Friday, July 31, 2009

They Came; They Drank; They Left: Group Therapy in the Rose Garden

Apparently the President and Vice President of the United States have nothing better to do than to engage in some group therapy with Prof. Gates and Sgt. Crowley.

Our commander-in-chief still sees himself as therapist-in-chief. Leader he is not.

Why waste your time negotiating with foreign powers or working with Congress on new legislation when you can down a few cold ones and conciliate a local dispute?

When you do it in plain view of a public that just wishes the whole thing would go away, you are simply abrogating your responsibility to provide leadership.

Obama's therapy session was telling in itself. It was not designed to make the dispute go away; it sought to elevate its importance and to provoke discussion. It seems that Obama believes that the nation is suffering from not having done enough therapy on our race issue.

Among the more interesting commentaries on this kerfuffle was that of Rosabeth Moss Kanter, chaired professor at Harvard Business School, a leading authority on corporate leadership. Link here.

There is good and bad in Kanter's article. First, the not-so-good. For those who do not want to burden themselves with a close examination of the facts of the case, Kanter tells us that when two people of two different races encounter each other, race is always the issue.

Given that assumption, she assumes that the urbane gentleman, her friend Prof. Gates, was humiliated by Sgt. Crowley.

Kanter does not even allow for the possibility that Prof. Gates, by mouthing off to a police officer, humiliated himself. A gentleman does not go for the drama.

I would mention that when Kanter calls Gates a "distinguished professor and gentleman" she is drawing a class distinction.

As I argued in my previous pose on this matter (link here)once you run the situation through your race narrative, then you must conclude that the white man was disrespecting the African-American man, even if he was not.

Kanter does not have to evaluate the situation; she has prejudged it. She finds what she expected to find. And those who might see it otherwise should be subjected, as she puts it, to therapy. That is, to more interpersonal dialogue about race... the better to develop their capacity for empathy.

In other words, the way to overcome racism is to talk about racism. And the way to respect people in the present is to keep reminding them of all the times they were disrespected in the past.

This is what the therapy culture would recommend. The fact that it does not work does not seem to prevent eminent professors of management from telling us to keep trying.

In order to incite our repressed empathy Kanter tells about the white man who is an executive in an Asian corporation. He does not speak the language; he does not totally understand the culture; he cannot participate in the corporate rituals; he is not respected when he offers an opinion at a meeting.

He feels like an outsider. Apparently this means that he can feel what it feels like to be Prof.

Clearly, this is an exercise in specious analogies. However compelling it may feel at Harvard Business School, it does not hold up to minimal scrutiny.

First, if this man is so thoroughly disrespected, how did he get his job? His position belies the notion of discrimination.

Second, does this white man belong to a group that has suffered systematic enslavement and discrimination at the hands of his Asian corporate masters?

If not, why should his experience be analogized to that of Prof. Gates?

Beyond that, Prof. Kanter makes an excellent point when she says that in a world of free trade and international commerce it is necessary for people to learn to get along.

Getting along is the real issue. As the estimable non-Harvard non-professor non-gentleman Rodney King put it: "Why can't we all just get along?"

Getting along is not about drama. And the world of commerce is not analogous to a courtroom drama. It does not run on guilt, suppressed or sublimated.

How can people who come from different parts of the world, who have different life experiences, who were brought up in different cultures... get along? How can they get along when the one was brought up in a society that oppressed, massacred, or enslaved the other?

We are not going to solve these problems by learning what it feels like to live the lives that other people have lived. If you are not African-American you will never really know what it feels like to be African-American. Similarly for every other ethic or racial group.

And dare I say, given the multiplicity of cultures and peoples in the world it is a complete waste of valuable psychic resources to try to feel what it feels like to belong to each and every group one will encounter.

To discover how best to "just get along," look at the way our culture has dealt with the problems created by social mobility. This has been going on for centuries, so we do have something of a test case.

Here Great Britain and America have clearly led the way. In America, even more than in Britain, social status is less based on family, heritage, bloodline, or race than in other parts of the world. In that case, status and prestige can be based on achievement and accomplishment.

Social mobility throws people who have grown up in different circumstances together? How do they learn to get along?

By learning the rules of etiquette and decorum; by practicing civility. Even by inventing new rules.

If rich and poor alike have equal access to the rules of proper behavior they have a way to interact socially, to get along. The important point is that while titles are only available to a privileged few, good manners are available to everyone.

The solution to the problems of social mobility and free trade between nations was simply to be courteous and respectful.

Courtesy means treating people with respect. Ask yourself this: is it respectful to remind your interlocutor that you belong to a higher social class? Of course not. The behavior is rude and disrespectful.

And is it respectful to remind the person that his ancestors belonged to a lower social class? Again, you would not want to do so. The behavior would be rude and disrespectful.

Prof. Kanter is correct to note that the whole situation would have easily have been defused if both parties had acted courteously. The problem is, by all appearances, that only one person acted disrespectfully. That person was her friend, Prof. Gates.

The counseling session in the Rose Garden seems to have been designed to restore the dignity of the distinguished Harvard Professor.

After all, the fact that you have been treated horribly in the past does not give you, or me, or anyone else, license to behave badly in the present.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Cathy Alter Takes Advice

Cathy Alter's "Up For Renewal" is the antidote to Elizabeth Gilbert's "Eat Pray Love." In much the same way that coaching is the antidote to therapy.

Where Gilbert tried to put her life back together by eating her way through Italy, praying her way through India, and loving her way through Bali, Alter takes an entirely different approach to solving her problems: she decides to take advice. From women's magazines, no less.

Gilbert's is a spiritual journey, a voyage of inner self-discovery. Even where she is dealing with more bodily needs she is more concerned with the inside, not the outside.

Alter's is a retraining exercise in which she spends a year following the advice she finds in the pages of Elle, Cosmo, In Style, Marie Claire, O, etc.

Of course, I am somewhat late to the "Up For Renewal." But I am not its target demographic either.

I am happy to have discovered it, even at this late date, because its approach has great value, even for people who have never picked up a copy of Cosmo.

I would certainly recommend it over Gilbert's far more costly, and more dubious effort to engage in three kinds of self-indulgence.

As Alter's book begins, she is traumatized by a divorce, and making bad life choices. She does not try to discover why she is making these mistakes, but decides to solve the problem by outsourcing decision-making.

This is an excellent approach to overcoming the effects of trauma. If trauma causes you to make bad decisions, then the solution to the problem is not to explore the trauma, but to outsource decision-making.

If you can succeed in following those decisions rigorously, they will help you to exit the pain of a trauma. Alter's book demonstrates that taking advice is beneficial, even if the advice seems to be somewhat dubious.

When you set your mind to take advice you put your judgment on hold and you disable your ego. Taking advice puts you on the path to discipline and humility.

It also gets you out of your traumatized mind and back in touch with reality.

In fact, when you are taking advice you are not prejudging whether it is good or bad. You are trying it out, to see how it works. You are engaging in trial and error.

As you know women's magazines often come under attack for offering bad advice or for leading women away from the true path of feminism. Link here.

Alter brings her own experience to the debate. For her the lessons she gleaned from women's magazines were life-changing. Basically, they gave her life back to her. Why would anyone want to argue with that?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

What Does It Mean To Be Responsible?

Like Amitai Etzioni I am an inveterate reader of advice columns. I believe that anyone who gets into the business of therapy or coaching should make an effort to work through the dilemmas these columns address. Every advanced degree program in clinical psychology or coaching should include a course on Miss Manners.

Learning how to deal with real dilemmas is far more useful than mastering a myriad of theoretical abstractions. Believe me, I know.

