I spent a week in silent mindfulness meditation only to learn nothing – now I’m going back for more

woman engaged in mindfulness meditation

I recently returned from a mindfulness meditation silent retreat. According to the brochure, this looked to be a peaceful experience of luxurious silence free from the NOISE of everyday life. I spend most of my time listening to others or otherwise silent, so this seemed to be a step further in a direction I already knew.

Boy, was I wrong. Nothing could have adequately prepared me for a week of the silent treatment.

How’s that?

Recall a perfume ad from the 80s that famously claimed, “If you want to capture someone’s attention – whisper.” The corporate equivalent would be, “If you want to make a PR splash -- leak it.” Following a week spent sitting in complete silence with some 40 others, I borrow and amplify this captivating slogan; “If you want to blow someone’s mind – say nothing.”

Nothing. That’s what I learned from dutifully meditating 18 times a day for a week in silent retreat. I don’t mean not just nothing useful. I mean nothing. No, thing. Nada. Zilch. Zero. Yep, I graduated, Cum Laude, by learning “nothing,” absolutely.

It was one of the most significant lessons of my life.

Sure, volumes of research support many clear benefits to mindfulness meditation. From weight-loss to stress management, mindfulness meditation has become a near psychological panacea. But my intent here isn’t purely scientific, it’s phenomenological – to describe the psychological experience of mindfulness meditation because sometimes experience IS the best teacher. What follows is my personal account, individual results may vary.

“Nothing” is surprisingly difficult to describe despite its frequent and familiar use. Think about it. How would you describe, “nothing?” It’s not so easy, especially if you’re trying to describe it without resorting to what it isn’t. To define “nothing” requires “something” (e.g., words) that in themselves belie the phenomenon – by definition. Okay, okay – enough of the philosophical dribble. To my own defense, there were a lot of eggheads at this retreat. (“Is that Havarti cheese you’re having?” “Hale, yes!”)

To be honest, I didn’t get all the way to nothing. And I’m pretty sure no one else did, either. But that doesn’t sell the experience short. Getting next to nothing is good enough to render two blades; one that sharpens the senses, another that pares the tenses. (OMG! I’ve become one of them!)

On the first, sensory level, one cannot fully appreciate just how much “noise pollution” there is in our world until going deaf and dumb for a week.

We live in a cacophony of chatter and tempest of man-made sounds. Proof? The cocktail party phenomenon. We’ve evolved to unconsciously register personal information (our spoken name) from the noisy clamor of people and machines competing with pyramiding decibels for our attention. (Ever notice how television ads are louder than the show and frequently use shouting salespeople?)

After a week of sitting, eating, and living with 40 other mutes, where the only noises I heard were footsteps, breathing, coughs (why these happen ONLY when mediating, I don’t know), blinking and even swallowing, (among other gastrointestinal chimes), I’ve developed Extraordinary Sensory Perception. Initially, I chalked this up to simple sensory deprivation, any twitch seems a convulsion after watching a person-statue for ten hours straight. But there’s more. A lot more.

In fact, this wasn’t even simply a personal experience, but rather a group one. But not so fast, not right here right now. For now, let’s stick with my newfound superpowers of observation.

Like anything of real value, the “prize” (i.e., nothing) didn’t come without a significant challenge and some time. I’d never meditated before much less meditated and kept my yap shut for a WEEK! I was so ignorant upon arrival that I did’t even take note of the fact that at least ten other participants exclaimed, “Wow!” when I told them I’d never even sat still for more than ten minutes (and that’s inflated).

By the third day I learned what “WOW!” meant.

It was after three days of forcing myself to sit still, that the witty “sayings” and paradoxical stories were no longer amusing. I winced with every “fortune cookie” cliche, longing only for the cookie and groaned (silently) through circular arguments that would eventually deny, and then justify, themselves. I’d just about had enough of nothing.

I wouldn’t have been the first to check out. This environment was COMPLETELY different from the wild and woolly world of work. I’d become quite comfortable in a world where stopping for a yellow traffic signal is a capital offense and “get to the point” is the refrain of executives who seem to be saying, “I don’t have time for you” (although most really do have the attention span of a flea). We’re all under HEAVY pressure to dump the story and get straight to the chase. What a waste.

The heightened ability to notice what another is thinking or feeling merely by their posture and steadiness is very useful, especially to a guy that makes his career by seeing in people what others don’t. It may be the job applicant who “manages” what they tell me. It may be the individual I’m coaching that feels compelled to point out the errors of senior management. Before this retreat I was pretty good at this. Afterwards, I’m even better. I see, hear, smell, etc., more than ever.

But the experience did more than merely sharpen the senses – even as valuable as that was. Indeed, development of the senses paled in comparison to the {almost} revelation of “nothing”, or more accurately, the state of “nothingness.” (Although they aren’t identical, I use “nothing” and “nothingness” somewhat interchangeably here, let’s not get picky).

Psycholinguistics (aka, psycho-babble) aside, “nothing” is easier to experience than it is to define. But to experience “nothing” is no lay-up. That’s probably why the spiritual retreat used every hour of a full week. (We had seven hours to sleep, but still maintain behavioral and social austerity. (No talkie.)

