“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” Zora Neale Hurston
- Information Manipulation Game
Tweak the numbers and you tweak the decision. Edit video and you edit context. Control the narrative and you control what information seems relevant. Truth is the first casualty whenever we assume that everyone manipulates information so we have to as well….since “that’s how the game is played.”
“Their response [when tweaking numbers] is that they’re doing what the system allows them to do. They feel, ‘I’m within the rules. I’m applying the rules to my benefit but I’m still playing within the rules.’”
When we characterize work, government, or other personal interactions as a competitive game we invoke game “rules.” As long as politics is considered a battleground, war rules apply and truth is the first casualty. Why not review the rules with Sun Tzu’s Art of War? The battle metaphor is a disaster for truth seekers. In a war/game, withholding information, promoting disinformation, suprise attack and active misdirection are not just acceptable but honored as good tactics. Whenever I facilitate high-level budget meetings, I always ask the question – how do you calculate your budget requests? Eventually I hear, “we figure how much we need and double it, or add 30%,” or whatever distortion each group’s norms justify. When I ask:
“How can we possibly make good decisions if our norm is to lie to each other?”
…it is usually the first time the group has asked themselves this question. The resulting conversations reveal the obstacles we impose on ourselves every time we characterize a budget meeting as a battle or a game. We play by rules that guarantee to distort our collective understanding of Big T Truths. Truth is the first casualty the minute we unconsciously expect there will be winners and losers, because it means that helping the other side tell the truth is the fastest track to becoming a loser.
Granted our judicial system wouldn’t work if lawyers were asked to collaborate – but there is no reason this adversarial approach should be our primary method for seeking Truth. While there are laws about sharing information in the judicial system, few lawyers call attention to evidence that helps the other side. An adversarial system for seeking truth incentivizes a battle mentality that rarely assembles various points of view into one big picture. We limit our truth to the one who wins, rather than the one who has the most integrity, experience, or good intentions.
“Another example is where data can be selectively manipulated. That’s a strong word for what I’m describing, but I’ve seen instances where selective use of data can basically get you to a different conclusion. They are protecting their own territory. The conclusion they are going for – let’s assume we are looking at a particular feature on a product – it’s a strong desire from one group in the company to have this feature. Another group…may not feel it’s that important…It becomes a judgment call. You are adding cost, adding weight. The one that wants the feature will tend to collect data and present data that would enhance the attractiveness of that feature. On the other hand, other people will be tweaking the numbers the other way.”
People (and now, algorithms) that assemble, interpret, format, and relay information into “meaningful” chunks edit out what seems unimportant (from their point of view) in order to feature what is important (from their point of view).
“So you’ve got a subculture that is trying to go for their optimum, which is counter to the big-picture good…What actually happens in the interchange from human to human is that they refuse to look at the big picture. They tell you flat out in a meeting… I’ve made the request that we look at the big picure and their response back [to me] is that they don’t get measured to do that, not paid to do what. ‘I’m only measured on meeting this objective and that’s what I’m talking to you about.'”
Any “fight” for truth means welcoming truths we dont like as well as the truths we do like. Denying unpleasant realities doesn’t make them untrue, it only distorts our ability to find solutions. That’s what I meant when I titled my last book “Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins.” I didn’t mean to suggest it was a guide to crush someone else’s truth with a truth you like better. I thought it would be obvious to those who study storytelling that the real wins are only found in Big T Truths. I guess I need to keep working on that.
3. The Filibuster Game
“… we were just wasting our time. No one wanted to be the one to tell him he was full of crap so they just sat and listened to him ramble on. After all, no one could disagree with the fact that we needed to act more like a team. But wasting all this time talking about our values and customer service didn’t solve the problem. Everyone walked out of that meeting and went right back to the same old, same old.
I’ve been there. You’ve been there. Now it’s happening on a national level and it’s no longer an irritation but a real threat. This quote above describes a meeting that happened over 20 years ago, but it’s happening again today, except game players now have “scaled” the filibuster game with technology that floods the airwaves with talking heads and images designed to activate clicks instead of collaboration.
The Filibuster Game has long been codified as a tactic in Congress: talk long enough and it prevents everyone else from telling his or her story. Today technological variations of the filibuster game include apps that push notifications to the point we don’t have time to look for verification. Particularly if the “news” we get affirms our own goodness and blames those “idiots” for not understanding what’s real.
