Simon Fowler's Blog

Posts Tagged ‘relationships’

Encounter, Time and Place. Neighbors become friends.

Posted by Simon on November 2, 2012

Our neighbors are leaving.

A~ and K~, and their children, T~ and L~, are moving to North Africa.

We love them and we’re desperately sad they’re going.

Movie nights; pasta-making nights; sharing tools; shopping favors; book-lending; baby-sitting swaps; recipe-swaps; music-swaps; car-lending; taking both sets of children to the playground; doing multi-family yard sales together; kids’ sleep-overs; kids trashing each other’s places; sharing stresses of work or lack of work; easter egg hunts from the age the kids could only just walk; singing Happy Birthday in English, French and Spanish; A~ jabbing our daughter with an epipen to save her from an anaphylactic reaction to nuts; meals on their back deck; bbqs in our back yard; chats on their stoop; chats on our stoop; chats while snow-shoveling; chat’s beside storm-blown trees; chats beside fire/police/ambulance visits; chats about God, science, history, the future, family life, everything; sharing in grief of losing my dad; K~ sharing story of losing his dad; welcoming each other’s visiting parents, relatives and friends; keeping M~ partying to 4am on New Year’s Day; learning California Stars on the guitar. And so much more.

That’s the both the substance and the fruit of the friendship that’s grown over the years. Friendships are emergent. You can’t decide ahead of time who is going to be your close buddy. You’ll totally freak people out if you do. And not every person needs to become a ‘friend’. There is plenty satisfaction and reward in a simple, cordial relationship. But we’ve had the enormous pleasure of real friendship grow over the years.

It’s not that complicated. Friendship or just good relationship can emerge from simply being around – a combination of encounter (face to face meeting), time (frequency and continuity) and place (meeting in different contexts). That’s all we had really, none of us set out to make friends of each other. But encounter, time and place were the foundation upon which reciprocity, a bit of risk taking, reasonable boundaries, shared and divergent interests bore fruit in a deep affection for one another.

Along with our other amazing neighbors, they’ve given us such a sense of belonging to somewhere, of mattering to someone. It’s been so rich, and so unspeakably fulfilling, to live life on this street with A~, K~, T~ and L~.

God bless you, friends.


Posted in Continuity, Directness, Multiplexity, RelationalProximity, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Snapshot of American Relational Life

Posted by Simon on February 9, 2012

While considering Americas relational life recently I pulled together the following facts. I wonder what you make of them? If you see a problem, what do you think the essence of the problem is?

Note: of course it’s easy to cherry pick facts or extract them from context to make a point. And I always have questions about research methods and controls and correlation/causation confusion. But on the face of it, the situation looks pretty grim.

Americans have too few relationships About one in four Americans has no one with whom to talk about weighty matters, and nearly half of the population is one close friend or family member away from being socially isolated. (National Conference on Citizenship

Americans have too many relationships The average American has 634 ties in their overall network, and technology users have bigger networks.

Note: in case you wondered if there’s a limit consider “Dunbar’s Number”: according to Robin Dunbar, the size of our neocortex — the part of the brain used for conscious thought and language — limits us to managing social circles of around 150 friends no matter how sociable we are.

Lenders and borrowers are further apart:

  • geographical distance: local lending institutions no longer make a significant proportion of the loans that are originated.
  • transactional distance: there little direct contact; instead intermediaries such as mortgage brokers, appraisers, insurers, and closing officers, separate the principals.
  • financial distance: many borrowers have no equity (or negative equity) in their homes, and due to the securitization of loans through the secondary mortgage market, few originating lenders retain a stake in the loans they create.

From “The Structural Causes of Mortgage Fraud” James Charles Smith, University of Georgia Law School

More Americans are incarcerated
Adult Correction Populations
Bureau of Justice Statistics

Americans are having fewer encounters (over last quarter of 20th Century)

  • 58% drop attending club meetings
  • 43% drop family dinners
  • 35% drop having friends over
  • 10% more people bowling, but 40% fewer bowling leagues

Couples are committing to each other less, and staying committed less.

