27 May 2007

Does Free Will Exist?

Free Will is a slippery topic. We all think we have it and many social systems (e.g. laws, prisons) have it as a very basic assumption. Do we have free will?

One view is that, in the end, each of us is just a big bag of chemicals. The chemical reactions in our body determine our thoughts and actions. Therefore, the things we do are simply the inevitable result of our chemistry. I believe there's a lot of merit to that.

Any argument on whether free will exists degenerates into circular logic at some point, but there is some research now that is leaning towards lack of free will.

Does that mean that we don't have choices in life? That everything is simply pre-determined. I don't think so--not entirely.

I think the basic model is correct. We receive an input, it gets processed through the bag of chemicals and we react or respond. So in a "tactical" sense we do not have free will in that framework. However, I see two places that we can affect our responses.

First, perhaps we can reprogram the body. Things like taking care of yourself, getting good night sleep, proper diet, exercise, overall balance between work and family. Think about it. When you're tired your reactions are slower, you're more irritable, you make mistakes. Sometimes not taking care of ourselves can lead to addictions like alcoholism to escape the pain and reality of where we are in our lives.

The other thing we can do is alter the inputs. I believe this is a big part of why many "twelve step programs" work. The fellowship between the people in the groups the support, non-judgmental atmosphere, and support for the person provide strongly positive inputs. So even though bad things still happen, they are offset at least to some extent by the positive inputs from the groups. When you hear about people leaving those groups and regressing, it has something to do with the withdrawal of the support system that was helping keep their heads above the water.

Again, it gets tricky here. If your bag of chemicals is not predisposed to either get different inputs or stay healthy, then you can not change your responses. There is actually a feedback loop involved between our bodies and our ability to begin to effect changes in our lives. The fact that you are reading this blog means that you are willing to get alternate inputs. Some people will not find redemption through twelve step programs or by taking care of themselves.

Your feelings, emotions, and responses are predetermined by the quantity and quality of the inputs and by the state of your body.

Some Additional Notes:

Excellent Stanford site on Free Will.

From Wikipedia:
Arthur Schopenhauer put the puzzle of free will and moral responsibility in these terms:
Everyone believes himself a priori to be perfectly free, even in his individual actions, and thinks that at every moment he can commence another manner of life... . But a posteriori, through experience, he finds to his astonishment that he is not free, but subjected to necessity, that in spite of all his resolutions and reflections he does not change his conduct, and that from the beginning of his life to the end of it, he must carry out the very character which he himself condemns...."

In his On the Freedom of the Will, Schopenhauer stated, "You can do what you will, but in any given moment of your life you can will only one definite thing and absolutely nothing other than that one thing."

Some selected twelve step programs
Alcoholics Anonymous AA
Sexaholics Anonymous SA
Sex Addicts Anonymous SAA
Overeaters Anonymous OA
Co-Dependents Anonymous CODA

Dan Dennett gave a great talk at TED on consciousness.

On to Communication 201 >>>>>

19 May 2007

Active Listening and Feedback

Seek first to understand, then to be understood. - Stephen R. Covey, Habit 5 of the Seven Habits of Highly Successful People

An important part of communication is active listening.

Listening to another person is not a passive activity, like when you sit and watch television. Rather, it implies some degree of feedback. There are a several levels at which this can happen: acknowledgement of a message, feedback of the strict content, feedback of the underlying message.

Let's start with an example of poor active listening. I was recently telling a person how males of my generation were typically raised to be strong individualists. We were taught not to show weakness. Our fathers were like that, and so were our role models in the movies (think John Wayne). The listener sat there and stared at me. No response, no affirmation, no nodding head, no indication that I had even said anything. It was like talking to the wall, literally.

It was extremely disconcerting to me and I mentioned it. The listener (who should know better) made a defensive response about not having anything to say.

So level 1 of active listening is simple acknowledgement that you have received a message. At very least nod your head. or say "I hear you." or "I saw that too." or "OK." By saying these things you are not agreeing with the speaker, simply affirming that you are present. Anything beats the brick wall approach. Are you actively listening if you do these things? Not necessarily, but these are a minimum requirement to not discourage the speaker.

That take us us to level 2. Listening for meaning and giving content feedback. Very standard ways of doing that are to repeat back verbatim what the speaker said, or better, to paraphrase what the speaker said, being careful not to insert your own issues into it (one of my bad tendencies). So in the above example, the listener could have said something like, "So you're saying that boys in the 60s and 70s were raised as individualists." or "Is that how you were raised?" or "My family was like that too." or "I didn't really see that in my experience."

Level 3 is listening for meaning and giving emotional feedback around the underlying message. In my example, the listener could have gone beyond the words and given feedback along the lines of "It must have been hard to learn to be vulnerable."

