This Should Be Easy

wandering leunig
“I have lived with many zen masters, all of them cats.” — Eckhard Tolle                                                   (drawing by michael leunig)

  1. Pay attention to, and allow a relaxed, alert awareness of, sense perceptions of your surroundings right now, in this present moment; acknowledge what is.
  2. Appreciate what is being paid attention to; in the process, notice the lessening of the compulsive thinking and reactive feeling identified with life situation, personal history, and stories — these thoughts and feelings are usually insignificant, and often negative, full of dissatisfaction, anxiety, a sense of incompleteness or inadequacy, and they are not ‘you’.
  3. Turn awareness to the aliveness of the energy field of the inner body (practice: be aware of parts of the body, and postures, without looking at them).
  4. Become aware of the spaces opening when there are no thoughts or feelings.
  5. Inquire what enables awareness, now, of sense perceptions, the inner body, thoughts and feelings:
    ⁃ it is the light of true presence, the essence of you, now, the space between thoughts and feelings
    ⁃ it is emptiness, stillness, the one consciousness
    ⁃ it is free of the false sense of self, the illusory self, the habitual mind activity of compulsive thought patterns and reactive emotional patterns

For an hour, the person who purports to be ‘me’ sits, noticing the garden, the leaves, the stone and brick and wood, the trees and the sea behind. Listens to the birds, the creaks of wood expanding and contracting. Lets form dissolve into shade, colour, shadow, darkness and light. Feels the cells in my body, growing, flowing, doing what they must do to be part of the complicity. Imagines the molecules, the atoms, the stars and planets, and all that space, that light-ness that is almost all of them, almost everything. Watches a tiny spider, on the table less than a foot away, try to catch the air currents to weave a web from table to chair, from table to body, fail and slip and climb back up and try again, and again. Feels the warmth of the sun on the body, the coolness of wind and shade.

Kali is laughing at me.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 3 Comments

Now isn’t the Time

(more rumination on my “presence” practices, thinking out loud to try to make sense of my (lack of) “success”; unless you’re on a similar journey, or know me personally, you may want to give this “diary entry” a pass)

my synopsis of a key idea from The Power of Now, from this 2010 post

As I reported recently, I’ve been preoccupied for the last while with an attempt to be more “present”, or, more simply, to just be, in the now, instead of caught up in my mind and emotions (lost in the past or the future). For me this is all about finding a way to cope better with fears and anxieties that have left me largely unconscious and incapable of dealing with stressful situations that inevitably arise in everyone’s life.

I have a strong intuitive sense that this will prove to be the fourth major belief/worldview shift in my life, and probably the most important one. Since I’m impatient, I’m looking for a quick way to get there (or perhaps more correctly, to get here). I’ve tried Liberation Unleashed, a method of “just looking” to see the illusion of the self. I’ve tried the runaway best-seller meditation app Headspace, and a variety of guided visualizations and binaural beat meditations. I’ve briefly tried two personal coaches to break through the cognitive dissonance I’ve struggled with. They’ve all been helpful, and have worked very hard to understand and guide me to a personal breakthrough, but (perhaps prematurely) I have at least temporarily set these approaches aside in favour of those that seem more intuitively suited to my way of thinking, and shifting.

Mostly for now I have returned to the meditation and other practices of Eckhart Tolle and Adyashanti. I don’t think either of these gentlemen has any particular special insight into helping people achieve epiphanies of “enlightenment”. What I like about reading and listening to them is that they speak my language — they seem to have been through similar life experiences to my own before they “suddenly” realized how to be present, and they use vocabulary that resonates with my own and does not rub me the wrong way.

Eckhart for example eschews talk of “mindfulness”, “personal growth” and “God”, and speaks instead about presence, the illusion of self and of time, and the destructiveness, insanity and mental illness created by civilization culture. I especially like this excellent short video of his that summarizes his book The Power of Now, a central thesis of which I summarized five years ago when I first read (and rather unsympathetically reviewed) the book, as follows:

Ego would appear to be an unintended and unfortunate consequence of the development of the brain to the point where it began to mistake its processing of thought and feelings for our consciousness, and we have been in a fight with our egos ever since. Whereas most “present” creatures handle stress instinctively, and let it go quickly, we “too smart for our own good” creatures have become consumed by our egos, ever ready to cycle viciously through negative thoughts and stories and feelings to the point we become unconscious of what is real, and end up traumatized and trapped in and by our minds and reactive feelings.

So I am now re-reading The Power of Now, with what I hope to be a more open mind. Eckhart’s own breakthrough came at a personal nadir in his life, a time of suicidal crisis, and he suggests that many people won’t ever have the will to realize the illusions of self, mind and time without an existential crisis to precipitate it — for many it’s too much of a hurdle, he suggests, until and unless you have almost nothing left to lose.

Here’s my diary of thoughts as I have been working my way through it:

  • People I know who have achieved this “there is only the Now, and one Consciousness” realization say that it is scary — when your ego “dies” it is as if you are dying, they say, and there is nothing left to hold on to. Although I am a fearful person, I do not sense this; perhaps I am so unaware that I can’t see just how threatening to my ego this realization really is. Or perhaps my egoic mind is so firmly in control it doesn’t see any threat of “me” achieving any such realization.
  • I still recall my most vivid experience of presence over 40 years ago, standing under a streetlight in winter with softly falling snow, and writing that my greatest desire was to achieve a similar state, all the time, that was paradoxically “at once very relaxed and very aware”. Friends told me then that such a “euphoric” state was unsustainable and expecting to achieve it all the time was naive and setting myself up for disappointment. Yet Eckhart uses almost identical words to describe the state of presence, and says it is “our natural state”.
  • Much meditation teaching is about noticing your thoughts and letting them just pass until they become less frequent and allow a space for presence (or mindfulness or enlightenment or whatever expression you prefer) to emerge. But I think in times when I am not present I am more “spaced out”, even numb, than preoccupied with thoughts and reactive emotions — the opposite of presence, a state that is mindless and not in a good way (what Eckart calls “extreme unconsciousness”). Perhaps I am just unaware of the thoughts that preoccupy me, especially in times of stress and escapism. Or perhaps it’s my coping mechanism for stress — to just zone out, in a desensitized state akin in some ways to depression but without the deep suffering that accompanies depression. For some people, I suppose, highly stressful situations can “force you into the Now”, and if so I envy those who find danger makes them more alive, more present; in my case it seems to lead to the opposite.
  • These days I am very impatient with myself. All this work I am doing, coming at it from every conceivable direction, and still not getting anywhere! What’s the matter with me? This reminds me of the struggle I have had trying to learn to do other “simple” things like swimming and dancing, that lead to nothing but failure and self-annoyance. Is lack of capacity to notice, to be attentive, behind all of these failures? If so, how can I move past this incapacity? Will learning to be present be the key to turning all these failures around?
  • I keep thinking/feeling that meditation should be a joyful experience, but for me it is just work. It would be easier to persevere if it gave me a few glimpses of joy.
  • I’ve written before that I think there are two kinds of presence, one intellectual (when you are “really on” presenting to or helping people) and one instinctual (when you are feeling connected to all-life-on-Earth), that don’t ever seem to co-exist. Is this a personal thing? A male thing? My sense is that the latter is the kind of presence I am seeking, but the former seems more “useful” and appreciated. Some people equate this (latter) sense of presence with disengagement and detachment from people/human society; are they right, or does intuitive presence bring “un-attachment” that actually makes you more helpful to others, more capable of intellectual presence?
  • Perhaps it’s a romantic belief (I don’t think we can ever really know), but I’ve always sensed that wild creatures (as opposed to domesticated creatures, including humans) live in a state of perpetual presence, except when stress forces them briefly into “clock time”, after which they “shake it off” and return to a still, relaxed present state. This suggests to me that achieving presence is not transcending the level of consciousness of wild creatures, but rather freeing ourselves from the uniquely human disease of being possessed by our egoic mind and (what Eckhart calls) our emotional pain-body, feeding constantly on each other. It’s not a “higher” level of consciousness we aspire to, but rather just getting back to the lost level of consciousness wild creatures experience all the time. Or rather, reconnecting with that one universal consciousness that they (unlike us) have always been connected with.
  • I am disturbed and dumbfounded by the vast majority of comments and questions in videos and on forums stemming from Eckhart’s (and others’) teachings. They suggest to me that almost all of these readers either (1) are so inarticulate they can’t convey coherently what they have come to believe, or (2) don’t really understand in the least what these teachers are saying, and are just blindly nodding and parroting out of (I’m guessing) some desperation to believe in, or follow, some ‘saviour’. I guess this makes me insensitive; it also makes me very cynical.
  • An exercise that seems to work for me is focusing attention on my body’s organs and even (imagining) its trillion cells, each part of the staggering complicity called me, functioning without the need for or help of my mind. The knowledge that none of these is really “separate”, that all are inseparable parts of a greater whole, is helpful in starting to realize that “I” too am just an inseparable part of a larger whole, that there is no “I”, no self, that self-control is impossible, and fear-for-self and self-ishness are foolish.
  • As a fanatic crossword solver, I was intrigued that Eckart uses crossword puzzles (along with games, sex, food, shopping and other compulsions) as examples of how “our mind uses us as its slave”. He does tend to vilify the actions of the mind and the pain-body of negative reactive emotions, as though they were somehow ‘deliberately’ harming us in their own ‘self’-interest (though carefully avoiding using words like “evil”). I appreciate that he’s exaggerating this to point out just how challenging it is to escape the grip of these self-reinforcing occupiers of our attention. Why should a mind or pain-body “fear its own death” if it’s just an illusion, a construct? I think what he means by personifying the conjurers of our thoughts and reactive emotions is that it is their ‘nature’ to look for patterns and “make sense” of things, and to disregard/deny anything that doesn’t fit those patterns. In this regard I am perhaps more charitable than Eckhart, since I believe this pattern-making is inherent in the evolution of large brains, and it is really all in the cause of trying to help, trying to warn us of imbalances, threats and dangers to our (constituents’) health. The vicious cycle by which thoughts and reactive emotions reinforce and perpetuate each other is an unfortunate and unintended consequence of this evolution of large brains. That unfortunate consequence has produced the accelerating sixth great extinction of life on Earth. Evolution inherently makes mistakes; no one is to blame for that. Likewise, we are unlikely to overcome that evolutionary error and achieve Eckhart’s “Whole New Earth” — he may have a brilliant understanding of the ways of the human mind, but he is clearly not a student of complexity or he would have chosen a more sombre and less hyperbolic title for has latest book.

Well, that’s where I am now. If you’re still reading this, thanks for your attention, and I hope you’ve found it interesting, and maybe even helpful.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 9 Comments

Then Suddenly, Maybe — Aha!

complex system diagram, from this earlier post

Last month I wrote about the 5 “turning points” in my life, the culminations of events and changes in circumstances that caused my life to significantly shift direction.

I have argued before that while we may change our beliefs, our behaviours and our personas throughout our lives, we don’t fundamentally change who we are. The turning points described in my recent article all changed my way of being, and what I did day-to-day and how I did it, but underneath I was (and am) still the same person.

In addition to these situation- and event-driven shifts, there are times in our lives when we suddenly have a realization that what we thought or believed to be true was utterly wrong. We then begin, rather more slowly, to act in accordance with a strange new realization of truth. In my life there have been three such occasions:

  1. In 2004, after reading over 100 books on human history and culture (16 of which were most influential in changing my thinking), I realized that our civilization was inevitably going to collapse in this century, and that nothing any or all of us could do would change that. Rather than being depressing and paralyzing, I found this realization liberating.
  2. In 2006, I finally understood how complex systems actually work, and in particular how and why they evolve to resist change. Now not only did I accept the inevitability of civilization’s collapse, I understood why it was inevitable. This led me to coin Pollard’s Law of Complexity. It also made me realize that most of what we try to do in our work lives, in our lives as activists, and even in our personal lives, will really change nothing. Retrospect has since showed me how true that is. Just about everything I tried so earnestly to do, for fifty years, was substantially a waste of time. That’s not to say that I didn’t have an impact, but what had the impact wasn’t my ideas, programs or projects, or really anything I did or created,  but rather it was the time I spent with people I loved and/or worked with, listening, supporting, encouraging, suggesting, telling them stories, showing them things, and trying to get obstacles out of their way.
  3. In 2011 (or so), I finally appreciated that we humans are not in control of who we are or what we do, and that we’re all suffering from Civilization Disease and doing our best to make things better for ourselves, those we care about and the world in which we live (this led to my coining Pollard’s Law of Human Nature). This realization has given me a much more charitable, more empathetic and less judgemental view of our species and everyone I meet. It’s still hard to reconcile with my outrage over the destruction and suffering this collective ‘doing our best’ has wreaked on us and on our planet, but I understand it.

What I find most interesting is that these “sudden” realizations came as the result of years of reading, thinking and learning, so in that respect they weren’t sudden at all. But until a particular moment, a tipping point, had been reached, I was resisting and/or unaware and/or missing some piece of information or insight that prevented this “sudden” shift from happening. Until those moments I was not ready for the shift and would have argued with (or ignored) anyone who had already made the shift.

But once these shifts happened, they then had a profound impact on just about everything else I believed, much of what I did thereafter, and my entire worldview.

What is this process we go through, resisting or oblivious at first to an understanding, idea or perspective, then appreciative but unmoved, and then finally and “suddenly” — aha! — accepting and starting to integrate this new way of thinking and believing into our lives?

