Tuesday, November 16, 2010

My Worldview in a Nutshell

I've never read this book, the cover just looks cool.

Pretty much everything worth talking about, from global civilization to a human relationship to an individual thought, is an example of a complex system with emergent properties. [Oh noes! Math!]

These systems are driven by the evolutionary algorithm: differentiation, selection, and exploration. When differentiation, selection, and exploration happen you get thinking, relationships and cool civilizations, when they fail you don’t.

Exploration is about going down a path and discovering a punch of other paths. It requires the time, energy, and information to properly explore.

Differentiation is about understanding which options are worth pursuing. It involves looking at a bunch of options and saying “these few are the interesting ones.” It’s often about understanding, expressing, and absorbing emotion. If you don’t pay attention to emotion, you’ll go down a path that makes people cranky.

Selection is about making plans to explore an option or a set of options. It involves good planning, solid commitments, mobilizing resources, and having the necessary expertise. Selection requires tasklisters, trust and training.

The evolutionary algorithm tends to operate across scale. An evolving highschool is made up of evolving groups, which are made up of evolving relationships which are made up of evolving conversations which are made up of evolving thoughts. This creates a fractal-like structure. It also creates “Black Swan” uncertainty in which big, totally unexpected events happen out of nowhere.

Our brains are tribe machines. (If I’m reading Dunbar right.) We evolved them to think about relationships with other people, not to do abstract algebra. This means that we’re much, much better at thinking about the way that human relationships evolve than we are at thinking about anything else.

Unfortunately, the way that we talk about relationships fundamentally limits this power. The concepts that we use to describe relationships (“finding the one,” “just friends,” “networking,”) tend to prevent meaningful connections from forming. They get in the way of the evolutionary algorithm doing its thing. Someone could probably find a nifty way to blame this on something, but I don’t really care.

This means that in most human situations the evolutionary algorithm is somehow being suppressed. If you know how to identify and remove that suppression, you can create disruptive self-organization pretty much anywhere.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Hot Pieces of Ace! Coming out, and Romance v Friendships

I've been officially recruited as a vlogger on the phenominal Hot Pieces of Ace. Hopefully this will finally get me off my butt and generating Ace-relevant content. (I've been giving my love to my other blog.) Here are two videos, I'll post more as the weeks go on.

Monday, July 05, 2010

The Art of Mind-Blowing Conversation

Let’s face it: as Aces, conversation is what we’ve got. Cuddling is all well and good, but when it comes to creating close relationships with others we can basically figure out how to have soul-touching, mind-blowing conversations or we can get busy feeling bored. I want to talk quickly about how conversations work and how to reliably make them powerful and interesting.
A conversation is an animal. It’s created by the people who start it, but it has its own life and it’s own heartbeat. You can’t really control conversations without breaking them, but you can learn to tame them, feed them, and lead them in interesting directions. Outright control of a conversation is manipulation, and it’s a nasty business that tends to preclude the really interesting possibilities. What I’m talking about here is facilitation: gently nudging conversations into more and more powerful territory, without really understanding what will happen beforehand.

Conversations are like animals in that they evolve over time. This is great news, because even though science still doesn’t understand conversations that well, we do understand evolution. Recent research in a field called emergence or complexity theory has demonstrated that systems which evolve have a surprising amount in common: from ecosystems, to economies to cities to the development of the internet. In all of these systems, and in conversations, the same basic process happens over and over again. If you understand that process it’s possible to nudge it along, to take the slowly grinding wheel of evolution and give it a few extra shoves.

It turns out that internets and conversations and fungal spores and social movements are all just doing the same three things, over and over and over. Pretent for a second that you’re a DJ, looking out over a packed club that’s just beginning to move. You’re swapping beats in and out, trying to figure out what gets the crowd moving. As you swap songs and watch the crowd, here’s what’s going through your head:

Differentiate- Some types of music get the crowd moving and others don’t. Do they want hip hop or reggea? Top 40 or mid-90s? How do they respond when you up the bass?