Most serious thinkers look down on the practice of giving advice. Therapists disparage it in favor of their own favorite activities of asking how it feels and offering empathy. Perhaps because therapy has always looked down on advice-giving, this essential human activity has been relegated to the Style pages.

To my mind advice columns are like the common law. They adjudicate before they theorize. They offer solutions to specific dilemmas faced by real people. They do not offer grand theoretical constructions and beautiful abstractions.

A few days ago Etzioni wrote a column about some advice offered by Carolyn Hax, advice columnist of the Washington Post. Link here.

A woman wrote to Hax explaining that her sister had asked permission to name her as her children's guardian in the event of her and her husband's death.

Surprisingly, the aunt refused. She explained that she and her husband had chosen not to have children, and if she did not want to care for children of her own she was not going to risk bringing up someone else's children, even her sister's.

Her sister and brother-in-law did not take kindly to this refusal. Now there is a rift in the family.

Even more surprising was Hax's response, summarized by Etzioni: "...responsibility for children lies with the parents, ... extended family are under no obligation to accept this responsibility for themselves."

Etzioni was appalled by this redefinition of responsibility. So am I. Hax seems to be saying that the mother should be duty-bound respect the wishes of the childless aunt.

I would note that this mother did not intend to send her children over to their aunt tomorrow afternoon. She is not trying to pawn them off on their aunt. She is asking for a minimal gesture, one that would only become relevant in the most extreme situations.

Reasonably so. Considering how painful and disruptive it would be for children to be orphaned, would it not be best to know that they will be cared for by family members and not strangers.

None of this seems to have mattered to the aunt and uncle. Their insensitivity belies a very thin skin indeed, and suggests that they are far from comfortable with their decision to remain childless.

The larger problem is cultural. We live in a culture where people are told that they have only one loyalty and one true responsibility: to do as they please and to live as they wish.

Such an anti-ethic manifests a fundamental narcissism, but it also suggests that being loyal to your heart's desire relieves you of responsibility to family and community.

I agree heartily with Etzioni's point, namely, that if the only person you take responsibility for is You, then you simply do not know what it means to take responsibility.

What Not To Say At a Job Interview

Here's something to cheer up even the most glum morning. It's a record of real comments and questions made by real job applicants in real job interviews. Link here.

Read through them and you will feel great about how skillfully you handled your last interview.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Groupthink Is Bad Business

Yesterday I posted some comments about the perils of groupthink. I would add that people who only associate with those who think as they do are demonstrating a form of narcissism. And narcissists are poor leaders. On the job and in life.

Narcissists attract suck-ups and sycophants. Good leaders attract colleagues and teammates.

Obviously, narcissism is also bad for business. Witness an excellent article by John Baldoni, entitled: "Hire People Who Disagree With You." Link here.

An executive who surrounds himself with people who think the same thing will be less effective than his competitor who encourages differences of opinion.

Baldoni found leaders who invited open discussion in the military. He noted that Gen. Ray Odierno, the operational commander of American forces in Iraq, hired a British pacifist named Emma Sky as an adviser.

Sky wants to get American troops out of Iraq. Odierno hired her because he wanted his senior officers to hear a "civilian sensibility" and "oppositional views."

Hiring people who disagree with you is an antidote for arrogance. As Baldoni put it, leaders who do so are: "smart enough to realize that they do not have all the answers."

As in life outside the military and even outside of the business world, engaging in free and open debate with people who disagree with you will make you a more effective problem-solver.

Leadership does not involve giving orders and forcing people to do as you wish. It involves negotiating among different points of view, most of which will have something to recommend them.

Baldoni makes an important distinction: "Hiring someone who is opposed to your ideas is not the same as hiring someone who is opposed to you. The former is a good thing; the latter is a threat. The latter will disrupt the team in order to achieve his personal ambitions at your expense."

It is one thing to differ on policy or even to offer a different perspective on the effectiveness of the policy. It is quite another to defy the leader after he has set the policy.

The same principles apply to other areas of your life. If you accept or reject people as friends based on their political ideology, you are depriving yourself of information that might be useful in conducting your life. And you are also depriving yourself of the opportunity to clarify your positions through debate... to say nothing of changing your mind.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Perils of Conformity

Way back when, in a time before time, our nation was awash in mind-numbing conformity. Between World War II and the Vietnam War Americans wanted nothing more than to dress alike, behave alike, and live alike.

A generation whose character had been formed in the crucible of military service was more than willing to continue the culture that had brought victory to the nation.

If you do not recall that halcyon era, it is depicted in the Richard Yates novel and the recent movie "Revolutionary Road." You can see its last days in the television show, "Mad Men." Or else, you can read Michael Lewis' description of the era of conformity and its decline in an article called "The New Organization Man." Link here.

The era of conformity did not go unchallenged. During the 1950s academic sociologists and itinerant intellectuals attacked it ferociously. Books like "The Organization Man" and "The Lonely Crowd" argued that the pressure to conform, to be normal, to be like everyone else was crushing our God-given individuality and our creative spirits.

After the military ethos was discredited in Vietnam the nation set out to express itself freely and openly, without constraint. In Silicon Valley the absence of uniforms became a badge of creative genius. Before the dot-com bubble burst it was also a sign of extraordinary wealth and worldly success.

No one wanted to be an organization man; everyone wanted to be an artist, a creator, someone whose work involved the full expression of individual potential.

One might argue that the victory of anti-conformist elements in our culture led the masters of American financial institutions to create some strange and ultimately dangerous financial fictions.

Replacing the old Protestant or Puritan work ethic with the anything-goes, let-it-all-hang-out ethic created vast amounts of wealth out of thin air. Now that we have to pay off the binge, our free financial spirits do not look quite so smart.

Of course, the pressure to conform is basic to human being. Only now it is more subtle, because it is more mental than material. As I have noted, the city of New York is a city fully of non-conforming free thinkers, all of whom think exactly the same thing.

It feels like a devil's bargain, the ultimate sell-out for people who trashed organization men precisely for being sell-outs.

Now you get to dress as strangely as you please; you get to behave as rudely as you like; you get to have sex with whomever you want. The only price is that you have to think exactly like everyone else.

It sounds like a Faustian bargain. You have not sold your immortal soul, but you have sold your mind.

Intellectuals today do not worry about selling their immortal souls because the new, fashionable atheism declares that they do not really have immortal souls. Of course, this might mean that they have already sold them, only they do not know it.

The freedom to do your thing has led to rigid intellectual conformity in places like New York City, but also in universities.

Several days ago Nicholas Wade addressed the topic of conformity in a New York Times blog post. He was reporting on research showing that academics and intellectuals have conformist tendencies that they are loath to admit.

Everyone wants to belong. All humans belong to social groups. In the academic world if you eant to belong you must agree with the received opinions of the majority of scholars... even when you suspect that they are wrong.

Does this mean that academics, like Wall Streeters, can be wrong, even about received scientific wisdom. So says Nicholas Wade, tongue suitably in cheek: "If the brightest minds on Wall Street got suckered by group-think into believing that housing prices would never fall, what other policies founded on consensus wisdom could be waiting to become unraveled? Global warming, you say? You mean it might be harder to model climate change 20 years ahead than house prices 5 years ahead. Surely not-- how could so many climatologists be wrong?" Link here.

As Wade suggests, it may also be true that many scientists do not believe the dogma about global warming. They may simply have chosen to silence their doubts in order to conform.

If they fail to conform they can lose both their status as experts and their research grants. Faced with a choice between scientific truth and the need to conform, most of us would choose the latter. It's human nature.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

It's the Race Narrative, Stupid!

Until now I have refrained from commenting on the Prof. Gates/Sgt. Crowley kerfuffle. I did not want to follow the president's bad example and jump into a dispute without knowing the facts.