The journey to nothingness involves managing one’s attention by ascribing more and more of it to fewer and fewer stimuli. A blurring distinction between things previously seen as discrete is the result. Traditional “boundaries” of human-imposed mentality fade away as our man-made words lose their relevance and governance. How does one describe the weight of a kilometer? The thoughts of a rabbit? The self-imposed phenomena of past and future? (neither of which really exist)

It didn’t make any sense at first, and I dwelt in the world I knew at the expense of not recognizing the world around me. How beautiful it is. How balanced. How wonderful.

As I began paring back layer upon layer of denial, assumption, and self-defense that I thought defined my resilience I discovered something radically different, a nonjudgmental curiosity and compassion inaccessible by might. Incredibly, I was becoming mindful all the while finally dropping tons of dull attention I previously thought was sharp.

But here’s the thing. Nothing, it turns out, IS something. It’s just not A thing. “Destination nowhere,” isn’t the goal, it’s the ride, but yet, a ride that actually delivers both along the way and upon arrival, a ride that we need to pay attention to -- If we can. Attention seems to be in short supply in an increasingly distracting world of environmental noise and executives that bark, “get to the point.” To wit, prescriptions for ADHD medications have risen 53% over five years for adults. (Mindfulness is arguably the most useful technique psychology has presented for improving attention and overall concentration. Forgive me for shorting the research, but I’ll stand by that claim.)

Now, I have a job that demands that I be hyper aware of behaviors and attitudes. My value isn’t in seeing what others do, it’s in seeing what others don’t; the person no one else sees in interviews; the you that you don’t know. So far most would agree that I’ve been, “above average.” Now I have a whole new game.

So, what’s the big deal?

Nothing. That’s it. Nothing. It’s amazing what happens when one gets intimate with “nothing.”

Doesn’t exactly sound like a bargain, does it? But that’s exactly what I returned with following this week-long silent retreat practicing Zen Sesshin. Nothing. Maybe that’s why the brochure emphasized the silent meditations and lovely surroundings.

Of course, there’s more to the story or else I wouldn’t be writing anything here. As I do write, it was like nothing I have ever done.

It started innocently enough. Along with about 40 other retreatants I checked in and enjoyed a social (and talkative) dinner. Having never “technically” meditated, much less spent a week in silent meditation, I was not surprised that others were surprised at my, virtually absolute, ignorance.

“So, how many times have you sat?” I was asked. “Sat” is an informal reference to the traditional meditations.

“Never.” I replied to about ten individuals during this prelude.“WOW!” was the singular response from everyone that asked me this question. It wasn’t until one of the Sesshin leaders shared that they’d never had a novice complete an entire Sesshin before that I really began to worry (Sort of, I’m experienced being a surviving novice.)

Beyond any doubts related to my capacity to manage so strongly my thoughts feelings and behaviors, the goal was not to survive – but to thrive. I didn’t want to just “make it.” That would be to reduce the experience to an exercise in self-discipline. I wanted to reap the benefits so publicly trumpeted in scientific research. I wanted to feel and be better.

By the end of the week I was exhausted but energized at the same time. I suppose I was experiencing both sensations independently as they pertained to completely different perspectives of the same experience.

Physically I was okay aside from some aches that come from sitting on one’s posterior for a week. Mentally I was overwhelmed. Everything took on enhanced sensations I could barely withstand. (It does get better)

A friend who is experienced in mindfulness and the Zen Buddhism sesshin strongly suggested a gradual reintroduction to the outside world. I needed to manage myself and my surroundings to avoid overstimulation. I tried. (spoiler alert)

If you’ve ever fallen asleep on an airplane to be awakened by the PA system blaring something at you about your seatback you know what overstimulation is about. I just about jumped out of the plane every time that loudspeaker roared.

A regional barbeque was a bad plan. Nevertheless, this is where I had my first real-world experience with my new, “Spidey senses.” As the live band played loud to compensate for "tonal lapses," I freaked out. I found myself staring at folks and not stopping even when they stared back. Compassion and attention merged to heighten my awareness of others along with a steady sense of concern. Everyone was to be accepted as they were, none as a threat. I can still hear the band playing to the crowd, “What song is it you want to hear?” Whew - don't miss it.

After about three days back, I found my “earth legs.” This was somewhat bittersweet. On the one hand I was much less jumpy, on the other I wasn’t as much in tune. Have your cake and eat it too? I haven’t gotten that far so as to merge the heightened awareness and nonjudgmental thought of mindfulness meditation into my native life. But I think it’s possible with some consistent effort.

I need to make my meditation less convenient to be more germane. Naturally, this requires practice – a primary pitfall for us "distractibles" (that includes you). The benefits are convincing and real but they don’t come with a “one and done” attitude. Life is a chronic condition of stimuli constantly competing for your attention that never go away. But they don’t need to have constant perceived impact. This is where acknowledgement without capitulation to one’s attentions comes into play. In the balance between attention and obsession and acceptance, mindfulness has its utility. You may not be able to fully control your consciousness, but you can influence it and be satisfied.

