Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Problem of Other Minds

By definition, psychotherapy provides therapy for the psyche. Thus, therapeutic activity aims to change your mind or your soul. It’s not for nothing that it’s called mental health.

Supposedly, therapy shows you how to get in touch with your feelings, to discover what you really, really want, even to think more clearly, constructively and optimistically. Different forms of psychotherapy approach the problems differently, but they all seem to value some form of introspection.  In principle, once you purge your mind of bad thoughts, learn your true feelings and think and feel more constructively, your life will move along swimmingly.

This sounds well and good, yet it ignores the often decisive influence of other minds. How others see you, how they think about you, whether or not they respect or trust you… all of these must be considered if we are to know how to live a happier and more productive life.

Of course, therapists have sometimes fudged the issue by saying that you should not concern yourself with your reputation. You should follow your bliss or act on your desire, regardless of how others feel about you, how they see you, whether or not they respect or trust you.

This is, dare I say, folly.

No man is an island, the poet said, and no individual mind exists in isolation from other minds.

Admittedly, therapists tend to follow the lead of Erik Erikson and declare that your sense of identity, your sense of being the same person then and now is merely a state of mind.

If you think that this is the case, imagine walking around one day, performing your daily routines and having no one recognize you for who you think you are. How long before you start doubting your conscious belief that you know who you are?

If you look at the larger issue, you will not get very far in this world if you pay no attention at all to how you look to others, whether others respect you or disparage you, whether others trust you or like you. Your good character, your ability to function within society depends in very large part on how others see you. Ignoring your reputation and your responsibility to build a good one is very bad advice. It is certainly not the royal road to mental health.

After all, libel, slander and defamation of character are civil torts. In the world of political correctness you can be shunned by society and have your reputation ruined beyond repair if you say the wrong thing about a certain group of people.

All things considered, it is astonishing that so many therapists function as though other minds did not really matter.

For this reason I was especially intrigued by an article by Karen Cates, a woman with considerable experience in management.

Cates emphasizes a simple point: if you want to exercise leadership or to manage other people it matters enormously how they see you. Thinking that it’s all a state of your mind will undermine your chances for managerial success.

Cates raises a great question: how can you have any control over the way people talk about you? How can you have any influence over your staff’s gossip about?

And, perhaps as importantly, can you do so without sound like a whiner and a complainer?

Cates explains:

Leaders, being in the spotlight, are particularly at risk. Team members often see only parts of projects. They can miss meetings, or work off-site. Ordinary scenarios can breed uncertainty (“What did he say?”), followed by speculation (“He seemed pretty unhappy with the project schedule.”) Before you know it, the team has created your story. “He’s going to make some big changes around here, even though the delays aren’t our fault.” In a heartbeat, you can go from being a motivating leader whose team gets the job done to a self-interested jerk willing to throw his team under the bus.

How does an effective manager tamp down the tendency to gossip? How did Cates learn the habits that made it less likely that others would fill in the blanks with their own narratives?

The answer, she found, was to communicate clearly and directly, to share plans and strategy, even the reasoning that led to the creation of a plan. This means… to share facts and information.

Cates wrote:

In the absence of information, people fill in the blanks. Unfortunately, what they fill in will often be negative because worst-case scenarios at least prepare them for action. As a leader, you need to own your stories, for your sake and for that of your team. By sharing expectations and communicating direction about how events should be interpreted, you not only manage your reputation, you make the workplace feel safe and predictable.

A good leader is not mysterious. He or she is, as the often maligned statement goes, transparent.

Unlike many psychotherapists, a leader is not inscrutable. He does not behave in a way that will encourage interpretation.  In this way he is the opposite of psychoanalytically inspired therapists, the kind that wrap themselves in mystery, the better to provoke interpretation and gossip.
If you want to learn how to be a good manager or an effective leader the example set by psychoanalytic therapists is entirely wrong.


Ares Olympus said...

All important points. I regularly remember Schumacher's 4 fields of knowledge, which looks at permutations of self and other as subject and object.

And it makes sense to me that the Libertarian (or liberal) idea is that we're all individuals, and our wholeness only comes from within, while more authoritarian/shame cultures define self in relation to others, and status in social roles.

Both points of view are compelling, with different strengths, so for me the question is how to combine them, and I thinking you need to work with all 4 fields from Schumacher.

So Individualism relates under Field 1 (self as subject), and Authoritarianism is Field 3 (self as object). So in Field 2 (other as subject), and Field 4 (other as object) perhaps help bridge awareness of the gap between Fields 1 and 3.
Schumacher identifies four fields of knowledge for the individual:
1. I → inner
2. I → other persons (inner)
3. other persons → I
4. I → the world

These four fields arise from combining two pairs: Myself and the World; and Outer Appearance and Inner Experience. He notes that humans only have direct access to fields one and four.

Field one is being aware of your feelings and thoughts and most closely correlates to self awareness. He argues this is fundamentally the study of attention. He differentiates between when your attention is captured by the item it focuses upon, which is when a human being functions much like a machine; and when a person consciously directs their attention according to their choosing. This for him is the difference between being lived and living.

Field two is being aware of what other people are thinking and feeling.

Field three is understanding yourself as an objective phenomenon. Knowledge in field three requires you to be aware what other people think of you. Schumacher suggests that the most fruitful advice in this field can be gained by studying the Fourth Way concept of external considering.

Field four is the behaviorist study of the outside world. Science is highly active in this area of knowledge and many people believe it is the only field in which true knowledge can be gained. For Schumacher, applying the scientific approach is highly appropriate in this field.

Schumacher observes that relying on just field one knowledge makes you feel that you are the centre of the universe; while focusing on field three knowledge makes you feel that you are far more insignificant. Seeking self-knowledge via both fields provides more balanced and accurate self-knowledge.

David Foster said...

I recently ran across the following quote from Owen Young, who was Chairman of GE from 1922-1939:

"The man who can put himself in the place of other men, who can understand the workings of their minds, need never worry about what the future has in store for him."

But many people, including all too many leaders, fail pretty badly at this, and one reason was explained by the writer George Eliot:

"Fancy what a game of chess would be if all the chessman had passions and intellects, more or less small and cunning; if you were not only uncertain about your adversary's men, but a little uncertain also about your own . . . You would be especially likely to be beaten if you depneded arrogantly on your mathematical imagination, and regarded your passionate pieces with contempt. Yet this imaginary chess is easy compared with a game man has to play against his fellow-men with other fellow-men for instruments."