Monday, September 23, 2019

Is It My Fault You Can't Handle The Truth?

You can't handle it!

In 2018 or 2019, I was introduced to the idea of hyper-rationality. I think it was under another name (to be given shortly) and as part of a presentation by George Dinwiddie on, of all things, estimation.
It was a funny place to be introduced to ideas from psychology and family therapy, as well as organizational psychology and collaboration, but there it is.

It is nice to be smart.

It's extra nice to be right.

It is wonderfully nice to be right, smart, rational, and helpful to others.

Sometimes we put too much emphasis on being right and forget to be helpful.

Hyper-rationality is a state of being excessively or inordinately rational. It is a belief in rational truth as an unassailable fortress, that being correct is all that matters.

For instance, consider the sentiment that if I am right or I am telling the truth then you have no right to be offended or upset. It might feel right, but it sounds wrong.

When people are acting hyper-rationally, they often expect to be respected and appreciated for having a superior argument, a more data-backed answer, a provable theory. But this seldom happens.

I'm not going to explore any kind of moral, rational, logical relativism here. That's a different topic. I'm not suggesting that whether gravity or physics or hexagonal architecture are "true" are a matter of personal opinion. I'm not even playing with the idea of "personal realities" here.

The fact is that being actually, provably, data-based, research-backed, iron-clad RIGHT is sometimes not the most important thing.

"If the truth bothers you," one may say, "then you are overreacting or overly sensitive." This is a declaration of irresponsibility. It is the hyper-rational way of saying "I am not accountable for any damage, upset, or embarrassment I may cause."

Not Responsible For Broken Windshield

It reminds me of the bumper stickers on trucks saying that vehicles must stay back at least 200 feet because the driver is not responsible for damage done to other vehicles by falling rocks.

A warning is a good thing in this case, and staying back is generally a good idea. 

My issue is with the statement "Not responsible for broken windshields."  It's nonsense of course. The sign on the truck does not let the company off the hook. The company and the driver are legally responsible for the damage they do.

The bottom half of the sign tells others "I am irresponsible. Whatever damage I do to you is your problem."

When people claim that they are just telling the truth and can't be blamed, it is likewise nonsense. We are always responsible for the words we speak and the actions we take. We're not let off the hook just because it's true.

Sometimes we crave the irresponsibility of Being Right.

Virginia Satir talks to us about being congruent and reminds us how our communication has different layers of meaning.

Even if my words are accurate, rational, and true, the way I deliver them may color that truth with an entirely different message.

Sometimes that message delivered with our "truth" is "screw you, I don't care what you think." That message is never helpful.

There is the term that Satir used, and which I hinted would be revealed. That term is "super-reasonable."

This is described by Andrew Fogg as:
A super-reasonable person discounts himself and others and respects context only. He frequently knows lots of information and works solely from a logical or objective perspective. He says to himself things like “Everything is just a matter of logic, emotions are a waste of time” and “I must be more intelligent and show how intelligent I am.” Physiologically this stance is rather dry! The super reasonable person only respects the context, while disrespecting themselves and others.
This is explained well in an article at Satir Workshops, using a simple three-part circle diagram as a key.

The three chunks are Self, Other, and Context.

The same icon/diagram is used in this lovely sketch describing coherence and imbalance, which is from the 1972 edition of Virginia Satir's book Peoplemaking (original by Barry Ives, modified by Charles Lambdin to work better in this blog):


Here you see people discounting the needs of the self, then the other, then both the self and the other, then all of the above. Finally, you see the Leveler who is considering all of these aspects and is likely to be successful in collaborations.

Super-reasonability ignores the humanity of an interaction, assuming that facts and intelligence are all that is needed to make it all work out.

Often when "objective truth" is presented in a conversation, it is given as a reason to NOT do things one is requested to do, or a reason that other people should do as they are told by the truth-teller.

In this case, it is a power move.
It is a trump card, an argument-ender, a sockdolager.
It is closer to "blaming" than to "super-reasonable" in such a case.

If the message is "screw you, I'm right" then likely you're not offending people with the truth but by demeaning or disregarding them.

All people in positions of power (bosses, managers, consultants, public speakers, recognized experts) need to be careful. When you find yourself in this position, it's time to pause and think more deeply; being right is not enough.

The truth-teller in this circumstance has been met with a request or a need, and rather than attending to the need or aligning with the person who has come asking, the truth-teller is instead asserting dominance/superiority and shutting down the conversation.

Why would anyone not take offense at that?

"I'm just telling the truth" is a mask frequently worn by callous self-centeredness.


That describes a great number of bad interactions I've had in the past. Having worked so hard to learn many things, I felt it important to deliver my well-studied truths -- more important than to care for the needs and ambitions and goals of the people around me.

I said some things not only because I thought they were true at the time (and may have been), but because they gave me a shield from the upset of the others -- my own "stay back 200 ft" sign; my own "get out of responsibility free" card.

As Michael Mendis described it:
"we flee from what we fear, so it can be concluded that hyper-rationalists fear their irrationality and seek to escape from it by taking refuge in an excessive and exaggerated devotion to 'reason.'"
Sometimes we try Being Right to protect ourselves from our own irrationality, from engaging with other people's needs, and so that we can avoid dealing with the emotional and irrational side of other human beings (a side just as scary in them as in ourselves).

But it's still there.

Data doesn't make us less human. It should be used in service to humanity rather than as an escape.

If we have an objective, context-free, helpful truth then why can't it be offered in a way that respects and honors other people?

Why must it be a conversation stopper/winner, rather than incorporated into the context of the interaction that is focused on meeting the goals of all the people involved?  Why can't it be helpful rather than off-putting?

Truth does not have to be delivered bluntly and brutally.
There is a tradition of "speak the truth in love" to consider.

A better example of helpful truth-giving is from Randall Monroe (AKA xkcd):

When you think that others are being hyper-sensitive, perhaps it's a good time to consider whether you are being super-reasonable.

Some questions to consider:

  • Are you hiding behind rationality? 
  • Are you discounting your place and the other person's place in the interaction? 
  • Are you trying to take a shortcut that is not helpful to your collaborators? 
  • Is it important to you to "win" the conversation?
  • Are you using rationality to escape responsibility?

1 comment:

  1. It would be interesting to read columns on the other aspects of dealing with others. For example, on dealing with people who feign offense at every turn to get their way. Or people who insist on having a say in matters of which they demonstrably have no knowledge whatsoever. Or refuse to correct themselves even when it is clearly and convincingly demonstrated that they've been wrong about the matter at hand. Or simply allow emotion to rule every aspect of their psyche with no mental discipline at all.
    Because, while it is very much a problem, "super-rationality" is by far the rarest of problems.