  • Since 1970 the number of Americans living together outside of marriage has increased more than 1,000 percent, with such couples now making up about 10% of all couples” (NMP Cohabitation Report 2008)
  • 20% of couples who married in 1950 ended up divorced, about 50% of couples who married in 1970 did. (NMP, “Evolution of Divorce” Wilcox 2009)
  • Cohabiting couples have a significantly higher dissolution rate than married couples. One recent study found that “children born to cohabiting versus married parents have over five times the risk of experiencing their parents’ separation.” (NMP Cohabitation Report 2008)

Posted in American Life | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Relational Architecture?

Posted by Simon on June 6, 2010

What do you think this is?

It’s an apartment building. Those are steps to people’s front doors.

The architect’s vision for it was “industrial chic”. He wanted this place “to have the elegance of intelligence. And the beauty of the happiness of the people who will live in this place.” He wants to help residence become a piece of art. And as apartment complexes go, it is very, very cool. I loved this converted shipyard building, with a white, bright open atria and big everyday objects placed around the public place (that orb-looking thing on the left is a lightbulb). And actually I loved clean minimalism.

I’m an architectural ignoramus, so I refrain from judgment on the architect (Philippe Starck) or the character or wellbeing of people who choose to live in such a place. And if you are an architect, or know about living spaces, I genuinely invite you to educate me.

My first reaction was, “Wow!, this is cool!”. My second was, “this is an apartment building?”. Then I started wondering how architecture and the design of living space helps or hinders relationships? A swimming pool, business center, and community room all provide common space for people to meet. But overall it seemed built for individuals, or individual families, not communities. … Now having read that last sentence I think of suburban areas where there is no common space you could walk to, or even drive to. And even many urban areas don’t seem designed for people to meet. So this place, Parris Landing, seems to have many advantages.

I’d love to know how architecture influences relationships. Or whether it’s simply a matter of who the people are who live there; maybe no matter what the design is, if the right people are there, community and social life can blossom?

Posted in Architecture, RelationalProximity | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

rLiving Day 24: A Life (Relationships)

Posted by Simon on May 25, 2010

My dad, Peter George Fowler, died last November 8th, age 85. Three of my sisters were with him in the hospital room in Tewkesbury (England); two holding a hand each, another massaging his feet. I called from Boston and asked to speak to him, so my sister held the cell phone to his ear. He wasn’t able to speak by now, and I don’t know if he could hear me. But I could hear him breathing. For what seemed like the first time in my life, I said out straight, “I love you.” Then, “I’ll see you tomorrow” (having already booked a flight). I hung up, and was called back seconds later to be told he’d just passed away.

For the next hour I sat and cried, along with my sisters on the other end of the phone. But we were mostly silent. My mom arrived with another sister, and we all sat some more. Thankfully we all know how to break a sombre silence with a wise-crack, a bit of pragmatism (who should we call first?) or an exquisitely timed fart. Although I was 3,000 miles away I felt right there with them. It was the most deep, sad, but profoundly wonderful hour I can remember. The next two weeks of crying and remembering and crying just deepened that feeling.

My dad’s death brought me then, and ever since, to a depth of gratitude and love for him that is profound. I never experienced anything like it during his life. And I don’t say that with regret. Our relationship was what it was, and despite good will there was little ability on either of our parts to make it ‘better’. I wished and tried to be more grateful, more loving, when he was alive. And maybe I made progress. But now it’s a different thing altogether, though it’s a mystery why death would make it so. Now, looking back from this side, his whole life and our whole relationship with me and him and my mom and six sisters … no matter what it was actually like … now there’s just abundant gladness and gratitude and love.

It feels like redemption.

The really profound lesson of his death to me, however, was in the letters, cards and personal messages from friends, family and local villagers. They simply told of the significance my dad had in their lives; their appreciation for him, for his unique character, his presence, his generosity. Relationships, simple as that. People knowing and other people over the course of a life. No ‘money’, no ‘achievements’, no ‘oooh, look at the nice house he left behind’. Just people with people.

Truly, “a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions [or in the ecstasy of his personal experiences]” (Luke 12v15), but in the depth and love of his relationships.

Posted in first-follower, Good News, RelationalProximity | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

rLiving Day 21: Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (Multiplexity and Commonality)

Posted by Simon on May 22, 2010

Embarrassed, I turned off my new Verizon HTC Eris droid phone. I’d just checked work email, personal email, and twitter and facebook. Again.

It was 8pm this evening, C~ and M~ were watching a view Mary Poppins songs on YouTube, so I figured, “ah, they’re watching Mary Poppins, I’ll check my email”. But then I turned and saw M~ and C singing along and just felt embarrassed and, well, just wrong. Sure I don’t have to watch it every time with them, but unless I’ve got a good reason not to, why not? And I’d hardly seen them all week. This was one of those moments just to hang with them, watch it with them, listen to them singing, sing along with them.

Relational Proximity Dimension #3 is “Multiplexity”. My relationship with someone is better and healthier if I interact with them in two or three different contexts than if we only interact in one. This is, essentially, about my knowledge of the other person.

Relational Proximity Dimension #5 is Purpose/Commonality: Our sense of connectedness and relationship is greater to the degree we have things in common or share a common purpose, identity or experience. A good relationship has a direction to it, something that is common between the members that holds it together.

Earlier in the week I commuted with C~ to her preschool. I also went swimming with her, and with M~. We had breakfast together. I hung her upside down. M~ and C~ sat on my feet like slippers as I walked around. I yelled at C~ for being rude. She yelled at me for saying no. We chatted outside with the neighbors. And finally tonight, C~ also made did some paint and glitter work on a shell.

Don’t interpret that list as any sign that I’m a great or poor parent. It’s just what happened this week.

But it’s the ‘multiplexity’ of it that makes my relationship with her more significant. All those things contribute (for good or for ill) to our knowledge of each other. Interestingly, despite me saying yesterday that ‘purpose/commonality’ was primary, it’s all these multiple shared experiences that creates a ‘commonality’ between us. We get to know each other, and we become close through the bond of common experience. Which is why (among other reasons) it was such a poor decision to check email. Instead, another mysterious bond of being a family would have been sealed by watching Mary Poppins again with them, just sitting down with them to hear them sing along, and then sing with them.

It’s not rocket science. It’s not complicated. You just have to do more different stuff together. And do it more often. A greater ‘bond’ has no choice but to come, without you even trying, because you’ll know more about each other and you’ll have more shared experience, a greater sense of the past (#2, continuity) and if you’re conscious about planning more things, a greater anticipation of the future (#2, continuity). This also applies to groups. organizations, even countries.

Posted in Multiplexity, Purpose, RelationalProximity | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

rLiving Day 17: … and balloons and beer (Continuity)

Posted by Simon on May 17, 2010

The full sentence tonight was, “Dear Gooood, thank you for this lovely fooood and C~ and M~ and Mama and Papa and knives and forks and this lovely food and knives and C~’s picture and M’s picture and balloons aaaand beer. In Jesus’ name, aaaaaaaamen.” M~ (3yrs) just looks around the room to find things and people to give thanks for, including herself. I start grinning as soon as she starts praying just wondering what she’ll notice.

I guess and hope most dads have similar stories, not necessarily of giving thanks around the table, but of their children just doing or saying something wonderfully idiosyncratic in the course of a regular day. But I do in fact hope that most dads, and moms, have lots of dinner table stories, or at least that there’s been the possibility.

Relational Proximity Dimension #2 is Continuity: our relationship is formed and strengthened by the amount, frequency and span of time we are together. It includes a sense of shared history, and an anticipation of the future.

