041: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Mind Manipulation with Casey Watts!

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Jessica Kerr | Coraline Ada Ehmke | Sam Livingston-Gray | Janelle Klein

Guest Starring:

Casey Watts!: @kyloma | caseywatts.com


A Neurobiologist’s Guide to Mind Manipulation  [slides]

Show Notes:

00:16 – Welcome to “CBT: Chunky Bacon Tacos and Psychological Safety” …we mean, “Greater Than Code!”

01:18 – Empathy Development

03:25 – Training for Customer Support

Greater Than Code Episode 037: Failure Mode with Emily Gorcenski

A Neurobiologist’s Guide to Mind Manipulation by Casey Watts @ EmberConf 2017

06:53 Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Coraline Ada Ehmke: Emotions as State Machines (from the GTC blog!)

10:48 – Acknowledging Emotion; Rationality

14:23 – Inner vs Outer Brain


Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

16:22 – Empathetic vs Empathic; Empathy vs Sympathy

Pavneet Singh Saund: Practical Empathy: Unlock the Super Power @ NDC Oslo

21:32 The Earned Dogmatism Effect [Video]

26:10 – Maladaptive Thought Patterns

31:34 – The “Woop” State and Psychological Safety

Amy Edmondson: Psychological Safety

Coraline Ada Ehmke: Antisocial Coding: My Year At GitHub

38:09 – Leading with Vulnerability


Janelle: Choose your presence.

Jessica: Feel feelings in the moment, and then act on them.

Sam: Rationality is a facade and state machines can be edited.

Coraline: Understanding empathy over only performing empathy.

Casey: Making responding with empathy a habit.

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CORALINE:  Hello and welcome to the Episode 41 of ‘CBT: Chunky Bacon Tacos and Psychological Safety.’

JESSICA:  [Singing] Chunky bacon tacos!

CORALINE:  I am very happy to be here with Sam Livingston-Gray. Thank you, Jessica for the musical interlude.

SAM:  Thank you that was amazing. I was away from my time zone for three weeks but unless I missed a memo or I suppose a robot uprising, I think we’re still Greater Than Code. With that out of the way, I’d like to welcome Janelle Klein to the show.

JANELLE:  Thank you, Sam. I’d like to introduce, Jessica Kerr.

JESSICA:  Good morning. Thank you, Janelle and I have the great honor of introducing our guest today. Casey Watts works for Heroku doing Ember. His superpower is empathy and helping others become more empathetic. Casey never leaves home without bubbles. He has a background in both psychology and software development, making him well-prepared to discuss psychology with developers. He studied neurobiology at Yale University and he co-published a few neurobiology papers. Casey, welcome to Greater Than Code.

CASEY:  Thank you.

CORALINE:  Casey, it says in your bio that your superpower is empathy. Were you always an empathetic person?

CASEY:  That’s an awesome first question. No, I was born a robot.

JESSICA:  Were you an empathetic robot.

CASEY:  No, I don’t think it matters.

SAM:  Then how did you acquire your superpower?

CASEY:  Eventually, I use my robot introspection abilities to realize that other people mattered and that understanding myself and my feelings matter because my subconscious brain has lots of secret messages for me that are really useful.

JESSICA:  That’s interesting. How did you figure out that the stuff was useful?

CASEY:  I remember a friend in middle school who helped me learn that having friends was useful and good. He would tell me things all the time like, “Casey, you can’t say that to people,” like I have a mentor of sorts in that way, then I learn.

CORALINE:  Casey, you studied neurobiology at Yale. What brought you into neurobiology?

CASEY:  It was almost accidental. I went to college expecting into computers or maybe biology or genetics. Those are very interesting but the classes I took, I just took the ones that were taught the best, would learn the most from for proportionally the least amount of work. I didn’t mind working but I had to optimize the amount that I was going to learn and the psychology classes at Yale was just awesome. All of that [inaudible]. They were some of the most satisfying classes that I took but I love biology too. I took enough biology classes that I can kind of cross it together. But then I found a lab that I could work in for two or three years there, doing really cool research and that was neurobiology. That’s my major.

JESSICA:  Did you write software as part of the research?

CASEY:  Actually, I did work at a lab that did that for one semester earlier at the college but I made no software for my major really. Software was totally like a side project hobby thing. I had a student internship for four years doing software development and computer tech support stuff. That’s kind of a fork part of my life.

SAM:  Out of curiosity, did the tech support contribute to your empathy development?

CASEY:  Surprisingly, yes. Customer support is really important to work well with people and the things that taught explicitly there just kind of clarified, solidified and crystallized some of the thoughts I had about it anyway.

JESSICA:  So the training for customer support, that’s interesting. Could software developers use some of that training?

CASEY:  There’s an exact training, absolutely customer support people could use, like role playing on angry customer and then considering all the options you could use. I think software developers could also use it in terms of working with your problems with teammates, maybe a role playing a scenario where you disagree with a teammate because their idea is different from yours and what things you could say. I kind of imagining the different options of the reactions and situations that you have, that’s really useful.

CORALINE:  It kind of reminds me the previous podcast that we did on failure modes. It seems like this kind of training for dealing with emotions and different situations, it could be considered prepping for failure mode in interpersonal communication.

JESSICA:  That makes a lot of sense because it’s a lot like with failure in software, we’ve accepted that a distributed system is going to have failure somewhere all the time. It’s just a matter of making it not catastrophic and it’s the same in conversations, right?