The same can be said of your social presence. People with strong mindfulness practices always seem to be interpersonaly gifted. Studies and my personal experience suggest that this is not accidental. Emotional intelligence, the ability to recognize and appropriately manage one’s and others’ experience has been credited with more predictive value in nearly any situation than mere IQ. Patience is not only a value, it’s of value.

So, it’s high time for me to re-boost my mindful ways as I prepare for Sesshin II. Now enlightened, I expect to gain even more value from nothing. And you’re welcome to join me!

You just have to sit still.

Don’t think you can control your emotions? You’re probably right – and it’s affecting your “batting average”

baseball striking bat under high velocity to illustrate the placebo effect

When I was about 10 years old, my dad gave me and my brother a baseball lesson. Specifically, we practiced hitting the ball. The lesson Dad gave was the same for my brother as it was for me, but the results couldn’t have been more divergent. From that day on my brother became a “slugger” and I, a “striker.” If you don’t think you can control your emotions, you’re probably right, and you’ll likely become a striker like me. The placebo effect from drug studies may help, though.

A Little Difference with Big Results

What can science tell us about how my brother elevated his game and I tanked mine? (This is the scientific equivalent of, WTF?) All we know now is that something different happened for my brother and me. It turns out that a simple belief is likely to credit for our diverging batting averages – a belief that is within personal control but not fully controllable by everyone. Huh? Why? How?

A significant component of dad’s instruction addressed the bat – or at least implied its role in getting hits.

You’ve got to Believe

“You may be wondering: how are you going to hit a round ball with a round bat?” Dad posed.

“Yeah, Dad, I was wondering that very thing, HOW CAN I hit a round ball with a round bat?”

This turned out to be a key question and, I believe, THE pivotal condition that put my brother on a path to playoff-bound teams whereas I was never able to get my baseball career to first base.

“You don’t. You hit the ball on the flat side of the bat." Dad encouraged us as he guided our fingers over the barrel of the bat.

“Here, feel here. Here you can feel the flat side of the bat. If you swing this flat side at the ball, you will get more hits.”

The Placebo Effect

My dad was counting on a powerful psychological condition well known in the field of pharmacology – The Placebo effect.

It didn’t entirely work out as Dad planned – at least, not for me.

My brother claimed to feel the flat side of our shared Louisville Slugger. Armed with the conviction that bat and ball actually are designed for hits not strikes my brother saw an immediate improvement in his hitting. I, on the other hand, did NOT feel the flat side of the bat, and, did NOT experience better batting. In fact, now convinced that the flat side of the bat (that doesn’t exist) was THE (missing) KEY to getting hits, I was barely able to make ball contact at all. The easiest explanation for the sudden divergence of my brother’s and my batting was that belief that holding the bat a certain way that favored its “flat side” would lead to more hits, or not.

When a Placebo Becomes a Primary Variable -- i.e., a Big Deal

Here we have the experimental design of the placebo effect. By encouraging my brother and me to “feel” the flat side of the bat (which doesn’t really exist) my dad hoped to establish the critical belief that hits were possible if only one swung with the right side of the bat facing the ball. Confidence in this belief (I know – an oxymoron, "confident belief") was figured to cause an increase in hits as a result. Given this was the only identifiable difference between my brother and myself, belief in one’s potential determined hits. My brother prospered in his newfound belief about the difficulty of the task. But what happened to my placebo effect?

The placebo effect is well known in pharmacological research, or drug studies. This is the standard “psychology only” condition for virtually every drug entering the market. To test the possibility that merely believing in the efficacy of a given treatment has a significant effect on its results beyond any biological agent, the new drug is tested against a placebo condition where no drug is administered to a control group. This simple design has arguably yielded more advances in pharmacological and psychological research than just about any other phenomenon. It turns out that the placebo effect is not only present in just about every drug trial, it's strong, rivaling the physiological effect of many new drugs.

Prove It

How important is the placebo effect to psychological research?

Critical. And in more ways than one.

In fact, THE primary question in psychological research is whether or not a treatment condition is significantly more effective than no treatment at all. This is the tested assumption of the null hypothesis which is the bedrock of experimental design. As an inferential, data-driven science, the job of the researcher is to disprove the possibility that nothing happened. Placebos are a staple of pharmacological research aimed at rejecting the null hypothesis that nothing happened in favor of the presented alternative. This alternative account of results isn’t proven true, the hypothesis of no effect is simply proven to be relatively improbable as compared to the hypothesized effect. In this regard, properly scientific psychological research seeks to prove that “nothing” is an inferior explanation to the alternative hypothesis.

Beyond the Placebo Effect

In psychological research, the placebo effect goes beyond the simple issue of whether a given effect is due merely to the non-treatment condition or the presence of some stimulus (e. g., taking a pill). Here the matter applies as much to independent psychological mechanisms (i.e., variables and their nature of influence) as much it does to the simple question of whether or not any effect is present. A placebo effect holds out the possibility that a given variable may have a more insightful role in behavior than serve simply as a placebo.

