selecting metadata in other columns or dimensions. With a well-built taxonomy, the process of searching for documents with refiners is quick, and because of the limited number of options, it is not anxiety-producing. One key to this is the fact that search refiners don’t show every possible value but instead show only those values that exist in the results that are already displayed – this focuses the searcher into only those options that are relevant to the current context.

Browsing works when there are only a few files, but at the scale of thousands, tens or hundreds of thousands, or more, search is the only way to go – and it’s focused on metadata and refiners.

When we work on file naming conventions, we’re necessarily working from the perspective of browsability, even when it may be broken. (See File Naming Conventions Miss the Point for more.)

File Naming Conventions Miss the Point

I use file naming conventions. I recommend them to clients. However, they’re not the point. They’re a means to an end when it comes to managing files. They’re a way to apply metadata to the file name in a repeatable way. However, when they become more important than appropriate focus on developing an information architecture that works, we’ve missed the point.

Metadata Less Systems

Much of the focus on file naming conventions is the result of the fact that most of the systems that people use only allow for one piece of user-entered metadata – and that is the file name. The advice in this scenario is to create a delimited approach to embedding multiple pieces of metadata into the file name so you, as the human, can parse it out.

While the strategies vary widely – and often hinder findability – they fundamentally consist of taking components of the name and embedding the metadata. For instance, my invoice file naming convention is YYMMDD-INV#-Client-Project. It’s designed to separate out four pieces of metadata in the name of the file: the date of the invoice, the invoice number, the client, and the project.

I could easily create separate folders for each client and project and file the invoices in those folders with only the date and invoice. When I do this, I’m moving the encoding of the metadata into the hierarchy and out of the file name. I choose not to do this because invoices for all customers are processed in batches. To file invoices in individual client and project folders would require more work to navigate to the client and project folders and would provide little (if any) value.

In a system that doesn’t inherently support additional metadata for files – like the file systems on our computers – the right answer is to find an information architecture that supports the processes that you need to use and involves some sort of structured response to either the file naming or the placement of the files – or both.

Sidebar: Dates in Names

Every system keeps intrinsic metadata about files in terms of its creation date and its modification date. In most systems, particularly file systems, it’s sortable. This leads to the question about why we should put the date in the filename. The answer is that, because these intrinsic dates aren’t settable, we can’t establish the date for the file – and in rare cases, this can be problematic. So, while in most cases the actual document date isn’t sufficient to warrant inclusion in the file name, because of their accounting importance, it seemed like the right answer.

Enterprise Sync and Storage

It’s been years now since the war between file-system-based approaches to content storage and more traditional systems with metadata, which duked it out in the market to see who would win. It rapidly became apparent that file-system-based file storage was going to win by sheer volume. As a result, the metadata-based content management systems retreated a bit, and the analyst companies began talking about enterprise content management as a part of a larger conversation about enterprise file synchronization and storage.

For most files, the effort to enter metadata wasn’t something the users were willing to do, and as a result, everyone gave up. Instead, they focused on the high importance and high value files and placed them into content management systems with metadata, ignoring the lack of metadata on most files.

Field Stacking

If we go back to the origin of computers, we saw techniques that squished multiple types of data into fewer, smaller fields. Back then, the reasoning may have been to avoid having to change a master record definition, concern about storage space, or a myriad of outdated reasons that led to smashing things together. What we learned as a result of this effort is that delimiting the data once it was smashed together was difficult.

Conceptually, parsing data out is simple. Look for the comma, semicolon, or other delimiter, and you’re done. In practice, these delimiter characters occur naturally in the data, so you must disambiguate between the intentional single quote and the attempt to terminate the string. We recognize that there are times when field stacking must still be done to work around limitations; however, it’s generally discouraged where possible because of the challenges that it creates. While we use file naming conventions to address limitations, we should do so only when we must.

Long Names and Cryptography

One of the other factors with stacking fields into a file name is that the names get long. The more information there is – and the longer that information is – the closer we approach file names that Windows can’t handle well. The original APIs for accessing files on Windows have a 260-character limit for the full path for files. While many applications have moved to newer APIs that have a much larger character limit, there are still numerous programs that are limited by 260 characters, thus long names and long folder names can become a problem.

The solution to this is to create standard abbreviations and codes to shorten the name. This creates the additional problem that the file naming convention becomes so complicated that it is difficult to train people to use and becomes fraught with errors related to incorrect use of identifiers, abbreviations, and shortcuts.


If we get to the fundamentals, the file naming convention is addressing the limitation of not having metadata support in the underlying system. It’s a proxy for having the information with the perception that, in the future, we’ll have an option to extract the metadata out and place it into appropriate buckets.

The rub comes in when we’re working in systems that are inherently capable of maintaining and managing metadata. In those cases, do we continue to invest primary effort into developing, maintaining, and enforcing file naming conventions, or do we shift our efforts to ensuring that the metadata is set correctly?

Metadata Advantages

File naming conventions are plagued with the problem of readability to the user. Fundamentally, they’re designed to allow a user to parse out important information to determine what they want. Because of that, the question becomes whether you use the friendly information or the record identifier. Said differently, do you use the name of the company or the company identifier? Names are easier to read but are subject to conflicts (e.g., two “Acme, Inc.” companies) and name changes.

Metadata-enabled solutions can conveniently side-step this issue by recording the unique identifier but displaying the name. Instead of having to choose between two difficult alternatives, metadata allows for easy and consistent identification of the record.

Additionally, both file name encoding of metadata and folder-based encoding of metadata is subject to a single navigational path. If you start a name (or path) with a date, you fundamentally enforce this approach on others as they’re trying to find the file. Search technologies are sometimes helpful at finding a file based on part of the name. But because they make no distinction between parts of the name, collisions frequently occur where the Pear Tree Landscaping company’s records are almost unfindable when many of the projects that you’ve completed are “Pear Tree.”

Metadata-based search approaches can be focused on a specific field, thus eliminating both the navigational path problem and the potential of matching based on another field. This is why nearly every content and record management system today offers storage for metadata in individual fields.

What’s the Point?

The reason for file naming conventions was always file findability. The key to findability was identification of the key metadata – which became part of the file naming convention. These key pieces of metadata were organized in the approach that was expected to be the most valuable, recognizing that one way of finding files would necessarily have its limitations. For those still using file system-based approaches, file naming conventions are all we have to improve findability. However, for systems where metadata is available and searchable, it offers a much better way of making files more findable.

That isn’t to say that file naming isn’t valuable, it’s just that it’s not as valuable as getting the metadata into the correct fields.

Book Review-Why People Die by Suicide

I never claimed to be an expert on suicide, but I had been trained with some screening criteria. It wasn’t much more than, “Here are the things to look for, and here’s what you do,” but it seemed like enough. I found out it wasn’t enough when our son, Alexander Hedlund, committed suicide. He didn’t have any of the markers I was told to look for. He was facing the loss of a shipmate and was sad because of it, but nothing indicated that he would end his life.

Through the process of understanding what happened, I was pointed to Thomas Joiner’s work, Why People Die by Suicide. It was eye opening and confusing at the same time. A lot of what he says makes sense – and it still doesn’t explain Alex’s suicide.

Three Components

The key to Joiner’s work is the theory that, for suicide to occur, you must have three components in place. The first is an apathy towards self-harm. Having trained to be a rescue diver in the Coast Guard, he had been trained to do painful things in the service of the mission. The second component is a belief that you’re a burden to others. We had no indication that Alex felt this way, as he was mentoring others, completing schooling, working on his house, etc. In short, we didn’t see anything leading us to believe he would think that he felt like a burden. The final component is a lack of connectedness. Alex was one of seven children. He spoke to several of his siblings the weekend before taking his own life. He spoke with both his mom and I multiple times on the date of his death.

He confided in us that he had recently started drinking – as a result of the shipmates’ death – after 11 months of sobriety. He knew we wouldn’t approve but felt safe enough to tell us and to reach out to get some help processing how he felt.

It would be easy for me to dismiss Joiner’s theory for the causes of suicide except for two key things. First, his work is well researched. He points to numerous studies that he and his colleagues have performed as well as the research of others. He ticks a major credibility marker for me, because too few people do solid research.

Second, while his theory doesn’t explain Alex’s death, it feels like it’s possible that Joiner is materially correct in his theories of suicide, but that it’s not exactly right.

