On Hyperpolarization

Don’t argue with me by Flickr user ClaraDon

I was recently asked to respond to the question, “What trends have you been seeing in democracy?” I thought I might share my response more broadly.

One of the core experiences when it comes to democracy in the U.S. context is the effect of hyperpolarization. This is a pathology that goes beyond simple ”partisanship” (which in itself is not necessarily a bad thing). Hyperpolarization refers to the inability or refusal to consider other ”tribe’s” views as valid and to (at the same time) actively seek out tribal markers.

This plays out in the most obvious way in presidential-year politics. To a liberal, anything Romney says ought to be parsed so it can be seen as showing how anti-worker he is. Similarly, a conservative (under this model) will seek out reasons to find Obama to be a government-first softie.

But it matters beyond presidential electoral politics. In a hyperpolarized world, citizens on an individual level are constantly looking for cues to see what tribe people belong to. And, once the tribe is identified, we scour the person’s words and deeds for reasons to hate or love them. I have seen this play out on a local level, as people examine one another’s speech to determine if they are for or against a certain housing development (for example). Once the judgment is made, everything that person says is either agreed with and defended, or subject to ridicule and derision . . . entirely due to which ”tribe” or ”team” we believe them to be on.

This hyperpolarization stands in the way of productive choice-making in communities and is one of the key pathologies we currently face. (Not the only.)

Why Am I In Yoga Teacher Training?

As last year ended, I announced that I had decided to take a yoga teacher training course. The first weekend (of eight) is done. I am both exhilarated and tired. I am excited to be taking these first steps along a new path, and to deepen my connection (and understanding) of the practice.

The teacher training is being presented by Down Dog Yoga — my home yoga studio. Down Dog has taught over 150 teachers. One of the strengths of the studio (which is consistently voted best of DC) is that all the teachers are of uniformly high caliber. As one fellow student put it, “there is no teacher I am hiding from.”

On the first day, we were invited to respond to a simple question: “Why are you here?” I had, of course, already answered this question for myself in a rudimentary way — else why spend the money and time to attend? Neither investment is trivial.

My rudimentary answer had been something or other about wanting to “deepen my practice.” That was enough to get me through the door.

On the wall upstairs at lululemon Georgetown, where our teacher training is held.

However, when it came my turn to answer, I found myself thinking much more intently about my reasons for being there, and the role yoga — this yoga — has come to play in my life. The style of yoga I practice is called “power yoga” and it is rooted in the teaching and practice of Baron Baptiste. It is quite strenuous and at Down Dog it is practiced in rooms heated to 99 degrees. It literally transforms me as I practice. I enter in one state, and exit in another. I enter as a head attached to a body — by the end of practice I can feel my body and mind integrated. The practice has taken me out of my head, and landed me right in my body.

This sounds a little kooky, but it is my experience.

There are many styles of yoga, and they all hold a different intention. Some styles promote flexibility, some relaxation, some strength, and some love. Most styles deliver all of these and more in varying amounts, but they all have a primary purpose. The primary purpose of power yoga is personal transformation.

Why Are You Here?

I said on Friday evening that “yoga went off like a bomb in my life.” As many of my friends know, about two years ago I had an epiphany around my physical body. I have had a handful of experiences throughout my life where I have been driven to make major changes in my outlook. Two years ago such a reorienting experience hit my physical body. Put simply, I realized that I was no longer 20 (even though I felt that way in my head). My physical body was the vessel that was carrying me through life. It was time to focus attention on its maintenance.

I have always been a person who enjoys exercise, but that was really the extent of my relationship to wellness. I would have said I was “a fit person,” perhaps even athletic. I had run marathons, and did some regular cardio work at the gym. My friends saw me as fit.

But my epiphany was that this dilettante approach to wellness was wholly inadequate. I was fooling myself. Because I had been blessed with a decent body, I had not had to face the shortcomings of the little attention I paid to my physical being. But vanity drove me to confront that which I had denied: I had gained enough pounds that I did not like the result. This was not about how I “looked” (although that did figure into it) — it was that when I looked at myself, I could not apply the label “athletic” to what I saw. I saw that my intention (fitness) and reality were far apart.