You aren’t going to like this but in experiments, peace makers sabotage their ability to confront the Filibuster game if they get stuck believing that a Filibuster game player knows exactly what he is doing and why. Nope. Most of the time, these game players genuinely think they are heroes protecting a value that the rest of us want to “destroy.” Calling a game player stupid (accurate or not) only doubles the energy he or she gives to the game. Just to be clear, even those game players who are intentionally playing the filibuster game draw energy from your accusations. The only way a game player stops playing games is if he/she can admit to him/herself in the privacy of his/her own mind: “I’ve been acting like an asshole. I think Im making things worse. I want to change for my own reasons” It’s not easy, not particuarly gratifying, but focusing on the games and not the people works faster – not 100% of the time because nothing works 100% of the time. But it works with small groups, so surely there is a larger scale approach.
IMO, I think we need to stop fighting each other and start fighting the games people play with the truth. We need checks and balances for airtime that is currently for sale to the highest bidder.
Most people who play the Filibuster Game don’t realize they are doing it. Fear and anxiety create a knee jerk physiological impulse they just can’t control. All they know is that whatever you have to say distresses them, and they feel much better when they are talking instead of you. They will talk about anything except what you want to discuss. In corporate meetings the bluster mouth playing the filibuster game runs out the clock so other agenda items are never addressed. Filibuster is a fire hose of rhetoric that is not meant to communicate but to dominate.
This next quote was from a man describing a meeting, but you can imagine how this has translated to dominating media with loud engaging rhetoric that drowns out other stories.
In meetings when they get to the point where the gloves are off, it becomes very, very loud. The loudest and the most eloquent … He could make you listen, even though he was on the other side. He could compel you to listen by his rhetoric…You knew he was a snake. You knew full well…that what you were hearing was but a tip of his intent, what he was saying was only a portion of what he wanted you to hear. You know that what came before you on the table did not represent all that there was.
The filibuster game controls what we see as “True” by blocking out the stories deemed dangerous to a game player’s “preferred narrative.” Some even label these other people’s stories as “anti-stories” and intentionally distract, block, nullify, or sideline those who are willing to risk telling the emperor he has no clothes.
Since we have a finite time amount of time to attend to different points of view, any media that fills our attention to capacity with a single story steals time from tough issues that arise when we admit there are at least 4 or 5 points of view, that may piss us off, but still need to be addressed. When the flood of “something else, anything else” swirls within a media outlet it creates echo chambers (filibuster bubbles) designed to protect listeners from self-examination.
“People want to hang on to what they’ve got…so they generate so much data that it’s impossible to counteract.”
A flood of data makes it seem as if the problem we need to solve is to find a faster way to understand the data when solutions are much more likely to be found by sharing stories from all points of view, finding a way to walk a mile in the shoes of someone who knows what you don’t know, listening with empathy, generating mutual curiosity, or dialoging about Big T Truths. This doesn’t happen unless game players somehow experience an emotional state that makes being vulnerable seem wise. Attacking game players is satisfying but counterproductive. The trick is to get them to tell themselves the truth.
In my own experiements this rarely happens in isolation, but can be achieved in face-to-face group dialogue.
BTW, my definition of Big T truths: human paradoxes than sound like opposites but are actually two poles that must be balanced in the middle. We balance helping individuals AND the collective, depending on rules AND relationships, and investing in safety AND freedom. For instance, the golden rule “treat others as you wish to be treated,” plots a middle way between my wants and your wants.
Elizabeth Beauvais spoke the words written below last Sunday night at a local vigil to mourn the violence in Charlottesville. We still have a confederate monument directly in front of our court house. Let’s not ignore the stories perpetuated by these monuments. Monuments have motives. This one was erected during Jim Crow when loyalty to Confederacy was code for white supremacy. It still is.
She agreed to let me share a copy of her words:
“I went to the University of Virginia in the mid-1990s as a Jefferson Scholar, a scholarship that brought with it expectations of not just academic excellence, but citizenship and a real contribution to the inclusiveness, equality among student life. I soon learned that this was a campus-wide religion at UVA – this religion to Jefferson and his democratized ideals of self-determination, honor and equality. I took the history of civil rights under Julian Bond and poetry with our first black female poet laureate Rita Dove. I say this to tell you what a horror and shock it was to see hundreds of torch-bearing neo Nazis walking the central lawn of this campus, my campus, on Friday night. Don’t get me wrong – Charlottesville, then and now, struggles with a racist and misogynist past with lingering aftershocks in the present– a state school that didn’t allow women in until 1970, a university built with slave labor under the design of a founding father whose repeated rape of his slave mistress has become perversely romanticized. Charlottesville is far from perfect. But Charlottesville did not bring this on itself.
I believe that Charlottesville was expressly targeted as a strategic battle site by douchebag Richard Spencer and his NeoNazi, racist colleagues BOTH because it is now a progressive city built by the leading architect of America AND because it could actually be anywhere. For outside hate groups to invade and unilaterally terrorize a city that voted over 80% blue in the last election, a college town, and UNESCO world heritage site – (a city also, by the way, surrounded by a sea of red) – is a pointed, clear message that reads: We can take Berkeley with torches and hate just as easily as we can take Shreveport.
