Tag: Relationships

You’re Only As Good As Your Worst Day

We tend to measure performance by what happens when things are going well. Yet how people, organizations, companies, leaders, and other things do on their best day isn’t all that instructive. To find the truth, we need to look at what happens on the worst day.

“Anyone can steer the ship when the sea is calm. ”—Publilius Syrus

We laud athletes on a winning streak, startups with a skyrocketing valuation, hedge funds seeing record-breaking returns, and so on. But it’s easy to look good when everything goes according to plan and circumstances are calm. Anyone can succeed for a while, even if it’s just out of pure luck. It’s no great feat to do well if you’re not being challenged or tested. Watching what happens during a downswing is far more instructive.

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Products and services are only as good as they are when they break, not when everything is functioning fine.

When a program stops working, do you face a baffling error message with no further guidance or clear instructions for how to get help? Is customer service quick and easy to access at any time or does it require you to jump through endless convoluted hoops? Even if you’ve had a positive view of a product or service for years, a problem that takes forever to fix or a hostile response when you ask for help will no doubt make you take your business elsewhere.

From a customer standpoint, companies are only as good as how they behave in a public relations crisis.

Do they shirk blame and try to pin it elsewhere or do they take responsibility? Do they try to cover up what happened or do they come forward with the full truth? Do they ignore any damages or do they promise to make things better for everyone affected—no matter the cost? Reputations are fragile. One incident of bad behavior will linger in the minds of customers for a long time.

From a financial standpoint, companies prove their worth when they show how they cope when something fundamental changes in the market or there’s a financial crisis.

Do they keep persisting with the old business model under the illusion that what worked before should work again or do they reimagine their approach? Do they fire staff to preserve CEO bonuses or do they play the long game to ensure they’ll be able to attract top talent in the future? Do they crumble when there’s a powerful new competitor or do they rise to the challenge? Like companies, investors might be able to perform well in ideal conditions due to luck. But when the market crashes and there’s blood in the streets, very few will know how to cope or be prepared. Only the smartest will know how to survive or even profit.

Leaders are only as good as how they lead during times of uncertainty and fear.

Do they hide away from public sight or do they serve as a reassuring, sympathetic presence that brings everyone together? Do they do what’s defensible or what’s best for everyone in the long run? Are they forced to react in the moment or were they already prepared? Ask anyone to name the finest leaders in the history of their country and they’re not likely to name those who were in power during calm, peaceful times. They’ll name those who were at the helm during wars, economic crises, pandemics, natural disasters, and so on—those who never wavered from a vision and whose consistent, empathetic appearances gave people a sense of hope.

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As individuals, we tell people the most about who we are when everything goes wrong. These times are also when we stand to learn the most about ourselves.

Your kids might not remember how you behaved on a relaxed, sunny Saturday when work went well all week and you had little on your mind beyond playing with them. But they’re sure to remember how you behaved on the day when you’d lost your job due to a recession, you’d just had an argument with your partner, an unexpected bill arrived in the mail that morning, and then someone spilled spaghetti sauce on the couch. That’s the day when your behavior has the most to show them about what to model in the future.

Your partner might not remember how you treated them when you were lying on a beach on holiday together with all of your worries far away and a good book in hand. But they’re sure to remember how you treated them when you had your worst disagreement ever, over a problem that seemed insurmountable and involved complex emotions. That’s the moment when they might well make a decision about whether they’re in this for the long haul.

Your boss might not remember the work you did on an average week when everything went to plan. But they’re sure to remember the time when you stepped up, stretched the limits of your abilities, and delivered what seemed impossible at short notice while everything around you was on fire. That’s what they’ll recall when thinking about what you’re capable of.

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You’re only as good as your worst day. Not because what you do the rest of the time doesn’t matter. Not because you should be expected to be perfect under immense stress or to behave according to plan when everything goes awry. But because what you do on your worst day is impossible to fake. It’s honest signaling. There’s little time for posturing or stalling. On your worst day, you reveal whether you’ve been planning for the possibility of disaster or just coasting along enjoying the good times. Your plans and preparation (or lack thereof) show how much you really care about the people who depend on you. You get to build and strengthen bonds in ways that will last a lifetime, or you risk destroying relationships in moments. You get to build trust and respect or you might break what you have irreparably.

Your worst day is a chance to show your best qualities, to stand out, and to learn an enormous amount about yourself. Very few people plan or prepare for what they’ll do and how they’ll act during those times. Those who do might well end up turning their worst day into their best.

Is Vulnerability a Choice?

Being vulnerable is not a choice. It’s a reality of living. What we do with that vulnerability can either open doors to deeper connection, or throw up walls that stifle growth and fulfillment.

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Vulnerability: the quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally.

Given the potential consequences, why would anyone ever choose to be vulnerable? Who wants to risk an emotional or physical attack?

