Means And Ends

Today, and for the past few months, I have been thinking a great deal about moral philosophy. I’ve observed my own convictions becoming unsteady, so I wanted to spend time considering — and articulating — what I fundamentally believe. What is the basis of right action? How do I define right action in my own case? How ought I comport myself?

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

These thoughts bring me back to my old friend, the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). His thinking revolutionized our approach to reason and morality. Kant’s thinking outlined a deontological ethics — meaning an ethics based on duty. An act is right not due to their particular consequences, but due to the motives of the actor.

The Categorical Imperative

Kant articulated what he termed a categorical imperative — that is, an overarching duty from which all other moral duties flow. In his 1785 Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, he formulates it in various ways. The first two are of most interest to me:

  1. Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.
  2. Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.

If there is a standard of behavior that I try to aspire to, it is encompassed in the second formulation above: Act as if people are ends in themselves, not simply means.

In the modern world, this often shows up as treating others — especially strangers — with dignity. Look the homeless person in the eye and greet them. Thank the server at the food truck. Make eye contact with other drivers and apologize when you cut them off.

When you consider what it really means to treat others as ends in themselves, it can become daunting. It means giving those around us the freedom to make decisions. It involves trusting others even when risky.

I see the categorical imperative as something to strive for, something ideal to try to order my life around. I know I frequently fall short. But I try.

Starting With What's Important

Landing in Dayton, the pilot told us “temperature is 45°, winds from the southwest at 4 mph, and visibility is excellent.”

This struck me as odd. Usually when landing, pilots tell us the weather beginning with wind. Which rarely seems to me to be very helpful. I’d be willing to bet that most passengers want to know what the temperature is, and whether it is raining. They’re not interested in visibility, except insofar as it lets them know whether it’s raining. Nor are they particular interested in windspeed, except insofar as it impacts their comfort. Yet that is what pilots begin with in their recap of the weather.


Because, I believe, that this is what matters to people who fly for a living. They want to know about the winds, and about how far they can see. Temperature and rain? Less important.

It’s a lesson I often think about when I have to explain something to another person, or deliver a message. Often, the way I want to package the message is not the way I should package it in order for it to be best heard.

This is an important discipline. It is hard to get it right, and I’m always trying to improve. Often, when looking back at earlier communication attempts, it can be disconcerting how far off the mark I was!

Photo Credit: Flickr user markonen

The Learning Attitude Curve

I’ve been thinking lately about how our attitudes shift over time, especially when faced with new learning or practices.

Many people are familiar with the “attitude curve,” which describes people’s response to change. It’s a U shape — people have to go through a low point before they accept change. This is a familiar idea in leadership studies (see, for instance, The Art of Leadership for an example).

I have been thinking about attitude curves in a slightly different context, however. Specifically, learning new practices. This can be a new job (learning new functions and norms), a new skill (learning how to do something), or even a new place (learning a new community).

The “Learning Attitude Curve” looks a little different, in my experience:

Here’s how it breaks down:

  • At A, you’re in your normal state
  • At B, you’ve been thinking about making this change, and have just begun. You are elated.
  • At C, you’ve been learning your new skill for a little bit, and the bloom is off the rose slightly. The elation has passed.
  • At D, you’re in the doldrums. This isn’t what you wanted, you don’t like how it’s going, you question whether you even want to continue. People bail out here. But then . . .
  • At E, you’ve turned a corner. Turns out D was a bottom of sorts — here, you begin to acquire your new skill or knowledge with increasing ease. Your attitude improves and you begin to see that, even if you have a ways to go before you are an expert, you might be able to make it.
  • At F, you feel as if you are well on your way. You know the worst is behind you, and you are glad you pushed through. But then . . .
  • At G, it turns out that there are still ups and downs to be had. You continue to encounter mini-troughs. People often bail out at this point, because they worry it’s going to get as bad as it was in D. But it won’t. You’ve passed your low point. This is just a natural “down,” not a true inflection point. If you can stick through, it gets better. (Note that there are a number of “G” points, a number of ups and downs as you go forward.)
  • At H, your new skill or culture or whatever is fully integrated. It’s a part if you, and you’re basically back to your attitude back before you got on the curve.

The length of the curve is different for different people and for different circumstances. As is the depth of the low spots. Taking guitar lessons, for instance, brings less intense low spots, and they come a bit quicker than major life-change pursuits.

When I first learned about the “attitude curve,” I thought it was an incredibly negative way of looking at things. But I have come to see that it is actually quite hopeful — at least it has given me hope, on many occasions.

It also helps me in dealing with others. With a new job, for example, it is helpful to know that “D” often comes about 6 months in. If I am interacting with someone who is new on their job, I can understand more about how and why they are behaving.

In recent months, I’ve been going through a learning process and have been riding this curve. Recently, I woke up and realized I had passed through “D” and was on my upswing. I know there will be ups and downs to come, but there’s a spring in my step and a song in my heart.

Knowing that there is a curve is useful, because it reminds me that whatever I am feeling about where I am at . . . it is temporary. It will change. That gives me the motivation to push through low spots and not bail out.

Engaged, Not Engaged?

College Fair

The other evening, my wife and I accompanied our daughter to a college fair. She’s a junior, and this is an important part of the college selection process. Over one hundred colleges all came to display their wares, with many hundreds of high school students on hand to try to make their connections and winnow down their choice (or make themselves stand out in the minds of the admissions officers of their chosen schools).

It was a packed affair. My wife and I decided that our best course would be to let our daughter use the time on her own, and not try to guide, prod, or speak for her in any way. So, we each cruised the event on our own, developed our own impressions, and then the two of us reconnoitered in the bleachers to wait while our daughter finished her work. Her part took longer, because she had to interact with a number of people. We told her to take her time. We were fine.

