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Book Review-No Easy Answers: The Truth Behind Death at Columbine High School

It has been identified as the sentinel event.  The book No Easy Answers: The Truth Behind Death at Columbine High School is an exposition and review of the events leading up to the Columbine Massacre as well as the aftermath of the event.  I started reading the book not because of the latest school shooting but instead because it offered potential clues to explaining unexplainable behaviors.  In the more than 20 years that have followed the event, much has been written and considered – perhaps among the tragedy, there might be some value.

No Easy Answers

In the wake of the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas, some were calling for finding resolutions to the school shooting epidemic.  Depending upon their particular political beliefs, the focus of the call to action was on mental health, gun control, or better school safety.  What troubled me quite quickly was the look for an easy answer.

At Columbine, it would be easy to dismiss Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold as deranged psychopaths, products of a hostile environment and poor upbringing.  However, having been to the Denver, Colorado suburb of Littleton that surrounds Columbine, the environment is anything but hostile.  By all accounts, both Eric and Dylan’s parents weren’t cruel or neglectful.  In fact, their parents would easily be considered above par in terms of creating home environments and engaging with their children.  Clearly, Eric and Dylan’s actions betray psychopathy – but how did this happen?

It’s not the case that they were just two “bad apples.”  Instead, we’ve got to look more carefully at the environment, the situation, the signs, and the gaps that allowed them to slip through.  As I explain in Fractal Along the Edges, things aren’t what they first appear.

The Environment

Judith Rich Harris, in The Nurture Assumption and No Two Alike, walks through the mechanisms that can cause two children born to the same parents and in the same environment to differ in the trajectories of their lives.  To blame the parents ignores the external factors over which the parents have no control.  To blame the parents either burdens them with having produced genetically damaged offspring – which isn’t truth – or to distort their home lives to fit a freakish version of the truth.

But if we absolve the parents of responsibility – which I’m not completely advocating – who is left?  What in the environment might contribute to the awful tragedy?


The news is littered with the tragedy of students who take their own life because of the bullying that they receive – both physical and emotional.  Often, the bullying that these lost souls experienced went unreported.  Somewhere, they’d learned that they’d be blamed for the bullying.  They’d be told they’re weak, and they needed to just “suck it up.”  The authorities weren’t going to do anything about it anyway.  They’d only make things worse.  Whether these perceptions are true or only fears given inappropriate legitimacy, they exist in the minds of many of those who found themselves at the hands of bullies.

The same forces that drive some to give up and take their own life can drive the desire for revenge and rampage.  (See The Suicidal Mind for more on the connection.)  The forces that make someone feel weak and unprotected cause them to find their way towards strength and self-protection.

At the heart of bullying lies two concepts.  First is that someone is better than another.  That is, their position in the society grants them special privileges.  The second is that “might makes right.”

Social Hierarchy

The animal kingdom is practically built on social hierarchy.  We find that some animals are perceived as leaders, and they are therefore granted special privileges.  The interesting question is what leads us to the coveted top of the hierarchy and what are the rewards that come with this social status.  In the animal kingdom, this is mostly strength and ability to fight.  However, as humans, we’re not the strongest, nor do we have the fiercest set of natural attacks, as Jonathan Haidt points out in The Righteous Mind.  What we do have is the ability to work together and our intelligence.  However, when you’re fighting your way to the top of the social hierarchy, how does this work?

In high schools like Columbine, the social hierarchy is driven in part by the kind of athletics you participate in.  The better your position and performance in a respected sport, the better your reputation, both with the other students and with the staff.  Football quarterbacks and starting centers get the highest spots in the hierarchy, where the captains of the chess and the debate team are less highly regarded.

This isn’t all bad, as Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers explains that stress can accompany not knowing your place in the social hierarchy.  However, it also explains that when those on the top of the hierarchy aren’t happy, they tend to take out their frustrations on those who are lower in the hierarchy than they are.

Might Makes Right

Historically, at the micro-level, physical prowess provided a mechanism for extracting pleasure from the infliction of shame and pain on the unfortunate souls who happen to be within range of the wrath.  The goal of this superficially is pleasure.  However, if Jonathan Haidt is right, this goes against one of the most powerful foundations of our morality: care vs. harm.  He explains in The Righteous Mind that there are six foundations of morality, including care/harm and authority/subversion, and we each value the foundations differently.

It’s challenging, because it’s necessary to practice Moral Disengagement in order to feel safe.  The capricious nature of the harm caused to others is intended to instill sufficient fear that people don’t – or rarely – directly challenge you.  It’s much easier to portray the illusion of strength when others are afraid to challenge you – constantly battling others can drain even the strongest.

I should be careful to say that I’m not condoning the behavior of attacking those lower on the social hierarchy – far from it.  I am saying that this is the normal order of things in the animal kingdom and unfortunately in “polite society” – it’s just the approaches changed.  In Reinventing Organizations, Fredrick LaLoux explains the evolution of organizations, from those only a half-step removed from physically beating people into submission to the more enlightened environments designed to encourage everyone.

Historically, history was written by the victors.  They were in power and controlled the narrative around what happened.  Thus, those who had the power shaped the way they were seen in the eyes of the populace.  While the world has now changed, as movements like Arab Spring have shown, we still must accept that much in our history books is near fiction.


When we speak about burnout, we explain that it has three defining characteristics: exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.  (See Extinguish Burnout for free resources on burnout.)  What’s important here is that cynicism is an outcome.  It’s the outcome of feeling like you can no longer make a difference.  It’s a sort of resignation that all you can do is complain.

Some people reach this conclusion through a feeling of powerlessness.  They believe that they’re not strong enough to do anything.  These are the same sorts of people that become the best in their fields.  Anders Ericsson explains in Peak that people become motivated to get better, do the work, and focus on getting better.  In The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin explains his rise to the top of both the chess and martial arts worlds – including his psychological struggles.  Being the best is hard.  For some, giving up is never an answer; for too many others, it seems like the only option.

Direct competition isn’t the only way that people are confronted with reasons why they’re powerless.  In America’s Generations, Chuck Underwood explains how Generation X grew up with a growing awareness of how the world systems that we should trust were broken and corrupted.  From the Oval Office to the board room, the system was rigged against us – and there was nothing we could do about it.  It’s no wonder Generation X is one of the most cynical.

When you mix a deep sense that the system is rigged against you, constant bullying and belittling, a pressure from others to change the world, and the power that can be found in the form of guns and explosions, you’ve got the recipe for a massacre.


In the United States, we believe in the right to bear arms.  We believe that we can enhance our power by wielding a gun.  It’s the way that we see our heroes in movies overcome their enemies, and it’s an accepted part of our lives as well.  Many of those who enter the debate hold a strong opinion about guns.  Either they believe that the government is slowly out to erode or minimize these rights to have guns, or they believe that guns are the root of all evil and should be banned from existence.

The sparring goes back and forth between statistics that show more lax gun laws result in more gun-related deaths.  The opposition counters that this is only true when suicide isn’t factored out.  They recognize that suicide is the most common death due to guns, not murder.  They also counter that many guns are obtained illegally – as those used in the Columbine massacre were.  Albert Bandura shares his point of view in Moral Disengagement, where he comes down on the side of more gun control and less violence on TV.

Entertaining Violence

Another of the easy targets for the cause of violence was the entertainment industry: movies, music, and monstrous games.  Eric had been fascinated with the movie, Natural Born Killers, music by Insane Clown Posse, and created levels for the computer game, Doom.  Surely one of the was to blame for the massacre.  It’s a short distance from seeing violence and performing violence, right?  Not exactly.  Bandura is famous for his Bobo doll experiment, which proved that children could learn social norms by watching others.

However, the work of Erik Erikson in Childhood and Society explains that children should have developed the ability to discern fantasy from the real world well before Eric and Dylan were exposed to violence in the media.  No Easy Answers explains how the Klebold family intentionally shielded their children from violence, including the uneasiness about the children purchasing the game Mortal Kombat.  (For more about why Bandura’s perspective may not be right, check out The Blank Slate.)

The Reality of Television

While television was blamed as a part of the concern for the entertainment industry’s part, what was overlooked was the actual factual news that was being reported.  It’s one thing to look at movies and television shows and see actors portraying violence.  It’s another to realize that your president had oral sex in the Oval Office with an intern and got away with it.  It’s more than the fantasy violence that contributes to the situation.  It’s the real events that we see are allowing people to escape justice.  In America’s Generations, Chuck Underwood explains how there are milestones that shape each generation.  Generation X was shaped by mistrust of people, politicians, and the power of corporations.

