Archive for the 'Communication' Category

Out of Time

timehasrunout

This is it.

As promised over a year ago, this will be the final post for this blog. The reasons for this are primarily:

  1. I think it has reached a point where I am saying many of the same things over and over, only differently. Not useless, but less than ground breaking.
  2. It is time for ME to move on, which has been one of the underlying themes as well.

I figured the last day of the year would be a good time to make the change, but one thing led to another, and I couldn’t get it done. So here we are. It is not easy. I like doing this, but, in addition to the reasons above, I don’t really have time for it anymore.

My plan a year ago was to work through all of the posts I had in a draft state to get them online before signing off. I failed. Just like what happens in life, time caught up and I didn’t get everything done I wanted to do. There are dozens still sitting incomplete. I have decided to let them go. I’m not a big fan of symbolic actions because I think they ultimately don’t work. We know we’re doing it symbolically, which belies our sincerity and speaks as much to a need for drama. Show business can be powerful, but the power is often fleeting. All of that is true in this case as well. So…I’m not suggesting I will not write again. Only that it’s time for this blog to rest in peace.

On the occasion that I go back and read previous posts I am at once astounded and proud of how good and insightful some of them are, and also disappointed at how incomplete or lacking in any innovative thinking others are. To the astute reader, I have revealed a lot here, about myself, and human nature in general.

It was never for anyone but me. I never promoted it or cared how many people looked on. It’s simply my art, and started as a way to get some basic thoughts down. Something about writing things down codifies them, forcing the writer to think rationally in complete sentences and to ground statements and feelings. A worthy exercise, and one I think I got better at over the seven years of posts.

It evolved, as I knew it would, though I found myself surprised at how it evolved. I don’t know how obvious it is, but there was actually a turning point in the nature and presentation of the subject matter. It would be interesting to bring someone in to read through it all to see if that stands out. It’s blatantly obvious to me when I read many of the posts before and after that time. It happened over a number of months, but began here (not coincidentally, that post is the most linked to throughout the rest of the blog, barely beating this one.), and began to get momentum here. Life changes, sometimes in ways that there is no undo button for.

As a sort of farewell gift, I offer up my top 50 favorite posts (not already linked elsewhere in this one), which was an agonizing process that probably wasn’t worth the time it took, especially since the list would likely be different if I did it again next week. I hope that for those who come along later, this might get you started with what’s behind the scenes here. In chronological order…

  1. Common Sense
  2. If the Voltage Gets High Enough…
  3. Boundaries
  4. Start by Doing a Good Job
  5. Religion and Politics
  6. Hierarchy of Money
  7. Science Has a PR Problem Too
  8. Policies
  9. Brass Tacks
  10. Battle of the Unknown
  11. Compromise
  12. Love Will Find a Way
  13. Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable
  14. The Curse of Perseverance
  15. Love and Trust
  16. I See Dead People
  17. Serendipity
  18. Dedication
  19. The Drain of Friction
  20. The Value of Images
  21. What Life Really Is
  22. Ideal World
  23. The Chosen Ones
  24. Forgive
  25. A Metaphor for Life
  26. The Result of Answers
  27. Creativity
  28. In the Flesh
  29. Move Past Go
  30. The Pretty Girl Gets Kissed
  31. A Beautiful Story
  32. Hope is Not a Strategy
  33. Morality
  34. Caged
  35. Free Will is Fake
  36. Burning Ships
  37. Blind Spot
  38. Delusions
  39. Why Love Wins
  40. Strength
  41. One Step
  42. Trust, the Hidden Part
  43. Probability: Facts, Statistics, and Reality
  44. Changes
  45. Pride and Face
  46. Comfort
  47. Atheism: Instrumental versus intrinsic
  48. Reasons or Excuses
  49. New Information
  50. The Opposite of Success
  51. Bonus: the whole Happiness series

 

And here are a few random facts.