CORALINE:  Yeah. Basically, the idea is that when you’re designing a system or participating in a system by managing it and extending it, you need to plan for failure modes because failures are inevitable. If that’s not part of your thinking early on, if it is not part of your planning and design, it’s going to come back and bite you. That’s something that’s really lacking in software architecture but it seems like that it can also be lacking in interpersonal relationships.

SAM:  That’s interesting. I, sometimes get overwhelmed in trying to game out things like that where people are involved because what I’m thinking about a software system, I feel like I can almost predict the states that it’s going to be in but dealing with other humans, it’s so complicated that my mind just kind of freaks out and goes, “Ahh! I can’t deal with that.”

CASEY:  I think a lot of disconnect happens when people aren’t not of the same page and they don’t realize they’re on the same page, also.

JESSICA:  Like when we use the same word for two different things and we don’t realize that each of us has a different definition.

CASEY:  Yeah, definitely. That’s a clear one. Even deeper sometimes, people just have different values, different things that they value more than the other person and then if you don’t get to the root of that, they can argue in circles forever.

JANELLE:  Other thing I’ve seen what happen with circles is when you end up having projections of other people that aren’t quite accurate and then you’re reacting to each other based on these projections and models that you have in your head for another person that doesn’t necessarily match where that person is actually at. I was watching your video on cognitive behavioral therapy and the interrupt patterns in it, just reminded me a lot of research that focus more on neuroplasticity and changing your patterns but something I’ve noticed a lot in my self is just the mechanics of projection and how we see other people and then incorporate that into our own thoughts and feelings.

CASEY:  If you got a friend close enough or a coworker close enough, you could talk with them deeply about this thing. You can really learn so much about them. I just had — I don’t want to say fight — a disagreement with a friend the other day and as it turned out, she imagined that I was thinking very different thoughts than I actually was and she was thinking very different thoughts than she actually was. When we set out and to talk about it later, we imagined other person’s mindset. The projection was just completely wrong for both sides.

CORALINE:  Cognitive behavioral therapy just got mentioned. Can you, maybe give us indoctrination of ‘chunky bacon tacos,’ I mean, cognitive behavioral therapy?

CASEY:  Cognitive behavioral therapy, I want to introduce it as the correct answer for every psychology test that I took. It’s like circling ‘C’ on a math test. It’s very likely going to work. Out of these therapies, CBT is a really good one. CBT is a type of therapy you would do with a therapist most often. There are also like, of course 100 types of therapy but you could do just one of them. I think the core of CBT is the most important part and a lot of other therapies have the same core. The core is just introspect, think about your thoughts and emotions naturally, reflect on them, critically think about them and then take the best action after that. Really deep thought is the core of what CBT is.

JESSICA:  I like the part about when you have a feeling, you can consciously decide how to feel about having that feeling, sort of, so it doesn’t spiral.

CASEY:  Yeah. Part of CBT distinguishes between automatic and deliberate thoughts and feelings. I think of automatic feelings as kind of inputs to your system but as soon as you can stop yourself and notice, you can’t decide whether you want to continue feeling that feeling or not, once you’re in this kind of introspective state.

JESSICA:  So your example is like when you step in a puddle and you’re like, “Gaah!” and super frustrated. What’s your reaction to that with consciousness?

CASEY:  I can tell you my inner narrative of what will go through my head. If I step in a puddle, I think terrible thoughts like, “Today is the worst, everything is terrible, my foot is wet, I hate it.” A lot of that and there’s a negative feeling then negative word and thoughts also and I can catch myself and say, “Casey, is it useful to feel upset about this?” Probably, it’s useful to feel the emotion and be with it for a moment so that it doesn’t fight back harder. But then to continue feeling it and thinking about it and focusing on the negative outcome that I just experienced, it’s not really useful. I can hopefully catch myself and say, “Casey Watts, this is not useful [inaudible] this, make a plan and just do it and shut up.”

CORALINE:  This kind of reminds of I’m working on a book called ‘Compassionate Coder’ and I have a chapter that models emotions as state machines. My thinking there is programmers understand state machines. If we transcend emotions to a state machine model, maybe we can better analyze our feelings. One of the examples that I give in that chapter, ‘Hostile is Anger,’ I think a lot of the triggers for anger involves a boundary or a self-image being challenge and that trigger is anger. You have different options in how you want to respond to anger. Probably our automatic reactions to lash out and by lashing out, we internalize our anger and at least to resentment. But if, rather we acknowledge the fact that we have anger, then we can work in a more rational way to restore the boundary or self-image that got challenged. This is going to be a blog post on the Greater Than Code Blog, by the way.

SAM:  The thing that strikes me about state machines is that, as we encounter them in computer science, we tend to see them as these static things. There’s a path or a graph that you can’t get out of but it sounds like maybe CBT is a way of editing the state machine, giving yourself another option at a particular point.

CASEY:  Yeah, I love that image but I think those state in which you can modify your thoughts and emotions control them deliberately is just like having a debugger at break point in your mind.


JESSICA:  And then your talk, Casey you pointed out that a system has input some processing and some output and a feedback loop because as conscious humans, we can observe the state machine as we move through it and then, we can change it for next time. We can change that process step so that the same splashy puddle produces a feeling of frustration and an attitude that is not grumpy.

CORALINE:  I think one of the important things that you mentioned, Casey kind of in passing that I like to talk about a little more is the fact that the goal is not to become emotionless but rather to acknowledge the emotion and be with the emotion for a while and then handle the processing.

CASEY:  Yeah, love to the brain is not the conscious brain. Most of it is just subconscious part of emotion and I think my brain is useful. Most all of my brain is pretty useful and I like to respect it too. The emotional parts are there for a good reason. People who had lose the ability to feel emotion by losing a part of the brain with the senses it, are just really crippled. They unable to perform even basic tasks of choosing what food to eat for breakfast. A lot of decision making is rooted in that emotional part of the brain.

