Tag Archives: ask is a verb

How Things Are Between Us, 2

As I wrote in a recent post, it’s reductive and misleading, but all too common, to think about conversations as mere transactions. I ask and you bid; I have my say and you have yours. But in conversation with another person or a group, I can’t be indifferent to how things are between us. If I am actually and persistently indifferent, then I might be a sociopath or another kind of dangerous person. If I am a relatively decent person and happen to lapse into indifference, you can justly complain that I am neither respecting the standing and authority you and others have, nor am I seriously committed to our conversation, which amounts to the same thing.

Grice writes about conversation as “talk exchange,” and that formulation worries me a little, but he clearly has in mind something more than the transaction we entertain when we talk about “an exchange of views.” The phrase, which might suit diplomatic occasions where distinguished persons stand up and make speeches to let their official positions be known (before retreating from public view to have a conversation about what to do), falls short of capturing exactly the point Grice invites us to make: talking things over, figuring out what to do, making meaning, reaching agreement or finding out where we disagree — all of that is a cooperative undertaking, a joint activity.

Cooperation doesn’t mean we set aside differences; even the most charitable interlocutors can be deeply and persistently antagonistic. Like all good collaboration, conversation tends to bring differences to the fore. It puts them out in the open, we sometimes say; and it’s worth pausing over that expression and considering where that open ground might be, and why we regard it as open. But if we pretend we are just trading or trafficking in (different) views, we are ignoring the common ground already beneath our feet. This ignorance opens to the door to all sorts of abuses and indecencies.

Charles Taylor goes much further in this regard:

…language serves to place some matter out in the open between interlocutors. One might say that language enables us to put things in public space. That something emerges into what I want to call public space means that it is no longer a matter for me, or for you, or for both of us severally, but is now something for us, that is for us together.
Let us say that you and I are strangers travelling together through some southern country. It is terribly hot, the atmosphere is stifling. I turn to you and say: ‘Whew, it’s hot.’ This does not tell you anything you did not know; neither that it is hot, nor that I suffer from the heat. Both these facts were plain to you before. Nor were they beyond your power to formulate; you probably had already formulated them.
What the expression has done here is to create a rapport between us, the kind of thing which comes about when we do what we call striking up a conversation. Previously I knew that you were hot, and you knew that I was hot, and I knew that you must know that I knew that, etc.: up to about any level that you care to chase it. But now it is out there as a fact between us that it is stifling in here. Language creates what one might call a public space, or a common vantage point from which we survey the world together.
To talk about this kind of conversation in terms of communication can be to miss the point. For what transpires here is not the communication of certain information. This is a mistaken view; but not because the recipient already has the information. Nothing stops A making a communication to B of information already in B’s possession. It may be pointless, or misguided, or based on a mistake, but it is perfectly feasible. What is really wrong with the account in terms of communication is that it generally fails to recognize public space. It deems all states of knowledge and belief to be states of individual knowers and believers. Communication is then the transmittal, or the attempted transmittal, of such states.
But the crucial and highly obtrusive fact about language, and human symbolic communication in general, is that it serves to found public space, that is to place certain matters before us. This blindness to the public is of course (in part anyway) another consequence of the epistemological tradition, which privileges a reconstruction of knowledge as a property of the critical individual. It makes us take the monological observer’s standpoint not just as a norm, but somehow as the way things really are with the subject. And this is catastrophically wrong.

Answering ‘The Ask’ with a ‘Huh?’

I’ve written a number of posts about “the ask” and why we should insist that ask is a verb, but I haven’t said much about the provenance of the ungainly nominative “ask” or taken its origins into account.

“The ask” is not the revival or survival of an archaic or medieval form, as one writer in the New York Times suggested. Far from it: it’s a piece of stock trader’s jargon that crept from the trading floor into bureaucratic conversation. On Wall Street, “the ask” is shorthand for the minimum price a seller sets for a security. The difference between the ask and the bid, or what a buyer is willing to pay, is known as the spread; and the spread is one pretty reliable measure of market liquidity. 

Presumably, when someone uses the term “the ask” or “my ask” to direct work or coordinate action, he expects (or pretends to expect) the second person, his interlocutor, to counter with a bid, as if conversations produced a workable measure of practical liquidity — or a measure of what’s practically possible — in the difference between what one person wants to do and what another wants or is willing to do, or what each thinks ought to be done.