We didn’t have reality television to the extent that it’s prevalent today, but television was still a mirror of our culture.  Where the television didn’t intrude was into the homes of those families where children were abused, and that, too, we discovered.  We saw that people who should protect children weren’t – they were the villains in the story, not the heroes – and it confused everything.

Bottled Emotion

When it comes to emotions, the illusion that we can ignore them is fading.  We’re beginning to realize that we can’t bottle emotions up.  We can’t turn them off.  We’re as much emotional beings as we are rational beings – if not more.  Jonathan Haidt explains in his Elephant-Rider-Path model that reason is a tiny human on top of a massive elephant.  (See The Happiness Hypothesis and Switch.)  Lisa Feldman Barrett in How Emotions Are Made explains some of the hidden processes that we go through to form emotions – and the power they hold on us after they’re formed.

The challenge was that Eric and Dylan were bottling those emotions – painful emotions – up.  As a result, they were emotional pressure vessels that were just waiting to explode.  When Eric’s grip on the difference between fantasy and reality waned just a little, it was all that was necessary to ignite the explosion.

Doing the Right Thing

What’s the right answer?  Certainly, not allowing others to be victimized and bullied is a good start.  However, at the heart of the matter is a complex interaction between dozens of forces, only some of which are visible.  This leads us back to the reality that there are No Easy Answers.  We may never know the real “truth” about Columbine.

Book Review-Capture: Unraveling the Mystery of Mental Suffering

One of the common challenges with those who are embroiled in mental suffering is that they feel stuck.  It’s almost as if their suffering has caught them in a net, and they can’t find their way out.  Capture: Unraveling the Mystery of Mental Suffering is focused on that idea – that people are caught by their mental suffering.  No matter which path they’ve been walking, somewhere along the line, they’ve stepped into a trap – and they’re struggling to free themselves from it.  Some are able to get free with support from medications and therapies, but some seem to be perpetually stuck.


While on the surface mental suffering may not look much like addiction, as you look deeper, the similarities begin to surface.  In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains a cycle that he claims helps us define habits.  (His reading of the science is a bit weak, but, conceptually, the idea of a cycle is a good starting point.)  If you consider that addiction is simply the progression of a coping strategy becoming more controlling of a person, it’s easy to see how this is a reinforcing cycle.

Slowing that down a bit, you can look at The Globalization of Addiction and Dreamland about how difficult drug addictions function and how they’re driven by these progressive loops.  In particular, there’s a reinforcing shame cycle.  (See I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) for more on shame and its effects.)  To understand the power of reinforcing loops, we can look to Donella Meadow’s excellent Thinking in Systems.  In short, when we have reinforcing loops without powerful balancing loops, any system can get out of control.

In the case of addictions, those reinforcing loops are initiated by the chemical and neurological changes.  Whether the addiction itself is chemically based or is simply the result of our internal neurochemical changes, the result is a system composed of powerful reinforcing loops with underpowered balancing loops.  One can argue that losing marriages, friends, finances, jobs, and most of the things that make life worth living would be powerful balancing loops, but often by the time that these kick in, the person is well under the control of the addiction.

Applying the same model to mental suffering, we know that many conditions – particularly suicide – are characterized by a cognitive constriction that prevents the ability to see a wider range of options.  (See The Suicidal Mind for suicide and cognitive constriction.)  In Drive, Daniel Pink explains that even mild forms of stress decrease performance through functional fixedness.  Specifically, research showed that even under mild pressure people wouldn’t recognize alternative uses for a container that tacks were placed in.

It turns out that it’s easy to constrict our thinking and difficult to expand it.  In Creative Confidence, the Kelley brothers explain that we’re all born creative, and it’s crushed out of many of us by the educational and commercial employment processes.  In The Fearless Organization, Amy Edmondson is focused on the creation of psychological safety as an antidote to the constriction.  Richard Lazarus, in Emotion and Adaption, explains how our fear is based on the probability of an event and the impact of the event – and that our ability to cope mitigates our sense of fear.  Fear is clearly an enemy to being able to think broadly.

One of the challenges we face with mental suffering is that most people bring it upon themselves by reinforcing negative thinking, which constricts thinking to negative thoughts, and this loop ultimately continues until it’s difficult to see or accept positive things in our lives.  This is the same kind of cycle that drives addiction.  The difference here is that there’s no external object to which an addiction is attached.  Instead, the addiction is to the negative thoughts that continue to loop and consume those who experience mental suffering.

The Illusion of Control

Always lurking in the shadows, shaping our feelings and our actions, is the desire for control.  We crave predictability and love the predictability that comes with the illusion of control.  In Compelled to Control, J. Keith Miller explains that we all want to control (others) but that none of us wants to be controlled.  One of the great revelations in The Hope Circuit is that Marty Seligman’s great discovery of learned helplessness wasn’t learned helplessness at all.  In fact, Steven Maier (one of Seligman’s colleagues) discovered that it was a failure to learn control – or influence – that kept animals from trying to escape mild shocks – even when escape was possible.

C. Rick Snyder in The Psychology of Hope explains that hope is a cognitive process based on waypower (knowing how) and willpower (desire). Inherent in the waypower aspect is the belief that if we do the right things, we can control the outcomes. While, at some level, we are aware that this isn’t the case, we suspend disbelief to engender hope and accept that while we believe we have control of the situation, we really only have varying levels of influence.

Judith Rich Harris explains in No Two Alike and The Nurture Assumption that even with our own children, we don’t have positive control of how they’ll turn out – as any parent of a teenager has undoubtedly discovered on their own.  The desire for control is an illusion – but it’s an illusion that we need to keep intact.

Influence Not Control

There’s a dim awareness that we don’t have control.  Where control implies 100% influence, we’re often arguing with ourselves about the degree of influence that we have.  In How We Know What Isn’t So, Thomas Gilovich explains that we often overestimate our capabilities.  Change or Die explains that our ego is well armed with defenses.  We will often keep believing in things because the alternative is unpalatable.  Incognito and The Tell-Tale Brain explain that we’ll use a variety of defenses as necessary to continue to keep our beliefs about ourselves even when the data clearly indicates that our perceptions are wrong.  Whether it’s denying that we have any physical limitations despite the rather obvious facts that contradict that belief or an amputee’s belief in phantom limbs, we have an amazing capacity to ignore the truth.

If we begin to accept for a moment that we’re not in control but rather have limited influence, we must contend with the fact that we’re no longer “in control” no matter how much of an illusion that might have been.

Loss of Illusion

Obviously, when we lose the illusion of control, we lose hope, and that can lead us to burnout and depression.  (See for burnout resources.)  On the one hand, we need to accept that control is an illusion to free us from the burden of belief that everything is ultimately our fault; on the other hand, we must simultaneously retain the belief that we do have some degree of influence and that degree of influence may be enough.

We get caught in the belief of permanence in our current situation and our belief that we should have prevented it – but didn’t or couldn’t.  The result is a feeling of being trapped, greater stress, and, ultimately, our worlds narrowing into the perceived hopelessness.  (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more about the impact of stress.)


We cannot be ultimately responsible for things that we cannot control.  That is, we cannot accept all the blame if we only influenced the outcomes – but insufficiently.  Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) examines an under-acceptance of responsibility on the part of leadership.  While certainly this is a valid and important concern, we should be equally concerned when we attempt to take more responsibility than we are due for things that are largely outside of our control.  (See Happier for more.)

Those who suffer often take more responsibility than they should.  They shame themselves for not doing more when there was no way to know that more was called for – or ways that one could do more.  The burden of unnecessary and inappropriate responsibility buries us under weights of depression and disappointment that may be too much to escape.

If Only

When something bad, tragic, or unthinkable happens, we naturally question, “If only I had… would things be different?”  The problem with this line of thinking is that, at some level, the answer is always yes – you could have done something different.  The deeper philosophical challenge is how could you have known that more was necessary?  You begin to ask questions like: how would I change every response in ways that lead away from the result every time?  Often, these answers lead to hypervigilance and a breakdown.

We can’t undo the past no matter how much we may desire to do so.  Instead, we must find ways to take reasonable steps to prevent future occurrences while accepting whatever tragedy has already befallen us.  “If only” is dangerous, because it invites us into the loop where we recognize that we’re not capable of completely avoiding the future pains and intensifying the degree to which we second-guess ourselves.

None of Us Are Immune

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the tendency for people to get captured is the reality that none of us are immune.  We’re all bombarded by sensory input every day and ultimately the wrong set of inputs at the wrong time given the wrong attention can launch us into a loop – capture – that’s hard to escape.  Nassim Taleb in Antifragile explains how we can build resilience but how that all resilience has limits.  After we’ve been impacted by something we need time to recover – and ideally build up resistance – if the next wave comes too quickly or intensely, we can be overwhelmed – and caught up in a negative cycle of mental suffering.

