Navigating Blind Spots (in Others and Ourselves)

A lot of discourse and argument foment around people’s blind spots, and interaction often fails when we try to fight blind spots. Nobody wants to keep a blind spot — we either want to resolve it, or send it back beyond the purview of our consciousness. Understanding how blind spots work can help us navigate them when we encounter them.

Disregarding intention for a moment, let’s borrow the four levels of knowledge/proficiency/whatever-it’s-called:

1. We don’t know that we don’t know.
2. We know that we don’t know.
3. We don’t know that we know.
4. We know that we know.

In the context of working with people with blind spots, the last of the four is irrelevant i.e. the blind spot is gone. But I list the fourth step to reinforce the sense of progression through the levels of knowledge.

Blind spots live in step 2: we know that we don’t know something. Step 1 is flat out lack of knowledge — the very conception of something sits outside of our awareness. Step 3 is a matter of integrating knowledge more comfortably and consistently.

Blind spots always have a context, and act like a bandage: things fit right for a person the way things are, but something can chafe at the edges of the bandage. If you land on the bandage itself, the bandage (blind spot) protects and obscures. If you land outside the bandage, the blind spot is irrelevant. The chafing happens at the edges. Awareness works the same way.

Intention behind a blind spot takes us one of two directions: either we want to know and grow, to get to step 3, or we don’t want to know and grow, so we can return to step 1. We can talk a lot about the reasons behind why a person would choose one or the other, but that’s not really relevant at the moment, and here’s why: the four stages above also describe an emotional process, not just a mental one.

That may seem like a surprise, especially since we’re talking about knowledge, proficiency, and other apparently mind-oriented words. So let’s be clear right now: the emotional stages matter just as much as the mental stages, and work in tandem with the mental stages while remaining separate from them. Moving from one step to another requires both mental growth (or regression), and emotional growth (or regression). Consider two examples of this in action.

I work with a professor who thinks she isn’t very good with technology, but she’s actually pretty skilled. She just has bad luck when she tries to figure out why a piece of software works a certain way, and she’ll make a wrong assumption because of crappy interface design. Most recently, she wanted to change the people with whom she was sharing documents on her university’s cloud storage (similar to dropbox). Instead of changing the sharing permissions, she managed to unsync the folder. After a couple of weeks, she realized something was amiss, and gave me a call. I figured out what happened, and it took (thankfully only) a couple of hours to straighten out the issues with multiple versions of her documents. She felt bad about what happened, and frustrated over the whole issue, but I told her that she did exactly what made sense, based on the interface. That kind of validation helps keep our successful working relationship going year after year. I rarely hear from her because she’s bold enough to figure out technology on her own. Any time I do hear from her, I know she’s got a real puzzle on her hands.

She calls me because she wants to move from step 2 to step 3, but gets stymied. I arrive, figure out what’s going on, and then frame it in such a way as to validate her efforts. That’s the emotional component that helps her recognize that she really does know more than she thinks she does. While I do give her a technical explanation, that’s not enough — the emotional validation reaffirms her efforts, she works through the problems, and then I don’t hear from her for months at a time. That’s how I know everything’s going well.

Contrast this with another professor I’ve known for just as long. He’s nice, articulate, we’ve had good conversations, and he’s messy. In his office and on his computer, he uses all of the resources available to him to do what he wants to do. When he calls for help, I look for the quickest solution I can find for him, or I look for the most reasonable technical explanation of why we can’t get past a particular roadblock. I got him a kick-ass desktop computer because he’s the only person I’ve met who doesn’t close documents. His machine will slow to a crawl over the course of a few weeks, as he will leave hundreds of documents open. Literally hundreds. He needs a ton of storage to handle the duplicate files he accidentally creates. When it came time to get that new computer, I suggested that I export his (ungodly amount of) email to a file — a file which took hours for his old computer to create — so that he could access the archive on his new computer. He loved that solution…except I never set it up. I just transferred the archive file to his new machine, configured the email program on his new machine to get his new email, and never attached the old archive. He never said a word. If he ever gets another computer, I’ll do the same thing. I showed him a straightforward and simple way to back up his files. I know he never does it, because it’s not automated, and he has too much crap to fit into any cloud storage. I also know that if his machine crashes and he loses all of his data, he won’t care that much. So, I don’t care that much.

