A Commonplace

What is a commonplace?



Sun, 8 Jun 2014 10:25:07

Want to Get Better at Verbal Self Defence? Get Over Your "Self".

Two stories to start off with. I once went to a session run by Benjamin Mitchell where he ran a session of "The Red Bead Game" invented by management guru W. Edwards Deming. Benjamin was playing the role of a ruthless manager - and this was definitely helped by it being "Movember" in honour of which, he was sporting a highly dubious moustache.

The way that "The Red Bead Game" works is that volunteers are brought up from the audience and a task is explained to them. They are given a paddle which has 10 bead-sized holes drilled in it and asked to place the paddle in a bucket of thousands of beads where the ratio of beads is 9 white beads to every 1 red bead. The object of the exercise is to avoid collecting any red beads with the paddle, but the volunteer has no control over this. The way in which the paddle is inserted into the bucket is strictly defined so that the volunteer has no lee-way.

The whole purpose of the red bead game is to show simultaneously how most of the flaws in a process can be attributed to the process rather than the individuals involved. At the same time - as the game progresses the "management" of the red bead game celebrate the volunteers who have "avoided" collecting a large number of red beads, and warn, scold and eventually fire the volunteers who get a large number of red beads.

But here's the weird thing. A particularly tall volunteer was "winning" i.e. by total luck he was getting the least number of red beads and the guy next to me was watching this and saying "Oh he's good isn't he?"

Me: I'm sorry.

Guy: He's good isn't he? He's got talent.

Me: Erm. But the whole point of this exercise is to show that success and failure in this game are random.

Guy: Yeah. Right! He knows something. He's got talent!

Me: ???

Can you just imagine what this guy would have thought if he'd been winning at the red bead game, or indeed, if he'd been "fired" for losing.

And then there's that Larsen cartoon with the bear hiding behind a tree and the hunter creeping up on him and the bear is thinking "Yeah, he's definitely shooting at me, now let me think - do I know this guy?"

Both of these stories - the red bead game and the Larsen cartoon are examples of misunderstandings and exaggerations of the individual contribution to any situation. Which brings me to the central point of this post.

Most of your problems stem from your exaggerated and misunderstood sense of self

One of the reasons I've been thinking about this is I've just recently been reading "Thoughts Without a Thinker" by Mark Epstein which highlights this fundamental principle of Buddhism - that all of our problems (or most of the fundamental, insoluble, ones) come from our exaggerated sense of self and a refusal to see that in a very important ways we are not separate from the rest of the world. This is obviously a very huge subject, and just writing this I'm starting to feel that I'm in way over my head.

But at the same time as reading this, I've been reading about verbal self-defence. One of the books I've been reading is a book from the seventies by Suzette Elgin Haden - "The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defence". She has some very interesting things to say. Elgin Haden draws distinctions between different modes of communication (actually I think she borrows them from Virginia Satir, but let's not worry about that too much just now).

Three modes of communication that are important for this discussion are:

Blamer Mode - the mode of explicit attack: "You fucked this up good and proper didn't you?"

Computer Mode - a more "objective" way of communicating: "There seems to be a big problem here."

Leveller Mode - mano a mano: "Look, we all know this was a screw up! And we know it wasn't all your fault."

Three points that Elgin Haden makes very clearly in relation to these modes.

1) The most insidious and destructive verbal attacks don't come in Blamer mode - they're hidden in Computer Mode and in Leveller Mode.

2) You should never respond to an attack in Blamer Mode.

3) To a lot of the people playing it isn't personal, it really is a game, and you show yourself to be a total amateur, a non-combatant even, if you think it is personal.

I don't know much of the history of how Haden-Elgin's book came about, but it clearly sees it's self as part of the battle of the sexes - somehow imagining that all men are naturally accomplished at verbal sparring.

An amazingly high percentage of men, with absolute honesty, are astonished when they find that the verbal attacks they've carried out in courtroom or at the conference table are resented by a woman on the receiving end. THEY ARE NOT PRETENDING THEY TRULY DO NOT UNDERSTAND.

Males learn very early that verbal confrontations are a part of the necessary activity of their careers. They learn to admire the skilled verbal infighter, to keep track of the "one for you, and one for me" scores as the confrontations go along, and they do not take any of this personally. (The man who doesn't learn this is the man who gets passed over again and again while less able people are promoted over his head).

As a man who hasn't "got" these rules of the game instinctively, I would claim that gender isn't the dividing line here - the dividing line is rather between people who "get" it and people who don't. And the crucial point to take away from Elgin's observations is that in almost any verbal conflict, especially in a work situation:

It isn't about you.

