Tag: Human Nature

Civilization and its Fundamental Passions

“To describe a culture is to describe the structure of its institutions.”
— Joseph Tussman

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In his book The Burden of Office, the educator and philosopher Joseph Tussman, who brought us profound wisdom, does a remarkable job, in just a few short pages, of describing one of the fundamental truths of human life: The same things we cherish are also the things that destroy us. It is exactly the qualities which give us vitality that create our problems. This is a fundamental truth. (Gary Taubes made a similar point recently, calling the thirst for knowledge a tightrope walk.)

Tussman breaks down the fundamental passions into five areas: Eros (Love), Indignation (Moral Righteousness), Curiosity, Acquisitiveness, and Pride. These are the things which bless and bedevil us, as Tussman puts it.

On Eros:

Powerful, necessary, the root of self-transcendence, of the varieties of love and all that we value flowing from that. And yet, a source of anguish, of misery, of torment, of unhappiness, of conflict, madness, murder, war. Half of wisdom is learning to tiptoe in the presence of eros.

On Moral Fervor:

A deeply instinctive reaction to something that threatens us, the social group, the basic human unit. Its absence–indifference, genuine carelessness–is a fatal disease. Its moderate presence supports the justice that makes trust and cooperation possible. Its raging presence brings fanatical or holy war, the horrors of unslaked vengeance, the interminable feud.

On Curiosity:

Without it, no knowledge, no science, no arts, no power. But feared today as the human passion that may bring us to the end of the world. In its grip we stop at nothing recognizing no forbidden fruit, undeterred by decency.

On Acquisitiveness:

If we do not leap to a pejorative sense, we see that it begins as a kind of prudent concern to get what we need to satisfy our wants, now and in the future, to provide for ourselves, our families, our friends, our fellows […] But carried away, we can become misers, acquire the Midas touch, turn ugly with greed, cupidity, avarice–transforming a virtue into a destructive vice.

On Pride:

At one end of the scale we find something desirable and necessary–proper pride, self-respect, a sense of dignity, the capacity to know shame, to feel disgrace. At the other end we encounter the thirst for fame, for status, for glory–the arrogance, the heedless autonomy, the pride that goes before a fall.

Civilizing Passion

In the face of these two-faced passions, the whole point of human civilization and culture is to harness them into being useful and safe. This reminds one of the English saying that Politics is the art of marshaling hatreds. In other words, we build our culture knowing full well what the passions are and what they’re capable of.

Some people, of course, hate the rule-making and the institutionalizing of passions. We all probably do, from time to time. Many political campaigns have been run on the idea that society is reigning in the glorious individual too much.

But rarely do we give society much credit for what it accomplishes by creating useful institutions to marshal our passions. Tussman points out a few that have been especially useful. The first one being the modern legal system, which provides a great example of how we tame the passion of moral fury for the sake of civilization.

Moral indignation gives way to legal argument; fury is tied in legal knots–trapped, confined, restrained, transformed, tamed. The passion finds itself institutionalized, learns to express itself in a set of appropriate habits. Impulse and intuition give way to bureaucracy. Morality bows to legality. War gives way to the rule of law. We become civilized.

The story of fury and its taming into law is the story of all the great passions. We develop the forms within which they are both recognized, acknowledged, satisfied, and nevertheless, banked, kept within limits, restrained.

We do this with Eros too — we find ways to tame and institutionalize love, one of the most fundamental biological passions of humanity:

In its most assertive mood, the institution of marriage aspires to a total monopoly of legitimate sexuality. A rather daring claim, not unlike the claim of the institutions of the sovereign to a monopoly of legitimate coercive power, honored only to a degree. But the point is that marriage and its ancillary institutions are cultural attempts to tame eros into a benign form The pattern may vary from culture to culture and time to time, but every human group will erect its temples to this deity.

It’s even true with the passion for knowledge — something we’d all consider a fundamental right and generally a positive passion for the world. It’s given us so much. But we rein it in all the same, recognizing its power to mislead.

The passion for knowledge might not seem to belong in this fevered company, and may not seem to need restraining. At least it may not seem so in the academic world where we commonly worry more about kindling the passion than dampening. But there is a long tradition of the fear of the mad scientist with his unquenchable thirst–Faust and all those restless probing minds uncovering the secrets of the atom, of the genetic code, of the mind, of the soul, of all that heady fruit the taste of which may threaten what remains of innocence. In spite of bold claims to freedom, however, even the pursuit of truth is subject to social and political constraint. Much of it could not even go on without governmental sanction and support.

