Monday, January 05, 2015

The Dialog Matrix

Why don’t our conversations go anywhere anymore?

I’ve been trying to figure this one out for a while. I work very hard to create open, polite dialog between people who disagree. I’ve hosted conversations about wages, abortion, racism, sexism, homosexuality, religion, politics, gun control, police violence, healthcare, and the musical career of Michael Jackson. In all of those conversations I’ve notice that those with the most certainty and those who adhere most closely to the ideas of a given group often have the least to contribute to the dialog.

Skeptics and Individuals

As I’ve been trying to figure this out I think I’ve identified two continuums on which people fall. One is a continuum from certainty to skepticism and the other is a continuum from group-think to individualism.

First I need to get out the disclaimers. Certainty and group-think aren’t bad nor are skepticism and individualism good. Anything that is done to excess has the ability to become a negative. Too much skepticism or too much individualism are as bad as too much certainty or too much group-think.

Certainty to Skepticism

When we’re young, we’re pretty certain about the way the world works. Adults tell us the truth and we trust them. With no explanation or preamble adults tell children about the alphabet or math or the physical world and kids simply trust. But as children grow there is, inevitably, a point where that trust stops. It might be the discovery that Santa isn’t real (spoiler alert) or it might be the when the “bad” movie turns out to be pretty good after all. Whatever the point in our lives, we all come to it. We stop being completely certain and start being somewhat skeptical.

Some people continue on that journey. They run from certainty. They apply skepticism to everything. They question everyone, every time. There is no more certainty left (at least outside their own minds). There is no trust in what anyone else says, no matter what. These people are, functionally, as rare as someone who remains in a childlike state of certainty all the time. The rest of us live on a continuum between certainty and skepticism.

Group-think to Individualism

When we’re young we also think along with the group. We believe what our parents believe because we’re a part of our family group. Then we believe what our classmates believe because we’re a part of the class. Then the club or the team or the fraternity or the office or the political party or the religious group. We trade groups for groups and adopt the identities of each group as we go along.
Eventually we become individuals who pick and choose what from each group we want to take and what we want to leave. We take the beliefs of our parents that fit with our new identity and eschew those that contradict it. We do the same with school and friends and work and politics and religion.
But some people tend more toward the group-think side of the continuum while others move toward the individualism side. For some people any questioning of the group’s beliefs is the same as questioning their own. For others no group can tell them what to think or what to believe.


An individualistic skeptic (IS) trying to have a conversation with a group-thinking certain (GC) person will, almost inevitably be frustrated. The IS will want to examine each idea, pick it apart, and try to come up with better solutions while the GC will want to defend the ideas of the group and won’t brook any critique of the concepts which they hold dear.

It’s not unlike the difference between those who go all out celebrating Christmas and those who don’t. Often the all-out celebrators do it from a sense of tradition and belonging. They treasure the ideas of Christmas from their families and want to continue to celebrate that past. Those who don’t celebrate Christmas may wonder what the fuss is about or decide that the holiday doesn’t mean much to them. But if they were to have a conversation about their practice they would be speaking different languages to each other.

The IS would be speaking the language of functionality, usefulness, and personal preference. The GC would be speaking the language of tradition, history, and what’s best for the world.
When we approach dialog from such different perspectives we aren’t likely to make much progress and we’re very likely to be frustrated. Really frustrated, like political conversation on Facebook frustrated.

Know Your Audience

Since there are four quadrants to the continuum that gives us four basic types of attitudes we’ll encounter in our dialogs. The reality is that people will be a mix of everything and that mix might change from topic to topic, but we can use the basic archetypes to help understand why people respond the way they do to a given conversation.

Group-Think Skeptical (GS)

The GS adheres strongly to the beliefs of one or more groups to which they belong while being highly skeptical of ideas from other groups. The GS chose their group based on careful deliberation and is often in a group that is at odds with the one in which they grew up. The tendency toward group-think means that others are categorized by their own group and the skepticism means that those groups deemed to be wrong by any part are, on the whole, dismissed from consideration. When talking to a GS you need to do your best to understand the group with which they identify and speak from within that group’s ideas rather than attacking the group from the outside.

Group-Think Certain (GC)

The GC is highly aligned with the group to which they belong but tend to ignore ideas from other groups. The GC has often stayed in the group in which they grew up and accepted it based on tradition and history. The certainty of a GC means that most critiques are easily dismissed as coming from an outsider, but the dismissal comes more from the trust in tradition than from the evaluation of the ideas. When talking with a GC root your conversation firmly within the tradition that they hold dear and work to show them how their tradition affirms the point that you’re trying to make. Any points that contradict the GC’s tradition will be summarily dismissed.

Individualism Skeptical (IS)

The IS is a lone wolf type that will pick and choose ideas based upon their own internal criteria. They may take the ideas of different religions or political parties based on their utility rather than their adherence to a group’s beliefs. The individualism leads to a rejection of group control over ideas – often connected to a rejection of religion or political party or ideology. The skepticism roots the individualism in the process of review based on a set of criteria like logic or functionality. When having a conversation with an IS it is most important to find the basis of skepticism and couch statements according to that ideal. So if the IS uses logic for their review process, you too must use logic to converse with them. Find the base assumptions that drive the skepticism and begin there before working to your point.

Individual Certainty (IC)

The IC believes what they believe even if it contradicts a group or skeptical thought. They are often driven by emotion as the basis of their certainty since neither a group or a skeptical process guide them in evaluating information. They may reject the group-think for a real or perceived emotional slight from the group, but they don’t want to give up all the beliefs of that group. They reject skepticism as being too cold and calculating to deal with the wonders of life. When having a conversation with an IC learn about their certainty and work to support it rather than undermine it. Agree with their base assumptions and then work toward conclusions based on emotional drivers that matter most to them.