Select- Of all of the musical choices at your fingertips, you want to identify just the ones that get the crowd moving.

Amplify- Now queu up more of the stuff that works and less of the stuff that doesn’t.

Repeat- Now you’ll be able see how the crowd responds to your new, amplified music and refine it even further. As the crowd shifts over the course of the night, you’ll be able to shift with them. You just keep repeating all night long: differentiate, select, amplify, differentiate, select, amplify, until the crowd is going wild.

The same basic principle is true for conversations. In conversations you’re not (necessarily) trying to get people on the dancefloor, you’re trying to create emotional resonance. Believe it or not, when you have a good conversation a certain part of your brain, called the
limbic system, actually syncs up with the brain of the person you’re talking to. Like, if both of you were sitting and chatting in an MRI machine your limbic systems would sort of pulse in unison. Dogs have limbic systems that are bigger than ours, which is why you can make eye contact with a dog and instantly feel like you’re having a conversation.

Limbic systems sync up when you are feeling the same thing as someone else. The connection gets stronger when the feeling gets stronger, and when you become more accutely aware of the fact that someone else is sharing it. If DJs want to get people moving on the dance floor, adept conversationalists zero in on shared, strong emotion.

The Opening

Uncovering this sort of emotion can be tricky. Most people don’t talk about strong feelings easily. Once polite tactic is to meander around conversation topics that both people are emotionally attached to (“how about that local sports team?”), but that rarely goes anywhere unique or interesting. Instead it’s best to listen for topics that contain little blips of emotional energy, select them, and amplify.

For example: how should you open a conversation with someone that you don’t know? Let’s take a look at some standard openings:

“It’s hot out today!”- You’ve just expressed a strong feeling, way to set the bar. But you’ve also made the conversation about the weather. They’re sure to feel SOMETHING about the weather, so you’ll have enough emotion to string a conversation on, but those emotions probably won’t get too intense. You’ve just set a template for mediocrity. Next.

“How are you doing?”- Gutsy. You’ve just pinged their overall emotional state. If they are particularly open and they’re particularly open they may talk about something that they have strong feelings about in that moment, and you’ll have a conversation topic that you can take you far. If not they’ll say “Fine, how about you?” and you’ll have to take another shot.

“What do you do?”- Asking someone about their work brings up whatever emotions they feel about that work. All too often this is a mix of boredom and frustration, not the most interesting wavelength to hop on with someone. Like the weather, this conversation topic is low-risk (they probably have some feelings about what they do all day) but low-reward (the strongest of those emotions are probably ones that you don’t share in a precise way.)

“What do you do for fun?”- This is my personal favorite, because it’s got a great emotion to latch onto. It gets people reliving a bunch of positive memories, which makes let’s you take the conversation in a direction that’s interesting and upbeat. It also gives you important information about how to have fun with someone, which is the backbone of most good friendships.

From Good to Mind-Blowing

Say you’ve struck up a good rapport and found a topic of conversation that’s got someone excited. You’re probably both having fun, but you wouldn’t call it mind-blowing. The difference between a good conversation and a mind-blowing conversation is that good conversations are entertaining and mind-blowing conversations are transformative. People walk out of them different than when they walked into them. That’s the kind of conversation we’re going for.

In good conversations we recount things that we’ve experienced before, and have some good, clean fun reliving the emotions involved. In mind-blowing conversations we experience powerful emotions for the first time, which makes them much messier and much more potent. Once someone feels safe enough you can nudge conversations toward these unique, emotionally powerful experiences. You just need to know how to listen.

Most of the time, most people talk about things that they’ve talked about. If you’re talking about the game next Friday, chances are it will be like the game next Friday. If you’re asking someone about their hometown, they’ll probably give the same schpiel that they’ve been giving since they left. Where this isn’t true is around major points of transition in people’s lives: big changes that are happening or that people want to happen. Points of transition can be obvious, like having a baby or starting a new job, or they can be subtle, like a nagging sense of spiritual uncertainty.