He’s decent with technology, but never had any intention of improving beyond his very basic, functional computer literacy. He’s the kind of guy who downloads Adobe Flash and clicks right through the installation process to finish it as fast as he can, unknowingly picking up garbage software along the way. I’ve told him about how he can avoid some problems with his computer with a couple of small habit changes, but he doesn’t care, and that’s fine. I find the most economical solutions for both of us, and both of us are very happy with that. When he gets stuck in step 2, he wants to return to step 1. He doesn’t care how, so that gives me latitude to find solutions that make it easier for both of us, not just him. That keeps our successful working relationship going year after year.

These two examples show the basics behind how I work with both the mental and emotional steps of knowledge/proficiency/etc., and how I shift my approach depending on which direction a person intends to go. To be sure, these are simplified examples. More often, a person wants to go both directions at the same time i.e. for some things, a person wants to grow and know more, while avoiding other things. With the foundation of the previous two examples, here’s a story of how I dealt with a hardcore voluntary blind spot in a high-stakes context.

A friend of mine, let’s call him John, was raised as a Catholic. He married a hardcore Catholic woman, let’s call her Martha. We’re talking major pro-life, ultra-right-wing, woman-stays-home-and-pumps-out-babies kind of person, coupled with a college degree and modern expectations. To my (admittedly limited) knowledge, Catholics worship Jesus’ mother as much as they worship Jesus, and that matriarchal tone plays through everything the Catholic church is about. John had a highly collaborative marriage, understanding that Martha was queen to his kingship. Martha was smart, driven, and dedicated.

John and Martha and their (very young) two kids came through town on the way to visit John’s parents, and they asked if I wanted to stop by their hotel and visit, since that was probably the only real chance I’d get to see John. I said sure, and I made it clear I’d be happy to see them both, having learned to always include significant others, and let them choose to decline if they want. The next evening, the three of us sat chatting in the empty hotel lobby, Martha holding a baby monitor to listen to her sleeping children in their nearby hotel room.

In short order, Martha asked me about my religious stance. I told her that while I was spiritual in some things, I didn’t subscribe to a particular religion. I felt there were good things to pull from religion, and that it wasn’t an accident that the core tenets of major religions shared the same principles. After a pause, she asked with restrained consternation, “But what about serious issues? Like, what about abortion? How does that fit into your spirituality? Or does it?” I smiled at John who returned a plastic smile, one which I long recognized in him as, “my best move is to see how this plays out,” and we both knew I had officially entered a Test. Martha, who had marched in pro-life parades and wanted to see the end of Planned Parenthood, just asked me a pointed question that would not only determine whether I was worth being John’s friend, but whether I was a worthy human being.

I said, “I’m both. And I’ll explain how.” Martha’s face wrinkled with the idea that this was even possible, but her polite Catholic upbringing required her to stay engaged.

I continued, “Personally, I’m pro-life. I believe in the value of life, the sanctity of life, even within the womb. If for whatever reason, I somehow put myself in a position where I got someone pregnant, I would want them to keep the baby. That’s where I stand,” Martha went wide-eyed at my proclamation. “But here’s the problem with abortion. When we ask if abortion is okay, it’s already too late. Something went way wrong, for a woman to be in a position where she considers abortion as an option. We can talk all we want to, about under what circumstances it’s okay or not okay to get an abortion, and a lot of the abortion controversy surrounds that conversation. I think that’s a mistake. It’s too late! The conversation needs to be around how a woman finds herself in that awful position in the first place. Maybe she made a careless decision. Why would she choose that? Maybe something awful happened to her, and now she’s faced with a terrible choice. Maybe her life is at stake, and she and her family face a terrible choice. What a woman needs in these situations is support. Support during a time of making a terrible choice. But the truth is, she needed support before the situation came up. That’s what we don’t talk about in this country. We don’t talk about the before part. We don’t talk about how we as a culture and as a country have certain ideologies and habits that put us in a position where people end up having to make terrible choices. That, to me, is the real problem. When we talk about abortion, we’re already too late.