The possibility THAT something (oftentimes a psychological variable) can influence study results begs the question: “HOW?”

When a placebo advances in research from the fact that it has SOME kind of effect on results to the specific mechanism(s) of the “placebo” the placebo becomes a key variable for study beyond the original focal variable(s). Science turns to addressing HOW the former placebo works instead of asserting THAT it exists. This is when the placebo becomes an independent variable with a specific mechanism of action. This is when powerful psychological insights are made -- insights that aren’t immediately written off to a placebo effect, but rather depend on the main effect of a placebo effect-like psychological condition.

For our hitting practice, belief in a flat side of a bat minimized the negative attitudinal, or motivational effects underlying a known difficult task -- hitting a round ball with a round bat. The change of attitude associated with our evolving placebo effect emulates a well-researched condition known as cognitive reappraisal.

Typically, this emotional motivation is deliberately and noticeably manipulated via an explicit experimental condition in which participants are guided through the act of cognitive reappraisal. Such an act is not necessary in this case because motivation is already provided by the goal of getting hits. The only thing necessary is to manipulate the participant’s belief in their ability to hit the ball.

That’s not funny

The punchline to an old psychology joke goes, … “one, but the lightbulb has got to WANT to change.” The common understanding is that beliefs are precursors to acts and that any change in action requires/carries a change in causal/supporting beliefs. In most cases cognitive reappraisal is triggered directly by asking a study participant to consider the emotions (or beliefs, in our example) associated with the task in a new light. By reframing an emotional state this way an individual can manage the emotional impact of a situation so as to have less of a negative impact on immediate performance. In this case the motivation to perform is assumed rather than directly manipulated. Here, motivation depends upon beliefs about the difficulty of the task. As these beliefs are enhanced, the motivating attitudes are similarly predicted to change.

Reaping value

So – how can one get value out of this insight?

Wanting to change isn’t the same thing as believing one can, but it is a measurable and influential effect strongly predictive of being able to change. In this case, wanting to get hits is a motivational condition preceding the act of hitting the ball AND resulting from the consequence of getting hits. Therefore, managing one’s motivation for a task has the potential to enhance task performance. But how do you do this?

We’ve seen one good example for how to manage your emotions already – cognitive reappraisal. This is the equivalent of hitting the “reset button” to current thinking and concomitant feelings. By changing the emotive nature of a task we change its desirability and increase(decrease) its motivation. Another means of emotions management is via mindfulness meditation. I write about my personal experience on a week-long silent mindfulness meditation here.

In conclusion

  1. Attitudes matter. They influence motivation which has a corresponding influence on task performance by framing expectations/beliefs.
  2. Motivations matter. They are a form of attitude (which already matters) that can be deliberately controlled by adapting and associating various emotional effects/influences from one situation to another. In our batting example this was accomplished by changing beliefs about the probability of a successful/desired performance.

“It” may all be in your head – but there’s no guarantee that you will have control over “it.” However, if you cannot control it, then it will control you.

Psychology at work – it’s more important than you think!

People with no personality are more common than you think

An empty suit

“They have no personality.” We’re all familiar with this casual saying (it’s no compliment) and we know not to take it literally (or out for drinks). But what exactly does, or could it, mean? Have you ever thought about what “no personality” really looks like?

Personality is arguably the most popular and practical contribution psychology has made to society. Here is a construct or phenomenon that isn’t just for geeky researchers but is decidedly mainstream. From selection assessments and team building events to everyday use and language, personality is big these days; heck, dating services may be the “biggest users” of personality assessments going and everyone has been on a dating site (admit it). Personality is obviously important, so what does it mean when we say someone has no personality?

A literal interpretation would be to say the person really isn’t a person (why do you think we call it PERSONality?). Instead, “no personality” has come to describe someone with a behavioral style of little interest (aka, “boring”).  An apt simile is that no personality is like (plain ‘ole) vanilla ice cream – familiar to all but not the most colorful. But “no personality” is more accurately described as “light” vs. zero personality – featureless but not absent, what are we really talking about?

So, what does “no personality” look like?

Naturally, we know that this saying is not to be taken literally – everyone has something worth listening to (if they don’t then they’re just boring, not a personality-less plant.) Nevertheless, we speak of personality in quantifiable terms, e.g., “Sally has a lot of personality,” the opposite of boring. To have a lot of personality is comparable to interesting and enthusiastic.

So, is it possible for someone (conscious) to have no personality? Literally? The answer depends on how we interpret the words, “no personality.”

{Obviously this is an abstract concept, in part defined by semantics. Nevertheless, the label “no personality” is a fixture – if informal - in characterizing people.}

In this case, “no” refers to a non-existent quantity. We’ve already agreed that there is no such thing as zero personality in a living person, but zero personality does not equal no personality. For all the personality tests I’ve administered, I’ve never had one come back with no scores.

But I have worked with many people who have no ONE definitive personality – or “type.”  I’m not talking about the clinical issues associated with split personality. Some individuals simply don’t have a personality type.

In fact, none do.