SAM:  That sounds like there’s some fascinating research behind that.

JESSICA:  Yeah, that’s really interesting. It implies that most of the decisions that we make on daily basis don’t have a clear rational answer but we need to have some answer anyway so we do that with our feelings.

CASEY:  Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. The feelings I’m equating here, I guess to subconscious mental process, the calculus that’s underlying your brainfolds.

JESSICA:  Yeah, the people who can’t feel emotions can’t do that. Clearly, the emotions are like you said, they’re input.

CORALINE:  I think we have software developers that the ideal software developer is emotionless and is a purely rational creature. I think a lot of people aspire to that and that’s seems so sad and so damaged to me.

CASEY:  Yeah, I think there’s something to it though. If you could be a robot that takes into account feelings, you could be a formidable force and be very effective but a lot of people just forget to incorporate emotions into their heuristics that they’re using.

SAM:  I use emotions in my programming all the time, though like we talk about code smells. I think a code smell is a taxonomy on top of the gut reaction that we have after working with code for years and years of, “That doesn’t seem quite right.” At least, the way I experience it my first clue that there may be a code smell I need to pay attention to is that feeling of, “Ugh!”

JESSICA:  So emotions are not in opposition to rational thinking. They are crucial input to productive rational thinking.

CASEY:  Yeah, I like the way you said that a lot.

JANELLE:  I think even more than that rationality is at the side on top of an emotional brain. I don’t think rationality is at the core of the way that our brains are wired as irrational, emotional systems. We’ve got a set of rules and metaphors for what is logic, what is rational that sits on top. As soon as people get to energy zero status and their ability to interrupt themselves and think and be aware of their decisions kind of goes away and they’re stuck in that subconscious emotional processing mode —

JESSICA:  Is that like being ‘hangry’?

JANELLE:  Yeah but you start to see the rational stuff that go out the window because it’s sitting on top, like the outer brain.

JESSICA:  For the record, hangry is a word that comes up in Casey’s talk and of course, it means angry because you’re hungry. I learned about this while pregnant.

SAM:  I first encountered the word when some friends of mine were parenting a kid who’s a couple years older than ours. I was like, “Oh, that’s what’s coming.”

CORALINE:  Inner and outer brain has now come up and I know that’s something that you cover in your talk, Casey. Do you want to introduce that concept?

CASEY:  The inner brain versus the outer brain is really useful. I’d like to illustrate it with an image of a cat you may have seen. There is a cat eating its food, behind it there is a cucumber sneakily placed by the cat’s owner. When the cat turns around, the cat jumps because the cat is so afraid of what the thing is.

JESSICA:  What is up with cats and cucumbers?

CASEY:  I don’t know why they’re so afraid. I can’t explain it.

SAM:  My daughter has tried it and our cats are not fooled.

CASEY:  I wonder if there’s a conspiracy in the cats aren’t afraid of cucumber but some loud sound off screens. The cat has two responses. One is the jump, which it’s afraid and then afterwards, the cat looks at the cucumber and realizes a cucumber looks like, “Uhh, this is fine. Seriously, this is fine.” This illustrates the inner versus outer brain. The inner brain is super quick. It’s really fast to make a snap judgments like being afraid of potential threats on the ground. Then the outer brain is the thoughtful conscious part that realizes after the fact, “That is not actually a threat. That is a cucumber.”

JESSICA:  Cucumber, tacos! Is this like System 1 and System 2 in Thinking, Fast and Slow?

CASEY:  Yes, just like that. Exactly. I love that people bring that book up. System 1 and System 2 and that’s like the feeling part of the brain and the thinking part of the brain. The feeling part has emotions and amorphous things and the thinking part of the brain has more conscious verbal words.

JESSICA:  What is it we can do once we have that model?

CASEY:  Your brain has made up of thoughts and feelings and to realize they’re different parts of the brain is pretty useful. There’s no direct action here. This is just background how the brain works stuff.

JESSICA:  Cool and it’s more useful to recognize that feelings are fast but they’re not our last reaction. We can jump at the cucumber but later, we can go back and eat it if we were a vegetarian cat.

CASEY:  True.

JANELLE:  Casey, I have a question. I was so fascinated by your talk and your interests and your perspective on life and I was wondering if you could share a little bit about just your story and how you came to be the person that you are today.

CASEY:  There’s a story recently about how I have a smoker living near me that smokes a lot and I confronted him empathetically and it turned out great. He’s sorry. He doesn’t want to do that to me and now that he knows that’s uncomfortable. Empathy is powerful and useful.

JESSICA:  There’s that word empathetic again. Can you define empathetic versus empathic.

SAM:  The way that I’ve always encountered them is that empathic is an ESP psy power, an empath is somebody who magically intuits the feelings of others or gets them across the ether or something. It’s very sci-fi, right? Whereas, empathetic is I just think of it as somebody who has empathy or who perform empathy. I have no idea if that’s useful but there we go.

JESSICA:  So empathic would be like a literal super power of supernaturally knowing what someone else’s feeling and empathetic is using our outer brain to figure out what someone else is feeling?

CASEY:  I think it involves the outer and the inner brain both but it’s like using the clues from the environment that you can pick up like facial expression, tone of voice, things they said and the background maybe, the history if you know that and how a normal human would feel in that circumstance, using all those inputs to formulate in your mind then imagine feeling of how they feel. Probably, actually feeling it too like mirroring that bad feeling in a part of your brain.