The Prevalence of Suicide

The statistics aren’t good – but they’re not bad enough to garner focused attention. The round number for suicide is 10-15 people per 100,000 per year. Some countries have more and some less. Men are three times as likely to commit suicide than women, while women are more likely to attempt it unsuccessfully. Men’s attempts are more lethal – due in not so small part to the use of firearms as a more lethal approach to suicide.

Suicide lands around 10th in terms of top causes of mortality in the United States and other countries. It’s enough to make the top ten list but not necessarily enough to create a focused effort to address it. Part of that, however, may be a result of the stigma against mental illness.

Mental Health Stigma

For centuries, suicide was a major sin in Christianity and Islam. While Islam maintains the prohibition against suicide, the Catholic church – and many other forms of Christianity – recognize suicide as a mental health illness. Despite the redefinition of suicide from a sin to an illness, it’s not dramatically changed the overall feelings about mental health.

Mental health isn’t something that people readily accept. While it’s okay for us to have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and a host of other comorbidities, we do not, from a societal standpoint, accept people who are struggling with depression – much less those who attempt to take their own lives.

We know that 80% of our healthcare costs are driven by behavioral issues, but we don’t want to acknowledge this fact. (See Change or Die for more.) It’s easier to believe that our lack of willpower is a weakness rather than accepting it as a skill that we must master. (See Willpower for more.) So instead of people getting our compassion and support when they manifest a mental illness, we shun them and avoid them.

Joiner believes that nearly all those who commit suicide could be diagnosed with a mental illness. Whether this is true or not misses the point that mental health is implicated in suicide.


Complicating matters in the case of suicide is our prohibition against speaking of death. While a fear of death seems embedded in nearly all we do, we actively avoid thinking about it, as The Worm at the Core so thoroughly explains. We feel uncomfortable when we face our own mortality – something that having compassion for suicide survivors – both those who attempted and their families – forces us to confront.

For me, being willing to confront death as a potentially better choice than living can occur only in situations of extreme pain when it’s believed there’s no hope of relief or that the world is better off without them. The second reason aligns squarely with Joiner’s concept of burdensomeness.


On the other side, Joiner explains that hopelessness isn’t enough. If everyone who was momentarily hopeless committed suicide, we’d have a lot fewer people on the planet. I believe strongly that hope is the most powerful force in the universe. It drives the placebo effect, and if you believe Greek legend, it can survive all the evils of the world. (See Warning: Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous to your Mental Health for more on the placebo effect and Pandora’s Box for the role of hope in Greek mythology.)

Hopelessness drives Martin Seligman’s learned helplessness concept and can be a major source of depression. (See The Hope Circuit for more about learned helplessness.) On the other side, researchers like Snyder explain how to generate hope in The Psychology of Hope. He explains that hope is a cognitive function – not an emotion – and that it’s created from waypower and willpower. Waypower is understanding how to move forward.

Mind the Gap

It started with anger, a passing comment that anger is disappointment directed by the Dali Lama. The ball started to unwind, and it became apparent that one of the biggest sources of emotional distress was the gap between expectations and observed reality. Disappointment is the judgement that the experiences you’re having don’t meet your expectations. It became apparent that it wasn’t just anger that could result from the disappointment. It could also lead to burnout. These ideas are at the very core of what we teach in the Extinguish Burnout materials.

The problem isn’t the disappointment but what can happen in a mind when that disappointment is seen as personal, global, and forever. In these conditions, the gap becomes a psychological pain – one that too many people try to escape through a suicide attempt.

Time Horizon

The problem with suicide is often the time horizon – or how people see time. It happens along two dimensions.

First, with any kind of pain or stress, our thinking is constrained to what can be done to alleviate the immediate pain – regardless of long-term impacts. In intense pain – of any kind – it doesn’t matter what the costs are later if it solves the immediate issue. This isn’t a bad thing per se. It allowed our ancestors to survive in a world where long-term planning was a luxury they couldn’t often afford. However, it does mean that all of us struggle to maintain a broad perspective both in terms of scope and time whenever we’re in pain.

Second, we tend to believe that the pain we’re feeling will continue into the infinite future. We believe that we’ll always feel loss and grieve at the same intensity as we do today. However, this simply isn’t true. No number of studies about how we adapt to pain will convince us that pain, in many if not most cases, does really get smaller over time. This is certainly true of psychological pain and often is true of physical pain as well when we take actions to resolve it.

Constrained Thinking

The primary actor in the “Who done it?” of suicide may be constrained thinking – this idea that the person considering suicide doesn’t consider all the options. Instead of looking for all the alternatives and deciding which is best, they stop when they discover that suicide may solve their immediate pain.

Gary Klein in Sources of Power makes it clear that we make sequential decisions. We don’t evaluate everything; we often pick the first thing that works. Barry Swartz in The Paradox of Choice explains that, often, choosing an option that satisfies the criteria is adaptive. However, when it comes to a decision as final as a suicide attempt, a different, more deliberate, and broader strategy would be more appropriate.

This is exactly the kind of decision that Daniel Pink’s work in Drive explains that we’re unable to do. Stress constrains our thinking and makes it harder for us to break free of cognitive fixedness. That is, we tend to believe that things are the way that we see them, and they can’t change. Quoting an old experiment, he explains that if you tell folks to affix a candle to a wall given only the candle and a box of tacks, they can discover that the box the tacks are in can be fixed to the wall with the tacks, and the candle can be set in the box. But if you give them even a mild incentive for quick completion (thus creating mild motivation to complete the task quickly), they take substantially longer – if they can complete the task at all. The problem was, at the core, the person defined the box for the tacks as the container for the tacks and therefore not useful in holding a candle.

The suicidal person’s box is that suicide is the only answer. There is no way to address their psychological pain, and therefore suicide is the only viable solution. This is, of course, not truth, but it’s their truth. It’s the belief system that drives them towards self-harm.

Depressive Views

The correlation between depression and suicide is well established. However, the mechanisms of that correlation are not clearly known. There are many theories, but no single, well-defined answer. One of the known factors in depression is that depressed people continuously rate themselves lower than their non-depressed peers.

One of the challenges is that depressed people may be rating themselves more accurately, but it’s not an accurate rating that is important. What’s important is what’s useful. Thomas Gilovich in How We Know What Isn’t So
explains that we all believe we’re better than we are. However, this perception may be far from getting us in trouble. It may be that our optimistic bias of our own capabilities protects us from the damages of depression.

Free Medical Care

There’s a problem with our medical system that isn’t immediately apparent but can be seen when you begin to look at the system itself. (See Thinking in Systems for more about how to view things this way.) What most people don’t know – but those who are struggling do – is that you can’t be turned away from an emergency room. If you wait until a problem is life-threatening, you’ll get the help you need – regardless of your ability to pay.

It’s an important safety net, but it comes as a cost. Those who are unable to access preventative care – either in medical or psychological terms – get caught by this safety net. Emergency rooms are swamped with people who are unable to pay and therefore have no other mechanism to get the life-giving care they need. It often frustrates the workers as they see the same people over and over again. If those people simply got the right preventative care, a great number of resources would be saved.

Emergency rooms are necessarily expensive to operate. They require professionals who are highly skilled, access to expensive diagnostic equipment, and other resources that are simply expensive to maintain. Thus, when people access the emergency room when they don’t need to, they drive the overall cost of healthcare up.

This shows up in suicide as a problem, because people are unable to get either the medical or psychological care they need prior to a suicidal event. It’s only after a failed suicide attempt that medical and psychological care will be forced upon the suicide event survivor. That’s great for them, but simultaneously a tragedy for those whose suicide attempt was successful.

Of course, making free medical and psychological care available pre-suicide attempt doesn’t solve the whole problem. We still must persuade those who struggle with suicidal thoughts to pursue care, but at least it would be available if they could be persuaded to get it.

Death as Life Giving

One of the curious comments contained in the book is that suicidal people begin to see death as life giving. While literally this cannot be the case, it creates questions about how suicidal people might feel more in control of their destiny because they’ve initiated their own death.

Another idea that may generate the perception that death is life giving is that it’s not life giving directly, but the freedom from pain may cause them to feel as if they could be more alive – paradoxically, by dying.


Joiner’s model focuses on connectedness; that I’ll cover shortly. It’s necessary to introduce the concept of belonging as a larger, overarching concept. We have a fundamental need to feel like we belong. In The Deep Water of Affinity Groups, I share how our need to feel like a part of a group causes us to make decisions that may be costly to us but help shore up areas of our self-esteem that may not be what we want them to be.