The first key to this puzzle is in the specific meaning of “one personality.” If we think of personality as behavioral style, then everyone has one. It’s like the SAT, you get 200 points just for putting your name on it. But if we think of personality as a “type” then I think you’d agree that no one is perfectly described by one “type.”

People change. (It’s what keeps psychologists in business.)

What someone does today may not predict what they do tomorrow. That’s because behavior varies within the repertoire of one person just like it does between people. Today may be a good day for “head down, GSD” while tomorrow may bring about behavior associated with taking a vacation. The way we act in worship probably doesn’t predict what we do (how we behave) at a party. Same person, different behavior.

But not that much. (It’s what keeps personality practitioners in business.)

Especially not after reaching adulthood (which is later than you think; about 30 years old) by which time it’s been estimated that 90% of personality (behavioral style) is in place. Imagine how difficult things would be if people were completely unpredictable even if you like variety. Communication and social behavior in general depend on some degree of consistency – it’s required to allow reliable interpretation.

Some change more than others.

Research has suggested that Emotional Intelligence, also referenced by its quantitative measure, “Emotional Quotient” (EQ), is more predictive of performance and satisfaction than intellectual intelligence, or IQ. This is a big deal.

Emotional intelligence pertains to an individual’s ability to identify and respond accordingly to the pleasure and expectations of present company in an emotionally effective manner. Unlike most psychological research, EQ is a rather simple and practical phenomenon that has become quite popular with the general public thanks to Daniel Goleman, a science reporter for the New York Times. Goleman “chanced” upon the term in the academic literature, simplified and refined the concept and described it.

Just how much of a breakthrough is EQ?

“Self-monitoring” was defined by Mark Snyder as an attribute related to the cross-situational consistency of behavior well before Daniel Goleman’s article that launched the EQ movement. Self-monitoring refers to the ability to discern another person’s or group’s attitude and moderate one’s own behavior to suit intentions for the other.

The stability, hence, predictability, of an individual’s behavior depends on the degree to which a person is a high or low self-monitor.

People with low scores on self-monitoring behave relatively consistently from situation to situation. These are people of principle that are less concerned with being popular than with being right. As a result, people with low self-monitoring scores act more predictably across situations.

People with high self-monitoring scores tend to be entertaining, attractive and popular. Elected politicians are among the prototypical example of high self-monitors. The high self-monitor can determine and adopt the mood of the audience in order to be more relevant and potentially influential to the individual or group.

People that have high levels of self-monitoring are less likely to be behaviorally consistent in a crowd. These are the people often referred to as “social chameleons.” They’re one person with corresponding behavior in one group and “another person” with a different group.

Can a single score capture all the behavior for an individual on a given trait?

Most personality test reports provide a single score for an individual on various characteristics. This can be considered the average behavior as scores reflect the responses to items comprising the trait. While averages are useful to capture the degree to which a reflects some personality attribute, they are not always that accurate. For example, Sally and Jeff may receive the same score on extraversion, but the way they get there is different. This can be illustrated by examining the responses that make up a given character trait.

Sally

Jeff

Although Sally and Jeff have essentially the same average on extraversion Sally and Jeff are not that similar. Sally could be described as being moderately extraverted. Jeff, however, appears to be extraverted about half the time. Essentially, Jeff is harder to predict based on his “split” responses to items that make up the behavior (in this case, extraversion).

Jeff’s responses are consistent with those of a person high in self-monitoring. He may be more extraverted with a group of friends (items 8, 9, 10) versus a group of strangers (items 1 and 2). One can’t say whether Jeff is extraverted or not.

Self-monitoring changes the interpretation of personality tests

Although self-monitoring can be inferred based on item/scale scores (see “Jeff”, above), going the other direction (i.e., from self-monitoring to the behaviors) is more helpful. Since self-monitoring is actually a sub dimension of Emotional Intelligence, EQ scores provide a proxy for self-monitoring. Armed with knowledge of an individual’s EQ scores the interpretation of high self-monitors must be distinguished from low self-monitors.

Low self-monitors are who they are for the most part. Interpreting personality test scores from these individuals is relatively straightforward and reliable. Low self-monitors are generally well described by their scores and their environment is not that much of an influence, they will be consistent regardless of the context.

High self-monitors, on the other hand, are highly influenced by their environment. In the right circumstances they may demonstrate one behavior, in another something else. In order to predict how a high self-monitor will behave it is beneficial to know about their environment; as the environment goes, so goes the high self-monitor.

No <ONE> personality

High self-monitors provide one example of how a given individual cannot be said to have one personality type. In this case, the more accurate assessment would be that the individual’s behavior varies. The same is true for low self-monitors but not to the same degree.

To summarize, people’s behavior is the result of both person- and environmental factors. As such, taking a personality test at face value is unlikely and under-informed, other data must be included for the best picture.

What your Personality Test Report says about You

Business man's hand plotting people's personality test report scores on a grid

People are frequently amazed at the accuracy of their personality test report. These reports can be powerfully enlightening as they describe an individual’s tendencies and character traits from what appears to be an objective point of view. When given the opportunity to review their report, I haven’t had one person defer. Everyone wants to know what their report says about them – whether they agree with it or not.