As I now see, this means that I failed to understand that facts don't really matter. What matters is the dissemination of a narrative.

I should have known. I had forgotten that elite intellectuals have fallen prey to a Neo-Platonic delirium called critical theory.

For those who are not fully versed in critical theory, it can be summed up in two dogmas. First, all facts are fiction. Second, fiction reveals a higher truth.

Critical theorists hold that what we call facts are a fiction promulgated by the ruling capitalist imperialist patriarchal warmongers who want their predations and oppression to be beyond question. Thus, they create self-justifying fictions are pass them off as facts.

Critical theorists also hold that when fictions overcome the banal requirement of corresponding to reality they are freed to reveal higher truths, which are stories that involve the rebellion of the oppressed classes against their oppressors.

But, enough academic mumbo jumbo. We do not need to know what really happened in the momentous encounter of Prof. Gates and Sgt. Crowley. Let's look at what might have happened.

You arrive home one day and discover that you cannot get into your house. Perhaps the door is jammed; perhaps all the doors are jammed; perhaps the lock is broken; perhaps all the locks are broken; perhaps you forgot your keys; perhaps you lost your keys.

Would you:
A. Whip out your Iphone, access the proper app, and call a locksmith.
B. Knock on your neighbor's door and ask to hang out until you can figure out what to do.
C. Take out your American Express card and try to jimmy the lock.
D. Take a crowbar and break into your house.

Of course, these alternatives provide a slightly different perspective on the situation.

Next action. A neighbor sees two African-American men breaking into your house. She calls the police.

There were other possibilities.
A. The neighbor might have ignored the situation.
B. She might have seen two white men prying open your back door with a crowbar, and done nothing.
C. She might have recognized the distinguished Harvard professor wielding the crowbar and shouted greetings.

Obviously, ignoring the situation would have been un-neighborly and unethical. Remember: love thy neighbor as thyself.

Beyond that, we must assume that the neighbor did not recognize the eminent professor. Perhaps they never met. Perhaps she does not watch PBS.

The next incident is in dispute. Sgt. Crowley of the Cambridge Police Department arrives, knocks on the door, and seeks to verify that the man answering the door is not a burglar.

Evidently, Sgt. Crowley does not watch PBS either.

Prof. Gates, who makes a living writing about race narratives, instantly believed that a race narrative was staring him in the face.

Apparently, if you immerse yourself completely in narrative fiction you sometimes fail to recognize reality when you see it.

The police were trying to protect Prof. Gates' home. Prof. Gates thought they were acting as stereotypical agents of oppression refusing to believe that an African-American might be living in a nice neighborhood.

By all appearances Prof. Gates was less than cooperative and courteous. In a situation where a polite response would have allayed suspicion, Prof. Gates chose to be belligerent.

It seems that he took the opportunity to express his outrage over racial profiling and institutional American racism.

Surely, it is correct to say that America, to its shame, has known far too much racial profiling and institutional racism. But that does not mean that every encounter between a white police officer and an African-American professor falls within this narrative.

Meantime, Prof. Gates produced his Harvard ID. In Cambridge this is called pulling rank.He thought that that should have cleared up any questions of whether or not he belonged. Yet, as Law Professor Ann Althouse has suggested, some faculty IDs, like hers, do not contain a home address.

Sgt. Crowley might have let the whole thing drop. He might have noted that Prof. Gates was jet-lagged. He could have cut him some slack. From the outside it does not appear that he needed to handcuff the eminent professor and submit him to the indignity of a mug shot and a stay in the local jail. Perhaps he was overreacting to the condescension which academics have traditionally thrown at the police.

Had Sgt. Crowley let it drop, the incident would not have become a race narrative. It would not have been elevated into an instance of American racist oppression of African-Americans. We would not have had to suffer the indignity of hearing what Rev. Al Sharpton thinks about it.

Now, we want to know whether an incident that does not appear to involve racism can be transformed into an instance that proves that even where racism does not exist, it exists anyway.

An event became a story, but then the story rose to the status of mythic moment when President Obama made the mistake of chiming in and maligning Sgt. Crowley as stupid.

Obama said it effortlessly because he believes another element of the oppression narrative. Namely, that the people who enforce the law that keeps the capitalist imperialist patriarchal warmongers in power are ignorant dupes.

Since Sgt. Crowley did not learn this at Harvard Prof. Gates and Pres. Obama have kindly offered him some free instruction.

Of course, this is elitist, condescending and offensive. Sgt. Crowley refused to accept the characterization, and refused to apologize. Policemen all over the country rushed to his defense.

Pres. Obama was not content to leave well enough alone. Wanting to show the world that he was more celebrity than leader, he appeared at a White House press briefing to announce that he had perhaps misspoken, and that people were reacting to the story, not because he had misspoken, but because we do not all believe the race narrative.

So, as many commentators have noted, a president who has been traveling the world apologizing for America, and especially for its capitalist imperialist patriarchal warmongering ways, could not bring himself to admit that perhaps he had made a mistake by wading into a dispute where he did not even know all the facts.

Then Obama announced that he had invited Prof. Gates and Sgt. Crowley to the White House for some couples counseling.

Thus, he ensured that this unfortunate incident would remain in the public mind. In the meantime, he has thrown his hopes for health care reform under the proverbial bus.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Sucking Up

The minute you gain a little power and authority you start attracting suck-ups. Call them flatterers, sycophants, or toadies... the picture is the same. You earned it; they want to enjoy it.

They will fawn over you, whisper how great you are, and always defend you. You will be sorely tempted to believe that they mean it. And, even if they don't mean it, you will tell yourself that they are right.

Suck-ups make you feel good about yourself. They massage your ego. Unfortunately, if you are an executive they contribute little to your enterprise, be it your company, your country, or your life.

Sucking up is not limited to the world of business or to the business of power. Anyone involved in the game of love and romance has had some experience with sucking up. Sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally.

In the dating world it is called seduction.

As long as you have something that someone else wants, especially something that they cannot afford or do not merit, you will be the target of flatterers and sycophants.

The classical example is La Fontaine's fable of the fox and the crow. Link here.

Yesterday Marshall Goldsmith wrote a post about sucking up in the corporate world. Addressing a group of business executives he observed that while everyone hates a suck-up, the world is still filled with them. Could it be, he averred, that we inadvertently foster flattery, and that we do not even know when we do it. Link here.

Goldsmith defined a suck-up as someone who offers unconditional love, who is always happy to see us, and who never talks back. Where did he find these qualities? They were offered by a group of executives who were asked to describe what they most liked about their dogs.

Goldsmith believes that since we all respond positively to these qualities when we receive them from our pets, we are also likely to respond favorably to them when we receive them from higher mammalian forms.

Of course, we should always be careful not to stretch an analogy to the point of deformity. When a dog loves you, is always happy to see you, and never talks back, he is not really sucking up. He is simply acting like a dog.

If a human being exhibited the same qualities with the same consistency we might become suspicious. We certainly appreciate dog-like behavior in dogs, but we are normally less likely to succumb to its charm when we see it in human beings.

A really good suck-up can do one thing that no dog can ever do. He will be able to tell you exactly what you want to hear. More than that, a good suck-up will become the person you want him to be. Fido has never imagined such a thing.

A good suck-up is Protean in his ability to become whomever you want him to be. A good flatterer is a great thespian, a great actor, to the point where he does not even realize that he is in character.

After all, this is the basis for seduction.

Finally, suck-ups prey on vulnerabilities. They offer the mirage of an oasis to the person who is dying of thirst. Loss of confidence makes us all vulnerable to flattery. The way to protect ourselves is to base our confidence on real achievement, not on the cheers of the crowd.

