Sunday, June 7, 2015

On pacing and credibly signalling empathy

If I had to pick one specific skill that I've learned on how to get past blocks to changing peoples minds, it'd be "pacing". It's normally part of the phrase "pacing and leading", but both the magic and the difficulty are all in the pacing.

So what is it?

"Pacing" or "pacing their experience", to put it simply, is putting their experience to words.

As a yes set

At its simplest, its what hypnotists are doing when they say stuff like "as you sit there listening to my voice...". Let's look at this for a second. This isn't something that the hypnotist will incorrectly pace. He can see you sitting there and you're obviously listening to him - it's stating the obvious. Yet it's still true, and as you find yourself nodding along and agreeing to everything he says, it's easier to drift into the mode of questioning things less and more easily accepting the next bit when he starts "leading". For example, a standard hypnotist patter might go something like "As you sit there listening to me, you can take this opportunity to.. relax comfortably now" and now the "lead" becomes the pace, "and as you notice that relaxation, you can find it even easier to pay attention only to my voice, blah blah blah". Just starting with obvious truths and baby stepping in the right direction without ever bringing in dissonance that might break rapport and lose them following your lead.

It's a big "yes set".

As priming

But! It's much more than that. Not all communication is on the explicit level.

Again, follow the attention. You were sitting there listening to him talk, but that's not where your attention was, nor was that fact in your awareness, even if it were "available" so to speak. It is taking obviously true things and bringing them to the forefront for whatever reason. This can be useful if the perspective you're pointing to - even if something that is "obvious", might be useful, and it needs to be on mind before you can reference it.

As gift of awareness and space

There's also pacing stuff that is not obvious to them. This is the really cool shit, but this is also where it gets a bit harder. First off, what do I mean by "obvious"?

Say I give you a giant textbook on heat treating, the first thing to do is always to look over the table of contents. You can't digest an entire textbook on the spot, but if you've been wanting to learn about, say, austempering, you'd know where to find that information. If you had been wanting to austemper some steel when I hand you the book, that section would stick out as interesting, and you'd go read that section. Otherwise, you probably wouldn't.

The example we've looked at so far is like this. It's bloody obvious that you're sitting there listening to the hypnotist. You weren't in that section of the metaphorical textbook. You hadn't turned your attention towards the parts of your experience relating to sitting there listening to the hypnotist , but only because you didn't have reason to go there until prompted to.

However, there are things that are "not obvious". Perhaps you have a pound of fancy chocolate that got ruined by the heat when you left it in the sun in the car. You're probably not gonna think "ooh! a heat treating book! Let me see if it can tell me how to repair the heat treatment on my chocolate!" - even if the book is titled "heat treatment of literally everything". With this kind of thing, just pointing at the "heat treatment of chocolate" section gives them new information that was not previously "available", even if they had the textbook on hand. It wasn't organized. Passive compartmentalization man...

So not only do we get them used to flipping pages for us, not only do we get them looking at the appropriate chapter so that they're ready for the next step, we've opened up new possibilities that they could not do even if they had wanted to - simply because they didn't know what they know. It's an example of verification being easier then generation.

You'll know you've hit on something when you get a reaction. Confirmation is an excited "yes!". Like "I finally get it!". Sometimes you get laughter, which signals a shift in perspective to a "lower energy" state and subsequent relief. Humor is "wow, that was stupid/silly [not doing that again!]" and excitement is "I do have a reason! I'm exonerated! now i dont have to beat myself up for doing it wrong!"/"now I can explain myself!" - even if you still change and do some third option that wasn't on the table before.

I'll give you  a recent example from my life. My 12 year old cousin picked up the wrong end of a fire poker and burned his hand pretty good. When I got there he was looking pretty miserable and I wanted to see if I could help out. I squatted down to his level, looked him in the eye, and asked "hurts?".

His eyes lit up and he started smiling. "Yeah! - well, it tickles. When I get hurt it feels ticklish". That's all it took. It's not that he's a little retard that "doesn't know" that he was in pain, but the frame imposed by everyone else told him not to turn to that chapter. "Man, that must hurt so bad!" "here's some ice so it doesn't hurt so bad" "I know it hurts so bad, but you're tough" "you gotta keep the ice on it!" "you need to take some ibuprofen for the pain, I think I have some" "you need water in that ice bag!". Holy shit, talk about telling the kid he ain't alright...

That it hurt was bloody obvious. That there literally was no problem was not. That took me pointing his awareness in that direction by asking him what the problem was (with nonverbals, read as "[what's the problem, is it that it] hurts?"). By pointing him there it showed him that he actually was sure that his hand was fine. By nonverbally allowing him to be in pain and okay, it became readily apparent that there actually was no problem. Pain is just a signal, the message had been heard, and all was well. So his mind turned the pain into tickle, the way it does when his older brothers/cousins beat on him in play - the way it does when the pain isn't actually worrisome.