If you get whiff of a transition point, steer the conversation towards it and learn what you can. Parts of the transition will be picked over, things that the person you’re talking to has already talked about ad nauseum with friends and relatives, but if you listen closely you can find patches of conversational territory that are still fresh and unexplored. These are the areas where the conversation can become more powerful; where new, unexplored emotions sit waiting in the reeds.

When people start to delve into these powerful unexplored places, tap into your sense of empathy. Most humans are surprisingly empathetic. If we see someone get poked in the arm we don’t just imagine the pain, the part of our brain that connects to our arm
actually experiences pain. There’s a whole section of our brain that does nothing but keep track of which feelings come from us and which come from the people we’re looking at. When this part of the brain shuts down, people actually physically feel pain then they see it inflicted on others.

This powerful sense of empathy means that when you see someone going through a strong emotional experience for the first time it’s easy to match their wavelength. Armed with your sense of empathy and compassion you can feel what they feel, pushing the conversation to places that are steadily more powerful.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Video on Asexual Relationships

I'm graduated!! And will hopefully have some time to give love to this blog (in addition to my other one.) I want to start with a response to the awesome stuff that's going down over at Hot Pieces of Ace, the asexual collab YouTube channel.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The Power of Talking about Intimacy

I think I've broken the ice.

I've been ranting about intimacy for a while now, despite the fact that it's pretty embarrassing, socially awkward and professionally detrimental. I do it because I've had this overwhelming sense for the past five years that the asexual community is onto something, that somewhere latent beneath the everyday assumptions that we make about intimacy there's this ocean of unmet need just waiting to burst out, hit oxygen and and change things.

The human need for intimacy is a deeply, deeply powerful force, from our actions as people right on up to our actions as a species. It drives everything from our family drama to our purchasing behavior to gang violence to the rise of megacities. We don't spend nearly enough time talking about it. The flippedness with which most people conflate intimacy and sex is strong evidence of that fact. And even though I've spent years ranting about it to people, I've had almost no luck getting other people to see intimacy as the fundamental, game-changing force of nature that my gut sees it as. No luck, that is, until this year.

See, a few times a year I give talks on college campuses about the asexual community, 90 minute orientations to how we work and what we stand for. Because they consist of safe, friendly and contained audiences I use these venues to test messaging that can later be delivered to the press, and in the past few months I've switched things up. Specifically I've switched up the way that I talk about intimacy in the asexual community. The results have been staggering. Twice now, multiple people in the room have gone through something akin to a shift in worldview. At a precise point in the lecture something in them shifts, and they start to view their own life experience from a new and profoundly empowering perspective. They thank me profusely and gush about how things suddenly make sense that have been murky for them for years.

It sounds egotistical to write this, and to some extent it is, but I also think I've struck a vein. The last time I got reactions like this it was the start of the asexual community. Now it's in the broader population (sex-positive undergrad students so far, but I'll have to test and see where else this model for talking about intimacy is applicable.) Here's how it works:

I open my lecture giving the definition of asexuality and talking through the specifics of our identity and our breed of sexual politics. Then I delve into three stories from the asexual community, all stories about intimacy.

The first is a story about Winter and Paul. Two asexuals from New York, Winter and Paul met when the community was just starting and meetups in Manhattan were just getting off the ground. They hit it off as fast friends, and as they spent more time together something blossomed. To people who equate intimacy with sex it might be difficult to get what exactly changed, but their relationship suddenly started to feel different. They started spending more time together, more and more of their feelings started bubbling to the surface, the plans and promises they made started creeping skyward. It made sense to call the relationship something else. After dating for a few years they got married, making them the second wedding on AVEN, and settled into a life together.

That's the first story.