The moment you discover you have been dealing with a suck-up resembles the moment when the emperor discovers that his new clothes are a mirage, and that he is the last to know the truth.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Social Skills of IT Professionals

Money is not the only thing that is fungible. Social skills are too. The man who has trouble communicating with his wife and managing his marriage is likely to have similar difficulties with his colleagues and associates. And vice versa.

Two months ago I was interviewed by Meridith Levinson for Levinson asked me to offer some comments on the way IT professionals were or were not communicating effectively with their spouses. Link here.

In the interview I suggested that some of the IT professionals would do well to improve their social skills. I even offered some recommendations for how they might do this.

Naturally, the article provoked a flurry of replies, some positive, some not so positive. I answered these comments in a blog post a couple of days later. Link here.

Given my own point of view I was not surprised to read an article in the Harvard Business review suggesting that IT professionals have difficulty communicating with the business professionals who use their technology. Link here.

According to Susan Cramm the problem lies in the contempt that IT professionals have for their less techno-savvy colleagues. Apparently, IT people believe that their counterparts on the business side are too stupid to learn how to work the sophisticated products that the IT department provides.

Obviously, this contempt provokes a general defensiveness on the business side. Business professionals consider the IT people to be self-important snobs. They prefer to avoid collaboration and contact with them.

Cramm identifies the problem: "Without effective internal collaboration between IT and the rest of the business, technology will continue to be underutilized and its potential underrealized."

CIOs are very aware of this problem. Many of them insist that their staff members spend the time to teach business people how to make the best use of technology. They have found that the best approach involves having the IT person and the business person sit down together for an extended period of time... the better to facilitate an atmosphere of collaborative work.

This causes the two individuals to learn to trust and to respect each other. Instead of seeing each other as alien beings representing alien cultures, they discover the pleasures of teaching and learning.

As Cramm says: "Familiarity doesn't breed contempt; it breeds understanding and empathy-- the foundations of good relationships."

Now, if IT professionals would take the skills they learn in this collaborative effort and apply them to their marriages.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Malcolm Gladwell on Overconfidence

Malcolm Gladwell is surely right to say that the root of Wall Street's failure does not lie in under-regulation or ignorance, but in psychology. Specifically, in overconfidence, in excessive ungrounded self-esteem. Link here.

I am happy to welcome him to the club of those who have argued as much in the past. Here is a post I wrote a year ago on the same point. Link here.

As Gladwell states, his approach owes more to psychology and less to ethics. Thus, he avoids terms like arrogance and hubris. For my part I am comfortable to consider that there is an ethical dimension behind the overconfidence of certain members of the financial community.

In my view overconfidence is a moral hazard of the therapy culture. When you are in the business of producing positive self-esteem even when reality is telling a largely different story, you are fostering overconfidence.

According to Gladwell, overconfidence is not a failure to adapt to changing circumstances, but a failure to understand that you might have to adapt. Being overconfident means that you do not have to negotiate with reality but that you are so great that you can create your own reality.

In my view anyone who believes that he does not have to adapt to reality has mistaken himself for a god. He simply does not know who he is.

Gladwell continues that overconfidence involves blurring the line between what we can control and what we think we can control. Psychologists have devised tests where people who have great skill playing games where skill matters tend also to believe that their skill can prevail in games of pure chance.

Here I agree entirely. I have observed in my coaching practice and noted on this blog cases where people who have great talent in one area of life assume that their talent extends to all other areas of life.

The most recent example was Gov. Mark Sanford, a man who had great political abilities, but who was completely out of his league in the game of romance. Link here.

But Gladwell also points out that there are situations where overconfidence is a good thing. Studies show that players who are the best at bluffing are not merely good at pretending that they have better cards than they do but are convinced that their cards are stronger than they are.

Evidently, this is complicated. Will the best poker player be so delusional that he will think that his pair of jacks is really a royal flush? Perhaps he will.

Gladwell's most important point is that it does not quite matter how confident you are. More important is whether others are confident in you. Bear Stearns collapsed because its bankers lost confidence in it, and refused to lend it any more money.

Could that have been averted if James Cayne had been even more overconfident that he was? That is Gladwell's suggestion. To me that does not feel correct.

Nonetheless Gladwell is certainly correct to mention that there are good and bad forms of overconfidence. I would say that good overconfidence occurs when someone important believes in you more than you believe in yourself. The confidence boost you get from that person's support may make you feel overconfident, but it is decidedly constructive.

If confidence derives from success, and if confidence breeds success, where does that first bit of confidence come from? How do you feel confident when you are first entering a competition?

It may come from your success in other competitions, but then we could still ask where the first feeling of confidence came from? In my view it must come from someone else... a parent, a lover, a spouse, a boss.

Someone has to believe in you before you believe in yourself.

If that person's confidence is borne out by your success, the two of you will build a bond of trust. You will trust that person's judgment, but you will also be in his debt.

Confidence must constantly be tested in competition. If you try to live too long on your laurels you will find that at some point other people will lose confidence in you. And that will be a dark day indeed.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

When You Keep Making the Same Mistake

How does it happen that people keep making the same mistake? They know it's a mistake; they tell themselves not to do it; and the more they insist the more they keep doing it.

Freud called it repetition compulsion. A few centuries earlier people called it demonic possession. A pitching coach described it as being controlled by the Creature.

When you fall prey to the Creature it feels like an alien being has taken over your mind. However much you want to do the right thing, however much you have to gain by getting it right, you keep getting it wrong.

Here I am not talking about a complex or difficult action. I am not talking about the man who is always falling in love with Ms. Wrong.

I am referring to a professional golfer who keeps missing tap-ins. Or a second baseman who cannot throw the ball accurately to first base.
Links here and here.

The golfer has sunk thousands of tap-ins. He doesn't even think about it. And then one day, he misses a tap-in, loses a tournament... and from that moment on, an eight inch putt might as well be eight miles.

In my view we are beyond bad habits. We are not talking about the golfer's version of biting your nails. These mistakes are not just inconvenient or improper; they can and do sink careers.

Most of us are not professional athletes. We do not all relate well to these situations.

So, consider the case of the person who is always late for appointments. He keeps telling himself that he must be on time. And yet, every time he has an important meeting something comes up, something happens, he is delayed, and he is late.

You might think that this is too trite to matter. And yet, if you cannot get the little things right, no one is going to entrust you with anything larger. When you keep people waiting, you disrespect them. As everyone knows, when you are going for a job interview, you should never, never keep them waiting.

What we really want to know is: how can you overcome such a compulsion to err? Does modern psychology have something to offer that is better than exorcism?

Let us stipulate that you are not going to solve the problem by discovering its root cause, the moment in time when it started. The golfer who keeps missing short putts knows very well when it started. This has no effect on his aptitude for adding unnecessary strokes to his game.

Nor are you going to resolve it by making it part of a pattern. When you start thinking that you always make mistakes, you will have defined yourself as error-prone. At that point, getting things right will feel like an alien experience.

In one of the New York Times articles linked above, pitching coach and psychologist Tom House declared clearly: "talk therapy or persuasion will never solve the problem."

Psychological research has shown that people who think about how important it is to get it right will, because they are thinking about the problem, be more likely to get it wrong.

Psychologists have observed that when someone is told not to think about polar bears, he will find it nearly impossible not to think about polar bears. The more he tries to suppress thoughts of polar bears the more their image will be intruding into his consciousness.

You are not going to overcome your compulsion by thinking it to death. You cannot banish it from your thoughts by trying not to think about it. And once the mistake becomes hyper-present in your mind, you will be far more likely to keep making it.