There's magic in pointing people at certain aspects of their experience and giving them room to look at it. Just be smarter than I was and make sure the room full of unintentionally evil hypnotists don't pressure the kid into feeling miserable again. "Sleeping tonight is going to be miserable. When burned myself, I couldn't sleep without holding my hand on a cold pole". Jesus Christ people, I know you're not used to seeing a 12 year old laughing at the pain of a blistered hand, but you fail miserably at noticing your confusion.

As passing the ideological turing test

Another thing that pacing does (think I was done? Hah!) is indirectly and verifiably shows that you understand a concept. Maybe it was obvious to them that this thing is true, but if they don't think you get it, that may affect their behavior. This is "passing the ideological turing test". Here's a textbook example.

[10/24/2013 8:37:31 PM] me: you don't think there are real downsides to lying to yourself, or you think they're outweighed by the benifit of lying ot someone else?
[10/24/2013 8:40:47 PM] her: no real downsides
[10/24/2013 8:42:45 PM] me: and you know i disagree
[10/24/2013 8:42:56 PM] me: but that doesnt feel like a compelling reason to reconsider
[10/24/2013 8:43:06 PM] me: because you think i'm just
[10/24/2013 8:43:17 PM] me: how do i word it
[10/24/2013 8:43:32 PM] me: sticking to "no self deception!" as a rule
[10/24/2013 8:43:35 PM] me: blindly
[10/24/2013 8:43:48 PM] me: because i cant handle the idea of what might happen if i had to lie to myself
[10/24/2013 8:45:37 PM] her: How do you do that
[10/24/2013 8:45:50 PM] me: do what
[10/24/2013 8:46:59 PM] her: Say stuff that makes me say "huh he's right"

At the beginning there she was modeling me as believing something for reasons that don't correlate with truth, so it makes perfect sense to not be all that interested in the rationality related idea I was pitching. However, I was able to prove that I got why she didn't take it seriously by putting her view to words that ring true to her, which invalidates her view because someone who actually gets it still disagrees.

If someone knows everything you do and still disagrees, this is a pretty good indicator of "maybe they know something I don't"

So voila! Once you break their caricature of you by showing that you get them and they don't get you, you get genuine curiosity to play with and you can make your point to open ears.

As proof of giving a fuck

Another thing that pacing communicates is that you care enough to understand their point of view. It shows that you do not intend to invalidate them, dismiss their views, and then try to force something on them against their will. This is really really cool. For one, people will open up like crazy when you do it right. I've had conversations literally go from them telling me that they don't want to talk about it, me pacing why they wouldn't want to, then them talking all about it. Just by proving that you get where they're coming from, they'll find you to be much more worth talking to.

But its also really cool in that you don't have to be dead on. The first line of the previous example is kinda a (crappy) example of this. Don't express false confidence, and they'll often correct you. If you have no idea, you could throw out some best guesses and even if they're way off, they'll often help you out if they were otherwise somewhat motivated and it actually looks like you're trying. At higher confidence levels, you can just say it as a question "you're this because of that?" - or at even higher confidence, you can do it as a statement for them to try on "you're doing this because of that" and as long as you aren't projecting "i'm forcing this frame!", it won't come off that way. It'll come off "I think this is whats going on, i want us to be in agreement about this and aware of it, and i'm open to correction. How am I doing?".

People tend to like being understood, so if you show them that you're actually interested in hearing them out, they'll often talk - and you're no longer stuck. (You just have to, you know, be interested in where they're coming from - which is harder than it sounds)

How to pace the right thing

So of all the things we could correctly pace, which are worth calling out? I mean, we could go on all day saying stuff like "as you sit there... having ten fingers... five on the right hand... and five on the left..."  - so clearly we want some direction in what we decide to pace.

It depends on what you're trying to do, of course, but as a general rule, passing the ideological turing test is a good thing to do. If they aren't aware of what they're doing, it can function as a gift-of-awareness as well.

So how do we do that? What do we point at? How do we find it?

Say your friend is worried about a big test that is coming up. Maybe you try to "prove you get it" by saying stuff like "Yeah, this test is super important. If you fail, you'll drop out, never get a job, never find a wife, fail life, etc"

That's... usually not super helpful. I mean, yeah, that's what he's worried about, but that is sorta like taking this scary thing that he's already looking at and rubbing his nose in it. That's the part that is already painful. It doesn't need any more salience. It's not new, and it completely misses his reaction to it.

If he's looking at the possibility of failure, you're better off pointing at his reaction. Something more like "You look worried. It about that test?". That way you're jumping up a level and talking about being bothered by it, not just being bothered by it. There are more interesting places to go from there.

So what if your friend has a butterfly phobia and a butterfly flies in. What do you say this time? "You look really scared"?