  • The most visitors to the blog in one day was on 1/6/2015, after this post.
  • 2015 was the busiest year for visitors, with 2011 close behind.
  • 2015 also has the most published posts, at 81.
  • Nearly 2,000 unique people visited the blog throughout 2015.
  • After the United States, Germany had the most visitors.
  • The most viewed page, by far, was the home page.
  • The most looked at post was this one, followed by this. It appears traffic to the site was more influenced by my use of a couple of popular terms people search for than the actual content of the blog. Humbling, though not surprising.
  • The longest time gap between when an entry was started and when it was actually completed and posted was 56 months.
  • There are almost 1,000 comments posted across the 493 blog entries.
  • There are over 22,000 comments not posted, as they marked as spam. Unfortunately some of those are/were legitimate comments. I never got to sorting them all out. Sorry about that.
  • There were 520 images posted over the course of the blog. The images are very important, and often contained additional information/meaning.

To quote a friend, “It’s time.” I could drone on about all that I’m thinking as the final letters get typed, and the unused material gets trashed, but it’s a frivolous delay of what I have decided.

It’s a lot like life. Time runs out while we still have things on our to do list.

I do have another potential endeavor in the works. If anything gets going on that I may return here to leave a trail of bread crumbs to it.

And with that, I bid you adieu.

All the best,

David Stewart

 

 

 

 

Conservation of Energy

conservationofenerty

In physics, the law of energy conservation states that the total energy of an isolated system remains constant. It can’t be created or destroyed; rather, it transforms from one form to another. Our understanding of the universe relies on this principle.

It often (not always) applies to people and relationships, too.

If you escalate (cut off in traffic, angry at the gate agent, frustrated at your boss), you’ve just added (negative) energy to a conversation.

If you escalate (enthusiasm, a hug, encouraging words), you’ve just added (positive) energy to a conversation.

Once the energy is added, it has to go somewhere. Often, the person you’re engaging with throws it right back, or even increases it. The problem with taking offense is that it’s really hard to figure out what to do with it after you’re done using it. Better to just leave it on the table and walk away. Umbrage untaken quietly disappears. A talented, mature person might take your negative energy and de-escalate it, or even swallow it and permit the conversation to calm down or end. But don’t count on it.

You can ‘win’ a conversation by overwhelming your opponent with energy they can’t handle. But of course, they’re not your opponent and you don’t really win. Being aware of the energy you add or take from interactions is a sophisticated technique that radically changes the outcomes of the conversations that fill your day. Add the good stuff, absorb the bad stuff and focus on the outcomes, not the bravado. Winning isn’t the point.

Feedback

Tin can phone on white background

The feedback you’ve been wanting: “You did a great job. This is exactly what I was hoping for. I wouldn’t change a thing. You completely nailed it, it’s fabulous.”

Of course, that’s not feedback, really. It’s applause.

Applause is great. We all need more of it.

But if you want to improve, you should actively seek feedback. And that feedback, if it’s more than just carping, will be constructive. It will clearly and generously lay out ways you can more effectively delight and create a remarkable experience that leads to better things.

If you’re afraid of that feedback, or unwilling to listen, it’s probably not going to arrive as often as you’d like it to. On the other hand, if you embrace it as the gift it can be, you may decide to go looking for it.

Empty criticism and snark does no one any good. But genuine, useful, insightful feedback is a great gift.

Applause is good too.

The Critic and the Poop

pigeon1

We’ve all been criticized at times. Sometimes brutally or without thought. The intent may or may not be to help. Keep in mind that there will always be someone around to tell you that what you’re doing isn’t good enough. Feel free to listen to and act on the facts, but you’d do well to filter out the emotional baggage the sender may be trying to bestow upon you.

That’s part of the struggle of choosing your own path. Of course, nobody ever erected a statue for a critic. On the other hand, statues are the ones that get pooped on by passing birds. There is no way to avoid this if you want to get anywhere or do anything great.

It washes off.

Two Kinds of Argument

science-vs

Scientific -vs- the other kind. The scientific kind relies on what the facts say. The science can be proven wrong by better science. The other kind relies on what emotions say or pride.

If you need to convince someone who refuses to act like a scientist (listening to facts), making better science isn’t going to help you very much. The person you’re arguing with (who might be a scientist during the day, even, but is merely being a person right now) is not going to be swayed from a firmly held opinion by your work to make better science. It’s more likely that it will take cultural pressure, shame, passion, humor, connection and a host of unreliable levers to make your point.

The easy way to tell the two varieties of argument apart is to ask, “what evidence would you need to see to change your mind about this?”

Don’t argue about belief, argue about arguments. The essence of a belief is that we own it, regardless of what’s happening around us. The key to making a rational argument is that your assertions must be falsifiable.

