Empathetic Ladders and What People Can Understand — Matching Knowledge Structures for Messaging (Part III)

Braden Montreal

Lovely French food at L’Express in Montreal, Canada,  with Braden

Unless you’ve been thinking about this stuff forever, you might be at the point with this blog where you’re Pee Wee Herman in “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” — where he’s busy explaining to everyone all the evidence around his bike getting stolen.  Pee Wee has a captive audience of all of his friends, and after going through some 240 different exhibits (where everyone is fast asleep) he stands up and says — “What does this all mean?  I DON’T KNOW!”

But it does mean something.  What I laid out in the previous post is how you have to explain things to people who inhabit given social/relational structures.  If you’re talking in a Survival situation, the answers better be immediately relevant, and only pertain to matters at hand.  If you’re in a burning building, you’re probably not interested in the potential hazards you might be experiencing because of building codes written 20 years ago.  You just want to get out!

Since most business environments fall along the Spiral from Authoritarian to Communitarian (sorry, but there are precious few self-aware business environments out there — I’m hoping you’re reading this so you can create these!), it helps to understand and master the language for the four dominant v-Memes.

Now here’s the kicker — you have to remember that when you address an audience, even if you want to change them, you have to address them where they’re at.  If you have some idea that you’re going to persuade them with a knowledge structure other than the one they own, well, good luck.

If you’re talking to a bunch of Authoritarians, then it helps to be an Authority yourself, and speak mostly in terms of knowledge fragments.  Authoritarians tend to have a terribly developed temporal sense, to the point of a total lack of consequentiality in their thinking.  Why should they think about any future other than their own?  They’re in charge!

How do knowledge fragments represent themselves at that level?  One of the great examples to consider is how different people might recommend dealing with the homeless problem in the U.S.  An Authoritarian would be receptive to hearing “Just buy them a bus ticket to the next town!”  It’s short, sweet, and completely devoid of temporal context.  The Authoritarian assumes, or rather, believes that no change is possible inside the power structure.  And homeless people, being on the bottom, will always be on the bottom.

Once we have this understanding of solution (out of sight, out of mind!) then we can see that there’s little empathetic progress to be made on the issue in a vacuum.    You’re going to hear lots of stuff like ‘they should pull themselves up by their bootstraps!’  It sounds like something they need to do, but who even knows what bootstraps are nowadays?

Legalistic/Absolutistic v-Memes will need to be communicated to with algorithms and processes that historically have generated higher status individuals.  “Education is the answer” might appeal to the standard legalist, along with some version of absolutistic nostrum.  “How can they make progress if they don’t have their G.E.D.?”  We see the emergence of certification of process that starts dominating thinking.

As a professor, of course, I value education, and view it as necessary scaffolding for lots of different types of situations.  But it’s not always the answer.  The hopeful part of the legalistic v-Meme is that in algorithms, we now start to see a developed sense of consequence.  If we dump people into a given algorithm, when they pop out the other side, they will be changed.  The Hands of Time at least have started to move.

At the same time, however, most legalistic/absolutistic v-Meme members are not going to recognize individuals as individuals.  There can be, in evolved legalistic thinking, different sub-classes of populations  (‘rural poor whites have different problems than urban poor blacks’).  And that should be expected — remember that legalistic v-Memes would be dominated still by externally defined relationships.  No one yet gets to achieve individual status, so we’re not yet interested in any person on a case-by-case basis.

Moving up the Spiral to Performance/Goal-based v-Memes, different thinking starts to emerge.  Remember, this is where we start to see heuristic thinking emerge.  How might that look for our example?  “Well, Homeless Bill here used to be a plumber.  Then he took to drink, and fell off the wagon.  We think that the first thing he needs to do is join AA, and get him in a recovery program where he can remember how to braze a pipe joint.  Then he could apprentice with the local union and get a job.”  The steps along the way might follow a general path (another simpler way of saying heuristic!)  of personal health, professional re-training, and financial stability.  But the exact prescription would depend on the individual.

Finally, a quick look at the combined heuristics of a Communitarian v-Meme would add recruitment of larger partners into Homeless Bill’s problem.  “It takes a village to get a homeless person off the street,” some might say.  And then we see the emergence of public-private partnerships, each with a slightly different approach, adaptable to individuals, for solving both the individual and group problem of homelessness.  One can also see the development of a much more complex web of relationships between actors in the solution of the problem.  Government is going to play a role, as well as potential landlords, job training, churches to take away the demon rum, food stamp providers, and a host of other angles.

Different approaches will likely take different amounts of time, and that requires a much greater developed temporal sense than the Authoritarian’s solution of frog-marching any homeless person to the bus station and buying them a ticket to leave town.

One can now see how empathetic development is co-evolutionary with both diverse and complex solutions.  Authoritarians are going to have one quick solution (the bus ride).  Legalists are going to set up a single government program in charge of the homeless.  Performance/Goal-based thinkers are going to support links in a chain.  And Communitarians will start weaving the local web.

That means that you, as a leader and communicator, have to figure out who’s who in the Spiral world.  Because it makes no sense to talk about local webs of relationships to the Authoritarian to deal with the homeless.  The next thing you know, you’ll have a bus ticket out of town in your hand.

Takeaways:  Knowledge structures tell us how we must structure messages to convince audiences.  It’s not enough to be on topic, or on message.  That message has to match the modes of thinking of the people we’re trying to reach — or else it’s just gibberish to the people listening to you.  Not very empathetic.

Future reading/watching:  There’s no better example of wildly funny egocentric projection that Jerzy Kosinski’s novel/movie Being There.  The movie, starring Peter Sellers, is a classic.

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