“And that’s where I’m pro-choice. Can you imagine being in a spot where you’re truly asking yourself, is the baby better off dead? That’s awful. Simply awful. I can’t even conceive of that, of dealing with that. But people do. And if they do, if they’re already in that position, then I support whatever choice they make. I may personally be pro-life, but I can’t presume to know what it would take for someone to end up in a position like that, and then have to make a choice. They need support. And until we as a culture and a country do a better job helping people not get into that position in the first place, the least I can do for someone is support them, regardless of what they choose. …That’s how I’m both.”

Martha’s face showed of shock and awe (while John was beaming), and after a moment, she uttered, “Wow. …I never considered it like that.” Then she smiled, and said, “You know, John was right, you’re a really interesting person.” The conversation soon finished amiably from there, and I got a warm hug from both of them. I wasn’t sure if I had really succeeded in landing that speech well, until John called me the next morning and said that Martha specifically asked if I would join them all for breakfast before they left town (which I did).

Quick epilogue before we get into analysis of that speech: that was one of the last times I talked with John (or Martha, for that matter). By that time, we weren’t particularly close, and our diverging lives led us to pretty much lose contact. I mention this to emphasize that my speech didn’t change Martha or John’s thinking, but instead validated my connection with them, within their value systems. They both knew I disagreed with some of their beliefs, and my speech put us in a safe space and opened the door for future influence, even though nothing came of it. I mention this because while Martha’s reactions validated the success of my speech for her, I think it’s really important to recognize the “for her” part of this. Maybe this speech wouldn’t have worked for someone else. Or maybe it would have worked even better. More important than the speech was the context in which it operated, which is why I think it serves as such a great example of the nature of blind spots, and how to navigate around or through them, depending on the intention of who we’re working with. That’s how to understand the following analysis. Why did this speech work?

1. It came from a place of integrity. I really am both pro-life and pro-choice, for many of the reasons I gave Martha. I knew it, I owned it, so my genuine feelings came through. Honesty set the foundation for trust in what I said. I wasn’t trying to sham her or manipulate her — that’s different than trying to influence someone (which I very much tried to do).

2. I didn’t contradict her beliefs. I recontextualized them. That’s really, really important here. How people think with each other and how people feel with each other do work in tandem, but they do not work the same, which can cause untold layers of conflict when people treat them the same. Successful influence means correctly working with thoughts and feelings, in tandem.

Her face when I opened my spiel with a pro-life affirmation…she definitely did not expect what I said. She was waiting for some weak rationalization or waffling around baby killing, and instead got an opening stance that not only mirrored her own, but saw my personal declaration of accountability. Pro-life and personal integrity right out of the gate, from which I immediately proceeded with “the problem with abortion”. My wording of that was no accident. I saw she used “the issue of abortion” as a polite phrase, and I needed to escalate the wording to validate her feelings on the matter. For Catholics, abortion is not an issue. The economy is an issue. Poverty is an issue. Abortion is a problem. We work with issues, but we combat problems. Don’t analyze this distinction — it’s not about how people think. This is about how people feel. Maybe Martha didn’t make that distinction. Maybe every religious problem she took on was a problem to her. My point is, by verbally escalating the status of abortion, I validated her feelings on it. Abortion is not a combative issue for me, but whether or not abortion is an issue or a problem isn’t relevant from a mental perspective. That’s a emotional distinction, and by validating Martha’s emotion, I opened the door for the first part of recontextualization: “it’s already too late”.

In some ways, that phrase works like a tautology. You hear it, it makes sense, and it doesn’t really tell you anything you didn’t already know. Because Martha and I had both thought a lot about abortion, my saying “it’s already too late” pulled the context of the abortion conversation into Step 3. She didn’t know that she knew “it’s already too late”, and she recognized that she did know it as soon as I said it. To be clear, I don’t mean that I suddenly changed her view on it. Instead, I recontextualized how she felt about it. I can’t emphasize this enough — I did not change how she felt. People cannot directly change how other people feel. I validated how she felt, and changed the context around those feelings.