In the old days they would have said that you cannot reason with a demon; you cannot argue with it or persuade it; you cannot simply wish it away.

Call it the Creature, of the imp of the perverse, or a demon... it does not respond to open and honest conversation.

The solution, as Coach/Psychologist House suggests is "performance, not counseling."

When a football player fumbles the ball, his coach will always want to get the ball back in his hands at the first opportunity. Only the performance can counteract the impression left by the fumble. Only the performance of the task can overcome the trauma, by relegating it to insignificance.

The sooner the player gets his hands on the ball, the less time he will have to mull it over, to think about what happened, to work it over in his mind.

The more time he spends thinking about it, the more it will become part of his identity. At that point, he will surely feel that his mind has been hijacked by an otherworldly Creature.

Do You Know When You're Being Rude?

Given the flexibility of contemporary customs many people do not even know when they are being rude. One person's rude might well be another person's cool.

Thus, it is worth reviewing Anthony Balderrama's list of rude workplace behaviors. They range from interrupting people constantly to failing to say please and thank you to having bad table manners. Link here.

Of course, the same rules apply to personal life. I recall a man who was explaining that he could not understand why his girlfriend had never invited him out to dinner with her friends or family. After a while, a warm, loving relationship succumbed to his being excluded from important social functions.

But, why did she exclude him? The only possible clue lay in the fact that she had occasionally chided him for chewing with his mouth open.

Now, you might think that he would have reacted to this news by making every effort to learn to chew with his mouth closed.

Not at all. When I asked him why he had not undertaken to correct this habit he became defensive and belligerent.

He simply could not accept that his capacious love would be discarded because of something as trivial as table manners. And he was offended at the notion that anyone would judge him ill for failing to adhere to a mindless social custom.

He could not understand that she would have discarded a warm, loving, sexually satisfying relationship because he could not chew with his mouth closed.

No one likes to feel that he is a public embarrassment. No one accepts gladly that everyone considers him a boorish lout, not because for holding dissonant opinions but for not knowing how to hold a fork. It is much easier to denounce society for being uptight, repressed, and retrograde.

The pain is even greater when the fault is something that could have easily been remedied.

I will not belabor the point that this man was trying to have it both ways. On the one hand he wanted to be included in social events. On the other hand, he refused to adopt the same manners as everyone else.

No one can force him to learn how to eat without annoying his dinner partners with his masticatory cacophony. But no one can force his girlfriend, her friends, or her family to invite him to join them in a basic social bonding ritual either.

All of this to say, that as you read through Balderrama's list of workplace rudeness do not expect that you will react positively to the discovery that some of your habits are on the list.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Improving Your Marriage

It won't come as news to readers of this blog, but it will surprise readers of O Magazine.

The most recent issue of the magazine offers this advice on marriage: "Forget everything you've heard about frankness, sharing your feelings, getting him to express his."

That is the way "O" introduces two psychologists from Austin, Texas who have recently written a book explaining that the path to a better marriage does not involve being open and honest about your feelings. If a woman places too much importance on having deep and meaningful conversation, her husband will most often react by simply shutting down. Link here.

The authors are Texas psychologists Patricia Love and Steven Stosny. Their book is: "How To Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It."

Clearly, the book and the article are addressed to women. After all, the therapy culture has targeted, and even exploited, women in its effort to peddle the idea that open and honest communication is a panacea... both for what ails you and for your marriage.

Love and Stosny's research begins with the simple proposition-- which I highlighted as recently as yesterday on this blog-- that men and women have radically different communication styles.

Their reasoning is intriguing. They suggest that when a woman wants a man to express his feelings, whether she invites him, insists on it, or just expresses her own, the man will feel put upon and criticized.

He will react by feeling shame, as though he is being found inadequate. Then he will become defensive and refuse to communicate.

I would add that when a man is called on to express his feelings, he will feel that his wife wants him to be less of a man. Not only does he not understand what she wants from him, he knows that he will never master the game.

When it comes to expressing feelings, a man will necessarily fail to meet a woman's expectations. Thus, he will feel ashamed and affronted when he is called upon to do so.

So, how do you create domestic harmony when one person is looking for a soul mate and the other person is looking for a teammate?

Love and Stosny offer a simple and correct solution to the problem: doing things together. People connect when they engage in activities together, whether it is family dinner or a walk around the block.

(I would add that it is even better when those activities become routinized.)

According to Love and Stosny, doing things together produces a paradoxical effect. It allows men to open up and it allows women to feel satisfied with less conversation.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Science and Gender

Heaven knows why it is still an issue, but we have recently spent considerable time and energy debating whether gender difference are hard wired into the human brain or whether they are merely social constructs.

This week Time magazine reports that recent studies using brain imaging show a distinct and decided gender difference. Link here.

As Time defines it, girls are wired to have best friends and boys are wired to have teammates. Girls are wired to relate one-to-one while boys are wired to join teams and to compete against other teams.

This might show why there are many more male teams than female teams. And it may explain why men often seem to be at a loss when conducting interpersonal relationships.

I hope that this does not come as news. It should not be news for those who accept scientific fact. Those few remaining zealots who insist that gender is a distinction that does not make a difference can be left to their superstitions.

What are the implications of these facts?

Certainly, they would seem to discredit that notion of a fundamental human bisexuality. If you insist that men get in touch with their feminine sides and that women become fierce competitors you are simply teaching each gender to repress something that is natural.

The more salient implications refer to what happens when the two genders mix and mingle. When you have one person who is wired to be the perfect soul mate connecting with another who is a natural-born teammate... you are going to have problems.

Ask yourself this. Does a woman look for a man who will be her perfect soul mate? For the most part, she will not. Does a man want to marry a woman who will be a perfect teammate? I doubt that the quality even shows up on a man's list of desirable qualities in a woman.

Under normal conditions neither men nor women choose their mates according to narcissistic criteria. Freud notwithstanding, people do not choose to marry replicas of themselves. And this is a good thing.

Clearly there are forces in the culture that tell women, in particular, that they should marry their soul mates, but those are, in my view, aberrant.

The mature woman will always know the difference between the real thing and a fake. When a man is making an extravagant show of his feminine-- aka spiritual-- side, any woman will understand that he is posturing. She should be offended and suspicious.

Similarly, a mature man will understand that a woman who wants to be one of the guys is doing something that is not natural. He might find it amusing; he might find it charming; he will not put her name on his dance card.

A rational man will seek out a woman who has qualities that complement his own. And vice versa. Both man and woman will make good choices by engaging their rational faculties.

By this I mean that, for example, no man really understands why women love to receive gifts of flowers and jewelry. He will not discover this basic truth by consulting his emotional core.

When he buys her a gift that she will enjoy, he is being rational. He will be happy that she is happy, but he will never really understand why those flowers are making her so happy.

Nor will a woman understand why a group of men can spend an afternoon shooting hoops or shooting deer and feel that they have bonded. And yet, most women understand that such needs should be respected and accommodated, regardless of whether they make emotional sense.

If gender is a distinction that makes a difference this means that marriage is an alliance of two individuals who are not involved in the same kind of relationship.

The same applies to sex. I hope that no one really believes that when a man and a woman are engaged in sexual congress they are engaging in the exact same action or act. Manifestly, they are not.

A woman sees marriage in terms of the quality of the interpersonal relationships. A man sees the family as a team, competing with other teams.

Can it be both at the same time? It had better be.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Guilt Tripping

Sometimes people take their guilt trips way too far.

Link here.

It's Not About You. It's About Them.

Today Anthony Balderrama offers some excellent career advice. If you want to keep your job and even advance your fortunes, you should make it a point to make your boss look good. Link here.