“I believe A because of B and C.” If someone can show you that “C” isn’t actually true, then it’s not okay to persist in arguing “A”. The statement, “All swans are white” is falsifiable, because if I can find even one black swan, we’re done.

On the other hand, “Aliens are about to take over the world with flying saucers,” is not, because there’s nothing I can do or demonstrate that would satisfy the person who might respond, “well, they’re just very well hidden, and they’re waiting us out.”

If belief in “A” is important to someone’s story, people usually pile up a large number of arguments that are either not testable, or matters of opinion and taste. There’s nothing wrong with believing “A”, but it’s counterproductive to engage with someone in a discussion about whether you’re right or not. It’s a belief, or an opinion, both of which are fine things to have, but it’s not a logical conclusion or a coherent argument, because those require asserting something we can actually test.

You can’t argue with feelings. The key question is, “is there something I can prove or demonstrate that would make you stop believing in ‘A’?” If the honest answer is ‘no’, then we’re not having an argument, are we?

Before we waste a lot of time arguing about something that appears to be a rational, logical conclusion, let’s be sure we are both having the same sort of discussion.

Organization’s Effects

artguy

If you take a group of people, a subgroup of the larger population, and expose them to focused messages again and again, you will start to change their point of view. If you augment those messages with exposure to other members of the group, the messages will begin to have ever more impact.

We generally tend to align ourselves with those we’re around. We don’t fully understand why. There is a lot of psychology we know, and then other stuff we can’t explain. Yawning, for instance, can be statistically shown to be contagious. It has been studied for years, yet we don’t know why it happens.

Once a group starts to become aligned, and starts acting like a tribe, the messages of the tribe will become self-reinforcing. When someone is born into that tribe, there is a very high probability she will never know the difference. It is simply her common sense about the way the world works.

Programmed.

Impressions are (nearly) Permenant

“But what will I tell my people?”

Once someone makes a decision about something subjective, it’s almost impossible to persuade them that they were wrong. Not just because it’s difficult to really be ‘wrong’ about subjective things, or sometimes to even quantify them, but because you’re no longer asking them to remake the first decision, you’re asking them to admit an error, which is a whole other thing.

Compounding this, we often make it awkward for someone who is trying to come around to be embraced, largely because they are hurt that they were rejected in the first place.

The opportunity is to encourage them to look at new information and make a new decision. Give them the story they need to rationalize the change. “Well, I know I said X, but that was before she/he/they listened to me and changed…”

Step two is to celebrate the newcomer, not to dredge up their past positions and wave them in their face.

Reasons or Excuses

newtonsreasonsexcusesflat

When something goes wrong we quickly build ourselves a narrative about it. The story we tell ourselves isn’t objective, and often doesn’t even mesh with reality in more than a cursory way. Let a little time pass and that story becomes the totality of the event. It includes our interpretation of the circumstances, rationalizations for what we did, how we perceive others behaved or reacted, etc. We develop for ourselves a reason that satisfies our need to make sense of it.

Reasons or excuses? What are they, and what differentiates these emotionally loaded terms? Culturally, reasons feel to us like valid explanations, whereas excuses feel invalid and lacking in accountability.

Let me give you some examples. Common excuses for why restaurants, or other businesses, fail include:

  • Our purveyors were cheating us
  • Our concept was too progressive for the market
  • The market didn’t appreciate good food
  • Our landlord was unreasonable

The list is much longer than these few highlights. There are as many excuses for failure as there are failed businesses. If a person were to take accountability for their decisions and their actions, those excuses could be seen as the real reasons for failure, and they would look more like this:

  • We didn’t know anything about negotiating purchasing, and ended up paying prices we couldn’t afford to pay
  • We didn’t research our market well enough to find out what the market wanted, so we ended up giving them what OUR idea of good food was, not theirs
  • We failed to communicate what made us special compared to the competion, and the market didn’t respond  – or – We didn’t realize that our market doesn’t have the same ability to notice quality that we have, and we were really banking on them realizing our food was better
  • We didn’t negotiate a good lease – or –  we didn’t learn enough about leases going in to be able to effectively negotiate a favorable one

Recognizing the lack of accountability in the first set relative to the second is the easy part. Culturally, we seem to lump excuses into a morally questionable realm, almost as if they are lies. Excuse, by definition, connotes an attempt or request to not be held accountable.