But sometimes personality test results are misleading and of no use at all. And it happens more often than you’d think.

In an experiment with college sophomores, a traditional favorite for academic researchers, the accuracy of personality tests was put to its own test. Following completion and scoring of a personality test given to all of the students in the class, the researcher asked for a show of hands from those for whom the test report accurately described them. A sizeable majority of hands went up – the report was an accurate depiction. There’s one thing they didn’t know:

Everyone got exactly the same report.

Yep. {I wish I’d thought of this first.}

Despite everyone completing the test in their personally distinctive manner, only one report was copied and distributed to the entire class of subjects. No matter how similar you may think college sophomores are, they’re not so identical as to yield precisely identical personality profiles. But still, a “J. Doe” report was viewed as a perfect fit to most. How does this happen?

Take a read of one of your personality test results. If you’re like most, you’ve completed several of these assessments and probably still have a report or two laying around. When reading your report take note of the following indicators of BS reports:

  1. Conditional Statements: The number of times the words “may,” “might,” “sometimes” show up

Example: “You may be unsure of yourself in a group.”

How “may?” Like, maybe, “90% unsure”, or “maybe completely confident?” The reader typically fills in this blank unwittingly giving the report a “pass.”

  1. Compensatory Observations: The number of times opposing behaviors are presented next to each other

Example: “You have a hard time sharing your feelings in a group. However, with the right group you find it refreshing to get your emotions ‘off your chest.’”

So which are you? A paranoid prepper? Or a chest pounding demonstrator? Either one of these opposing types could fit by this example.

  1. General Statements: The specificity of the descriptions, or lack thereof

Example: “You maintain only a few close friends.”

This statement is pretty much true by definition. It’s certainly up for interpretation such that it is befitting for all.

  1. Differentiating Statements: {fewer is worse} The uniqueness of the descriptions.

Example: “Privately, you feel under qualified for the things others consider you to be expert at.”

The lack of differentiating statements is not exactly the same as making general statements. A specific statement may not be differentiating. The above example is specific, but not distinctive as a fairly large percentage of people do feel under qualified for even their profession.

The point is, anyone can be right when they:

  1. Speak in couched probabilities,
  2. about “both-or” samples of a given behavior,
  3. in very general terms,
  4. about things that many people experience.

These four “hacks” provide all the latitude needed for ANY report to make you think it has “nailed you.”

Beyond these tactics, many give too much credit to the personality test. Frequently reports are simply feeding you back EXACTLY what you put in via your responses. For example, the item, “I like to organize things” may show up in a report as, “You like to organize things.” There were probably more than a hundred items on the test – you probably don’t remember every response you made for every item.

Another way folks give too much credit to the personality test is by holding the belief that the instrument should be right. Beyond your general position on the validity of personality tests, publishers have various tactics to make the test report more "scientific."

  1. Lots of statistics
  2. Lots of figures
  3. Distinguished endorsers
  4. Techno-babble

None of these things may have anything to do with the actual validity of the test. But research shows these things enhance people’s opinion of its validity.

What’s a good report look like?

  1. Good reports take a point of view. They provide specific summaries of behavioral style that really are uniquely you. If you gave the report to a friend and told them this was their report, they’d honestly say that it doesn’t accurately depict them – even if the two of you are inseparable. Fit is determined by both accommodation and exclusion. A good report speaks to you and no one else.
  2. Better reports don’t provide any narrative at all. They simply provide normative scores on the various dimensions (i.e., characteristic behaviors) covered by the test. This type of report allows an expert to interpret the full spectrum of dimensions in the broader context. Good interpreters know what to look for in terms of how the dimensions interact with each other and can further specify the evaluation with just a bit of extra information on the respondent. This does not mean that they already know the subject. It may be as little as knowing why or when the person completed the assessment.
  3. Great reports present just the facts. The report is a fairly straightforward summary of your responses, organized by dimension (trait) and compared to a group of others’ responses/scores. Better still, great reports provide more than one score per dimension, or the average. They also give some indication of the variations in responses by dimension. This allows the interpreter to know just how confident a given score is. No variance = high confidence. Wide variance = low confidence.

So, what does your report really say about you? Depending on the factors I’ve outlined – it may say nothing at all (or worse).

It really helps to know some of this stuff.

The Best Advice for Delivering Bad News

Deliverging Bad News

I once listened to a coaching client describe (vent), in great detail, the multitude of deficiencies of one of their direct reports. This wasn’t the first time this topic had come up in our conversations, so I knew it was more than a “sore spot” for the frustrated leader. Bad news was more than simmering.

This time they meant business.

It was apparent that the “plan of attack” had been refined and rehearsed to ensure that nothing could dislodge the “facts.” Every objection covered, all evidence compiled, I even got a little rattled as my client grew more incensed.

But even hurricanes take a breather. Once the wall of my client’s fury yielded to an "eye" of tranquility, I asked: “Do you think this individual knows how disappointed you are?”

“Absolutely!” my client proclaimed. “There’s no way they can deny it.”

“And how do you think they feel about this?” I asked.

