Sourcing Sources.

What you are reading right now is a blog. It’s written and posted by me, because I want to. I get no financial remuneration for writing it. I don’t have to meet anyone’s criteria in order to post it. Not only I don’t have an employer or publisher, but I’m not even constrained by having to please an audience. If people won’t like it, they won’t read it, but I won’t lose anything by it. Provided I don’t break any laws (libel, incitement to violence, etc.), I can post whatever I want. This means that I can write openly and honestly, however controversial my opinions may be. It also means that I could write total bullshit; there is no quality control. I could be biased. I could be insane. I could be trolling.

Some blogs are monetized, often via advertising. This means that they still have no quality control, and are biased towards writing whatever may attract large audiences.

This is a newspaper article. It’s written by a journalist. Journalists are professionals; however, many of them are professionals at journalism. If they write an article about a specific subject, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are experts on that particular subject.

Newspaper articles are subjected to a review process. On the one hand, this can ensure that journalists don’t write total dross. On the other hand, some publications consist almost solely of dross: spin, exaggerations, exposés of scandals that never took place, etc.. Shocking stuff sells, and newspapers need an audience. They make their money not just by selling the paper to the audience, but by selling the audience to the advertisers. The selection process does not necessarily focus on accuracy.

This is a scholarly article. It is written by an expert in that particular field, and peer-reviewed by other experts. This ought to ensure the highest possible level of quality control, if only scientists weren’t a. humans and b. paid for their work. Scholarly articles are often written in ways completely impenetrable to laypeople, making them hard to decipher, let alone critically evaluate them.

This… I don’t know what to call this. To call it “popular science” seems an insult both to science and to the population. Some publications produce allegedly scientific articles for laypeople. Most of them neglect to give sufficient information about the research behind the articles. Looking up this information can be both interesting and incredibly depressing, as many of the projects are blatantly statistically invalid, often to minuscule sample sizes. Then again, these publications have to produce articles regardless of whether any ground-breaking discoveries have been made or not.

This is a book. It’s written by a writer and published by a publisher. Contrary to public opinion, the underlying purpose of publishing isn’t the edification of all humankind. The publishing business is precisely that: a business. Books are selected by publishers based on whether they are likely to sell.

This is a self-published book – you can tell that because there is no mention of a publisher on the copyright page. Anyone can write and publish anything they want; for digital books, they don’t even have to pay for that privilege. A self-published book may or may not have been peer-reviewed, edited, or even proof-read. (As it happens, this one has been checked extensively; it’s my book and I wasn’t going to put my name on anything less than the best I could produce.)

The bottom line is: not all sources are equivalent, and all sources have their pros and cons. These needs to be taken into account when evaluating information, and all information should be evaluated.

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The Magical Middle Ground

One of the most dangerous myths in conflict management is that of the Middle Ground. The Middle Ground is seen as a magical land which, once you reach it, will bring happiness and co-operation where grief and strife used to reign. “We were locked in this awful argument about this issue, but then we found the Middle Ground and POOOOF! Everyone was happy!” The quantity of wishful thinking that goes into this is almost staggering.

First of all, if the middle ground was amenable to all, there wouldn’t bloody be a conflict in the first place. Conflicts don’t occur just over misunderstandings. Sometimes people genuinely need/want incompatible things. In order to find a middle ground, people must be willing not just to negotiate (i.e. to talk about the issue), but also to compromise (i.e. to potentially settle for less than they need/want). Whenever that is not the case, as Marc MacYoung says, “the middle-ground has to be fought for.”

In fact, you may not have to fight just to gain it, but also to hold it. Unless everyone truly and willingly embraces the middle ground, the conflict will continue because disgruntled or disaffected people may continue pushing towards their original goal. This can be a particular problem when people feel righteous about their positions; even people who are willing to compromise on non-essential practical issues may fight to the last breath “for what is Right”. (If you think you’re above this pettiness and so should be everyone else, would you willingly compromise on something you consider abominable, like human trafficking or pedophilia?)