“I was late for class because I was held up by a train.” Assuming the statement is truthful, is it an excuse or a reason? As a statement of fact, it fits with being a reason. If there is an implied request to not be penalized in some way, then it starts to feel like an excuse. The moral attitude (with its limitations) starts to surface here: you should leave in time to allow for being held up by a train. Of course, what if the person did, but the train was unusually long? We don’t have to go far down these technical rabbit holes to see that the language and implied meaning can be broken. Suffice to say that they are contextual and judged in the perception of the speaker and hearer, who are not always on the same page because communicating the nuances thoroughly can be difficult and time consuming, not to mention emotionally taxing under some circumstances. Sometimes one party just doesn’t care enough to worry about it.

“I can’t.”  As I have written before, this is often code for, “I don’t want to enough.” Again, the easy ones are statements such as, “I can’t seem to lose weight,” or “I can’t make it to your important event.” The former feels like an excuse, even though we know there can be very valid reasons. The latter feels like it probably has a reason behind it. Thus is how culture and context drives meaning. The trickiness of the second example is often in the desire not to hurt people’s feelings. We dance around and make excuses, when the cold, hard truth probably is, “I don’t care enough about your event to miss out on the other thing I have to do.” Now it sounds even more like a reason (though not very tactful).

There are some things we simply can’t do in life, but most are choices we make.

“I can’t go out with you because I am already dating someone.” Most would be satisfied that this sounds like a reason, but is its really? The word “can’t” adds a weird layer of a lack of accountability, and therefor moves the statement toward feeling like an excuse, even if it’s deemed to be a valid one.

“I do not want to go out with you because I am already dating someone.” That’s closer to owning the accountability of it.

“I don’t want to go out with you because I believe that the risk of hurting the relationship I am in outweighs what I assess to be a very small chance I would be happier with you.” Or, “I don’t want to go out with you because I don’t feel attracted enough to break a date with this other person I like.”

Do you feel how these are getting uncomfortable? Excuses are often an (empty) attempt to keep comfort in tact by avoiding accountability. Reasons cut to the real truth of the matter.

It could also simply be, “I do not want to go out with you.” Sometimes what gets us into trouble is trying to provide a reason, and usually the reason is where it starts to feel like, and often is, an excuse.

Oh, but there is more.

Truth and trust become important currency when you’re in some type of valued relationship with someone. It’s easy to find ourselves caught between two valid concerns:

  1. I want and need to be honest with this person because…
    •  It seems like the ‘right’ thing to do
    • I want to maintain an assessment of trust;
      • It makes me feel good
      • I hope they will respond in kind
    • I believe it is in their best interest to know the truth
  2. I want to be dishonest with this person because…
    • I want them to feel validated, or not be hurt
    • I want to maintain the good feelings we have between us
    • I want to avoid conflict
    • I don’t want them to negatively assess me (as being rude or insensitive, a jerk, an idiot, etc.)
    • I believe it is in their best interest not to know the truth

You’ll decide to lean more toward one than the other, as conflicted of a choice as it may be. We can weigh it all out and try to do the least worst thing, but so much of what we often choose to do really boils down to our own comfort and desire to be liked.

An additional complexity of either of them is that sometimes the hearer just doesn’t buy it, and will believe you are operating in #2 whether you are or not. Now the speaker has lost the assessment of trust, the hearer is hurt, there are bad feelings, and potentially bad characterizations. Thus is the risk of the dishonest route, or is one of the nasty consequences of a weakness in trust and/or a weakness in the hearer’s self-esteem. It could also just be a misunderstanding or faulty assumption on the part of the hearer. In either case, now the tables are turned (insert dramatic music here). Now it is the hearer who must decide between #1 and #2. He can call out his concern to the speaker, or he can move along quietly with the bad feelings. Let it go, or ferret the truth out of it? Tough choice with the same pitfalls.

So this just turned into a post about how vital communication is between people who care about each other. It’s about how we have to accept the flaws in communication, the mistakes we make, and to a degree even the flaws in each other that lead to these mistakes. We need to give the other person grace, to empathize with how difficult it can be to parse through it all to find the right balance on the continuum between brutal honesty and smarmy validation, or between letting the other person save face versus the value of holding them accountable, all in the unavoidable context of our own comfort.