Here’s how I think it might happen:

  1. A profound cognitive dissonance begins to emerge between what we believe and the information, ideas and perspectives we are being exposed to. At first, when we’re exposed to things that don’t conform to our beliefs, we ignore them. We may not even be aware that we’re doing so. But when we start seeing a lot of ‘data’ on a subject, none of which conforms to our beliefs, cognitive dissonance arises. This is especially true if the ‘data’ comes from sources we trust, or if it is put forth in a particularly articulate and compelling way. Passionate well-crafted ‘rants’ and humorous or satirical ‘pokes’ can be particularly effective in ‘unsettling’ us. So can intense stories.
  2. For awhile, we sit with the unsettling ambiguity and uncertainty of tolerating both our old view and this new view. It’s uncomfortable because it makes it hard to make decisions and even to talk with people about the subject in question. We don’t like this feeling, so we look hard for anything that will resolve it, in either direction. We want to ‘make our minds up’.
  3. At this point, we will constantly test the new idea against the old across all four ways of knowing: intellectual, emotional, sensory/evidential/experiential, and intuitive/instinctual. The weight we place on each of the four ways will be personal, based on our life’s experience of the reliability of each way. For example, some people are deaf to their intuition but rely heavily on their emotional sense (in fact they confuse it for intuition). For them, a powerful emotional argument will trump everything else, and if it’s in favour of the new idea, they’ll “suddenly” shift. For others, with a more equally balanced ‘decision-making’ process, it will take more than this, probably at least something persuasive in all four ways of knowing, and greater ‘support’ for either the old or new idea in at least three of the four ways. At this point we will “suddenly” sense that the new idea seems right or feels right to us, and make the shift; or we’ll reject it and return to our previous belief. That rejection may be once and for all, or it may be tentative, open to revisiting, depending on our tolerance for ambiguity and dissonance.

So here’s an example:

For most of my working life I believed that things like mission statements, change programs and strategic plans actually influenced and even changed the organizational culture. That is what I had always been told and what everyone around me seemed to believe. I even developed models on how actions focused on people (training, reward systems), processes and technologies could change organizational behaviour in a comprehensive way. The ‘case studies’ and business books backed up this belief.

The first seed of doubt came with my study of something called ‘cultural anthropology’, which suggested the best way to change behaviour was to study it, like an anthropologist studies a human tribe, find the behavioural patterns, understand them, and then intervene in ways that demonstrably shift those behaviours. At the time I had started studying complexity theory and had read Donella Meadows’ essay on places to intervene effectively in systems. I had also befriended Dave Snowden and learned his theories of how change happens in complex systems, and his bottom-up narrative/anecdote ‘probing’ approach to understanding and intervening in complex organizations.

At this point I was wrestling with the cognitive dissonance between my long-held belief in the effectiveness of top-down interventions, standards and motivators in organizations, and this new perspective that the most effective way to bring about change was bottom-up. I had also discovered (from actually applying cultural anthropology with some clients) how much of what gets done on the front lines occurs by workarounds, circumventing obstacles and acting often in direct opposition to what the top-down ‘people’ (training programs and policies), ‘process’ (policy manuals) and ‘technology’ (actions mandated by limits on data input, and rigid performance evaluation system measures tied to salary/rating) programs of organizations were trying to impose. And I learned that ability to deploy these bottom-up workarounds, counterintuitively, correlated with high customer satisfaction, high worker satisfaction, and hence high employee performance assessment (at least by peers).

At this point, I was still intellectually wedded to the old point of view (that top-down interventions work effectively); after all, there were all these case studies and business books that ‘proved’ it! But from a personal evidentiary basis (anecdotal as it may have been) it was compellingly clear that this new point of view (that workarounds are how things actually get done, for the best) was closer to the truth. The cognitive dissonance between what my head said and what the evidence of my senses said was brutal.

It was my emotions that tipped the balance of the argument in favour of this heretical (and dangerous, in conservative organizations) new view. I have always been a shit-disturber, a challenger, a change enthusiast. It tickled me to believe that everything we’re taught in business school about how change happens is wrong.

It still required me to do more probing to be willing to make the shift. I read critiques of case studies and discovered how biased and distorted they are. I studied more about complexity theory. I found a few allies who dared to question the people-process-technology orthodoxy. I realized that in my own dealing as a customer with large organizations, I appreciated and celebrated workarounds and was frustrated and angered at the top-down constraints that not only prevented people from doing their best work, they did not seem, in the long run, to even maximize organizational profits. Who was  actually benefitting from this top-down crap? Apparently only the executives who had deluded everyone (themselves included) that what they did was of value, and the consultants, academics and case study writers paid to reinforce that delusion.

With my intellectual resistance overcome, it was now easy personally (not professionally) to make the shift. If I hadn’t been close to retirement, I might have just lived with the cognitive dissonance and shut up about my new belief. I discovered quite a few people who were doing just that, waiting until they could say what they dared not.

So these three stages — the emergence of cognitive dissonance, sitting with uncomfortable ambiguity, and resolving the dissonance by testing the old and new ideas against the four ways of knowing — seem to be involved in the “sudden” shifts we make in our belief systems and worldviews. It’s no wonder we’re averse to such shifts if we can avoid them!

I may now be on the verge of a fourth aha! shift, related to the illusion of self, the way in which our culture reinforces that illusion, who/what ‘we’ really are, and that we are not ‘all of a piece’, but rather a ‘complicity’ of the trillion cells that comprise us. Tied up in that is the realization that there is no ‘separate’ individual, that there is no ‘thing’ at all (processes ‘exist’, not the stuff they appear to happen to), and that time, too, is an illusion. I get this intellectually and it seems to make sense to me intuitively. And because I sense this illusion of self etc. is at the root of my incapacity to deal well with stress and the cause of a lot of suffering (my own and others’), I’m emotionally ‘pulling’ for the shift to happen.

But I have yet to realize most of it experientially. Because I don’t ‘get’ it experientially, I cannot act in accordance with this radical new belief, so I continue to behave as if I ‘am’ this separate self moving through linear time, and dealing poorly with stress. Maybe I never will ‘get’ it. Sometimes cognitive dissonance never gets resolved. Since I tend to use this blog to ‘think out loud’ about these things, I hope it won’t be too excruciating for readers to endure for a while!

This is the hardest and most frustrating shift yet for me, the one taking the longest and the most effort, and the one likely (if it happens) to have the profoundest impact on my worldview, and on how I ‘am’ in the world and what I do going forward. I’m trying a lot of different approaches these days to push past this impasse (if that is what it is), and I’m grateful to be blessed with the time to do so.

And if it doesn’t happen, well, at least now I can appreciate what’s behind the dissonance, and the unresolved process I’ve been going through. Hope this exploration has been interesting to read, and that for some it might be useful in your own shifts.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 8 Comments

Sorting Ourselves Out

gated liverpool
gated community in Liverpool England; photo by Ronnie Hughes

We humans are pretty good at self-organizing. We’re a social species, after all, and we want to know where we ‘fit’ in our communities, even though “community” has largely lost its true meaning. It is through conversation, collaboration and observing others that we make sense of things, so we naturally want to make sure the people who make the most sense to us will welcome us into their circles.

The downside of this is that it is easy to exploit, and can lead us into behaviours that are unhealthy for us and for our communities. Fear of ostracism can make us obedient and compliant. We can also self-select (“self-sort“) into echo chambers that make us deaf to ideas, knowledge and points of view from outside these chambers, and can leave us dangerously out of touch with what most people actually believe and how most people actually live.