JESSICA:  The other day at NDC Oslo, Pavneet gave a really good talk about empathy and he distinguished sympathy from empathy as sympathy is, “I can tell you how I would feel in your situation,” and empathy is, “I see how you feel in that situation.”

CASEY:  Yeah, I like that definition. Similar in what I use. It’s pretty close. I think in sympathy, you are just thinking about the thoughts of what it would be like but not actually feeling it yourself but then actually feeling empathy is feeling the feel, experiencing yourself really deeply.

JESSICA:  That’s interesting, so in this case, you’re outer brain is influencing your inner brain because you really do feel it by conscious decision.

CASEY:  I suppose you can only really feel it if you felt something similar before and remember that feeling. There’s even some prep work to make yourself able to empathize.

CORALINE:  There was an interesting study that I heard about that dealt with learning empathy. It involved rats. I think the research was done at a university in Japan. There was a box with two compartments that was divided by a partition. On one side of the box, a rat was placed in a pool of water that was not so deep that the rat would drown but the rat had to tread water basically.

On the other side of the box, another rat was placed on a dry platform and there was a small round door that the dry platform rat could open. Within a few days, the rat placed in the dry platform learned how to help the rats in the wet side of the compartment. If the other side was dry, they weren’t concerned with opening the door. But the rat perceives the other rat was in distress, it would actually go and open the door and let the rat climb through to the dry side. I think some people feel like empathy is something you either have or you don’t but I think the lesson with the rats is that empathy can be learned. You can learn to practice empathy or perform empathy.

JESSICA:  Because empathy is an active process.

CORALINE:  Yeah, and with regard to what Casey said about having to draw on your own experience, in that study the rats that had previously experienced being on the wet side were faster to react to the distress of the other rat.

CASEY:  That’s awesome. I’m so glad to have heard of that study.

SAM:  So the first step in learning empathy is go feel all the things.

CASEY:  Yeah, exactly or imagine feeling all the things, at least like you’re [inaudible].

JESSICA:  Or like you brought up in your talk, read fiction.

CASEY:  Yeah, I love that one. People say fiction is useless. Nuh-uh. No way. Fiction is the place you go to see other people’s thoughts clearly written out.

CORALINE:  Please expound on that. How can fiction lead to a greater performance of empathy?

CASEY:  Structure of empathy must hold by helping you imagine what other people are thinking and feeling and it’s done extremely well in fiction because the main character you’re trying to think about being, you have to get their head to really experience the book fully. It’s possibly you could do something similar by talking to friends who are very introspective but with books, there’s so much [inaudible] for you.

CORALINE:  It kind of reminded of an observation I made about William Gibson’s writing. His main characters, you don’t really see their motivations and I think that he leaves that out deliberately to encourage the reader to place themselves in the role of the character but I wonder if he’s doing a disservice by not sharing that emotional journey as part of the plot. By the way, I think that’s why Keanu Reeves is perfect in one of Gibson adoptions because he does not display emotions.

Casey, this podcast is aimed at software developers and one of the interesting things that I saw on one of your talk slides was this idea of Earned Dogmatism. I think that it resonated with me because I see this in a lot of senior developers. Can you go into that a little bit?

CASEY:  I love to. That’s one of my favorite psychology phenomenon, probably because the term to describe it is so flowery and interesting. The Earned Dogmatism effect is when you are so experienced in something, you have so much experience that you know the correct answer and you know what the incorrect answers are, very like black and white and this experience is often useful. For example, I’m dogmatic about basic math. Two plus two is absolutely four. Do not argue with me. I know that it is true but that’s kind of useful on a low level. But as soon as you get into more complex systems, it’s not as useful where you think that this implementation of code is better than the alternative because you’re so experienced.

The problem with the Earned Dogmatism effect is when you’re in the state, you’re close-minded to new information, you’re so sure that you don’t want to hear about other people’s perspective because it could be like a waste of time, you’ve already thought of everything. Of course, people act like this sometimes. Probably you’ve seen it. Your senior developers you’re working with just know that they’re right, they don’t want to hear about other options but you suspect that your solution that you’re proposing has some merits and the other one has some demerits that we haven’t even discussed yet. They are on the table.

For me, the best tincture, the best solution or cure for this situation is to help the dogmatic person realize they’re missing information because if they’re missing it, of course they would want to have the full picture hopefully. But it doesn’t always work. It’s not a fool-proof thing. You can’t make anyone be open-minded all of a sudden just by your actions.

CORALINE:  Something that helps me to avoid that, what I think is an instinctive reaction really is pairing with someone less experienced because they are more apt to ask questions like, “Coraline, why are you doing it that way?” Or, “Why do you see it that way?” Then having to explain it to them, I get beyond the knee-jerk pattern recognition impulse to solve a problem the way I’ve always solve the problem and actually consider like, “Is this the best way to approach solving this problem,” because if I can’t explain it, then it’s probably not a good idea.

SAM:  I feel like what you’ve just described, Coraline is a wonderful hack and a wonderful way to get yourself back into beginner’s mind but you have to place yourself into an appropriate frame of mind to be able to take that feedback. I’ve worked with a couple of seniors when I was earlier in my career that they were just there to teach me the right way to do things.

JESSICA:  It goes back to Coraline state machine of at the point where you’re challenged, when they ask you why did you do that, they’re challenging your boundaries or if you’re really dogmatic, yourself image and you can either acknowledge, “Thank you, and I’ll try to explain why,” Or you can lash out and that’s really destructive because then you’re teaching that junior dev to shut up and that’s the last thing you want.

JANELLE:  I think the other thing it does is it forces us to come up with words for a lot of things that are driven solely by gut instincts, like you get used to making lots of development decisions based on gut feel and doing things because it’s just the way that makes sense to do it without really spending a whole lot of time thinking about it and processing what’s going on and having clarity in your own way. Working with more junior folks, I find that it has forced me to clarify a lot of my own ideas and opinions during those challenges.

CASEY:  I think I would defend the human brain for a moment. This is a natural brain tendency to take shortcuts, become close-minded and do things very quickly and that’s awesome. Our brains have to conserve a lot of resources, it helps us do lots in our life like choosing what clothes to wear in the morning. You don’t need to deliberate on that for hours but it gets in our way a little bit when we’re doing software development of complex systems and we really should be thinking critically about these things. I think it’s an appropriate mental response in a lot of situations. I don’t want to poo-poo on it at all. I don’t think we’re done yet but it’s natural to want to do next.

SAM:  One factoid that I ran across when I was researching a talk on cognitive bias I gave a couple years ago was that the brain is 2% to 3% of your body mass but it accounts for 20% of your caloric intake, approximately. That’s just a huge amount of resources to be used by a tiny part of your body so your brain naturally has to be very efficient with the resources that it uses because your body, otherwise literally could not support it.

CORALINE:  Yeah, the biology of neurobiology, right?

JESSICA:  Casey, in your talk, you gave some interesting examples of negative ways to react unhelpful mental processes and you had a cool graphic of that so question one, do you have a link to that little summary because I want to stick it to the wall? And two, can you give us some examples of what not to think about how we feel?

CASEY:  There’s an awesome graphic that I’m really into it. It has ten maladaptive cognitions. The most common unhelpful thinking patterns. The link to this is at CaseyWatts.com/mindmnipulation, all lower case, one word, no dashes, nothing. That’s a Google Doc that I published that has a whole bunch of links to things. One in particular has the word ‘Poster.’ If you [inaudible] that page for poster, that’s the [inaudible].

Generalizing is a short cut [inaudible] and it’s useful but it’s not always the most effective. Sometimes it causes us to have trouble. Another one is magnification. If I stepped in a puddle and I say, “This is inconvenient,” I also probably think of myself, “This sucks. This is the worst. This day is terrible. I hate everything.” You’re kind of generalizing and disqualifying the positive things that happened that day and fortune telling the rest that is going to be bad. Probably, you’re having those kind of thoughts too and those are all examples of maladaptive thought patterns, ways of thinking that aren’t always bad but are kind of like red flags that you should stop and think about them if you notice you’re thinking in that way.

Probably, any time you’re angry, a lot of thoughts that are the most satisfying to say are going to be these maladaptive thought patterns. I think that seems to be true and that’s unfortunate. I don’t know why that’s true. That’s a standing question.

JESSICA:  That’s interesting.

SAM:  Is it related to why we want to swear?

CASEY:  Yeah, probably. Part of it is expressing that you’re upset to other people.

JESSICA:  So maybe, we should just curse and not think. “This is all my fault.”

CASEY:  Yeah, probably externalize it. Let it pass muster. I think cursing is not bad in that kind of situation anyway.

JESSICA:  Now, I have an excuse.

CASEY:  Cathartic release.

CORALINE:  [inaudible] aside, I know there have been studies about cursing in mental health. Does anybody have any memory of what that was about?

JESSICA:  It said that cursing is totally good for you. I’m making that up.

SAM:  Like 87% of statistics which are made up on the spot?

JESSICA:  Research is so great at providing a narrative to what I already want to believe.

JANELLE:  I was just thinking about the other side of empathy as a human. We have thoughts and feelings and we want to be heard. I think it’s just one of the deepest needs of the human heart so amplifying your feelings and your experience such that someone else can go, “Wow, I can really see that you’re having a really awful day and feel really frustrated.” We want somebody to empathize with us so we can feel connected. I’m guessing that amplification probably comes from that inner drive to need to be heard.

CASEY:  That sounds true. Bonding with other people is certainly proven to be useful and good for health.

SAM:  Okay, now I’m thinking about something I read a little while ago about yawning and how yawning is this deep-seated behavior built way down in the limbic system. I read some theories about how it is used as a signaling behavior to signal to other members of your species that you are changing state, either into or out of wakefulness and they then maybe need to pay attention. It’s a signal that is wired into us in a very low level. I wonder if the swearing is a higher level manifestation of that same thing, is what you’re saying.

CASEY:  Now, that sounds great. This is a signal. Swearing is certainly a signal of some kind, either to you or to people around you. Probably to people around you since you’re saying it out loud usually.

JESSICA:  Casey, when we hear someone else, either cursing or doing one of these maladaptive cognition things, such as magnification or filtering out the positive, what can we do when we hear that on our team?

CASEY:  That’s tricky. You can absolutely do this to yourself but you can’t just make other people think differently. You can do it ahead of time, maybe by sharing this talk or a book about CBT or the chart with your team and helping them think about it more but it’s hard to make them do anything. You can’t really force anyone to do stuff.

JANELLE:  At the same time, though if we translate this back to what we’re talking about and when the human is expressing is that they’re frustrated and they have a need to be heard that I think the thing that we can do in response is to hear them. Somebody is essentially calling out from their heart and these feelings that are coming up and they just want somebody to hear them. I would think that helping to give the person what they need makes sense.

CASEY:  Yeah, I totally agree. I think validating their experience is the most powerful thing you can do at that moment probably. If you were to skip straight to, “Oh, I noticed you were thinking some maladaptive cognitions,” that’s kind of invalidating him.

SAM:  If that were me, I would be thinking, “That might be maladaptive cognition.” See, it turns into a nice statement.