Ideally, we want people to feel personally connected. We want one-on-one intimacy that makes us feel truly seen and heard. However, we can’t ignore the fact that we often use belonging as a proxy for these connections.


The degree to which people are connected isn’t something that’s easy to quantify. On the one hand, David Richo explains in How to Be an Adult in Relationships that we should receive no more than 25% of our emotional needs from one person. On the other, you have Intimacy Anorexia, where people seem incapable of connecting with others in a deep and meaningful way. While marriage conveys a variety of health benefits, it can be challenging too. John Gottman explains in The Science of Trust how “sliding door” moments can make the difference.

Some of those “sliding door” moments can help us form friendships that last a lifetime, as we step in to help someone at just the right time. They’re eternally grateful, and at some point in the future, they step in to help you. The result is a connection that lasts over time.

The impact of these long-term connections creates challenges and opportunities. Challenges because the loss of someone whom you care deeply for can lead you to intense grief, and because we’re rarely able to articulate those people for whom we have these deep connections when pressed for a quick list. They may be the people for whom you have deep respect, admiration, and connection – and at the same time, they are likely not the people you speak with every week.


You can call it self-worth, self-esteem, self-efficacy, or self-concept. Though these concepts are slightly different, they all amount to the way that you see yourself. It’s about the value that you see in yourself and what the world will lose when you’re gone.

Joiner frames the conversation in terms of burdensomeness, but I wonder if the real core of this isn’t the balance of self-worth and perceived burdensomeness.


Everyone leans on others at times. When I’m sick, my wife takes the brunt of my relative helplessness. I know this and that, at times, I’ll support her when she’s ill. I don’t perceive myself as a perpetual burden to her or the family – though if I did, that would be a problem.

There are, of course, different ways that we can feel like we’re a burden to others. It could be a financial drain, an emotional drain, or a physical one.

Strangely – supporting my argument above – children, and particularly college-age children, rarely see themselves as a financial burden – at least not to the point of committing suicide. The belief that, ultimately, they have value or will generate value or simply have internal self-worth seems to provide at least some buffer against suicide. Despite this buffer, the changes in life situation make suicide the second leading cause of death for college-age students. (Studies vary on specific ages but cluster around 18-22.) Even buffered by self-worth, this time of fundamental transitions is dangerous.


The final aspect of Joiner’s model is self-harm, which includes tattoos and piercings up to cutting and previous suicide attempts. What’s harder to quantify is those people who have learned to push themselves into and through pain. High performers who have learned to allow themselves to feel some pain so that they can achieve peak performance. (See The Art of Learning for an example.)

Reconstituting a Model

I don’t have a formulation for a suicide model that makes Alex’s death make sense. I don’t think Joiner’s model covers it. However, I can say that it went a great way towards helping me understand Why People Die by Suicide.

Healthy Dependency in Relationships

We all want it. We want to be healthy. We want to be in relationships. We recognize that to be in a relationship creates some degree of dependency. Despite this desire, many of us have no idea how to create healthy dependency in our relationships. This is about making healthy dependency in relationships possible.

The Need for Dependency

Before we can speak about how to reach a healthy dependency, we must first recognize why dependency is required. We are all born dependent. In fact, humans are the least developed mammal at birth. We’ll require more care and support than any other mammal and much more time.

In our adolescence, we begin to assert our independence. (For more, see Erikson’s stages in Childhood and Society.) We begin to embrace the ideas that the West was won by the lone cowboy on his trusty steed and his reliable rifle. This myth of the American Western is simple fiction. The West was won by wagon trains, and it is where the phrase “circle the wagons” comes from. At some point during our development, we realize that we need our parents. Maybe it’s when we wreck our car or when we see the first bill from college, but we decide once again that other people can be helpful to us.

This is the phase when we can become interdependent on one another. We can start to work in ways that are mutually beneficial. With parents, that may be harder; but with our peers, we can look for ways to work together rather than always competing. Instead of seeing everyone as a competitor, we can begin to work together for everyone’s best interest. See The Science of Trust for the Nash equilibrium, which explains how working towards everyone’s best interests benefits us, too. (See also The Evolution of Cooperation for more on the mathematics behind interdependence and cooperation, and Adam Grant’s Give and Take for how being generous results in better outcomes in the end.)

For more on the progression of dependent to independent and finally to interdependence, see The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

Relationships are Dependency

Though it’s not obvious, every relationship we’re in is a form of dependency. We’re dependent on the other person in the relationship – even if it’s just to be a sympathetic ear. That isn’t to say that the relationship needs to be deep or that every relationship creates a great deal of dependency, but those relationships that are more interdependent are those relationships that really matter.

We’re more effective when we can have many interdependent relationships. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on the need to get emotional support from multiple people and places.)

Speaking Truth to Power

Once we realize that we need to be dependent, we must work our way towards understanding the difference between dysfunctional dependency and healthy dependency. The litmus test – for me – for healthy dependency is the ability to speak truth (in love) to those who we’ve given power over us – that is, those with whom we’re in a relationship. Let me unpack that.

There’s an inherent power balance in relationships. In healthy relationships, that power is ever-changing, ebbing and flowing from one person to the other. For the person in power, they enable healthy relationships by holding their power in service of the other. (See Humilitas for this as a definition of humility.) For the person who is momentarily out of power, the ability to speak truth with love is the best assessment of health of the relationship.

Speaking truth to power is an active of courage. The person with power can, of course, harm the person of lesser power, and therefore it’s a risky thing to speak truth to them. (See Find Your Courage for more on how courage overcomes fear.)

The person of power can choose to become angry and stop supporting the person with less power. (See Choice Theory for choosing our emotions, and Emotion and Adaptation for how our emotions are formed.) According to Eastern philosophy, anger is disappointment directed. (See A Force for Good for more.) Anger is, then, some prediction we’ve made about someone’s behavior that didn’t come to pass. We expected them to behave one way, and they actually behaved in a different, disappointing way. We are prediction machines – it’s a fundamental aspect of our consciousness. (See Mindreading and The Body Keeps Score for more.)

So, others may be angry because they predict a different behavior from us (likely compliance), and when we speak our truth, they must accept that their prediction was bad and what they’re going to do about it. As Inside Jokes explains, we laugh at a joke, because we recognize that the prediction engine has failed in a small way and discovering and correcting for the missed prediction, we get a small reward.

The challenge for the person who has more power is to listen without choosing anger. The challenge for the person with less power is to summon the courage to speak the truth in a way that the other person can recognize the concern and relationship. (For more on relationships, see The Dance of Connection.)

Wholehearted Authenticity

The words for this are different. Brene Brown tends to use “wholehearted people” or “authentic people.” (See Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection.) Most of the time, I speak of stable core or integrated self-image. (See Braving the Wilderness, Rising Strong, and Beyond Boundaries.) Though the language is different, the intent and concept are not. Wholehearted people are authentic. They know who they are and who they are not. They’re tolerant of others’ perspectives, views, and values while maintaining their own.

I’d love to give you a direct path towards the kind of wholehearted authenticity that makes it easier to have healthy relationships and healthy dependency – but I don’t have a straight path to offer. I can start you with my post, How to Be Yourself, and share that, in Daring Greatly, Brene Brown explains that the most wholehearted people she knows are also vulnerable. (See more on vulnerability, see Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy, Revisited.) One factor that helps in becoming authentic is being clear on who you are.

Creating Clarity

For most people, the Industrial Revolution is about steam engines and the power that they brought to work. With greater power, greater achievements were possible. While this is certainly true, it’s not the only driver for the dramatic increase in productivity. The other key factor was standardization. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, everything was crafted and therefore not standardized. With the advent of machinery, it became both possible and more essential to maintain standards. Bolts needed to be exactly the same size so that they could be replaced. We needed the consistency, and that came from clarity. Clarity in what a bolt and other parts should be – exactly – allowed for mass production, replication, replacement, and ultimately productivity.

In our own lives, clarity isn’t as easy. One tool that we can use to get clearer about ourselves is boundaries.

Boundaries for Me

Henry Cloud and John Townsend wrote Boundaries, and John Townsend followed up with Beyond Boundaries. These two works encourage us to define what is “us” and “not us.” Too often, boundaries are confused. People say, “You can’t do that to me,” but the truth is that boundaries are about us – what we will do and what we’ll allow – not other people. The boundary may be “If you smoke, then I’m going to leave. I refuse to be in the presence of cigarette smoke.” You’ll note that the structure of this is how the person is going to be themselves, and their statement about them – not the other person. Done correctly, discovering your boundaries is a way to get greater clarity about who you are – and thereby become better at being in relationships and healthy dependency.

Another key to boundaries covered in Beyond Boundaries is the difference between a defining boundary and temporary boundaries. A defining (or permanent) boundary is one that, if changed, would fundamentally change who you are. Temporary boundaries are erected after you’ve been injured, harmed, or simply when you need to focus on your needs. Temporary boundaries define what you will or won’t do in the short term to allow for your recovery.

Too often in relationships, we become so dependent on the relationship itself that we allow ourselves to be influenced too much by the other person. (See The Nurture Assumption for peer pressure and The Deep Water of Affinity Groups for how our belongingness can drive our behaviors.)

The Role of Trust

I mentioned while explaining anger that we’re prediction machines, and we try to predict others’ behaviors. When we’re angry, it’s most frequently someone’s behavior that didn’t match our prediction. Trust is our reliance on those predictions knowing that most of the time we’ll be right, and some of the time we’ll be wrong. Healthy dependency is built on trust. It’s a trust that the other person won’t use your dependency against you. It’s a trust that they’ll be there when you need them.

The key to understanding trust is to realize its power. Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order
is a study in how trust, placed in different places, influences the world, our societies, and our economic productivity. The short version is that more trust is better. The less we trust our prediction of others’ behavior, the more resources we must waste validating our trust.

Ronald Regan picked up a Russian proverb, “Doveryay, no proveryay,” which translates to “Trust, but verify.” He turned it into a strategy for dealing with Michail Gorbachev. This proverb is a shortcut to understanding the cost of not trusting. When you have no trust, you must verify everything. The greater the trust, the less effort is wasted on verification.

In the context of dependency and relationships, we can cause a relationship damage when we become too dependent and insecure about the relationship and therefore seek constant reassurance.

Types of Attachment

It was the work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth that led to the perspective of three kinds of attachments that children form with their parents: secure, anxious-avoidant, and anxious-ambivalent. Much like the work of Michell in The Marshmallow Test, the adverse childhood events (ACE) study leading to adult diseases and Fetal Origins of Adult Disease (FOAD), attachment style is an indicator for how we’ll connect with others as an adult. (See How Children Succeed for more on ACE and Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for coverage of both ACE and FOAD.)

In Daring to Trust, David Richo offers a way to transform your adult experience of relationships to be more positive no matter what attachment style you started your adolescent life with. He helps understand when to trust others – and when trusting others isn’t warranted.

Broken Attachment – Approach-Avoidance

Some people exit their childhood and adolescence with a sense of connection to others that isn’t balanced. The style of interaction forms an approach-avoidance cycle. Often, this cycle operates as one person in a relationship approaches, causing the other person to flee. The cycle operates in reverse when the second person begins to reapproach, and the first person begins to avoid. This becomes a sick cycle, with the relationship constantly oscillating between approach and avoidance and never settling into connection. (See The Dance of Connection for more.)

In even more broken situations, one person may be incapable of maintaining an intimate relationship. In Intimacy Anorexia, Douglas Weiss explains that some people have never learned to be intimate with other people. Their history has led them to dysfunctional types of superficial connection. In these cases, the cycle never reverses, and one person in the relationship is always (or nearly always) approaching while the other person is constantly avoiding. This scenario is mostly found in marriages.

Dependency in Marriage

John Gottman is famous for his research demonstrating a 91% accuracy in prediction about whether a couple would remain married for 3 years based on evaluation of only three minutes. The key is that the couple had to argue. Gottman explains in The Science of Trust how there are a handful of factors which push towards divorce and some – like emotional attunement – which lead towards intimacy and away from divorce.

Perhaps the best explanation of appropriate dependency in marriage comes from Team Genius and its explanations of the kinds of two-person teams that are effective – and why they’re effective. These patterns are prototypical examples of how two people can work together, be mutually dependent, and be productive.


At some level, the ability to be in a relationship that demonstrates healthy dependency it must be possible to detach oneself from the outcomes, both of the relationship itself and the joint work that is being attempted through the relationship. The more firmly entrenched in the relationship itself and the outcomes, the less willing we become to speak our truth and to do the hard work it takes to improve the relationship. (For more on getting teams to do the work to be able to effectively produce, see Collaborative Intelligence by Richard Hackman)

Over time, we’ve developed a sense that we’re in control. In Compelled to Control, J. Keith Miller explains that everyone wants to control – and no one wants to be controlled. Conceptually, both cannot be true at the same time. The way that society has come to understand and harness nature more completely leads us to believe – incorrectly – in our societal and personal levels of control, which ultimately leads us away from detachment. If we are in control, then we’re responsible; when we don’t achieve the outcomes we desire, then we’re responsible, and we should be upset with ourselves. However, since we really only have some degree of influence, we should not be surprised when we occasionally fail to get the results we want.

Working on detaching isn’t always easy and is sometimes confused with disengagement, which can seem like a negative thing, but the concept of detachment comes up too often when looking for ways to become a better, wholehearted, person. (See The Heartmath Solution for more.)

The Ebb and Flow

When I started explaining healthy relationships and dependency, I explained the ebb and flow of power is essential to a healthy relationship. However, what does that mean? Well, let’s look at the divorce rate as it pertains to women being able to find and maintain a job that pays them a livable wage. Instead of so-called “pink-collar” jobs that offered money for luxuries, during World War II, women began working blue-collar and professional jobs, which paid enough money to support themselves, and the result was a wave of divorce. (See Divorce and The Anatomy of Love for more.) It wasn’t just “no fault” divorce laws, it was the fact that women were no longer trapped in relationships with a constant power imbalance. Divorce is bad, but unhealthy marriages are worse – at least in some cases. When the power started to ebb and flow between spouses, some marriages couldn’t survive the changes.

Another way to look at the situation is that both people in a relationship should be whole before they enter the relationship. Please understand, I’m not saying that they can’t be better in the relationship, I’m saying that they’re at least whole to start. When Terri and I got engaged, I designed a custom engagement ring. It’s a heart made of two diamonds. They’re two pear shaped diamonds that are each – in their own right – beautiful and complete.

Unsafe People

While it may be ideal to be in a power-balanced relationship with people who are complete and whole, this isn’t the case that most of us find ourselves in every day. We find ourselves dealing with other humans with faults like us – and faults that are different than ours. In Safe People, Henry Cloud and John Townsend enumerate ways that people may be unsafe. Unfortunately, they don’t explain how to be in relationships with people who aren’t safe. It’s certainly helpful to be able to identify the ways in which people may be unsafe, because it changes your predictions of their behavior and encourages you to take less risks by trusting them in those areas.

At some level, being in relationships with unsafe people is about establishing your boundaries. (See their book Boundaries and Townsend’s book Beyond Boundaries for more.) However, it’s more than that. It’s about learning the skills that you need to have hard conversations. (See Crucial Conversations for more.) It’s about learning the skills you need to be in a conflict with someone and at the same time not think of them as a villain. (See Words Can Change Your Brain, Nonviolent Communication, and Why Are We Yelling? for techniques for managing conflict.)


Overall, the feeling that pervades healthy dependency is safety – not when the person provides for your needs, but when the person cannot provide for your needs. The safety exists when you’re able to be only partially dependent upon them and know that there is a mutual intent of caring for and supporting each other.

Book Review-Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling

When I first started reading about humility, I was struck by the idea “power held in service to others.” Edgar Schein’s Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling brings that power through asking questions. He proposes that when we’re inquiring, we can become vulnerable and therefore humble to others.

Problem Solving

While it’s nice to be perceived as the person with all the answers, the truth is that no one has all the answers. The most powerful thing to do when working with someone else is to try to understand them, the situation, and the options – and that means a lot of questions. While some resources, like The Ethnographic Interview, are focused on the mechanics of the questions to ask and the approaches to take, Humble Inquiry is much more focused on the stance that one should take.

In Humilitas, John Dickson writes that humility is “power held in service to others.” For me, that means that a powerful person makes no fuss about the power they hold, nor do they wield it for their own needs; instead they leverage their power to help others be successful. Robert Greenleaf calls it Servant Leadership. Liz Wiseman calls the managers that exhibit these traits Multipliers. Edward Schein speaks about being vulnerable by asking questions. Vulnerability builds trust.

Building Trust

Building trust is absolutely essential in life. Whether we view trust from multiple levels as Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order or something much more practical like in Trustology, without trust, there’s no foundation for society to build on. I’ve covered the relationship between trust and vulnerability a few times, most recently in Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy, Revisited. Schein’s perspective is that creating the vulnerability is an essential part of the relationship process.

If working in organizations is like therapy, the research supports this perspective. The Heart and Soul of Change explains how therapeutic alliance – the relationship between the therapist and client – is the most important indicator of therapeutic success.


By being vulnerable – appropriately vulnerable – we remove the power gradient and gap in status between ourselves and the other person. By being vulnerable, we remove the status and move to a space of shared humanity. Instead of the differences between us, we focus on the commonality. We’re all vulnerable. We’re all struggling to figure this life out. That’s our common human experience.

By asking questions, by becoming curious about the other person’s experience, we expose our lack of knowledge and invite the conversation in ways that makes us able to learn – and learning is vulnerability, as we challenge our existing beliefs and understanding.

Choosing to Explore Us

When we’re vulnerable, we’re exploring us. Instead of being focused either on ourselves or the other person, we focus on the relationship between us and the ties that bind us together. Martin Buber wrote I and Thou as a call to shift our thinking from us and them to the relationship between us all. The society of today is focused on rugged individualism and self-sufficiency. These are, of course, complete illusions. Everyone is dependent upon someone else for food, electricity, water, or something. We’ve never been completely independent, and we’re not designed that way. (See The Righteous Mind.) It’s only when we can learn to accept healthy interdependence that we can really begin to connect with others in a meaningful way.

Management Is Not Power

The opposite of connection is disconnection – or possibly oppression. One of the things that I sometimes hear people say is that they want to rise into management so they can tell other people what to do. They want to develop power over others and become a part of the most dysfunctional form of organization we know of. (See Reinventing Organizations.) Beyond the organizational impacts, the idea that you would become a manager to hold power over others is morally wrong and is how we end up with the atrocities that we find in history. (See The Lucifer Effect and Moral Disengagement.)

Management is about helping people be effective. (See Multipliers.) When we find people who are more concerned with their own power and less with how they help humanity, we know that we’ve found a person who is not ready to become a leader – and shouldn’t be a manager either. (See Servant Leadership.)

ORJI Cycle

There are many cycles for continuous improvement, most notably Deming’s PDSA/PDCA cycle. The cycle highlighted in Humble Inquiry is different, yet similar. ORJI – Observe, React, Judge, Intervene – is about how we continue to improve the quality of our communications and verify that what we believe to be the truth is the truth – or at least the other person’s truth.

The ORJI cycle is, I believe, best coupled with Chris Argyris’ ladder of inference and consciously looking for places where we’ve walked – or jumped – up the ladder, which leads us to the wrong conclusions. (See Choice Theory for more.)

Decrease Learning Anxiety

Executed well, Humble Inquiry can reduce the greatest barrier to growth, which is the anxiety associated with learning. To some degree, all of us have some level of anxiety about learning. We are afraid that we’ll be shown as stupid for not knowing something or that one of our deeply held beliefs will be proven incorrect. Humble Inquiry, practiced well, can gradually reduce these anxieties and free us into the place of becoming the best we can be. (See Peak for more on being the best.) Maybe it’s time for you to develop a curiosity for Humble Inquiry.

Book Review-Decision Making: A Psychological Analysis of Conflict, Choice, and Commitment

It was a different time, 1977. Back then, publishing was harder and the focused energy that went into creating a book was larger. When Irving Janis and Leon Mann wrote Decision Making: A Psychological Analysis of Conflict, Choice, and Commitment, they were writing something that was designed to comprehensively cover everything known about decision making at the time. As it turns out, there hasn’t been that much added to the knowledge how we make decisions – and there’s been a great deal that we lost from their work in the sound-bite world we live in today.


I picked up the book, because people still quote Janis when they speak of “groupthink.” Of those who reference Janis when they say the word, few have read his work, and I wanted to understand the nuances and implications of groupthink. To understand it, we’ve got to travel back a few more years to the work of Solomon Asch and conformity. The short version is that Asch figured out you could make someone claim that two lines were the same length when they clearly weren’t. All it took was a few confederates willing to make the claim. (See Unthink for more on Asch’s work.)

In the context of working groups, it means that the group perception has a strong pull. Asch’s work was replicated later, and it was discovered that people who were coerced into thinking two lines were the same length had no conflict over this. Their brains had accepted the two different lines as the same, and there was no longer any conflict. For groups, this is challenging, because it means we can unconsciously and progressively bias our answers in a direction without either conflict or awareness.

That’s the groupthink that Janis was talking about. The gradual adjustments that lead to conformity of thought without the group’s knowledge. It’s why Hackman in Collaborative Intelligence encouraged the right rotation of external influences on a team to prevent the progression from getting too far. Janis’ recommendations were:

  1. Leaders should be impartial – at least at first.
  2. Every member should be assigned the role of critical evaluator.
  3. Someone should be assigned the role of devil’s advocate, intentionally poking holes in the existing plans.
  4. From time to time, divide the group and then have the groups merge, comparing their results.
  5. Survey all warning signals arising from rivals.
  6. Hold a second-chance meeting for everyone to restate their residual doubts and concerns.
  7. Invite non-core members on a staggered basis.
  8. Discuss the group’s deliberations with trusted associates.
  9. Set up multiple groups working on the same problem – when the decision is critical.

Espoused and Actual Behaviors

Janis and Mann are quite clear that their goal wasn’t to document the things that people said they did to make a decision. Instead, they were focused on how people actually behaved. They recognized, like Chris Argyris in Organizational Traps, Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline, and William Isaacs in Dialogue, that what people say they believe and what they actually believe aren’t always the same.

Many of us are unconscious of the constant balance between exhaustive evaluation and the need for expediency. Barry Swartz in the Paradox of Choice builds on Janis’ work and the work of Herbert Simon to explain how the process of decision making and specifically how we can maximize the utility of our decisions – maximizing – but only at the risk of expending too much effort and creating anxiety. Satisficing, on the other end of the spectrum, looks to quickly discharge a decision and move on. However, it does so with the awareness that we will make some mistakes. Neither extremes are good, and no one exclusively picks one strategy. We’re constantly shifting our position about the degree to which we’re willing to invest in the decision – and this is something that Janis and Mann make clear.

Our beliefs and behaviors are bounded by the limits of our rationality – our bounded rationality. It was John Gottman in The Science of Trust that introduced me to the Nash equilibrium. The impact of which wouldn’t be fully realized until I realized the impact on evolution. When we can see more broadly, we realize that there are gains that can be accomplished when we work together instead of against each other. (See The Evolution of Cooperation for more on how we might have learned to cooperate and The Righteous Mind for how shared intention and Mindreading led to this.) When we operate with only our own concerns, we often find that we’re not achieving the best we can when we work together.

However, considering others and their needs is exhausting. We may find that we’ve depleted our internal resources before we’re able to consider others – no matter how loudly we might proclaim our desires. (See Willpower for more on exhaustion and Destructive Emotions for more about whether we’re fundamentally wired towards considering others our ourselves.)

College Lab Rats

One of the concerns expressed about how research was being done on decision making was that decisions were often placed in front of college students because they were easy to get as subjects. This had the tendency to focus research on situations with trivial consequences. It didn’t really matter whether you picked poster A or poster B. Janis and Mann correctly surmised that the way that we make decisions when it matters is very different than the way we make decisions when it’s a simulation.

Gary Klein in Sources of Power shares his journey to discover how rational decision making worked. In the end, he discovered that people didn’t often make rational decisions. Instead, they made recognition primed decisions that relied upon their ability to predict the outcomes of their interventions. These sorts of decisions couldn’t be made in the sterile environment of an office on a college campus.

Building the Balance Sheet

If we sidestep, for a moment, the gap between rational decision making that we believe we make and the recognition-primed decision making that Klein found, we need a way to tabulate and measure before we can even attempt to decide which path is best. That requires both an ability to foresee the future and a method of collection for the pros and the cons of each proposed decision – including doing nothing.

Janis and Mann recommend the idea of keeping the balance sheet despite the awareness that it is likely not the final arbiter of the decision. The objective is simply to create a structure to make the process of making the decision easier for the individual.