At the basic biological level, it seems to make very little sense to be vulnerable. When we are, we can more easily get hurt. We can get physically maimed or killed by a predator. Emotional attacks can make us afraid of rejection. Since the vast majority of us don’t want to die and instead pass on our genes, avoiding vulnerability seems to make perfect sense. Be tough in order to increase your chances of a long life. Don’t give anyone the opportunity to hurt you.

However, humans usually want to do more than just survive. We focus on the quality of our lives as well. Yes, we want our lives to be long. But we also want them to be good.

Part of a good life is having good relationships. We are social creatures and live longer, healthier lives when we have people around us that we trust and love. We want to be around people who can make us laugh and help us through life’s inevitable hard times. Our lives are less stressful when we have people with whom we can relax and be authentic. Without genuine vulnerability, it’s impossible to build the types of relationships that can provide comfort and increase resilience. The risks of vulnerability may be high, but the rewards of positive, strong relationships are even higher.

The reality is, we are vulnerable in some way at all times. We are vulnerable to viruses and accidents, misunderstandings and the pain caused by our fears and anxieties. Vulnerability is a part of life for all of us. Having close relationships where we can be vulnerable is actually a way to reduce our overall weakness. As Dr. Sue Johnson said on The Knowledge Project, “We need connection with others like we need oxygen. We’re way too vulnerable without it.”

The only choice we really have when it comes to vulnerability is the choice to acknowledge it or not. There is no doubt it can be hard to be vulnerable, especially if we didn’t have positive experiences with it as children. But social connections sustain us, and meaningful social connections are hard to build and maintain without mutual vulnerability.

Some people constantly pretend they have no vulnerabilities. Those people are frustrating to be around. Why? Because everyone is vulnerable in some way, so we know that those who say they aren’t are lying. No one likes to spend time around people who can’t be honest. Furthermore, people who refuse to acknowledge their vulnerabilities (at least to themselves) don’t make great friends or partners because we can’t learn much from them to help us process our own vulnerabilities. Even if it’s hard to pinpoint, we sense something is missing in our interactions with them. They don’t trust us enough to risk hurt.

Someone who goes on about how everything in their life is okay can’t offer much insight into how to deal with things that are most definitely not okay. And someone who thinks they are infallible tends to blame others when things don’t work out. They can’t admit to being wrong, which is another drawback to having them as a friend.

In her TED talk on the subject, author Brené Brown says, “The more afraid we are, the more vulnerable we are, the more afraid we are.” We develop these lists of all the things we won’t do and all the ways in which we won’t engage with people in order to protect ourselves. Our vulnerabilities get registered as something that could be exploited to hurt us. So we put up big buffers of denial and anger because it seems that if we admit we are afraid of something, our whole lives are going to come crashing down as people rush in to take advantage of our weaknesses. Except that isn’t true.

When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable (most often to those we are closest to, but also occasionally to others when the situation would benefit from us putting ourselves out there), we can create amazing reciprocal interactions that empower all parties.

When we are able to say the following: “I don’t know,” “I made a mistake,” “I’m sorry for causing you pain,” “I’m scared,” “I cried last night,” or “I’m struggling with this,” we actually free up energy because we no longer have to put effort into maintaining our buffers and our illusions. When we open up and admit to our vulnerabilities, we give people the opportunity to safely admit to theirs as well. We might hear back: “I make mistakes all the time,” “I’m scared as well,” “I cry too,” or “I also struggle with that.” And in that shared space, we can let go of some of the fear and make room for a deeper connection. When we are vulnerable with someone who doesn’t judge us for it, we can grow stronger. We can become less affected by situations that normally cause us stress.

Most importantly, we strengthen our connection with the people we are sharing with.

Although someone may react by ridiculing you when you admit to a fear, a far more common reaction is respect for your bravery and a sigh of relief over a shared circumstance. Someone doesn’t have to share your particular fear to feel a connection. We’re all afraid of something, and by being honest about your fears, you have signaled that others can share their fears with you in return.

We have written before about the social media prism and how it distorts reality, leading most of us to believe we are the only ones whose lives suck sometimes. The endless posts about career successes and fabulous vacations are really a large-scale representation of the fear of vulnerability. Complex, varied lives become little more than a glittering highlight reel. We never get to see the outtakes.

But coming clean about the downs increases the value of sharing the ups. At the very least, it’s more relatable. We learn more through failure than we do through success. And since we can’t try everything, learning from others’ failures is exceptionally valuable. To just hear the story of the person who made it big and sold their company is not useful. To hear about their multiple failures, their trials, their stops and starts and all the times they doubted themselves—now that’s an insight worth sharing.

Being vulnerable starts with being honest with yourself. How can you get better if you can’t admit that you could be better? How are you going to be a better partner or friend if you can’t admit that sometimes you aren’t a great one? How will you learn from your mistakes if you don’t acknowledge making any?