Yuval Harari makes similar points in his awesome book Sapiens: There is a long marriage between governmental and capitalistic institutions and the pursuit of knowledge. These pursuits don’t exist independently of each other, but work as complements. Karl Popper also wrote deeply about the need for an Open Society–the need for proper institutions to support the growth of knowledge, which can be suppressed under the wrong conditions.

In the end, says Tussman, we are the sum of our passions and our institutions — every culture answers this problem in its own way.

Civilization requires the institutionalization of the necessary but dangerous passions. Any civilization is a particular way of doing so, achieving–growing into–its complex forms more or less by happy accident. To describe a culture is to map its institutions. To criticize or evaluate a culture is to judge the adequacy of its institutions in light of some conception of how the various passions can best be expressed or shaped or harnessed to serve a variety of human purposes.

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Still Interested? Check out Tussman’s brilliant quote on understanding the world.

Lewis Thomas on our Social Nature and “Getting the Air Right”


“What it needs is for the air to be made right. If you want a bee to make honey, you do not issue protocols on solar navigation or carbohydrate chemistry, you put him together with other bees (and you’d better do this quickly, for solitary bees do not stay alive) and you do what you can to arrange the general environment around the hive. If the air is right, the science will come in its own season, like pure honey.”
— Lewis Thomas

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In his wonderful collection of essays, The Lives of a Cell, the biologist Lewis Thomas displays a fairly pronounced tendency to compare humans to the “social insects” — primarily bees and ants. It’s not unfair to wonder: Looked at from a properly high perch, are humans simply doing the equivalent of hive-building and colony-building?

In a manner Yuval Harari would later echo in his book Sapiens, Thomas concludes that, while we’re similar, there are some pretty essential differences. He wonders aloud in the essay titled Social Talk:

Nobody wants to think that the rapidly expanding mass of mankind, spreading out over the surface of the earth, blackening the ground, bears any meaningful resemblance to the life of an anthill or a hive. Who would consider for a moment that the more than 3 billion of us are a sort of stupendous animal when we become linked together? We are not mindless, nor is our day-to-day behavior coded out to the last detail by our genomes, nor do we seem to be engaged together, compulsively, in any single, universal, stereotyped task analogous to the construction of a nest. If we were ever to put all our brains together in fact, to make a common mind the way the ants do, it would be an unthinkable thought, way over our heads.

Social animals tend to keep at a particular thing, generally something huge for their size; they work at it ceaselessly under genetic instructions and genetic compulsion, using it to house the species and protect it, assuring permanence.

There are, to be sure, superficial resemblance’s in some of the things we do together, like building glass and plastic cities on all the land and farming under the sea, or assembling in armies, or landing samples of ourselves on the moon, or sending memoranda into the next galaxy. We do these together without being quite sure why, but we can stop doing one thing and move to another whenever we like. We are not committed or bound by our genes to stick to one activity forever, like the wasps.

Today’s behavior is no more fixed than when we tumbled out over Europe to build cathedrals in the twelfth century. At that time we were convinced that it would go on forever, that this was the way to live, but it was not; indeed, most of us have already forgotten what it was all about. Anything we do in this transient, secondary social way, compulsively and with all our energies but only for a brief period of our history, cannot be counted as social behavior in the biological sense. If we can turn it on and off, on whims, it isn’t likely that our genes are providing the detailed instructions. Constructing Charters was good for our minds, but we found that our lives went on, and it is no more likely that we will find survival in Rome plows or laser bombs, or rapid mass transport or a Mars lander, or solar power, or even synthetic protein. We do tend to improvise things like this as we go along, but it is clear that we can pick and choose.

With our basic nature as a backdrop, human beings “pick and choose,” in Thomas’s words, among the possible activities we might engage in. These can range from pyramid building to art and music, from group campfire songs to extreme and brutal war. The wide range, the ability to decide to be a warring society sometimes and a peaceful society sometimes, might be seen as evidence that there are major qualitative differences between what humans do as a group and what the social insects are up to. Maybe we’re not just hive-builders after all.