So, height of cliches, I tried a new exercise routine that a friend had told me about. Yes, I bought the P90X DVDs that you’ve seen on infomercials. And I did it, the whole thing. I had good results which I detailed on this site.

Looking back, there are three things I take away from that experience, which are now relevant to me: 1) I did not make any nutritional changes, so while I gained strength, my weight-loss results were minimal; 2) I learned that I enjoy strength training; 3) I discovered yoga.

Part of the P90X program is a once-per-week yoga session. The P90X yoga routine is hard. As I continued in the  exercise program, and after it ended, I stuck with the yoga and began to do it more. It is hard to maintain solo exercise for me, so I looked for yoga studios. I tried a number of them, and nothing really gave me the same feeling . . . until I discovered Down Dog.

At Down Dog, I discovered the experience that the DVD I had been working with only hinted at.

I began to experience personal transformation.

Since that time, my yoga practice has grown, as have a number of other wellness-related areas of my life. I learned about nutrition and shed a great deal of unhealthy body fat. My entire relationship to my physical being has changed:

  • I eat a strictly “paleo” diet (the evidence against the modern American diet, based on mass agricultural products, is compelling to me);
  • I do heavy resistance-based strength training 2-3 times a week;
  • I have abandoned long-distance cardio/endurance activities, as the evidence is strong that they are  counterproductive to health and fitness; and
  • I practice power yoga at least four times per week.

Of these elements, the two I cannot give up are the nutritional approach and the yoga. Other elements come and go, but the nutrition and the yoga are what are at the core of this transformation I am undergoing. I have never felt (or been) better than I am now — on a number of measures including feeling of well-being, capacity for exercise, and medical biomarkers such as cholesterol and insulin levels.

Why Teach?

My transformation is this: I brought consciousness to my relationship with my physical being. The fruits of this transformation have been life-changing.

Some may view my emphasis on physicality to be shallow. First of all, I engage in a number of other practices (I don’t drink, I meditate regularly, I connect spiritually with others on a regular basis) that are “deeper.” But secondly, this criticism misses the point. I have come to focus on my physical body not because I want to look cool — it is because I was forced to realize that my lack of relationship with my body was a gaping hole in my life.

Power yoga, as I have found it at Down Dog Yoga, has brought me into relationship with my body. I respect my body, and plan on taking care of it as I would an heirloom passed on to me by a loved one. It is this relationship I want to learn to pass on to others. We all live in bodies, and we can all be in better relationship to them. I have first-hand knowledge of the benefits of developing such a relationship.

I have so far to go in my understanding and practice. I know only a little — I am painfully aware of that. But if I can pass on the joy I have come to discover, then I feel I will be doing something beneficial.

And so, I embark on this journey. I don’t know where it will take me. But it seems clearly the next right step — so I take it.

Regrets Upon Death

Bronnie Ware is a singer and writer from Australia. For a number of years, she worked in palliative care (that is, attending to the dying). Out of that experience, she has written a book called The Top Five Regrets Of The Dying (affiliate link).

Photo by andronicusmax (Flickr)

As the year closes, and as we sweep away the past and look to the blank slate of the future, many of us are making “resolutions” or at the least setting their intentions. Bonnie’s list provides some insight as to what enduring goals might look like.

The top five regrets of the dying:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

I’m thinking about these ideas as I formulate my own set of intentions for 2012.

An Entrepreneur

A family member sent me this note recently:

I’ve seen a man on the street the last few days that has intrigued me. I finally talked to him a bit this morning outside my office building. Since I’m in the middle of . . . yet another downsizing, I’ve been thinking a lot about the jobless, wondering how they will make it.

The man on the street has created a little business for himself that I think is quite creative. [O]ur office is a few doors down from Roseland. Beyonce is the attraction this week with four concerts. There are lines around the block. I’m not sure if these are the actual ticket holders or if they are waiting to buy tickets, but either way, they are out there for hours. Some come with all manner of items to comfort themselves in the long wait; others have nothing.

