Posted by: aphr | April 25, 2014

Disagreeing like a friend

Ever been in a situation where you’re asked something that you don’t immediately get all ecstatic about?

  • “Can you finish another 30 page report for me by tomorrow?”
  • “Will you look after my dog while I’m on my back-packing tour to India?”
  • “Would you go to bed with me?”

I’m sure you have been told to avoid “Yes, but…” in conversations. And I can’t argue with that. The typical recommendation by your happy-times-always-smiling US-born communications trainer is to say “Yes, and…” instead.

Now anybody with half a brain will see right through that and feel like you’re shitting them. “Yes I totally want to spend the night with you. And I have work in the morning, so I’ll go home now”, yeah… right… lol…

Here’s something I have tried with incredible success over the last year or so.
Just say “No, but…”

  • “30 pages? Tomorrow? No, off course not. That’s crazy. But if you tell me which three numbers you really need, so that you can hold that performance dialogue tomorrow, I can find them and email them to you within the hour!”
  • “No, I’m not really a dog person. But I have a good friend who loves the shit out of dogs and she’s super responsible. I’m happy to ask her!”nobuts
  • “Nope, sorry, not happening, but I like the part where we dance and flirt and kiss, how about we do more of that?”

Do you recognise the Ninja skills going on here?
With this approach you have said your “no” clearly and unmistakeably. You are not hiding it with rhethorical twists. You establish eye level with the other person, you’re being respected, you have an opinion, you stand your ground, and your “no” is not disputable. But you are ending on a positive note. You are indeed helping them with their problem, you are focussing on their needs and adressing them. You are not just on eye-level, but you are a friend. A partner. A trusted advisor.

Good luck trying that one out!


PS: No, this is not a promise that I’ll continue updating this blog more than once or twice a decade, but I have a lot of ideas and
insights to share and when I find the time, I might… 🙂

Posted by: aphr | December 17, 2009

Tolerance triangles

We do not have to be best friends with everyone, but wouldnt it be nice to get along at least?

If Bob does not get along with someone, there is psychological pain involved. That is why Bob hardly ever reflects on the situation. “Bob + Alice = –” is all he sees.

Usually however, there will be a reason for this, like say Bob and Alice are neighbors. Alice might like to listen to techno music at night while Bob likes to sleep then. So we could look at the tolerance triangle Bob — Loud Techno Music ++ Alice.

Tolerance Triangle Grid

We see how the conflict is understood via context and abstraction.

Trinagles are usually either marked ++ on all sides or they have exactly two negative edges.

See how the — between Bob and Alice is part of an understood context now?

What is this good for? Easy: it is now not a personal problem any more. It is no use to say: you suck. Ist much more constructive to say: your music disturbes my sleeping. Of corse the problem is not solved yet, but we have made a step. Further abstraction might help even more. The triangle concept give us a very intuitive visual aid to analyze the situation. That we call them tolerance triangles might help reminds you of a great way to solve the conflict after drawing them all 🙂

Of corse this is an incredibly easy example – trying to  uncover the triangles behind your real conflicts might be a lot harder. I’d still give it a try.

Tolerance triangles are also related to Bias and Errors in Attribution, the most prominent mistake being: If we see someone else giving a very small tip, we attribute his behavior to his person -> he is greedy! Whereas we never attribute our own behaviour to our person, but we always attribute it to the situation. If WE give a small tip, the food must have been bad.

Posted by: aphr | November 17, 2009

Influencing Decisions

attraction and compromise

attraction and compromise

Often when we choose between two alternatives, we actually choose which criterium to value more. For example let us compare usb drives. We might agree that they should be as small as possible, but also have as much storage capacity as possible. Now if we compare two drives A and B. A is large and has a lot of storage, B is smaller, but has less storage. We have to decide, do we want the larger drive with more storage or the smaller drive with less storage?

Of corse this decision can be obvious for some. Many customers might  not care about size, but rather about price etc. But let us assume for a moment that we have a customer who thinks just about these criteria and is not sure which to pick.

If we want them to pick the small drive B, we can propose a third drive C that is even smaller and has even less storage room than B. They will then be very likely to ultimately pick B as a compromise. We could also influence their decision in that direction by offering a drive D that is inferior to B in both categories, while it is not inferior to A in size. That is, D would be of a size between A and B, but have even less storage than B does. They will then be very likely to pick B by the rule of attraction.

Of corse by symmetry one can find C* or D* that promote A just the same.

A possible explanation is that people do not always evaluate two possibilities via some kind of utility function but rather count arguments towards one and towards the other. “B is better than D in all regards” counts as an argument for B, just like “B is the compromise” does. Influencing people might be  like a pro-con-game where you never have to invalidate the cons, but just give a huge quantity of credible pro arguments.

More on  changing minds can be found here:



Posted by: aphr | August 17, 2009

Requiem for a dream

Navi asked for this post, thanks for the suggestion; so here goes…

Holo Deck

It is easy and fun to influence what happens in your dreams!

There is a phenomenon called lucid dreaming. A lucid dream is a dream in which the sleeper is aware that he or she is dreaming. When the dreamer is lucid, he or she can actively participate in and often manipulate the imaginary experiences in the dream environment (wikipedia).

