The power of face-to-face dialogue for change agents

turkle.reclaiming_conversation

I’m looking forward to reading into a new book by MIT social scientist Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (2015). Ethan Gilsdorf, writing for the Boston Globe, gives us a preview:

The crisis of conversation is at the heart of Turkle’s new book, “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.” With it, she hopes to spark a discussion about what we lose when we settle for fleeting texts, sound bites, and status updates, instead of pursuing meaningful, nuanced human connection.

. . . A sociologist and clinical psychologist, Turkle has studied the link between conversation and empathy, and how conversation supports self-reflection. In her new book, out Tuesday, she argues that our reliance on our devices endangers our ability to cultivate friendships, raise healthy kids, nurture intimate relationships, succeed on the job, and engage in civic discourse. “Fortunately, there was a flood of quantitative studies that supported what I was saying.”

Reviewing the book for the New York Times, writer Jonathan Franzen opines that it “makes a compelling case that children develop better, students learn better and employees perform better when their mentors set good examples and carve out spaces for face-to-face interactions.”

Creating communities for positive social change: Face-to-face helps, a lot

The themes raised by Turkle resonate with me very strongly, including their application to social change initiatives.

I recently hosted a small workshop on therapeutic jurisprudence, a legal philosophy that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of our laws and legal systems. Some 15 North American law professors, lawyers, and judges gathered for two days of close dialogue on how we can mainstream a legal framework that supports psychological health and well-being.

The event was successful both as an experience and as a seed planter. We enjoyed our discussions immensely, and people felt energized by the event. A good number came away with new ideas and leads for their work. Others are planning to host similar, small-scale events. The workshop also helped us to do some spadework that eventually will give the therapeutic jurisprudence movement a stronger sense of organization and public identity.

I must admit I was a dictator on one point: I put the event in a room that was not set up for PowerPoint. Instead, I wanted us to be looking at one another as we talked, rather than gazing at a screen. While this no doubt cramped the presentation styles of some of my dear colleagues who graciously adapted to my neo-Luddhite approach, I think the format achieved its purpose of enhancing the quality of our discussions.

Face-to-face interaction, a/k/a getting to know people in person, makes a difference. I have witnessed and benefited from this dynamic over and again at workshops, seminars, and conferences that enable people to have real conversations. And now these observations are buttressed by research cited by Turkle.

A hybrid approach for the 21st century

That said, in no way do I wish to dismiss the value of other communications options, including digital technology. Use of electronic media can enhance and strengthen connections made at conferences and programs. Conversations over the phone and via Skype/Facetime/video conferencing platforms can be enriching and interactive. E-mail, messaging, and social media sites offer great ways to stay in touch and to engage in dialogue and collaborative activities. And I’ve seen terrific, substantive, meaningful conversations and exchanges take place on Facebook.

In looking at this big picture, it boils down to embracing face-to-face dialogue as the gold standard, but understanding that other forms of communication are extremely valuable too. Such combinations can be especially useful when people are separated by distance, a common occurrence in the world of work today.

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Related posts and sources

  • The American Psychological Association’s Psychology Benefits Society online newsletter reposted my article, “Conferences as Community Builders,” building off of the biennial Work, Stress, and Health conference in held earlier this year in Atlanta.
  • Last year I wrote an essay, “Academic Conferences: When Small is Beautiful” (Suffolk University Law Review Online), an outgrowth of a 2014 therapeutic jurisprudence program in Boston, making a case for organizing and hosting smaller academic conferences, workshops, and symposia that promote genuine dialogue and intellectual exchange, while moving at a slower, more contemplative pace.
  • Two years ago, I wrote a piece, “Why conferences?,” following the 2013 Work, Stress, and Health conference in Los Angeles.

Workplace bullying strategies and tactics: An updated round-up

Two years ago, I did a quick little round-up of common strategies and tactics employed by workplace aggressors, as discussed in various articles here. It’s time for an updated version. I’ve included short snippets for each; please click on the topics to read the original posts.

Blackballing (2015)

“Blackballing is a prime form of eliminationist behavior. It also is awfully hard to detect and trace, because it typically occurs under the cloak of confidentiality and private communications.”

Button pushing (2014)

“Workplace aggressors are often experts at button pushing. They know how to get a rise out of someone, and if it causes the target to say or do something that gives the aggressors even more of an upper hand, then all the better.”

Gossip (2014)

“If gossip is for the purpose of maliciously trashing someone’s reputation and pushing them out of the workplace, then the situation may be part of a bullying or mobbing campaign.”

Superficial civility enabling bullying (2014)

“But at times, the organizational embrace of a superficial brand of civility can advantage those who engage in bullying, harassment, or discrimination at work.”

Bullies claiming victim status (2013)

“We’ve seen it countless times: Workplace bullies claiming to be the victims of workplace bullying.”

Splitting (2013)

“Eddy describes splitting in work settings as a personal and hostile process that promotes extreme, all-or-nothing positions and ‘often involves projection,’ i.e., tagging “’others as being divisive and inappropriate in the ways that they are actually being divisive and inappropriate themselves.'”

Gaslighting (2012)

“Gaslighting at work can range from orchestrated, manipulative aggressor-to-target behaviors, to HR officers expressing faux incredulity in response to claims of abusive mistreatment.”

“Puppet master” bullying vs. mobbing (2012)

“Let’s start with what I call puppet master bullying. In these situations, a chief aggressor’s power and influence over a group of subordinates may be sufficient to enlist their participation in mistreating a target, creating what looks and feels like a mob.”