My street man comes along on his bike with about eight canvas folding chairs at a time. All look new and are in their own neat little bags. He sells lots of them to those people waiting in line. Quite creative, I thought. (I wonder if he has a deal with Roseland to hit their trash everyday where many must be discarded?) He is very well-spoken and otherwise looks like a young executive getting in some time on his bike.

Made me feel better to see this.

It makes me feel better, too.

What Happens At A Focus Group

My friends and colleagues who follow me on Facebook or Twitter might have noticed lately that I have been traveling all over the country, moderating focus groups. Just in the last couple of weeks, I’ve been to Chicago, New York, Billings MT, Detroit, and more. Before I ever started working with focus groups, I sort of knew what they were, but they were also a bit of a mystery. I thought it might be interesting for those who have never been a part of a focus group to know how they work.

I am by no means a focus group “expert.” Many people know a great deal more than I do and are more skilled at moderating groups. I learned everything I know from two mentors and friends who are acknowledged experts in this field: John Doble, and Rich Harwood. I have been privileged to work with each of them, and have learned so much.

In this article, I am talking about “official” focus groups — a group of about ten people, recruited according to specific criteria, convened in a setting (usually a focus group facility) where they can be recorded, video taped, and observed. In my experience, lots of organizations convene groups of people to talk about something, and they often call them “focus groups.” I will not quibble with the label, but in this article I am referring to the more formal version. At the right is a photo of a typical focus group facility, taken from the observation room. You are looking through the one way glass into the room where people gather. The moderator (me) sits in the seat closest to the mirror, the one with the black back.

What do you learn from a focus group?

You can learn a great deal about why people think the way they do from focus groups. You can not only learn their opinion, but you can press on various aspects of it to see how they react to trade offs or drawbacks. You can see how their views shift as they interact with other ideas, or think more deeply about initial thoughts. Focus groups are excellent for looking deeper into the why’s of public opinion.

Focus groups are not necessarily good for drawing conclusions about the broader population, however. One group is just ten people, and even if you convene a few, that is still not enough for a representative random sample. So, when reporting on what takes place in a focus group it is important to qualify your statements. You can really only talk about what you heard from the people in the groups.

Often, focus groups are used in conjunction with polls. A focus group can help researchers understand the arguments people use when they think about public issues, and then you can test those arguments in a poll to see how broadly those sentiments are shared. For instance, the other day in a focus group I was leading the conversation turned to parents who take their kids out of the local public schools and instead send them to private schools or to neighboring districts. One participant in the group was very angry at this phenomenon, and felt people were giving up on their communities. This became a bone of contention for a significant part of the session. But there is no way, just from e focus group, how many people in general feel this anger. Is it widespread, or is it more isolated? The only way to know that for sure is to test it in a poll.

How It Works

The focus group facility provides three main things: recruiting, a room, and recording.

Recruiting is perhaps the hardest part when you think about bringing people together. It is an important part of why organizations turn to focus group facilities. They have database of people who have agreed to participate in focus groups, and can also call random households to see if people are interested. You typically have the facility go through a “screener” with potential participants, asking demographic questions and any other things you want to make sure about. For instance, in a recent study we wanted to talk to rural people, and so I asked the facility to include people who live 25 miles or more from a major city. You can put together a group of parents of school age children, video gamers, or avid readers. You do this using the screener.

The room is important, too, but not as critical as you might think. you can hold a focus group conversation anywhere, but if you do it in a facility, it is set up for recording and observation. That is the main thing you get out of going to a facility. The focus group room has a one way mirror at one end, behind which observers can sit. There is usually a video camera in the ceiling, and microphones so there is good audio. I always open the session by making sure everyone knows they are being recorded and observed. They usually already know this, but it is important to be on the up and up. Typically, within five minutes people have forgotten about it.

When it comes to recording, I usually ask for a DVD video of the session and an audio file that I send off to be transcribed. I also take good notes as we go. The notes and the transcription are the most important, but sometimes I will be curious about what someone looked like when they were saying something so I will look at video. Most focus group facilities also have something called Focus Vision, which is a web based video system that allows people from all over to watch the focus group from their computers.