The second story is about a monk named Dave. Now, Dave became a monk long before the asexual community was established, starting as a US Navy Chaplan and never looking back. He bounced between the Vatican and far-flung adventures in exotic locales, devouring life experience as avidly as he devoured books and intellectual argument. Eventually he decided to quit the church, and settled happily into the DC gay community where he applied his considerable intellectual muscle to the gay rights discussions of the day. He grew a monumental beard and got busy building himself a house with a generously proportioned library. As Dave settles into his library he'll look back across the journals from his travels, across the dog-eared books that he's spent his life tromping through and the clean, crisp ones he's still ready to devour. Dave is happy.

That's the second story.

The third story is about a girl named Ann and her punk band. Ann is in highschool, but that's ok because Ann loves punk music. She's got this band that tours regularly, and the band vibe couldn't be better. When they get together they can really tap into something, really put a part of themselves out there together and build something powerful with it. That experience trumps most of what Ann has experienced in her life so far, and the same is true for many of her band mates. They've got something. It's deep, it's powerful, and it's build relationships that are just as deep and powerful. The band is together all of the time for practice, and because of that they've become one another's support network. It's always tough to say how these things will go, but for now Ann's punk band is giving her a lot of what she needs in life.

That's the third story.

Now, the important thing to understand about these stories is that in the asexual community they're all seen as equally valid ways of getting at the same thing. The word "single" doesn't really get used in the asexual community, because it implies that if you're not in a romantic partnership with someone you're somehow isolated and your human need for intimacy isn't being fulfilled. In the asexual community you can't really be single, because it's equally valid to fulfill your need for intimacy by focusing on your relationship with yourself and the world around you, the way that Dave does, or by focusing on a close relationship with a community, the way that Ann does. Intimacy still matters. There's no getting away from our need for it, and in the asexual community we challenge ourselves vigorously to pursue it. We just don't think that romantic relationships are the only path.

At different times in our lives it makes sense to focus more on intimacy from a partner, from ourselves or from our communities, but we'll always need a little of all three. Think about these stories. Which resonates most with you and why? Does our culture value these types of intimacy differently?

Saturday, January 09, 2010

A Nonsexual Intimacy Playbook

I'm on winter break, and am trying to get back into blogging. This past semester has been fantastic, both in terms of my connection with the Presidio community and in terms of the development of my ongoing ranting about relationships and intimacy. I'm entering the new year a lot more focused on partnered relationships than I have been in the past, and before gearing up and heading into romance land (wish me luck!) I'd like to review some of the tricks of the trade that I've picked up over the years.

I've already discussed in depth a lot of the underlying theory behind my approach to relationships, here are some of the ways that I've applied that theory to do things in relationships that most people at least don't talk about doing.

Sometimes I'm in a relationship with someone that has great energy but feels like it's not going anywhere. We want to spend more time together but it doesn't quite happen, and things feel like they're stagnating before the relationship's full potential can be realized.

When that happens I focus on two things:
  1. Being more emotionally expressive about the relationship, and subtly pushing the other person to do the same.
  2. After emotions are out there, being aggressive about proposing new directions for the relationship based on those emotions.

Emotion doesn't just mean "I like you," it means an honest assessment of how I feel about them, what I respect, what I want to challenge and how I feel about what we spend our time doing together. When done right this pushes relationships into the "Grey Area" between friendship and romance, which is a fun but sometimes disorienting place.

Sometimes I'm spending time with people and enjoying it, but I feel like I've lost perspective. I don't really know what I'm getting out of my relationships and I feel like I'm responding to the things that are getting thrown my way rather than making things happen on my terms.

When that happens I like to take a step back mentally and really assess what the major relationships in my life are, what I'm getting out of them, where I want them to go and what the major gaps are. For me this literally involves drawing a web, labeling the main relationships and looking at how and why I'm spending time on them. I come out with a clear decision of how the pieces fit together and where I want to go with each relationship.

Sometimes I have great chemistry with someone but they're already in a committed monogamous relationship. I honestly don't understand why this is such an issue for sexual people. If you like one person, then they're significant other is probably cool too right? Extra person! Bonus!

