Pushing Change

My last blog was on the topic of getting people to change.  I suggested that it is important to ‘meet people where they are’ and ‘build bridges’ between different viewpoints on a foundation of shared values.  I am expanding on that idea in today’s blog, giving more concrete details and examples.

The harder you push a rock, the farther and faster it moves.  That is simple physics: F=ma (Newton’s second law).  Pushing a person harder, however, doesn’t always make them move more.  Sometimes they get stubborn and resist.  Sometimes they push back.  In part, this is because a person isn’t a single thing like a rock.  A person is made of many connected, movable parts that are physical, emotional, and mental.  We have deeply rooted ideas and intentions that have been built upon for years.  We have automatic and instinctive reactions that can be engaged in milliseconds without thought.  Some of those instincts include pushing harder in situations and treating things like rocks, even when we know things are more complicated.  We can see this in ourselves when we push our own bodies or our own minds obliviously.  People who diet to lose weight might focus on the equation that calories out minus calories in equals calories burned because it is a simple thermodynamics.  Yet, when we stress the body by demanding it start burning calories, it can respond with adaptive thermogenesis, changing metabolism to make it harder to lose weight.

A good summary of some of the factors at work in adaptive thermogenesis is available in Rosenbaum, M., & Leibel, R. L. (2010). Adaptive thermogenesis in humans. International journal of obesity, 34, S47-S55.  It outlines how decreasing body fat can trigger decreases in baseline (resting) metabolism, increases in appetite, lethagy, and a shift of body composition from more muscle to more fat.  These changes are mediated by the hormones of leptin, thyroid, cortisol as well as brain activation in the hypothalamus and its connections to the sympathetic and parasymthethic nervous systems.  More information about impacts of organic pollutants, probiotics, calcium, and sleep on these changes can be found in
Tremblay, A., Royer, M. M., Chaput, J. P., & Doucet, E. (2013). Adaptive thermogenesis can make a difference in the ability of obese individuals to lose body weight. International journal of obesity, 37(6), 759-764.  For those wishing more details about how higher muscle efficiency leads to more fat in the body, see Rosenbaum, M., Vandenborne, K., Goldsmith, R., Simoneau, J. A., Heymsfield, S., Joanisse, D. R., … & Leibel, R. L. (2003). Effects of experimental weight perturbation on skeletal muscle work efficiency in human subjects. American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, 285(1), R183-R192.

Similarly, when we try to push our own brains to stop worrying about an important presentation or getting enough sleep, we can find that the harder we try, the worse it gets. Looking at the clock and knowing the time won’t turn off the part of the brain that is worrying, although it satisfies the part that wants to measure how well or poorly things are going.

In such situations, psychotherapists sometimes use a technique known as paradoxical intent.  A therapist/doctor/authority tells the person to do engage more in the problem behavior, instead of less.  In the case of sleep, you might tell a patient to stay awake as long as possible.  Although it initially seems counter-intuitive, having the patient switch sides and join with the forces they have been fighting can sometimes release the deadlock that arises when two opposing views have reached a stalemate.

This technique was first described by Viktor Frankl who is famous for developing Logotherapy or meaning (Logos) therapy after his deadening experience as a prisoner in the Auschwitz concentration camp of Nazi Germany.  Both are described in his famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning. Diverging from the earlier work of Freud who focused on people’s internal conflict of drives (most famously sexual drives), Frankl focused on the internal conflicts of values and how to resolve them by identifying meaning and responsibility in life.  He believed that excessive worry and attention could be corrected by redirecting attention to what is truly important.  Paradoxical intention was one of his tools to help generate the space needed for shifting attention and intention.

A friend of mine coincidentally also blogged recently on the issue of “talking to conservatives” referring to the use of improv and paradoxical intention.  He referenced a pair of interesting studies from Israel (2014, 2016) where subjects watched a video clip aimed at encouraging the belief of Israelis in the moral strength of their stance in continuing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  This intervention had an overall effect of increasing Right-wing willingness to compromise as well as shifting voting patterns to the Left.  The authors noted in the design of their study that single exposures sometimes had no effect when the video reinforced a Right-wing viewpoint instead of creating a paradox, thus requiring them to make multiple exposures.

Of course, you cannot just apply Paradoxical Intention blindly as it were some type of panacea.  Like any technique, it must be applied at the right time and in the right circumstances.  There are times when eating more makes you gain weight, and there are times when it is necessary to eat more to lose weight.  The challenge is to know when and how long.  And, it is important to have a clear focus on what the true goal is: weight loss vs. life extension vs. cancer survival vs. physical appearance for a week vs. a year vs. a decade.

For me, the clearest analogy I have for understanding this challenge is the practice of Push hands.  Push Hands (推手 Tuīshǒu) is a two person exercise from the study of Tai Chi (太極 tàijí).  At one level, it can be seen as a competition between two people who are trying to push each other off balance.  As a deeper practice, however, it emphasizes the art of listening, developing a sensitivity to your partner so that you can meet and blend with any of their intentions to push you.  Part of this process is to also learn your own “root” or connection to ground.  Just as meaning for Frankl creates a lodestar for one’s life, someone who is pushing must maintain a constant alignment of their body in the field of gravity so that each push comes from their root and any external pushes can be guided back there.  This alignment is not of the body alone, as the mind must share the same grounded stability.  Unaligned action creates stress and strain.  Simply stated, if mind and body aren’t well rooted, it is easy to find yourself off balance, especially if you are trying to push someone else.

When one invests the effort to listen and join with another person, there is less effort needed to redirect them as you can feel the natural directions in which they will want to move, and you will anticipate the natural rhythm with which they initiate action.

Joining someone is often the easiest way to get them to change course.

Perhaps the greatest challenge in push hands training is to surrender aspects of the Self that create tension and inefficiency.  Our own will and intentions can be our greatest vulnerabilities when they are too strong or too disconnected from the world around us.  Working with another person creates a unique forum for a mutual process of learning and exploration when there is trust and shared understanding.

Of course, I still want to bring these very human interactions and ideas back to the central concern of my first blog: man and technology.  In the last chapter of his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl expressed concern that the practice of psychiatry needed to be “rehumanized” as it had so much focus on “mechanisms.”  Now, almost fifty years later, the same concerns seem to apply even more, and not just to psychiatry.  With the acceleration of information tools and technology, we attempt to digitize and capture more information and more processes in “big data”. We automate and computerize more tasks and decisions.  We build more technologies with an intent to measure and assist with our lives and dreams, pushing ourselves and each other.   Such change challenges us to maintain a centering humanity amidst the new technologically driven systems we create whether they be scientific, economic, political or social.  We are called to create technology that can meet and blend with human sensibilities, human values, and human meaning – to keep our instruments, our businesses, and our governments grounded and aligned.

It seems a paradox, but it may be that the same technology that is “dehumanizing” us may also be the tool that can help guide us back to ourselves.

If you have ideas on how this can happen, leave a comment!

One thought on “Pushing Change”

  1. Milton,
    Thanks for sharing this with us. I’ve read and thought about all three posts. This one, in particular, was especially pertinent, for me, considering the reversion to a kind of “tribalism” that we are experiencing in our culture, and with the realization that I, in my complete bewilderment with opposing political points of view, am stuck, separated, as many of us are, by an abyss of ideas that cannot find common ground. I love the metaphor of Push Hands and the observation that one of keys to push hands is a deep unfiltered kind of listening where, ideally, “the way” becomes apparent outside the bounds of ego. Thanks!

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