The fact that all of us are susceptible doesn’t change our desire or need to make things better.  We’ve got to accept the fact that we can be captured and work to develop the kind of skills that make our descent into the spiral less likely and easier to recover from.

The Other Side

While Capture has the unfortunate consequence of burdening us, it’s not always a negative cycle that we find ourselves in.  Sometimes, the same mechanisms that drive depression can be turned around on themselves and leveraged to the most amazing experiences.  The experiences that we find the most engaging in life are experiences of flow, which are remarkably similar – even if much harder to enter.  (See Flow, Finding Flow, and The Rise of Superman for more on flow.)

In the end, the greatest hope we may find is not that we eliminate the drivers that lead to mental suffering.  Perhaps the answer lies in harnessing these powers for the development of greater happiness and joy.  Maybe it’s time to Capture happiness.

Leaders Lead from the Back

Not everyone gets the opportunity to go hiking in the mountains, but there’s a valuable leadership lesson to be had by hiking in the mountains with others – particularly a family.  Hiking with a family necessarily involves people with differing abilities, needs, and skills.  Keeping everyone together is what makes a great leader effective – and it’s rarely the thing that people see when they’re watching a family or group pass them on a trail.

Head of the Pack

Some people – generally a father figure – will take up position at the beginning of the group, leading the followers on the right well-worn paths to prevent them from getting lost and ensuring the hike that they set out to do is the one they complete.  By all accounts, this is what people would describe as a leader.  Fearless and intelligent, hard-charging and determined.

The message this leader often sends – either directly or through indirect means – is that the only way to “do things right” is by hard-charging into the future.  It’s blazing trails that wins the day, not careful, deliberate attempts to keep everyone together.  Ironically, in most cases, they’re not blazing the trail but instead finding one that they’ve been promised leads to the destination or experience that they desire.

The image we have of leadership is one of a leader and followers rather than a group of people who desire to share an experience together.  We sometimes forget that the journey matters, too.

Bringing Up the Rear

Equally common as a leader in front is a person in back.  Generally, this is a caretaking role, like a mother who carefully watches those ahead of them and intuitively slows down to stay behind the last person, or recognizes the need for resources like water and gets those resources to them.  There is no pace-setting or direction-setting in this role.  It’s the role that makes sure that everyone is going to the same place in a way that prevents people from being left behind.

What’s interesting about the role is that it most closely aligns with the supportive role that many effective leaders take.  They’re not just setting a direction, but they’re also tending to their people who need help.  Instead of dictating, they’re facilitating.  Instead of charging, they’re caring.

There’s a greater awareness that the goal is the shared experience as much as the destination.  It’s a caring for people – with the desire to have a new experience.

Leadership Defined

I won’t be able to go to the depths how Joseph Rost’s Leadership for the Twenty-First Century does.  He dedicates nearly 2/3rds of the book to getting to an understanding of leadership that’s summarized neatly as people in a relationship intending real change.  That opens leadership up to everyone, not just people with titles or special talent, but also people who are in relationships and intend to make a real change.

In this context, families and organizations want to make their interactions more positive and the people in them want to do it together.

Lost Causes?

One would be right to question the analogy when applied to business or civic life.  After all, we can’t easily replace a child or a crazy uncle.  Families have a relatively fixed relational structure that other groups do not.  There will always be times when the people you’re bringing with you on the journey are the wrong people.  In corporate life, it’s a hard decision to make to ask someone to leave and, in tight labor markets, even harder to find the right person to replace them.

However, until you’ve decided they must leave, you should support them as best you can – even if you don’t fully believe that they’re going to make it.

Why the Back?

It’s too easy from the head of the pack to leave one or more people behind.  In fact, it’s easy to leave everyone behind.  A leader without followers (or collaborators, as Rost began to call them) isn’t a leader at all.  It’s only from the back that you can ensure that everyone makes it and truly shape the experiences they have.

Book Review-Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World

You never really know what you’re going to get into in a war.  A young upstart country disrupted a global powerhouse in what we now call American Independence.  The tragedy of 9/11 triggered a reaction from the United States that was quick and powerful.  The nation decided that it would not allow terrorism to invade its borders.  The results were a series of initiatives designed to bring about the end of terrorism.  And it led to Stanley McChrystal being placed in the heart of Iraq trying to combat a different enemy and, ultimately, create a new kind of operating structure.  It was a Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World.

Efficiency Versus Agility

When it came to efficiency, the US forces had it down.  They had hundreds of years of learning the most efficient way to do things.  Fredric Taylor’s scientific management had long since taken hold of the military.  Sure, it was as bureaucratic as any other large government organization, but it was as efficient as possible when operating at this scale.  Of course, scale had its disadvantages, too.  The larger the organization, the more difficult it is to be agile.

Al Qaeda Iraq (AQI), as McChrystal consistently refers to it in the book, was none of these things.  Their network followed no discernable hierarchy.  They didn’t do things efficiently at all.  But they were exceedingly agile, and that seemed to allow them to keep one step ahead of the US forces.  It was something that was humiliating to endure.  A vastly overpowered, rag-tag force was able to keep and even gain ground.  McChrystal had to find a new way of doing things that more closely aligned with the new rules of engagement.  New rules forged not in a strategic planning session in some war room but at a kitchen table using improvised materials and intelligence.

Red Teams and Blue Teams

The military world – and the intelligence community – have long since learned about how to work together – and how not to do it.  Richard Hackman explains decades of experience in Collaborative Intelligence and even outlines the pitfalls that await people who must defend themselves against attackers.  It turns out that the structure of attack makes the success more likely.  It’s possible to focus limited resources in specific places and punch through the defenses that must be more spread out.

Hackman has many other measures that seemed to indirectly inform McChrystal as he tried to figure out how to make his task force more effective in a foreign land – not just geography but also in the way that things worked.

Complex Systems

While we like to believe in cause and effect, we’re collectively becoming increasingly aware of the probabilities of things happening rather than their certainties.  (See The Halo Effect for more.)  We’re beginning to recognize that we’re living in a world of complex systems that interact in ways that are difficult to predict.  Donella Meadows in Thinking in Systems began to expose us to how systems work – and how they change.  She exposed the kinds of emergence that happens in large systems.  Everett Rogers explained this in terms of the law of unintended consequences and the story of how steel axe heads for Stone-Age Australians went horribly wrong.  (See The Diffusion of Innovations for more.)  Even Judith Rich Harris discusses Lorenz’ “butterfly effect” in terms of how small changes can make big impacts on children in the same home.  She explains that there are really No Two Alike.

In short, what McChrystal and the task force experienced wasn’t new or unique.  It’s the way that we have to begin to think if we want to succeed in this VUCA world.  (See Stealing Fire for more about VUCA – volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.)

Non-Linear Change

Most things in our world experience change and growth in a relatively linear way.  Our children may grow more in inches during their 10th year than in their first, but it seems proportional.  Rarely do we encounter the kind of rapid changes that happen when we toss a match on something recently doused with lighter fluid.  Things change, but they do so at a relatively constant rate.  However, in complex environments, what’s stable one moment can be very unstable the next.  You’re going along fine – until you’re not.

Lorenz first wrote about chaos theory, or complex adaptive systems, when he wondered – as a part of a published paper – whether a butterfly could set off a tornado in Texas with the flap of its wings.  This is rooted in Lorenz’ attempts to model weather and a chance happening that he entered data back into the system to restart it with less precision – and got radically different results.  He explained that even small changes in a complex system can create a chain reaction that leads to big events – but most of the time it has little or no impact at all.  Little things can matter – but they don’t necessarily always matter.

Herein lies the biggest problem.  As humans, we are prediction machines.  We’re always trying to predict the next move, the next thing that will happen – and when systems get too complex, we can no longer do that.  It’s the failure of our predictive capacity that makes us laugh at jokes.  We get a little spark every time we detect that we’ve made an error in our prediction.  (See Inside Jokes for more.)

What makes prediction hard is both the breadth – number of actors involved – and the velocity.  When news traveled via the Pony Express, there weren’t iterations happening every second – or every millisecond.  It was possible to play out scenarios and anticipate the future.  Mail – and even newspapers – generally reached fewer people than someone could potentially reach now with a single retweet from a celebrity with millions of followers.  And that one retweet might spawn dozens, hundreds, or thousands to retweet on their own with the result of spreading the message even further.