What causes the difference then? Thomas thought it might well be our innate capacity for language, and the information it allows us to share:

It begins to look, more and more disturbingly, as if the gift of language is the single human trait that marks us all genetically, setting us apart from all the rest of life. Language is, like nest building or hive making, the universal and biologically specific activity of human beings. We engage in it communally, compulsively, and automatically. We cannot be human without it; if we were to be separated from it our minds would die, as surely as bees lost from the hive.

We are born knowing how to use language. The capacity to recognize syntax, to organize and deploy words into intelligible sentences, is innate in the human mind. We are programmed to identify patterns and generate grammar. There are invariant and variable structures in speech that are common to all of us. As chicks are endowed with an innate capacity to read information in the shapes of overhanging shadows, telling hawk from other birds, we can identify the meaning of grammar in a string of words, and we are born this way. According to Chomsky, who has examined it as a biologist looks at live tissue, language “must simply be a biological property of the human mind.” The universal attributes of language are genetically set; we do not learn them, or make them up as we go along.

We work at this all our lives, and collectively we give it life, but we do not exert the least control over language, not as individuals or committees or academies or governments. Language, once it comes alive, behaves like an active, motile organism. Parts of it are always being changed, by a ceaseless activity to which all of us are committed; new words are invented and inserted, old ones have their meaning altered or abandoned. New ways of stringing words and sentences together come into fashion and vanish again, but the underlying structure simply grows, enriches itself, and expands. Individual languages age away and seem to die, but they leave progeny all over the place. Separate languages can exist side by side for centuries without touching each other, maintaining their integrity with the vigor of incompatible tissues. At other times, two languages may come together, fuse, replicate, and give rise to nests of new tongues.

The thing about the development of language is its unplannedness. There’s no language committee directing the whole enterprise. Not only is language innate, as Noam Chomsky and his student Steven Pinker have so well proven, but it’s extremely flexible based on the needs of its users. All the strange things about our language that seem so poorly drawn up were never drawn up at all. (What kind of masochist would put an “s” in the word lisp?)

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One commonality to the social insects that Thomas does see is something he calls Getting the Air Right – his description of a really productive human group as a direct reflection of a really productive bee colony. In this case, he’s talking about getting great science done, but the application to other human endeavors seems clear.

The following piece, pulled from his essay titled Natural Science, is worth reading and re-reading closely when you’re tempted to “command and control” others around you.

I don’t know of any other human occupation, even including what I have seen of art, in which the people engaged in it are so caught up, so totally preoccupied, so driven beyond their strength and resources.

Scientists at work have the look of creatures following genetic instructions; they seem to be under the influence of a deeply placed human instinct. They are, despite their efforts at dignity, rather like young animals engaged in savage play. When they are near to an answer their hair stands on end, they sweat, they are awash in their own adrenalin. To grab the answer, and grab it first, is for them a more powerful drive than feeding or breeding or protecting themselves against the elements.

It sometimes looks like a lonely activity, but it is as much the opposite of lonely as human behavior can be. There is nothing so social, so communal, and so interdependent. An active field of science is like an immense intellectual anthill; the individual almost vanishes into the mass of minds tumbling over each other, carrying information from place to place, passing it around at the speed of light.

There are special kinds of information that seem to be chemotactic. As soon as a trace is released, receptors at the back of the neck are caused to tremble, there is a massive convergence of motile minds flying upwind on a gradient of surprise, crowding around the source. It is an infiltration of intellects, an inflammation.

There is nothing to touch the spectacle. In the midst of what seems a collective derangement of minds in total disorder, with bits of information being scattered about, torn to shreds, disintegrated, deconstituted, engulfed, in a kind of activity that seems as random and agitated as that of bees in a disturbed part of the hive, there suddenly emerges, with the purity of a slow phrase of music, a single new piece of truth about nature.

In short, it works. It is the most powerful and productive of the things human beings have learned to do together in many centuries, more effective than farming, or hunting and fishing, or building cathedrals, or making money. It is instinctive behavior, in my view, and I do not understand how it works.

It cannot be prearranged in any precise way; the minds cannot be lined up in tidy rows and given directions from printed sheets. You cannot get it done by instructing each mind to make this or that piece, for central committees to fit with the pieces made by the other instructed minds. It does not work this way.

What it needs is for the air to be made right. If you want a bee to make honey, you do not issue protocols on solar navigation or carbohydrate chemistry, you put him together with other bees (and you’d better do this quickly, for solitary bees do not stay alive) and you do what you can to arrange the general environment around the hive. If the air is right, the science will come in its own season, like pure honey.