Secondly, sometimes the middle ground is not a place you want to be. Forgive me my now customary reductio ad absurdum, but if someone wants to rape you, getting him to only stick it in half way is probably not an acceptable solution. There are plenty of situations when someone wants something that is neither fair nor acceptable. Giving in part way, while it may appease them in the short term, may not work for you. The middle ground approach hinges on the fact that everyone’s position is reasonable, which is patently not always the case. This can be particularly hard to spot if the unreasonable person is you. (Hint: if you make a request and everyone’s reaction is “are you fucking shitting me?”, you may be the only person seeing the light, but you may also be completely in the wrong.)

Thirdly, giving in part way to someone’s requests/demands is not guaranteed to create a bond of friendship and respect; in fact, it can do precisely the opposite. No schoolyard bully ever became someone’s friend because they gave up their lunches without a fight. The Danegeld did not make the Viking like or respect the English. Essentially, if someone is trying to screw you and you give in part way, all you’ve achieved is showing them that you are willing to be screwed. The next time they’ll probably ask for more, because they know that the strategy works.

Monsters are rare but real.

My friend Eric Plume (creator of the best female PI I’ve ever met, who can be found here) nailed it in one:

A good many people skip the first step in conflict resolution, which as I see it is “am I dealing with a predator, or just somebody who disagrees with me?”

Everyone, and conflict “experts” are often no exception, wants a one-size-fits-all to dealing with all situations. Systems are created to be The Answer To The Problem, completely missing the point that there are actually several different problems that may look the same superficially, yet need completely different answers.

At one extreme, there is a school of thoughts that all disagreeable people are abusers/predators/potential killers, that all conflict could go violent, and that one should always strike the first blow in order to ensure not just victory, but most likely survival. Safety can only be attained by disabling every attacker, which is anyone who looks likely to engage in conflict. There’s thankfully only a very limited number of special people who subscribe to this extreme, but unfortunately there are plenty who subscribe to a non-physical version of the same attitude. They often self-label as “assertive”; other people often label them as “assholes”, because they enter into every dialogue with an unnecessarily antagonistic attitude.

The problem with bloody conflict, whether you’re talking literally or figuratively, is that if you absolutely expect to find it, you almost certainly will. The people around us can be mirrors of ourselves. If you walk into a dialogue all guns blazing, you can almost certainly single-handedly turn it into a verbal fight. If you push things far enough, you might find yourself in the middle of a physical fight, too. Furthermore, if you don’t recognise the mechanism of how the situation developed and your role in it, you can self-justify that your initial assessment was correct.

Provided that they have actual skills to match their attitude, these people may do well against actual predators and aggressors. Thankfully, though, actual predators are not really that common, so a lot of aggro is thrown around to fight imaginary monsters.

At the opposite end of the scale you find the people who believe that everyone is fundamentally nice, that everyone can be reasoned or negotiated with, and that violence only happens when people lack better ways to meet their needs. Most of the time, these people are right: most normal people in their right minds will not engage in unnecessary conflict, let alone violence. Unfortunately, there are people out there who revel in causing people pain – whether it’s physical, psychological, or emotional, that’s what they enjoy doing. They are not hurting others because they don’t know any better, or in order to get something; they do it because they like it.

As Eric puts it:

Monsters are rare but real. One side needs to acknowledge the rarity, the other the reality. Both need to acknowledge that the methods for dealing with a situation depend ENTIRELY on what’s assailing a person.

“You people seem to get raped a lot…”

I got pissed off by something on the internet. This may not sound like ground-breaking news, but this time I got pissed off by something the Dalai Lama said, which is special even for me. The quote in question was:
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Now, I totally agree to looking for a non-violent solution whenever practical. Aside from ethical considerations, I find violence painful, risky, and costly. My bugbear is with stating that non-violence is always feasible, that it is the only option one should consider, or that being forced to engage in it is a sign of strategic failure or personality flaw.

