Marginalia: “No One Understands You And What To Do About It”

Marginalia is a regular series on Toward Vandalia in which I review the books I’m reading and unpack their most valuable lessons.

Today I’m looking at No One Understands You And What To Do About It by Heidi Grant Halvorson.


Heidi Grant Halvorson is the Associate Director of the Motivation Science Center at the Columbia Business School. She first slipped onto my radar in a recap of the 2015 99U Conference, where she was presenting the findings from this book. Her other articles on 99U – where she writes about leadership and communication – are a good sample of both her writing style and unique insight.

With No One Understands You And What To Do About It, Halvorson manages to turn the same trick that David McRaney executed exceptionally with You Are Not So Smart – she makes issues of psychology not only approachable and digestable but also funny.

Here she is talking about the fact that mature-faced people are statistically more likely to be found guilty (92%) than baby-faced people (45%) in incidents that appear to be intentional:

… If someone with a delightfully babyish face, like Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio, or a young Mark Hamill, ran over your begonias, you’d be likely to think he or she was just distracted by a frolicking puppy or a happy song on the radio. But when Clint Eastwood runs over your begonias, you’re pretty sure he’s doing it on purpose.

The book is divided into four sections that first get to the root of all this misunderstanding between people then delve into the lenses that affect how we see the world and how personality alters those lenses. The last section brings it all together and offers a workable strategy for being better understood as well as better understanding others.

In Part One, Halvorson reminds us that we are essentially unknowable (since nobody can plug directly into our brains) – a problem for those of us who believe we can be analyzed objectively and that others see us the way we see ourselves (or want to be seen). Not only can nobody see us this way (by rule!) but no two people are likely to see us in the same (if objectively incorrect) way.

Making matters worse is the fact that the people you would like to get to know you probably aren’t bothering – their attention is limited and so they use shortcuts to assign attributes to you.

This is complicated by cognitive dissonance and the primacy effect, which cause people to put you in the box they expect you to fit into and to assume that you will never change from their first impression of you, respectively.

Oh, and everybody thinks they’re better than you.

Generally speaking, other people will assume you share their opinions and attitudes, but not their abilities and moral character. With respect to the latter, they believe they are more talented and less corruptible than you are. Try not to take it personally.

However, perception can be “hacked” if you understand how it works. The process is carried out in two phases.

Phase 1 mostly occurs automatically, which could be good or bad depending on the moment.

A person’s “typical” behavior will change as a function of where he or she is, whom the person is with, and what he or she is trying to do.

Unfortunately, most people will stop mentally bothering with you at Phase 1 meaning that if you didn’t make a good first impression, you now have your work cut out for you.

This is overcome by getting people to shift into Phase 2 perception. In this phase they will take more time to analyze your behavior in context and attempt to construct a more accurate perception of you and your being. Granted, this takes more time and energy so most people won’t bother – and if you stuffed up in Phase 1, they’ll be less inclined to see the investment of added mental energy as being worth it.

You’ve experienced this yourself if you ever met somebody when they were having a bad day and wrote them off as being a grumpy / stern / serious / unpleasant person. Maybe you didn’t bother with them for a while after that until an unavoidable situation (perhaps a long car ride where there was no escape!) forced you to consider them again. Whether or not they really were a grumpy person, your perception was most likely refined for accuracy as a result of the extra consideration on your part.

Part Two gets into the three lenses that shape the way we all make the above perceptions.

The Trust Lens

This one is rather straightforward: people will assess whether or not they can trust you. They do this by looking for the answer to two questions about you:

  1. Are you a friend or an enemy?
  2. Are you capable of acting on your good or bad intentions?

Halvorson points out that both are important to consider:

The second question is just as important as the first, because if the answer to the second one is no, then you are more or less harmless no matter what your intentions are.

The answers to these questions are sussed out from the warmth and competence we display. Halvorson provides strategies for conveying both, including classics like maintaining eye contact and exercising will power. As she says:

Don’t advertise your personal demons.

The Power Lens

Halvorson offers some uplifting encouragement for dealing with powerful people:

It’s not so much that [powerful people] think they are better than you as it is they simply do not think about you at all.

Well.

Powerful people don’t have a lot of time and are less willing to spend that time on you unless you can prove your value. This is rather straightforward and recalls age-old advice for establishing job security: make yourself indispensable.

The Ego Lens

This final lens is perhaps the trickiest of all, as it’s all about self-preservation for the perceiver.

… The ego lens… has a single mission. In this case, it’s to see things in such a way that the perceiver comes out on top.

The perceiver pulls this off in one of four fascinating ways that seem ripped from the script of Mean Girls:

  1. They will convince themselves that they and their people are better than you and your people.
  2. They will decide that you are both similar and can thus share in any victories.
  3. They will determine that you aren’t actually competing for anything they want, so: no harm, no foul.
  4. If none of the above are possible, they will avoid you or attempt to destroy you.