There seem to be many ways to induce lucid dreams, for me this easy way works:

A)  practice dream-memory. This isn’t only a means to an end, it’s fun in itself. Try and remember something from your dreams every day. Try and remember a little more than you remember per default. Try and keep that memory throughout the day (dream diaries are supposed to help, never done that though…)

B) be aware of dream-indicators.  If you read the same text twice and it’s a completely different text, or if you do not remember what you did 15 minutes ago. Or if the person you’re talking to is suddenly a completely different person than they were a minute ago. Or if you are writing an school-exam when you’re really 40… face it: you are dreaming!

C) sleep a lot. This is also a fun habbit 🙂 Try to get at least 8 hours of sleep, so that you’ll have long REM sleep phases in the morning.

D) make reality checks a habit.  Now here’s the only “investment” required for lucid dreaming. You should make it a habit to check your current situation for dream-indicators about every two hours at least. (“Is this person who he was 10 minutes ago? Do I remember what I did 15 minutes ago? Let’s read that sign again and see if it has changed…”) Once every hour would be even better.

Now if you are in rem sleep, dreaming away, and habitually make a reality check, chances are good you will realize that you are dreaming. Enjoy your lucid dream. Try flying, it’s fun! And don’t be so excited about it that it wakes you up, or you’ll spoil it! 🙂

If your dream fades away into nothing you’re likely to wake up. If you want a little more lucid dreaming, try rubbing your hands until the dream is solid again.

I read somewhere that lucid dreams can be used to exercise motorial skills like skate-boarding by the way. Also there’s people who use this direkt link to their unconscious mind for creative tasks like composing.

Posted by: aphr | June 30, 2009

How To Take a Nap

Cat Nap

Image via Flickr by Daveybot

Most people are mildly sleep-deprived. Taking a short and effective nap can be helpful to perform certain tasks afterward, plus it feels good.

Some awaken after only few minutes of sleep feeling deeply refreshed while others feel even more exhausted after a siesta. The happy news: There are techniques to get from the second group into the first.

Be aware that 25 minutes are often enough for a good power nap. This is how to do it:

Proper preparation

  • have a glass (or bottle) of drinking water close to your bed
  • have a reason to get up again
  • put all your worries aside (maybe on contextual lists?)
  • take off anything that feels uncomfortable
  • have warm hands and warm feet
  • make sure you are not interrupted – tell everyone that your sleep is holy and what you’ll do to them should they disturb it
  • feel free to drink coffee right before you take the nap, but try to avoid caffeine 1-5 hours before…
  • set an alarm to 25 minutes (or other timings, if you personally find those more effective).

Falling asleep quickly

  • darken the room
  • don’t worry about falling asleep. If you just lie there relaxing for 25 minutes without falling asleep, that’s totally fine.
  • if you drift away and have dream-like fantasies, lose yourself in these
  • if any thought intrudes on you and bothers you, do not chase it away. Ask: “what is this thing? Why does it want my attention?” Consider writing it down.

Getting up with ease

This is the part that most ineffective nappers have problems with.

  • turn the lights on and instantly drink the glass of water
    …that was a great first step, you need to follow up with the next step:
  • remember why you need to get up and why it is still important
  • get out of bed right away. don’t ever hit that “snooze another 5 minutes” button
  • if you need to get your circulation going:  pull your knees up to your chest and then straighten your legs twice – that should be enough

As an experienced power napper you will start waking up a minute before your alarm even sounds. Get up then – napping becomes even more effective if you let your system decide on the exact timings rather than relying on a clock.

Posted by: aphr | June 20, 2009

Is It a Tough Call? – Toss a Coin!

Image by Roomic Cube

image by Roomic Cube

Decisions based on gut instinct are not always the worst, since the amount of information that flows into them unconsciously is often vast.

If the decisions are important, most people try to chose based on rational criteria instead. Sometimes this  is just the right thing to do, but sometimes the thing we need to decide on is very personal or emotional. The right piece of advice for these decisions might be: “Listen to your heart.”

The importance of the decision might however stop you from accessing your gut feeling about it.

Here is a trick: toss a coin to decide.

That is, of course, not the actual trick. The magic happens after you have decided that heads means you will chose A and tails means that you will go for B, right at the moment when you catch the coin and check the result. Usually you will be either happy or disappointed in the very moment that you see what the coin has decided.

You can then, obviously, decide based on this sudden emotional reaction.

Once you decide that the problem you want to use this on is the sort of problem that should be solved with this method, do yourself a favor and do not try to find any rational reasoning to back up the coin-gut decision afterward. If this is a “gut-feeling-matter”, your gut feeling is reason enough.

Posted by: aphr | June 16, 2009

The Power of Habits

Everybody who has tried to overcome habits like nail biting or checking email twice an hour knows how difficult it can be to break a habit.

Vice versa, if one hopes to introduce a new behavior into ones life, for example to work out regularly, making it a habit is a powerful and effective way to do so.

The best part: if you know a little bit about habits, it is not very hard to develop, change or drop habits. There are hundreds of blogs, websites, books and personal trainers who specialize on that field. ZenHabits is one place to go, this is another.