I also see children as adults-in-training, inasmuch as they are developing the skills and attitudes they will require when older. Therefore, it really cheeses me off when they are indoctrinated into a lie. At what age and how do you rewire their brains to allow them to give themselves permission to defend themselves physically if required? Why create that mental barrier in the first place?

So there I was, arguing my point admittedly in a less-than-calm manner, when a bright spark posted this:

“You people seemed to get raped, jumped, and confronted in dark alleys a lot… if one can’t see a non-violent solution to a problem, doesn’t that make the thinker violent?”
I think it was at that point that the smoke started coming out of my ears.Yes, “my people” used to get raped, jumped, and confronted in dark alleys a lot. In fact, there was  time in my life when I didn’t know a woman who had NOT been sexually assaulted by a stranger – and I’m talking deliberate, often violent predation of a sexual nature, not social situations gone awry. They lived dangerous lives in unsalubrious places, for which there are costs. At that point those lives and places were their only options. Shit happened. My people got hurt.

Tim Larkin came up with “Violence is seldom the answer. But when it is it the only answer.” Marc MacYoung modified it to  “Violence is seldom the answer. But when it is, it’s the best answer” because, of course you could choose to die, get raped, etc. If you encounter a predator determined to harm you, what is your non-violent solution? Is your middle ground option with a rapist to ask him to only stick it in half way? Yes, those situations, thankfully, don’t happen often – but they DO happen.

Was this enough to convince the person arguing with me that there were options the Dalai Lama’s approach wouldn’t cover? Oh, no.

It’s really a level of creative thinking. That and awareness. Violent situations don’t just go from zero to one-hundred (yes, there are rare cases of extreme onset.) But outside of those, all the events leading up to that point should be indicators to the “aware.”
So there you go, people. If someone violently assaults you and you resort to violence, it’s a failure on your part. This is what we should teach children to make the world a better place. The fact that this also teaches them to either be passive victims or torture themselves if they resort to violence is immaterial. Tiptoe through the tulips.

Building Anti-Resilience.

From http://time.com/3892044/the-science-of-bouncing-back/:

“…humans can train their brains to build and strengthen different connections that don’t reinforce the fear circuit. Over time, if people use this new pathway enough, it can become the new response to stress.”

I find it interesting that the article failed to mention the social costs of embracing that kind of behaviour.

People who have been in a position where they just couldn’t afford to crumble under stress often learn that panicking takes up too much valuable mental circuitry. They learn to keep their heads in check because that is the only way to keep making rational, sensible, GOOD decisions – which, when mistakes can cost you a lot, is not an optional extra. For me, that means applying the risk assessment and management techniques that I learnt through hitchhiking and work to everyday life. Other people do it differently, but the one thing we all seem to have in common is that we have learnt emotional self-control under pressure. It’s not that I don’t care about my feelings, but that I know that I can’t allow them to lead me around by the nose, because it may make me act stupid. I cannot begin to express how utterly unpopular this kind of attitude seems to be these days – not only passé, but actually treated as if it was abominable by a notable proportion of the population.

Social media gives us plenty of opportunities to watch popular behaviour in response to significant events. As soon as an event breaks on the “news”, it’s now popular to launch into an emotional response about it. Do not wait to find out more information about it – what are the details? where does the blame sit? did it even actually happen? The popular response is to go right on ahead and emote wildly. Choose a side and feel as hard as you can! The other side will obviously attack you, but you’ll be in good company. If you do not choose a side, do not join in with the emoting, you will be attacked by absolutely everybody. How can you not care? Have you no feelings, or no morals?

It seems to me that our society now revels in emotional responses for their own sake. It doesn’t matter if they are valid, or useful. It just matters that we have them and display them as hard as we can. With enough repetition, this anti-resilient behaviour can become our go-to response in times of stress.

As our scientists discover more and more about the mechanisms of resilience, our society renders them not only unpopular, but even abominable. The problem is that, as the article mention, “It doesn’t take a predator to trigger a stress response in modern humans. Some research shows that even feelings of social pain–like rejection and loneliness–zoom along the same neural pathways as fear.” So we have created a catch-22: we’re punishing efforts at building and maintaining resilience in a way that requires a lot of resilience to overcome.