Still Interested? Check out another great biologist, E.O. Wilson, writing about his experiences in science, or yet another, Richard Dawkins, writing about why chain letters work as a method for understanding natural selection.

Don’t Get “Should” Mixed Up with “Is”

The hardest truth to swallow is that the world isn’t really fair, and it isn’t a world you’d necessarily draw up from scratch. It’s not usually what you suppose it should be. None of what’s around us came about by grand design: From a spark many billion years ago, things evolved in a fairly undirected manner (as far as we can tell).

When the world doesn’t quite agree with our ideas, we often begin distorting our own cognition. We confuse should with is, and then complain or rationalize when reality shows we’ve gotten the wrong answer.

The history of Marxist political ideology is a pretty good example. It’s not unreasonable to think that the world should, in some cosmic sense, be a bit more egalitarian. We’re all born and we all die just the same — why should some among us enjoy the spoils while some among us wallow? Capitalism encourages that outcome to an extent, and it sometimes accidentally rewards behavior that is anti-social or simply not adding anything to the world. (A thousand derivatives traders and casino operators just cringed.)

The problem is that reality is way more complex than a simple fairness test would hope to show.

A really large-scale egalitarian society has never worked for a few interrelated reasons, chief among them that: groups don’t have power, people have power (raising the question, who specifically decides how to allocate society’s resources?); utopia doesn’t scale; market forces provide very effective carrots, sticks, and signals that directed egalitarianism lacks, among other reasons. Reaching for extreme levelness in outcomes has always been deeply problematic and always will be, because that’s how reality is constructed.

Inevitably when certain people who get into power run the experiment again, and it does not work as intended, its deepest acolytes return to first principles instead of acknowledging a flawed premise. Well, that wasn’t real Marxism. Yes the proposed system of economic distribution didn’t work, but that’s not our fault. It still should be this way. Things should be fairer. We just did it wrong. Let’s run it again!

Results like that show the brain performing some real acrobatics to keep its desired and cherished idea intact. The Greek statesman Demosthenes, living about 350 years before the birth of Christ, put it best by saying “What a man wishes, he also believes.” In other words, because we want it to be true, we make it so in our minds, evidence be damned.

We’re all subject to this bias from time to time.

In the financial world, many an investor has seen his investment go south only to complain about how unfair the damn world is, how things shouldn’t have gone that way — the CEO should have been more attentive, the creditors should have been more fair, competitors should have been more rational. It’s not supposed to go like this! Far from the investor’s mind is the thought that he simply misdiagnosed a complex situation with a range of outcomes, including bad ones. But reality is irreducibly complicated — it doesn’t ignore things just because you do. It isn’t supposed to be anything. It’s just hard.

This isn’t to be harsh. It’s just the way things are. It’s not about you. Nature just doesn’t care too much about your should.

This happens in relationships all the time. It’s almost an iron rule of life that marrying someone with the intent of changing them is not going to work. Who wants to be chiseled, molded, and nagged by their spouse? Who’s really been successful at that? Most of us seek acceptance, and when we don’t get it, we fight for our independence. That’s just human nature.

And yet how many divorces happen due to traits that were plainly present before the marriage began? Is a continuation of long-held traits the fault of the non-compliant spouse, or was there a willful misunderstanding from Day 1?

That’s not to say that a good spouse shouldn’t work to improve themselves. Of course they should. It is a recognition of the base rate that major improvements are not very common.

Think of the last major personality flaw you had that you actually shed for good. I’ll wait…

And so our lack of understanding human nature and of the complex reality leads us to bad results, frequently because we wish the world was another way. We think it ought to be another way, and we keep that conclusion even after the world shows us we’re wrong, leading to one mistake after another as we rationalize repeated errors with ought style thinking.

Start resolving to test yourself with the basic question: Do I believe this because I wish it was so, or because it actually is so? Have I acted in some way because I wish that action caused success, or because it actually does? If you can’t tell the difference, it’s likely to be wishful. And if you simply don’t know, then leave it at that: You don’t know. Resolve to find out the truth as best you can.

Instead of beating our heads against the wall, we should spend more time trying to understand the world as it is, and live accordingly. Or, in the brilliant words of Joseph Tussman:

“What the pupil must learn, if he learns anything at all, is that the world will do most of the work for you, provided you cooperate with it by identifying how it really works and aligning with those realities. If we do not let the world teach us, it teaches us a lesson.”

