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Metacognition: Thinking About Thinking
Adam Blatner, M.D.

This is the fifth in a 6-lecture class
for the Fall, 2013 program of the Senior University Georgetown

September 25, 2013


"I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure that what you heard was what I meant." Read that line again. Language, communication, is fraught with many problems, and people have been writing about this for a century or more. The illusion is, as Dr. Seuss' character, Horton the Elephant, as he committed to protecting the little grains of life in Who-ville, that a person can say, "I meant what I said and said what I meant."---and that this should be therefore clearly understood by others. But it often isn't, and this disconnect in language is courteously avoided and often goes unnoticed.

Another quote: Information is a difference that makes a difference. Gregory Bateson was an anthropologist and communications scholar in the 1960s and noted that in cultures that have no need to discern, say, different shades of red, such differences go unnoticed. Part of the reason there has been a great increase in the English vocabulary is that as people explore new territory they find that the old words don't do the job, don't explain new things discovered there. Often we discover the same old thing but recognize it in new ways and thus want to call it out, name it, to differentiate the new way the old thing is, rather than the old way.

Language is problematical for a number of reasons. First, one has the illusion that one can be understood. If the other person doesn't speak your language, maybe they don't hear, so say it again in a louder voice---and slowly enunciate: "I said, where can one find a loo?" That ought to take care of it, now. Darn these foreigners, why can they be civilized?"  It's only a small skip to the other British trope in My Fair Lady, "Why can't a woman be more like a man?"

There are admittedly caricatures, for laughs, but the truth is not that far away. We don't systematically teach kids in the 8th grade that they will be mis-understood, and that expectations that they be correctly understood are grossly unrealistic. For one thing, they are often not only not clear, they are often communicating double messages, like I need help but I want you to leave me alone because I can do it myself---except maybe this one time---but then back off.

So language and mixed messages are a part of mind. We think in language, at least the part that can think explicit thoughts. We also think in images and feel intuitions, but they tend to be blurred, easily pushed out of consciousness, and need a verbal part to act as a lawyer to bring them to the surface and fix them in words. Often the words aren't the right words, or aren't enough. This is where a good lawyer, a more articulate one, a better vocabulary, helps. Most folks operate with a vocabulary that doesn't much extend into the interpersonal or language space.

A User-Friendly Language for Psychology

So how do you feel? Come on, out with it! But the truth is that folks don't know how they feel, often, and don't know how to find words to express it. That they don't trust the audience is a given, but even if they trust whoever they would disclose to, they're afraid to be misunderstood. Worse, they're afraid to be understood but only in a way that would render them guilty. They have inner prosecuting attorneys yelling accusations in their mind's ear---you've heard of the mind's eye---the imagination? -- we have mind's ears, we hear what we fear hearing. If we learn how, by the way, we can even learn to hear what we want to hear, and put that into words, but less than 1% of people know that trick. I try to teach it to people.

Psychologists got into this when they were trying to work out the patterns and unfortunately used terms that were laden with a sense of shameful pathology. If you're introverted, that carries a judgment---this a psychiatrist friend told me his daughter had told him when he noted the granddaughter was introverted. He meant it as a matter of fact observation, even a bit of a complement. The little girl was empowered enough to say to her grandfather, "Don't play with me. I'm playing." She meant that her little inner play was being enacted just fine and although comments from the outside may have been meant to be helpful, they were not. So the kid was a bit introverted---but that could perhaps also have been seen as Granpa's "pathologizing" by the daughter.

There are a lot of words that can seem annoying, judgmental, toxic, or just reminding of other people who used them in other ways. We cannot begin to anticipate this, but we can acknowledge this dynamic and work out in close relationships---and other kinds---"I don't like that word. It means something else to me than it does to you. Please don't use it." It's a bit of a clean-up process in a family to realize that like computer clearn-ups, it needs to be done on occasion. You should do this for yourself, too: Are there words that others have used that are even faintly annoying and you would rather they use other words? Consider that you might even help them find a word you wouldn't mind hearing."

But what most people do is short-circuit. Without thinking it through, if I'm annoyed, you must be trying to annoy me. That you could push my button so accurately without meaning to? Come on! You had to mean it!  But really, the other person did not mean to bother you in the least way. Taking responsibility for noticing your triggers is a skill. Related to this is telling the other person quickly. No one wants to hear that "You had your fly open all day yesterday." Why didn't you say something? I didn't want to upset you. But what happens is that someone says, "You've been saying that for years and I've had it with you! (Screaming) I want a divorce! What? What!!??  It's even a fair bet the breach in the relationship may never be explained. Saying what? Honey-buns? 

The truth is that many people don't communicate because they feel that any expression of how they feel will be overridden and they'll be shamed for even objecting. "Oh, can't you take a joke?" "I was just kidding." "You know I like you." If it's a racial slur, and you object you know what they'll say: But some of my best friends..."

The illusion here is that communications should be clear, they are clear, and misunderstandings are unnecessary. One tends to take either and I'm not okay you're okay position and be deferential, apologetic, and inclined to give in or tolerate abuse, or one tendes to be I'm okay you're not okay and blame, often feeling entitled to return what is felt as offensive with abuse.  It helps to shift to a matter-of-fact voice and ask what the communication problem was.

Psychoanalysis had tons of words for psychological stuff, but many if not most were pathologizing, implying by their choice of words that the one to whom they applied were unacceptably messed up. We have needed a set of terms that most folks can use to get clarification without having to feel ashamed or resentful about the words. I use the terms "role," and associated terms to treat situations like scenes in a play. Words are less toxic that way. Everyone has seen plays, knows about rehearsals, and knows that in rehearsal people can say the wrong things, and that there's better and worse ways to phrase things. This is part of the art, and it's understood.

Indeed, in plays, one even notices more readily the nonverbal quality. It's harder to hear you when you are on that pedestal yelling at me down here. Responding to nonverbal communication is a big part of language---I touched on it last time and speak more about it now.

But first the point again: We need to talk---and that means we need to talk about the way we talk, the procedure for interrupting, for re-engaging, our facial expression, our accent or pacing. We need to recognize clearly, both of us equally, that mis-communication can and does happen.

 ---is .of

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