Tuesday, April 8, 2008

What Fish Don’t See

Walker Percy observed that a fish does not reflect on the nature of water: “A fish cannot imagine its absence, so he cannot consider its presence.” Humans also live in an environment shaped by essential social forces so prevalent we instantly react and accommodate them although they are rarely noticed, contemplated, or discussed. These include trust and its essential components of candor and responsibility; power and its manifestations as dominance, stature, and influence; primal messaging, how we decide what to believe, our first person viewpoint, and how we approach conflict.

When we meet a new person we inevitably size him up. Can I trust him? Do I believe what he says? Can I depend on him? Can he hurt me? Can he help me? Do I like him? Can we get along? What can I learn from him? Where do we agree? Where do we disagree? The answers to these essential questions help us understand if we want to approach this person or avoid him, and how we will get along in any case.

The degree of trust we extend to another person strongly shapes our relationship. When we believe what others say and can depend on them, we work together smoothly, efficiently, creatively, openly, collaboratively, and quickly. When we distrust a person, we are defensive, cautious, closed, indirect, and often manipulative. We use many factors to assess trustworthiness, primarily including candor and responsibility.

Our conversations are most genuine when we begin with well considered thoughts, acknowledge our feelings, are clear and honest about what we want to say and we treat our listeners as respected peers. These are the authentic elements of candor and are essential to building trust. No spin, half-truths, misrepresentations, sales-pitches, insults, decrees, blather, or cryptic comments, instead just straightforward, sincere, and honest communications. People accurately sense what is authentic and prefer it to phony.

Trust is the decision to rely on another, and responsibility is at the core of this reliance. Having responsibility is the duty or obligation to act. Taking responsibility is acknowledging and accepting the choices you have made, the actions you have taken, and the results they have led to. Trust depends on both having responsibility and on taking responsibility. Responsibility is congruence of what you think, what you say, and what you do. It is essential for reciprocity, trust, and for maintaining peer relationships.

The symmetry of each relationship also profoundly shapes our behavior. Power is an asymmetrical two-person relationship. You treat the boss, the Nobel Prize winner, the rock star, and talk-show hosts very differently than they treat you. You defer to the boss because he can hurt you; this is an example of dominance. You seek out the Nobel Prize winner because you believe he can help you. This is an example of stature. You are attracted to the rock star because you hope to increase your status by associating with people having high social rank. Because you believe much of what the talk show host tells you he becomes influential. Power relationships are one-sided, peer relationships are symmetrical. You may be the one-up in some power relationships and the one-down in others. Peer relationships are sustained by dialogue, power relationships are validated by dogma.

Good vibrations, bad vibrations, no vibrations; we certainly feel something as we meet another person and get to know them. Emotions form our connections to others below our cognitive awareness. This primal messaging is a constant signaling between the limbic systems of two beings. It is often non-verbal, and often takes place below the level of consciousness. These messages have a vocabulary at the very core of our relationships. Do we approach or avoid, like or dislike, feel safe or afraid, agree or disagree? We associate with each person an unmistakable impression that may be comfortable or uncomfortable based on an integration of these signals by our emotional brain.

We are inundated with information every day. Friends tell you one thing, authorities say something else, and the evidence points in yet another direction. Because we are deluged by a constant flood of information from a wide variety of sources, each of us must evaluate and decide for ourselves what information is reliable and what is not. We dismiss most of it and come to believe some. We often discount evidence while we accept distortions. Although few of us can describe how we decide what we believe, we hold firmly to some beliefs while we flip flop on others. We base many of our daily decisions on strongly-held beliefs of unknown origin.

Seeing things from our own point of view is always easier, and first-hand experiences seem more real than understanding another's point of view can ever be. Your eyes, nose, taste buds, tactile sensors, and ears connect directly only to your brain. Only you experience first-hand the direct sensory input of the world; you are the observer. This raw sensory input is interpreted and gains meaning through your unique perceptions and past experiences. Furthermore, contemplation, desire, intent, pain, introspection, consciousness, and reflection are all private and solitary. This unique first-person viewpoint of the world creates a fundamental asymmetry that contributes to many other asymmetries that govern social interactions. We judge others based on behavior and we judge ourselves based on intent. Your own point of view, the way you see things, is unique. The golden rule and our empathy struggle to overcome this fundamental imbalance.

We face conflict whenever we encounter contradictory goals. Agreeing on what to cook for dinner, where to go on vacation, who washes the dishes, or what car to buy are examples of the many simple conflicts we may face each day. Choosing between communism, dictatorship, and democracy; electing the democrat or the republican; pro-life vs. pro choice; nuclear energy, conservation, or burning more oil; the safety and comfort of an SUV vs. green transportation alternatives, and many other mega-conflicts are at the center of the most important issues facing our world. Conflict is unavoidable; fortunately we can learn to transcend conflict as we avoid false dichotomies.

Like fish in water, we are constantly surrounded by the almost invisible issues of trust, power, emotions, beliefs, first person viewpoint, and conflict. Better understanding of these concepts can help us to stay afloat.