The notion conflicts with much conventional wisdom. How often have you heard that it is really all about you, your individuality, your autonomy, and your independence? And how many people have told you to pursue your own self-interest, because, after all, what else do you have?

I would respond that if you do not make your boss and your company look good then you are going to be looking for a new place to assert your individuality.

To be more concise: It's not about you. It's about them.

This rule applies as well to other relationships. Shouldn't it matter to you that you make your friends look good? Shouldn't you go out of your way to make your spouse look good in the eyes of the world?

If you make your friends look bad, then you will surely lose friends. If you make your spouse look bad in front of other people you marriage will soon be in trouble. It should go without saying that if your embarrass your boss or humiliate him, your job will be in severe jeopardy.

Is this too obvious to belabor? I think that it it is too important not to belabor?

If you believe that you must always assert your essential wonderfulness at someone's expense-- be it your boss, your spouse, your friends, your children-- then you are headed down the road to misery.

How do you make your boss look good? First, by doing a good job. If you do well, he looks good. He hired you; he assigned you to the account.

You make others look good by being humble, by not taking too much credit, and by receiving credit modestly.

If you allow the world to think that you succeeded despite the mediocre management or the dysfunctional corporate culture, you are not going to be chosen to manage the next project.

It should go without saying that you would do better not to badmouth your boss... not to his face, not in public, but also not in private. When it comes to insulting and demeaning comments about your boss... there is no private. Keep them to yourself.

The same rules apply to relationships. The man who embarrasses his wife in public, who makes her look bad in front of her friends and family... is going to find the trouble he is looking for.

But he can also make his wife look bad by looking bad himself. If he behaves badly, if his appearance is unkempt, if he has bad manners... it will reflect badly on his wife.

After all, she chose to marry him. If he insists on showing the world that she has poor judgment, she might feel compelled to find a way to show the world that she doesn't.

So, don't ask yourself how it feels to act a certain way, or to wear a certain outfit. Ask yourself how it reflects on those who have hired you, who love you, and who befriend you. If it feels good to you but makes them all look bad, then you are missing the point.

As a social being you should think of yourself as connected with others through a complex network of relationships.

If you see yourself connected to others you are more likely to stay connected to them. If you see yourself as an autonomous human unit, someone whose behavior and actions only reflect on yourself, you are going to have plenty of free time to reflect on where your job and your friends went.

Peggy Noonan On Our Soft Narcissism

Peggy Noonan has written a wonderful column about diverse topics. Here is a brilliant note about our soft cultural narcissism. Link here.

In her words: "Now, on TV every day as people remember some trauma or triumph, they stop as if on cue-- they know this is expected of them-- and weep. They think this shows sincerity and sensitivity. But they feel too much about their struggles. I sometimes watch with fascination those shows where people lose weight. They often begin to sob as they fall off the treadmill or remember the Twinkie they didn't eat. This is now the national style. It makes Europeans laugh."

As a nation, we have been traumatized. And we are following the prescriptions that our therapy culture has set out for us. As Noonan correctly notes, they are making us an international laughing stock.

Surely, it would be better to follow her prescription and to emulate the spirit of the men who landed on the moon. In her words: "We should take our eyes off ourselves. We should go someplace again. It would remind us who we've been, which would remind us who we are."

Noonan is right about this, but now that our president has become a therapist-in-chief, a man who traverses the globe to tell the world, and, by extension, ourselves, that we need to overcome our tendencies to think that we are special, that we have accomplished great things, and that we can compete against anyone anywhere.

Noonan is right to propose that we can only rebuild our national greatness by tapping in to the successes we achieved in the past. But how is this going to happen when our president insists that we need to reset American history, the better to get in touch with the guilt that we ought to be feeling for what we used to think of as successes?

To Obama, we are not a great and proud people; we are ordinary, with our faults and foibles, just like everyone else.

Think of a coach who takes over a team that has had more than its share of success and whose new message is that when the team succeeded in the past it caused the other teams to feel bad, and thus, to dislike us.

So, we are no longer going to compete. We are no longer going to strive to be the best. We are now, as a team, going to try to be liked, to be popular... like a bunch of children in high school.

As Peggy Noonan said: people around the world are now laughing at us.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Managing a Friendship

All friendships have their difficult and awkward moments. Anyone who wants to have many and good friendships should know how to deal with such moments constructively.

Dr. Irene Levine reminds us of this point on the Huffington Post today. Link here.

Let us look at a couple of the situations that Dr. Levine asked friendship expert Frances Isaacs to address.

First, what do you do when your friend talks too much about herself and is boring you to tears?

Isaacs suggests, correctly, that the first response should be to control the amount of time you spend listening to your friend's monologues.

Her next recommendation is less felicitous. She says that you should address the issue openly and honestly, by calling your friend out. She would have you declare: "...I feel that our conversations are never about me and my life. I miss the back and forth we used to have."

Here I must demur. Complaining about how you do not express yourself sufficiently sounds whiny. Your friend might very well come back at you by saying that, after all, it is up to you to talk about you and your life.

For all we know, she may be filling gaps left by a new-found reticence on your part.

If that is not the problem, perhaps something else is going on. Someone who feels compelled to talk about herself all the time is likely to be in some distress.

She may be using a smokescreen of excessive verbiage to avoid addressing an important issue. On the chance that that is true, then you should try something that is quite opposite to what Isaacs has recommended.

You might start asking some probing questions of your own, even suggesting that you sense that something is wrong, and that you will be happy to hear her out or even to try to help her if she wants to tell you what it is. You should add that if she does not want to do so, you understand.

Isaacs then addresses another problem that should be recognizable. It is a variation on the first issue, because it involves another way that reciprocity breaks down.

It is worth emphasizing that friendships involve reciprocal exchanges, whether of information and feeling, or even of gifts. Once a friendship becomes too one-sided, on any level, it is headed for trouble.

So, now you are dealing with a friend who asks too many probing and personal questions. To the point where you feel like you are being interrogated on a witness stand.

Isaacs first recommends trying to defuse the tension by using humor: "Asked and answered, counselor." Some other possibilities would include: "I refuse to answer on the grounds that I may incriminate myself," or "May I consult my attorney before responding."

These ironic comments should allow your friend to gain some awareness about what she is doing. That is surely better than a direct confrontation.

For my part I would not try to solve the problem by being open and honest. I would not take up Isaacs' other suggestion: "Hey, you're asking a lot of questions. I don't like it. Back off."

To me this feels excessive; it borders on rudeness. It sounds like you are closing the door on the friendship.

A better approach would be to maintain decorum and civility.

When you are being interrogated you can certainly try to change the subject. You might ignore the probing questions and introduce a topic from politics or television or celebrity gossip.

You might also say that you would rather not discuss the situation she is asking about, but that if there is any news she will be the first to know.

If we want to analyze the situation, it might have happened that your friend is asking a lot of personal questions because you have ceased contributing to the conversation as you normally do. Perhaps you have given the impression that you have pulled away from her.

If that is the case, you can offer that you have been preoccupied with a very difficult situation at work, but that, unfortunately, it is confidential and you cannot discuss it with anyone, even with your closest friends.

Sometimes the situation is more difficult. Perhaps your friend is asking more probing questions because she wants to get closer to you than you want to get to her.

These situations are always awkward. They should not be greeted with: "Back off." But if you do not see any chance of reciprocating her attentions, you will probably need to pull back yourself. Politely, of course.

Six-Word Stories

I am probably the last to know, but on the off chance that you might not have heard about it, here is the origin of the notion of the six-word story.

It began when Ernest Hemingway made a bet. He bet that he could construct a complete story in six words.

He won the bet with this: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."

Surely, this occupies the summit of high concept storytelling.