This matters to us not just because we feel for people in Charlottesville but because the violence could happen here — and the oppression and marginalization of already vulnerable people is in fact happening daily at the policy level.
My friend Kristin Adolfson was in the crowd hit by the car Saturday that barreled into her and dozens of other peaceful protesters that were holding signs that said, “Solidarity. Unity.” Kristen had written Love Not Hate on her shoulders and carried snacks and water in her backpack. She was marching by a low-income housing complex that white supremacists had been tormenting with racial epithets and chants of “Heil, Trump”. Miraculously, Kristin was unharmed, but a woman near her, Heather Heyer, died. Kristin told the New Yorker in an interview Sunday: “This was a terrorist act. Something that happens in so many places around the world, and it happened here in our little town. And I still can’t process the hate—that someone could actively take people’s lives, that’s what their goal was.”
She wrote to us on Facebook:
“What I can’t forget: The joy we had as we were marching down Water Street. Clapping and chanting and the solidarity and the community.
Then: such a strong feeling of ***NO!!!!!*** when I realized what was happening, realizing there was a car at full speed plowing through us. If my NO could have stopped time. It felt like it should have, it was that big.
How I knew what was happening and I couldn’t stop it. The sound of the car hitting human flesh and bone, ripping into us like dominoes, a quick staccato. Bodies thrown into the air. The anger that someone would do this. So angry, so angry. NO.
NO to the car and to the driver and to why it happened.
The fear for how bad it was, how many dead? How many dead.
A woman supported by three friends screaming heart wrenching. Her scream contained all our screams.
The tear streaked face of the young man wearing gray and a black medical mask around his neck, telling me someone is dead.
His face. Grief, incomprehension, pain, tears and pain, collapsing not able to stand.
Over the past several years, since Sandy Hook, I’ve wondered – how long until I know someone who’s killed by gun violence and unchecked hate and intolerance? Or since Lafayette – when will I need to map out the exit the next time I take my kids to see a movie? How long until it comes for me or someone central to my life? I didn’t have the opportunity and the misfortune to test my courage as Kristin did (and I know that for many the awfulness of racially motivated violence has long been in their streets.) Charlottesville is as close as it’s come for me. I won’t let my fingers write “so far” – but that of course is my fear, your fear, all our fears, right?
Here’s what I know:
- This is not “alt-right” or far-right, this is non directional, non partisan. Non American. The actual right should be loudest group saying this.
- This is not about First Amendment rights. Not when assembling and speaking also means toting torches and assault rifles and other actual tools of terror. Friends who teach constitutional law at UVA have been telling me and others earnestly that when both the first amendment and the second amendment are abused together – violence, terrorism, homicide are not far behind.
- Ignoring the fact that there is a short, direct and causal line from the President’s rhetoric and permissiveness for hate to the recent shocking surge of violence and hate crimes in American towns is dangerous. Strong leaders on both sides of the aisle, CEOs and other influencers are now seeing this writing on the wall and finally being vocal. Meanwhile – David Duke, our embarrassing fellow Louisianian, himself declared that the alt-right unity fiasco “fulfills the promises of Donald Trump.”
- Doing nothing regarding Shreveport’s own Confederate statues and totems of racism in the hopes that Charlottesville’s violence won’t come here is ostriching and wrongheaded and in fact, the surest way to greater oppression and racial violence and domestic terrorism.
- Equivocating with so-called compromises on false equivalencies – as if monuments enshrining civil rights and slavery bear equal moral weight and significance as worthy symbols in front of a courthouse is another fast track to Charlottesville – or worse.
- I love Charlottesville so much I named my daughter after it — and I also gave her the middle name Strong. I actually believe Charlottesville is going to be okay, largely because there is a strong and motivated population and institutions that immediately began calling the evil out by name, AirBNB owners who canceled Alt-right reservations, locals who moved their cars to make it harder for hate groups to park and have to walk miles and miles in their sad little fake military costumes, teachers and students who stood in front of their university buildings as they sought to reclaim it for tolerance and were viciously assaulted, and now residents crowd-funding for all kinds of social justice groups to strengthen their community.
- I love Shreveport too. Can we organize like that together?
- When and if the Nazis come to our town, or reveal themselves in our town, terrorize and threaten people, maybe even brutally mow down some young brave person, how will we respond to their chant “you can not replace us.” I think we start in the same way we have gathered here at this vigil: by standing up to say, “we are not replacing you – because you were never entitled to anything you are demanding in the first place.”