Nope. Same mistake as last time. The butterfly isn't what is bothering them, it's their reaction to it. Their reaction is the stimulus of interest. That's why it's called a "phobia" and not just "butterflies are dangerous man!". Your friend is already looking at "I'm afraid" and is hating that. Same mistake.

As a general heuristic, look at what they're pointing at with their emotional response, and then consider pointing at their emotional response to that stimulus. If their cartoon thought bubble might read "dammit, I'm afraid of a freaking butterfly!", you might point out that they seem frustrated at themselves for having a fear of butterflies.

The hard part

Look at this example from Scott Alexander

I remember, one of my first few months of internship, listening to a patient – not a PTSD patient or anything, just someone presenting with something totally different like bipolar disorder or drug addiction – explain the brutal abuse he suffered as a child. And the whole time, I was thinking “Oh god oh god this is the worst thing I’ve ever heard I want to go home and cry.”
And then he finished his story and I had to say something. And I didn’t want to say “Oh god oh god this is the worst thing I’ve ever heard I want to go home and cry”, because I was supposed to be Competent Medical Professional, and Competent Medical Professionals don’t go home and cry every time they hear a sad story.
And I also didn’t want to say “I see you look upset about being brutally abused as a child. That must be very hard for you.” Because then I would have shown up on his Tumblr the next day.
(I see these stories all the time. “I really opened my heart to this doctor, told him every last detail of the brutal abuse I suffered as a child, and he just sat there and said ‘You look very upset’. YOU F@#KING THINK SO? You think I’m upset about being beaten every time my father was drunk, beaten so bad I was afraid I’d broken bones? I’m sure glad I spent however much money to talk to you so you could tell me I looked upset! Because I need a privileged abled white guy to judge my opinions as valid, otherwise they don’t count, right? Man, doctors are all the same, they just respond to your pain with a stock phrase because they don’t think anyone with an illness can really be human.” Doctors read these, and we’re sorry, but empathy is hard.)

So this is your homework problem. Use the principles of "what to say" above and come up with what you'd say to this person. Take a few minutes to actually come up with a good response to test your understanding before scrolling down.

No really, do it.

Okay, fine. I would have skipped the homework problem too. Besides, it was sorta a trick question.

It's nice to have a framework of what to point to as training wheels, but that doesn't make it as trivial as following the instructions and reading off a card. If it were, it wouldn't really fulfill the requirement of "proving that you give a shit". And it can't solve "proof that he gets it [well enough to be helpful]" either, as actually getting it requires actual thought (who'd've thunk?), and problems that resist solution have already been selected for hard to get [well enough to "gift of awareness", at least]

So we're going to have to stfu and think.

And this is where we start to depart from the verbal level and focus on the generating mindset - because the words deviate wildly from the formula that tries to bring you to the top and get the "gift of awareness".

I was involved in a nasty accident a couple years ago - the kind of thing that can evoke a “Oh god oh god this is the worst thing I’ve ever heard I want to go home and cry” type response.

It was fun to be on the other side and to see peoples attempts "say the right thing". I think the worst I got was the hilariously bad "hopefully you're a god fearing man". Hahaha, thanks guy.

But I also got stuff like "That must be very hard for you", and it didn't evoke a "YOU F@#KING THINK SO?" response because even though the words themselves didn't prove anything, I could tell he was coming from a place of actually trying to meet me where I am and find a way to be helpful, rather than coming from a place of "damn I'm good at this!" or "Oh god, I hope that's what I'm supposed to say! I'm worried he'll think I'm unempathetic!". The "proof of caring" vs "YOU F@#KING THINK SO?" just depends on where you put your focus - on if you're actually thinking about them because you care instead of focusing on yourself and how worried you are about messing up or whatever.

But the "That must be very hard for you" comment didn't really help either, of course. I mean, it went without saying. A lot of it does. If you can't actually find something new, you don't have to say anything, really.

The reason I say that it was kinda a trick question was that I was kinda framing it as a way to do all of the above. A way to say something non-obvious and actually be helpful. But that's hard. You can't always find it. And sometimes there isn't anything they don't get, and things still suck.

And that's when I'd back up and wonder what we're even doing here. Why am I trying to be empathetic? Why are they telling you? It's often not "asking you to solve all their problems". Sometimes it's just, you know, the truthful answer to the question you asked about whether they have a history of abuse, and they're giving you a chance to get on the same page with them instead of holding up barriers.

And so you don't always need to say anything "new". And you don't need to say anything obvious. It leaves you with very little to say.

And that's totally okay. Get out of your own way with the "What am I supposed to say? Am I being empathetic!" nonsense and focus on understanding them. Even if there's nothing to say

In fact, the most empathetic response I ever got to my mess was two words.

"....fuck, man"


  1. Hey Jimmy - Do you have a recommended introductory post, series of posts, or some other organized entry point into your work?

    - Dan

  2. Unfortunately no. Not yet.