Thursday, September 16, 2010


A few days ago, a complete stranger accosted me on the bus. He didn't like the book I was reading (The Mind Map Book by Tony Buzan) and he wanted to tell me exactly why. The next 15 minutes were an alternately entertaining and irritating mix of religious dogma, conspiracy theories and ad hominem attacks. Here's what I learned:
  • The author falsified the whole book, "especially that thing in the middle."
  • "It's bull****, like ESP, crystals, kachina dolls and all that crap."
  • The police have proven that people who read the book are 3 times more likely to become stalkers.
  • In fact, every stalker in prison has read the Mind Map Book
  • It's "some kind of mind control"
  • I need to find God
Now, I'll grant that there are things about the book (and it's "media personality" author) that are suspicious. The cover, with its flowers, spirals and rainbows would look more at home on a new-age self-help book, than a how-to book on taking notes (Yes, I really was reading a book about taking notes. And I took notes while I read it. That's recursive geekery at its finest.) The claims it makes about "radiant thinking" are a little bit outrageous and the book ends with an unsettling plea for cash. But it presents a useful tool for organizing data and developing new ideas. On balance, I got a lot out of the Mind Map Book and suffered very little harm from reading it.

So I scanned the book for kachina dolls, crystals or ESP (no mentions of Pueblo handicrafts or psychic abilities, but there was one photograph of what I think was a crystal), promised my companion that I would turn myself into the police if I caught myself stalking anyone, and tried to silence him with my mind control powers. When that didn't work, I tuned him out and returned to my reading. He blushed, made a few embarrassed noises and slunk off the bus at the next stop.

Since then, I've thought a lot about the crazy people we meet in our daily lives. Like my new acquaintance, they probably aren't actually crazy. They're just out of control. Something sets them off (like the chubby nerd sitting in the next row and reading his weird book). They do something dumb (pick an argument with a stranger on the bus), realize they did it, and then do something even worse (make claims about ESP, conspiracy theories or God) to cover it up, which starts the cycle all over again. Sometimes, this "chain of stupid" gets so long that they nearly hang themselves. And it's seriously disruptive to the people around them. At its worst it can ruin events, break up groups and leave people angry and embittered.

This is uncomfortably common in game clubs and events. Most of us have seen (or at least heard about) strong groups that have crumbled in the face of one person's escalating misbehavior. How do we keep it from happening again?

It's a huge question, so I'm going to break it into a few posts. Today, I'm going to tell you about two of my role models: "Crazy whisperers" who deal with these problems in unique and powerful ways.

One of my first bosses, Mary ran a parks and rec department that included several youth sports programs. If you think gamers can be crazy, visit a Saturday afternoon soccer game or swim meet. You'll see why the unhinged sports parent is an enduring cliche. Mary had a two-step process for resolving problems. First, she'd quietly make sure she had a person's undivided attention. Then she'd say "that is not appropriate behavior". It's amazing how effective those five words could be.

By waiting until she had someone's attention, she didn't turn up the volume on a dispute. People were already shouting at each other. Shouting more wouldn't improve anything. Grabbing their attention (especially their eye contact) also made them focus on something other than the object of their wrath. Instead of glaring at their hated foe, they were looking at someone outside of the conflict. That made it easier to unfocus their anger.

Mary also made sure that her criticisms were always aimed at a person's behavior instead of the person himself. In fact, I don't think she ever used the word "you" in these discussions. It was all about the behavior. By separating the problem and the person, she made it easier for him to step back without feeling belittled.

This also worked well for Mary because everyone knew the rules. They were part of the paperwork for any activity and (depending on where you were) they were posted on signs at most of the park and rec facilities.

Will's a professor, clinical psychologist and consultant for our college. He also provides our long-term research teams with conflict resolution assistance. And Will has a theory*: when people get tired or stressed they can end up "in the grip of the inferior function" of their personalities. That means key parts of their personality turn upside-down. Extroverts become quiet and sullen. Introverts become outspoken and angry. "Big picture" people obsess over the details. And confident people are stricken with self-doubt. If you've ever told someone "you're not acting like yourself", they're probably "in the grip".

There's a lot of variation, but people in the grip have a few things in common:
  • Anger
  • No sense of humor: If someone gets angry over a joke that they'd usually enjoy, they're probably in the grip.
  • Tunnel vision: If someone is so wrapped up in a problem that you can't reason with them, there's a good chance that they're in the grip.
Anyone can end up in the grip. When they do, you may not be able to help them out of it, but you can help them deal with it until it goes away. Acknowledge their concerns and try to understand their point of view. Promise to think about what they say. The trick is to listen without contradicting, arguing or teasing. Even if you think you're just "reasoning with him" or "lightening the mood", you're really making things worse. Later, once he's out of the grip, you can discuss and resolve the problem. Will recommends actually making an appointment for the next day. In the short term, it's a great way to acknowledge the problem, and it lets everyone rest (which is a great cure for the grip) before the conversation resumes.

If you know what sets a person off, you can also have a life-preserver ready in case a problem arises. For example, I fall into the grip easily if I skip meals (especially if I skip more than one meal in a row, which happens pretty frequently). So I keep an emergency granola bar in my backpack. When a gaming or work session runs really late and I start to get cranky, my friends can save the day by asking me "when was the last time you ate?"

With Will's help, I've seen our research groups weather some serious conflicts and come out stronger than ever. And his advice is very portable. It works just as well on my gaming group as it does on our research teams.

* Actually it's not Will's theory. It's part of the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).

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