So we get entrenched in our perspectives and worldviews, less open and adaptable in our thinking, less able to learn and appreciate things outside our circles and comfort zones. We lock into labels and brands — both those that commercial and political organizations eagerly urge upon us, and those we create for ourselves — and they become a limiting part of our identity. We are defined by these labels and the demographics that correlate with them. Those who defy pigeon-holing are often viewed with suspicion.

We then become “unconsciously exclusive” and others in turn unconsciously exclude us. This is understandable human behaviour. We are by nature pattern recognizers and simplifiers, and our minds quickly learn to accept information, and people, that resonate with our evolved worldviews, and to disregard, disbelieve, ignore and avoid information and people who don’t fit those worldviews. We associate with people who share our views, our goals, our activities and our interests.

We end up living in huge cities remarkable for their anonymity and loneliness, and obliviously pass by those who live near to us to ‘meetup’ with those, farther away (or online) whose worldviews echo and mirror our own. Talking to the “stranger” next door or at the bus stop becomes an act of courage and defiance, crashing the implicit boundaries that separate all of us, until and unless we’re explicitly invited across them.

No wonder then that change is so hard to bring about, when the prerequisite association and trust needed to broadly inform, persuade, expose and share knowledge, ideas and perspectives is absent by default in our modern society.

We are well-trained, we self-domesticated humans. We self-sort, for marketers’ easy mass distribution of whatever garbage or propaganda they are hawking. We raise our hands, our profiles, our ID cards and our ballots on demand, when asked to identify ourselves and our preferences to the aggregators of consumer products, services and ‘political’ messages.

We self-censor, out of (often exaggerated) fear of prosecution, opprobrium or ostracism. We self-colonize, twisting ourselves into who we are not, for fear of being thought “crazy”, or of thinking ourselves to  be so. We “haze” those who want to become part of our groups, in brutal, devious and often-subtle ways. We engage in coercive groupthink with others we think we belong with or want to belong with. In this manipulative behaviour we prey, often abusively, on the inherent human craving for appreciation, attention, belonging and reassurance, and the human fear of ridicule.

And so, whether or not it really makes any sense to us (and even if it makes the cognitive dissonance in our lives bewildering), we willingly:

  • accept responsibility, even for things we have no control, power or authority over
  • overwork at jobs we loathe, because of others’ expectations and unsupported claims that “we are capable of anything if we only apply ourselves sufficiently to it”
  • accept that our culture is the best (or only viable) culture that has ever existed
  • “play well with others”, even when the others are cleverly abusive
  • persevere doing things (notably in large organizations, schools, and “self-help” books and programs) that have never actually worked, because other people allege, without real evidence, that they do
  • “get with the program” rather than challenge its failings or even its absurdity
  • present everything with, and maintain a posture of, hopefulness and “forced optimism” for fear of being ostracized as a complainer, or lazy, or an unconstructive, defeatist doomer
  • self-ghettoize into places with others dealing with the same endemic scarcities (of power, education, wealth, income, health) so we are invisible to, and won’t inflict our misery on, those living with abundance
  • self-victimize (blaming ourselves for our poverty, our lack of “achievement”, our unemployment, our mental or physical illness, our despair and our exhaustion)

This is the system that evolves when it becomes necessary to have nearly 8 billion people vigorously support the economic, political, social and other systems of industrial civilization culture to prevent their utter collapse. It is, of course, unhealthy and massively destructive. But large complex systems evolve to prevent reform and change, so now they’re the only systems, and the only conceivable culture, on offer for most.

Even where that civilization culture has already collapsed (like most third-world nations and many chronically poor and resource-exhausted and desolated parts of first-world nations), the well-financed leaders and propagandists perpetuate the hope that with hard work and good fortune each of us can escape the disaster and join the ‘exclusive’ ranks of the rich and powerful.

This is an observation, not an accusation, admonishment, call to action, or claim of personal exemption from this propensity. It is a key sustainer of abuse of privilege, discrimination, abuse of power, and inequality, and many other outrages. The fact that we self-sort does not in any way exonerate those who exploit it and those who commit these outrages, nor does it mean that self-sorting, self-censoring and self-colonization are the cause, “to blame” in any sense for these outrages, which we should never tolerate and should work tirelessly to recognize and defeat.

But I have no faith that awareness and education and condemnation of self-sorting, self-censoring and self-colonization will reduce these human propensities. They are in our nature, especially in times of stress (discrimination, abuse and inequality, on the other hand, are not in our nature: they are personal and systemic pathologies of our sick and reeling culture).

What we can do is ask ourselves these questions:

  1. In what ways do I self-sort into and self-identify with particular groups? Why do I do that, and why these particular groups?
  2. What are the dangers, harms and other costs (of ignorance, misunderstanding, discrimination, mistreatment) of this self-sorting and self-identifying with selected groups to the exclusion of others?
  3. In what ways do I self-censor, self-victimize and self-colonize? What am I afraid to say and do, and why?
  4. What are the dangers and costs of this self-censoring, self-victimizing and self-colonizing (see the bullets above)? To what extent is doing this a disservice to myself, my loved ones and my communities? At the end of my life, to what extent will I regret doing so?

We may not be able to change the culture, but knowledge and awareness of what we do to ourselves, and allow to be done to us, can at least help us appreciate some of the costs of this culture, and how we can cope with, and adapt to, the damage it does, with our unwitting complicity.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 2 Comments


tar sands howl arts collective

Alberta Tar Sands, soon to cover an area larger than NY State; its toxic sludge ponds alone are large enough to be visible from space. Photo by Dru Oja Jay, Howl Arts Collective, for The Dominion CC-BY-2.0

I have often described myself as “the world’s most blessed agnostic”. I have been incredibly fortunate both by the accident of my birth and with the events (almost all outside my control) that have transpired at critical points in my life. I should be grateful, and in many ways I am.

But I am not grateful to have been born into human civilization culture.

Many people I know have a regular practice of taking time to identify, write down, acknowledge and appreciate the things they are grateful for. They believe this makes them happier, healthier and more positive, optimistic and productive citizens, and I’m sure they’re right.

I’m also sure that this process of convincing ourselves everything is all right and will turn out fine, while essential for our personal state of mind, represents precisely the folly of human cultural adaptability that has led to massive human overpopulation and desolated our planet. Our civilization culture is both our lifeline to sanity and the cause of our disease.