We can sketch a model: the ask would invite the bid and the bid would meet that invitation with an offer. And we can develop this rudimentary model of conversation a little more by exploring the etymology of the word “bid” — itself the substantive form of a verb with roots in Old Teutonic, where *beudan means to stretch out, reach out, offer or present; and by extension beodan or boden in Old English and bede in Middle English come to mean to announce, proclaim or command. So here, again, an ask-bid model might confer some power on the bidder, or help create the appearance of parity, a sharing of command between petitioner and respondent, asker and bidder. What we are going to do is what we together command, or what will fall within the spread, span or scope of our shared command.

That doesn’t seem so bad, on the face of it: at the very least it sounds as if people on both sides can give and get in return. “The ask” holds out the promise of some share in power, or at least more flexibility than command-obedience would seem to allow. That might help account for its widespread use in the first decade or so of the twenty-first century. Ideas about organizational hierarchy are changing, and people have begun to pay outward homage, at least, to the idea that command and control is not necessarily the most effective way to run an organization. In bureaucratic settings, the imperative of command is taking on interrogative affects: the ask makes an order sound more like a request, softening the power one person actually wields over others.

The model has lots of shortcomings: for one, it reduces human relationships to market transactions — and that’s a serious and thorny problem, one I hope to say more about in a future post. But the main trouble with the ask-bid model is simply that it tells us very little about how conversation actually works. Conversations are never so neatly regimented and sequenced as this bureaucratic model makes them out to be, and as I wrote in another post, much of which we might regard as background noise or “beside the point” in a conversation is just as important, if not more important, than the putative point. There’s never just “an ask”; all parties to the conversation are continuously asking and offering, requesting clarification or confirmation, making representations of the other, shifting attention to and from the matter of joint interest, situating, interrupting and re-connecting with each other.

Generally, we’re making it up as we go along, together, and all of that joint effort counts much more than we ordinarily acknowledge. We don’t merely counter asks with bids or requests with offers; we also work together to organize, represent and sustain the conversation as a social act.

A paper published last week by Mark Dingemanse and others at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics stresses this theme. In ordinary conversation, the authors observe, interlocutors ask for clarification and correction about once every 1.4 minutes. This “other-initiated repair” is a central feature of all human conversation; and the cues one uses to initiate repair demonstrate care for the interlocutor and for the “social unit” of the conversation.

There are three main ways interlocutors initiate repair. Interjections like “huh?” are “open requests” for clarification. Asking speakers to repeat what they said (“who”?) are “restricted requests.” Repeating back what the speaker said (“he hit a homerun?”) are described as “restricted offers.” All three are regularly used with the same frequency no matter what language we happen to be speaking and despite differences in grammar and syntax. (For the paper’s authors, this lends support to the hypothesis that there are universals at work in all human language; but rather than get hung up on that point, I prefer simply to appreciate their observation that interlocutors are working constantly together, making repairs on the fly.)

Abbot and Costello's 'Who's on First?' routine is a brilliant send up of other-initiated repair.

So instead of a simple ask-bid or request-offer model, we need a much looser and less linear model in which all parties to a conversation are constantly running requests and offers and making interjections in no particular order or sequence, and so frequently and effortlessly that we don’t even notice we are making them. Requests, offers and interjections might even go unanswered; but they are no less effective for all that. These are cooperative cues and gestures, markers of the conversation as a social act.

(This is, by the way, why,so-called “conversational” interfaces built for digital assistants like Siri are still nowhere near conversational. What the manufacturers of these devices really mean is that you can address your digital assistant — give an order or make a request — in ordinary language, and it will follow. But even if the assistant is designed to say “I did not understand your request, please repeat it” or something along those lines, it’s not producing anything like the steady stream of other-initiated repairs involved actual conversation, where interlocutors are reading each other’s minds and correcting misreadings as they go.)

Conversation recreates and demonstrates joint commitment. That’s what’s really missing from the ask-bid model: human relationship. Asker and bidder, seller and buyer, don’t have a shared project beyond the exchange they are negotiating; their contact with each other can end once the transaction is made, and one or both can just walk away if they don’t agree on price. After all, both the asker and the bidder seek advantage over the other, rather than mutual gain or shared advantage that is the spur, aim and outcome of serious conversation. After the deal is done or abandoned, the bidder is free to pursue his ends and the seller is, too, even if they will be working at cross purposes.