“he learned … ‘to be in the present moment, how to live there at least for snippets of time'”

Who did? A man who was diagnosed with late-stage cancer in mid-2005 and changed his life for those last few months. His wife of 27 years I’m sure was grateful. Apparently, because of his job, he’d only had lunch with her on a weekday twice in a decade. Twice. I’m sure his 14-yr-old daughter was grateful too. And I have no reason to doubt that he loved them sincerely. But it took brain cancer for him to focus on that fact enough to do something about it, to realize that they were more important than work. So he, former CEO of KPMG, wrote a book about it, Chasing Daylight. Presumably so that others could learn from his lesson.

In 2005!!!! This happened in 2005! Four years after thousands of people were utterly stunned to be a missed bus, a failed alarm clock, a cancelled meeting away from death and final separation from their loved ones on September 11, 2001. Did he not hear any of those stories? Wasn’t he himself stunned and bewildered on that day and for time after? His office was in Manhattan. Did not those endless horrifying stories of near misses – even more horrifying when told next to stories of those who didn’t make it – make him reconsider his life then?

I haven’t read the book. I just got those details from the editorial review on But I remember hearing about it on the radio when the book came out and having the same reaction. And I don’t want to judge him in particular. God knows, truly, that I’m in no position to judge him or anyone. He just happens to illustrate, for one thing, how unbelievably self-referential we all are. We seem almost incapable, at least in terms of our attitude, of learning from others. Do we really have to always learn only by personal experience? Is our concept of, and suspicion of, ‘authority’ so whacked that we’re unteachable? Don’t we trust anyone else enough to believe that maybe, just maybe, what they’re realizing or teaching may also apply to us? And if we do, can we not hold on to that thought long enough to have a conversation with loved ones about it and perhaps make a courageous decision about it?

Because this isn’t about feelings, and ‘experience’, but about fairly accessible information, priorities, and decisions. But the main point I want to make is about time. And children.

Relationships consist in time. Chunks of time like hours and days. Frequencies of time like daily and weekly. Spans of time like years and years. At a conference on inner-city development once I asked a guy how I could help young kids without parents (he was a residential worker with such). He said, “First, be home for dinner, be a husband and a father at home, be around.” He said, growing up his friends were always at his house because his dad and mom were around. They craved some kind of stability.

Robert Putnam’s research, published a decade ago in Bowling Alone revealed that “every 10 minutes of commuting reduces all forms of social capital by 10%.” Our neighbors may not notice, but our children will. Decisions we make about our jobs and our locations have huge implications on available time and therefore huge implications on relationships. I recognize that many, many people don’t have much choice about where and how (or even if) they work, but to the degree that we have a choice we should exercise it. I’m amazingly fortunate that my job allows me to be home every night. I’m consciously grateful for it every day because I’m aware how significant this continuity is for my kids.

Being able to tell stories about what our children say and do – the delightful and the hideous – in the humdrum of every day life requires being there for every day life. It’s not always possible, it’s not always exciting, it’s sometimes a drag, but truly it’s what makes life worth living.

Posted in Continuity, first-follower, RelationalProximity | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

rLiving Day 16: Knowing the poor 2 (Directness)

Posted by Simon on May 16, 2010

This morning at church two guys from our class led us in the third discussion about Poverty. In our first session they asked “Do you know the poor?” and, “Who are the poor?” and “Why are people poor?”. The questions helpfully uncovered assumptions, personal experiences, and a full range of possibilities as to causes, without descending into idealogical/political debate or absurd characterizations of the poor or ourselves.

Last week, and again this week, we were asked, “Do you know the poor? Literally, do you know anyone who’s poor?”. I haven’t asked permission of the group to share our discussion so for the sake of this post, just ask yourself that question.

Relational Proximity Dimension #1 is “Directness”. My relationship with someone is better and healthier the less mediated it is. It can be mediated by technology or other people: these reduce our ability to communicate fully. It can also be mediated, even when face to face, by dishonesty and fakeness: there’s a real me and a real you, any fronts we put up reduces directness.

If you don’t know anyone who is poor then I suggest you get to know someone who does (even an organization). You’ll then have a weak link that holds enormous potential.