The columns for positive and negative consequences for a given choice are easy, but there is also the issue of the kind of positive or negative consequences to address. Janis and Mann believe that there are four categories for positive and negative anticipations:

  • Utilitarian gains and losses for self
  • Utilitarian gains and losses for others
  • Self-approval or disapproval
  • Approval or disapproval from significant others

In addition to the content of the balance sheet there’s a recommended process to follow:

  1. Open-ended interview
  2. Introducing the balance sheet grid
  3. Using a list of pertinent considerations
  4. Identifying the most important considerations
  5. Exploring alternatives
  6. Ranking alternatives

Here’s where I believe the experience of the last 40 years would change things substantially. First, we’ve better honed our ethnographic interviewing techniques to better understand the situation. (See The Ethnographic Interview.) We’ve also learned how to build better relationships with those we’re trying to support and assist using Motivational Interviewing techniques. Before someone can begin to come up with a schema for the challenges they’re facing and the alternatives available to them, they must be allowed to explore the topic without too much rigid structure. Ultimately, the goal is to enable creativity and innovation in the responses, since this enhances the potential choices. (See Unleashing Innovation and The Innovator’s DNA for more on innovation.)

The process as it was laid out lies on a fundamental assumption that brainstorming works – but it doesn’t. (See Quiet.) There are lots of reasons, but in short, creating a list and then coming back to figure out which of the items on the list are useful is wasteful. We need to establish that there is some unspoken bar, under which we won’t capture an idea to later decide to discard it. Instead of processing items then providing some weight to them, we should assign rough weights to the items as we go. (Another issue is the single-threaded nature of traditional brainstorming that can be mitigated with technology and allowing the conversation to become multi-threaded again.)

Another aspect that more recent research reveals is what Philip Tetlock and his colleagues discovered on forecasting. In Superforecasting, they explain that revisions and keeping track of the predicted probability of the outcome is also important. So, in addition to an impact number, we should also record a probability of the outcome occurring.

Collectively, this creates an opportunity to layout the foreseeable consequences both positive and negative for each choice in the decision. The permutations, options, and ideas can quickly become overwhelming if one attempts to truly run down every possibility, and that is why it’s important to triage the situation to only those options that appear viable – knowing that it’s possible, but not likely, that you’ll exclude the best option.

Dialogue Mapping

An alternative to the approaches proposed by Janis and Mann is the process of dialogue mapping. In this approach positives and negatives are mapped to items but the hierarchy of possible options and ideas is maintained. This can sometimes be a more efficient process as there will generally be clusters of choices that have the same positives and negatives. (See Dialogue Mapping for more.)

Serial Decision Making

While we create the balance sheet as if every option is weighed against the other options, and we make a decision among multiple options, the truth is that we rarely decide like this. Instead, we serially evaluate each potential option and do pairs-matching to see which of two options seems to be better. We continue this process only until we believe we’ve reached a point where additional comparisons won’t add value.

In effect, we all settle for satisficing in one way or another. We do this either because of the amount of information for each choice or because we simply believe that the effort we’re putting into the decision is no longer warranted.

Toss Up

One challenging observation is that when confronted with obviously irrelevant information, decision makers were more likely to regard the probabilities as 50:50. From Superforecasting, we know that 50:50 means that the person doesn’t know. In the presence of irrelevant information, we begin to wonder if we’re assessing the situation correctly or if we’ll ever have enough information.

The lack of faith in our ability to come to a clear conclusion has the effect of decreasing our interest in doing any further research to find the right answer. Whether we consider the information unattainable or are concerned with our ability to differentiate, we stop caring.

Simple Decision Rules

The truth is that decisions of any complexity are so fraught with uncertainty and details that we can’t possibly handle all the raw data. This is perhaps in part why David Snowden developed the Cynefin decision framework. It describes the degree of complexity and volatility of a situation and how those factors lead to radically different adaptive responses.

We often use single rule methods for evaluating the right decision. Whether the criteria is “best,” “right,” or “compassionate,” the decision is simplified by constraining to a single criterion – or a few criteria. Even when we don’t simplify to this degree, we frequently find people – particularly politicians – rallying around simple messages with easy solutions when we know that the proposed solutions won’t work or are at least unlikely to work.

If the problem has been encountered before and the last strategy was successful, the strategy is tried again. If the problem has been encountered before and the last strategy wasn’t successful, the opposite strategy is often employed. There is little thought given to the changing circumstances and the impact this should have. We blindly follow formulas whether they’re for the right problem or not.

Seventy percent of findings in journal articles can’t be replicated. Much of that is likely related to the fact that the effective criteria and constraints for the results aren’t articulated in the article. The article says, “Here are the results we got,” but rarely is it possible for a study to isolate the factors which led to the results – no matter how they may claim differently.

Reducing Anxiety and Conflict

Much of the internal psychodrama that happens as a part of the decision-making process is an attempt on the decision maker’s part to reduce their anxiety, stress, and conflict about the decision. Sometimes this will find the decision maker bolstering their perceptions of the decision that they’ve selected, other times it will take the form of others trying to calm the decision maker.

Consider for a moment the degree of impact of negative consequences that were expected compared to those that weren’t anticipated. Those which were anticipated have a substantially lower psychological impact. It’s as if the decision maker has already prepared their defenses and are therefore less impacted when the negative consequences do appear.

Another factor that decision makers use to manage their anxiety is to defer the consequences to the dim future, allowing them to focus on the here and now instead of consequences that have no immediate impact.

Leading Lean

One of the benefits of having grown up with a mother that did production and inventory control is that I got exposed to new approaches to manufacturing and managing inventory early. Cellular manufacturing and lean manufacturing were topics around the dinner table. It was fascinating to me how different ways of structuring work were more efficient. That plus my experience in software development helped me to understand the fundamentals of lean manufacturing. One of those characteristics is the introduction of activities that don’t add value – or sufficient value – to the customer. The other is the awareness that some decisions can be changed and some cannot.

Fundamental to lean is the idea that you delay decisions that cannot be changed, and you expedite decisions that can be changed. The simple criterion of reversibility is powerful. It can prevent spending too much time focused on making the best decision when the decision probably doesn’t matter that much – because it’s changeable later.

Goal Striving

The degree of anxiety associated with the decision-making process is driven in part by the degree to which the decision maker feels invested in the decision. The more invested the decision maker is attached to the outcomes of the decision, the more anxiety will be felt. This anxiety will inhibit the options that the decision maker can consider, as Daniel Pink points out in Drive.

There is a healthy balance between a concern for the decision and an unhealthy level of attachment. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that Buddhists recommend detachment – and not disengagement. There’s still an interest and concern for the decision without being too attached to the outcomes that are at least partially outside of the decision maker’s control. (See The Happiness Hypothesis and Resilient for more on detachment.)

Addressing Challenges

Invariably, there will be challenges to a decision once it’s been made. Janis and Mann suggest the following process for considering challenges:

  1. Appraising the Challenge – What’s the risk?
  2. Surveying Alternatives – How can I address this challenge?
  3. Weighing Alternatives – Which activity is best?
  4. Deliberating about Commitment – Should I commit to this new course of action?
  5. Adhering Despite Negative Feedback – I’m going to hold the course.

This process is a rational view of how people address challenges, but because of the degree of ego involvement in the decision, there’s a high degree of rejection of the potential challenges, and thus they may never go through this process.

Prior Commitments and Sunk Cost

Perhaps the most difficult decision to make is when to pull the plug on something. Kahneman calls it the sunk cost fallacy in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Janis calls it a bias toward prior commitments. Either way, it’s our tendency to continue to invest in decisions and projects despite the fact that there’s clear evidence that what we’re doing isn’t working… or is there? Jim Collins in Good to Great speaks of the Stockdale paradox. The unwavering belief that what we’re doing will work and the willingness to listen – and adapt. The problem with all this – no matter what term you want to use – is that there is almost never clear evidence.

In 2008, I released The SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide for End Users. For a year, it did almost nothing. It’s been over a $1 million dollar business for me. Had I quit after the first year of dismal sales, I would have lost out on almost all the revenue the book and derivative products have generated.

That experience haunts me. On the one hand, I need to find a time to cut the cord on investments. On the other hand, had I not spent a few thousand dollars on a mailing campaign, I would have lost out on so much. Because of experiences like mine and just general human experience, people hesitate to make the difficult decision to shut things down.


In the case of decisions that are reversed, the process is often so painful that people begin to expunge memories of the bad decision. For instance, after a divorce, pictures of the former spouse are removed and often destroyed. Any gifts of significant meaning are similarly destroyed to free the psyche from the painful reminders of the decision that is perceived negatively.