With the first part of recontextualization established, the second part came from dismissing intention behind abortion. In my experience, ardent pro-lifers are most offended by people who see abortion as a form of birth control. Using the pseudo-tautology of “it’s already too late” allowed me to lump “careless choice” in with other causes of unwanted pregnancies that Martha could understand. Other than the most extreme pro-lifers, very few would argue against abortion in the case of sexual violation or the endangerment of a mother’s life. Because Martha felt abortion was a problem, I leveraged that feeling to paint all causes of unwanted pregnancy with the same sense of tragedy. In essence, I eliminated intention as a factor behind abortion by showing that choosing an abortion was a matter of degree, not of kind. Martha emotionally accepted this, in part because it validated all of the previous feelings we encountered: abortion was always a tragedy, and “it’s already too late”.

The rest of the speech solidified the recontextualization by talking about abortion in terms of how women needed support when making a choice, but more importantly, needed support before such a choice came up. Beyond how female support resonated warmly in Catholicism, and given Martha’s female gender, this recontextualization worked by shifting abortion from “how do we stop the baby killers” to “how do all of us, men and women, tackle the causes behind unwanted pregnancy?” I made it personal by saying that I couldn’t conceive of being in the position of making that choice, a self-validating statement made possible by me being male. Then I bypassed the question of how much say a man should get over a woman’s pregnancy by asserting that I support a woman’s choice because it was such a difficult choice. I essentially replaced the stigma of abortion with respect, based on a (commonly religious) notion of community support during tragedy, and a community call to action to address the issues that lead to tragedy (also a very familiar religious framing).

I’m sure Martha and I would have very divergent opinions about a whole host of issues (e.g. rape culture, casual relationships, gender and sexual orientation differences, birth control). By framing abortion as a resulting issue of other issues, I took away the hate toward baby killers, and replaced with it empathy for women in desperate situations regardless of causes. I used some shocking language (“…Is the baby better off dead?” Good God.), recoiled from my own language, and let my empathy inspire her empathy.

3. I didn’t overexplain. At some point, I could have acknowledged the people who flat out disagreed with Martha. I could have added something like, “While there will always be people who don’t agree, and who think that life in the womb doesn’t carry the same value that others place on it, they still have to make that choice.” No matter what I said after that, such a declaration would have planted doubt concerning what proportion of pro-choice people felt that way, and emphasized the role of intention behind abortion, derailing the spirit of my speech. Martha had no time nor patience for such an opposing viewpoint, and acknowledging even a small proportion of such people would have fixated her on that distinction. I had to leave that blind spot alone. When I said, “Maybe she made a careless decision,” I glossed over that issue, moving it from Step 2 to Step 1. I did this in the second part of my recontextualization, where I eliminated intention from the abortion problem. So, intention moved from Step 2 to Step 1, and the rest of the context moved from Step 2 to Step 3.

With that analysis, remember that I was not primarily looking to change how Martha thought or felt. I gave my speech to Martha, not to change her mind about abortion, nor to defend myself, nor to make a stand. I gave my speech to show her I could be an ally to her and her family, and that I supported her beliefs, but in a different context than she knew. Some would say that while I was mostly honest, I prevaricated when I intentionally recontextualized the conversation to remove intention as part of the abortion speech. However, I think it would have been dishonest and disrespectful to include intention. I did indeed support Martha, John, and their family. They were pretty good people, even if they had some views I considered destructive. I didn’t feel the need to fight them, when instead they offered the chance to be influenced.

The movie Suicide Squad does a great job examining the mental and emotional misnavigation of blind spots in the bar scene:

Harley Quinn calls out the whole squad for self-delusion and hypocrisy, and the best moment comes at the end: Harley makes an off-hand remark that Killer Croc is just as ugly on the outside as he is on the inside. Croc responds with, “Not me, shorty. I’m beautiful,” to which Harley responds with a gleeful “yeah you are”. The moment seems like a mood lightener, but the subtext is really important here. Croc does exactly what Harley asks, and shows that he owns himself, which Harley immediately acknowledges.

If we’re going to care about people, then working with blind spots means engaging not just the mental components, but also the emotional parts. In a sweet, fleeting moment, Harley and Croc demonstrate how working with the blind spots of others can help us find our own.


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