En-lightening up on each other

Posted by on Sep 14, 2011 in Emotion & cognition, News & commentary | 2 comments

The other day my friend Bob and I got into a warm discussion about discussion. We were both embodying a core difference between geeks and non-geeks, which Paul has called “The Problem with Problems.”

Bob said that in order to seriously discuss something, a clear, concise, coherent problem-statement is required. I immediately recognized this (from having read Paul’s book) as a geek preference for framing the world as series of problems to be solved. Geeks like to start with a problem statement, identify the assumptions and constraints, and work toward a solution. It comes from rigorous training and a proclivity for provable truth.

As a non-geek, I felt compelled to speak up for other cognitive styles. We’re not all problem solvers.  Some of us are visionaries.  Some are story tellers.  Others are action-takers. No, I said, sometimes very valuable discussions can arise from very fuzzy thinking. It’s a big mistake not to respectfully engage with people who think more intuitively and less precisely.

Now, personally, I consider myself to be a very clear thinker, but a very fuzzy articulater when speaking off-the-cuff. If I’m caught in a storm of insight, the emerging knowledge can be very hard to wrangle into words. In fact, it can be physically painful and terribly upsetting when I’ve got this beautiful meaning … right there … but not the words.

What I hoped to convince Bob of was that sometimes precision is required, and sometimes it can get in the way of discovering something new and untried.

Geeks, I’ve noticed, like to use the word “wallow” when referencing hanging out in non-precise places — like a swarm of meaning, a flood of emotions, an undefined possibility. And this word “wallow” is a derisive word for a cognitive approach that is very valuable to many, if not most, of their colleagues. In general, geeks under-appreciate the up-side of ambiguity just as egregiously as non-geeks under-appreciate the critical importance of precision.

And to my delight, Bob wrote a very open-minded and thought-provoking piece, The Enlightenment Still Matters,  about these different cognitive styles, and generously acknowledged that a person who can’t explain their position, might still know what they are talking about.

Says Bob:

We’ve all been in conversations in which someone … sometimes a person with considerable experience and success … says that while they can’t explain their position, they’re pretty sure they’re right about it. Often they are. Sometimes, the inability to explain comes from too much knowledge and experience rather than too little — the person has consciously run through the logic of similar circumstances so often that they’re no longer conscious of what they’re doing, very much as a guitar player might have a hard time explaining which fingers do what, exactly, when playing a difficult piece.

But Bob still believes fervently that “Evidentiary decision-making is certainly superior to intuition.” Now, if he means that evidence is always better than intuition, then I’ve got to say, he’s wrong, and he’s doing himself and his readers a disservice. I’ll spend the rest of the post laying out why I think that, but here’s a summary of what I think is right:

  • Evidentiary decision-making is superior to intuition in certain situations.
  • Intuition is superior to evidentiary decision-making in certain situations.
  • Emotions are involved in every decision, don’t kid yourself.
  • Business is populated with people with different cognitive styles, like it or not.
  • Each cognitive style contributes to the success of a business, and we all should adjust.

An intuitive-type takes the time to break it down

This gives me a chance to lay out in more precise detail all the layers of agreement and disagreement that I find fairly difficult to portray in an orderly fashion in an off-the-cuff discussion. Part of the point that I want to make is that for me, much of these thoughts and assertions, while being completely rational, happen all at once in a messy jumble that makes up what I consider to be my intuition. With other intuitive people, I can often make my case in short hand, using cultural references or shared experience to communicate an idea. It’s not ESP, and it’s not delusion. Intuitive types in a room together with whiteboard and a marker can more often then not walk out of the room with the same vision and ready for action. That’s why we like working with each other and not with geeks.

I should also note, that I don’t get much joy from dissecting my intuition. Perhaps some folks (Bob?) like to break things down into their component parts and analyze them. I pretty much prefer hanging out in the big picture. Some might call this lazy, and perhaps it is. I would just point out that it takes a lot more energy to do something you don’t like to do than to do something you like.

I mean, if you like to clean toilets … you’ll clean yours everyday, and perhaps feel smug about it. If you don’t like to, you’ll put it off for weeks at a time and risk being called lazy.

Also, I don’t often engage in this kind of thing because I’m not that into “winning” arguments. What motivates me is understanding – being understood and promoting understanding among people in general. And what I got out of Bob’s post, is that if I want Bob to understand me, I’ve got to break it down and lay it out in logical detail.