On the other hand, people who are in a conversation about what to do have already committed to doing something together. They’ve committed to acting together, to social action and to a social subject: a “we.” We keep our commitment by repairing as we go. We act together even when we have irreconcilable differences about the way things are or what to do.

Austin and Asking, 2

I’m re-reading Austin’s How to Do Things With Words, trying to come to terms with these lectures and what perspectives they offer on the broad theme of conversation and collaboration I’ve been exploring in a series of posts on the power of asking.

On my first reading, which I discussed here, I must have nodded midway through Lecture VI, or maybe I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind to appreciate the historical argument Austin advances in that lecture about the “evolution of language” (focusing specifically on the development of the explicit from the primary performative).

…historically, from the point of view of the evolution of language, the explicit performative must be a later development than certain more primary utterances, many of which are at least already implicit performatives, which are included in many or most explicit performatives as parts of a whole. For example ‘I will…’ is earlier than ‘I promise that I will…’.The plausible view (I do not know exactly how it would be established) would be that in primitive languages it would not yet be clear, it would not yet be possible to distinguish, which of various things that (using later distinctions) we might be doing we were in fact doing. For example, Bull or Thunder in a primitive language of one-word utterances could be a warning, information, a prediction, &c. It is also a plausible view that explicitly distinguishing the different forces this utterance might have is a later achievement of language, and a considerable one; primitive or primary forms of utterance will preserve the ‘ambiguity’ or ‘equivocation’ or ‘vagueness’ of primitive language in this respect; they will not make explicit the precise force of the utterance. This may have its uses, but sophistication and development of social forms and procedures will necessitate clarification. But note that this clarification is as much a creative act as a discovery or description! It is as much a matter of making clear distinctions as of making already existent distinctions clear.

One thing, however, that it will be most dangerous to do, and that we are very prone to do, is to take it that we somehow know that the primary or primitive use of sentences must be, because it ought to be, statemental or constative, in the philosophers’ preferred sense of simply uttering something whose sole pretension is to be true or false and which is not liable to criticism in any other dimension. We certainly do not know that this is so, any more, for example, than, to take an alternative, that all utterances must have first begun as imperatives (as some argue) or as swear-words — and it seems much more likely that the ‘pure’ statement is a goal, an ideal, towards which the gradual development of science has given the impetus, as it has likewise also towards the goal of precision. Language as such and in its primitive stages is not precise, and it is also not, in our sense, explicit: precision in language makes it clearer what is being said — its meaning: explicitness, in our sense, makes clearer the force of the utterances, or ‘how…it is to be taken’.

What Austin says here about how human beings came to mark and remark the forces of utterances and took language from a primitive to a sophisticated state can apply to asking as well. In this view, the explicit use of the performative ask (“I ask…” or “I ask that…”) would constitute a step forward in the evolution of language, “a later achievement…and a considerable one.” Austin calls it a “creative act” of “clarification.”

Historically, one thing that act might have helped to clarify — Austin’s caveat about the presumed historical priority of imperatives notwithstanding — is the difference between asking and command, and, therefore, the terms on which interlocutors meet, or the “social forms and procedures” that govern their relationships and necessitate this clarification or distinction.

This puts us in murky territory, and Austin readily admits it. The historical argument here seems “plausible,” as Austin says, but ultimately it may not stand up (though it’s hard to see how it could be decisively knocked down).

This much seems clear: the creative act of explicitly asking will always help clarify the force of asking; and the articulation of that force — that power of asking — essentially creates a new charter for conversation with a second person, an interlocutor or interlocutors whose standing to address us we recognize and whose replies we await and then take into account.

That said, let’s also admit that the explicit performative “I ask…” or “I ask that…” is not (nowadays) so widely used, but is reserved, it seems, for certain kinds of serious inquiry and formal address. (Austin’s own lectures furnish numerous examples of this reserved use, as I suggested in my earlier post; but they were given in 1955, and both words and things have changed, at Harvard and everywhere else, since then.)

Still, making asking explicit can help render the conversation serious, not just because it makes language more precise, but also because it clarifies the relationship between interlocutors and the power they have to reckon with, and share.