Not all communication carries emotional content. Reporting news to someone, e.g., "The movie starts at 7:30 tonight." probably does not carry emotional content with it. Level 2 response is good in those cases--"7:30 tonight. Is that at the Paradiso?"

Avoid Giving Advice or Challenging At This Point
The first order of business is to understand the message being sent. Once you start to formulate your response or counter, you have stopped listening. Even if the speaker is, in your opinion, long-winded, you must stick with them through their communication.

It is ok to question for content. Be careful not to go beyond that and interject your own stuff. So in my example, if my listener had said something like, "So are you using your childhood environment as an excuse for your own sorry behavior?" that would have been an attack reflecting the listener's biases and opinions. Something like "Were your parents like that too?" or "Do you think that was a pervasive attitude?" or "Do you mean physical, intellectual, or emotional weakness?" would all Linkbe reasonable questions to help clarify the content.

Once you really understand the message it will be your turn, but not until you have absolutely heard and understood the basic content and underlying message.

The communication processes that I have laid out may seem overly involved with lots of unnecessary time and effort. Admittedly, it does go beyond what many people do everyday. As you get to know your counterpart better you can bypass some of the feedback steps. Repeating verbatim to someone every time they open their mouth can be really tiring for both of you. The important thing is to use these techniques as needed to ensure that good listening has occurred.

On to Does Free Will Exist >>>>>

15 May 2007

Communication 101

For communication to happen, you need a person who is a sender and one who is the receiver. Each of these people has their own filter or decoder ring through which they interpret and relate to the world.

The graphic shows the basic process. The sender has a message that he wishes to convey (e.g. "Blue"). He does his best job at expressing the message ("Purple"). The message travels through a channel or medium ("Burple") to the receiver, who translates the message ("Purple") and makes a conclusion about what the original message was ("Red"). Then in a well functioning communication system, the message is verified through feedback and the sender corrects discrepancy between the original message and what was received.

There is a lot of potential for error in this system.

Encoding errors include: lack of language skills, discrepancy between verbal and non-verbal messages, lack of clarity in the message, and wrong context.

Decoding errors include: lack of language skills, misreading non-verbal cues, and interpretation bias.

Errors that can be introduced by the channel include: transmission errors (e.g. cell phone static), incomplete message (e.g. only verbal, no visual cues), inappropriate medium for message (e.g. firing someone by email).

Finally, the feedback often does not happen at all. When it does, it too is a form of communication, so it has the same potential for error.

Nice Model, but what do we do about it?

First, realize that it takes two to tango. Avoid finding fault with others. Do not take miscommunication personally. Strive to put the communication at the proper level for the audience.

In any communication you are either the sender or the receiver. We can't control how the other person works, but we can do something about our own behaviors, and we can try to understand the receiver better.

We can always work on our encoding. Language skills, empathy, and consistency across communication channels are important parts of that. First, what you say needs to be grammatically correct. If a communication is not grammatically correct, there is a risk that nobody will understand it. This is a foundation skill, even for engineers. Second, empathy is important because it allows us to select the proper demeanor and level of communication. This is fundamentally knowing your audience. You speak differently to a 1st grader than a CEO, or a marketer and an engineer. Finally consistency across channels is important. If while announcing deaths of soldiers, you are smiling and joking, you send two very different messages.

When you are the decoder, language skills and empathy are important. Add to that the primary responsibility for providing feedback. Feedback takes several forms: it can be a direct verbatim repeating of the message, a paraphrased repeat of the message, simple affirmation that you heard what was said, or physical or verbal reactions to the message received.

The original sender must be prepared to receive the feedback with a spirit of understanding and non-judgment.

A Special Case
When the receiver of the message hears something completely different than what was intended it is normally not a problem. Just fix the communication and move on. Sometimes though the receiver hears a message that is very hurtful, even though that was not the intent. When this happens it is a big mistake to simply try to correct the message. It will likely be received as insensitive and defensive.

This has been a big issue in my life. The last thing I want to do is hurt the people closest to me. When I do, I just want to take it back and pretend it didn't happen. That doesn't work. The cat is out of the bag. So the following section describes a better approach.

If you think your message has been received in a hurtful way, the better approach is to first acknowledge the feeling, discuss it, try it on. Then once you are sure the receiver knows that you have heard and absorbed the feeling. Only then can you work the feedback loop.

So here's a silly example of how that looks:
Sender message = Blue
Sender communicates = Purple
Receiver hears = Purple
Receiver interprets = Red
Red hurts the receiver. So he says, "I can't believe you told me red. That is really mean."