“I can’t see how they could feel anything but shameful” was the reply.

“So, let me get this straight. You intend to deliver negative feedback to someone that already knows they’re falling short of expectations? And, they feel badly about it?”

My client’s shoulders dropped and their once riveting eye contact broke off as they gazed toward the floor. It was obvious where I was going.

To meet the obvious, if regrettable, expectation, I continued, “Why don’t you start your conversation with them by simply asking, ‘How do you feel?’”

“I get it,” they replied softly, “And if I ask in that manner, they’ll probably talk about the performance problems I’ve been ready to unload on them?”

Probably so.

How many times has someone crammed something down your throat that you already knew? What was your reaction?

The great detectives -- Columbo, for example, use riveting questions to tell of their knowing, “Oh, oh, oh, … just one more thing, ma’am. If you weren’t at the scene of the murder of your husband, then how is it that your beloved and loyal guard dog, Gunter, isn’t it, never barked? You see, your neighbors were recording a Youtube video on mindless tranquility at the exact time of your husband’s murder. He pleaded for his life – it’s on the tape – but, Gunter? No, Gunter never barked. Not a whimper.”

The same strategy is employed by the great lawyers, like - Perry Mason. “In closing, I ask the jury, ‘why would anyone actually go ‘coo-coo for coco-puffs?”

Let the jury connect the last dots. It’s far more powerful, psychologically, to come to one’s own conclusion (as it seems) than to have it shoved down their throat.

And the target of question or criticism? They know more than you’ve prepared for. (Incidentally, research proves that punishment is reinforcing to the punisher, so don’t believe your parents' claims through your childhood, “this is going to hurt me more than you.” B.S.) Besides, going into the conversation with “both guns loaded,” will only invoke defense. And this usually doesn’t end well.

Find that moment of tranquility when preparing to enter a tough conversation. Is it possible that other/others know what you’re about to say or do concerning their behavior? If so, ask yourself, “Am I really teaching them a lesson?” or “Am I actually reinforcing my ego?”

Bad news needn’t be badly delivered. It’s usually not news, anyway.

(Favorable comments, only, please)

Can’t we all just get along?

Two masks staring at each other. Can we get along?

Nope. No matter how much we want or pray for peace; how much we want the yelling on cable news networks to cease; or how badly we want to end acts of violence taking place in our schools, we must recognize that aggressive behavior is hardwired in our DNA. We can’t “all just get along?”

As social animals, humans have immutable, instinctual, irrepressible needs: the need to bond with others “get along” and the need to dominate, or “get ahead” relative to others. That’s simply the way it is. We will ALWAYS relate to other humans in these instinctive ways. Even your most revered saint is subject to this reality. And you most definitely are, too.

The ONLY people apparently exempt from both of these needs are, in psychological terms, “crazy,” “nut jobs,” “whackos,” etc. Apparently, I say, because an argument could be made that they are labeled, “abnormal” for the very reason that they don’t have both needs met.

The “sticky wicket” here is how we define, “get ahead.” Here’s my crack at it.

The pivotal criteria between hippies who’d “like to buy the world a Coke” and cowboys who take evil-doers and “hang ‘em high” hinge on intent and intensity.

We can all identify with the good old rivalry of game-based competition (good intent, strong intensity), and the trivial “rounding errors” in tax returns (bad intent, low intensity). {I’ve only heard about these.}

A simple taxonomy of "getting ahead."

The table, below, depicts one of the oldest, but strongest, means of influence due to its simplicity - even if a bit inadequate. (Hey, I’m a fan of tales of “ducks and bunnies.”) ANYWAY, in this case two variables (Intent and Intensity), each with two values (good/bad, high/low), are put together. Alas; the classic 2 x 2.

 

A simple taxonomy of "getting ahead."

 

The labels in the grid are mine, but others would work just as well.  (However, if you disagree, you’re wrong. AND bad! – JK*)

BUT...

“BOHICA” (I really shouldn’t say what this acronym represents, so I won’t say that it ends with, Here It Comes Again.)

“Intent” is particularly squirrely. It’s hard to ascertain the intent of someone else: "I did this for you, not me." (hmm) “I didn’t mean to eat all of the ice cream.” (Not hard). And what if the act of intent affords no value to the one in question, “Yes, I drank all your champagne, but I didn’t enjoy it.” (Guilt by confession)

What isn’t so slippery: Few (sane) people proudly parade the image of being “Hostile.” Most don’t even like the idea of being “Mischievous.” We don’t like (allow?) the possibility to arise from our unconscious identity that we may be "bad." The more intense our point of view, the less we like (allow?) it to be anything but affirmative and decisive. "From now to eternity, I will NEVER vote for a ...."

Distinguishing good and bad is subjective. (Note the ‘wiggle’ room here) For the most part, our interpretation calmly flows with the “river of the rest.” For example, “You shouldn't interrupt someone in mid speech.” (That is, unless they NEVER shut up or are an insufferable boor.) “Going with the flow” isn’t infallible. We can believe we’re absolutely good and right, but somehow do unthinkable harm. Many egregious atrocities have been committed in the vortex of popular thinking (e.g., slavery).