Serious Conversations, 8

There’s a serious aspect to what Stuart jokingly says here. Philip Pettit and Michael Smith put a finger on it in their discussion of what they call “the conversational stance” in “Freedom in Belief and Desire” [pdf].

When we engage in serious conversation about what to believe or do, Pettit and Smith observe, we assume, among other things, that our interlocutor can, and will, change her beliefs (about the way things are) and evaluations (about what to do) in light of evidence. We assume, further, that she will adjust her desires and assess her plan of action in light of these evaluations. (So, they will go on to argue, we hold her responsible as a free thinker and as someone possessed of free will.) Otherwise, there is no point in having the conversation, and there might even be reason to fear that we are involved with a zombie or psychopath:

Were you to think that your interlocutor lacked the dispositions to register and respond to the demands of the norms governing evaluations that you both countenance, and lacked them even in the provisoed measure allowed, you would either have to put his evaluative understanding or commitment in serious question or you would have to regard him as something close to a zombie or a psychopath. How could your interlocutor agree that doing such and such is irrational, so you will ask, but not see that the prescription applies to him? Or, if he does admit it applies to him, how could he fail to adjust his desires and actions accordingly? In particular, how could he fail to do these things, when the failure is not to be explained by reference to familiar obstacles [such as fetishes and obsessions, disabling moods and passions]? The only answer available would seem to be that he is not seriously or sincerely involved in the business of practical evaluation, or that if he is, then he is not reliably attuned to the practical values in question. In either case, you lose solid grounds for authorizing him as a conversational interlocutor. You must cease to see any point in conducting a conversation that is supposed to bear on how he should behave.

To Ask and To Demand

I’ve been reading a little this morning about Pathological Demand Avoidance Syndrome. First described by child development psychologist Elizabeth Newson, PDA is a pathology on the autism spectrum characterized, as its name suggests, by avoidance of the normal demands of everyday life: things like getting dressed, going to school, eating one’s cereal, and so forth. It’s not procrastination: the avoidance is not of the task but of the demand, which is met not just with anxious defiance but with all sorts of socially manipulative behaviors (some of them charming) as well as violent outbursts.

I suspect that this diagnosis and its treatment will have lots to teach me about what I’ve been calling — not without misgivings — the power of asking. I’m also hoping that Newson’s work and other research on PDA will shed some light on the question Marc Tognotti put to me in an email after I posted my notes on Austin and Asking: namely, whether we can talk coherently about demands as a kind of asking. I’ve been satisfied with making rough equivalences between the terms, and in an earlier post I’ve even managed to cheat the idea of moral claims into the word “demand.”

Marc countered that he was surprised that I included demands in a discussion of asking and that there is a difference between demands and requests (or asking someone to) that’s probably worth maintaining. In short, to talk about demands and asking in the same breath confuses things, he says, because demands are more akin to commands or coercion than requests.

I admit there’s a lot here to sort out, including questions about the kinds of authority, moral or otherwise, we need to make commands, demands and requests. For the time being, I’m taking refuge in the etymological roots of our English word “demand” in the French demander, and I’ve also found some shelter in the Oxford English Dictionary, which lists “to demand” among the definitions of ask. But none of that will do for very long. It might be nothing more than an avoidance strategy.

Still, I think it’s clear that the verb ask can be used exercitively — to exercise power, and that using the verb ask in that way can be (let me put it this way for now) pretty much like making a demand: “I ask that you take your hands off me.” “I ask you to respect my rights.” “I ask you to come forward, so that you can see this for yourselves.” Maybe those examples are a little clunky and formal, and I admit that the last one can be construed as invitation rather than a demand. More importantly, I don’t want to limit the “power” that I am talking about here to the making of demands or even the kind of asking that is pretty much like a demand. Ultimately, I am more interested in the way that asking — or serious conversations about what to do — can give people an equal share in power.

I still have a lot more reading to do before I can tie all this back to PDA, but I’ve managed to grasp the basics. People with PDA experience demands as a complete loss of control: powerlessness. They feel coerced, not asked to or whether they would. Even the most trifling demand seems to eclipse their will. In this diagnosis, demands are more like commands, less like asking or the start of a conversation about what to do. Even the simplest request or suggestion can be mistaken for an order and resisted.