There is now fairly compelling evidence of the following (though of course we can never be sure):

  • Pre-civilization humans (prior to the invention/discovery of agriculture and the simple weapons — arrowheads, knives and spears — that led to the massive extinction of large mammals on our planet) generally lived long (until they were eaten by predators) and very healthy, stress-free, leisurely lives. Our modern and false belief in the “progress” of the human condition and our culture conveniently starts with the nadirs of humans health and leisure time (the Roman era, when average life span had plunged to 29, or the eras of wide-spread genocide and inquisition, or the early years of the Industrial Revolution when life expectancy plunged once again).
  • Wild creatures intuitively self-regulate their populations for the optimization of the health not only of themselves and their species but for the entire ecosystems in which they live. This is a feature of evolution that has taken 2 billion years to reach its current level, and in that context it makes perfect sense. Creatures whose fertility (via subtle hormonal adjustments) adapts to the carrying capacity of the place they live are inevitably going to be more successful and joyful (and hence enthused to propagate the species) than if population numbers have to be corrected by massive coercive die-offs. Famine is substantially a consequence of inability to self-regulate, a consequence of human civilization culture and its disconnection from attention to balance with all the other species we live with. This disconnection stems largely from urbanization (physical separation) and the mental illness of believing we are the master species on the planet empowered and evolved to control and run everything, yet intuitively aware of our utter incompetence to do so, and the consequent turning away from and inurement against honestly looking at how much suffering we inflict on all the other creatures of this planet (emotional separation).
  • Our culture is so successful at indoctrinating us that no matter how horrific our situation, we generally end up feeling about as happy as if we had recently won the lottery (Dan Gilbert exaggerations notwithstanding). This is in the short run (a few millennia) a successful survival strategy: Most wild creatures that have experienced freedom and joy and then are put in a situation of captivity, chronic stress and suffering, quickly stop procreating, whereas in our culture we actually breed more humans so we’ll have more offspring to help deal with the costs of chronic disease, the burdens of chronic shortages and dependence on centralized cultural systems. And we put up with lifelong misery and struggle that any wild (undomesticated) creature would surely consider worse than death. But in the long run this human optimism-in-spite-of-everything leads to where we are now: a desolated planet with a climate shifting disastrously, the immiseration of all, and the rapid advancement of the sixth great extinction of life on Earth.

For all this I am ungrateful. Our global and increasingly-homogeneous culture evolved with the best of intentions (possibly to deal with the Ice Ages; possibly to deal with the unintended consequences of our too-smart-for-our-own-good brains’ discovery of agriculture and weaponry). But that culture is killing our planet.

So each day I express wonder and joy at the magic of life, and gratefulness for where, in the spectrum of life on 21st-century Earth, I have lived and continue to live my life. And each day I curse our civilization for what it has unintentionally wrought, for what it has inflicted on me and every struggling, suffering creature on this planet.

This is the worst of times, and we don’t even know it, and won’t, even as it gets worse still. It is in our nature to know, and to bring the failed human experiment to a quick and merciful close. But it is not in our culture, and we have withdrawn so far from nature that now, it is only our culture we are listening to.

Nature knows what to do, and will do it, reluctantly, when all other self-managed options have been exhausted. We will learn, alas, the hard way. The madness will soon be over. The fire this time.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 13 Comments

A Cynical Theory of Power and Organizational Dynamics

from by Hugh Macleod

I‘ve previously mentioned that the most important thing I learned from 37 years in the business world is that in large organizations of every kind, almost all valuable work is done by workarounds, i.e. people on the front lines doing what they know is best for the organization, even when this ignores or (often) contravenes what they’ve been told to do (or not to do) by senior executives. Or which contravenes the executives’ surrogate, the policy and procedures manual, which is now substantially embedded in the software these poor front-line employees have to use, and which forces them to tell you “sorry I am not authorized to do that for you; is there something else I can help you with today?”.

This is a cynical view, but it actually makes sense when you understand the nature of complex systems. No one can know what to do or how to effectively intervene in large, complex systems — there are far too many variables, too many moving parts, and too many unknowns, and the further removed you are from the customers, citizens or clients of the organization, the less likely you are to know what they want or need, or the cost/benefit of giving it to them. The belief that ‘experienced’ executives, ‘experts’, consultants or other highly-paid (often obscenely so) people know anything more about what to do is sheer hubris.

As Charles Handy has pointed out, modern capitalism (and the modern organizational model) are inherently anti-democratic. He also noted that, as any student of history can tell you, nobody gives up power voluntarily. And as Joel Bakan’s The Corporation explained (and Hugh Macleod’s cartoon above satirizes), large profit-driven organizations are necessarily pathological.

New Yorker cartoon by Charles Barsotti

So how does this weird power dynamic in organizations arise? If hierarchy is so unhealthy, why is it the prevailing model in almost all human social systems and organizations?

My theory is that it arose to exploit the fundamental human loathing for complexity and the fear-driven desire to believe that everything can be controlled. Shareholders don’t want to hear that “nobody knows anything”; they want to know that their investment is going to rise in value.

As organizations grow in size, they inevitably grow exponentially more dysfunctional. Paradoxically, this growth also conveys the power to outspend, out-market, and acquire smaller, more innovative, more agile, customer- and citizen-focused organizations. Acquisitions of small companies by larger ones almost always destroy value (any honest M&A practitioners will tell you that ‘economies of scale’ don’t actually exist — what exists is ‘power of scale’ — and oligopoly). Similarly, the prevailing neoliberal ideology (under which lies this loathing of complexity and diversity and the desire for everything to be simple and standardized) has led to the centralization and amalgamation of small organizations, schools, hospitals and municipalities into massive, dysfunctional, hierarchical ones, in the mistaken belief this is somehow fairer and more efficient.

What then arises in hierarchical organizations is a strange co-dependence between those at the top (with the power and wealth) and those at the bottom. To reach the top in large complex organizations (if you buy my ‘workaround’ argument above) requires a sufficiently large ego and hunger for power to be willing to self-promote, lie, betray, and claim credit for the work of everyone else, and shift blame for failures elsewhere.

Only sociopaths have the right stuff for this. But they hold this power with the collusion of the ‘clueless’ middle-management underclass beneath them. If you are in a comfortable middle-management position (most likely doing completely valueless administrative and pencil-pushing work), you live in fear of making a mistake that would allow your sociopathic boss to fire you. So basically you don’t want to have to make any decisions for yourself. You want the boss to tell you what to do and how to do it. And that’s exactly how the sociopath bosses like it. The system of collusion self-perpetuates. It’s precisely analogous to the co-dependence that evolves between sociopathic, abusive parents (usually men) and their victimized family members.

So what about the ‘losers’ at the bottom, the ones actually doing the workarounds to serve customers, citizens and clients that actually have some value? Up until a generation ago, they fell in line beneath the middle-managers for the same reason middle-managers kowtow to ‘executives’ — job security.

But now there is essentially no job security, nor ‘upward’ mobility, in the workplace or anywhere else in our society. There are already too many middle- and upper-level people earning too much money doing nothing of value, in every system in our society (corporations, schools, government administrations, even large non-profits and NGOs). These systems have all ‘grown’ not through innovation and smart management but by exploiting cheap resources, cheap foreign labour, and (as social and labour rights are eviscerated) cheap, desperate domestic labour. So now the front-line people, realizing there is no future for them in the organizations they work in, change jobs often and indifferently, relearning the essential workarounds in each new organization they join. They couldn’t care less about the rot above them in the organizations they work for. They are already, essentially, as ’employment’ benefits have all but disappeared, independent contractors.

They are still doing just about all the work of any value in our society.

It’s a very sick, and unsustainable system, and it mirrors the malaise in our overall society.

And there’s one other factor that makes the picture even worse: Nearly every study of factors that correlate to high rates of crime has identified inequality of wealth and power as the factor with the highest-correlation: in organizations, municipalities and nations with a few obscenely rich and powerful people and a massive underclass, crime is inevitably high. Once inequality and crime reach a certain level the entire political, economic and social fabric of the entity starts to break down.