Merely being conscious that I am, in fact, connected to someone seems to make a difference to me being more compassionate and more committed (i.e. doing something about it). ‘Directness’ as a relational dimension of life helps me think more concretely about my place in the world. This helps both when thinking about the poor, but also, among other things, in thinking about food and trade. A human being with a beating heart picked my asparagus. I am connected to them (and therefore have a responsibility to them), albeit mediated by a number of organizations, financial transactions and people. Directness probably explains why child sponsorship works well, because you can see the link.

Very simply, you could be just two or three degrees of separation from someone who needs something that you have. What I don’t like about the diagram above is the dollar signs. It bothers me that my relationship with the poor, or anyone else, is defined in monetary terms. I don’t like it because money, like power (another relational dimension, see post and comments from Day 13), seems to confer value in so many people’s eyes. Money of course IS power in this relationship, but it’s not the only power (unless it’s the only mediator, which in most cases it is) and it still shouldn’t confer ‘value’ or dignity. It also reduces their multidimensionality to a dollar figure. To mitigate that I gave everyone a beating heart.

Social Network Analysis is an exploding field that could eventually help us better realize our connectedness to each other (see Nicholas Christakis’ video at the end of Friday’s post for an example). But just being aware that you already have a relationship with the poor is a first step.

Actually, make that a second step. How much do you disclose of your personal needs – material or otherwise – to other people, even people close to you? Same here. It’s probably the same for them, too. If we’re not prepared to be vulnerable to one another in our current socio-economic relationships why do we think we’ll have the right attitude to love the poor, with humility and respect, when we meet them? This is where the other element of directness comes in. We need to learn to unmask ourselves, to expose ourselves enough that our relationships can become ones of mutual giving and receiving.

Anyway, give that diagram a ponder with respect to your relationship with the poor, or those who grow your vegetables or make your shirts. How does it help your thinking?

Posted in Directness, RelationalProximity | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

rLiving Day 14: Meaning (Purpose/Commonality)

Posted by Simon on May 13, 2010

There’s a debate I’ve been wanting to have with anyone who’d be willing about whether ‘meaning’ is constructed or found/discovered.

I’ve always leaned towards ‘found’ because meaning necessarily means a story bigger than my own. If I construct it then I’m the author, but the author needs a story too. The other thing about self-constructed story or meaning is that it doesn’t fit with other people’s stories unless there’s a meta-narrative (uh oh, theology alert). And if it does fit then it’s not just my story, I have to discover how mine fits with others’ and all stories, which brings us back to what meaning means. Yet – and maybe I’ll contradict myself here – we do participate in its formation; meaning-for-us wouldn’t exist without us living, loving and creating as we do. But I think it’s derivative, like happiness. It comes out of the blue, when we’re seeking and doing something else.

That something else I want to say is ‘purpose’. And like meaning, it’s common purpose, something that involves me in other people’s lives.

Relational Proximity Dimension #5 is Purpose/Commonality: Our sense of connectedness and relationship is greater to the degree we have things in common or share a common purpose or identity. A good relationship has a direction to it, something that is common between the members that holds it together.

Despite my desire and advocacy for directness, the best relationships seem to consist in something external, something that compels us individually towards a third party, yet brings us together: a purpose or identity that somehow forms the relationship and makes it what it is. The absence of a third party, a common purpose – especially the absence of your conscious awareness of that common purpose – makes for a much harder relationship. It makes it hard to know what is worth fighting for, worth sacrificing for, worth dying for one another.

It happens on multiple levels and in a thousand ways: sports club, family, a project, a company, artistic performance, nationality, marriage, accident, a book … on and on. The thing that makes life and relationships so rich is the bazillion ways we find purposeful (even if frivolous) things to do with each other. Think of any relationship and I think you’ll find that its health, depth, significance, correlates with how strong your sense of common purpose is. It could be your work group, but if you’re closer one person than another, there’s likely something else that binds you, but it’s still something “else”.