When this happens I'll do a couple things:
  1. Emotionally engage the person I'm into without hesitation. I'll be open, smiley, and even slightly flirty (though I'll suppress physical affection if it begins to develop a lot.) I'll be very clear about the fact that I'm asexual as I do this.
  2. Emotionally engage their partner just as much. Even if I don't know my friends' BF/GF as well I'll assume a high level of respect for them (after all, someone I respect loves them a lot) and extend them the same level of friendliness and excitement that I extend their significant other. This helps to temper feelings of jealousy a bit, though the relationship will still start out lopsided towards the partner I know better.
  3. Listen for things that the relationship is struggling with, and try to add something that soothes those struggles over. This can mean serving as a soundboard for one or both parties, but it often is about introducing something that lets the two partners get to emotionally and intellectually engage with another in a way that they wouldn't otherwise. Once I'm integrated enough to do this I begin to form a relationship with the couple, rather than two relationships with the two people in the couple. It's this relationship with the couple- a contribution to the bond that keeps them together- that ultimately keeps things in balance and is most rewarding.

Breaking out
I've written before about how my breakups are never as showy and dramatic as they seem to be on TV or in the stories of my friends. For me breakups are sad but rarely heated.

That's because on a fundamental level I don't believe that a relationship can stop working. The expectations that underpin that relationship can stop making sense, but the relationship itself probably formed because the people involved have business in one another's lives, and it's always worth seeing whether there's still some of that business to be done.

When expectations stop making sense it can be hurtful, and that makes expectations hard to get rid of. The important thing is to see how the relationship can evolve in new and interesting directions without old clunky expectations bogging it down. It's hard to stomach "breaking up" to be "just friends" if your romantic relationship is worth a lot and friendship is worth a pittance, but if you have faith that that friendship can evolve (or grey) in totally new and fascinating directions than the drama of a breakup is less pronounced. It becomes easier to shed a tear for the old expectations while keeping focused on the future.

Sometimes relationships develop sexual tension, or at least what reads as sexual tension. Even though I'm Ace I'm not immune to it. I'll click with someone, and the sparks will be pronounced enough that we'll begin to express them physically, and as soon as we're expressing them physically the question of whether SOME SORT of sexuality will enter the relationship looms large. This can be toxic. Tension about sexuality can overshadow the good things that give the relationship its energy in the first place, and while it's fun sexual tension can begin to detract from the relationship's larger and more interesting purpose.

When this happens I try not to let the tension linger to long. I'll introduce some light sexuality into the relationship (usually kissing), and see how things fall out around it. On occasion the sexuality fits in seamlessly with what makes the relationship click and it becomes a more common occurrence, but it's far more often for both of us to realize that sexuality isn't really what we wanted. We come out of the experienced focused on what really works about the relationship and are usually much closer as a result.

This seems counterintuitive- introducing sexuality as a way to (3/4 of the time) DEsexualize a relationship, but it works surprisingly well. It's only once sexuality is no longer a question mark that you can see the nonsexual intimacy in a relationship clearly.

Listening to the Ground
Sometimes I like someone a lot but can't get access to their time. They may be a mentor or someone I have a crush on, but when I hang out with them I wind up feeling pathetic and small and questioning why they would want to spend time with me.

When this happens I start by realizing that my own insecurities are blaring a lot more than their actual opinion of me. I'm a person deserving of their respect, though not necessarily someone worth a lot of their time. In order to make a bid for their time I need to know that I have something to offer, so I do a little research and a little thinking and try to figure out what major transitions the other person is going through. When people go through transitions (new job, new city, retirement, applying to grad school, etc) they tend to have a whole host of issues and no existing support network to deal with them. If I can make myself part of that new support network then I can approach them confident that I have a good reason to be in their life, and that confidence and focus makes all the difference.

Sometimes I love people, but the things that they ask of me are more then I can offer.

When that happens I think about how my community and the other person's community can fulfill that need. I'll very directly and honestly tell them that I can't provide what they're looking for and take some step to connect them with a resource that can. These connections often pay off in the long run- my friend is more integrated into her community and we both reap the benefits of that integration.