Moderator Tips

Here are some tips and tricks I have learned over the years from moderating and observing lots of focus groups:

Over-recruit. If you want nine or ten people in a focus group (which is a good amount), it is best to recruit more people than you need. I typically ask the facility to recruit twelve people, and usually at least eight show. If everyone shows, I send some home. That is not a problem, as everyone gets paid. Focus group participants are typically paid between $85 and $125, depending the market. (They also get dinner, usually a sandwich.) When deciding who to send home, I usually look for outliers. For example, in a recent group I wanted mostly people with some college or high school degrees. Two people were recruited who had graduate degrees. If they had both showed, I would have kept both, but just one showed. So I sent the other home because having just the one graduate degree person seemed to me a recipe to have someone dominate the conversation with their erudition, or for them to be cowed by being in an unfamiliar group. (I could very well have been wrong about what would really happen, but this was my thinking about what was likely or possible.) the focus group facility handles the pay-and-send part, so the moderator does not have to be the one to do that.

Where people sit sometimes matters. It is a funny thing, but people who sit at the far corners of the table are often quite forceful and sometimes obstreperous. People who sit in the near corners, right next to me, often seem interested in approval and tend to get curious about what I am writing and try to look at my papers. (For this reason, I always write my moderator guide by hand, so it is hard for others to read — I have very poor handwriting.)

It is important to keep a “sympathetic poker face.” by this I mean it is critical not to divulge my own feelings about what we are talking about — but at the same time you can’t be totally blank, as this tends to shut people down. People don’t like to talk to a robot. My main job in the conversation is to make sure people feel safe voicing their opinions and judgments, even if those are views that are in the minority. It is terribly hard to speak up in a group setting if you know (or fear) that everyone disagrees with you. My job is to make people feel like they are with someone who understands. That means that I often will hear and encourage someone to discuss something with which I disagree strongly.

Actively leading the conversation is important. There is always a moderator’s guide, which is usually a list of questions that we need to go through along with some possible probes as follow ups. But it’s not enough to stop there. People will often say one thing in one part of a conversation, and then later say something that is contradictory. If I am doing my job, I will point out such things and see if people can square those contradictions, or whether the issue is just a tension that people have to live with. For instance, if someone says, “we need better roads,” and later someone says “we spend too much on infrastructure we don’t need,” I will call people’s attention to that. I will say “Earlier we talked about the need for better roads, but now we are talking about spending less on infrastructure. Who can help me square these two ideas?”

Process notes right away. If I don’t write up my notes into a little one or two page memo-to-self within 24 hours, the work is lost. I always include quotes in those memos. No matter how good my notes are, I just can’t write down every passing thought. Those ideas are often important, and they dissipate after a day or so. Even if I am not going to share it with anyone, I always write up the notes from each focus group. This also makes it easier to write the overall report when all the groups are done — your main source is your memos, and you scan through the transcripts to make sure you didn’t miss anything. Trying to write a report from scratch, just using transcripts, is a nightmare.

Stay Where I Can See You

I am writing this at the airport, between flights. There is a family nearby, with a toddler. He likes to wander around, clearly. The mother calls to him, “Stay where I can see you!”

It’s a parent’s nightmare: Losing your child because they wander off while playing.

I remember when I had my own epiphany about this. My children were playing on a large lawn that sloped away from where the adults were socializing. There were a number of kids, actually. We adults told the kids, “Stay where we can see you.” that’s when I realized: They have no way of knowing whether I can see them or not.

So I walked out to where the kids were playing, looking back to the adults. when the slope of the lawn made them invisible, I walked back toward them until they were in view again. Then I balled up a couple of sweatshirts and dropped them on the grass. “Don’t go past this line,” I told the kids.

That lesson has stuck with me in the professional world. In communications, we always talk about trying to adopt the perspective of whom we are trying to reach. But it is so, so hard. Something as simple as “stay where I can see you” is in fact put in exactly the opposite way.

Later, I figured out a less labor-intensive way of keeping the kids corralled. I would just say: “Make sure you can see me.” Just invert the statement and it makes sense (and makes my point a bit more neatly too).

In the day to day world, how many people are we communicating backwards to?