Still Interested? Check out some related posts:

The Powerful Predictor Behind Successful Relationships — When does a broken relationship start to go wrong? Whatever you’re thinking — an awkward conversation with your boss, the white lie you told about being busy that was discovered, the time you were supposed to be out with friends but were really somewhere else — you’re probably wrong.

Recognizing Our Flaws is The Beginning of Wisdom — “We are drunks looking for our lost keys under a lamppost not because that’s where we lost our keys but because that’s where the light is.”

How to Provide Great Feedback When You’re Not In Charge

How often do we give deep thought to how we provide feedback to others? It seems like something we’d all obviously like to do well, but most of the time we stink at it.

When was the last time you really felt your feedback improved someone else’s life, whether it was your spouse’s cooking or your employee’s performance?

The problem is that we forget we’re giving feedback to a fellow human being, not an advice-taking robot. Even when we’re well-intentioned, the message gets lost in the transmission. It’s like the old saying “What counts is not what’s said, but what’s heard.” We respond emotionally to criticism, even if it’s just implied criticism. (Are you sure you still fit into that dress?) This makes it difficult to help others improve. In other words, we fail to understand and appreciate human nature.

Roger Fisher and Alan Sharp address this very effectively in their book Getting it Done: How to Lead When You’re Not in Charge. The major idea is that while we think feedback is feedback, there are really three distinct types of feedback, and each needs to be used appropriately to effectively help others.

There are at least three different kinds of feedback that may be appropriate in a given situation:

  • APPRECIATION is expression of gratitude or approval of another’s effort. It is an expression of emotion, designed to meet an emotional need.
  • ADVICE (or COACHING) consists of suggestions about particular behavior that should be repeated or changed. It focuses on the performance, rather than judging the person.
  • EVALUATION is ranking the subject’s performance in relation to that of others or against an explicit or implicit set of standards.

The habit you want to develop is to know your purposes when you offer feedback, and to make your comments in a form appropriate to accomplishing that purpose.

This is a very valuable framework because it brings our motivations to the surface.

Are we trying to show appreciation, offer advice, or offer an evaluation? (As in a grade or a performance review.) We think we can do it all at the same time, but that tends to be counter-productive. Take for example a professor handing out grades:

A college professor spends a large part of her weekend writing exhaustive comments on a student’s paper. When it is handed back, the student flips to the last page to see the grade. If he gets an A, he is overjoyed. If he gets a C he mopes the rest of the day, muttering that the grade was unfair. In either case, he spends little time trying to learn from all the suggestions the professor had made. The emotional impact of being graded tends to drown out the advice on improving performance.

The emotions involved in receiving your evaluation — good or bad — trumps the value of the coaching. The two objectives are at cross-purposes. And thus we must learn to use them more strategically.

It is best to offer different kinds of feedback at different times. At the very least, you should explicitly signal when you move from one purpose to another. Above all, it helps to separate both advice and appreciation from the anxiety that typically accompanies a performance review — evaluation. Most times, evaluation is the one that is least likely to be helpful, and most likely to distract from your other two purposes.

Here are a few specific ways we can go about separating the various methods of feedback and using them more judiciously.

1. Express Appreciation to Motivate

When should you offer appreciation? Always. It’s always a good time to spend a moment boosting someone else’s mood, and thus boosting their productivity. The cost is low: it takes only a minute to drop by someone’s office and say, “I’m grateful for your hard work.”

This, of course, mirrors the old Dale Carnegie saying “Be hearty in your approbations and lavish in your praise.” Who doesn’t want to feel appreciated, regardless of their level of work? This a deep emotional need, and one that’s very easy to meet. Charlie Munger once said that withholding deserved praise was basically immoral. Once we realize that expressing appreciation can be separated from offering useful feedback or constructive criticism, we’re free to offer it without risking a chance to push for specific improvement.

It’s also key that we offer honest praise. Most of us can see through false praise, and it tends to backfire. Telling someone who obviously failed that they “Did a great job!” is not a good idea, even if it sounds nice. Instead, try telling them that they obviously tried hard and that you appreciated their work, and then asking if they’d like your advice to help improve it. That way you’ve offered honest appreciation and help without the empty flattery.

2. Offer Advice to Improve Performance

In the appreciation phase, we were trying to direct our comments at the person directly: I value you and I value your effort. It has not gone unnoticed.

The advice phase is different — we want to talk about the task. A mentor of mine frequently called this “Separating the issues from the people” or being “Hard on the issues, easy on the people.” Either way, we’re trying to build the person up emotionally while also improving their performance. The key is to be specific.

The more general the coaching advice, the more it is taken as a personal indictment, rather than a professional analysis of the behavior…Telling someone “good job” doesn’t help him know which particular things to repeat. Specificity allows others to understand what exactly you saw them do, and why you liked it. That makes it more likely that they will make it part of their own thinking…Remember, the goal is to find better methods, not to be right. Sharing the specific data makes us partners in the job of finding better methods.

Notice the subtle shift of emphasis: “Let’s find better methods together” works better than “You suck and here’s why.”

The two specific categories of feedback we want to offer are reinforcements of what worked well and suggestions on what could be done differently. We tend to focus heavily on the latter, while too frequently ignoring our responsibility to reinforce what worked. If we spend time in both categories, being specific and backing our conclusions up with sound reasoning, we can help the person feel better about themselves while hopefully encouraging them to change specific aspects of their performance.

Skip the generic back-patting (“You did great!”) and tell them specifically what they did well: “You handled that conversation so calmly that the customer clearly knew you were on their side. I think that went a long way towards increasing their comfort with us and closing the deal.” Only then do we want to proceed to explain which changes can be made.

Each step in the process — offering appreciation, reinforcing what went well, encouraging togetherness — softens the final blow of “here’s what you might change.” This is how we increase the chance of our message being transmitted successfully. We must always put ourselves in the shoes of the feedback-receiver.

3. Evaluate Only When Needed

This is a simple one: Evaluation is frequently not the best way to improve performance. If we separate coaching from evaluation, as discussed above, this becomes more clear. We don’t need to assign performance grades all the time if we’re constantly reinforcing good habits and discouraging bad ones in an effective way. Immediate and clear feedback is so much more effective than a delayed performance review.

Reviews will, of course, be necessary at times when we must make tangible decisions about personnel — hiring, firing, promoting, etc. In those cases, make the evaluation swift and fair. Otherwise, steer clear of using evaluation as your main tool for improvement and motivation unless you’re specifically trying to deliver a message.

Evaluation is sometimes needed to give somebody a “kick in the pants” — to make them try harder. In selecting which of a dozen law students in an advanced negotiation seminar should be invited to become teaching assistants, Roger once asked all twelve to rank anonymously everyone in their class for their ability to be a good teaching assistant. No opportunity was given for collusion or bargaining. Eleven of the students ranked one student as number twelve, and one ranked that student as number one. The results suggested that that student needed some candid evaluation of how he was doing.

4. Take the First Fall

In the end, what we really want to do as leaders, whether we’re technically in a leadership position or not, is to create an environment where feedback is shared in a helpful and useful way. The best way to do that besides giving great feedback is volunteering to take some as well. As they say in Aikido, be willing to “Take the first fall.”

The best way to create an atmosphere in which coaching is shared is not to put someone else in the hot seat, but to volunteer to take it yourself. You can encourage others, whether bosses, colleagues, or subordinates, by asking for their observations about your performance. A request for coaching will have the most impact on people at your level or below. If you want your subordinates to ask for feedback from their subordinates, the best thing you can do is to show them that you are willing to do so as well.

Still Interested? Check out Getting it Done by Roger Fisher and Alan Sharp, or Getting to Yes, the best-selling and most useful book on negotiation ever produced.

Do Something Syndrome: Why Movement Trumps Results

Petronius_Arbiter_by_Bodart_1707

Solving problems almost always starts with ensuring you’re solving the actual problem. When the actions we should take are not obvious, or the problem is difficult, it’s easy to feel the need to do something … anything. We convince ourselves that motion is better than inaction. The choice, however, isn’t between action and inaction. This is a false duality. There is a third option that often makes the most sense.

“We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form into teams, we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing, and what a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.”

— Roman satirist Petronius Arbiter

There is something almost poetic in the way that Petronius (27 AD — 66 AD) so succinctly captures a phenomenon that most of us have been through.

Poorly performing organizations or divisions reorganize all the time. Sometimes the source of the problem is the organization, more often than not, however, reorganizations offer little impact on the results.

Consider taking charge of a poorly performing division at work. The pressure to deliver is high. You’re told this is your big opportunity. You’re advised to take charge and lead. You’ve been taught that doing something is the same as results, so you naturally mistake movement for results. So it’s only natural that you come up with a plan to move the boxes around and reorganize the division.