And ultimately, maybe it’s someone else. I did give you a theology alert! In an ultimate sense, these smaller and greater spheres of meaning we experience and seek, do find themselves cohering in a big story. We want our lives to matter, to someone. Not just ‘matter’. So true meaning is derivative, it comes because of someone. And I contend, I think with many who have contended for thousands of years, that a personal God, who loves us, is the one in whom we will find ultimate meaning. We may not find it in this lifetime, but as a child can rest confidently in the knowledge of its mother’s love without knowing what everything means, so can we in God’s. There’s more to say about it – such as what keeps us from God and from each other – but it won’t surprise you to know that Scripture describes Jesus Christ as the mediator who paradoxically draws us closer than you could possibly imagine. So I’ll leave it here with the words of Dietrich Bonheoffer:

There is no way from one person to another. However loving and sympathetic we try to be, however sound our psychology, however frank and open our behaviour, we cannot penetrate the incognito of the other man, for there are no direct relationships, not even between soul and soul. Christ stands between us, and we can only get into touch with our neighbours through him. That is why intercession is the most promising way to reach our neighbours, and corporate prayer, offered in the name of Christ, the purest form of fellowship….

The same Mediator who makes us individuals is also the founder of a new fellowship. He stands in the center between my neighbour and myself. He divides, but he also unites. Thus although the direct way to our neighbour is barred, we now find the new and only real way to him–the way which passes through the Mediator. [Discipleship, 106-113]

Post-script: What led to this post was a prayer meeting at church tonight. Part of the prayer that I had to lead was “Prayer for the Nation” (i.e. the USA). I’m English, the guy who led it is Ghanaian-born, our church has people from 60 nations in it, our home is the USA for now; I have my family (siblings etc.) and family (wife, children); I’m involved in great projects at work; I live on my street here; I play guitar with a neighbor; I’m a Christian. In all these are layers and spheres of purpose and meaning. I’m clueless what they all mean, how they fit together. But in all the different ways these different purposes and commonalities explain my relationships very well.

Posted in first-follower, Purpose, RelationalProximity | Tagged: , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

rLiving Day 13: My CEO and his CEO (Power)

Posted by Simon on May 12, 2010

We had a visit from my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss, the top CEO, ‘Patrick’ today. He’s visited a number of times from his usual office in London. Every year he visits all 40 or so companies that the company owns to ‘meet the people’. I welcome his visits, and I appreciate his northern (England) charm, natural good humor and candor. He’s also been a good communicator over email through some tough times in the last couple of years. And most importantly he’s shown enormous trust in ‘Ethan’, our CEO.

Thankfully, Patrick holds a lot more power than I do. So do the other four people between me and him. And they’re welcome to it.

Relational Proximity Dimension #4 is Parity. The greater the asymmetry of power between me and someone else the greater the potential for difficult and strained relationships. This asymmetry can be real or perceived, and its affect on relationships can be more about the use and misuse of power than the mere existence of power disparity.

Power gets such a bad wrap these days. Power and control are spoken of as though they’re inherently evil. Except when it’s for us, our empowerment and autonomy. Then it’s absolutely glorious! We’re also a little hypocritical when we scream at regulators or companies or the rich for not doing stuff. “Doing stuff” presumes power to do.

Perhaps we just need a little more nuance in our talk of power. Power “for” maybe a way to talk about it. But even “power over” isn’t wholly wrong either. A voluntary, even if necessary, human organization of which I’m part has a purpose and a life bigger than my own, rightly or wrongly. So Ethan had the power – as much as I know he wished he didn’t have to exercise it – to eliminate a significant number of roles in the last 18 mths. There was no agreement by which anyone said, “I exercise my equal power to agree to lose my job!”. Ethan exercised power over us all because his power was “for” the organization as a whole. He also did it with grace and kindness because he had power “for” the individuals going and staying.