Paradoxically, when these systems collapse, the propensity of most people (being change-averse and ignorant of any alternatives) is to try to recreate what has been irreparably broken. You see this in many countries which have ended up with worse regimes after collapse than the ones that preceded it. Executives who presided over organizations that collapsed end up, over time, in charge of other organizations. We keep perpetuating the madness.

When I became involved, after retirement, in the development of Group Works, the pattern language for more effective group process, I was keenly aware of this propensity, and of the ghastly, prevailing power dynamics (and the ignorance of other ways of being, working and collaborating with other people in groups) working against the emergence of better models of behaviour.

I was therefore not surprised to discover how huge a challenge it is for many organizations to consider processes and tools that are inherently egalitarian and that mandate a power shift from those at the top (who see ceding power as a sign of weakness), to those in the middle (who don’t want the responsibility that comes with power) or the bottom (who raise their eyebrows at any suggestion that any real shift of power to them could ever happen, and who feel more like temporary contractors than employees in any case).

Let me temper my characterization of people struggling with this dysfunctional power dynamic a little. I appreciate that we’re all doing our best, against truly dreadful odds — our horrifically overpopulated, desolated, resource-exhausted planet has left almost everyone damaged, malnourished and starved (in one way or another), and overworked, and hence to some extent mentally ill and struggling to heal themselves and those they love and care about. Even the psychopaths cannot be other than who they are, and they have often suffered from abuse in past as bad as, or worse than, the suffering they now inflict on their co-workers, families and communities.

The political, economic and social systems we now struggle with have evolved in this atmosphere of illness, suffering, desperation and imaginative poverty. Our change-aversion is understandable, and sometimes it is just easier to be ‘clueless’ or walk away than try to change a system that has ‘successfully’ evolved to defeat all attempts to reform it, even if in the longer term it is unsustainable and will inevitably collapse on its own.

I don’t believe these systems, institutions, governments, or our entire industrial civilization can be reformed, and I’ve long ago resigned from trying. Cultures (of organizations or societies) evolve as the collective expression of their members’ beliefs and behaviours; they cannot be created, re-created or reformed.

But in the spirit of my Resilience Framework I think there is great value in us having a conversation, even while struggling with our industrial civilization’s oppression and impending collapse, about how we can realize what is actually happening, act at a local level to help ourselves live with and heal from its excesses, and begin to liberate ourselves from its clutches.

To that end, I think Group Works is an enormously valuable and important language, possibly the most important thing I have ever had a (small) hand in creating. It’s valuable not because it will or can help large organizations become more egalitarian and shift their power dynamics, but rather because it is a language of authentic connection with, peer-to-peer collaboration with, and empathy for others, a way of saying things like “I hear you”, “I value what you say”, “I agree”, and “Let’s help each other deal with this.”

Our existing languages (despite their fascinating etymological roots) have evolved to be instruments of power — tools to convey instruction and command information, to coerce, to oppress, to obfuscate, and to mandate and ensure obedience to hierarchy and established processes, no matter how dysfunctional they may be. These languages are ill-suited to the nuances of expressing how things actually work in complex situations, or appreciation of ambiguity and uncertainty, or the value of incremental adaptation (workarounds) instead of ‘decisive’ action.

Those of us working on the relatively powerless edges of industrial civilization have naturally evolved some new ‘language’ to convey what we now realize is important to understand and speak about, language that employs terms like: ‘commons’ (a dirty word in the language of free-market capitalism), community, the sharing economy, generosity, relocalization, permaculture, complex adaptive systems, emergence, invitation, appreciation, transparency, preparedness, story, iteration, intention, improvisation, coping, meaning, resilience, joy, presence, equanimity, gratitude, self-awareness, healing, modelling, and trust.

You don’t hear these words much in the industrial workplace, but if you listen, you’ll hear them more and more in the communities and groups that are working around it. There’s a shift happening, a new foundation being created for the world that will be left when the old one crumbles away.

If we’re fortunate — if we have the time to heal, prepare, rethink and experiment, the wisdom not to try to replicate old failed systems, and the self-awareness and imagination to appreciate what is good for us (and all other life on Earth) — this new foundation will have a very different, natural, ancient power dynamic. Never too early to start to develop the language to do that.

Thanks to Cecile Green for the ‘power-full’ discussion that prompted this article. She does not share my cynicism.

Posted in Preparing for Civilization's End, Working Smarter | 25 Comments

Live From Daryl’s House

live at daryls house

Most of you probably remember Hall & Oates, one of the most popular musical duos of the last century. You probably didn’t know that for the past 7 years, in an attempt to stay in touch with fans without having to do so many gruelling tours, Daryl Hall has been hosting some of the world’s finest musicians at his three homes, jamming with them, and putting the very professionally done results online, on YouTube, for free.

Some of his carefully-picked guests are veterans of the music scene, while others are up-and-comers or people you haven’t (yet) heard of. All of them are exemplary musicians, as is Daryl himself, and as is his talented back-up band.

The result is over 300 recordings of songs, mostly old but sometimes new, of superb quality, often with musicianship that, across the board, exceeds that of the original recordings. Most of them can be found in YouTube playlists (the complete list of guests up to 2014 is on wikipedia, while the 2014-15 recordings are on Daryl’s site Live From Daryl’s House). Here are some of my favourites (I’m still discovering some of them):

1. Daryl with Smokey Robinson, doing Hall & Oates’ Sara Smile and Smokey’s Ooh Baby Baby.

2. Daryl with KT Tunstall, doing Hall & Oates’ Out of Touch and Kiss On My List

3. Daryl with Todd Rundgren (at Todd’s house in Kaua’i), doing Todd’s I Saw the Light and Can We Still Be Friends and The Last Ride

4. Daryl with Sharon Jones doing Do What You Want, Be Who You Are

5. Daryl with Keb Mo doing Everything Your Heart Desires

6. Daryl with Diane Birch doing Nothing But a Miracle

7. Daryl with Cee Lo Green doing Hall & Oates’ I Can’t Go For That

8. Daryl with Ben Folds (the full newest episode from last month), including Private Eyes and Don’t Leave Me Alone With Her

9. Daryl with Selby Lynne doing Leavin’

10. Daryl doing some some solo compositions and some lesser-known Hall & Oates songs (some with John Oates): Cab Driver, Crash & Burn, I’m in a Philly Mood, Stop Loving Me Loving You, and Uncanny

Amazing music.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 3 Comments

enough just to know


some cultures, I am told
made sense of things, and made decisions in two ways
fundamentally different from ours:

firstly, when the stories had all been told,
the choices surfaced,
these cultures trusted each individual
to ‘know’ what they must do.
no ‘who will do what by when’ directives needed.

and secondly, before deciding,
they’d ‘sleep on it’ for a night
to allow their unconscious knowledge
(what their senses told them, and what they ‘knew’ instinctively)
to be integrated with what, consciously,
they intellectually knew and emotionally felt:
Jung’s four ways of knowing became one.

sometimes, without being able to say why or know how,
we just know.