Rise of the Cyborgs.

Perfect timing: this article just appeared on my newsfeed: http://time.com/3892044/the-science-of-bouncing-back/ (please note I’ve not background checked it – if you do and you spot a problem, please tell us all in the comments).

It’s a interesting and easy read, so totally worth it, but a quick summary is:

  • Resilience is a set of skills that can be learnt, not a disposition or personality type.
  • “Resilient people seem to have the capacity to appropriately regulate the subcortical fear circuits under conditions of stress” – i.e., they can limit their panicking under stress, and can quickly calm themselves down.
  • Practicing with little stressors help us prepare with big ones.
  • You have to find out what techniques best work for you, but things that seem to work include: facing the things that scare you; developing an ethical code to guide decision-making; building a support network; building physical strength; practicing mindfulness.

People competent at handling emergencies are able to navigate through them instead of being tossed about by them. And, like canoeists can practice to handle rapids, we can practice to handle what life throws at us. We can literally reconfigure our neural pathways to make our responses more effective.

This research backs up the conflict management techniques and issues presented in previous blogs. People can train themselves to handle conflict in the same way that they can train themselves to handle other stressors. In fact, this ought to be relatively easier than with other stressors, as a lot of everyday conflict can be highly predictable.

If we choose to think about it, we can all anticipate what sort of conflicts we are most likely to encounter; whether it’s backstabbing colleagues, hot-and-cold bosses, sex pests on public transport, unreliable family members, flaky friends, etc., we all know what ails us on a regular basis. With enough exposure, we can collect enough data points to make the behaviour of those around us highly predictable. We can learn to anticipate what people are likely to do, so we can manage the resulting fallout or avoid it altogether. In fact, if they are not honest with themselves about their behaviour, we can learn to anticipate what they are going to be doing before THEY do. Their self-awareness will be clouded by the story they are telling themselves about themselves, while our predictors are based purely on their past behaviour.

This is remarkably easy, yet so many of us choose not to do it. In fact, we’ve made it increasingly socially unacceptable. Making educated predictions on people’s future actions is “judgemental”. Furthermore, shaping situations in order to avoid or avert future conflict is “manipulative”. We operate as if there was a moral high ground to be gained by refusing to learn from past experiences, for dealing with people as they really are, rather than as they’d like to be, and basically for getting blindsided all the time. For a society that abhors conflict, we seem to be awfully determined to deprive ourselves of the means of avoiding much of it.

It ain’t about bear hunting, is it.

In order to manage conflict most effectively, the progression then is:

  1. Analysing the situation.
  2. Setting the goal(s).
  3. Evaluating all available strategies on the basis of the likelihood of achieving the goal(s) vs. costs.
  4. Implementing the chosen strategy.
  5. Reviewing its efficacy and readjusting if necessary.

So, basically: What is going on? What do I want? How do I get it? Is it working?

(“But that clearly would take too long and then the person who’s charging towards me waving an ax and screaming bloody murder will get to me and cut me up!” Hmkay. So if you are actually being physically assaulted, this is not the time to run a cost-and-benefit analysis on legging it out of there. This approach is for those times when your life isn’t in immediate danger, which blissfully tend to happen with greater frequency.)

When you start looking at conflict with that kind of filter, several interesting things happen. You may find yourself staying calmer through the process. You’re guiding your mental processes instead of being dragged around by them. This is particularly interesting when your opponent aims to get an emotional raise out of you and fails abysmally. I find it entertaining to watch their little faces grow more and more uncomfortable and confused – but I’m mean like that.

You may also find yourself listening more attentively to your internal dialogue, and discovering that much of it is not terribly rational. It can appear as if your head is full of panicky schoolgirls shrieking in horror at nothing, or hooligans baying for blood. This new awareness may make you better able to control these tendencies, and less prone to over-reactions.

When things get really interesting is when you start noticing huge discrepancies between people’s stated goals and their strategies. For instance, if you “just want to get good service”, treating your server like a peon is not a good strategy. On the other hand, if you want to feel superior by treating someone like shit, and you don’t mind ingesting someone’s spit in order to achieve that, it’s a great way to go.

Sometimes it turns out that people are genuinely unable to connect the dots. They genuinely haven’t thought through the possible consequences of their actions. Sometimes, though, being that clueless would require an IQ below room temperature, in Celsius. Some people take up strategies that don’t help them achieve their stated goal for the simple reason that their real goal is completely different. They can’t admit their real goal because it is, for whatever reason, inappropriate; it may be petty, unethical, unhealthy, illegal, etc. So, consciously or unconsciously, they pick a “good” stated goal to use as window-dressing, while their strategies keep taking them towards the real goal. Then they can get what they really want, and act all innocent about it, too.

Please note: only point this out to people if you enjoy dancing jigs over hornets’ nests. You’d be insulting their ethics or uncovering major cognitive dissonances. Don’t expect thanks.

I am not the jackass whisperer.

Based on my previous post, am I saying that we should avoid conflict at all cost, capitulating at the first sign of danger?

No, I’m bloody well not.

I’m saying that, before choosing a strategy, you need to define your goals, which depend on the specific situation. Then you can choose the strategy that gives you the best chances of achieving that goal at the least cost.

For instance, in that particular scenario my short-term goal was to remove Huff’n’Puff from my door. My long-term goal was to continue to run my business in a way that maximises my gains and minimises my hassles. There were no additional goals associated to that guy. I didn’t care about teaching him a lesson. I didn’t care about his opinion of me. He’s not a regular feature in my life. I won’t have to deal with his behaviour and attitudes again, because he’s no longer welcome as a customer (and yes, I have that level of control over my life, which is swell.).

Because our “relationship” was strictly short-term, I didn’t feel a need or a responsibility to change him. Though it is upsetting to know that I have to share a planet with him, making him a better person would be all costs and no gains – and if that sounds selfish, it’s because it is. I am prioritising myself. I am not the Jackass Whisperer, and I will not be cannon fodder in a made-up war to make the world a better place one asshole at a time.

All these factors applied because the relationship was short-term. Had he been a regular customer I couldn’t get rid of (as was the case when I worked in Local Government), a member of my social group, or anyhow someone I’d have been forced to interact with again, it would have been a different story. Issues about creating a precedence about how our relationship was going to be run would have then emerged.  It’s the difference between a random mugger and a school bully trying to steal your lunch. Because the situation is different, the goals are different, so the strategies need to be different.

He was as disposable to me as a kleenex, so I also genuinely didn’t care about his opinion of me. He might have gone home bragging about what he’d achieved, how he’d “put me in my place”, or any suchlike thing. I cannot begin to express the extent of the toss I do not give about this.

I chose a strategy based on a cost-and-benefit assessment of a selection of options. I chose what achieved the best results for me. Hence, I feel I’ve “won”.

However, had I only had that one strategy, because I was hobbled by lack of skills or permission, I couldn’t have chosen at all. I would have been forced to give in to his request. And although the picture might have looked the same from the outside, my feelings about it would have been completely different.

Peace of mind came cheap.

We had a situation at work. A woman had made arrangements with us for the care of her dog. The arrangements were non-standard as the dog is insanely aggressive. After the fact, her husband wasn’t happy. So, typically, they said nothing at first, then a few days later they turned up at my office. He was clearly trying to build up a head of steam to be all intimidating and shit, and she was apparently carrying out a survey of my floor.

I was entirely in the right, with a signed contract to prove it. He was entirely in the wrong. Talking reason to him wasn’t going to work (though I tried), because there was nothing reasonable about his complaint. In the meanwhile, my doorway was obstructed by a huffing-and-puffing asshole. While I always enjoy watching people who try to intimidate me get freaked out when it doesn’t work, I needed to remove him before the arrival of other customers.

The way I saw it, I had several options:

  1. Irritate him into doing something stupid, like hitting me, then get the police to deal with him.
  2. Irritate him into hitting me, then feed him into a wall.
  3. Just feed him into a wall.
  4. Get verbally abusive at him and make him run away.
  5. Tell him we’d see him in court.
  6. Find out what the hell he wanted to walk away.

Option 1 and 2 would have been easy peasy (I’m a naturally irritating person and he clearly had a chip on his shoulder) and physically low-risk as he seemed made of spaghetti, but required too much official paperwork.

Option 3 would have been enjoyable in the short-term, but potentially costly. Having been to boarding school, I don’t fancy jail.

Option 4 was time-consuming, tiring, and not terribly professional.

Explaining the implications of option 5 to him would have been fun. The process would have involved his pooch getting a temperament test, potentially resulting in it being put down. However, if he had been stupid enough to really try that, it would have resulted in an official investigation of my business. We’ve got nothing to hide, but it would have been intrusive, costly in the short-term, and stressful. Plus the papers would have been bound to pick up the story, and shit sticks.

So I asked him “what did I need to give him to make him get out of my doorway”. He wanted £70 (half of what they’d paid).

I gave him the money without a word and walked off. He stood there for a little while, quivering in (self-)righteous anger, but as nobody was paying him any attention he ended up just slinking off, wife in tow.

Afterwards my Minion expressed her surprise at the fact that there hadn’t been any fireworks. She didn’t think it’d “end that easily”. Why had I “given up”?

Thing is, I hadn’t. I just value my time and peace of mind well over £70. I’d chosen to put MY needs and wants first. That doesn’t feel like a capitulation to me.

Capitulation.

If* conflict is natural for people, then it is natural for people to feel the need for conflict management skills. Lacking those skills could cause a person to feel that they are missing something critical. Every time a conflict approaches on the horizon, this lack of resources could cause them to become excessively adrenalised, even when the conflict is low-level or low-risk. Adrenalisation could further lower their abilities to deal with the situation. This can shape both how people handle conflicts – what strategies they select and according to what principles – and how they judge the results.

It could very well be that “do nothing and walk away” is objectively the best strategy, with lowest risks and highest chance of success. However, if that strategy isn’t selected by individuals out of a menu of other possible strategies, then it isn’t likely to feel like a “win”. It’s more likely to feel like a cop out or a submission. You can’t “choose a peaceful solution” if that’s your only option, because then you’re not choosing at all. You’re being forced into peace.

While the practical results may be the same, the story you will tell yourself about the event will be completely different. Instead of “I very rationally and sensibly chose to disengage, yay me” you may be telling yourself that “you chickened out, yet again”. You may worry about other people’s perception of you. Do they think you a coward or push-over? What do you have to do to regain their respect? Essentially, you may be kicking yourself for not doing something riskier and stupider but more, like, epic and shit.

This isn’t a sign that there’s something wrong with your head; ask around and you’ll find that many or most people share those feelings. This is also not a sign that there’s something wrong with our collective head; this attitude has served us well as a species. We’re a lot weaker than many predators (lions and tigers and bears, oh my), yet we’ve essentially managed to take over the planet. We didn’t do that by being meek.

If you want to be able to walk away from dangerous situations AND to feel good about it, you need to have some other arrows in your quiver. Peace needs to feel like a choice, not like a capitulation. 

That’s precisely the opposite of where our society is going. We’re trying to force people into acting peaceful by not giving them any alternatives. We are depriving people of the opportunity to learn and practice conflict management skills. We’re churning out individuals who are insecure, adrenalised at the least sign of hassle, and plagued by an inner voice that calls them cowards. And then we call it “shocking” when they overreact or snap, and petty conflicts escalate unnecessarily.

*Yes, that’s an “if”, not a given. That’s what I believe and one of the main underpinnings of my thoughts on the subject. If I’m wrong on this one, then the whole cathedral falls down.