By Theo Winter
“The Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti once remarked that observing without evaluating is the highest form of human intelligence. When I first read this statement, the thought 'What nonsense' shot through my mind before I realised that I had just made an evaluation.”
— Marshall Rosenberg
“These people are murderers!”
That’s what the tribal chief screamed as he banged his fist on the table in response to the question.
It was an interesting response, considering the question:
“What needs of yours are not being met?”
The other tribe, presumably outraged by the hypocrisy of their rivals, fired back with a declaration about being victims of 80 years of domination.
Not the best start to negotiations.
Marshall Rosenberg, the mediator between the two tribes from Northern Nigeria, had seen it all before. Whether in North Africa or North America, in diplomacy or dating, it was the same story repeated throughout human relationships.
Instead of each side describing what they needed from the situation, the conversation was promptly derailed by an intellectual analysis of pathology — the other side’s pathology.
It took some work, but eventually the master mediator found a question that led somewhere:
“Are you saying that your need for safety isn’t being met?”
Bingo bango. The chief confirmed that was exactly right. And while that very small acknowledgement (“I don’t feel safe”) may seem a trivial and unimportant thing, it got to the rock-bottom heart of the issue — the core unmet emotional need — which opened up the other tribe to empathy, connection, and moving to a place where the two groups were willing to see each other’s humanity.
Later, a chief stood up and said, “If we know how to speak this way, we don’t have to kill each other.”
I don’t normally dip into conflict management literature (to be honest, I’m not especially interested in the topic, and I’m not currently involved in a conflict… so far as I’m aware) but there’s one particular idea that has made a significant impression on my thinking and has even changed the way we communicate in our office.
It happened several weeks ago, after a colleague sent me a 10-minute video introducing me to Marshall Rosenberg, the late author of “Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life,” which has sold over a million copies and was apparently given to Microsoft’s leadership team by CEO Satya Nadella as required reading.
The idea: Faux Feelings.
Stated another way: pseudo-feelings, false-feelings, or fake-feelings. It applies to a description of a feeling that isn’t really a feeling; it’s a thought (typically one that obfuscates the real issue).
As Rosenberg documented over his lengthy career, English-language speakers habitually fall into the trap of using the word “feel” to communicate all kinds of things which are non-feelings.
A sample of faux-feeling statements:
“I feel like a failure.” “I feel unimportant to my coworkers.” “I feel misunderstood by my husband.” “I feel worthless.” “I feel she’s being irresponsible.” “I feel ignored.” “I feel like hitting you.” “I feel good about what you did.” “I feel like you’re not listening.” “I feel that you’ve given me too many tasks.” “I feel like everybody’s out to get me.” “I feel that you’re being unfair.” “I feel that I’m being taken advantage of.” “I feel you don’t love me.”
Consider the wife’s statement, “I feel like I’m living with a wall.”
Besides being a criticism-laced judgement likely to be heard as an accusation and put the husband on the defensive, it’s also a faux feeling. She thinks she’s living with someone who is emotionally distant, which may or may not be an accurate appraisal, but the true source of the conflict lies in the friction between his behaviour and her basic unmet need. What’s the need? To not feel lonely and sad. There’s a world of difference between saying “you’re like a wall” (judgement) and “I feel lonely” (actual feeling).
Why does this distinction matter? Because one approach consistently leads to hostility, and the other to humanity.
Something I’ve noticed in my own life, and in business in general, is the amazing mental (and linguistic) gymnastics that can be performed to avoid sharing one’s true feelings. The most taboo, don’t-touch-that-at-work emotion is fear. Try to recall how often (if ever) you have heard someone admit the actual reason for a given business decision was because they were afraid. Now consider how much you think “because fear” is the final answer in a series of questions where you just keep asking someone “yeah but why?”
Does our such-and-such brochure or newsletter or website need a new look? Maybe. The real reason I’m thinking about a design update in the first place: “I feel afraid of what other people will think of me if the brand doesn’t look good.”
That’s not to suggest it’s always wise, appropriate, or even necessary to discuss fear at work or to speak in these terms, but if we’re not able to openly discuss — let alone diagnose — the actual emotion that is fundamentally driving a human behaviour, a purchasing decision, or an interpersonal conflict, then a whole bunch of time is going to be wasted circling around symptoms rather than confronting the true disease.
I Clicked On This Article Because It Had “Intelligence” In the Title. Where Are You Going With This?
I’m going to level with you: I don’t know what the highest form of human intelligence is and frankly you have come to the wrong place if you are on a quest for its peak. Among other things, I’ve seen arguments that true intelligence is about creativity, simplicity, self-awareness, non-judgemental awareness, happiness, play, and even sarcasm (as Oscar Wilde suggests, with the addendum that it’s the lowest form of wit).
I find these arguments both stimulating and also sort of meaningless. Like “success” and “beauty,” the highest, most ripe, most “true” version of a highly coveted and nebulous outcome tends to warp opinion towards personal bias and I think many people’s views on intelligence are influenced by a desire to manoeuvre the concept toward their strengths (and cover for their shortcomings) rather than their opinion being reflective of some deep analysis of cognitive psychology, studies of geniuses, etc. Anyway, no dog in that fight.
Here’s what I will argue: one of the most important uses of intelligence is understanding — viscerally and not just mechanically — in any given context what the important thing is and being able to distinguish that from the shiny, distracting, BS illusions, two or three or five layers removed from what truly matters.
Easy to say, right? In a way, what I’m doing right now is symptomatic of the same thing I appear to be sniping. A few weeks ago I was some ignorant fool. Then, someone sent me a YouTube clip and now I’m this totally woke activist dude who is going to save the world with this new stone of knowledge that is literally the answer to everything and if only everyone would pay attention to my stone and buy my stone, and make more stones, and sell my stones to others, and band together to form the New Stone Consortium, and lobby the government to make My New Stone the law of the land, then we’d all be saved.
In sincerity, I’m neither totally woke, nor on a grand world-saving crusade. It’s just amazing to me, now that I’m aware of it, how deep faux-feeling-ness is meshed into our lives. For example, two paragraphs ago I wrote “BS” when what I really wanted to write was “bullshit” but censored myself because I felt that word was just a tad too strong and could be seen as unprofessional. (yes, I worry about seeming unprofessional… sometimes.) And yet, as I attempt to justify myself, as I write these very words I notice myself engaging in flights of faux-feeling fancy. “I feel it might look unprofessional” is just corporate speak for “I was afraid of what others would think… I was afraid of being human at work.” It’s un-fricking-believable how often I censor myself.
Okay, in absolute seriousness the last point (finally) connects to the real reason for this post. Not to talk about the ultimate nature of intelligence. Not to spread my new stone of knowledge. Not even to tell a story. I just wanted to share the experience of “Damn, isn’t that a weird thing?”
Some days what I write is driven by what I think will be interesting mostly to others, or both to myself and others, or because I’m required to write something every few weeks for the company newsletter (which is to say “because fear”), but today I wanted to share something of pure, raw, fantastic, magical interest to me… faux feelings… which I’m reasonably sure I will cast aside for next month’s shiny stone.
Thanks for reading.