So, watch out, Bob. This is what happens when I take an afternoon to clarify my thinking.

Every decision is emotional

Says Bob:
By 1800 the Enlightenment was already in decline, supplanted by world views that placed more stock in emotional ways of knowing.

Says David Hume (Enlightement thinker):
Reason is “the slave of the passions”

The Enlightenment was not a battle of reason versus emotion. It was reason versus faith.

To equate emotion with faith (and not reason) is an act of blind faith itself.

To assert that decisions can be made without emotions is either wishful thinking or a willful ignoring of experience and emerging brain science.

(D’amasio’s investigations shows that people who don’t experience emotions actually can’t make decisions.)

It is evident that reason can be harnessed to prove and justify any number contradictory conclusions, simply by tweaking assumptions.

(Hobbes was an important enlightenment thinker. He reasonably concluded that absolute monarchy, not democracy, is the optimal form of government.)

Assumptions almost always derive from value judgements, which have a basis in emotion, culture and other non-rational aspects of life.

(Democracy, as an enlightenment ideal, is in part based on the assumption that equality is good, which is based in part on the juvenile emotional expectation that things should be fair.)

Since, in setting up an argument, all assumptions cannot be stated, only some assumptions will be included. The choice of what to include, exclude or overlook is essentially a value judgement.

(When working with geeks and asked to identify the assumptions of a project, I never could figure it out, because I couldn’t get my mind around what wasn’t an assumption.)

That I can see this clearly is possibly a result of my non-belief in absolutes. I accept that context determines what I consider to be true, and what collectives consider to be true. There is no conception of truth outside of context.

The belief in absolute Truth is as wishful as the belief in God. Both Truth and God are fine by me, but they are equally unprovable.

(Ultimately, what you prove to be true is a function of what you want to prove to be true.)

Being right vs. being persuasive

Says Bob:
I’ve seen first-hand an all-too-common response when someone frames problems and solutions in terms of evidence and logic: Dismissive eye-rolls by those who consider “I trust my gut” to be the alpha and omega of decision-making technique.

A person who does not live in a problem/solution paradigm will not be persuaded by arguments based in problems and solutions.

(A huge percentage of the world, probably most people, are persuaded by story not data, conviction not evidence.)

To bemoan the fact that people exist who aren’t persuaded by facts is counterproductive.

(A better option is to understand and employ what does persuade them.)

To win the game of persuasion with such people might be as simple as presenting your evidence as story or presenting it with conviction, or at least, use the language of conviction, no matter how much it hurts.

(Some people will never be convinced by spreadsheets, no matter how compelling the data.)

Bob also says:
The inability to explain, that is, doesn’t make a person wrong. Unpersuasive? Yes, which is why the onus is on them to understand their internal logic well enough to explain it.

A person who lives in a problem/solution paradigm requires arguments rooted in problem/solution thinking in order to be persuaded.

The onus of shifting communication style to suit another cognitive style should be on the person who must do the persuading.

(It is a simple question of who has the power to decide. If you must convince someone, make sure to do it in their style.)

To expect otherwise, to entertain for even a moment that there is one way people “should” think, is just down right silly.

(It’s like a farmer who doesn’t irrigate his crops because he thinks it “should” rain.)

Shifting into shape

Perhaps the reason why we aren’t better at this, shifting to suit each other’s styles, is that we, of different cognitive styles, haven’t really talked to each other about it. You know how you think, I know how I think. If we spend all day surrounded by our same-thinking buddies, how will we ever know how each other thinks? Even more insidious, in collusion with our buddies, we convince ourself the the other way is wrong, the other people are wrong.

What happens? Dismissive eye-rolls all around.

What we’re doing at Leading Geeks is trying to break the whole she-bang down in to digestible pieces that we can actually adjust to. Because if we have the insight, skills and practice to shift toward each other as each situation arises, we’ll actually talk to each other, and save boat loads of money in the process.

For more information about how you can leverage geeks to get the technology you want, contact info@leadinggeeks.com or call 310-694-0450.


  1. I love this conversation. It really illuminates why we need to have this conversation.

    • this conversation about conversation is so fascinating.

      though I often have difficulty and suffer pangs of “pain” when unable to find the right words, i don’t feel OK with that. i’ve learned some hard lessons in graduate school where the ability to articulate an idea was demanded, expected and if you weren’t able to, you were a failure. i also always end up with rational, need for evidence men, so that has shaped me too.so i tend to look down on emotional reasoning now.


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