One parent of a child with PDA reports that her child misinterprets “everything as a demand” being shouted at her; and to overcome the child’s pathological demand avoidance she and her husband “always try to phrase demands in a way that offers…choices and we are always prepared to negotiate.” Many boundaries too, have to be negotiated, even when it’s a question of what’s safe or lawful, so that the child “feels that it is either her choice or is open to negotiation.”

Of course it’s deceptive, a manipulation to give the illusion of control and preempt the child’s manipulations. It’s not a serious conversation; it’s power play: the parents engage the child in mimicking the very real power we share when we have choices to make, nobody is in charge and nothing is settled. And that is what these children seem to want, but only because that gives them a chance to take back control.

Postscript: some readers have found my last paragraph controversial or just wrongheaded. Please take a moment to read the comments on this post from parents of children diagnosed with PDA.

From Aping to Asking

Joseph Jordania offers a clever but not entirely satisfying answer to the question posed in the title of his book Who Asked The First Question?

“The first human being.”

Did asking questions make us human? Maybe not exactly, or at least that can’t be the whole story. But to be human is to ask questions, and clearly the ability to ask things of each other — to request clarification, to invite others to join with us in some activity, to make offers and claims or demand reasons — is at the very core of human social life; and in primate cognitive evolution, asking or the power to ask must represent a significant turn toward the human.

A 2004 study of chimpanzee gesture sequences by Liebal and Tomasello suggests that apes do not request clarification in the way we do, from infancy, to help the other convey meaning or in order to negotiate meaning collaboratively. Asking for clarity, we recognize the other, show that we appreciate the role she is playing in trying to communicate with us, and we make meaning together; and just as importantly — and on a more basic level — we commit to the project. It’s not language use that differentiates us here; it’s the commitment (though I would not be surprised if these turned out to be indistinguishable and inextricable). The so-called “speaking” bonobo Kanzi will play with toys or participate in the preparation of food, but so far as researchers can tell, Kanzi lacks understanding that he is doing these things together with you: he is not jointly committed with you to the activity, does not recognize your role or support you in it.

Kanzi learns, but lacks commitment.

Kanzi learns, but lacks commitment.

For Tomasello and his colleagues, our amazing ability to co-create meaning or even to coordinate through request and reply isn’t what ultimately sets us apart. The first human may have asked the first question, but the power of asking and language use itself is “not basic; it is derived.” “An adaptation for participating in collaborative activities involving shared intentionality” is the more fundamental evolutionary step, write Tomasello et al. in a 2005 paper on human cognitive evolution. “At some point — perhaps heralding the emergence of modern humans some 150,000 years ago — individuals who could collaborate together more effectively in various social activities came to have a selective advantage.”

Early human life, in this view, does not look so nasty, brutish and short, or at least not so nasty and brutish; and Tomasello is aware that he’s running against the prevailing “Machiavellian” account of human evolution. He offers a “Cultural account” of human cognitive evolution that “emphasizes … the importance of collaboration, cultural historical processes, and strong reciprocity based on social norms.” Putting the emphasis on collaborative give and take instead of on winner-take-all competition may not make sense of every step in our evolution, but it helps Tomasello bring into focus an important aspect of human cognition. Specifically, he argues that it was through collaboration (not competition) that we became highly skilled at reading and sharing intentions.

Although intention reading may be helpful in competitive interactions, it is not absolutely necessary — since in competition I care mainly about what you do. That is to say, in competitive interactions, the interactants do not have goals about others’ intentional states; the situation is that we both have the “same” goal (e.g., both want that piece of food), and the key thing is that I anticipate what you will do next. In contrast, collaborative interactions require interactants to have goals about others’ intentional states so that the requisite shared goals and plans may be formulated. Thus, in collaborative interactions, we are faced with the so-called coordination problem from the outset: to get started, we must somehow coordinate or negotiate so that we end up with a shared goal…Then, in addition, to collaborate effectively, we must mesh our action plans at least some of the way down the hierarchy — and this requires some communication about those plans, at least to some degree ahead of time.