Movement offers shelter from failure. When you’re in motion, you feel like you’re doing something. We convince ourselves that as long as we’re in motion, we can’t fail. As long as we’re doing something, anything, failure can’t really find us.

Movement feeds our ego. Our evolutionary programming craves the validation of others. In a world that values action and short soundbites, nuanced conversations are hard. Others don’t have time to really listen to your nuanced story as they run to their next meeting. And telling people that you’re doing nothing results in disapproving looks. Movement offers the drug of validation to the outside world. It is far easier to tell others that we’re doing something than doing nothing. And so we do.

Perhaps a few examples will help illustrate the concept. First, consider the person we all know that is always planning to start a business. Planning is doing something. It’s action. We can tell others about our dreams, and as long as we’re planning we never risk failure. Second, consider the person who has been writing a book for years. The movement of editing and refining serve a purpose, of course, but when that purpose becomes an end we never get results.  There is no risk of failure if you don’t publish your work. Finally, consider the person that wants to get a promotion at work. They take on so many new projects they are always too busy to apply for that promotion. They’re busy but they aren’t getting the results they want.

Movement teases us with the illusion of progress. However, action for the sake of action that results in success is nothing more than dumb luck. And Confusing movement with results often makes things worse, not better.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather make success a little less about luck every day.

Motion is easy. Results are hard.

Preparations are necessary but not sufficient for achieving results. The actions we take are often just preparations for what we really want to accomplish. We read a diet book instead of dieting. We learn how to use Shopify or Woo commerce instead of starting a store. When we confuse preparations with the end instead of the means, we really trick ourselves.

Maybe Pascal was right when he said, “The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” And yet this inability to sit quietly serves us as well. You wouldn’t be reading this right now if the people who made your device sat quietly in a room. As with everything, it’s not black and white. We have to learn when sitting quietly in a room serves us and when it hurts us.

Doing something isn’t the same as getting results. The problem is we convince ourselves that our only options are to do something or do nothing. We forget the third option, gathering more information. While there will always be pressure to do something immediately with urgency, most of the time that action will be wasted. We’d be much better off if we stop for a moment and gather more information before acting.

The next time you feel the urge to do something for the sake of doing something remember what Thoreau said: “It is not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?”

Ten Techniques for Quickly Building Trust With Anyone

**Warning – the content of this post is so effective that I encourage you to think carefully how it is used. I do not endorse or condone the use of these skills in malicious or deceptive ways**

I’m not quite sure how I came across Robin Dreeke‘s It’s Not All About Me: Ten Techniques for Building Quick Rapport With Anyone but I’m glad I did.

Robin is the lead instructor at the FBI’s Counterintelligence Training Center in all behavioral and interpersonal skills training. And he wrote an awesome book on how to master the skills of communication.

The FBI process not only includes research into social and evolutionary psychology, but it’s been honed from years of field experience.

I’ve been trying these out over the last few days and I’ve already noticed an improvement. Most importantly, I’ve put away my phone and focused on the person with whom I’m talking. The simple act of giving your undivided attention makes a huge difference.

There are not many places that teach these techniques and I couldn’t have asked for a better guide than Robin.

1. Establishing Artificial Time Constraints

I suspect you’ve sat in a bar at one point or another and been approached by a stranger who tried to start a conversation. My guess is you felt awkward or possibly even uncomfortable. This is because you didn’t know when or if the conversation would end.

The first step in the process of developing great rapport and having great conversations is letting the other person know that there is an end in sight, and it is really close.

When you approach someone to start a conversation most people assess the situation for threat before anything else.

Humans have genetically survived because of this. This is a strong reason why these techniques work; they are specifically designed to lower the perceived risk to a stranger.

2. Accommodating Nonverbals

This is a pretty simple one. You want to look non-threatening. The number one nonverbal technique to use to look more accommodating is to smile.

This isn’t new. It’s the second of six principles in Dale Carnegie’s book, How to Win Friends and Influence People.

You can, however, accentuate your smile in a subtle way.

Adding a slight head tilt shows the other person that you have comfort with them and trust them. Another nonverbal to try and maintain is a slightly lower chin angle.

High chin angles make someone feel like you’re looking down at them.

Another key nonverbal is body angle. Standing toe to toe with someone else can be intimidating.