Efficiency and Effectiveness

Simply, efficiency is doing things “right,” and effectiveness is doing the “right” things – “right” being right in context.  How many times do we find ourselves making things more efficient without considering whether we’re doing the right thing?  If we do ask the important question, what chance do we have that we’ll know what the right thing even is?  It’s frustrating and demoralizing to realize that you don’t know how to be effective because you have no idea what the right thing is.

Entrepreneur means “risk bearer.”  Being the leader of a command in a time of war carries with it a greater weight.  You’re literally making life or death decisions every day.  If you act, you risk the lives of those under your command.  If you fail to act, you may risk their lives and also the lives of those you’re there to protect.  The core problem is knowing which actions to take and when to hold tight.

As an entrepreneur for a few decades now, I can tell you that I’ve never known for sure that I was right – except when I was wrong.  I’ve had so many good ideas and excellent execution fall flat.  It’s fallen flat, because what I thought was the absolute right thing wasn’t in fact what was right – at least as far as the market was concerned.

Absolutely we’ve got to recognize that efficiency isn’t sufficient.  We have to make sure that we’re doing the right things, while realizing that it may not be possible to know for sure what right even is.

Messy Diagrams

Most organizations have organization charts.  Most of the time, it’s the clean, direct line and hierarchy that we expect to see when we describe a large organization.  Just as map makers must decide which details to leave out and which ones to include, the architects of the organizational chart must simplify the rather messy connections that every organization has.

As a child, I watched M.A.S.H.  It’s a fictional show about a mobile surgical hospital in Vietnam.  As a situational comedy, there’s something to making the show interesting, but it exposed something that traditional organizational chart doesn’t.  It exposed dynamics of the relationships between the surgeons, the nurses, and the rest of the staff.  More importantly, it exposed the difference between real power and position.  If you wanted to get something done, you spoke to Radar.  The commanders could come and go, but Radar was always there making things happen one way or another.

Instead of the clean lines and pristine hierarchy, AQI emphasized relationships and connections to people that could get things done.  When diagramed, the structure looked like a mess – because it was.  However, the mess wasn’t a byproduct of the organizational structure, it was the results of connections and relationships.  We see these today in business and society through social network analysis.  We can see who we’re connected to and who they’re connected to, building a web of connections that can lead everyone to someone else in startlingly few hops.  (See Analyzing the Social Web for more about social network analysis.)


For McChrystal, the problem wasn’t that he had poor equipment or poorly trained soldiers.  He had good tech and good talent.  The problem was that there were gaps between the groups and these gaps created inefficiencies, redundancies, misses, and mistrust.

Navy SEALs are trained together and trained to trust one another as if their life depends upon it – because often it does.  Army Green Berets and the special forces of the other branches of the military are also similarly trained and teamed.  The problem was that there was relatively little integration between the forces in a branch of the military and even more so across branches.  They simply didn’t know or trust each other – and that was making it difficult to leverage the power that each group brought to the mission.

This is the core concept in Team of Teams.  It’s building trust within the team and then layering in additional trust with people outside of the small insular group.  McChrystal’s insight was in the way that he intentionally created these connections between different groups and then allowed his team – or team of teams – to leverage these relationships in the same way that AQI might.  However, better resources, training, and efficiency weren’t removed – the informal trust was added to what already existed.


There’s a tendency in military – particularly military intelligence – circles to over-restrict the dissemination of information.  Things are marked “top secret” when “secret” would do.  They’re marked for internal use only when most of the information is available publicly.

It was a special opportunity to get to visit NSA headquarters, and we took it.  NSA Family Day is a time when those who are working on some of the most secret operations to protect our nation can share a glimpse of what they do with their families.  I wasn’t expecting that one of the briefings would explain that all the sophisticated gear sitting out on the table, which was used to gather information, was available on  It was a moment when I realized how much that was secret wasn’t really secret.

McChrystal knew that information was far more valuable shared – even with the risk of a leak – than kept behind locked doors.  The result was a change where the entire command area was declared safe for top secret discussions.  It meant that everyone could talk (more or less) freely about sensitive information.  It reduced the friction and increased the sharing.  Luckily, there weren’t critical breaches that would have caused this novel experiment to be torn down.  Operational effectiveness increased, and with no known negative effects, it stood.  The risk was made that everyone could be trusted – and the benefits outweighed the potential risk of a breech.

I’ve spent a few decades in the knowledge management space, supporting and teaching people how to share knowledge and information in ways that forward organizations and people.  In this, I’ve learned there is so much value to knowledge that it’s almost always worth it.  (See The New Edge in Knowledge for more about this value.)  Sharing your knowledge is an exercise in trust – and necessarily opens you up to the chance of betrayal – but properly managed, it’s almost always worth the trade.


Daniel Pink in Drive revived and extended Edward Deci’s work from Why We Do What We Do.  In short, intrinsic motivation comes from autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  In this situation, purpose was clear, mastery was as elusive as it ever is, but autonomy could be granted.  McChrystal pushed decision making authority as low as possible into the organization.  He realized that, for the most part, he was going to agree with the plans of those he led – because otherwise why would he have them in his command?  So, except where required, he stepped out of the way.

It changed the thinking, beliefs, and internal monologue.  People felt more empowered and autonomous.  They knew they’d have to accept that mistakes would be made.  However, the reduction in the time to action was worth the price of verification.   Instead of missing opportunities because it took too long to get approval, actions would be taken, and combatants apprehended.

Gardening People

McChrystal uses the analogy that he started gardening people.  Instead of dictating and controlling, his responsibility was to create the right conditions for people to flourish.  By changing the structure and the thinking, McChrystal was able to change people from thinking about what they needed to do to bide their time until they were sent home to how they could make a real impact while they were deployed.  Team of Teams is powerful – if you’re willing to create the conditions for success.

Apogy Change Leader Speaker Series

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to sit down with Apogy Founder Jessica Crow to talk about change. In it, I discuss the concept of wicked problems and how to think about them in the context of organizational change. From there, we discuss everything from the impact our values have on our resistance (or resilience) to change, the importance of hardship, and more.

You can watch the full interview here:

Book Review-No Bad Parts

It’s not that Richard Schwartz believes you have a multiple personality disorder.  In No Bad Parts, he explains the fundamentals of Internal Family Systems (IFS) and his belief that we all have various parts of ourselves rather than a single consciousness.  The collection of pieces, including protectors, exiles, and our true selves, are all jumbled up as a part of our experiences – and the hope is that they can be harmonized and allowed to recognize the safety that most of us enjoy today.

Detached Acceptance

Before we can become introduced to our parts and have “conversations” with them, we’ve got to identify the stance that we must take for every part of us to feel as safe as possible.  That starts with detachment, often explained as observing from a distance.  (See The HeartMath Solution for more on detachment.)

Dan Richo’s How to Be an Adult in Relationships encourages us to focus on five As of healthy adult relationships, one of which is acceptance.  It’s avoiding judgement and simply accepting that what we’re experiencing is truth – it may not be our truth, but it is truth.  (See Theory U for more about suspending judgement.)

It’s through our detached acceptance that we can begin to recognize that there are no bad parts – and thus none that need shamed.  We can realize that there aren’t bad parts of us, but there may be parts of us that have been forced into positions that aren’t healthy or useful to us.

The Protectors

The protectors are the parts of ourselves that had to rise to the occasion of protecting us through some sort of trauma – real or perceived.  These protectors stand up and defend those parts of ourselves that are too fragile and vulnerable to protect themselves.  Protectors are always on the ready for when they believe the parts of us they’re protecting may need it.  It’s the protectors that we’re intentionally disarming when we look for detached acceptance.

Parts of ourselves that are locked into protection mode often want to express themselves differently – and can only do so once freed.  Ultimately, protectors are disarmed when they can trust that we’re safe.  In a sense, they’re a part of us with PTSD.  (See Transformed by Trauma for more on PTSD.)  Too often, the protectors are still protecting a small child incapable of defending themselves even though we may be “all grown up now.”

The Exiles

There are other parts of us that we try to deny.  While they may not rise to the level of clinical addiction, there are often parts of us that drink too much, eat too much, or just binge watch television that we wish we could get rid of.  The typical strategy of pushing them back is trying to get past them via sheer force of will rather than trying to accept them – and thereby remove their power.  Shame is a powerful driver that reinforces the power that these exiles have – and thereby makes them harder to get rid of.  (See I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) for more on shame.)

Critics and Distractors

Other parts of us may be the hypercritical or the distractor, which lead us away from knowledge of our intrinsic value or the value that we’re sharing with the world.  (See Stealing Fire for more about our inner critic.)  These parts of ourselves, too, need to find their proper home.  We need the critic to keep us and our ego from getting completely out of control – but we can’t succumb to its overwhelming noise.  How We Know What Isn’t So explains how our egos are necessarily a bit out of whack, and Katherine Norris explains in Acedia & Me what can happen when it goes the other way.