“The motivations and skills for participating in this…’we’ intentionality are woven into the earliest stages of human ontogeny and underlie young children’s developing ability to participate in the collectivity that is human cognition.” In other words, we are hard-wired for soft sharing skills — born to collaborate. At only 14 months of age, infants “begin to understand full- fledged intentional action – including the rudiments of the way people make rational decisions in choosing action plans for accomplishing their goals in particular reality contexts and selectively attending to goal-relevant aspects of the situation.”

This kind of understanding leads to some powerful forms of cultural learning, especially imitative learning in which the observer must perform a means-end analysis of the actor’s behavior and say in effect: “When I have the same goal I can use the same means (action plan).” This analysis is also necessary before one can ask why someone did something and whether that reason also applies in my circumstance (“rational imitation”).  Without such analysis, only simpler forms of social learning are possible.

That is how, to riff on the horrible pun I’ve chosen for the title of this post, we manage to do more than simply ape the behavior of others; we learn by analyzing and asking. We can learn recipes and social rituals, make tools and share techniques, build bridges and launch sea voyages. We can inquire whether another’s reasons match our circumstances, and when we make that effort at rational imitation, we have only just begun to tap the power of asking. In order to ask why someone did something, after all, we must first see them as someone who has reasons: we ascribe rationality to them and to ourselves. You are someone who acts with reason, for reasons, and so am I. We are mutually accountable, so we can demand (or ask) that we bring reasons for our actions.

Serious Conversations, 2

Nora [after a short silence]. Isn’t there one thing that strikes you as strange in our sitting here like this?
Helmer. What is that?
Nora. We have been married now eight years. Does it not occur to you that this is the first time we two, you and I, husband and wife, have had a serious conversation?
Helmer. What do you mean by ‘serious’?
Nora. In all these eight years–longer than that–from the very beginning of our acquaintance, we have never exchanged a word on any serious subject.
Helmer. Was it likely that I would be continually and forever telling you about worries that you could not help me to bear?
Nora. I am not speaking about business matters. I say that we have never sat down in earnest together to try and get at the bottom of anything.
-Ibsen, A Doll’s House, Act 3

Preoccupations may be harder to escape than promises. I went to see a performance of A Doll’s House last night at the Harvey Theater, and this exchange between Nora and Torvald in the final act of Ibsen’s play reminded me of my pledge to say something more about serious conversations. (My first effort to make good on this pledge is here.).

There’s an important point here that I don’t want to overlook. A serious conversation requires something more than a serious subject to discuss. It may not have anything to do with the things we take seriously: business matters, for example. Well before we consider things, or the topic at hand, we have to sit down “seriously together” — alvor sammen, as Nora puts it to her husband Torvald in Ibsen’s Norwegian.

Of course, Torvald Helmer’s “honor” will not survive the serious conversation he and his wife have. The respect Nora ultimately demands —  the claim she makes on Torvald and on herself — will destroy their marriage and upset the bourgeois respectability of the Helmer household, or show it for the sham that it is. Torvald should have known: to sit down seriously together is always more about honoring the other than safeguarding personal honor. Or at least it’s a matter of honoring the joint commitment to have a serious conversation.

dolls-house

Torvald (Dominic Rowan) and Nora (Hattie Morahan) are about to have their first serious conversation in the BAM Harvey Theater production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.

I’m using “joint commitment” here in Margaret Gilbert’s sense — a commitment by two or more people as a body or plural subject, a we, to some act or activity: a walk or a conversation, for instance. For Gilbert, these joint commitments are commonplace associations by which we make up “the social world, the world of conversations, friendships, marriages, sports teams, discussion groups, religious orders, partisans, citizens and so on.”

In entering and living up to joint commitments, we share agency with others, and all parties are obligated — have a duty — to act in accordance with the commitment. “If our acting together, our conventions, and other central aspects of our lives together involve our jointly committing ourselves in one way or another, then our lives together are run through with obligations to one another and rights against each other, with the correlative standing to insist on various actions and rebuke for non-performance.”

To read the essays collected in Gilbert’s Joint Commitment (Oxford, 2013) is to appreciate above all how often and how effortlessly we enter into these joint commitments, just as a matter of course, and to be reminded that assumptions of trust, respect and mutual accountability infuse our everyday social experience.