Halvorson uses examples from job interviews with candidates of different sexes, races, and qualifications as compared to the interviewers to demonstrate how this plays out in real life (with or without the interviewer even being aware of it). Suffice it to say, you don’t want to be better looking (or smarter) than your interviewer – especially if they have low self esteem.

Halvorson recommends modesty and affirmation to overcome the trouble inherent to the ego lens.

Part Three shows how perception can be a function of personality. Halvorson examines promotion-focused (risk takers) and prevention-focused (risk averse) personalities and encourages readers to adapt their communication according a person’s dominant personality.

For a promotion-focused perceiver, frame your ideas in terms of potential gains or wins… For a prevention-focused perceiver, frame your ideas in terms of avoiding losses or mistakes.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book for me was Halvorson’s examination of the secure, anxious and avoidant lenses. I have a tendency to be avoidant, so it was encouraging to see these often-misunderstood traits of mine presented as being very normal.

Herein lies the beauty of books such as this: you go in expecting to learn more about others but you end up learning a thing or two about yourself. Halvorson’s techniques for dealing with avoidant-attached people is, of course, useful for me in my dealings with other avoidant-attached people but it’s most beneficial as a means of understanding how I must be coming across to other people.

In short: be patient with avoidant-attached people and don’t take our stand-offishness personally.

The last section brings all of the above together and presents techniques for forcing the issue of perception when needed, as well as a rather intricate guide to crafting the perfect apology. The book concludes with tips on how to reverse-engineer Halvorson’s guide to being better understood into ways of better understanding others.

No One Understands You And What To Do About It is an easy read but is far from a superficial one. Halvorson has deconstructed a problem central to communication in our hyper-communicative world and offers strategies that can be employed in any aspects of our lives and within any context: home, work, school, the gym – anywhere!

She writes with an assured style and peppers in subtle, wink-wink humor to make sure you’re paying attention. Far from your average management or self-help book (which she notes in the intro she specifically tried to avoid writing), No One Understands You And What To Do About It entertains as much as it informs.





Lessons I Learned From My 2015 Reading

Lessons learned from books I read in 2015

Those of you keeping score at home know I love trying to find life lessons everywhere (even in movies). Books, of course, are not an unusual source of lessons but reading critically and identifying the thoughts and lessons that truly resonate with you is an enjoyable exercise that adds value to fiction and non-fiction alike. The books that I read in 2015 represent a nice blend of both categories and though the lessons are certainly easier to glean from non-fiction, there were also lessons to be learned from the fictional stories.

Here are some of my favorites.

Harvest by Jim Crace

Harvest will really remind readers of the film The Village as the setting is almost identical. Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2013, Harvest features prose that borders on poetry in terms of both beauty and lyricism. The story is simple but rich – a group of outsiders arrives on the edges of a rural settlement on the same night a large fire consumes the manor house. Accusations are immediately leveled against the unknown visitors and the pursuit of the truth pushes each villager to the edge.

The lane is telling me I should not fear the futures that it holds.

The villagers in Harvest value their uncomplicated lives and go to extremes in their attempts to maintain it. However, as I have often said across many posts, there are no reasons to fear the unknown future. There are good reasons to fix what “ain’t broke”.

I can’t believe he would be parted from his smile, even in death.

This quote is presented out of context but who wouldn’t want to be remembered this way?

It’s certain that you cannot tell from how a person works or how a person strolls behind her hens what kind of life they live in secrecy.

Another common theme explored elsewhere on ToVa: your own concept of another person is not even a shred of the whole truth of their being. This can mean things good or evil are unseen and/or unknown by you but the real takeaway is to remember that though other people appear as extras in the movie of our daily life, their existence could be every bit as rich as yours (if not more rich).

Quiet by Susan Cain

As an introvert, I found Quiet quite fascinating. Cain digs deep into society’s concept of introversion and what she refers to as the “extrovert ideal” that leaves most introverts feeling misunderstood and/or undervalued. Introverts will find it especially interesting but extroverts will also take a lot away from the research and case studies that Cain presents.

That said, the quote that I found the most inspiring applies to introverts and extroverts alike:

Those who live the most fully realized lives – giving back to their families, societies, and ultimately themselves – tend to find meaning in their obstacles.

We would all do well to remember this very true notion in times of struggle.

How to be Alone by Sara Maitland

Doesn’t it seem natural that I would sit down a book about introversion and pick up what is ostensibly a guide to being a loner? Of course, How to be Alone is far from a step-by-step guide to hermitude – rather, it is an exploration of the many benefits of carving out some solitude in a world that increasingly demands either our physical or digital presence at all times.