I need to say how much of an imposter I feel as a well-meaning, slightly crunchy aging liberal white woman talking about bigotry and racism. I am acutely aware of the fact that what I am speaking of is no news at all to my neighbors of color in Shreveport. In fact, I told Tamica there were people far better positioned than me to speak today. But then, I remembered what I read this Sunday morning in the New York Times:
“Now is the time for every decent white American to prove he or she loves this country by actively speaking out against the scourge this bigot-ocracy represents. If such heinous behavior is met by white silence, it will only cement the perception that as long as most white folk are not immediately at risk, then all is relatively well. Yet nothing could be further from the truth, and nothing could more clearly declare the moral bankruptcy of our country.”
Read more from Elizabeth Beauvais here. She’s a great writer!
In 2004 I introduced my ideas about story-thinking to a bunch of design engineers who responded “no, no, that’s design-thinking.” So I fell in love with design thinking…genuises like Dan Lockton (101 patterns for behavior change), Jan Jursa and UX Storytellers (free ebook with personal UX stories) create designs that are stories. Perhaps story thinking and design thinking are not an exact match but the steps of find/share/refine from UX, Agile, and Scrum sources are delightfully nonlinear (story) compared to the decision routines I learned from management by objective techniques (i.e. SMART goals) and I like the conversations of UX people. They ignite the imagination to pursue goals we can’t yet see.
I have an issue with the UX term “cognitive bias” because EMOTION should be in there somewhere and “bias” makes humans sound like stupid cows who might follow a cattle chute wherever it goes. Even cow chutes can fail until a designer understands the stories cows tell themselves (see Temple Grandin). Human patterns of interpretation can utilize rational tools but our patterns irrevocably reflect the DNA of physical experience and emotional reasoning. Every “cognitive bias” makes as much sense as any stereotype makes sense. It shouldn’t be universally applied, but it comes from an organic place. I’m happy to know that Dan Ariely says his term “predictably irrational” refers to the idea that it is irrational to think you can predict your own behavior. It is not a blanket disdain for these patterns of behavior. Emotional reasoning is and forever will be more powerful than rational decision making and I see that as a good thing because our future will be much better when we learn to blend emotions like empathy, compassion and love into our ratios.
Before demand for content reduced storytelling to a sequence of linear explanations and numbered bullets, it was mostly taught in person.
Learning storytelling in a group from an experienced storyteller provides an experiential sense of story that can’t be captured with a set of procedural instructions. There are great courses out there. We can learn a lot online…but if we want to understand something as deeply human as storytelling its ideal for humans to interact with other humans.
Here’s why: A story blends emotional, visual, kinesthetic and rational reasoning routines without separating them. Personal stories illuminate insights that are specific to a situation’s people, complexity, texture and relationships. A vibrant true story delivers a hologram of culture, nature, nurture, space and time from an embodied human point of view: WAY more information than a story formated via a hunt and peck search for hero, quest, obstacle, helper and journey.
The job of a storyteller is two-fold. First, a storyteller notices the emotional, visual, and kinesthetic patterns that produce perceptions (i.e. what makes some facts feel more important than other facts) and interpret conclusions (I “know” him therefore he is more trustworthy). Second, a storyteller must be able to re-create this perceptual/emotional point of view so others share the insights and the feelings as if they were physically there.
Yes, any story that provides your listeners with a vicarious experience of your facts in time and space makes your facts feel more “real” …with all the benefits of that, but to me, the real value of storytelling is the way it allows us to aggregate contexts and shift perspectives so we make better decisions. When rational objective reasoning is allowed to over-rule subjective story reasoning we end up with projects that should’ve worked, but didn’t because emotions and perceptions rule human reality.
More than a set of tool to persuade, story-finding and storytelling skills increase the variety and quality of scenarios we can imagine to produce the results we seek – sometimes revealing even better goals in the process. Any story that narrates a relevant “Significant Emotional Event” (without some imposed structure) helps us S.E.E. important patterns, better test prototypes, and understand user experiences.
Designing cattle chute stories/interfaces that only lead to pre-determined conclusions is not engaging it is coercion. Narrating stories with the priority of understanding (not controlling) true human experiences releases listener conclusions to be creative and more meaningful to you both. It means showing faith in your listeners (always appreciated) and sharing responsibility for mutually creative interpretations and actions. There is no “right story.” If you look for the perfect story you sacrifice the process of mindful attention to what is, in favor of what you want to see. Both are valid…but I’m thinking we could all do a better job of understanding what is.
So to all my UX colleagues, please don’t let your understanding of storytelling get distorted with contrivances created to package and sell storytelling advice. User experiences with emotion and unpredictability intact are too valuable to the process of innovation to be reduced to fit existing categroies. Be bold.