These are all the issues that come to the surface when Torvald and Nora sit down seriously together, for the first time, to have their serious conversation. Whether we commit jointly to take a walk together (to use Gilbert’s favorite example) or have a conversation about work or a stifling marriage, what makes the activity serious is that we are on equal footing and mutually obligated to one another. Acknowledge that, honor it, and we have started to take one another seriously; deny it, or cover it up with patronizing gestures or power grabs, and we are probably heading for crisis or failure.

Serious Conversations, 1

In a previous post I pledged to say something about serious conversations, so I’ve set out to make a little headway on that topic. This is a first try. I’ll correct or advance what I manage to say here in subsequent posts.

A rule of thumb: serious conversations are more likely to involve demands than commands.

I’m not giving up at all on the idea that commands can be legitimate or given legitimately, or that those being ordered about can vest the person giving the orders (by contract, consent or some prior agreement) with legitimate authority. (Without that authority, commands have to rely on coercion.) But usually a command is not an invitation to deliberate; instead, the person giving the command has already reserved all deliberative rights – all rights to determine what there are reasons to do – to himself.

Just the other day, on the subway, I overheard a man complaining about his boss to a co-worker. His boss had told him: “I don’t want to see you on any floors you’re not assigned to. You stay on floors 4, 5 and 6.” Whether the boss didn’t trust this guy to move about freely, had something to hide on the other floors (as the worker suspected), or had some other reasons for controlling and monitoring the movements of his workers – or just this one worker – is impossible to say. In any case, this order was not an invitation to discuss the best arrangement or to trade reasons, and the disgruntled worker could only speculate: “There’s gotta be a reason for that.” Gotta be, but in this case, the boss had arrogated all reasons and reason-giving to himself; and — tellingly — that had led the worker to distrust him and question his order-giving authority.

I gathered this example by eavesdropping, I know, and I have only one person’s side of the story, but for now let it stand. It helps shore up the point that commands issued without explanation – or without giving others a share in reasons – can damage trust and undermine the authority of the one giving the commands. Of course, the two things are intimately related: what is authority without trust?

Serious conversations invite others to share in giving and finding reasons and in determining what there are reasons to do. They create opportunities for co-deliberation. To undertake the search for reasons or the giving of them, together, we are required to vest each other only with an authority equal to our own – the authority to make demands of each other (or to hold each other mutually accountable). Recognizing that authority in others and in ourselves won’t necessarily build trust, but it is difficult to trust someone who refuses or neglects to account for himself and who does not demand or ask the same of us.

A Model of Non-Coercive Leadership

This morning I was humbled to discover that almost everything I have been trying to learn about non-coercive power (or what I’ve been calling The Power of Asking) Sister Mary Lou Wirtz appears already to know. Or so it seems from an interview with Sister Wirtz in the National Catholic Reporter.

Wirtz belongs to the Franciscan order, but she also serves as President of the International Union of Superiors General and is a recognized leader of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The Leadership Conference, which represents about 600,000 nuns and sisters around the world, has been at loggerheads with the Vatican for some time now. After an assessment that found “serious doctrinal problems” with the LCWR (a finding Pope Francis recently reaffirmed), the Vatican in April of 2012 ordered the LCWR to place itself under the authority of three bishops. Now about 800 leaders from LCWR have gathered in Rome to meet and, presumably, respond.

Wirtz characterizes the meeting as an opportunity for reflection.

The concept of power of this world, as Jesus refers to it, of our governments and all that, is so often the power of oppression or putting down people or abusing power in many different ways. What we’re trying to reflect on is ‘What is the good aspect of power?’
…when we use power in the right sense, we can influence others and that influence itself is power. We’re sometimes afraid as religious to use that word, and yet I think in the very communal way in which we go about our ministries and service, that is a power.
We have the power to influence many, many people — through what we do and through our service, without us focusing on that as an end in itself, but as through that service.
…we need to continually look at how do we use our power. Because it is something that others will view, others will see, and it’s a model for them also.

She goes on to talk about the “prayerful dialogic manner” in which the sisters are approaching their upcoming session with the representative of the Vatican. She hopes that their manner will set the tone and example.