When we share that vulnerability and find people we can be open with, we form valuable connections. After all, to really trust someone, we need to know if they are going to be there when we are vulnerable. As Dr. Sue Johnson explained on The Knowledge Project, “When you can be vulnerable for a moment, and that person tunes in and cares about your vulnerability, that’s the person to go with.” In this way, vulnerability can also serve as a litmus test for your close relationships. If you can’t be vulnerable with someone, why bother? What can you really get from a relationship in which you can never relax and be yourself?

When we have people with whom we can be vulnerable, we actually reduce our exposure to potential harm and improve the quality of our life. By putting ourselves out there and risking hurt, we often find that we create more meaningful interactions with the people in our lives. When we have people we can trust with our deepest vulnerabilities, we increase our ability to be resilient in the face of chance and change.

So Two Stoics Walk Into a Bar…

The first thing he ordered was OJ with a splash of vodka. When people come to the FS bar the first thing they did was order a drink so this didn’t seem out of the ordinary. But looking closely … this was no ordinary man.

Why was Seneca ordering a drink at the FS Bar? And who was that next to him? Is that Epictetus? It’s clear this was going to be no ordinary night at the FS bar.

It’s time to get to work.

***

(What follows is our imagined dialogue between Epictetus and Seneca, two essential contributors to Stoic thought, at the FS bar, presided over by an intellectually curious bartender, Kit.

Imagine: There is a slight breeze as the door opens. In walk Seneca and Epictetus. They are both dressed decently, but plainly. After taking a moment to adjust to the light, they each take a seat at the FS bar.)

***

Kit: Evening Gentlemen. What can I get you?

Epictetus: I’ll have an orange juice with a little vodka. Get my friend here a hemlock tea.

Seneca: Very humorous. I’ll have the same, please.

Kit: No problem. (She begins to mix the drinks)

Seneca turns to Epictetus, obviously continuing a conversation they had started earlier.

Seneca: I’m not sure I agree with you. Relationships don’t automatically interfere with our ability to be content. If you find someone who has the same approach to life as you, then it’s possible to share your life with them.

Epictetus: Ah, that makes me nervous. Other people, their decisions, their actions, are outside of our control. If we can’t walk away from relationships then we’re relying on things that we have no control over. And it’s impossible to be content like that.

Seneca: But surely a life without emotional attachment is not the kind of life that will provide contentment?

Epictetus: Why not?

(Seneca pauses to think about this.)

Seneca: It was nature’s intention that there should be no need of great equipment for a good life. Every individual can make himself happy. That implies that feeling something positive is the goal.

Epictetus: Yes, but happiness comes when you can generate it yourself. Like you said, everyone is born with the tools to make himself happy. You don’t need anything else in this world to achieve it. Money, stuff, or relationships.

Seneca: I guess the question then, is can you have something without needing it? Can you enjoy something without relying on it?

(pause while they both consider this)

Kit: And how are the screwdrivers Gentlemen?

Seneca: Exactly as they should be. Thank you.

Epictetus: You probably think our conversation isn’t very appropriate for a bar.

Kit: (smiles) Everything is appropriate for a bar. It’s a good place to work out your thoughts.

Seneca: What do you think? About my friend’s point that we should form no real attachments to anyone. Spouses. Children. Because we can never be truly content relying on anything outside of our control.

Kit: It sounds pretty impossible. If you didn’t care about anyone, why would you even bother getting married or having kids? What would be the point?

Seneca: Exactly! I think that relationships can play a crucial role in being content with your life. The goal is not to avoid feeling because it can cause pain, but accept that pain will inevitably come, and learn to deal with it with equanimity. And if you have a close relationship with someone who’s similar, you can find contentment with each other. It’s about enjoying relationships without becoming attached to them.

Epictetus: No, no. Denial is better than moderation. Wanting nothing means no one has power over you. As soon as you want a spouse, you compromise your ability to control your life.

Seneca: As soon as you desire anything, you compromise. But what if it’s not about wanting a spouse. Or children. What if it’s just about doing it if the opportunity presents itself, and then it becomes about loving the ones you have.

Kit: (who has continued to listen to their conversation due to a lack of other patrons) I think it would be really hard to not want your children to grow up and have great lives.

Epictetus: It’s not ‘wanting’ or ‘not wanting’. It’s not feeling anything at all beyond what you can control.

Kit: Is that even possible?

Epictetus: (shrugs) It’s something to work towards. (Sees Kit’s skeptical expression) Look, if you go buy a chocolate bar, it costs you a dollar. If you don’t buy it, you don’t have the chocolate bar, but you still have the dollar. You can’t both get something and not pay for it. It’s the same with relationships. You can’t derive benefit from them without it costing you to some degree. And if you don’t invest yourself in them, you’ll still have that effort available for yourself.

Seneca: I disagree. I think it is possible to love. You just can’t let yourself be controlled by it. It is desires that blind us to the truth. The wanting, not the being. You can and should love your children. But you must also be mindful of the precariousness of life, and not be amazed or devastated by the things that happen to them. A lot of bad shit happens in life, to us and the ones we love. The problem is that we are always surprised by it.

Epictetus: Ah, so when a little wine is stolen, don’t get upset. It’s the price you pay for tranquility.

Seneca: Right.

Kit: So, you just have to accept that your husband will leave you, and your children will die, that way when it happens you will just be like ‘oh, okay’?

Seneca: (shakes his head) Not quite. It’s more knowing that they could. See, it might not ever happen, but then again, it might. And if you start off accepting that fortune, or fate, or however you understand the world, brings both good and bad, then you will be able to still find contentment no matter what life throws at you.

Kit: Hmm. And does it work for you?

Seneca: (laughs) Sometimes.

Epictetus: I think it’s about trying to be one step removed from what’s happening. If you can recognize, for instance, that it’s not people who are irritating, but your judgment about their behavior that is irritating, then you create a space where you can change how you feel without needing anyone else to change.

Seneca: Yes. The more understanding and acceptance you have of the reality of living, the less you are impacted when circumstances knock you down.

Kit: Well, that I can get behind. Another drink?

Bayes and Deadweight: Using Statistics to Eject the Deadweight From Your Life

“[K]nowledge is indeed highly subjective, but we can quantify it with a bet. The amount we wager shows how much we believe in something.”

— Sharon Bertsch McGrayne

The quality of your life will, to a large extent, be decided by whom you elect to spend your time with. Supportive, caring, and funny are great attributes in friends and lovers. Unceasingly negative cynics who chip away at your self-esteem? We need to jettison those people as far and fast as we can.

The problem is, how do we identify these people who add nothing positive — or not enough positive — to our lives?

Few of us keep relationships with obvious assholes. There are always a few painfully terrible family members we have to put up with at weddings and funerals, but normally we choose whom we spend time with. And we’ve chosen these people because, at some point, our interactions with them felt good.

How, then, do we identify the deadweight? The people who are really dragging us down and who have a high probability of continuing to do so in the future? We can apply the general thinking tool called Bayesian Updating.

Bayes’s theorem can involve some complicated mathematics, but at its core lies a very simple premise. Probability estimates should start with what we already know about the world and then be incrementally updated as new information becomes available. Bayes can even help us when that information is relevant but subjective.

How? As McGrayne explains in the quote above, from The Theory That Would Not Die, you simply ask yourself to wager on the outcome.

Let’s take an easy example.

You are going on a blind date. You’ve been told all sorts of good things in advance — the person is attractive and funny and has a good job — so of course, you are excited. The date starts off great, living up to expectations. Halfway through you find out they have a cat. You hate cats. Given how well everything else is going, how much should this information affect your decision to keep dating?

Quantify your belief in the most probable outcome with a bet. How much would you wager that harmony on the pet issue is an accurate predictor of relationship success? Ten cents? Ten thousand dollars? Do the thought experiment. Imagine walking into a casino and placing a bet on the likelihood that this person’s having a cat will ultimately destroy the relationship. How much money would you take out of your savings and lay on the table? Your answer will give you an idea of how much to factor the cat into your decision-making process. If you wouldn’t part with a dime, then I wouldn’t worry about it.

This kind of approach can help us when it comes to evaluating our interpersonal relationships. Deciding if someone is a good friend, partner, or co-worker is full of subjective judgments. There is usually some contradictory information, and ultimately no one is perfect. So how do you decide who is worth keeping around?

Let’s start with friends. The longer a friendship lasts, the more likely it is to have ups and downs. The trick is to start quantifying these. A hit from a change in geographical proximity is radically different from a hit from betrayal — we need to factor these differences into our friendship formula.

This may seem obvious, but the truth is that we often give the same weight to a wide variety of behaviors. We’ll say things like “yeah, she talked about my health problems when I asked her not to, but she always remembers my birthday.” By treating all aspects of the friendship equally, we have a hard time making reasonable estimates about the future value of that friendship. And that’s how we end up with deadweight.

For the friend who has betrayed your confidence, what you really want to know is the likelihood that she’s going to do it again. Instead of trying to remember and analyze every interaction you’ve ever had, just imagine yourself betting on it. Go back to that casino and head to the friendship roulette wheel. Where would you put your money? All in on “She can’t keep her mouth shut” or a few chips on “Not likely to happen again”?

Using a rough Bayesian model in our heads, we’re forcing ourselves to quantify what “good” is and what “bad” is. How good? How bad? How likely? How unlikely? Until we do some (rough) guessing at these things, we’re making decisions much more poorly than we need to be.

The great thing about using Bayes’s theorem is that it encourages constant updating. It also encourages an open mind by giving us the chance to look at a situation from multiple angles. Maybe she really is sorry about the betrayal. Maybe she thought she was acting in your best interests. There are many possible explanations for her behavior and you can use Bayes’s theorem to integrate all of her later actions into your bet. If you find yourself reducing the amount of money you’d bet on further betrayal, you can accurately assume that the probability she will betray your trust again has gone down.

Using this strategy can also stop the endless rounds of asking why. Why did that co-worker steal my idea? Who else do I have to watch out for? This what-if thinking is paralyzing. You end up self-justifying your behavior by anticipating the worst possible scenarios you can imagine. Thus, you don’t change anything, and you step further away from a solution.

In reality, who cares? The why isn’t important; the most relevant task for you is to figure out the probability that your coworker will do it again. Don’t spend hours analyzing what to do, get upset over the doomsday scenarios you have come up with, or let a few glasses of wine soften the experience.

Head to your mental casino and place the bet, quantifying all the subjective information in your head that is messy and hard to articulate. You will cut through the endless “but maybes” and have a clear path forward that addresses the probable future. It may make sense to give him the benefit of the doubt. It may also be reasonable to avoid him as much as possible. When you figure out how much you would wager on the potential outcomes, you’ll know what to do.

Sometimes we can’t just get rid of people who aren’t good for us — family being the prime example. But you can also use Bayes to test how your actions will change the probability of outcomes to find ways of keeping the negativity minimal. Let’s say you have a cousin who always plans to visit but then cancels. You can’t stop being his cousin and saying “you aren’t welcome at my house” will cause a big family drama. So what else can you do?

Your initial equation — your probability estimate — indicates that the behavior is likely to continue. In your casino, you would comfortably bet your life savings that it will happen again. Now imagine ways in which you could change your behavior. Which of these would reduce your bet? You could have an honest conversation with him, telling him how his actions make you feel. To know if he’s able to openly receive this, consider whether your bet would change. Or would you wager significantly less after employing the strategy of always being busy when he calls to set up future visits?

And you can dig even deeper. Which of your behaviors would increase the probability that he actually comes? Which behaviors would increase the probability that he doesn’t bother making plans in the first place? Depending on how much you like him, you can steer your changes to the outcome you’d prefer.

Quantifying the subjective and using Bayes’s theorem can help us clear out some of the relationship negativity in our lives.

Hanlon’s Razor: Relax, Not Everything is Out to Get You

Hanlon’s Razor teaches us not to assume the worst intention in the actions of others. Understanding Hanlon’s Razor helps us see the world in a more positive light, stop negative assumptions, and improve relationships. Let’s take a look at some examples.

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If you ever feel that the world is against you, you are not alone.

We all have a tendency to assume that when anything goes wrong, the fault lies within some great conspiracy against us. A co-worker fails to give you a report in time? They must be trying to derail your career and beat you to a promotion. Your child drops and breaks an expensive plate? They must be trying to annoy you and waste your time. WiFi in a coffee shop not working? The staff must be lying about having it to lure you in and sample their crappy espresso.

But the simple fact is that these explanations which we tend to jump to are rarely true. Maybe your co-worker thought today was Tuesday, not Wednesday. Maybe your child had sticky hands from playing with play-doh. Maybe the WiFi router was just broken. This is where Hanlon’s razor comes in.

What is Hanlon’s Razor?

Hanlon’s Razor is a useful mental model which can be best summarized as:

‘Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by neglect.’

Like Occam’s razor, this heuristic is a useful tool for rapid decision-making and intelligent cognition.

Applying Hanlon’s razor in our day-to-day lives, allows us to better develop relationships, become less judgmental, and improves rationality. Hanlon’s razor allows us to give people the benefit of the doubt and have more empathy. In this way, the value of Hanlon’s razor is pronounced in relationships and business matters.

It’s a simple fact that most of us spend a large part of our day communicating with others and making choices based on that. We all lead complex lives wherein (as Murphy’s law states) things are constantly going wrong. When this occurs, a common response is to blame the nearest person and assume they have malicious intent. People are quick to accuse corporations, politicians, their bosses, employees, coffee shop workers and even family of trying to derail them. When someone messes up around us, we forget how many times we too have done the same. We forget how many times we have elbowed someone in the street, knocked over a drink at a relative’s house or forgotten to meet a friend at the right time. Instead, the perpetrator becomes a source of intense irritation.

To assume intent in such a situation is likely to worsen the problem. None of us can ever know what someone else wanted to happen. The smartest people make a lot of mistakes. Inability or neglect is far more likely to be the cause than malice. When a situation causes us to become angry or frustrated, it can be valuable to consider if those emotions are justified. Often, the best way to react to other people causing us problems is by seeking to educate them, not to disdain them. In this way, we can avoid repeats of the same situation.

Origins of Hanlon’s Razor

The phrase ‘Hanlon’s razor’ was coined by Robert J. Hanlon, but it has been voiced by many people throughout history, as far back as 1774.

Napoleon Bonaparte famously declared:

‘Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.’

Goethe wrote similarly in The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774:

Misunderstandings and neglect create more confusion in this world than trickery and malice. At any rate, the last two are certainly much less frequent.

