Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Friendly Cognitive Fluency

Here is some great advice, the kind that is so obvious that it is easy to skip over. It is also far easier to talk about than to do it.

It comes from a blog called "Little Things Matter," by Todd Smith. Link here. Smith explains that one of the most important keys to success, in business and in the world, is the ability to communicate effectively. Of course, we all know that. We are less confident that we know what it means to communicate effectively.

According to Smith, it involves two, not entirely synchronous, qualities. First, you need to be clear and precise, simple and direct. This means that you need to perfect the art of what the psychologists call "cognitive fluency," that Hollywood calls "high concept," and that philosophers call "Occam's razor." My previous posts on cognitive fluency are linked here and here.

All of that is well and good, though, certainly easier said than done. If you fall in love with a thought that comes to you in a moment of inspiration, i.e. an epiphany, if it is totally obvious to you, then you will not be putting in the time and effort to make it readily intelligible to your interlocutor. You probably just blurt it out and feel offended if you friend does not immediately acknowledge its brilliance.

That is why Smith adds a second point, namely, that you need to couple your clarity and concision with another quality: friendliness.

Friendly means respectful; unfriendly involves histrionic outbursts of powerful emotion. Unfriendly means rude, discourteous, and insulting. It is one thing to have a good idea; another thing to express it clearly; yet another to avoid the tendency to insist that your listener accept it.

Unfriendly means trying to impose your idea, talking down to other people, and dismissing their ideas.

Smith is quite right to qualify cognitive fluency with the requirement to be friendly. After all, clear and concise does not need to be friendly. In fact, as Smith notes, it takes considerable work to balance cognitive fluency with friendliness. Not because they are intrinsically contradictory. They are both good things, but they are not the same good thing. Thus, they need to be balanced, and it takes a lot of practice to do it.

Friendly means tactful and considerate. It means respecting other points of view. It means engaging a discussion, not trying to shut one down.

When you have a great idea, when things come together in your mind, you want to blurt it out, to tell people, to let them in on the good news. But you are also likely to think that you are right and that they, if they do not accept your idea, are wrong.

Thus, friendly involves a large dose of humility.

According to Smith, people who succeed in business and in life practice friendly cognitive fluency. They get to the point; they do not beat around the bush; they do not invite you to read their minds; and they do not waste your time.

As I was reading Smith I myself had a strange thought.

What if some wicked imp invented a practice whereby you would be trained to speak in incoherent fragments, avoid getting to the point, invite mind reading, disrespect your listener, and disregard his feelings? What would you call it?

How about psychoanalysis! Or any form of psychotherapy that derives from it.

Haven't I just allowed this wicked imp to invent something that is wildly consonant with Freud's technique of free association. Let's recall what it is. Freud insisted that his patients say whatever came to mind, regardless of how painful and unpleasant it was, either to say or to hear, and regardless of how trivial, uninteresting, and boring it was.

If you learn how to free associate you will learn to speak incoherently, to allow your speech to invite interpretation,to indulge a frankly unfriendly attitude, and to renounce any effort to connect with your listener. Any consideration of the listener's feelings, shown by offering a clear and precise statement of your idea, is considered a violation of the rule, evidence of yielding to censorship.

You might argue that free association offers a clear picture of the mind, unencumbered by any requirement to craft speech to the sensibilities of another person. Free association teaches you how to disconnect.

Naturally, it pretends that after you have resolved your infantile issues, you will connect more meaningfully than you did before. It never really explains where and how you are going to acquire the social skills that will solidify those connections. It assumes that divine intervention is going to make you socially adept, cognitively fluent, and naturally friendly.

Of course, research has shown that we normally craft our speech to the sensibilities of our interlocutors. And this means that speech is fundamentally conversation; it is not a means for externalizing whatever it is that passes through your mind. The purpose of speech is to forge connections with other people; it does not exist to allow you to expel toxic ideas.

If social behavior is normal, then free association is training people in dysfunctional social behavior.

There is no redeeming social value to a technique that will cause you to sabotage your relationships with other people and to compromise your ability to manage and lead. If you go around your life saying whatever comes to mind, you will invariably be rude and offensive, reveal too much information,and be tactless and inconsiderate.

If you are oblivious to the facial expressions of your interlocutors you are going to be unfriendly. If you talk around questions, jump around to different topics as the spirit moves you, and dispense with the requirements of clear and concise presentation of your idea... then you will be showing disrespect. In that case your friends will probably return the favor.

Someone might object here that free associations are cleverly designed to lead you to cognitive fluency. Maybe not the patient's fluency, but that of the analyst. Doesn't the psychoanalyst have the role of providing the cognitively fluent expression that sums up what you have been trying to say.

If you are talking about snowflakes, soccer, toffee, and catalepsy, the clever psychoanalyst will interject his notion that you are really trying to say that your heart's desire is to copulate with your mother.

Now, that certainly sounds high concept. After all, it's the high concept that animates Sophocles' play: Oedipus the King. Well, not exactly. Actually the fictional Oedipus is cursed to marry his mother. The play does not really say that this is the only thing he has ever wanted in love. That variation we owe to Freud.

Aside from the fact that, as Todd Smith understood, you can only become clear, concise, and friendly by practice it yourself, the truth is that Freudian interpretations tend to be insulting. And they tend to be presented as something like an indictment.

A good psychoanalyst will not just tell you that you want to copulate with your mother, but he will run through your associations and show that they all point toward this one interpretation.

As you know, psychoanalysts are so unfriendly that if you should happen to disagree with their oracular pronouncements you are going to be charged with resisting ... arrest.

To be fair, while most contemporary psychoanalysts, and any therapists who have suffered their influence, still swear by free association, they no longer traffic in the Oedipus complex. First, because it has become a banality. And second, because they had to stop insulting everyone's character.

Psychoanalysts today have toned it down. They are more likely to tell their patients that the meaning of their rambling verbal perambulations is that their mothers loved them too much, their fathers did not love them enough, and their siblings were wildly jealous of their success. So you are not cursed by a criminal desire that you can never fulfill. You are cursed for having had loser parents.

Don't say that psychotherapy has not made any progress.

The interpretations have been denatured. Surely, this is a step in the right direction. But the structure of the therapeutic miscommunication remains, and as long as therapists continue to insist on free association, they will be training their patients in dysfunctional behavior.

Dare I say that the basis of life coaching is to engage the client in conversation, to take him at his word, to be friendly about recognizing the value of his articulation of his problems, to offer clear and concise responses and advice, and not to insist that he take it.

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