And, in fact, we were. Many parents were sitting around us, occupied with their own activities. As were we. Both of us found the even fascinating in its own way. My wife, Andrea Jarrell, is a consultant to colleges and universities, and found it interesting to see how her work (viewbooks and branding for places such as Lafayette University, Swarthmore, and Columbia) was used and to be on the “consumer” side of the desk. As for me, I am fascinated by crowds and like to people watch, discerning patterns in their behavior.

Naturally interested in sharing our experiences, we each pulled out our smartphones and went to Facebook. Andrea had posted a photo along with a comment about how interesting she found the experience. I weighed in. Other mutual friends were commenting, and we were each enjoying refreshing our screens, updating our statuses, joking with one another, and sharing our observations.

It was an interesting feeling of being at the same time engaged with an event in real life, and sharing it on social media . . . all at the same time that we were sharing the experience of being there together. We were engrossed, living in three or four worlds simultaneously.

Then, our reveries and interactions were interrupted. The admissions officer from a school whose table happened to be right near us had been watching our behavior, and he’d sauntered over. “I have never seen a couple more . . . ”

. . . As he began his sentence, I filled in the blank for him mentally. “Engaged.” “Proud.” “Interested.” What was he about to say?

“. . . disinterested than you two,” he finished.

I was taken aback. We were, in fact, the opposite of that. If you could be “in flow” sitting on the bleachers at a college fair, we were there. Yet, I could see how it might appear that we were bored out of our skulls. I thought of it from his perspective. There we were, sitting together, staring into our phones, tapping away. We would look around blankly for a while, then back into our phones and tap away. Once in a while we might say something to one another, but we did this sporadically and briefly. Mostly, from his perspective, we were just sitting there.

We disabused our new friend of his misperception, and explained how interested we, in fact, were. We spoke for a while. Turns out the admissions officer has two children, one a senior in high school, and he has been interested in his own experience of the admissions process from the other side of the desk. We shared about this for a while, and then he went back to work.

As he walked away, I thought about our exchange, and how appearances can be quite deceiving, especially when you mix them with stereotypes. Because we looked like the prototypical bored and disinterested  parents, our new friend assumed that was what we were.

I’ll have to remember that, next time I assume someone is not paying attention because they are staring into their smartphone. Maybe, in fact, they are more engaged than ever.


A Talk On Framing Issues For Public Deliberation

2011-30-03 issue framing.MP3 Listen on Posterous

I had the good fortune of being asked to share some thoughts at the Kettering Foundation’s annual Multinational Workshop week. In this session, people working in dialogue and participation came together from Jamaica, Brazil, Romania, Ghana, Ireland, Colombia, Hungary, Russia, and many more. I had the presence of mind to record my brief remarks. (Just 16 minutes.)


Posted via Posterous.

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.

A Call For Rhetorical Nonviolence: It Starts With Me, Not My Enemy

Photo by Flickr user "S†e"

The tragic events in Arizona may well be a turning point. Many are calling for changes in policies, and many of these changes may well make sense. Many are also calling for a scaling back of the vitriolic political rhetoric that has marked public life these days. There is much blame being directed at political leaders on the right who use a nostalgic, hyper-patriotic, libertarian kind of language that includes repeated references to the Founders, and to Revolution, and veiled (and not-so-veiled) insinuations that it’s time for violence.

Now, like many, I don’t like that kind of rhetoric. I find it damaging. And it may be the case that it contributes to the kind of climate where the shooting in Tucson could take place (though I believe there is no valid way to test that hypothesis, as instinctively true as it may feel).

But many of the responses I have heard to the Arizona rampage seem equally intemperate. The call from many on the left is for a crackdown on these leaders, for them to be held accountable.

I don’t think the best way to reduce the vitriol in public life is to get mad.

The best way to reduce the level of vitriol is for individuals (me, you, friends, family, colleagues) to stop tolerating it from our peers.

For me to tell an enemy, “Quit that inflammatory talk,” will fall on deaf ears. The divide between us will only be further hardened. No, instead, what I ought to do is demand better behavior from the people who agree with me. We listen to like-minded people, and set our norms that way. When I am in a meeting and someone starts getting mad, and it gets over the top, I need to rush to the defense of moderation.

Indeed, I need to quit thinking there are enemies in public life. Because an enemy is someone I want to kill. There are opponents, detractors, people I disagree with, and others who are misguided. But there are no “enemies.”

We can’t demand better behavior from the other side. It won’t work. We can practice rhetorical nonviolence, right here and right now, with those in our immediate circle.

My favorite example of nonviolence in the day-to-day was provided by none other than Arun Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, in a seminar I had the good fortune to attend some time ago. I wrote a piece spurred by that experience here, but here is the salient portion for our purposes:

“Turn to your neighbor,” Arun Ghandi told us, “and make a fist. Pretend you are holding the world’s most valuable diamond.” I was at a global conference at Kennesaw State University, where Mahatma Ghandi’s grandson was giving the keynote. Mr. Gandhi is a potent speaker in his own right. “Now, neighbor: Try to get the diamond.” There ensued amusing antics as a roomful of people struggled in what looked like a cross-cultural arm-wrestling contest. My own neighbor good-naturedly stabbed my hand with a butter knife, to hoots of laughter at our table. I gave up the diamond.

After a decent interval, Mr. Ghandi raised his hand and waited. We stopped struggling and looked to the podium. “Tell me honestly. How many of you asked your neighbor if they would please give you the diamond?” Silence. He nodded slowly, as if he rarely got much response to that question. “See how violence seeps into everything we do? I did not ask you to attack your neighbor, only to get their diamond.”