Easy For Me, Hard for Others

There’s some classical wisdom that says that a woman should be hard to get if she wants to get a man. (The Betty Crocker cookbook has a similarly dated perspective that you must be able to cook a good pie to get a man.) The problem with the “hard to get” wisdom is that it’s not supported by research. In a study whose primary actor was a prostitute, some clients were told that she was going to restrict her clientele in the future, and others weren’t given this information. Those with whom she had communicated that she would be hard to get didn’t call back as often for a future appointment.

While this research has challenges with a selective sample (those men who paid for a prostitute’s services), it is a confusing result if it truly is better to be hard to get. Janis and Mann reconcile this by accounting for fear of rejection and, with additional research (by Walster and associates), concluding that a woman should be perceived as hard to get for others but easy to get for the man whom she is interested in.

Unpredictable Boomerangs

Some messages are multifaceted to the point that they can have a strong positive impact on one group and a strong negative impact on other groups. Consider an inducement towards a different brand than is normally purchased. Women, who presumably felt responsibility and knowledge for their purchases, actively resisted the inducement; whereas men, who were presumably not as responsible for or knowledgeable about the purchases, responded very favorably.

This means that we must be careful with our work to engage a new group of people or try strategies which can be divisive. It may be that we will sacrifice our core audience in the service of finding additional audiences.

Boomerangs occur in other situations as well. Someone signs a petition without much involvement in a cause, and when attacked about being a part of the movement the petition was about, they may become emboldened to take a more active stance. The act of being attacked for a relatively mildly-held belief causes the person to become more involved and committed to the cause.

Hidden Requirements

Perhaps one of the greatest tricks in causing people to make decisions is to hide the real requirements when they make the commitment. (See The Hidden Persuaders for more on this kind of deceptive practice.) Take Billy Graham’s call for people to pledge to be a member of the crusade. The motivated person steps forth, makes a public commitment to the cause, and shortly thereafter signs a pledge card. Before they know it, they’ve committed to being a part of something without really understanding what that means.

Resistance to Change

Janis and Mann explain in the context of smoking the kinds of rationalizations that people have when confronted with the fact that smoking kills. The same core rationalizations can be used for anything:

  1. It hasn’t really been proven.
  2. You don’t see a lot of that (consequences).
  3. It’s too late for me to change.
  4. I’ll just compensate with an equally bad problem.
  5. I need this.
  6. I’m only hurting myself.
  7. It’s a risk, but life is full of risks.

What’s striking about this list is that these statements can be made about any bad habit and poorly considered decision. I’ve heard all these objections in conjunction with COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy. (See When You Should Not Get The COVID-19 Vaccine.)

Optimal Fear

Some look at stress from the point of view that stressors are necessary to drive us towards some sort of action. The argument is that, without any stressors, we’d sit around and do nothing. (Netflix and chill?) It’s the introduction of stressors – and therefore some degree of fear – that drive us toward action and keeps us motivated enough to do something. However, on the other side of the equation, there is something to not having too much fear, because we’ll get frozen in our fear and be equally ineffective.

Amy Edmondson speaks about the need for psychological safety in The Fearless Organization, and Find Your Courage and A Fearless Heart speak to the need to overcome fear to be courageous enough to do things. Drive cites research on how even moderate amounts of stress (in the way of compensation) can inhibit performance. Fredrick LaLoux in Reinventing Organizations
explains how the lowest level of functioning for organizations are those that motivate through fear. In short, there’s no one, easy answer to the right amount of stressors to place in front of people. Generally speaking, you want as little fear as possible while maintaining enough to keep people motivated not to quit. Morten Hansen in Collaboration explains the problem of social loafing and some of what can be done to prevent individuals from deciding that they don’t need to work while others do.

Decision Making in Information Overload

Decision making is necessarily a process whereby we cannot have enough information and we have too much information. As was discussed earlier, we must choose to satisfice or maximize for each decision, but there’s a broader context that we live in today. Daniel Levitin in The Organized Mind explains how we’re not just making individual decisions in an information overload condition; our lives have become continuous information overload. (The Information Diet is another good source of information about how we’re inundated with information.)

As a result of our continuous bombardment with information, our reticular activating systems (RAS) have become more aggressive at filtering out information (see Change or Die for more on the RAS). That’s one of the reasons why marketing has moved to attention marketing. (See Got Your Attention? for more.) The more we continue to operate in an environment of constant noise and pressure, the more important it becomes that we are focused on how we consciously apply our best skills at decision making to minimize our efforts and maximize our efficacy.

Optimal Decision Making

To optimize decision making, Janis and Mann offer up this selection of criteria for vigilant decision making.

The decision maker, to the best of his ability and within his information-processing capabilities

1. thoroughly canvasses a wide range of alternative courses of action;

2. surveys the full range of objectives to be fulfilled and the values implicated by the choice;

3. carefully weighs whatever he knows about the costs and risks of negative consequences, as well as the positive consequences, that could flow from each alternative;

4. intensively searches for new information relevant to further evaluation of the alternatives;

5. correctly assimilates and takes account of any new information or expert judgment to which he is exposed, even when the information or judgment does not support the course of action he initially prefers;

6. reexamines the positive and negative consequences of all known alternatives, including those originally regarded as unacceptable, before making a final choice;

7. makes detailed provisions for implementing or executing the chosen course of action, with special attention to contingency plans that might be required if various known risks were to materialize.

Maybe it’s time that you make the decision to read more about Decision Making.

Book Review-The Satir Model

It’s a model that’s sometimes used in the discussion of change, but it was born out of family systems therapy and the awareness of how disruptive events impact family systems. The Satir Model brings a very human and personal element to how changes occur.

Alcohol is the Solution

One of the challenges counselors frequently encounter is that the dysfunctional behavior they’re called in to fix is a symptom of a larger family system problem. Virginia Satir’s insight into this problem began in 1951, when she started seeing more than one member of the family at a time. This allowed her to begin to see how the interaction patterns started to create the problems that therapy was being sought to solve.

The most vivid example of this for me was in Intimacy Anorexia, where Douglas Weiss made it clear that sometimes things are not as they seem. He explains that if you’re trying to make a dog mean by starving it, you don’t do it by withholding all food – you withhold just enough that he’s always hungry and always feeling as if he must fight to get enough food. In the book’s context, the withholding is intimacy, and the result is sometimes sexual addiction or adultery. If you’re presented with these circumstances, you might easily find fault in the adulterer without asking the question about the systems that created those results. (I’m not suggesting the transfer of responsibility, only the full evaluation of the situation.)

A more mundane but powerful response was when my friend shared that drugs or alcohol wasn’t the problem to the addict – it was the solution. It may be a poor solution. It may have negative side effects and consequences, but it’s solving another problem that the addict has. Frequently, it’s a need to numb the pain that they’re feeling in their life due to their family, professional, or social circumstances. Certainly, there’s an aspect of treatment to get folks to stop the coping skill that transformed into an addiction, but there’s a greater need to help the addict find better coping skills that bring life instead of more pain.

Sometimes, changing the coping skills means changing the reactions to the systems that people find themselves in either by getting others within the system to help break the cycle or by developing the specific skills necessary for the person to break the cycle themselves.

Faith in People

Virginia Satir as well as others like Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers had faith that people had value and had the solutions to their own problems. (See A Way of Being for Carl Roger’s perspective.) Other works, like Motivational Interviewing, follow a similar pattern where the patient is treated as the expert on their situation, their environment, and their perspectives. Like a good anthropologist practicing Ethnographic Interviewing, they suspend judgement about what the other person is saying to focus on understanding both what is being said and the hidden meanings that are lurking just beneath the surface.

Satir recognized that a person’s self-esteem had a huge impact on their ability to function and thrive in the world. Martin Seligman in The Hope Circuit describes it slightly differently. Here, he frames it as learned control, the lack of learned helplessness, or a belief that what you’re doing can make a difference. (You may also find Seligman’s book Flourish useful in exposing the power of self-esteem.)

Whole in Parts

The natural tendency is to accept the positive aspects and dismiss the negative aspects. The tendency to be a “go getter” is great professionally but has the negative of making it more difficult to turn off, shut down, and relax. Having the people pleasing personality makes you great at customer service but makes it difficult to tell your family no when they make an unreasonable ask of you. You’re good at creative projects, but sometimes forget to take out the trash.

In every case, we want to accept the positive aspects of our personalities and our identities and minimize the parts of our identities that we don’t believe serve us well. What we fail to realize is that there is no having one without the other. That is not to say that we shouldn’t work to minimize the negative consequences or work towards a better result. It is, however, to say that we can not deny the consequences without cutting off a part of ourselves – a part of ourselves that we need.