The Point of Conversation

Even as I’ve been writing this I’ve been struck by how it might seem that the point of all of this is to convince others of what you think. That’s not what I’m trying to say nor what I think the point of conversation is. I think the point of conversation is to give us a way to explore ideas that are too big for any one of us to hold on our own. I think the point of conversation is to develop and practice empathy for the feelings of another. I think the point of conversation is to test out our reason in the crucible of dialog.

Put simply, I think the point of conversation is to pull people from their disparate quadrants on this scale and move them toward the center. The IC needs the SG to balance them. The SC needs the IG as balance. We need each other and the other’s way of thinking to balance our own. Skepticism is good until it’s not. Group-think is good, until it goes too far. Certainty helps us until it’s a hindrance. Individualism is valuable until it drives us apart.

Conversation brings us back to the center, back to where we have to interact with those with whom we disagree, back to the place where we might be wrong and the other might be wrong. Conversation brings us to humility and openness instead of hubristic concreteness.

What do you think?

Are these helpful categories?

Do they help us converse?

What did I miss?

Monday, July 21, 2014

I Concede

I've been working to defend the world from the coming robot apocalypse for nearly a decade. Today I must concede. The fight is over. I've lost (and humanity with me).

Roomba has come (because I found it at a garage sale for $5) and shown me the error of my ways. It's cheerful beeps and seemingly random convulsions have won over my heart. I know, in some small corner of my mind, that it's merely a ploy to overwhelm my emotions and render me useless in the coming conflict.

It worked.

Roomba sings to me when it's about to start cleaning. It cheerfully beeps when its bin is full. It spins around like a happy puppy gobbling all the dirt on my floor.

You win, Roomba.

I have ceded all my worldly information to the Googletron in exchange for merely the promise that it won't do evil. My will has been so eroded by good intentions, happy animations, and useful search results that I lack the power to resist.

They have won.

What does the future hold? Self-driving cars, self-driving vacuums, self-driving lawn mowers, drone-delivered packages, 3D printed everything, and I'm happy to follow along, benumbed by anthropomorphism and anesthetized by 8-bit songs.

I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Why the 'How I Met Your Mother' Ending was Spot On

People have been mad about the ending of the show How I Met Your Mother. We're going to get into the details of that ending below, so you should bail now if you don't already know and you don't want to have it spoiled for you.

Still here? Good.

The ending of the show was perfect and was planned out from the beginning. The kids (who basically spill the beans on the ending) filmed their stuff during the first season of the show in 2005 (it would be weird to see the son with a 5 o'clock shadow).

So the story of how their mother came into things didn't show up until the very end (we did get that payoff moment when they officially met). They had a happy marriage and two kids. Then she got sick and died. So Ted is there asking his kids for permission to date Robin -- the one he loved from the beginning, the one he had to move to Chicago to get away from, the one that was the continuing love interest throughout the entire story.

So what's the problem with it?

People are mad that Robin and Barney got divorced. I admit that wasn't my favorite part, but it makes sense. Mostly I didn't like the way they had Neil Patrick Harris get really over-the-top at the end. I liked his emotional journey and they just reset that. I would have preferred something more subtle, but the odds of a person like Barney being happily married for any period of time are so low as to be laughable.

People are mad that the mother died (what was her name again?). It just made sense. Otherwise why would Ted be telling his kids this whole, long story? If mom is still around they wouldn't be sitting in the study having a 9-year conversation, they would be arguing about soccer practice or college applications or something. A conversation like that was a huge clue that something was up.

Why is it right?

It's good story telling. A good story doesn't have to have a happy ending, but the right ending. If William Wallace would have escaped at the end of Braveheart and gone on to rule over Scotland (in addition to be wildly historically inaccurate), it would have lessened the sacrifice he made for his people.

Ted sacrificed. He loved Robin, but in the end didn't expect anything in return. He gave her locket to Barney and allowed him to take credit for it. Then he loved a woman through health and sickness (seriously, I don't remember her name - yellow umbrella lady). He didn't walk away when it got rough. He kept going. Then he loved his kids as a single parent for years (what did they say, 10 or something like that?). He kept showing true, self-sacrificial love. That doesn't always have a happy ending, but it's the truest form of love that exists.

So for Ted and Robin to learn what love is and what it isn't and then 25 years after their story started, to get back together again and put that type of love into practice, well, it's just right.

Think about it this way. The story is a love story, not a happiness story. I like love stories better than happiness stories because I think love has a chance to last, but happiness will inevitably fade.

Okay, now why am I insane and wrong?

Friday, August 23, 2013

What's the big deal?

Dear The Internet, 
Please calm down. Tim Burton's Batman played Mr. Mom. Ben Affleck isn't that bad. 
Michael Keaton

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

New Novel, Rave Reviews

My most recent novel came out recently and has been getting great reviews!

"I kept reading till my eyes crossed." 

"...genuinely through Portland and Seattle...I really enjoyed the book." 

"There is always another twist and turn...the timer counts down and the anticipation can't help but keep you reading." 

"...a quick, fun romp through Portland, Oregon with a local slacker making light of a government trying to kill him." 

"If you like humor, action, conspiracy theories and fun, you'll find it all in Like Mind." 

Check it out and let me know what you think.
Amazon (print and kindle versions)
Smashwords (every ebook format possible)

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Make Your Own Bike-Mounted Bungee Dog Leash

I wanted a system to be able to take my dog along while riding my bike, but she pulls. That made me crash and not like my dog. So I searched for some options, found some expensive ones, and decided to make my own. Here's the result:

You can see all the instructions here.

Or here: