Plastic fantastic

Rory Miller does a drill called “plastic mind” at his ‘Introduction to Violence’ workshops. Quick and dirty explanation is that you go through the drill as if you were somebody else. I found it extremely useful, if very humbling. It highlighted a bunch of issues, particularly glitches and self-imposed limitations. It’s heaps of fun (“imagine your ultimate goal is to make her giggle”, and the like). For me, it was also very humbling; I’m a better training partner when I’m not being me. As food for thought goes, that’s rather hard to swallow.

(If you can’t attend his seminars he’s written a book on drills, and now there are DVDs.  I’ve not seen the DVDs yet, but if they’re anything like the rest of his stuff, they’ll be brill.)

I’ve been thinking about plastic mind a lot lately, mostly about how people don’t seem to play with it enough. Kids play pretend all the damn time. Adults, though, often seem to calcify to the point that they lose that ability. It’s less about a person becoming inflexible in how they operate, though that can be a problem. My main issue is the fact that it can prevent people from actually understanding other people.

A lack of plastic mind can:

  1. Prevents successful empathy. Plastic mind empathy is “how would I feel if I were you going through whatever you’re going through.” Non-plastic mind empathy is “how would I feel going through whatever you’re going through.” The latter only yields accurate results if the two people are similar.
  2. Mess up assessments of strengths and weaknesses. Plastic mind assessment evaluates the strengths and weaknesses another person has. Non-plastic mind assessment consists of looking at what strengths and weaknesses we have, and comparing that set and that set only to that of another person. Strengths we have and they lack are put down as their weaknesses; weaknesses we have and they lack are put down as their strengths. No consideration is paid to the fact that different situations may result in people developing a completely different set of strengths and weaknesses. [In role-playing terms, it’d be kinda like assuming that a character’s attributes are the only valid attributes. So if a warrior has strength and dexterity but not much intelligence, every other character is evaluated on the basis of those three attributes, completely discounting all other considerations. That might work fine, until you meet a character that teaches your the error of discounting magic, fire-breathing, or machine guns.]
  3. Make it almost impossible to understand people’s underlying motivations and goals. Similar behaviours can stem from completely different underlying causes. Handling those behaviours is much easier if those causes are understood. Clueless handling may still work, but the results are likely to be unpredictable, unreliable, or short-lived.

None of the above matters if everyone involved in a situation is relatively similar. If that’s not the case, however, a lack of plastic mind can result in giant communication trainwrecks. Until the people involved realise that they’re just not getting each other, the miscommunication is unlikely to get resolved.

How much of a problem that is depends on what’s going on. If all you’re doing is chatting on a plane, it probably doesn’t matter much. If understanding someone’s inner workings is important to a relationship, or to the safe resolution of a situation, this kind of misunderstandings can degenerate into disasters.

There are some tricks to get around that. For instance, Rory asks a question in some of his workshops: what would you do if the system you lived in had collapsed and your children were starving? What crimes would you commit, what behaviours would you entertain? The results often highlight glitches in people’s thinking. For instance, murder is mentioned more often that prostitution; that makes no sense, until you consider that murder is, to most people, a purely theoretical construct, while prostitution is more relatable, more real. The main point of the exercise, though, is to explain to people that addicts commit that kind of act every day. The drive an addict feels to get the next fix is equivalent to the drive a parent feels to stop their child from starving; it’s that overwhelming. Until people can relate with that kind of headspace, they could completely fail to understand where addicts is coming from and how far they’re likely to go.

The rabbit hole I’m still exploring is no. 2: strengths and weaknesses. I routinely see that failure in assessment when dealing with people from functional families. They see my family background as a drawback; they look at what they have and I lack, and add up the losses. They think in terms of what they would have lost if their loving families had been taken away from them. What they completely fail to consider how coming from a different background has shaped me from day 1, given me a different set of attitudes, strengths, weaknesses, and motivations. I’m not “them minus their families”; I’m a different entity, shaped by different pressures. I might lack some of their strengths, but I lack some of their weaknesses, too. Not seeing this causes a lot of misunderstandings, and a metric ton of underestimations.

The thing I find most fascinating is that I do the same. Because growing up in a vaguely functional family unit is considered the norm, I have tended to measure myself by ‘normal’ criteria. I’ve tended to look at what I’ve missed, and tried to compensate for that. Up to a certain point that works, and it’s almost essential to my operating in a ‘normal’ social context. I have to be mindful of how I might misstep because of my background. However, that should have only been only half of my evaluation. I failed to take into account everything I have that they don’t. More importantly, I forgot that a lot of the time we just don’t play the same game. Missing a bishop isn’t that big a deal if you’re playing tiddlywinks.


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