The Confidence to Stand Alone

Much has been made about Bowlby and Ainsworth’s attachment styles and the need for children to feel safe to be able to explore. (See The Secret Lives of Adults for more.) There has been research on how mother rats licking and grooming their pups leads to more effective attachment styles in rats. (See How Children Succeed for more.) Satir speaks of it as the intrinsic value and confidence necessary to pursue new things and reveal ourselves.

It’s one thing to speak of attachment styles and courage but quite another to stand alone. As we learned with Asch’s line experiments, if enough people believe something, you’re likely to believe it, too. (See The Lucifer Effect for more.) Find Your Courage seeks to help people, especially those whose attachment styles aren’t initially the best, find ways of expressing themselves more wholly despite these limitations.

Plus One

One of the challenges with any change is the amount of effort required. We sometimes expect that the degree of change that we’ll be forced to undertake is more than we’re able to accomplish on our own. While, at times, this may be necessary, Satir’s perspective was that most situations required only relatively minor adjustments that anyone is capable of making. This perspective of a relatively small amount of change on a relatively large amount of experiences helps to give everyone hope that they can change and be successful. (See The Psychology of Hope for more about generating hope, its components, and its power.)

Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery exposes the best – and worst – of each personality type. Rather than looking at the most positive and the most negative expressions of a personality as radically different, the enneagram looks at them as degrees of functionality that can be adjusted. In most cases, the gap between where we are at and the success we want is very small.

The Four Stances

Satir believes that there are four stances that we can take in any situation. They are:

  • Placating – We disregard our own feelings to accommodate someone else.
  • Blaming – We fail to accept any personal blame and instead look to others outside of ourselves as the cause of our woes.
  • Super-Reasonable – The tendency to discount one party or another in favor of the context of the situation.
  • Irrelevant – Attempts to be amusing our clownish instead of directly addressing the situation at hand.

If one were to put this on a 2×2 grid, one axis would be rationality – the degree of reason that corresponds to the current situation. The other axis is assertiveness, the degree to which a person asserts their will and needs in the situation. In the middle of the grid is a zone of coherent or congruent operation, in which we are the most effective.

Five Freedoms

When operating in any human system, you should expect five basic freedoms, though many of us have learned from our experiences that these aren’t freedoms that we can expect from our families – or in our teams. The five freedoms are:

  • Freedom to see and hear what is real – not what was, should be, or will be.
  • Freedom to say what we think and feel – not what others believe we should.
  • Freedom to feel for real – not what others expect you to feel.
  • Freedom to ask for what you want – instead of waiting for permission.
  • Freedom to take risks and fail – not be frozen in fear.

Understanding Is the Path

Humans have a fundamental need to be understood. When we developed our mind-reading, we developed the expectation that we’d be understood. (See The Righteous Mind and Mindreading for the development of our mind-reading capabilities.) Since then, our humanity has taken a beating. We long to be understood, and too often, we fail to get any validation that we’re being heard. It’s this first little step of feeling heard that allows us to take additional steps forward in working together and healing the broken systems of interaction.

Exploring Expectations

One of the hidden challenges in relationships are those unspoken expectations which lead to judgements. As humans we are, by our very nature, prediction machines. (See Think Again and Changing Minds for more.) We are constantly trying to predict what will happen next. We want to know what lottery numbers will come up, how the stock market will perform, and how people will behave. The core of trusting other people is predicting how they will behave and accepting the possibility that they may betray our predictions. (See Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy, Revisited and Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order for more on trust.)

When we expect someone to behave a certain way and they don’t, we feel betrayed. If we were to tear apart that feeling of betrayal, we’ll find expectations and judgement. The judgement is simply that our expectation was reasonable and right. We feel justified that we should have expected the behavior from the other person and judge them as bad – instead of looking to how our expectations may have been wrong or how extenuating circumstances may have led to their behavior deviating from our expectations.

It’s one-part fundamental attribution error – associating negatives with the character of a person instead of the environment or situation. (Kurt Lewin’s equation uses both “environment” and “situation” in different places, depending on which source you cite.)

Broken Bones

No matter how our bone may have become broken, it’s our responsibility to heal. Sure, we can reach out to others to set the bone in the correct place to heal, and we can get a cast or other reinforcement to prevent further damage during the healing process; but, ultimately, it’s our responsibility to heal ourselves. No amount of fault-finding or blaming the process that caused our bone to become broken will heal it. Yet, often times in relationships, we become overly focused on whose fault it is or who is to blame. (See Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) for more.)

In healing our hurts, we can look to people to set the bones right. We seek out the people who can put the pieces back together in the right place and in the right way so that they’re capable of healing appropriately. In the context of Satir’s work, this is a counselor or therapist who can help identify the broken pieces and how they fit together. In an organizational sense, it may be a coach, advisor, or consultant who helps to restructure broken systems in ways that can be effective.

Once we’re set in place, we will need some protection for this broken area. That’s what Dr. Townsend was talking about when he was discussing temporary boundaries in his book, Beyond Boundaries. Temporary boundaries provide protection while the healing process to taking place.

Finally, we’ve got to do the hard work of healing. Our bodies may automatically take care of part of the process, sometimes creating scar tissue and sometimes not. However, with most broken bones, there is some degree of work to be done consciously in the form of physical therapy to regain all – or at least most – of the capacity that existed before the bone was broken.

Creating Chaos

It seems odd that one would desire to create chaos in any situation unless they’re being malevolent – but chaos is a necessary part of the process of change. If you avoid the chaos, you can’t change people or the systems that they operate in. William Bridges in Managing Transitions describes this as the neutral zone. The old patterns of behavior aren’t in place, but neither are the new desired behaviors. There’s a place where things are being discovered – and are therefore chaotic.

While I’ve never met someone who truly enjoys chaos, I’ve met plenty who can tolerate it and its ambiguities. However, most people can’t even tolerate high degrees of chaos. They want predictability and certainty so that they can feel comfortable that they know what’s coming.

Untangling Feelings

In How Emotions are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett shares her experiences with trying to understand her emotions and how sometimes what she felt in her body weren’t emotions at all but were, in fact, illness. Richard Lazarus in Emotion and Adaptation takes a more decomposing approach and begins to untangle how we experience stimulus that we interpret, and how those interpretations form our feelings. Too many people have never been taught how to process their feelings, and as a result they insist that “My feelings are just my feelings.” In other words, they came randomly, and they’ll leave randomly.

The problem with this perspective is that you become the victim of your emotions. You can’t control them – or, more accurately, influence them. As a result, you’re beholden to the whims of your emotions, and you can do nothing about it. Taken to the logical extreme, this gives other the power to manipulate you like Pinocchio’s strings. If you have no choice but to react to certain stimuli in a certain way, then all others need to do to control you is create the right stimulus to get the actions they desire.

Most people find the idea that others control them repulsive, even if they’re willing to say, “They made me mad.” The problem with this statement is that it’s giving power to others in ways that they should not and need not. The more we can discover the time between the stimulus and our response, the more capacity we have, to be in control of – or at least influence – our emotions.

Caustic Coping Skills

Addiction is, as one friend said, a coping skill that progressively takes more and more control of the person using it. A glass of wine isn’t a problem, but when the coping skill is now driving the behavior of the person, it’s crossed over into addiction. Satir often said, “The problem isn’t the problem. Coping is.”

Coping can be a problem not just in that you’re overusing a coping skill to the point of it becoming an addiction but also when there are no coping skills available to work with a situation. Maybe the skills that are available are totally insufficient or inappropriate to the situation, and as a result, it’s the approach to coping that is the problem.

Removing Darkness

It’s structurally impossible to find darkness and remove it. You can’t remove darkness. You can’t undo the bad, the dysfunctional, and the painful directly. All you can do to remove darkness is to add light. Instead of focusing on eliminating the negative, we have to focus on how we can add the positive.

Aperture Power

Satir used the idea that a seed has tremendous latent energy. After all, how could a seed become a plant without latent energy? I prefer David Bohm’s thinking. He said that seeds are the apertures through which the plant emerges. (See On Dialogue.) Whether you choose to see latent power in the family system or you see the family system as the aperture through which healthy humans emerge, her work is powerful. (See The New Peoplemaking for more on how we’re supposed to help complete, healthy, well-adjusted people emerge from childhood at every age.)

If you’re interested in untangling a family system that’s a mess or a team at work that just doesn’t seem to work, perhaps you should read The Satir Model.