As it happens, Smith magazine has a website and books where everyone can contribute their own six-word stories. Smith, however, modernizes the project and calls them six-word memoirs. Link here.

I have only read a couple of pages worth of these stories, but the more I do the more I am impressed with Hemingway's genius.

I think that everyone who wants to write a screenplay, for example, should first be required to write a complete story in six words. And that means a story that engages you emotionally, that creates dramatic tension and suspense, and the allows you to use a single visual image as a gateway to many more.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

How To Rationalize Bad Behavior

From time to time we all behave badly. Everyone makes mistakes.

Of course, we do not always recognize mistakes as such. Even when we do, we often recoil before the requirements to make amends for bad behavior and to work to improve our behavior in the future.

Some people consult with therapists and coaches because they want to learn to behave better. Yet, when they discover what they have to do to improve it, they become less committed.

They opt for the alternative. They prefer thinking that what they did was not all that bad, and that it needs to be understood, not improved on.

If they land on the couch of the wrong kind of therapist they will be induced to study what their bad behavior might have meant in the context of their childhood, not what it might have meant to the person who witnessed it.

Therapists pretend that once a mistake is filled with meaning it will not even want to repeat itself. Their efforts are simply a high-priced lesson in rationalization.

Mistakes are not meaningful. If you offend your neighbor, your friend, or your spouse, you should not take it as a golden opportunity to unearth another infantile trauma.

Under the aegis of such a therapist a person will learn that he can continue to behave badly, only now he can feel good about it because he understands why he does it.

Of course, therapy is supposed to help you to discover who you really are. But then, it allows people to use this pseudo-discovery to rationalize bad behavior.

This is the king of rationalizations. It is brilliantly analyzed by executive coach Marshall Goldsmith in an essay aptly entitled: "Do You Have an Excessive Need to Be Yourself." Link here.

Goldsmith explains that while some behaviors that are uniquely ours are good, others are bad. When people say that they are being themselves by being late all the time or by being easily distracted... they are protecting a bad habit by rationalizing.

As Goldsmith puts it: "...we can learn to excuse any annoying action by saying: 'That's just the way I am.'"

I think that all of us, regardless of our profession, have heard this mantra far more often than we would like.

Goldsmith also observes that behaving badly is not necessarily the same as behaving unethically. A CEO refused to offer positive recognition to the people who worked for him. He rationalized his failure by explaining: "He had high standards-- and people did not always meet them. He didn't like to hand out praise indiscriminately-- because this cheapened the value of the praise when it was deserved. He believed that singling out individuals would weaken the team."

In the world of rationalizations these are very good,indeed. Yet, they were compromising the success of his business because they were demoralizing those who worked for him.

Goldsmith did not question the man's motives. He did not question why this CEO had made a fetish of parsimony. Instead he worked with him to develop his benevolence.

He coached the CEO to replace his bad habit of giving praise parsimoniously with the good habit of distributing it benevolently... whether he felt like it or not.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Gender Wars Come to the Kitchen

Decades of debate about gender differences... decades of heavy thinking about whether gender is socially constructed or biologically determined... decades of effort to produce gender equality in the home and the workplace... and we arrive at this:

"A few weeks ago, Jane Wilcox and her live-in boyfriend had a blowout argument over a kitchen sponge that was left in the sink. There was ranting and accusations of shoddy housekeeping. He packed a bag and prepared to spend the night in a second home on their property."

This lines open an Elizabeth Bernstein column in today's Wall Street Journal. Link here.

I will add that Jane Wilcox is not a child. At age 52 she is a fully grown adult. And she is surely enlightened; she and her male mate have bypassed the institution of marriage. Better yet, she has a name, but, in the Journal, her boyfriend does not.

You take a mature, enlightened couple, a couple that is surely cognizant of all the latest thinking about gender differences, you put them in the kitchen together, and they go to war.

If they wrote the story, it would be called: My kingdom for a sponge!

Apparently, they have not drawn any lessons from Mars or Venus, and have ignored all of Deborah Tannen's contributions to the debate.

Bernstein is correct to note that men and women have different conversational styles. But note how she defines them. To her, women overfeel and overshare, while men underfeel and undershare. Thus, she recommends, reasonably enough, that women share less and that men share more... feelings, that is.

(She does not offer a solution to the real issue: how they should share housework.)

I believe that Bernstein is one of the first to suggest women should express fewer of their feelings and that they should not expect a reciprocal exchange of feelings from the men in their lives.

People do not often suggest this because some forms of psychotherapy have taught us that the best human communication involves sharing feelings, sharing them openly and honestly, and, at best, weaving them into stories.

A cursory glance at John Gray and Deborah Tannen will tell you that this form of communication is natural to women and alien to men.

But why then have so many therapists tried to make this communication style into the best way to communicate?

To the detriment of their male patients, as it happens.

It's a bad idea to try to force men to get in touch with an ersatz feminine side. Assuming that Jane Wilcox wanted her live-in, anonymous, boyfriend, to get in touch with his feminine side, apparently, it did not promote relationship harmony.

And yet, Wilcox did know the kind of therapy her boyfriend needed. He needed some male bonding. So, she called one of his guy friends, asked the man to come over, and sat back while the two of them got into a serious discussion about motorcycle oil.

Wilcox would have wanted to spend hours hashing out the details of the fight; her boyfriend was happy to throw himself into a conversation that was not based on feelings, that did not tell endless stories, but that involved FACTS.

Here I disagree somewhat with Bernstein. When you define the issue in terms of feeling, you are still defining it in terms of a woman's conversational strength.

But if you define it in terms of facts and feelings, then we can say that a conversation should include some of both, no matter what the gender of the participants.

Perhaps women should offer fewer feelings and fewer endless narratives. But they also should show more respect for a man's interest in facts and information. As an accommodation and a way to engage a man's interest in a conversation, she might try communicating some facts and information before weaving it all into a narrative.

Surely, a woman wants to hear how her man feels about her. But if she does not respect the feelings he has about motorcycle oil or the state of the world, he will never get to the point of telling her about how he feels about their relationship.

Men need also to learn to accommodate a different conversational style. They might begin by speaking feelingly about motor
cycle oil or the All Star game or the political scene.

But they should also be willing to listen to a woman's feelings and stories, even when those stories have only a tenuous relationship to fact.

When speaking with women, men need to learn to turn off their inner fact-checker.

Need I say that if a man refuses to acknowledge the importance of a woman's feelings, those feelings will soon go out looking for someone who does.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Overfeeling Parents

If it's possible to overthink a problem, then it should also be possible to overfeel it.

Meaning, that it is possible to take normal good feelings, question them, flay them to within an inch of their lives... thereby to diminish the everyday joys of parenting.

Take a normal parenting event. Last week Emily Bazelon described how she discovered that her 9 year-old son throws a baseball better than she does. He catches better than she does too.

She learned this when her son began explaining that she was supposed to catch the ball in her glove, not in her bare hand.

Worse yet, Bazelon learned that she throws like a girl. I hope she was not surprised. Link here.

Of course, this is a charming anecdote. But Bazelon is a writer and thinker, and did not want just to leave it at that. So, she questioned her feelings.

Her overfeeling began with a question: "How are you supposed to feel as a parent when your child surpasses you?"

She knows that she is proud of her son's achievements. That sounds normal enough. But then, overfeelingly, she submits her feelings to psychological litmus test. Are hers the right feelings? Are hers the feelings that experts think she should be having?

Here we see an instance where the therapy culture has worked its ill effects on human experience. What else would cause a normal parent to question her normal joy?