The German general Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord used Hanlon’s razor to assess his men, saying:

I divide my officers into four groups. There are clever, diligent, stupid, and lazy officers. Usually two characteristics are combined. Some are clever and diligent – their place is the General Staff. The next lot are stupid and lazy – they make up 90 percent of every army and are suited to routine duties. Anyone who is both clever and lazy is qualified for the highest leadership duties, because he possesses the intellectual clarity and the composure necessary for difficult decisions. One must beware of anyone who is stupid and diligent – he must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will always cause only mischief.

The Place of Hanlon’s Razor in a Latticework of Knowledge

Hanlon’s razor works best when combined and contrasted with other mental models in our latticework of knowledge. Here are some examples of the useful interactions:

  • The availability heuristic. This mental model states we misjudge the frequency of recent events. In particular, this occurs if they are vivid and memorable. Many people have a tendency to keep an internal scorecard of other people’s mistakes. For example, imagine that a taxi driver takes a wrong turn and makes a journey more expensive. A month later, the same thing occurs with a different driver. We are likely to recall the previous event and react by seeing all taxi drivers as malicious. Instead of accepting both as simple mistakes, the availability of the memory makes us imagine malicious intent. By combining these two mental models, we can understand why certain situations provoke such strong emotions. When a memory is vivid and easy to recall, we may ignore Hanlon’s razor.
  • Confirmation bias. We all have a tendency to look for information which confirms preexisting beliefs. When cognitive dissonance arises, we aim to realign our worldviews. Overcoming confirmation bias is a huge step towards making better choices motivated by logic, not emotions. Hanlon’s razor assists with this. If we expect malicious intent, we are likely to attribute it wherever possible. For example, if someone sees a certain politician as corrupt, they will look for information which confirms that. They become unable to identify when mistakes are the result of incompetence or accident.
  • Bias from disliking/hating. Hanlon’s razor can provide insights when we deal with people, institutions, or entities which we dislike. The more we dislike someone or something, the more likely we are to attribute their actions to malice. When someone we dislike makes a mistake, reacting with empathy and understanding tends to be the last response. Acting in an emotional way is natural, yet immature. It can only worsen the situation. The smartest solution is, no matter how much we dislike someone, to assume neglect or incompetence.
  • We also like to attribute our own flaws and failures to someone else, which is a cheap psychological protective mechanism called projection. This allows us to maintain a positive self-image and view friction as someone else’s fault rather than our own. It’s best to run a reality check before blaming others.

Hanlon's Razor Mental Model

The Uses of Hanlon’s Razor

The Media

Modern media treats outrage as a profitable commodity. This often takes the form of articles which attribute malice to that which could be explained by incompetence or ignorance. We see examples of this play out in the media multiple times a day. People rush to take offense at anything which contradicts their worldview or which they imagine to do so. Media outlets are becoming increasingly skilled at generating assumptions of malicious intent. When looking at newspapers, websites, and social media, it can be beneficial to apply Hanlon’s razor to what we see.

For example, when Apple’s Siri voice search launched, people noticed that it could not search for abortion clinics. This was immediately taken up as proof of misogyny within the company when in fact, a programming error caused the problem.

A similar issue has occurred a number of times with YouTube content policies. When videos discussing LGBTQ matters were filtered on the restrictive viewing mode, many people took extreme offense at this. The reality is that again, this was an algorithm error and not a case of homophobia on the part of their programmers. Countless videos which do not discuss anything related to LGBTQ issues have also been filtered. This shows it to be a case of confirmation bias, wherein people see the malice they expect to see.

Communication and Relationships

One of the most valuable uses of Hanlon’s razor is in relationships and communication. It is common for people to damage relationships by believing other people are intentionally trying to cause problems for them, or behaving in a way intended to be annoying. In most cases, these situations are the result of inability or accidental mistakes.

Douglas Hubbard expanded upon the idea in Failure of Risk Management: Why it’s Broken and How to Fix it:

I would add a clumsier but more accurate corollary to this: ‘Never attribute to malice or stupidity that which can be explained by moderately rational individuals following incentives in a complex system of interactions.’ People behaving with no central coordination and acting in their own best interest can still create results that appear to some to be clear proof of conspiracy or a plague of ignorance.

A further example can be seen when semantic barriers interfere with communication. We have all encountered people struggling to speak our native language, perhaps because they are a tourist or have recently moved to the county. You have probably seen someone gets frustrated at them or even been the one getting annoyed. Or if you have ever traveled to or lived in a country where you are not fluent in the language, you might have been the one people got annoyed at. Realistically, the person asking you for directions or struggling to order their coffee is not mixing up their nouns and speaking in a strong accent on purpose.

Hanlon’s razor tells us they are merely inarticulate and are not trying to waste anyone’s time. The same issues occur when a person uses language which is considered too complex or too basic. This may form a semantic barrier, as other people assume they are trying to confuse them or are being blunt.