If LCWR can truly open a dialogic stance with CDF [the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith] for instance and bring clarity because of openness on both sides of the dialogue, I think that would be wonderful. I think that’s what they’re hoping for.
I hope…we can model what true dialogue is, that we can model that in such a way that it helps those on the other side — in other words, the Vatican side — to understand what we mean by dialogue.
That it is a mutual sharing by both sides of information, of whatever is on their minds — that there can be that kind of mutual openness to hear one another. That isn’t always felt at this time.
They’re [LCWR] being slow in the process, hoping that through taking the time and patience that the possibility for better dialogue can truly unfold.

Where have they found patience and, even, hope? According to Sister Wirtz, it comes from dialogue among themselves, “struggling with questions,” and “a deep inner struggle.” That struggle is generative, to borrow a word Sister Wirtz uses when talking about the biblical story of Esther. Esther is “a very rich image” for the women leaders gathered in Rome, says Wirtz, “even though we do not bear children.” In trying to model the practice, the behavior, the attitudes that they want to see and inspire in others, they are exercising and sharing their own power and creating new possibilites for others, a new order, a new model of power itself. “We bear life,” she says, “through what we pass on to others and how we serve others.”

Postscript: According to my WordPress stats, this post gets a lot of traffic, much more than I ever imagined it would when I wrote it. The search terms that bring people here almost sound like something out of a classroom assignment — “discuss non-coercive power” “what is non-coercive power?” and so on — and I suspect some of these visitors are trying to crib an answer to an incredibly complex and difficult question. There is much more to the subject than this one example suggests. Those who are looking for more than a quick hit might want to read the posts I’ve written on asking.

What Do Women Want? What They’re Asking For

Sasha Galbraith has a piece on Forbes today about Megan Brown, who launched a company called HatchedIt — a social calendar app, for planning, managing and coordinating events with friends and family. Much of it reads like a press release, a fluff piece about an entrepreneurial Mommy blogger, ripe for the kind of satire that Paul Rudnick dished out in The New Yorker last week. (But not, I should note, before Ruth Fowler beat him to the punch.)

What caught my eye was the title (“Lesson From a Woman of Wall Street: Ask For What You Want”), which promised to say something about asking; and what redeemed the article and kept it from being all fluff was Brown’s account of her rise through the male-dominated ranks of finance and her mockery of the “empty suits” with whom she used to work: “they all use a bevy of analogies like, ‘We all need to be rowing in the same direction’ and ‘picking the low-hanging fruit.’ You can’t understand anything they’re saying, but all the other men think they sound brilliant.” So here, I thought, is a woman schooled in the workings of power and language in the world of business.

For Brown, asking is something men expect; but it’s not something women do:

I also think there is a different way to manage men than you manage women… Men respond differently. I have to remind myself when dealing with a man, you need to be direct; you need to ask for what you need upfront; and you need to not be embarrassed or apologize. It’s a skill set that took me a long time to really understand in finance and I had to learn quickly to ramp up my career. But if not for those experiences, I don’t think I would understand that now, especially as we are looking for funding and partnerships, you really need to ask for what you want. And for a lot of women [in any industry or situation], that’s challenging.”

The trouble with this advice is that it rehearses stereotypes Brown probably learned from hanging around those empty suits. As research from the organization Catalyst shows, “it’s simply untrue” that women don’t ask.

For example, by looking at the career paths of over 4000 MBA grads from around the world, Catalyst found that women were more likely than men to ask for a variety of skill-building experiences and to proactively seek training opportunities. And we also found that women and men negotiated for a higher level position or greater compensation during the hiring process for their current job at equal rates.

Women do ask –but get little in return. Equally skilled men advance farther and more quickly than their female peers. In fact, we found that the $4600 pay gap that starts from day one grew to more than $31,000 several years down the track—even when women asked.

The Catalyst study concedes that “women who toot their own horn do get ahead –and are happier at work too,” but tooting your own horn is not really the same as asking. The issue is that when women ask, their requests are not being met. In a Washington Post article, Catalyst researchers Nancy Carter and Christine Silva point out that “people routinely take a tougher stance against women in negotiations than they do against men” and that talent management systems can be biased against women.

If entrenched sexism in the business environment affects everything from how women are received when they ask, to what they think they can ask for, as well as ideas of what power looks like, how it’s created and how it’s shared, then it might conceivably prevent some women from asking for what they want, or make it seem “challenging” to do so, as Megan Brown says. But I’m afraid that merely advising women “to ask for what you need upfront” is a bit like telling them they just have to lean in.