Religion’s Social Reinforcement

2facereligionsocialreinforcement

Once culture or set of behaviors becomes intertwined with our lives for a period of time its distinctiveness fades. In the United States, religion is a part of our way of life. While some have argued that Christianity is the national faith, and others that church and synagogue celebrate only the generalized religion of “the American Way of Life,” only recently have many realized that there actually exists alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from the churches an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America.

We celebrate some religiously based holidays in an official (governmental) capacity. Many of us share some fundamental beliefs and values in terms of how our society is organized and operated. They are based on, parallel to, but independent of the the theological tenets of each specific denomination or religious belief. This dates back to the early notions of the nation as religiously diverse by design (free from religious tyranny), but while not being too overtly biased in any one tradition, it clearly was based primarily on the Protestant ethos and set of values.

So here we are, a religious country that while presumably based on freedom of religion, doesn’t necessarily subscribe to freedom from religion, and certainly doesn’t appear to honor its own tenet of separation of church and state. (All of which varies somewhat according to your geographic location in the country.) This produces a bias worth briefly pointing out.

  1. Religious Bias – If your chosen set of beliefs happen to align well with the Protestant framework the country and society was built upon, you have it easy. Things invisibly make sense to you, and you probably don’t even see how biased and gamed it all is. Of course, if you happen to be of some other religion, lots of things stick out and seem to fall somewhere on the continuum from weird to downright unfair or discriminatory.
  2. Anti Religious Bias – In recent decades the pendulum has swung more towards an increasingly forceful resistance to all things in our culture that reek of being driven from a religious notion. The divide has widened. It has at times appeared to reach a point of near irrationality. Unfortunately, the baby sometimes gets thrown out with the bathwater here. There is a history of statesmen who happen to fit well within this parallel civil religious state, but who are great and effective leaders first and foremost. They can get tossed aside, which seems to leave even more room for the more dogmatic to get their voices heard and rise into a consciousness of a generation that otherwise would have recognized them as extreme.

Certainly the chasm between the different religious groups, not to mention those who do not believe in anything religious being part of our government, stands in stark relief these days, largely due to our ability to consume the media that paints these pictures. Often people on or near the fence are pushed away in the crossfire.

Perhaps we would be better off it it wasn’t so blatant. Things would be a little less cozy and comfortable for those who’s values align with the prevailing values of the society we have now, but if the overall populace were more validated and respected, the chasm could close. I argue that if we’re smart, in a rising tide lifting all boats way, the WASP’s would proactively give up the bias to help produce an environment of better dialog and growth. This is one where meeting half way may not be enough. Things have been too skewed for too long, and aside from arguably not being right, it’s obviously just not going to work effectively anymore.

Civil religion (“civility” being the operative concept) can be a great way to build a society, but in order to work it must walk a well thought-out line between being too biased towards one group versus being too watered down to be meaningful. That’s a big challenge for some capable leadership. Without it, things will continue to degrade.

Ominous.

 

Fine Lines

naxidinner-the-power-of-community

A Nazi Christmas dinner in Germany, circa 1940. Looks pretty familiar and comfortable to us, except for the pesky implications of those arm bands. Thus it’s not just a dinner, or a Christmas dinner; it’s a Nazi Christmas dinner.

If you’re standing in line with a stranger, what happens if he’s a few inches taller than you? Probably nothing. There’s nothing to distract, or to cause discomfort. You may make small talk. What if he’s a little shorter than you? Or wearing a sport coat?

What if he’s from another state? Probably nothing to consider…

What if he has really long, gray hair? Or an eye patch?

At some point, most people reach a degree of discomfort. What if he’s over 7 feet tall? Will you mention it? Or if he’s under four feet? What if he’s from a different country? Or a different race or speaking with a significant accent (or, more accurately, an accent that’s different from yours)?

For as long as we’ve been mobile enough to encounter others outside of our tribe, humans have been on alert for the differences that divide us. Then we fixate on those differences, amplifying them, ascribing all sorts of irrelevant behaviors to them. Until, the next thing you know, we start referring to, “those people.” We start boiling them down to generalizations, and even building a narrative for ourselves about them.

It seems as though it’s a lot more productive to look for things in common. Attitudes and expectations. Beliefs in the common good and forward motion. A desire to make something that matters…

Because there’s always more in common than different. We need to start acting as smart as we are.


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