Complexity of People
Human behavior, arguably, starts in the brain. Consider that there are billions of important, functional neurons or brain cells in the cortex of the the human brain. Some people have estimated the number to be around 8 billion. The interaction of the cells in the cortex produce our higher level behaviors.
Consider further that each of these brain cells can interact with every other brain cell and each interaction can produce a distinct behavior. How many possible behaviors can one brain produce? The possible number of interactions can be written as a factorial. A factorial is the product of a number multiplied by all of its lower numbers. For example, the factorial of 4, written 4!, is 4x3x2x1 and equals 24. Below are the factorials of 4 through 10. Notice how fast these numbers grow.
If you'd like to calculate the factorial of 8 billion, 8,000,000,000!, go right ahead. But you had better not make any short-term or long-range plans because at one calculation per second around the clock, you wouldn't arrive at your answer until after nearly 250 years. Any way we cut it, the number is big. For our purposes, it is virtually infinity.
If the complexity of behavior from one human brain scares us, a one-on-one encounter should terrify us. An interaction between two people with 8 billion neurons each can be described as 8 billion factorial squared. And with 5 billion people occupying this planet, many of us could be driven to cower in our personal dark corners, sucking our thumbs, waiting for the living nightmare to end.
It seems almost simplistic to say that human beings are complex, doesn't it?
Principles vs. Techniques
Our quests for the ways, approaches, secrets, tricks, and methods most frequently lead us to behavioral techniques. Techniques are apparently efficient and disgustingly insidious. They purport to offer us the magical answers for handling our fellow man and woman. However, techniques fall woefully short. If you get the impression I am not wild about techniques, your impression is accurate.
The people stuff discussed in this book, and especially in the next three chapters, examines the principles of behavior, not the techniques. Why do I feel it is important to make the distinction?
Let's begin with the definitions of principles and techniques. Principles are comprehensive and fundamental laws, doctrines, or assumptions. On the other hand, techniques are specific methods to accomplish a desired aim. Principles are general in nature, while techniques are specific. Because principles are general, they apply to all situations at all times everywhere. Because techniques are specific, their application is restricted by nature to a particular individual, situation, relation, or effect.
Analogies are also limited in their usefulness, but often illustrative. Here are few analogies that may help distinguish between principles and techniques when it comes to people stuff. For instance, if people stuff was a sport, the principles would outline the rules of the game and the techniques would describe individual plays. Or if people stuff was a battle, the principles would be the strategies devised by the generals and the techniques would be the tactics executed by the foot soldiers. Or in the realm of schooling, principles are to techniques as education is to training. Principles are universal; techniques are local.
The reason we'll focus on principles more than techniques is simple: they are more useful, more often, for more people. But there are two more complex reasons.
First, principles can give us an extensive list of possible reasons for why the vast majority of people are doing what they are doing and saying what they are saying. You'll see a little later that we face an impossible task in getting very specific reasons and therefore, we are better off using the general reasons to plan our interpersonal strategies.
Secondly, because principles lead us to numerous general reasons, they expand the number strategies from which we may choose. This point is vital to our interpersonal effectiveness. If we believe there is only one way to do something, we are limited in our capacity to adapt to changes in a situation. Principles always suggest more than one way to do something; not sometimes--always. They arm us with a variety of ways to analyze many situations and give us a diverse arsenal of weapons to attack whatever we meet, regardless of any changes.
Techniques are not nearly as versatile as principles. Techniques are too specific, and therefore, limited in their usefulness. In addition, we may become overly dependent upon techniques. A principle is like a well-equipped toolbox. When you open it, you will find wrenches, screwdrivers, pliers, hammers, saws, drills, wire-cutters, and fasteners of all kinds. These tools are like situation-specific techniques. They have a limited number of uses. To use them in the wrong situations, or to use one in all situations, is to run a mighty big risk.
If you have a well-equipped toolbox, you're prepared to fix the faucet, build a chair, repair the toaster, or install a light fixture. If you only have a hammer, you could break the faucet, ruin a chair, destroy the toaster, and never get a light in your closet. Abraham Maslow made this point humorously when he said, "Learning an interpersonal technique can be like learning to use a hammer; every problem looks suspiciously like a nail."
Techniques can also lead to tricks. If one of our goals as human beings is to have trust relationships with others, tricks will not build trust. Enough said.
Finally, a technique that works well for one person may not work well for another. In fact, it probably won't work at all. That's a pretty strong statement and deserves explanation.
There probably has been an occasion where you have turned to a friend and said, "I just don't know how to handle this situation."
Your helpful, well-meaning friend then began his response with "If I were you..." or "When I was in the same situation, I ..." or "The way I'd handle that is..." or some variation on this theme.
After you heard his wise, wonderful, and all-knowing suggestion, you thought or said, "Yea! But I'm not you." or "But you're not in my shoes." or "That doesn't feel right to me." or "I could never do that."