A short-cut to regulating what can be strong reactions to inadvertent events is to conscientiously reframe the perpetrator as a toddler knocking over a vase. Their actions are rendered unintentional and clumsy, highlighting their need for help, maturation or supervision, allowing you to rapidly regain composure and not take it personally.

Exceptions and Issues

Like any mental model, Hanlon’s razor has its limitations and its validity has been contested. Some critics consider Hanlon’s razor to be an overly naive idea which can blind people to true malice. While people have malicious intent far less often than we think, it is still something which must be taken into account. Sometimes actions which could be attributed to incompetence are in fact consciously or unconsciously malicious.

An instance of Hanlon’s razor being proven wrong is the mafia. Prior to the 1960s, the existence of the mafia was considered to be a conspiracy theory. Only when a member contacted law enforcement, did police realize that the malice being perpetrated was carefully orchestrated.

To make the best use of Hanlon’s razor, we must be sure to put it in context, taking into account logic, experience, and empirical evidence. Make it a part of your latticework of mental models, but do not be blind to behavior which is intended to be harmful.

Roger Fisher on a Better Way to Negotiate, Part 2

In Part 1 of our series on the best-selling negotiation book Getting to Yes, we covered Roger Fisher’s four-part framework on Principled Negotiation — his “way out” of highly contentious negotiation. To review, the four parts were as follows:

  1. Separate the People from the Problem
  2. Focus on Interests, Not Positions
  3. Invent Options for Mutual Gain
  4. Insist on Objective Criteria

Habitual use of these four criteria is a way to build, or at least not destroy, win-win relationships in the process of negotiation. The truth is we all must negotiate from time to time. Refusing to negotiate is a strategy in and of itself — and usually a pretty bad one relative to the alternatives.

Fisher’s framework brings up some obvious follow-on questions: What if the other side is more powerful? What if they refuse to play by your rules? What if they play dirty?

Let’s check out a few.

(Don’t want to read online? Purchase a sexy PDF of the two-part series for only $3.99.)

Negotiate Fairly

What if they are more Powerful?

We’re all afraid of being taken advantage of in a negotiation. Our tendency to demand fairness is a big part of it, as is our tendency to try to minimize future regret. In a negotiation with a more “powerful” part, it would seem at times like our only play is to make a stand — demand that they meet us or we will not negotiate. That turns out to be a bad play sometimes, and completely unnecessary at other times.

To combat this, Roger Fisher introduced a concept that a lot of people know the name of but not how to use: the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. He addresses the basic problem of powerlessness first:

In response to power, the most any method of negotiation can do is to meet two objectives: first, to protect you against making an agreement you should reject and second, to help you make the most of the assets you do have so that any agreement you reach will satisfy your interest as well as possible.

The common tactics are to either cave very easily, thus ending the negotiation and any possible bitterness, or to set a “bottom line” and walk away if it’s not met. They’re both weak responses: The “softie” tactic almost assures you’ll take a deal that’s not in your best interest, while the “bottom line” mentality makes you rigid, unable to learn and adapt during the negotiation process and probably too focused on one single variable at the expense of other ones. (Lack of creativity.)

The better approach to understand your BATNABest Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. It’s simple to understand in the context of a job offer negotiation: If you lose this negotiation, what alternatives do you have? If you set your “bottom line” too high and you lose, are you on the street? Or, do you have a great second or third option to go to?

While the BATNA acronym is useful and explanatory, it’s really just a dressed-up version of the elementary concept we call opportunity cost, which is constantly at play in life. Realizing that opportunity cost is a “superpower” in negotiation, we can derive the following:

  1. He with the best opportunity cost holds the power. Let’s say you’re negotiating with a large car dealership over the price of a new sedan. Who holds the power? On the surface it might look like the dealer does, given their stature in power. But if you have three dealerships in a 30-mile radius which can sell you the same car, the power is yours, not the dealer’s. When you enter into negotiation, you can almost always afford to lose and go down the street to another dealership, find a different type of car to buy, change your mind and go used, or even keep your current car longer. (That’s one reason why the car business is such a tough one.) Point being, size does not = power. Opportunity cost = power.
  2. Developing alternative opportunities is the way to gain power. If you’re afraid you’re entering into a job negotiation with no power, your best bet probably isn’t to play hardball, it’s to develop other job offers, or even figure out if you can afford to start your own business. Once you can afford to walk away, the power shifts at least slightly. Raise your opportunity cost bar to shift the odds and make the negotiation a little more fair.
  3. Think about their opportunity cost as much as your own. Can they afford to lose? If not, you probably have more power than you think.
  4. If they win the opportunity cost battle, argue on merit. Roger Fisher makes this final point well: To the extent that they have muscle and you have principle, the larger a role you can establish for principle, the better off you are. If your opportunity costs are weak, you must resort to making it clear that the house is objectively worth X, that you deserve to be paid Y, or that a drawn-out fight will only ruin your relationship. This goes back to insisting on objective criteria.