when I flirt with the young lady on the Métro,
we appreciate each other — how we look and how we play together,
and we delight in the attention we offer each other,
but we know, without words, that this is just fun,
without motive, or intention, or future.
we just know.

and sometimes when something has happened
or even before it has happened,
before we know to think about it,
or start to feel (good or bad) about it,
we somehow know what’s going to happen next,
and what to do:
whether to act, and how,
or to do nothing, to just let it go; somehow
we just know.

turtles monica michael sweet

and now, with time to breathe,
time to just let my senses and my instincts guide me,
show me their hidden wisdom
I can feel the world
collapsing, convulsing, in the little death
of the sixth great extinction
and I know, even as I want to try to help
that nothing can be done,
that it’s already begun, that it began millennia ago
and I’ve only just noticed it.
I can’t put it into words, or even into feelings,
it’s larger than that, this aeon’s unimaginable ending.

the wild creatures
unhampered by human illusions and human hubris
have felt it, this undoing, since it began
with the death of the great mammals, and the ages of ice and fire.
they felt it, something more than sorrow, long ago, somehow
they just knew.

and so they tell me
and anyone else with the time and fortune to listen:
they tell us clueless, suffering humans what they know.

these ancient trees and tiny new-fledged birds,
these rocks, witnesses from before the start of life,
these turtles, coming ashore since before here was here,
they know.

they tell me and show me, until I know, too,
not with my too-clever mind or my weary heart
or even with my body, this strange complicity of a trillion cells,
but with something deeper, larger:
with this quiet voice of all-life-on-Earth.

they tell me, not so that I will do something,
or try, impossibly, to tell others.
they tell me
just so that I will know.

somehow it’s enough
just to know.

photos: top: andy bruckner, NOAA, public domain; bottom: monica & michael sweet photography, print owned by the author

Posted in Creative Works | 2 Comments

Falling Off the Edge

hugh macleod dinosaur
drawing by hugh macleod at gapingvoid

How do you deal with a level of cognitive dissonance so profound that it casts a veil over all your interactions with other people, and makes these interactions seem somehow unreal?

What do you do when you dare not speak honestly about the things you know, the things you believe and care about, for fear the people you’re speaking with will just tune out or turn away? For fear they’ll put some distance between you and them, because they don’t want to talk about it, or even think about it. Because they’re not ready. Or because they just don’t care — or more accurately perhaps they just can’t care.

That may sound arrogant, but it’s not meant to. I don’t claim to have any answers, or a monopoly on understanding how the world really works or what, if anything, we should do about it. I’ve just had the luxury of time, access to resources and a sense of curiosity to find out what most people haven’t been able or willing to explore. It would be nice to talk with people about it. But I can’t.

John Gray, in Straw Dogs, writes:

The mass of mankind is ruled not by its own intermittent moral sensations, still less by self-interest, but by the needs of the moment. It seems fated to wreck the balance of life on Earth — and thereby to be the agent of its own destruction. What could be more hopeless than placing the Earth in the charge of this exceptionally destructive species? It is not of becoming the planet’s wise stewards that Earth-lovers dream, but of a time when humans have ceased to matter.

Science has been used to support the conceit that humans are unlike all other animals in their ability to understand the world. In fact, its supreme value may be in showing that the world humans are programmed to perceive is a chimera.

Humans use what they know to meet their most urgent needs — even if the result is ruin. When times are desperate they act to protect their offspring, to revenge themselves on enemies, or simply to give vent to their feelings. These are not flaws that can be remedied. Science cannot be used to reshape humankind in a more rational mould.

I appreciate that we’re all doing our best. We’re all busy looking after “the needs of the moment” — urgent family matters, work priorities, chores that cannot be put off, trying to cope with our internal demons and the traumas that our culture has inflicted on all of us. As I describe it in Pollard’s Law of Human Behaviour, things considered urgent will always get done before things that are merely important, and merely important things will never get done because once the urgent work is done, we are too exhausted to do more than what is easy and fun. I get that. That was my reality for decades, and I’m not ashamed of what I did, and didn’t do, during that time.

It’s not so much that people are unwilling to acknowledge “inconvenient truths” as much as that people are so caught up in the moment-to-moment crises occurring in their immediate circles, and within themselves, that they simply can’t. They are overwhelmed already, and if they had the intellectual and emotional bandwidth to entertain something more, a discussion of the existential crisis facing our planet (one that we can likely take no action to ameliorate) would not be their first choice. Nor would a discussion of what it means to be human.

When I do find people interested in talking about the matters I usually dare not talk about — civilization’s already-beginning collapse and the accelerating and inevitable sixth great extinction of life on Earth, or the non-existence of self and time — these are generally people who gain needed reassurance about their personal worldviews by debating with others; their objective is to satisfy themselves that you are wrong. They are not interested in listening, or exploring possibilities. And, generally, I am not interested in debating. I just want to share truths as I understand them, not as an evangelist but because it’s through informed and open-minded conversation that we come to really learn and understand, and make sense of things.

Dave's Networks 2015
(Worldview codes are from The New Political Map.)

So I talk, with most of those in my circles — the 200-or-so people whose company I keep, face-to-face or virtually, because I enjoy that company (now that I’m retired I rarely have to converse with people whose company I don’t enjoy) — about things that matter to them, about things they are ready and interested in conversing about. I just shut up about the things that are, these days, most important to me. It’s just more trouble than it’s worth.

The metaphor of trying to sell a meteor to a dinosaur, shown in the cartoon at the top of this post, is precisely apt.

And hence the cognitive dissonances. Hence the veil of unreality that pervades my connections with people.

We are social creatures, we humans. We do most of our ‘making sense of the world’ through collaboration and conversation with people we trust and love, with people who share our worldviews. What happens to you when you can no longer have such collaborations and conversations, because your worldview has diverged too far from almost everyone else’s?

In my experience, you give up and accept that your worldview must be wrong, because solipsism is a very fragile philosophy. (That’s especially ironic for me when one of the subjects I long to talk about is the complete illusion of the self. I’d make a lousy solopsist.)

The alternative, of just dwelling alone (at least among humans) with this too-far-ahead (or completely insane) worldview, is probably unhealthy. I feel sometimes as if I’m becoming invisible, or going mad. As if I’m falling off the Edge I began living on a dozen years ago when I started to explore the subjects of this blog. I feel incredible frustration struggling to come to grips with an intellectual understanding that is at once mind-blowing and seemingly impossible to grasp experientially, when there is no one to really share it with.

What I long to do is to move past a discussion of the inevitability of civilizational collapse and the sixth great extinction, and the illusion of self and time, and discuss what does it mean?. Not what can we do about it, but what does it mean?

What does it mean to live in the final generations of a two-millennium long civilization that has grown global and monolithic, substantially eradicating all alternative cultures in its wake? What does it mean to witness the culmination of a thirty-millennium long (not very long in Earth terms) rapidly-accelerating extinction event, the first in 65 million years, that will transform the face of the planet?