This post was triggered by me stumbling upon the following display of (potentially) habitual behavior while reading the International Journal of Game Theory (working on my thesis):

In the two player public good game, each player receives some money and then decides on a part of this to be invested into the public good. For each dollar he invests, he receives 0.75 dollars back and the other player receives the same amount. Investment into the public good thus increases the total payoff, but not the individual payoff of the investor. While superrationality or altruism explain cooperation in this game, experiments have shown that many players invest substantially even when they know that they are playing with a phantom partner and that their decision does not effect any payoff but their own.

A possible explanation is that individuals decide based on learned habits, rather than the situation at hand. Since cooperative behavior is usually rewarded, many humans learn to cooperate and continue to do so regardless of the game played.

Posted by: aphr | June 11, 2009

Silence the Clamor – write contextual lists

“I ought to book my flight soon” – “It will be Todd’s birthday on Friday.” – “Or should I go by train?” – “What should I get Todd?”

Shopping List (via Flickr)

Sometimes the many things that you keep in mind distract you from the task at hand. They are like little voices each wanting to be heard, causing a lot of noise and generating stress. Unprocessed questions add to the noise.

Participants in a conference sometimes behave similarly. That is when they feel that they are not heard. If you write down those facts-to-remember and those nagging questions, the participants inside your head will stop yelling at each other. They have been heard, they are satisfied for the moment. And you can concentrate and start actually doing all these things.

This only works if you know that you’ll look at the notes you have taken down later on. Writing stuff down and throwing the paper away does not appease the voice inside your head (nor is it any good for much else).

And if you write lists, write contextual lists. Put “butter” and “milk” on the shopping list and put “find out about phd program in London” on the “todo at my pc” list.

Downside: Firstly, many people are so obsessed with their system of todo-lists that they spend more time with the bureaucracy of lists instead of actually getting anything done. Secondly, there are complicated situations in which it is essential to have uncounted things and details in mind in order to make the right decision. If you habitually use lists and have a one-thing-at-a-time mindset you might not be ideally prepared for these situations.

Posted by: aphr | June 11, 2009

Recursion – solving the smaller case first.

When solving a problem that involves a certain number n of similar objects, it sometimes helps to solve the same problem for (n-1) objects. If one sees an easy way to compute the solution for all n objects from a solution for (n-1) objects, one can often calculate the (n-1)-solution by solving (n-2) first – and start building a solution by solving with 1 object at first.

Example: In the Tower of Hanoi game the player has to move a stack of disks of different sizes to another rod, obeying the following rules:

  • Only one disk may be moved at a time.
  • Each move consists of taking the upper disk from one of the rods and sliding it onto another rod, on top of the other disks that may already be present on that rod.
  • No disk may be placed on top of a smaller disk.

Tower of Hanoi
It is easy to move a tower of size 5 from rod 1 to rod 3, as long as you know how to move a tower of size 4. Simply move 4 pieces to rod 2, then move the largest piece from rod 1 to rod 3 and finally move 4 pieces from rod 2 to rod 3. We have reduced the problem to n-1 pieces. How do we move n-1 pieces to rod 2? well, we simply move n-2 pieces to rod 3 first…
In this manner we reduce the problem to the act of moving a single piece at a time.

Solving problems recursively – by reducing them to smaller problems time and again – is not always the fastest way to get a result and often involves remembering a lot of smaller solutions or writing them down. Recursive solutions are however elegant, easy to communicate and quick to code as a computer program.

Riddle: The thirteen pirates on the “Black Seagull” have a clear chain of command with captain Blackbeard being number one and lazy Pete being number 13 in the chain. Using an old map they find a treasure of 1000 gold pieces. They now divide the money in the following way:
Blackbeard, being the first in command, proposes a distribution. All pirates then individually and selfishly decide whether they accept the split or not. If more than 50% of the pirates do not accept the split, they throw the first in command over boards. The command goes to the next pirate, who proposes a split, etc. It is safe to assume that the pirates are revenue-maximizing economic agents who are capable of thinking the situation through to the end.
If you were captain Blackbeard, which split do you propose to ensure that you (1) do not get eaten by sharks and (2) keep the largest part of the money at the same time?

Posted by: aphr | June 10, 2009

Utility and Risk Aversion

When asked, most people would prefer a payment of 1 billion US$ to a lottery that gives them either 2 billion US$ or nothing, both with a chance of 50%.

This is rational choice, if you appreciate that the difference in utility between having nothing and having a billion dollars is actually quite large, while it does not matter as much, whether one person owns one or two billion dollars. They are vastly rich in both cases. Examplary Utility Function

The personal utility lost when giving away the first billion outweighs the personal utility gained by the transition from US$ 1 bill. to  US$ 2 bill.

While the expected value of the lottery equals 1 billion dollars, the expected utility is lower than the utility of the risk-free payment. This behavior is known as risk aversion.

It follows that a person who bears financial risk – depending on his personal risk aversion – can increase his utility by buying insurance against the risk, even if the insurance company charges considerably more than the expected cost and makes good profit.

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