What if they Won’t Play?

A problem arises if you aren’t successful in shifting the negotiation to objective criteria or creating win-wins. Sometimes the other side simply takes a position and stubbornly (often irrationally) holds their ground. What then? There are two approaches.

The first tactic Fisher argues for is Negotiation Jujitsu. In other words, using their own forcefulness against them. Not playing their game. It’s nuanced and we won’t try to cover it all here — the book does it well. But the salient point is that you can’t react emotionally to forceful negotiation. Let them criticize, let them attack if they must. But your job is to keep asking objective questions. “You say you won’t accept less than $2,000 — where do you get that figure from? What makes you say that this is a fair number?” Keep things in the realm of objectivity and don’t get them further entrenched by “attacking back.”

Another part of the jujitsu is to explain to them the consequences of adopting an extreme position. Ask them, hypothetically, what would happen if things went the way they preferred. Fisher gives the example of an Arab-Israeli negotiation where an American was able to get the Arab contingent to understand that if the Israelis gave in entirely, their people would castigate them back home. It was enough to end that line of negotiation.

The last jujitsu tactic is to take criticism unusually well — not allowing the discussion to get personal, even if the other side wants to make it so. I understand you don’t want to be taken advantage of, neither do I — can you explain how your proposal is fair to me as well as you? Can you explain how my position could be altered to be more fair? What would you do if you were in my position? Soliciting an adversary for advice can be disarming if used wisely. All it takes is tamping down your ego. Good lines of inquiry don’t criticize, they probe and try to be helpful. And when you do so, simply pausing and letting the other side talk themselves into or out of a corner can work as well. Use silence to your advantage if you’re making sense and they’re reacting emotionally.

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The second approach is to use a third-party to mediate. Have them draft up a solution as impartially as possible, with both parties giving input, and the final decision being a mere “yes” or “no” by each party. This can simplify and de-personalize the process.

If you cannot change the process to one of seeking a solution on its merits, perhaps a third party can. More easily than one of those directly involved, a mediator can separate the people from the problem and direct the discussion to interests and options. Further, he or she can often suggest some impartial basis for resolving differences. A third party can also separate inventing from decision-making, reduce the number of decisions required to reach agreement, and help the sprites know what they will get when they do decide. One process designed to enable a third party to do all this is known as the one-text procedure.

The essence of that procedure is to have a draft drawn up that best satisfies both sides impartially and without pre-commitment. The final decision for each party is a simple “yes” or “no” to the draft solution. You can do it yourself, asking for opinions and revisions as you go along, or have a third party take it on. In either case, you’re trying to change the game rather than fight a losing battle.

What if they Play Dirty?

A tricky tactic is defined as one that fails the test of reciprocity — they are designed to benefit one side only, and most often, the other side is not supposed to know they’re being used . Some of the most common dirty tactics include: Using phony facts, introducing phony authority, hiding dubious intentions, psychological manipulation, refusal to negotiate, and good-cop, bad-cop type routines. There are too many to enumerate, but the basic answer to all of them will be to refer back to the four central ideas of principle negotiation. You need to point out and negotiate the rules of the game itself when you suspect you’re becoming a victim of “tricky tactics” which you’re not supposed to know about.

There are three steps in negotiating the rules of the negotiating game where the other side seems to be using a tricky tactic: recognize the tactic, raise the issue explicitly, and question the tactics’s legitimacy and desirability — negotiate over it.

You have to know what is going on to be able to do something about it. Learn to spot particular ploys that indicate deception, those designed to make you uncomfortable, and those which lock the other side into their position. Often just recognizing a tactic will neutralize it. Realizing, for example, that the other side is attacking you personally in order to impair your judgment may well frustrate the effort.

The book has some great examples of dirty tactics in play, which are good to refer to. Another book to pick up some of these ploys is Cialdini’s Influence, one of the great books written to protect people against manipulation. However you learn them, it’s good to learn them well. Once you can see that it’s happening, you need to gently, non-threateningly, point out what’s going on and ask to return to principles, or to excuse yourself momentarily. These things serve to defuse an embarrassing situation. And never forget that the best defense in most cases is a worthy set of alternative opportunities, what Fisher calls the BATNA. These give you the ability to walk away if you feel yourself being manipulated with no recourse.

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Negotiating is difficult. It’s a part of life that some people enjoy and some do not, leading to outcomes in the vein of the old saying Don’t ever wrestle with a pig — you’ll both get dirty but the pig will like it. Strong-willed negotiators have a natural advantage over those of us more averse to confrontation, and yet if we push back, stalemate is a usual result. Adopting the Principled Negotiation approach, rooted deeply in human nature, seems to give us the best chance of getting fair results for all involved.

Still Interested? Check out Fisher’s bestselling book, read Part 1 of our two-part series, or check out our post on Fisher’s approach to giving better feedback in the workplace.

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