CASEY:  That’s awesome.

JANELLE:  It kind of goes to psychological safety thing too we’re just creating beyond on your team where that’s okay.

CASEY:  I like to think that I really got another saying, “I’ve always entering the whoop state.” I didn’t define that, yet. Do you want to hear about that?

JESSICA:  Whoop!

CASEY:  When I’m getting upset over something in a bad mindset, I often catch it and I think to myself or sometimes out loud if I’m around the right people, I’ll go, “Whoop!” and that puts me into what I called the whoop state. The whoop state is something where I’m very introspective and I’m thinking about all the inputs that are affecting me and my mood and if I’m hangry or not and what just happened to me and what someone said and my values and principles. I try to think about everything and how would I ideally respond to the situation. I can think about all the thoughts and feeling inputs and I can choose which outputs to do. I’m pretty good in getting into the state being introspective and I’m really proud that I can do that. Every time I do it I’m like, “Yes, until the end. Pretty awesome, Casey.”

The next step is what I’m proud of is sometimes I say that it is useful to be upset in the situation so I should maintain it and not defuse it. But most of the time, it’s not really useful being upset over walking out a street and somebody cuts you off like a driver drives by and he’s mean or terrible. That’s not really useful to be upset on that person if your upsetness is not having any positive impact on them or the world or anything so that one, I might [inaudible]. But if it’s a neighbor that’s always parking at the end of the line and I can barely get in, it might be worth getting upset over that enough to talk to them about it rationally. Choosing your response is really the core of this idea of CBT.

JESSICA:  And you want to talk to them about it while you’re annoyed but before you’re furious.

CASEY:  Yeah or at least I want to write down why I’m annoyed so I can read it later to get into that state again maybe. I want to maintain the annoyance such that I actually do take action and talk to them like with the smoker upstairs. I think that’s a fun anecdote.

JESSICA:  Yeah, that is.

CASEY:  I mentioned the smoker earlier. I actually got a note from him yesterday. It’s taped to my door and says, “Thank you so much for talking to me like an actual human. That was amazing. Here’s my phone number. Text me if anything else is terrible,” and I have to have saga with this upstairs neighborhood. Three months, four months, he’s always smoking and I always ask him not to and it’s just awesome.

JESSICA:  Does the smoking example is a good example of there’s a time in between when you have the feeling and when you suppressed it so much that you have a narrative about it about how terrible that person is and then you’re furious with them. This applies on our teams too, right? On our teams, we want psychological safety. Could you define that first?

CASEY:  Amy Edmonson is a researcher who did a lot of the initial research on psychological safety and her definition is, “It’s a shared belief how members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” Teams that have this property ended up being way more effective as teams, they’re able to collaborate better and make more creative output. They’re just better by many metrics that teams that don’t have this. In fact when Google was doing research into what makes Google’s teams the best, it wasn’t any of a list of 10 or 20 things that they thought it would be. It was psych safety which is number one.

JESSICA:  What was that interrelational risk taking?

CASEY:  Interpersonal risk taking.

JESSICA:  I was close.

CASEY:  Yes, same idea.

JESSICA:  Would that be like talking to your neighbor?

CASEY:  Yeah. The upstairs neighbor who is smoking, I don’t know him. I don’t trust him closely. I’ve never interacted with him except in this situation so we didn’t really have a safe environment. I didn’t feel like I could tell him all of my thoughts and feelings that he would respect them immediately because I don’t know this person. You should probably expect that most people aren’t going to care about you very much. They don’t know you. That’s a pretty good baseline.

Probably now, I have psych safety with, like he respects and values my thoughts and feelings and experiences and I respected him and his and it only went well probably because I went up to him and tried to make an environment where we’re safe to talk about what we’re thinking. I was like, “I respect you. It’s fine that you’re smoking. Some people are probably very stressful and you smoke extra today.”

I try to be very empathetic with them and not shame him for smoking and he needed this piece of information from me and I needed him to be in a state where he accepts it. He just needed to know that smoking indoors go through the vent into my room. That’s a thing I’m sure he could not know of on his own. This information is only I had and I wanted to convey it in a way that he would accept. I thought really hard about being empathetic and I presented it in just the right way and apparently it worked. All of my friends are saying, Casey, no. Don’t even. Just tell the manager. You don’t have to deal with this.” I’m like, “No, I want to treat him like a person.”

JESSICA:  You mentioned that you didn’t have safety and then you took the risk any way and now you think you do have safety. This is another one of those spiral things that psychological safety makes it okay to take this risk of sharing information like that, which in turn increases psychological safety.

CASEY:  Yeah, definitely. It’s a feedback loop. Once you have it, you’re kind of cool. It keeps proliferating itself, hopefully.

SAM:  Assuming somebody on the team doesn’t take that as a sign of weakness and lash out at it, right?

CASEY:  It could happen.

JESSICA:  That’s the risk part.

CORALINE:  I recently wrote about my experience in working on the community in safety team at GitHub and they got some attention. In thinking about that and framing it in light of our conversation, I think that what I experienced was a false sense of psychological safety. I was hospitalized for depression, and immediately coming out of that was forming a performance plan the worst possible timing. When I tried to share the effects of the trauma from my hospitalization that I was experiencing, I was accused of being manipulative, rather than being with empathy and compassion. Do you think that that false sense of psychological safety is prevalent and that endangers, if one person feels psychologically safe and the environment actually is not psychologically safe?

CASEY:  But say, you felt like it was safe to take the risk of sharing this personal stuff with your team but it was not safe, that was a risk that turned out poorly. I’m sorry that happened. That was stressful. It’s more than stressful.