I’m not sure it’s possible, or even desirable, to avoid relations of power asymmetry. Knowing people like Ethan and Patrick are at the helm gives me great assurance and an ability just to get on with my job. Knowing my wife is wiser than me, that my daughter is weaker than me, that my friend is stronger than me and that my neighbor needs tech advice from me – these just create the web of rich interdependencies and trust that make good relationships what they are.

Clearly what needs to be avoided, among other things, is the misuse of power and equating power with value or status.

In my experience, Patrick, Ethan, and all the other bosses between me and them avoid those mistakes. The power they have “over” is exercised in such a way that feels genuinely “for”, me and for the organization. Within that, and the other constraints of working for a for-profit institution, I feel autonomous, empowered and of equal value with them all.

What experiences of healthy relationships within great power asymmetry do you have?

Posted in first-follower, Power, RelationalProximity | Tagged: , , , , , | 4 Comments »

rLiving Day 11: Neuroscience 1 (Directness)

Posted by Simon on May 10, 2010

It turns out, according to neuroscience research gathered together in David Rock’s popular book, Your Brain at Work, that our brains are wired for social connection.

No WAY!? I hear you thinking.

Sorry for the sarcasm. But just writing that first sentence made me realize how ‘duh!’ it is that the brain would be wired in such a way that matches how we experience life. Anyway, here’s a tidbit of the neuroscience (social cognitive neuroscience, to be precise) that appears to support “Directness”. And it’s all based on recent (since 1995) discoveries of “mirror neurons”.

Image: UCLA

Relational Proximity Dimension #1 is “Directness”. My relationship with someone is better and healthier the less mediated it is. It can be mediated by technology or other people: these reduce our ability to communicate fully. It can also be mediated, even when face to face, by dishonesty and fakeness: there’s a real me and a real you, any fronts we put up reduces directness.

It’s a pretty cool discovery actually (despite my ‘duh!’ comment). Mirror neurons, scattered throughout the brain, light up when they observe “intentional action”. That is, they won’t light up if they see random acts, but if they discern intent behind the action, the same neurons fire in their brains as though they themselves were doing it. (Effects of commercials on children, anyone?). The powerful limbic system that triggers a response to threats or rewards obviously kicks in once the intent has been discerned. Here’s the explanation from Christian Keysers, a leading mirror neuron research based in Holland:

What happens is that when we witness another’s facial expressions, we activate the same in our own motor cortex, but we also transmit this information to the insula, involved in our emotions. When I see your facial expression, I get the movement of your face, which drives the same motor response on my face, so a smile gets a smile. The motor resonance is also sent on to your own emotional centers, so you share the emotion of the person in front of you.” (p160)

Here are a couple of other quotes from the book that seem to support the idea that ‘directness’ is an important factor in building good relationships:

“The more social cures that are stripped out of communication, the greater the likelihood that the intent will be misread. “The more we can see each other, the better we can match emotional states”. (P160)

Collaboration with people you don’t know well is a threat for the brain. Perhaps, after millions of years living in small groups, the automatic response to strangers is “don’t trust them”. (p162)

An abundance of social cues makes people connect more richly, perhaps in challenging ways at times. For example, when there is an abundance of social cues, emotional information can travel swiftly between people in a type of contagion. p161

And now a few application thoughts/questions (some mine, some from the book):
1) Workplace learning. What learning performance is lost with online training? Do virtual worlds provide a close enough approximation to real-life that our brains might learn social behaviors from avatars? Is there an optimum amount of time a team needs to gather face to face to be most effective? (I’ve misplaced a piece of research MIT did on that, something to do with a ‘pulse’ (gathering, moving away to research, coming back again, pulse-like).

2) Management. Think that your attitude or stress-level has no effect on your workers? Their brains can’t help but be affected by you.

3) Communication. Precisely because we don’t want to discern another person’s reaction (and therefore trigger a reaction of our own), we resort to sending emails, or doing nothing, rather than face them.

4) Autism spectrum. It appears that mirror neurons show damage in people with autism. It also appears that therein lies a clue to a better response/treatment.

What would you add?

Posted in Directness, first-follower, RelationalProximity | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

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