Joy alone is not enough, so Bazelon must confess to feelings of competitiveness. She is embarrassed because her son has to teach her how to throw and catch a baseball. Worse yet, she is slightly embarrassed that this same 9 year-old can beat her-- a writer, no less-- at Scrabble.

Why might Bazelon feel competitive when playing Scrabble with her son? Might it not be because Scrabble is a competitive game, and normally provokes feelings of competitiveness.

Given that the boy is her son, she has mixed feelings. When he boy wins, he is not just another competitor; he is also a teammate. When her child wins, she wins too.

Such common sense explanations do not seem to satisfy Bazelon's need to overfeel. She asks whether her competitive emotions have a deeper meaning.

And she answers by linking her feelings of competitiveness to the story of the Greek god Chronos, who devoured all but one of his children.

As you know, Freud, his followers and his detractors, taught us that the most horrifying mythic analogies are necessarily closest to the truth. Thus, Bazelon is indulging a mental habit that the therapy culture has taught us.

Obviously, the analogy is overkill, both mythic and rhetorical.

While it is true that some parents are threatened by the successes of their children, these are aberrations and exceptions, not the basic truth about human motivation.

Mythologizing emotion leads people to overfeel, to indulge feelings that have less to do with the situation at hand and more to do with wanting to belong to the therapy culture.

A day after Bazelon's column was posted, Samantha Henig responded and took the discussion to a stranger level still. Link here.

Apparently, Henig's mother taught her that parents should never take pride in their children's achievements. Her mother believed that "pride was just a way of taking ownership of your kid's success?"

This is simply silly. When you take pride in your child's success, you are happy to see your child accomplishing something on his own, and are justifiably proud that your considerable efforts are bearing fruit.

Henig, however, analyzes the life out of the feeling of pride and concludes that it is: "really stifled envy-- a way of turning that uncomfortable sense of competition into feeling better about yourself."

Translate "stifled" into "repressed" and you have yet another instance of the Freudian effort to demean and degrade human emotions. By this reading you can never ever be really happy for your child.

Is it any surprise that the therapy culture should have produced so much narcissism?

The truth is: parental pride, or disappointment, motivates children to compete, to succeed, and to excel.

Pride needs to be rigorously distinguished from love. Parents love their children regardless of whether they succeed at school or on the playground. But they feel pride when their child learns to throw the ball or does well on an exam.

Without that pride a child will not be motivated to work hard to succeed. And he will not be able to feel that he really owns his success.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Obama's Political Character

Professor David Bromwich has captured an important aspect of the Obama political character with great clarity and concision. Link here.

Peter Kramer Disses Sarah Palin

As a famous psychiatrist Peter Kramer knows the dangers of diagnosing people one has never met. He also knows that it is unethical to use diagnoses as ad hominem arguments against people with whom one disagrees. Link here.

Thus, Kramer refuses to jump on the bandwagon of those who have declared that Sarah Palin suffers from narcissistic personality disorder.

And as Kramer correctly notes, it is difficult to call Sarah Palin a pathological narcissist when she has: "a devoted husband, admiring children, a loyal circle of friends, a governorship, and a vice presidential nomination."

One of the first things every philosophy student learns is to avoid the "argumentum ad hominem." This means attacking the person instead of addressing the issue. Those who use these ad hominem arguments are showing themselves unwilling to engage in a rational debate.

I am sorry to say that what Peter Kramer gave with one hand he took away with the other.

Unable to resist the temptation to indulge the ad hominem, he denounced Sarah Palin for possessing a gaggle of character flaws: "She is, in my reading of her behavior, dogmatic, incurious, irascible, vindictive, dishonest, manipulative, trivial in her view of the world, and unjustifiably self-righteous." For good measure he adds that she is "opinionated and erratic."

But surely, it is difficult to believe these things about someone who has a devoted husband, admiring children, and a loyal circle of friends. You would even find it hard to believe if Kramer had gotten the syntax right and referred to her circle of loyal friends.

So, why did Kramer yield to temptation and stoop to the level of character assassination? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that he works in an academic community and wants to continue to be a member in good standing of that community.

Within that community Kramer would not need to offer any evidence. Strong feelings, coupled with stereotypes and shibboleths, would suffice.

But Kramer incurs a risk here. He risks falling into the trap of what his profession calls projective identification.

For those who do not belong to the therapy profession, you can understand this as the boomerang effect. After you sling a bunch of mud at someone it gets caught in a wind gust and comes back to hit you in the face.

Kramer's list of Palin's character flaws could also apply to Kramer himself. Does his attack not sound dogmatic, vindictive, irascible, opinionated, incurious, and erratic.

And when Kramer riffs about how Palin seems to be fully integrated into her home community-- thankfully he does not say that it is primitive-- he invites us to think of his own, academic, community.

How well do his adjectives apply to today's academic world.

Dogmatic, check.
Incurious, check.
Irascible, check.
Trivial in [its] view of the world. Check.
Unjustifiably self-righteous. Double check.

The moral of the story is that people who live in an academic world where everyone thinks exactly the same thing, where diversity of opinion is severely proscribed, and where self-righteous moralizing counts as serious thought... should not yield to the temptation to engage in character assassination.

To end this post on an up note, I am happy to link a great article by Carl Cannon about the one relationship that should engage our interest: the one between Sarah Palin and the press. Cannon is a non-denominational journalist, and he buttresses his arguments with facts. It is a long article, but it is well worth the read. Link here.

Hat tip to Neo-neocon for bringing it to our attention and for her own comments. Link here.

Friday, July 10, 2009

"Leadership Is the Art of Good Conversation"

In the best cases life does not imitate art. Take leadership. People learn to lead by first learning to follow. Once they have learned to follow they learn to lead by leading. Often they emulate those who are known to be good leaders.

Call this learning by experience.

But what about the person who is thrown into a leadership position without having had the requisite experience. Lacking the experience of being led; lacking examples to emulate; lacking mentors... he will imitate what he knows. If he has never seen effective leaders, he will fall back on fictional leaders he has read about.

He might try to lead the way Jack McCoy or Lt. Van Buren does on Law and Order. Or he might emulate the blustery executive on a movie of the week.

If he tries to make his life into an imitation of the artistic representation, he will likely begin with the belief that leadership involve giving orders to people who are obliged to do your bidding. He might look to develop the dramatic tension that occurs when people bristle at the orders they are being given.

Most executive coaching begins with disabusing people of these false stereotypes. And the same applies to relationship coaching and marital counseling. People who think that relationships involve one person bossing the other one around are not headed for lasting success.

Thus, I was struck by this statement by C. West Churchman: "Leadership is the art of good conversation."

John O'Neil quoted this line in an article on executive leadership. He offered this comment: "Think about it, he was right. Good conversation involves careful listening, shared learning, reflecting, building consensus, motivating, resolving dilemmas for higher order solutions. These are the right traits for excellent future leaders not greed and self-promotion." Link here.

One thing that is lacking in good leadership, as in good conversation, is drama. When conversations degenerate into drama and when your workplace is filled with dramatic confrontations... then there is a failure of leadership.

It's the difference between art and life. Leadership that cannot produce full cooperation has gotten something wrong.

Fiction and other forms of storytelling must create dramatic tension because they are trying to engage the interest of people who have no real stake in what is going on.

If there is drama, if there is a lack of harmony, you as a spectator or witness will feel that your help is needed or wanted... as though you were being called upon to resolve the drama.

The reason you are interested in what happens to Hamlet has much in common with the reason why you slow your car down when you pass a wreck. The accident engages you in a way that normal traffic does not.

A good conversation involves reciprocal exchanges of information and feeling. It seeks to find a middle ground, not to sharpen differences. If it works as it should, it will not be of very much interest to anyone outside of the conversation.