Some will take umbrage with my admittedly loose, but intentionally illustrated sense of right and wrong. “God determines what’s right and wrong.” I can hear from some. “Yes,” I respond, "She does." "But..." our operational legal and moral systems are primarily determined by the populous. And, yes, they may be right or wrong about what’s right or wrong. (Huh?)

Anyway, the point I want to make has little to do with defining what’s right or wrong regarding guns, freedom of speech, whatever you like. I simply intend to give credence to the point that sometimes, some times, good people do bad things. I have my own opinions regarding what’s right or wrong, but who cares?

If you accept the conundrum that good people can do bad things, then the conflict between the person and their behavior must be addressed - more realistically, reconciled. Otherwise we have a bad person. And we don't like this answer. So, we in effect, invoke the moral(feeling)/rational(thinking) equivalent of a psychological “get out of jail free” card.

Cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance. The “slight of mind” that allows us to sleep knowing that we held our nose and voted for ____. OMG.

Cognitive dissonance. It's what you’d guess; mental conflict or disagreement. Cognitive dissonance looms large wherever disagreement lurks.

Take the maelstrom of shootings in US schools. Some say easy access to weapons is at fault,  yet the same people may have guns themselves, or at least want others to have them. Others believe that inadequate defense mechanisms are a weak link in our free society, thus allowing such tragedy. Furthermore, arming trained people with guns in schools is a good start to confronting these horrific maladies.

Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Obviously, the answer depends on who you ask. But both points of view, intensely debated, are staunchly justified by those who hold them.

Cognitive dissonance.

A singular event, with the same information available to all, is fiercely contested. Both “sides” have no doubt that they are right; the other side, dreadfully - dangerously, wrong.

How does this happen?

Cognitive dissonance.

Allow me to walk you through the examples of two potential cognitive processes regarding the two most polarizing points of view on gun control. For illustrative purposes, I’m going to make them super simple and extraordinarily extreme. I am NOT going to try to make them “good.” I speak for NO ONE here. I’m just making a point. Here goes...

“Guns are easily obtained and pose deadly force. If we eliminate guns, we’ll eliminate the problem.”

“Guns are our most effective defense in crises like these. By equipping our schools with guns, we’ll eliminate the problem.”

Both positions invoke cognitive dissonance because both are debatable and, moreover, both are obviously ignorant (as written). Note: we also don’t like to think of ourselves as “ignorant.”

Advocates for eliminating guns want to protect our schools by taking away the weapon of deadly force (guns), but know that two guns are better as long as one gun exists. (Unless they have complete trust in the wielder of the first gun.)

Advocates for the right to bear arms (guns) want to protect our schools by inserting the powerful weapon on site as defense, but know that guns carry risk. And more guns create more risk.

Now. Simmer down. The message is intended to make a point, not a point of view.

I say that both sides “know” these things, but that doesn’t mean they acknowledge them. This is where the BIG BUT comes in.

"Sure. Guns offer powerful protection, BUT at what risk to have so many; in our schools?"

"Sure. Guns pose risk and the more guns, the more risk, BUT at what cost do we allow armed attackers access to unarmed schools?"

When you hear someone pivot on a “BUT” they’re invoking cognitive dissonance.

It’s all about the BUT. When you hear someone pivot on a “BUT” they’re invoking cognitive dissonance. They’re creating a way to hold two conflicting beliefs (one, probably suppressed and unconscious) at the same time.

Cognitive dissonance allows both of these positions to ‘jump’ over the line between good and bad intent

Again. This article is not about gun control. The references are used only to make my point because it’s divisive. Both sides have intense beliefs. Both sides have valid points. Both sides have flaws. Cognitive dissonance allows both of these positions to ‘jump’ over the line between good and bad intent (or at least position one’s self in “the good box.”)

Wake up. We can’t. We won’t. Not gonna happen. We'll never, "all just get along."

We’ll never "all just get along." In virtually all cases, cognitive dissonance justifies our unpopular (among some) position by giving us an “out” of the bad box.

BUT,

If we open our eyes and see this from a higher perspective, perhaps we’ll see some common intent – even if our “logic” differs.

Worth a try?

*JK= Just Kidding. That's text speak I'm using. Cool, huh?

Emotional Intelligence: Breakthrough or Been Through?

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence.

Unless you’ve been ‘hiding under a rock’ for the last 30 years, you’ve heard of this term. And, unless you’ve been in grad school for the same amount of time, you’ve probably used it. (Just kidding — sort of)

EI, as it’s commonly abbreviated, charged into mainstream popularity following Daniel Goleman’s, 1995 NY Times bestseller, “Emotional Intelligence.”

Generally referring to behaviors reflecting the awareness and management of one’s own and others’ emotions, EI was picked up by consulting firms faster than a lonely $100 bill on a casino floor. Today, EI is a multi-million dollar industry served by hundreds of consulting firms and assessed by nearly as many different psychological tools.

How did EI get so popular? Continue reading “Emotional Intelligence: Breakthrough or Been Through?”