This is the nature of techniques. What will work for your friend will not work for you because first he isn't the unique person called you. Second, he has never been in exactly the same situation. Third, if the situation changes, you're stuck with a worthless approach. Finally, the best you could ever be is a cheap imitation of him.
You may get a second impression from this discussion. You may think that there is no room for techniques at all. This time your impression would be inaccurate. Techniques are the specific things we do to accomplish our desired aim. Since each of us is a unique person with a one-of-a-kind personality and a set experiences, we conscientiously and unconsciously discover our own personal techniques. With a knowledge and understanding of the principles, we can analyze the people stuff we run into and have more and better techniques from which to select.
If you thoroughly understand the principles of gravity and other laws of physics, you can devise ways or methods or techniques to work with and counteract gravity. Inclined planes, wheels and axles, levers, and pulleys are simple machines "simple techniques" used to handle gravity. With these techniques, you can plan, build, and use more complex techniques such as flights of stairs, spiral staircases, ramps, elevators, and escalators.
In summary, techniques answer the questions, "What?" and "How?". Principles answer the question, "Why?". People who know what happens are alert. People who know how things happen are educated. People who know why things happen can be wise.
In The Beginning
But most semesters, the question was asked. As it floated over the heads of the students and drifted to the front of the auditorium a knowing grin would form on T's face and a twinkle in his eye would shine brightly as he walked around the podium, and in no uncertain terms, said, "Yes." All the faces in the room shifted from an expression of sophisticated intelligence to a pallor of parochial idiocy.
A Philosophical Point of View
Allow me to digress. I need to get off the field of play for a moment, head out of the arena into the philosophical neighborhood, and run amok in the streets of religion:
(I have got to tell you that when I heard "existential", my Catholic heritage arched its back like a tomcat seeing a notorious neighborhood dog. Its hair stood on end. Its eyes widened. Its teeth and fangs were bared. Its enraged growl slipped out and around its whiskers. The lessons from my Baltimore catechism, which for the most I had forgotten, whispered its commands to this reluctant defender of the faith. My little guardian angel patted me on the back and offered encouragement in the prelude to a battle with one of the regiments from the forces of evil, existentialism.
"We are born alone."? Well Timmons may have been born alone, but I knew that it was by the grace of God that I was born. And Timmons obviously didn't think God was a daily companion, but I was confident that my God would hang out with me while I lived. As for dying alone, at twenty-eight years of age, who thinks he'll ever die? On T's last point, I had to grudgingly agree that all of us know we will die.
Somehow I calmed my cat, reshelved my catechism, and set my angel to flight. I listened beyond the words Timmons had uttered. I tried to hear what he was really saying.
He didn't seem to be saying that religion was wrong or evil or inappropriate for dealing with life and death. He said existentialism was "a way" of looking at the human condition. He didn't say it was right and that religion was so much superstition. He obviously knew mentioning existentialism was going to adversely effect the hearing of religious people. But he wasn't challenging the beliefs and doctrines of Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Catholics, Hindus, Buddhists, Moslems, Shintoists, and Jews. He simply proposed that after we cut through the distinctions religions use to separate themselves, we'd find some similarities. After we distinguished the difference between what could be known and what would be best left to faith, we might agree that all men and women are constantly searching for their purpose in life and death in amazingly diverse ways. After we willingly suspended our beliefs and disbeliefs, we could appreciate our bond with our fellow man.
I will ask you to invoke and summon forth this same suspension of belief and disbelief. Try to accept the fact that death is a pretty scary event and life is a struggle that we would prefer not to face alone. Here is my "this I believe": Our faiths, our rituals, our beliefs, our doctrines, and our dogmas help us deal with and explain life and death. But these religious "things" at the same time exhort us to divide ourselves, to build walls, to identify and live by the differences between us. Like Timmons, if you were to ask me if religion was helpful or hurtful, my answer would be a resounding yes.)
Now back to the arena in which I had intended to play.
This sense of aloneness and powerlessness in the face of life and death produces a certain amount of dread in us. Angst is the "cool" German word many people use to explain this condition of dread and it sums it up pretty well. This angst is the big time anxiety; the overwhelming sense of and painful uneasiness over an impending ill.
Since we're fairly similar in many respects, let me tell you about where I live. See if you live in a similar place. My highest goal is to minimize my brand of angst as best I can. My primordial motivation pushes me to relieve the sense of dread. My exalted mission involves calming my uneasiness and suppressing my fear of the great unknowns. Controlling this stuff is what I am up to in most everything I do.
And so here I live in my fragile sack of skin, swimming around in my
anxiety. I crawl up to my peepholes, peek out of my sack of skin, and look
upon the landscape of my little planet and what do I see? I see five billion
other human beings staring out of their sacks of skin. One to five billion.
Tough odds. Scary odds. This is how we are alike.
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