Sick Cycles

One of the key challenges with the parts of ourselves – and the reason that we’ve not found our way to an integrated image yet – is the sick cycle that allows the parts of ourselves to feed back on themselves.  We binge eat and feel shame, which gives more power to the part of us that wants to binge – and the cycle starts again.  We lash out in protection, and then feel vulnerable for the mistake, so we lash out again even harder.

The most important part to disrupting a sick cycle is to learn when it starts.  If you can see the cycle happening, they’re often easy enough to disrupt.

Satir Model

Ultimately, the IFS model proposed by Schwartz isn’t materially different than what Virginia Satir proposed (see The Satir Model for more).  The key difference is the explicit instructions to identify and discuss each part as an individual part of the self until such time that it can be integrated into the rest of the self.  Just like Schwartz, Satir seemed to believe there are No Bad Parts.

What If I Say the Wrong Thing?

There’s a second tragedy after the death of a loved one.  The tragedy is that, in many cases, the people who you expect to support you – your friends, colleagues, and associates – leave you as well.  Between well-intended attempts to give you space to process and their own fear of saying something wrong, they don’t call, and they don’t engage you in the conversation about what has happened.  There are words that they will no longer say in your presence.  They step around the elephant in the middle of the room hoping that everyone else does, too – or worse yet, they avoid being in the room with you altogether.

I need to be clear that Terri and I have been blessed with the way that some of our friends have stood beside us.  They moved in, making sure that we were okay more often – not less.  Some dear friends arrived at our home and did whatever we needed – even things that we didn’t know we needed immediately after we lost our son to suicide.  These amazing friends challenged everything that I’m about to say here – except that these amazing people are exceedingly rare.  It’s possible to fight the urge and step up, as these dear friends have demonstrated – and you can do it, to0.  They already knew what I hope to share with you: it’s impossible to say the wrong thing.

Receiving Line

I was standing in a receiving line next to my ex-wife at her father’s funeral.  A lifelong good friend of hers walked up and asked, “How are you doing?”  It’s the question that had been asked a hundred times already that day.  Often, I responded with the polite “okay” that people expected as we walked through the instinctive dance of awkwardness.  For her, however, I was comfortable being a bit more humorous.  My reply was, “Well, I’m not dead.”  After a brief moment as she sized up the comment, we both had a quiet chuckle.  It lightened the moment and was what was needed for both of us.

The one question that’s uttered more than any other after a loss of a loved one has got to be, “How are you doing?”  The true answer is, “Not well.  I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I just lost a loved one.”  Rarely is that answer given, because it’s not the polite expected answer.  We’re supposed to put on a face of stability even as we are powerless to fight back the tears.  For the most part, no one says anything.  We quietly move forward pretending that the awkwardness didn’t happen.

The Wrong Thing

There are things that can be said that are hurtful and wrong.  However, they’re comments uttered by those who don’t really care about you; they care that they get the “scoop.”  One friend seemed intent on knowing the how and the why of our son’s death.  While we knew that we’d share his death was a suicide from almost the moment we found out, we needed time to find a way to make it make sense when we told others.  I’m not talking about changing the details or misleading folks.  I’m talking about coming to terms with the inconsistencies.  However, this wasn’t what our friend was able to accept.

She pushed to know what had happened and why.  Explaining that it was a suicide would have made no more sense to her than it made to us.  It violated everything that you hear about suicide.  Our son was ultra-connected with family.  He had everything to live for – career, house, girlfriend, dog, etc.  We felt like speaking before we had our arms around it wouldn’t make any sense to anyone.  She pushed three separate times to know the truth before we reached out privately to tell her that it was suicide – and that the reasons made no sense.

The point isn’t that she asked the wrong question per se.  Rather, she asked it in the wrong way.  She was concerned about her own knowledge, the sense that she was close enough to be in the know – something she could share with others.  I wouldn’t describe it as gossip, but I wouldn’t describe it as helpful either.

I’ve been truly honored to work with some professional journalists at times in my life.  The reporters who told the story of my brother’s tragic airplane accident were some of the most caring, compassionate, and respectful people I’ve met.  They had a job to do – to get the story – but I never once felt like the story was more important than the people in the story.  The funny thing is that, with this friend, the story was more important than the people.  The story was more important than us.  It wasn’t that the wrong thing was said – it was the heart was wrong in the asking.

I’ve been asked questions that mortified the person asking – and seeing their heart, I was not the slightest bit phased by them.  One of our dear friends, who came to be with us, and I did our own version of the ballistic analysis of the bullet that killed our son, such that the Warren Commission investigating the Kennedy assassination would have been proud.  We made sense of ballistics that couldn’t make sense.  Not a single moment during that discussion did I feel like he said the wrong thing – because he couldn’t have.  It wasn’t the words that mattered.  What mattered was the intent behind the words.

He was willing to walk through the situation not for his own edification but to help us make sense of a senseless organization.  He honestly came from a place of a desire to help – and a willingness to step into the messy.

But the Tears

We’ve always taught the kids that emotions aren’t bad.  They’re not to be feared nor revered.  They’re a part of us and deserve acknowledgement and acceptance.  Not everyone has this experience.  The mirror neurons fire when they see us flash to a painful moment of loss and grief.  Our eyes well up, and they struggle to contain their own emotions.  Too many have been taught that emotions aren’t safe, and that if we’re experiencing them – or someone else is experiencing them – something is wrong.

I’m not going to say that I relish the loss, pain, and grief that I feel.  However, I’m not going to run from these feelings either.  The truth is that I feel them frequently and I expect to for the rest of my life.  It does and will continue to get better, but the losses and grief remains.  They’re made better by the fact that I’m willing to experience them.  They’re better because I don’t run from them.

I know that my tears make others uncomfortable, and I can’t take responsibility for their response.  Similarly, even an honest, heartfelt comment can cause the tears to well up in my eyes, and it neither means the other person said the wrong thing nor that they’re responsible.  The point is that they feel responsible for causing pain that they didn’t cause.  I simply stumbled across it in their presence.  Tears aren’t tragedy.  The tragedy is turning away from those who’ve lost.

The Nothing

There is, I suppose, one wrong thing.  However, it’s not the thing you say.  It’s the thing that you don’t say.  It’s the silence that follows the loss.  It’s the result of the fear of saying something wrong that prevents the question, the comment, the reaching out.  You see, I’d rather someone ask the crudest question than to have someone sidestep the issue.  It’s worse to have people pull back when you need them most because they’re uncomfortable dealing with their losses, their fears about mortality, and their fear of saying the wrong thing.

Ask me what was going through my son’s head during his final moments, and I might tell you that I don’t know – or I might answer you with an answer that could appall you.  Asking the question with the intent of entering the space of grief will always be welcome – even if my response is an attempt at morbid humor.

In the end, it’s only the silence, the running away from those who need friends and family the most, that is the wrong thing.  It’s not something you say.  It’s something you don’t.  If someone you know is struggling with loss – ask them about it.  Talk to them.  Even if you have to admit that you’re uncomfortable but you’re willing to step in.

Book Review-Anthro-Vision: A New Way to See in Business and Life

It sounds vaguely like a superpower.  It’s “Anthro-Vision – the power to see things the way they really are.”  However, that’s exactly what Gillian Tett is proposing for our everyday non-superheroes.  Anthro-Vision: A New Way to See in Business and Life is the application of anthropological ideas and approaches to help us see the things in life that we often overlook and, perhaps more importantly, to develop greater understanding and empathy for others.  Unlike the superhero version, it takes work, and also unlike the superhero version, it’s real and it’s real powerful.


What does the study of distant cultures and societies have to teach us today?  As I explained in my review of The Ethnographic Interview, the same skills can be applied to those who seem strange to us but who live next door.  The intellectual framework of anthropology tells you to question your assumptions and to be just a bit skeptical of what you do – and do not – know.  This framework helps us see what others are missing – what they’re blind to.

It also helps us avoid the kinds of problems that Lauriston Sharp found with the introduction of steel axe heads to Stone-Age Australians.  Published in 1952, the article “Steel Axes for Stone-Age Australians” explains that the material advance caused a breakdown of society.  Had someone realized the social relationship between the elders who owned the stone axe heads and the young men and women who borrowed them, needless suffering could have been avoided.  (See The Diffusion of Innovations for more.)

How many times do we introduce something to the world with no idea how the world will respond or even how they might approach it?  Sherry Turkle in Alone Together offers her concerns about a world connected by technology making us feel less connected.  It’s an anthropological framework that helps us understand – and thereby minimize – tragedies.