CORALINE:  How do we identify, whether a situation really is safe or not?

CASEY:  I’m not sure you can ever know for sure. I think there are some factors that make it more or less likely that it’s safe. I think smaller groups are more often safe. Groups of which you know people better or trust them more, even on a personal level, that’s more likely going to be safe. There’s no guarantee.

SAM:  I think as Jessica was just saying, that’s just the risk and you have to, at some point decide whether it’s an acceptable level of risk and either do the thing or don’t do the thing. What I’m curious about is whether it’s possible to turn those situations around if there’s anything we could do other than burn it to the ground and leave, which is of course my first reaction to most things.

JESSICA:  Janelle, you were saying earlier that you have a strategy of leading with vulnerability.

JANELLE:  Yeah. I guess what I’ve learned is that people will naturally reciprocate. Casey you were talking about modeling in your video and essentially, what I’ve learned as I’ve learned to feel safer and more comfortable in myself is that floodlighting vulnerability generally reciprocates vulnerability. Also, I’ve learned is assaulting to people that are just can’t get there. I’ve had to learn how to tone down my intensity at the same time but it’s just kind of how I am. I want to sit around and dream and talk about philosophy of life. This is like where I’m at mentally.

There are some people that are willing to challenge themselves in the way they think about themselves and there’s other people that’s like the thought of whooping themselves and living in that awareness. It is just like too much effort.

JESSICA:  Janelle, when you are in that situation of leading with vulnerability and it’s been successful, at least sometimes, what were the power dynamics there. Were you leading from a leadership position?

JANELLE:  Generally speaking, yeah. I’ve been either like a team lead or leading like consulting team and with consulting, it’s all a matter of leadership because you don’t have any official control with you. It’s all influence in the context of my job of figuring out how do I take this corporate monster organism of people that are so very deeply in their dysfunctions and figure out how to make them move together. I learned these set of skills of basically understanding my own energy and how I was able to pull on the emotional energy of others to influence.

I’ve got skills in that regard that has become eventually came to like my trauma that I went through is given me a really useful set of skills in regards to self-awareness. Now I can kick ass at work because I’ve been traumatized. I kind of just come to this place of accepting all my past, put me in a position so that I’m capable of doing all the things I can do today and that helps me to just be in a place where I can be deeply vulnerable and lead at the same time. I think one thing missing in most of our leadership is that kind of deep, strong empathy, that ability to not need to defend your ego or your sense of feeling that you know all the things, like just being comfortable with being ignorant.

CORALINE:  But how do you think the power dynamic influences that because in my particular situation, I was not a person in power so I did not have the authority to set the tone and make this an empathetic interaction. Do you think that being in that leadership position gives you that advantage, that may be other people don’t really have?

JANELLE:  I think that’s why I feel a sense of responsibility with that because a lot of people that feel trapped in that way and when I was in the system, I felt trapped like I was ready to explode. Working in the context of organization, I had so many times where I just like rock the boat and almost got myself fired because I cared to damn much and with stupid decisions and things that were just wrong and broken, I get railed against the machine and exploded. But then when I was a consultant, it’s like you’re on the outside and then it was about me seeing all that pain in the machine and being able to figure out how to make things move so I could help people.

JESSICA:  As a leader, there’s a lot you can do with vulnerability. Casey, do you have any more information for us about how we can encourage psychological safety on our team?

CASEY:  We could break psych safety down into two parts. One part is about the average social sensitivity on your team, which is empathy and that’s something people can learn, people can train in empathy but it’s harder and slower to train technical skills for sure. The other one is communication, like how often people share their thoughts and feelings. It’s pretty good to correlate to how safe they feel.

I used to manage 300 students that work for the IT department of university and when we hired, we decided whether we wanted to hire on two scales: how empathetic they were versus how technical they were. We’re inclined to hire people who are five out of five technical that literally have done this job before but that was the opposite of what was good. Our favorite employees, the most effective ones, were the ones that had [inaudible] low tech skills but learned the tech. We taught the tech. They can learn it absolutely. We’re not so worried about it. The high empathy people learn the tech but the high tech people didn’t learn the empathy on the job. They could have potentially somehow but it wasn’t a priority of theirs.

JESSICA:  Did they have earned dogmatism with their extremely high tech skills?

CASEY:  Actually, often they did. Some of them felt superior to the students they were helping, like why don’t you just [inaudible] already know how to do everything. They were all trying. They want to do their best but it’s harder for them if they were already empathetic to be empathetic at the instance they were helping.

JESSICA:  So that disparity in tech skills actually magnifies the communication problems.

CASEY:  Oh, yeah.

SAM:  This is reminding me very strongly of a recent tweet storm that Sarah Mei wrote. She’s talked about this a couple times on Twitter, I think. She talks about how the rise of code schools is allowing people to change careers into tech from other careers and how that plays out interestingly over the course of five years or so that code schools have been around. She talks about specifically how people who are changing careers have already developed their communication skills in some other arena and they bring those with them when they change into tech so they spend a couple of years learning the tech and they get slowed down a little bit because of that but once they hit mid-career at three to five or so years, they start to pull ahead of people who have started from a computer science background because CS doesn’t teach empathy or communication skills. They’re really minimized or neglected entirely.

She’s been observing some interesting patterns in the careers of people who come in with those communication skills and that they’re starting to outperform those of us with a traditional CS background, which I think is great.

CASEY:  Not only does it not teach empathy. It doesn’t teach you core value empathy even. I think more important than being empathetic is valuing empathy because at least, when you’re on a trajectory to get better. I can be immensely patient with people who are learning things but I really not that patient at people who actively don’t want to learn empathy. I don’t know what to do with those people.