Hence:

Being solitary is being alone well: being alone luxuriously immersed in doings of your own choice, aware of the fullness of your own presence rather than of the absence of others. Because solitude is an achievement.

We all want to be “luxuriously immersed in doings of [our] own choice” but this often requires being alone or, at the very least, ‘disconnected’. This, then, is a valuable reminder that to be alone is more about being present with ourselves than it is about removing ourselves from the company of others.

All of us want to be treated as complex and unique human beings, but simultaneously want everybody to be just like ourselves.

I present this quote without context just because it always make me chuckle.

The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton

This book, by the co-founder of The School of Life, uses the philosophy of a great thinker to guide the reader through dealing with existential crises (for example: the philosophy of Socrates is relayed as a consolation for being unpopular). It is a highly readable and thoroughly enjoyable way to expose oneself to the works of great philosophers such as Nietzsche and Epicurus if you’re hesitant to jump right into their respective primary texts.

It was hard to limit the number of quotes I wanted to share and even still I’m left with quite a long list.

If we attend properly to our experiences and learn to consider ourselves plausible candidates for an intellectual life, it is, implied Montaigne, open to all of us to arrive at insights no less profound than those in the great ancient books.

Montaigne was all about the ability of the common man to achieve intellectual heights and this quote underscores the point. We could all afford to take ourselves a little more (but not too) seriously.

Critics are not inclined to bow before the grander pronouncements of those with whom they attended university.

Oh, so true – but we are truly limiting ourselves through such jealousy.

The wise man can lose nothing. He has everything invested in himself.

Courtesy of the stoics, this quote highlights that we must be careful about where (and with whom) we deposit pieces of ourselves. It is possible to toe the line between looking out for your own development and being selfish.

He allowed him to be himself; through his psychological acuity, he enabled him to be so. He offered scope for valuable and yet until then neglected dimensions of Montaigne’s character – which suggests that we pick our friends not only because they are kind and enjoyable company, but also, perhaps more importantly, because they understand us for who we think we are.

There are many dimensions to friendship and our most valuable relationships with others will be both affectionate and actualizing, pushing us ever toward achieving our ideal self. Friends who see us as everything we wish to be are special indeed.

Expensive objects can feel like plausible solutions to needs we don’t understand. Objects mimic in a material dimension what we require in a psychological one. We need to rearrange our minds but are lured toward new shelves. We buy a cashmere cardigan as a substitute for the counsel of friends.

A warning against the dangers of consumerism, ostensibly, but also a reminder that we must tend to the garden of our minds. How to be Alone can help in this cause.

Errors in our thought and way of life can at no point and in no way ever be proven simply by the fact that we have run into opposition.

This really should be common sense but sadly is not altogether common knowledge. The motivations of those who might oppose us are hard to know (see the earlier quote from Harvest about secret lives) and physical objects that get in the way could be present for no greater reason than coincidence. You might be wrong but the mere presence of resistance does not in itself prove this fact.

The Martian by Andy Weir

Most of you have probably seen the movie and I hope many have also read the book. More than just a gripping science-fiction tale of survival, The Martian is hilarious from cover to cover. Thankfully, this humor mostly survived the translation to film but if you haven’t read the book, do!

No plan survives first contact with the enemy.

Remember what we just said about obstacles not being an indicator of correctness?

Since Sol 6 all I’ve wanted to do is get the hell out of here. Now the prospect of leaving the Hab behind scares the shit out of me. I need some encouragement. I need to ask myself, “What would an Apollo astronaut do?”

He’d drink three whiskey sours, drive his corvette to the launchpad, then fly to the moon in a command module smaller than my rover. Man those guys were cool.

Included because we all want to a whiskey drinkin’, moon landin’ Apollo astronaut. Those guys were cool.

Log Entry Sol 11
I wonder how the Cubs are doing.

Mark Watney’s log in the early days of his being stranded on Mars. A little levity never hurt nobody (but Cubs fandom has).

The Fall by Albert Camus

Camus is one of my favorite authors and thinkers. I’ve featured his ideas on ToVa before. His novels do a fantastic job of weaving his philosophy through a compelling but fictional narrative and The Fall is no exception. The book is entirely dialogue but reveals only one side of a conversation between the speaker, Clamence, and a fellow Frenchman he befriends and subsequently shows around Amsterdam. Slowly Clamence reveals elements of his personal history and philosophy toward many subjects – primarily judgement – to the increasing horror of his compatriot and the reader.

One plays at being immortal and after a few weeks one doesn’t even know whether or not one can hang on till the next day.

Anybody making a real go of things has been here before: you’re on top of the world one minute and then you blink and can’t get motivated to get out of bed. Pacing and moderation are critical in all aspects of our lives; actualization is a process, not a task.

What we call basic truths are simply the ones we discover after all the others.