It's about the whole system that surrounds you. Yes, people may be implying that you're not competent. Yes people may be implying that if you serious about your job, you'd be taking on more responsibility. They may even be saying this explicitly, and brutally, in "Blamer Mode". They may even be making personal remarks about your weight, age, gender, attractiveness. Still more likely than not, they're making a "move in the game" as Suzette Elgin Haden puts it:

The fact that women [and for women here I would put "people who aren't good at verbal confrontations] are frequently unable to play this game - and make no mistake about it, it is just that, a game - limits them forever to the lower strata of most corporations, universities, hospitals, publishing houses, and so on. Men [i.e. people who are good at verbal confrontations] look upon it much as they do any other sport: Get in there and play to win, and then when the final whistle blows, everybody go out together for pizza and beer. (Or steak and a good red wine, or doughnuts and coffee depending.)

-either learn to play the game or forget about a career within the system.

If you go into a football game and insist upon playing it by the rules of tennis, you surely have better sense than to think that (a) you will win; or (b) anybody will ever let you play in their football game again.

As I mentioned yesterday, I was talking to a Krav Maga instructor who was saying that one of the main ways of defending yourself was "don't be there". I think in physical self-defence terms that means learn to stay out of situations where you might get into a fight. But in the terms that we're discussing here it has an intriguing alternative meaning - when you're being verbally attacked, reduce your sense of self - see the attack for the game move that it is and don't let it hit you.

Another book that I've been reading about self-defence - Verbal Aikido by Luke A Archer would seem to contradict this advice by making it clear that in any verbal conflict you should be totally present in the moment. But the interesting thing about being "totally present in the moment" is how this too involves reducing your sense of self. Two examples of what I mean.

Let's take one of the most brutal verbal attacks I know of - and unusually from a film about work (there aren't that many of them). This clip from Glenngary Glen Ross ending at "you fucking child," (language not safe for work, possibly not even palatable at home for some people).

For a long time, I thought what was good about this clip was the brutality of the attack on the Kevin Spacey character (this, I think shows just how naïve I've been been - and can be - about life and work). But then I read Venkatesh Rao's discussion of this same scene Rao points out that the Kevin Spacey character "wins" this confrontation because even though he's just been savaged by Al Pacino, he still listens to what the Jack Lemmon character is saying - starting here. Because he stays "in the moment" rather than going inside himself and raging and wailing at how he's been attacked (which is very probably what I would have done) the Kevin Spacey character figures out that Jack Lemmon is actually the burglar who broke into the office, and "wins" the confrontation. Talk about "if you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you." Wow!

The other example is one that I've talked about a lot in association with verbal self-defence - the Hat Game as described by Keith Johnstone. Johnstone makes the point that people who are good at the Hat game make good improvisers. And one reason why that might be is that being good at the hat game involves being "in the moment" and not going inside yourself. It's worth quoting at length what Johnstone says - please go and buy his book, trust me you'll be rewarded by reading it (again, apologies for the gendered nature of some of these comments, it's really not what I'm trying to emphasise).

Most students attach their ego to winning (which turns play into work) so I say "What's it matter? It's not even your hat! Are you supposed to be an expert? Of course not! Take risks! Win or lose, either way we'll be entertained!"

I noticed that the 'untalented' players (almost all women) stepped backward, even if only a few inches, whereas the successful players held their ground, or moved forward, tempting their opponent into making an ill-advised grab- I stood the retreaters against a wall but they jerked their heads back and cracked the plaster, so I placed heavy chairs behind their knees and sometimes I'd walk into a scene and push them forward. Women were soon as successful as men, but there was still a baffling connection between skill at improvisation and skill at taking a hat.

A Japanese swordsman wrote that if you fight someone who has no plan, you'll be thinking, I'll do such and such! As your severed head bounces down the temple steps (well he didn't put it exactly like that.)

Planners in the Hat Game are at a similar disadvantage- Hat-Games demand a split in the players' consciousness: part of the mind plays the scene, while another part watches attentively. Until players can make this split their hats are vulnerable.

So how do you get better at "staying in the moment" how do you modify your exaggerated sense of self? Well meditation,especially mindfulness meditation is supposed to help with the sense of self, and I'm going to give that a try. Well and I think from a verbal self-defence point of view I think the answer has to be practice in a safe environment (please, it's really probably not a good idea to practice with a partner or loved one). I'm very interested in trying to set up some "verbal sparring sessions" - almost like a Verbal fight club. But the first rule will be not about not talking about it, it will be "no assholes" (this was another tip I picked up from the Krav Maga instructor). If you're interested in coming along to a verbal sparring session and learning more about verbal self-defence (and the hat game). Let me know.