Sender: No. I didn't say red, I said blue.
Why is this bad? Because the receiver in that moment is hurt. The above response would be taken as a defensive response, and in a sense denying that the feeling that the receiver had was a fact. I know that's not the intent, but...

The sender now needs to acknowledge the feeling. "Red must really hurt."

You are in essence dropping out of the main loop into a damage control subroutine. You cannot return to the main loop until the time is right.

Continue talking about the impact of Red on the receiver. Until both of you are at ease.
Then and only then can the sender go back into the feedback loop. "I know that Red really hurt, and it is a sensitivity for you. I apologize that my communication hurt you so much. May I clarify my message?"

As I say, this has been a weak part of me for a long time, but believe me it is the right thing to do. By showing concern for the receiver's feelings, and being willing to accept those feelings as facts, you dispel the idea that you are a heartless, defensive, SOB.

There are several places for error in any communication. Be careful at each step, but more importantly, always incorporate the feedback loop, regardless of whether you are the sender or the receiver. The Special Case is less common in business settings than in personal ones. But wherever it happens, you must be prepared to drop into damage control mode.

On to Active Listening and Feedback >>>>>

11 May 2007

Emotions (Feelings) Are Facts

I remember being annoyed when people would express their feelings. Thinking, come on, let's drop this soft stuff and get on to something concrete.

It turns out that feelings and emotions are concrete facts. However, it is important that they be accurate and expressed properly.

When someone starts a sentence with "I feel..." what follows is very important. Often true feelings are being expressed, and, perhaps just as often, an opinion is being expressed in a false soft manner.

Here are some examples to show what I mean:
1. I feel sad - Good sentence, expressing a feeling
2. I feel attacked - Good sentence, expressing a feeling, possibly received as accusatory
3. I feel that he said to go right - Bad job on this one. This is an opinion veiled as a feeling.

A feeling expresses a genuine emotion, so what follows after the word feel is an adjective--a descriptive word linked with your emotional state. In general though, if the word feel is followed by the word "that" it is an expression of an opinion.

Let me repeat that. if the word feel is followed by the word "that" it is an expression of an opinion.

Do you see the difference? If you could replace the word feel with the word think in your feeling statement, you are out of the realm of feelings--into your head and out of your heart. Try that with the three examples above.

Now to continue with the concept that emotions are facts. When someone says to you, "I feel scared," they are telling you a fact about their state of mind or emotion. You may feel contempt for that person, you may think that their fear is irrational, but what they have given you is a fact and you must treat it that way.

By the way, a lot of people use the word feel to express an opinion. Even Dr. Phil says it all the time. At the risk of delving into "Grammar Girl's" realm, I believe that this usage should be avoided.

One final comment on this topic. Through the years, I have heard people say, "Perception is reality." Perception is often used as a proxy for reality, but it is not necessarily a true reflection of reality. Feelings are facts; the perceptions that drive them may not be. If a person says, "I am afraid to go on elevators." It does not mean that, in any objective sense, elevators are dangerous. Many people lose sight of this and assume that because they have a feeling, it must reflect the reality of the situation. This perception-is-reality thinking can drive people and society to bad decisions. Feelings are simply a person's interpretation of some objective reality. That interpretation is filtered through everything they are.

On to Communication 101>>>>>

01 May 2007

I Are Engineer

Where I went to college, we used to say on graduation day, "Last year I couldn't even spell engineer, now I are one." It's pretty funny to me and points out the irony of engineering in the US--that engineers are supposed to be calculating machines, never mind the so-called soft skills.
Four or more years of math, logic, science, and engineering can turn anyone into an automaton, and I was no exception. I had a lot of contempt for the soft side of life. Emotions and feelings were not real, just some figment of someone's overactive hormones acting up.

In the last several years, I have done a lot of work with therapists and self-help through reading to get my head on straight and have a better life.

In the process I had a few realizations:

1. There is a lot of sound work and theory behind psychology

2. Emotions and feelings are very real to people. You have to acknowledge that.

3. Most self-help books have some really important nugget to take away, but...

4. The good nuggets are at a very low density in most of the reading.

5. It might be useful to someone if I attempted to explain some of these soft concepts in terms that an engineer (or maybe just a guy) could understand.

In putting together the posts, I want to emphasize that I am still learning a lot of this stuff. I try to do things right, but often I fail. So if I talk about what good communication looks like, it doesn't mean that I am an expert at it. Like everyone, I'm just trying to get by.

Something that I'm noticing is that as I grow older (I'm about 50 now), I tend to get more emotional and sentimental about things. I am quite certain that it relates to decrease in testosterone (about 1% per year after age 30 in males). This is frustrating at times, but it has also allowed me to build a greater experience base with my emotional side.

On to Feelings Are Facts>>>