What does it mean to be a self-perceiving human ‘individual’ and realize that one’s ‘self’, one’s sense of separateness and self-control from the rest of life on Earth, is a useful and convenient illusion that doesn’t really exist? What does it mean to appreciate that the qualities that most distinguish humans from other creatures — this sense of self, of ‘mind’, of separateness, of ‘consciousness’, and the sense of discrete, linear time — are massively-simplified constructions of the human brain that are not only unreal, they actually create a separateness and an incapacity to realize what is actually real, an incapacity to just be in the world that ‘less intelligent’ creatures aren’t hampered by?

Of course, what these things mean ultimately doesn’t matter. The more-than-human world is indifferent to our struggle to make sense of things, to appreciate their implications. An appreciation of these things won’t change the course of events, won’t change anything in fact.

Or maybe, for us poor too-smart-for-our-own-good creatures, it could change everything. Perhaps an appreciation of these things could allow us to rejoin the community of all-life-on-Earth, transcend our self-inflicted misery and suffering, and re-learn to just be, presently and joyfully as a part of it all.

Maybe. I don’t know. There’s only so much you can figure out talking to yourself.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 17 Comments

The Patterns of Effective Conversation

Patterns of Effective Conversation

A week ago, at the Next Edge Festival in Montréal, I made a point of paying attention to the many conversations I had, or witnessed, in both small and large groups. It was an eye-opening experience. What I learned was:

  • How incredibly important (in various senses of the word) conversation is
  • The degree to which effective conversational skills among the participants affects the quality and value of the conversation (and hence, the urgent need for us all to become better conversationalists)
  • That good writing skill does not necessarily correlate with good conversational skill

In chatting about this with a friend, the excellent writer and excellent conversationalist Paul Heft, he posed the question to me “What do you want from conversation?” My answer was, of course, that it depends on the subject, the context and the participants. What I might be looking for in any particular conversation could be one or more of the following:

  1. Information: to obtain, surface or convey information or understanding of facts (know-what), processes (know-how) or contacts (know-who)
  2. Meaning or insight: to make sense of something (beyond just obtaining facts)
  3. Perspectives or viewpoints: to get different points of view or gain consensus (generally to solve a problem or make a decision)
  4. Change: to challenge and shift someone’s viewpoint or intentions (mine or others’)
  5. Ideas: to surface and imagine possibilities
  6. Effective collaboration: to enable the effective production of some shared work-product
  7. Deepening or creation of relationships
  8. Entertainment or fun
  9. Recognition, attention or reputation: to obtain it, or possibly offer it
  10. Appreciation, empathy or reassurance: to obtain it, or possibly offer it

What I observed was that people seem to have varying biases among these objectives. Males generally seem to seek #9 more than #10, and women the opposite (with some notable and interesting exceptions). Narcissists seem to want both #9 and #10 (and are very clever at hijacking conversations to get what they want). Learning style appears to strongly influence conversational objectives: People who learn by debating tend to like objective #4, for example, while others who learn by contrasting different perspectives more passively seem to prefer objective #3.

I also learned that when the objectives of the participants in the conversation are not aligned, the conversation can be like a tug of war, almost comical (in a tragic way), and in most cases with very unsatisfactory results for all.

What was more distressing was to notice how often participants are clearly not aware of what their real objectives are at all; they seem to somehow expect other participants to figure it out and satisfy them nevertheless. From my observation, this expectation is usually not met.

In the ‘conversation’ between a writer and his/her audience, any reasonably coherent author is generally explicit about what the objectives of the writing are, and the reader/listener can choose to read/listen or not (and they will generally choose to read/listen only when the author’s explicit objectives and theirs are aligned). Not so in oral conversations, where you can see on the faces of people that they thought a conversation was going to achieve one of their objectives, and now feel trapped helping other participants achieve very different objectives.

Thinking back to my many years in business, the majority of the conversations seemed to have very narrow and explicit objectives (most often #1, and especially requests for “know-who” (“Who do you know who knows about…?”). Yet these conversations also clearly had a lot of unvoiced, unacknowledged and unrecognized objectives, what we call hidden agendas.

Social conversations, on the other hand, often seem to have no explicit objectives, which is perhaps why so many people are shy about them, and why these conversations are often awkward. Family conversations frequently appear even more so, and can also have hidden agendas. Easier to bury your face in your gadget and ‘converse’ online with people whose objectives are more overt and aligned with your own.

I have noticed that many young people have learned to cope with the ambiguity of written conversational text and with the general inarticulateness of the current age. Their rule seems to be: Don’t judge what you’ve just read until you get the context and clarification of what was really meant, which could be several dozen “I mean…” texts down the road. Someone has dubbed this “the successive approximation method of communication”.

Since I have been dabbling in pattern languages, I thought it might be interesting to see if it were possible to identify the patterns of effective conversation. Since conversation is a special type of “group process”, it seemed logical to start this inquiry with the pattern language for group process (“Group Works”), which I played a small part in bringing into the world. I reviewed some of the best and worst conversations I’ve experienced, and was able to cull the 91 Group Works patterns down to a more manageable 52 patterns of effective conversation. The result is shown in the diagram above. Please note that it’s just my own thinking, a “straw man” for discussion, and hasn’t gone through the rigorous validation process that Group Works has.

This pattern set acknowledges that (a) there are two stages to most conversations, the planning or preparation and the conversation itself; (b) conversations seem to have one or more of three ‘arcs': a creative arc driven by curiosity about possibility, a synthesis arc driven by desire to learn or decide, and an emergence arc driven by appreciation of complexity — and different patterns play out in the different arcs; and, (c) the best conversations entail collective sensitivity of the participants to both the participants (“relationships” patterns) and the process (“flow” patterns). Hence 6 different ‘categories’ of patterns.

The best conversationalists I know are extremely adept at invoking many or most of these patterns subtly and at opportune times during a conversation. If you read them through I’m guessing you know people who are particularly skillful at employing many of these patterns in conversations, with noticeable results. You probably know people who are particularly inept at invoking them (e.g. C3. Setting Appropriate Boundaries) with infuriating consequences — they can derail a conversation completely.

Note that these are patterns of good conversations, not techniques or practices. Some can be invoked but others just emerge (or fail to emerge) and need to be dealt with through an appropriate intervention in the moment. The skill is as much in noticing and learning the presence or absence of these patterns as in trying to employ them consciously. They are attributes of conversations more than instruments.

I’ve started keeping a copy of this list in front of me now during conversations (when I can do so unobtrusively), just to notice how I and the other participants in our conversations fare. I’m discovering specific patterns I need to work on more, and am starting to learn why the best conversationalists are so good at it. Feel free to download this PDF of the draft pattern list and tell me what you think — what’s missing, and where am I missing the point?

Now if only there were some way of improving the coherence and articulateness of conversationalists! I’m too old and impatient to learn the successive approximation method. So I’m learning that, for me, the patterns in Category F (Emergence and Shift) are essential to conversations with people who have very different conversational styles and worldviews from mine, and might save me from becoming even more of an impatient, misanthropic and curmudgeonly conversationalist than I already am.

Do you know the etymological origin of the word conversation, what it meant until the 16th century? Take a guess and then check it out — it might make you think differently about what a conversation really is.

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