Hindsight, eh? Still, these lessons must be learned.

… We rarely confide in those who are better than we. Rather, we are more inclined to flee their society. Most often, on the other hand, we confess to those who are like us and who share our weaknesses. Hence we don’t want to improve ourselves or be bettered, for we should first have to be judged in default.

Here is a different, more cynical, take on the earlier quote about choosing friends who see us as we want to be seen. This is a trap in which we can easily be ensnared. Those with low expectations are easier to please and less likely to judge but they will also never help you move forward. They are quicksand from which it is difficult to escape. Fear not the judgement of the less-enlightened.

But to be happy it is essential not to be too concerned with others.

I feel like I just said this!

Doubtless they suspected me of living fully, given up completely to happiness; and that cannot be forgiven. The look of success, when it is worn in a certain way, would infuriate a jackass.

Jealousy! People unwilling to pursue their own happiness will never give you credit for achieving happiness of your own. This is not worth your time to consider.

Men are never convinced of your reasons, of your sincerity, of the seriousness of your sufferings, except by your death. So long as you are alive, your case is doubtful; you have a right only to their skepticism.

Again we strike upon a common theme across these books: that others know not what we are going through and can never be made to understand. As the stoics remind us, we must choose to live for and invest in ourselves.

You know what charm is: a way of getting the answer yes without having asked any clear question.

Charisma and charm are facets of human interaction that fascinate me and this quote illustrates their magical powers. It’s a topic I’ll be exploring in future blog posts.

The Twenty-Seventh City by Jonathan Franzen

Until I picked up The Twenty-Seventh City I had not read one word written by Franzen which meant, with the release of Purity toward the end of the year, I had five novels to work my way through. Since I love doing these things in order, I started with his first novel, a sprawling narrative concerning a political and sociological conspiracy in St. Louis that effects all levels of the city’s society. The treat of Franzen’s writing is in the observation and his first effort is no exception, showing flashes of the insight that he refines with each subsequent novel.

Everything seems like it might be important. The side of the bed I sleep on. Working too hard. Not working enough. Do I need to get angry? Or do I need to stay calm? Weekend versus week night. Red wine versus white. You know? Because there’s got to be a reason for this, and any part of my life, anything I do every day — There are so many variables, so many combinations. I can’t pinpoint the important ones by any process of elimination. What if the reasons I can’t sleep are eating sugar, going to bed too early, and watching sports on the weekend? I could never isolate that. But I lie there for hours turning over the variables. I can’t remember when I ever slept well. As if my whole life had been this way.

Case in point: who among us has not had thoughts in this same pattern? There is comfort in knowing we are not alone. The power of fiction is its ability to breed empathy.

Probst doesn’t have the loser’s ethic it takes to believe in conspiracy.

While the notion of a ‘loser’s ethic’ seems harsh, this touches again upon our common thread of feeling like any resistance means we are wrong or that people are out to get us. The winners, meanwhile, are getting on with it.

And he could see how the year had happened , how a man in his prime, the envy of a state, could lose everything without even putting up a fight along the way: he hadn’t believed in what he had.

Here is a very real danger we all face as we strive for actualization. It is possible to reach – sometimes several times – a point when we don’t feel as though the good around us and the things we have accomplished are real or worthwhile or (more cynically still) a product of our efforts. If we don’t value what we have it may slip away while we’re not looking.

Strong Motion by Jonathan Franzen

Strong Motion again weaves a tale of conspiracy but in a tighter manner than Franzen’s first novel. Reneé Seitchek is a seismologist working at Harvard when unprecedented earthquakes rock the Boston area. She meets and begins a romance with Louis Holland, whose grandmother was the sole fatal victim of the first of these minor tremors. Through this romance and her exposure to the Holland family she slowly begins to theorize that the cause of the earthquakes is not natural but her accusations – if true – would have far-reaching implications.

I have no quotes to share from this book as most of my marginalia in this case highlighted bits of prose I particularly liked for stylistic reasons (you can click here to read those passages if you’re interested) but the story itself stands as a good example of determination in the face of opposition. When Reneé completes her theory (which she defends in an academic article) there are ample stakeholders who wish to dismiss her theory for various and shallow reasons as well as those who stand to lose if she is proven right and are a threat to her safety as she proceeds with her research.

She sticks to her guns and (in several ways) looks out for her own interests despite all of the resistance and, in some cases, departures of those who encouraged her to pursue her research in the first place.

What are you reading?

My first novel of 2016 is The Corrections, Franzen’s third and most highly-regarded novel. I’m 150 pages in and can already see why this is the case.

What are you reading? Please share below along with any lessons you’d like to highlight.


All of my writing – including ToVa posts, fiction, and personal essays – is now being gathered at jgregjoachim.com