I see echoes and reflections of anthropology in other disciplines.  Design thinking (See Design Thinking), human-centered design (See The Art of Innovation), and user experience (See The Elements of User Experience) are all related approaches that seek to eliminate preconceived notions and start by a deep understanding for those who are being served.  The work of visionaries like Gary Klein, particularly in Seeing What Others Don’t, exposes us to the back half of the anthropological approach – that is, the sense-making process.  Even Dave Snowden’s Cynefin decision framework relies upon the ability to see the situation clearly before designing solutions.  Horst Rittel’s wicked problems came out of the study of urban planning – the same kinds of cultural problems that anthropology seeks to understand in what often feels like a chaotic world.  (See Dialogue Mapping for more on Rittel’s work)


Tett quotes Victor Turner who uses a concept of “liminality,” drawing on the idea that most cultures employ rituals and symbols to mark transition points.  I’d extend this further to Arnold van Gennep’s work on Rites of Passage and how we signal our transitions between stages of life with rites of passage.  While Eric Erikson is best known for his work charting the development of children, particularly in Childhood and Society, he wasn’t focused on the rituals (rites of passage) that we use, because his focus was more inward development than outward signs.

However, it would be an error to ignore that the way that we recognize and celebrate rites of passage are important to our psychological development.

In fact, as Daniel Pink explains in When, we don’t share a single sense of timing.  The sense of timing we do have is often driven by external landmarks or external symbols by which we calibrate our sense of time – but we don’t all use the same landmarks and symbols.

A Lesson from the Jesuits

In a world where religion is often filled with immutable rules, rituals, and customs, the Jesuits seem to have found a way to separate the essential parts of their beliefs from the non-essential.  According to Chris Lowney in Heroic Leadership, they were able to adapt to their environments by demonstrating the principles they believed in without getting caught up in the customs that weren’t connected to their core beliefs.  When you needed to dress differently to fit in and be accepted, that’s what you did.

I’m reminded of this because the Jesuits had to question everything about their faith and strip all the unnecessary assumptions.  They had to see ways that their habits were getting in the way of their mission to bring the message of Jesus to everyone on the planet.

Side stepping the question of the religion and simply evaluating their behaviors and outcomes, their results are impressive.  The founded universities and they lived in harmony with people of different beliefs.  They had to be – in essence – anthropologists.  They couldn’t judge others by their strange customs but instead had to learn them and, if they didn’t conflict with their core beliefs, accept them.

Finding the Hidden Assumptions

It’s a cold day, and you decide to go for a walk in the local indoor mall.  Which side of the hall do you walk on?  Most of the world answers on the right.  They instinctively do it.  They wouldn’t have thought about it had you not asked.  However, those in the United Kingdom and New Zealand, who drive on the left side of the road, instinctively try to walk on the left side of the mall’s enormous halls.  There’s no rule for this, but it just happens.  It’s a hidden assumption.

You’re a guest at a home in the Midwest of the United States, and you clean your plate.  Your host is pleased, because it signals to them that you were happy with your meal.  The next week, you’re in an Asian country in another host’s home.  You clean your plate, and the host seems subtly frustrated, continuing to ask you if you want more food.  You politely decline.  Your host is offended – and you don’t know why.  What you don’t know is that it’s customary to leave a small amount of food on your plate to signal to your host that you’ve had enough food.  In one context, you’re being a polite guest; in the other, you’re being rude – without even knowing it.

The point of Anthro-Vision is to be able to see these cultural differences, assumptions, and hidden meanings that exist in ways that we don’t realize.

Discussing the Undiscussable

There are some things you just don’t discuss – in polite company.  Depending upon where you were raised, it might be sex.  It might be money.  It might be bodily functions.  The familial, organizational, or social norms may make it rude to discuss such topics.

However, as an outsider, it’s possible to ask the questions that others can’t ask.  You’re given special grace, because everyone is clear that you don’t know the rules.  It’s sometimes the kind of break that it takes to make things more discussable.  A factor that begins to open doors is that once others realize you’re talking to others in their “in” group about topics they can’t talk about, you’ll be invited to talk to them.  It can create some pull towards getting the interviews you want.  (See Dialogue – Defensive Routines, and Organizational Traps for more about undiscussable topics.)

Espoused Beliefs and Beliefs in Practice

It doesn’t make sense.  What people are saying about the way that their lives work doesn’t match the outcomes.  They say they believe in using less water, but they are endlessly watering their lawns.   The water usage is indicated as high, and people reply to surveys that they’re very water conservation focused.  The real reason may be that they don’t understand how their behaviors are impacting the situation – or it can be that they have a competing belief.  There may be something that’s even more important than water conservation to them.

Immunity to Change encourages us to look for these places of inconsistency and ask why.  Steven Reiss in Who Am I? and The Normal Personality encourages us to look where motivators are in conflict and figure out which motivator is holding back the behavior that we want – and that the person espouses.  Anthropologists simply watch what people actually do and then ask them why.  It’s a pragmatic approach that helps to resolve the discrepancy between the quantitative results and the beliefs that we have about how people will behave based on what they’ve told us.  (You may find The Largest Gap in the World – Between Saying and Doing useful when you can’t reconcile what people say and what they do.)

All Problems are Human Problems

William Isaacs in Dialogue describes four pathologies of thought, the first of which is abstraction.  Tett explains that the financiers at the heart of the financial system meltdown didn’t speak in stories of people or include pictures of them in their presentations.  They had abstracted themselves from the individuals who were taking out loans and trying to pay them back.

Anthropology acknowledges that all problems are human problems.  If you’re not sure how you’re connecting with and improving the lives of real people, then something may be wrong.  If your vision doesn’t involve the people, then something is missing.

We’re Not Safe

There’s this nostalgic view of the past where crime didn’t exist, and no one locked their doors.  The perception today is that we must protect our children from murder, violent crimes, abductions, and more.  However, the problem with both of these perceptions is that they’re simply not true.  The statistics compiled by LetGrow from the FBI, Pew Research, Bureau of Justice Statistics and others don’t support this perception.  The murder rate isn’t materially different than 1960 – and are roughly half of what they were in 1990.  In short, the real rate hasn’t changed.  The quantitative analysis is net-zero.

However, the qualitative view is that parents are substantially more afraid of violence against their children than their parents were.  The belief is that the world is more dangerous, and therefore children can’t be allowed to go out like they used to.  The result is that their children are escaping into cyberspace, where they’re free to meet others and hang out.  America’s Generations describes how millennials were helicopter parented because of parental concerns about their safety – irrespective of reality.

What did change about violent crimes was our awareness of them.  The rise of television, news, the internet, and pictures of missing children on the walls of Walmart left us believing that the prevalence of the crime was much larger, because we were hearing about it more.  The results were overprotected children.  The Coddling of the American Mind explains the outcomes that we get with children who were coddled and overly protected.

Treat Life Like Fieldwork

My favorite part of the book is where Tett explains that she had an ex-boyfriend complain she was a terrible person to go on vacation with, because she treated it like fieldwork.  It’s my favorite, because she gives a cry for all of us: “I treat life like fieldwork.”  I can’t think of a better way to live life – always curious, always learning, always questioning.  Maybe that’s what has allowed her to develop her Anthro-Vision – and what can lead you to develop yours.

The Moment It All Starts to Unravel

Relationships are difficult things to “get right.”  They require work, attention, and reevaluation.  Done right, they can be incredibly rewarding.  Done wrong, they bring pain and suffering to both parties.  Everyone has been in relationships gone wrong.  It’s easy in these cases to blame or vilify the other party, but if we want to make sure it doesn’t happen again, we’ve got to look past our selection criteria for new relationships and consider how we may be unintentionally contributing to relationship downfalls.

It sounds easy, but it’s not.  Which eyeroll or harsh word begins the unraveling process?  Where do we draw the line between normal and dysfunctional?  How do we decide which comment that normally wouldn’t have started the ball rolling was the start of an avalanche of heartache and pain?  Perhaps that’s the wrong question.  The key may not be the start of the unraveling but the factors that led to those starts and resulted in an escalation of hurt feelings and mutual pain instead of being shut down and forgiven or ignored altogether.

Starve the Dog

It’s an awful analogy – particularly if you’re a dog lover – but it’s one that begins to expose the underbelly of the problem.  It helps us to see that even though one party finally lashes out, it may not be completely their fault.

If you want to make a dog mean and aggressive, you starve it.  The natural instinct to protect its life will make it compete to get food and resources so that it can live.  However, it’s not quite that simple.  You can’t just deprive the dog of food all at once.  Doing so won’t allow for the dog’s core personality to be rewritten.  What you must do is to intermittently and irregularly provide it with enough food for survival, but never enough to create comfort or safety.  You must create a hunger that threatens the dog’s survival.  Over time, the dog will develop a character of meanness and aggression.

In humans, we see similar circumstances.  People withhold from their relationships the things the other person needs.  Whether it’s words of affirmation, attention, concern, or something else, they constantly have the other party on edge, and ultimately that results in a person who is irritable – at least in that relationship, if not more broadly.  Sometimes the strategy is conscious, but often it’s just the way that they behave.  It’s a pattern they caught from their parents or from someone in their life who treated them the same way.

This dynamic creates a challenge.  The person who has been starved of their needs in the relationship are the ones who eventually lash out – but are they really the start of the problem, or were they just no longer able to contain the pain they were feeling?

Relational Flywheels and Sick Cycles

Counselors who work with couples often speak of sick cycles.  In these cycles, the husband says something that is upsetting to the wife, who in turn says something upsetting to the husband, and the process continues with each being more harmed by the comments at each cycle.  These cycles often erode the trust at the foundation of the relationship and create a wake of damage that neither party intended.

Inherent to the sick cycle is the nature of amplification of negative energy.  Each cycle adds more negative energy to the interaction and this process continues until one party walks away or there’s nothing left of the relationship.

The opposite effect is seen in some relationships and at times even in challenging relationships.  We support, compliment, or engage with each other in ways that contribute more positive energy to the relationship.  This is the foundation for lifelong relationships that get better with time as more interactions create more positive interactions.

When thought of as a flywheel, once things get going either in a positive or a negative direction, they tend to continue in that direction until something changes.  That means we’ll have to make a conscious change to interrupt a negative cycle before it gets out of hand or identify when a positive cycle is breaking down.

Predicting Failure

John Gottman is famous for his 93.6% accuracy rate for predicting divorce in married couples – after three minutes of arguing.  What he and his colleagues did was place people in a room with cameras rolling and asked them to start talking about their largest argument.  The result was four behaviors that he called the four horsemen of the relational apocalypse: criticism, stonewalling, contempt, and defensiveness.  These markers – particularly contempt – predicted relationships that wouldn’t make it.

When we see these show up in a conversation, we know we’re headed down the path of a sick cycle and not a flywheel of flourishing friendships.  Certainly, the arrival of one of these is a good candidate for where it all started to unravel – though often there are still previous behaviors that led someone to bring it to the conversation.


Beyond Gottman’s big four, there are other ways to predict failure of a relationship.  When either party starts to deal in absolutes, you know there’s trouble coming.  When someone says the other person “always” or “never” does something, there are bound to be exceptions and frustrations.  After all, if someone says that you never do the dishes, and you have specific instances where you have, doesn’t this invalidate the comment on its face?

Yes – but too often, the speaker doesn’t mean literally always or never.  Instead, they’re communicating that the frequency is wrong.  They expect more or less than what they’re perceiving – regardless of whether the perception is accurate or the expectation is reasonable.  The choice of words and attitudes does matter even when the other person’s behavior seems unimaginable.

The Unimaginable

In a civil, enlightened society, is there ever a reason to change your tone of voice or yell?  The immediate answer is a quick “no” – but not so fast.  Would you yell “stop” if someone was about to step in front of a bus?  What are the other exceptions to the rule that you shouldn’t raise your voice?

What happens when one party steadfastly refuses to listen?  They talk over you.  They interrupt.  They show no signs that they’ve listened, heard, or understood.  What then?  Should you not raise your voice to keep them from running over you?  Isn’t this a better answer as an initial strategy before exiting the conversation?  Frequently, in the discussions that devolve, we find that one or both parties doesn’t feel heard and understood.  Isn’t it natural to make one last ditch effort to be heard?

Off Limits

Many people believe that some behaviors are off-limits.  They aren’t acceptable.  It’s not until you press them that you can get them to realize there are conditions that the behaviors are not only acceptable but might be the best answer.  Consider murder.  Many people believe they’d never murder another person.  Killing is wrong, they say.  They’re right.  What if you knew that you were going to be killed by someone?  Would you kill them first?  What about your spouse or your child?  Would you protect them even if it meant murder?  It’s at these times that the waters get murkier.

Even Buddhists – who are, like most of us, rather universally against violence – can kill.  In a parable, a killer and a monk are on the boat in the middle of a lake.  The killer confesses (and the monk believes them) that they’ll kill two people when they get back to shore.  What is the monk to do if he can’t convince the other on another course of action?  The answer is to kill the killer – despite the monk’s non-violent nature.

When we encounter a “never” event, our first reaction should be whether the event is something that should never happen – or should only happen rarely based on an extenuating set of circumstances.  If it’s the latter, we should become curious about what the circumstances are.

Judgement and Anger

Anger is a frequent villain when it comes to the amplification of a sick cycle.  We become angry and lash out.  However, what is anger?  Anger, in Eastern psychology, is disappointment directed.  We’re disappointed about something or someone.  We feel the sting of the missed expectation.  It feels like a betrayal of trust.  We predicted their behavior, we got something different, and we don’t like it.  In the Western world, we’re rarely taught what anger is or how we might be able to process it.

While anger is disappointment directed, our disappointments come from our violated expectations, expectations we generated based on our prediction of what the other person would or should do.  We systematically underestimate the impact of the environment on behavior.  Kurt Lewin described behavior as a function of both person and environment.  The point of describing it as an opaque function is that you can’t know how the person and environment will interact to produce behaviors.

Despite this, Shaun Nichols and Steven Stich argue in Mindreading that the fundamental purpose of consciousness is prediction.  We accept the errors in our prediction and even, as Matthew Hurley, Daniel Dennett, and Reginald Adams explain in Inside Jokes, have error correction routines built in to allow us to adapt to our prediction errors.  However, in anger, we perceive that our prediction failure – that our disappointment – somehow impacts us in a potentially negative way either by changing our perceptions or by our perception of material threat.

Our disappointments are based on our predictions of the other person’s behavior and our judgement of what is – and is not – right.  We are often the angriest when we feel like our judgements of what is right and wrong are violated.  However, where do our judgements come from?  How do we decide what is and is not right?

Foundations of Judgement and Morality

Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind explains that we all have the same foundations of morality, but we each have them in different degrees.  They are:

  • Care/Harm – The need to care for others and minimize harm.
  • Fairness/Cheating – The need to ensure that there’s a fairness, and no one is cheating the system.
  • Loyalty/Betrayal – The need to ensure that we’re loyal to others and minimize our betrayals.
  • Authority/Subversion – The need to accept authority and avoid subversion of that authority.
  • Sanctity/Degradation – The need for cleanliness, respect for those things of deity, and avoidance for those things that are figuratively unclean.
  • Liberty/Oppression – The need for freedom and the prevention of oppression of others.

Our judgements are what we believe to be “right” or “wrong” based on these foundations and what motivates us.  Steven Reiss in Who Am I? outlines his motivational profile, which contains 16 factors that he believes motivate us all.  These motivators shape the way we think about life and, ultimately, what we believe is right or wrong.

One of the key ways that we develop our beliefs and therefore judgements is our values, but that’s not the only source.

Experience Based Decisions

Gary Klein explains in Sources of Power how his study of fire captains initially led to baffling conclusions.  These fire captains claimed that they just “knew” what was happening in the fire and what the firefighters needed to do to battle them.  For the most part, they were right.  The more experienced captains did just seem to have a sixth sense about how the fire was going to play out.  But why?

Ultimately, Klein realized that the captains had developed mental models for the fires and were testing each bit of information with the models they had created.  They’d make decisions based on how what they learned did – or did not – fit their model.  They’d pull back when the fire wasn’t developing like they thought it should or they couldn’t explain new information.  They’d identify the probable sources well before they could know.  Klein called them recognition-primed decisions (RPD).

What’s important about Klein’s discovery is that the fire captains were doing these mental simulations unconsciously.  They weren’t running a checklist or doing anything they could articulate.  They had internalized their experiences and formed their judgements – which were largely right.

When we’re angry, someone has violated our expectations of what “should” happen based not just on our values but on the mental models that we’ve created of the world.  Sometimes the judgements we make are based on a combination of the two.

Young adult (college-age) children accompany parents on a tropical island holiday.  When they’re supposed to return, challenges force flight cancellations, and the parents catch the first flight home, leaving the children in the foreign country with meager but sufficient resources as they wait for an available seat on a flight home.  For some, this is perfectly acceptable – they were, in fact, adults – and for others it’s wrong.  Parents are supposed to support and protect their children above themselves.

Those who are high on the motivator of family bristle at the story.  Those who themselves backpacked across a foreign continent think nothing of the story.  Their experience says that their young adults will be fine.  After all, they were in much less hospitable circumstances, and they survived.  Even if they’re high on family, their experience mediates their beliefs – and judgement.

The Influence of Environment on Experiences and Beliefs

At a table in the Midwest, a Chinese exchange student gets up from the table and offers to help clear dishes as they were taught was polite in the US culture.  However, there’s a problem.  The student left a small amount of food on their plate uneaten.  The host hides her offense.  She tried so hard to create a meal that the student would enjoy, and she believes she’s been unsuccessful.

Beliefs are socially constructed.  In East Asia, a guest would never finish all their food for fear of insulting their host.  Finishing all your food is a sign that your host hasn’t provided enough for you to eat.  In the Midwest, not finishing what the host provided is a sign that the food wasn’t very good.  It’s the same behavior – leaving a bit of food on your plate – with two radically different perceptions of the meaning.

So, while we make experience-based decisions, those experiences are shaped by our societies.

The Need to Be Understood

Our greatest – or at least most pressing – biological need is air and the oxygen that it provides.  This is followed closely by water and food.  There’s little argument about these biological needs and their relative importance.  However, when it comes to psychological needs, there’s a lot of discussion.  One of the candidates for the most important and pressing psychological need is the need to be understood.  It’s a reflection of our mind-reading skills: we want people to read our minds – at least a little.

Have you ever wondered about the kind, elderly people who come into the stores while you’re there?  Some seem to go on and on speaking about nothing.  It makes no sense that they’d share so much unless you realize that there’s no one at home to listen to them – and to understand their lives.  We see this at work in meetings, with some of our coworkers who seem intent on filling any pauses with the sound of their voice.

When someone restates their case, or their perspective and thoughts, louder the second time around, is it any wonder why?  With an innate need to be understood, any perception that you’re not being understood would automatically result in a harder – and perhaps more forceful – attempt.  That’s where the opportunity exists to stop the unraveling and reverse it.

Mitigating Negative Energy

What if you could side-step your emotional response to the greater energy in the other person’s words as they tried to get their point across?  What would happen if you were able to react to the fact that they didn’t feel heard and understood rather than the words or the tone?  The answer is that you might be able to stop the negative spiral and turn it around.  That takes two important pieces – which aren’t always easy.

Sidestepping Emotions

Whether the other person is yelling or simply becoming more direct and staccato with their words, it can be triggering for those who grew up in unstable homes or who have experienced explosive anger.  While there may be no real threat, that doesn’t stop you from feeling one.  You can react to the energy and directness of the words and become defensive – or you can recognize that the response isn’t going to lead to your harm and is instead a signal that the other person doesn’t feel heard.

While this logically makes sense, and most could agree that it’s a better plan, in the moment, it’s often hard to prevent the amygdala from hijacking the brain and putting all that logic stuff to the side.  To prevent this, we create greater degrees of feeling safe.  Even if we do get triggered, we hold on to the fact that we’re in no real danger from a logical point of view.

If we can sidestep emotion, we can begin to focus on discovering what about the other person’s world they don’t believe you heard.

Communicating Understanding

Communicating understanding seems simple.  “I think I heard you say…” is a good start.  More than that, “I think that you mean…” shows more than that you heard the literal words they were saying.  It shows that you were trying to make sense of what you were hearing – and that means you were trying to understand.  The key is not that every interaction results in understanding but rather that every interaction demonstrates the intent of trying to understand.  Even reflecting something back to someone as wrong is generally responded to well, since the perception is that both parties are trying to bridge the gap.

In Sum

The short may be that it doesn’t matter where it started to unravel.  The point may not be the first failure.  The point may be what can be done to validate and understand the other person as much as possible – no matter who is at fault.  Fault-finding, pinpointing, blaming, and isolating isn’t a part of the solution.  Demonstrating a desire to communicate and understand – even when the other person doesn’t appear to be making the same efforts – is the way to stop and reverse the unraveling process.

Book Review-Change: Principles of Problem Formulation and Problem Resolution

My first highlight in Change: Principles of Problem Formulation and Problem Resolution is “… persistence and change need to be considered together, in spite of their apparently opposite nature.”  It is a fundamental truth of change that too often is left trampled on in the rush to push through as much change as possible in the shortest period of time.  We’ve lost the value of persistence and stability as if we could make a boat with a sail and no keel.

The Opposite of Bad Isn’t Always Good

I hated geometry class.  Logical proofs were mind numbingly boring and detailed.  However, I did salvage some learning from my time.  I learned that the opposite of bad isn’t always good.  Or rather I learned that, in logic, you’ve got to be careful.  Sets, subsets, negation, and all sorts of operations can lead intuitively to incorrect conclusions.  However, this is a lesson that I, and others, must continue to relearn.  All too often, we believe that any change is a positive change when something is bad.

We’ve got a bias towards action that leads us to believe that we should be doing something.  However, sometimes the wiser approach is to wait to make sure that the thing we’re doing is the right thing.  Einstein once remarked that if he had an hour to solve a problem, he’d spend the first 55 minutes understanding the problem and the remaining five solving the problem.  Too often, we jump to conclusions and action when what we need is more effort to understand the problem.  (See Antifragile for more.)

Changing the System

Donella Meadows in Thinking in Systems explains how you can get different results by changing the system.  Often, we go about change by attempting to manipulate low-leverage factors.  Change explains that we need to be looking for the second-order, system-level changes that make a lasting impact and change.  As Change the Culture, Change the Game indicates, if you don’t focus on the experiences and beliefs, then the actions and results can’t be changed persistently.

They propose that there are three ways to mishandle any problem:

  • Deny that the problem is a problem
  • Attempt a change regardless of difficulty
  • Attempt a solution which doesn’t match the level of interaction required (i.e. first level change to a persistent problem or vice versa.)

Two Tragedies: Getting Your Heart’s Desire, and Not

When we’re looking at change resistance or Immunity to Change, the causes aren’t always clear.  Some call it fear of success; others look at it as a fear of failure.  (See The Gift of Failure for more on fear of failure.)  The truth is that getting your heart’s desire – achieving your goals – can be as confusing and disorienting as losing hope and deciding that you’ll never reach your goals.  (See The Hope Circuit for more on losing hope.)

What can sometimes help is to realize that there are options on both sides – whether you get what you want or you don’t.


One of the most powerful techniques that are used to shape conversations is reframing.  Reframing doesn’t change the actual situation or consequences but changes the way that you view them.  Reframing change as an opportunity – rather than a solution to a problem that people aren’t aware of – can get people to support the change.  Children that reframed the marshmallow in front of them to something more abstract like the means to an end were more likely to “pass” The Marshmallow Test and were rewarded with more sweets.  (See also Coachbook for more on reframing.)

The Quid Pro Quo of Marriage Relationships

Even John Gottman would admit that marriage relationships are formed on the tradeoffs that each member of the couple makes.  Some of those tradeoffs are easy and some are less easy. but it’s about giving what you’re comfortable with and getting what you believe you need.  (See The Science of Trust for more on Gottman’s work.)  Change says that much of what appears in couple’s counseling is a disruption of the quid pro quo on which the relationship is formed.

Truth Is Not What We Discover but What We Create

We believe that there should be some objective truth to all things.  The personality of a historical figure should match some accounts.  However, the deeper that we probe into things, the more we realize that we’re not capable of handling the entire truth.  We see only fragmented pieces of the whole – and, invariably, our perspectives fall well short of the bar for truth.  In realizing that we’re incapable of perceiving the whole truth, we must endeavor to create a consistent truth.  It should be a truth that interfaces with others’ perceptions of truth and doesn’t leave us on the wrong side of a psychological diagnosis – but at the same time recognizes a consistency around our experience.

If we want to develop a truth about change, we’ll want to ensure that we’re not looking just to discover it but rather that we’re approaching it with the real understanding that we create our truth as much as we discover the truth that is “out there.”

Fear of Making Mistakes

Fear is a powerful, if unpredictable, motivator.  Too often in our quest for perfection, we fear that we’ll make mistakes, and those mistakes will be held against us.  In terms of Richard Lazarus’ observations in Emotion and Adaptation, we believe the consequence of a mistake to be high and our ability to cope to be low.  Whenever we’re looking to improve our chances at change as well as our retention of employees and happiness at work, we should endeavor to create a safe place to work.  (See The Fearless Organization for more about creating psychologically safe places to work.)

Ultimately, if we want to be successful at change we may need to spend some time reading about Change.

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