JESSICA:  Like you said earlier, Sam to perform empathy, means to care about it. It doesn’t mean to fake it. It means I am trying to do a better job at this than I have been able to do in the past. Casey, we’ll link to your video in the show notes. What else will people learn from watching it after listening to this podcast?

CASEY:  I’m so glad you asked. In the slideshow/video, there are a lot of diagrams that explain the kinds of things we’re talking about visually. That’s pretty useful. Also, we didn’t talk about how to encourage psychological safety in your workplace. I have 10 specific things you can do on your team to make it better. Some of those are from the research and some are from my experience, it kind of mixed both. The video I guess is probably the best way for that. I don’t think it’s written up fully. There are a lot of links to articles and other videos that go to all of these topics in more depth and of course, you could do your independent research to go even deeper. I’d love to hear from you what you find.

JANELLE:  I was having this conversation earlier with Jessica about identity and our presence within our self and I found that there’s three primary ways of being in the world. If we connect with others and see ourselves through their eyes like we live in a reflection of ourselves and define our identity in terms of how we believe other people see us and then we can live within our body and we can feel ourselves and we can feel our feelings as inputs an do this whole awareness of this translation and feel that process inside of our body, then we can step out of that which I call the choose your presence, where we start looking at life and who we are as a set of first principles, the set of vectors, a direction as opposed to a goal.

To me, I see bubbles as the vector so I find so much beauty in this idea of bubbles that just really resonates with me. When you’re describing empathy, this idea that empathy is this value that we need to hold, it seeing empathy needs to be a first principle, this chord of who we are. But it’s also a centric to that ‘choose your presence’. I think the thing with cognitive behavioral therapy is it allows us to shift to that ‘choose your presence’ and make a decision to take ownership of our lives. That’s really powerful. That’s how you find your way in authentic alignments is making a decision to choose your life. That’s pretty beautiful to me.

CASEY:  I love the word in volition. I think it sounds really good. It means choosing the actions you do. That’s like how a will power and executing it. I think that’s what Janelle just say.

CORALINE:  Jessica, do you have a reflection on our conversation today?

JESSICA:  One of the things that I wrote down in my notebook about this conversation is the part about when you have that feeling of frustration or anger, it’s still useful to feel it in the moment so that it doesn’t hang around and it eat you. But after you feel it, then we decide how to react. That’s important because Coraline, you said something about how if after anger you lash out, that internalized your anger and for a second, I was like, “Wait, but didn’t you just express the anger?” But I think actually by acting on it, you made it yours. You made it a part of your history and yourself, as opposed to choosing a different reaction.

SAM:  And you reinforce that path for future use.

JESSICA:  Yeah, nice.

CASEY:  We wield anger like a sword.

JESSICA:  Our weapons become part of us.

CASEY:  It can be really useful when wielded properly or you could hurt yourself.

CORALINE:  Sam, what are you taking away from this conversation?

SAM:  Oh, there’s a lot. I feel like I need to go back and listen to this like always. But there were a couple of things that I wrote down. I wrote down that rationality is a facade, which I knew as an idea but I hadn’t heard it expressed in those four words before and I like those. The other thing I wrote down was this idea that state machines can be edited because I hadn’t realized that I thought of them as static before, until I actually said that. Looking at those two things: rationality is a facade and state machines can be edited, I’m really enjoying the apparent contradiction between those two and I’m going to have to sit with that for a while and enjoy how they are contradictory and yet, not at the same time. Thank you.

CORALINE:  [inaudible] and I’m going to think about this a little more. I use to phrase performing empathy and in the chat that we have going on while record the podcast, it was pointed out that maybe that was in the [inaudible]. Empathy is our [inaudible] and didn’t necessarily sincere. Casey, you talked about the importance of valuing empathy and I think the idea of performing empathy is basically that if empathy doesn’t yet, come naturally it’s you. It’s something you’re still learning or adapting to.

If you don’t initially have the response of understanding and feeling with another person, you can learn that by performing it as an action, making deliberate choice to try to be empathetic even when you don’t necessarily feel it. I think that’s probably part of learning and internalizing and strengthening the empathetic reaction to the emotions of others.

JESSICA:  Casey, do you have any reflection?

CASEY:  I’ve been reflecting this week a lot about this smoker and I’m so glad I responded empathetically to him because he was responding empathetically back and everything turned out great. But I’m wondering why don’t other people do this. I think responding empathetically is just not always a good idea but it takes energy to do, especially if it’s not your habit. The more of a habit we can make it, the lower energy costs it is for us and I just want to help a lot of people lower that cost and that would be awesome.

JESSICA:  Sweet. I think you’ve done that today.

CORALINE:  This has been a really great conversation as usual and I want to remind people that if you enjoy the conversations that we have on this podcast, you can support our efforts directly by going to Patreon.com/GreaterThanCode. One of the benefits of becoming a patron is you get access to our patron-only Slack community where you can speak at greater lengths with our guest and our panelist and other members of the community and explore the ideas and share your thoughts and opinions on the ideas that we talked on the podcast. We are very thankful to all re-patrons and your patronage ensures that we can continue having these conversations so thank you all.

JESSICA:  Also, you get access to the outtakes that we record while Coraline is in the bathroom.

CORALINE:  Thanks for oversharing that, Jessica.

SAM:  I feel like that should be our unofficial motto. “Thanks for oversharing, Jessica.”

CORALINE:  Thank you all and we look forward to talking to you again in a couple of weeks. Bye!



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