A slight body angle or blade away from the individual you are engaging will present a much more accommodating nonverbal.

How you shake hands matters too.

An accommodating handshake is one that matches the strength of the other, and also takes more of a palm up angle.

3. Slower Rate of Speech

Speaking fast may mean you’re excited. It may even mean that you know what you’re talking about. However speaking slowly gives you more credibility.

Whenever I have a conversation that I believe is important for me to be credible in my content, I purposely slow down the delivery and take pauses for people to absorb the content of what I have just said.

4. Sympathy or Assistance Theme

If you’re like most people, you’ve felt a bit of regret for turning down someone seeking help.

Think for a moment about the times in your life when you have either sought assistance or been asked to provide it. When the request is simple, of limited duration, and non-threatening, we are more inclined to accommodate the request. As human beings, we are biologically conditioned to accommodate requests for assistance. The compulsion is based upon the fact that our ancient ancestors knew that if they did not provide assistance when asked, the assistance would not be granted to them if requested at a later date.

5. Ego Suspension

This may be the most rewarding and most difficult of all of Robin’s techniques.

Suspending your ego is nothing more complex than putting other individuals’ wants, needs, and perceptions of reality ahead of your own. Most times, when two individuals engage in a conversation, each patiently waits for the other person to be done with whatever story he or she is telling. Then, the other person tells his or her own story, usually on a related topic and often times in an attempt to have a better and more interesting story. Individuals practicing good ego suspension would continue to encourage the other individual to talk about his or her story, neglecting their own need to share what they think is a great story.

6. Validate Others

There are many types of validation. Robin identifies three of them.

  1. Listening. This is the simplest and one of the most effective. Just listen to someone can produce amazing results. Where we run into problems is keeping our own thoughts, ideas, and stories out of the conversation. “True validation coupled with ego suspension means that you have no story to offer, that you are there simply to hear theirs.” And there is another benefit. When the focus is on the other person and we’re not anxious to tell our own story, we also tend to remember the details. We’re mindful.
  2. Thoughtfulness “.. few people naturally use this to its fullest potential, and, most of the time, we don’t realize when it is being used; all we know is we really like the person who gives it.” Demonstrating thoughtfulness in words and actions with everyone in our lives is a simple and effective way to improve our relationships.
  3. Validate Thoughts and Opinions. This technique is quite difficult because of “our innate need to correct others and the difficulty we have suppressing our own egos.” But if you remember that we like people who are like us, you’ll immediately grasp the power of validating thoughts and opinions of others.

The best way to get someone to do what you want them to do is to have them come up with the idea. And the best way to have them come up with your idea is, no surprise, to honestly understand the other person’s point of view and then build upon that base with your ideas.

7. Ask … How? When? Why?

It’s hard to answer these questions with a simple yes or no.

Once the individual being targeted in the conversation supplies more words and thoughts, a great conversationalist will utilize the content given and continue to ask open ended questions about the same content. The entire time, the individual being targeted is the one supplying the content of the conversation.

This means suppressing your ego and listening to what people are saying. You’re not thinking about what you’re going to say next. You’re not thinking about how the person is wrong. If you’re really listening then asking open ended questions based on the content of what they are saying should be pretty easy.

8. Connect with Quid Pro Quo

In the context of a conversation, this means giving up a little information about yourself in order to further the conversation and get a little from others.

In my experiences, there are really only two types of situations where I have utilized quid pro quo. The first and more common of the instances is when you attempt to converse with someone who is either very introverted, guarded, or both. The second instance is when the person you are conversing with suddenly becomes very aware about how much they have been speaking, and they suddenly feel awkward. In both instances, giving a little information about you will help alleviate some of the issues.

9. Gift Giving

This is conversational reciprocation in action.

Great rapport builders and conversationalists use this desire proactively during every conversation. This technique, coupled with ego suspension, are the cornerstones for building great relationships. This is also the easiest technique to utilize, because gifts come in many forms, from non-material compliments, to tangible material gifts. Gift giving, or reciprocal altruism, is hardwired in our genetics.

The key is to do this without an agenda. If you have an agenda you’ll come across as insincere.

10. Manage Expectations

Regardless of the situation, whether it is an altruistic intention or not, there is an agenda. The individuals in life that are able to either mask their agenda or shift the agenda to something altruistic will have great success at building rapport.

The surest way to avoid disappointment is to lower expectations.

If you’re looking to improve the connections you have with others, give it a read.

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