Workplace cyber-bullying (2012)

“A new study of British university employees concludes that targets of workplace cyberbullying often fare worse than those who experience traditional bullying.

Making targets disappear (2011)

“Bad organizations choose to ‘forget’ less flattering events of their institutional history, especially those that conflict with their self-generated mythologies. Sometimes that process requires them to create new unpersons out of individuals associated with those events.”

People, let’s avoid Peeple like the plague

Screenshot of Peeple website

Screenshot of Peeple website

In this era of online trolling, bash-filled comments sections, cyberbullying, and the like, the last thing we need is a new social media app that invites us to rate and evaluate, well, practically anyone and everyone.

But the creators of Peeple don’t see it that way. Using the creepy (in this context) tagline, “character is destiny,” they are launching a social media site that will allow individuals to rate their friends, co-workers, dates (current or former), family members, and acquaintances. Here’s a snippet from their online description.

Peeple is an app that allows you to rate and comment about the people you interact with in your daily lives on the following three categories: personal, professional, and dating.

Peeple will enhance your online reputation for access to better quality networks, top job opportunities, and promote more informed decision making about people.

Authentic and relevant information about you and others you interact with is paramount to our vision for this app. Users will require a Facebook account to access the application, to verify and validate the minimum age requirement. To prevent multiple and fake profiles users will also need to validate that they are a real person with their cell phone number which will then text them a pin to login with.

I wanted to write about Peeple earlier this week, when I first spied news articles about it and started hearing from others asking my opinion. But I had to resist the pull to launch into an immediate diatribe; waiting a few days was the blogging equivalent of counting to ten instead of replying immediately to something outrageous.

Thankfully, in an excellent columnWashington Post digital culture critic Caitlin Dewey has already written much of what should be said about this new launch:

When the app does launch, probably in late November, you will be able to assign reviews and one- to five-star ratings to everyone you know . . . . You can’t opt out — once someone puts your name in the Peeple system, it’s there unless you violate the site’s terms of service. And you can’t delete bad or biased reviews — that would defeat the whole purpose.

. . . It’s inherently invasive, even when complimentary. . . . One does not have to stretch far to imagine the distress and anxiety that such a system would cause even a slightly self-conscious person; it’s not merely the anxiety of being harassed or maligned on the platform — but of being watched and judged, at all times, by an objectifying gaze to which you did not consent.

Nevertheless, if you scroll through the Peeple website and read Dewey’s full column, you’ll see that Peeple’s co-founders, “Nicole” and “Julia,” think of themselves as pioneering, empathetic entrepreneurs who simply want to make us better human beings. In fact, they even claim to be supporters of the anti-bullying movement:

Our mission is to find the good in you. Peeple has shown active support to the anti-bullying movement by providing users the ability to report other users. Negative comments don’t go live on the app for 48 hours; they simply go into the inbox of the person who got the negative review and then are given a chance to work it out with the person who wrote the review. If you can’t work it out with the person you can publicly defend yourself by commenting on the negative review.

Peeple has already stirred up a hornets’ nest of criticism, and for good reason. This is pretty sick stuff. The sunny worldview presented by the app’s early marketing borders on the delusional. I normally don’t like to use such strongly condemning language here, but this is a terrible idea.

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Workplace bullying, blackballing, and the eliminationist instinct

(Image courtesy of all-free-download.com)

(Image courtesy of all-free-download.com)

For some workplace aggressors, bullying someone out of a job isn’t enough. In addition, they must find ways to continue the torment even after a target has left the aggressor’s place of employment. Especially if the aggressor is the target’s former supervisor, these behaviors may include ongoing efforts to sabotage the target’s attempts to obtain new employment. Common examples are innuendo-filled whisper campaigns spread through a professional or vocational network and maliciously negative references presented as “opinion” rather than “fact” in order to preempt defamation claims.

The aggressor’s goal? To blackball (others might say blacklist) the target out of a career and to undermine his or her ability to earn a livelihood.

Last spring I wrote about how the “eliminationist instinct” may manifest itself in our workplaces:

We typically hear the term “eliminationist” in association with massacres and genocides. The eliminationist instinct captures a facile ability to regard other human beings as objects to be tormented or brutally excised. When this form of dehumanization surfaces on a mass scale, it fuels some the worst outrages in human history.

In addition, manifestations of the eliminationist instinct are hardly limited to large-scale horrors. They may appear in the workplace as well. True, the perpetrators are not mass killers, but their actions embody an easy ability to dehumanize others. Lacking empathy for their targets, they ply their trade with words and bureaucratic actions, rather than with weapons or instruments of physical torture.

Blackballing is a prime form of eliminationist behavior. It also is awfully hard to detect and trace, because it typically occurs under the cloak of confidentiality and private communications. Bullying targets often put the pieces together when they encounter odd but consistent difficulties in their job searches, such as hiring processes that went very well until — they surmise — the prospective employer started to contact people not on their reference list. Blackballing also may be at play when applications for jobs where the target is very qualified are repeatedly met with radio silence.

If the bullying supervisor is well known in the particular profession or trade, it makes things ever more difficult. The same superficial charm and facile ability to lie that allows the aggressor to thrive inside the workplace may have managed to fool those in the aggressor’s external network, too.

There are no easy tactics for dealing with this. Negotiating a positive reference as part of one’s exit strategy may be an option, but even if successful, it doesn’t guarantee that the aggressor won’t find a way around such an agreement. Oftentimes, overcoming malicious blackballing is a product of perseverance and certain pieces falling together in the right way.

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