Discussions of Book of Mormon issues and evidences, plus other topics related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Friday, August 24, 2018

The Least Religious Book on Ministering that Church Leaders and Members Ought to Read: Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss

Some time ago in a complex corporate setting, I made the CEO of a large company quite angry and now he had me come in his office where he was yelling at me. Yelling. He had another leader there supporting him, adding to the pressure. I don't handle that kind of pressure and intimidation well. Had I not been prepared  for this moment, courtesy of a valuable new book I had just completed, the outcome would have been easy to predict: As a peon with very little power, I would have been terrified, intimidated, and would quickly look for ways to make concessions and stop the conflict. He would have won and some people I care about would have lost, but the loss, though unpleasant, would have seemed fair and unavoidable to me. After all, what else could I have done? And since that man was powerful and I would need his ongoing support in the future, making a sacrifice to gain his favor would have seemed like a reasonable move. But such thinking was a delusion that I was able to avoid.

I can't share details of what the disagreement involved, but it was a classic case of a negotiation in which the obvious thing to do was to "split the difference." It was somewhat like this: "You have four of my people, I want them back. Give me two and it's good." Fortunately, I had a roadmap and a plan. I didn't waver. Following the principles on negotiation I had learned from the FBI's former head negotiator for hostage crises, Chris Voss, in his groundbreaking book, Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It, instead of breaking down, I smiled and explained that returning his people was not an option, and while I couldn't give back what he wanted, I was there to talk about how we would help him solve the real problem they had. He repeated his demands and each time, in a calm low, voice, I smiled and apologized that we couldn't do that, but discussed how we would help and asked for his guidance on how best to help them meet their real needs.

When his people demanded to know why I couldn't make the concessions they wanted, I didn't need to give them reasons to nitpick. I was there to help, not to argue. "I'm sorry, we can't change that, but let's talk about what we can do to help you...." I was in problem solving mode, seeking suggestions on how we could best help them with their real problem. I expressed our desire to cooperate and talked about how we could do that, but no unnecessary concessions were made. No groveling in fear was needed. I was able to acknowledge their emotions: "It looks like this is very disturbing to you. It must seem very unfair that I have something you want and won't let it go." "Yes, exactly. Give them back now." "I'm so sorry, we can't do that, they are all needed where they are, but here's what we will do to address the real problem...."

The previous agreement they wanted reversed stood. In the end, their real needs were met without any painful concessions. I've met him since then and he is surprisingly friendly. He's no longer the CEO there -- there have been two replacements since that crisis. Any investment in the relationship by sacrificing others would have been meaningless in the long run. The proposed win/lose would have become a loss for both parties eventually. I'm so grateful that I found the guidance I needed for this crisis at just the right time.

That book, Never Split the Difference, has influenced me time and time again and helped me find a path forward in many complex situations. Unlike some of the terrible advice one finds in the business world on the topic of negotiations and sales, Chris Voss is not teaching one to crush opponents and take everything, destroying long-term trust. His approach is not the win/lose dynamic of bargaining, but is aimed at helping you get what's essential while helping the other party to be treated with respect and to have their needs met as well (though sometimes, in the world of FBI negotiations, they will need to go jail, a superior alternative to being shot).

Voss's broad approach recognizes that negotiation is at play in any conversation or interaction where you want to bring about change. What makes Voss's work a "church book" in my opinion is that it is essential for those seeking to minster, for ministering is about interaction to bring about change in the lives of others. The principles Voss teaches, often based on scientific research and profound psychological insights from decades of research within the FBI, are potentially useful in religious settings while obviously valuable in many aspects of business and life in general.
Negotiation is simply communication with results. You are negotiating in every conversation where you want to make something happen, such as:
  • Arranging an activity
  • Giving direction to a group or individual
  • Making a purchase (especially in China!)
  • Guiding a child's behavior
  • Asking somebody for help
  • Encouraging a friend to come to Church 
  • Responding to tough questions about religion
  • Helping worried parents support your decision to marry someone they don't understand
Never Split the Difference reflects decades of research and experience within the FBI in dealing with some of the harshest and most dangerous people on the planet: criminals, bank robbers, terrorists, crazy people willing to kill the hostages they have taken. I know, this doesn't sound like the kind of experience that is going to help your local bishop deal with his congregation, or a parent deal with an ordinary teenager having a minor crisis. But the brilliant insight behind this book is that each of these people, however threatening and crazy they seem to us, are still people deep down and have some basic humanity that needs to be respected. What the FBI has learned from numerous interactions with criminals of all kinds has revealed a great deal about humans in general, and Voss has found that his experience is broadly applicable. Based on my experiences in applying his work, I strongly concur.

When the criminals holding hostages start making crazy demands, something important is happening: they are reaching out and asking to be heard. This is a critical opportunity for change if and only if someone is willing to do one of the most difficult, fundamental steps of real negotiating: listening. Not arguing, not shoving threats and arguments down their throat, but listening carefully and intensely to what is being said. In hostage negotiation, the FBI may have six or more people listening intensely to every conversation, tuning in to difference aspects to learn as much as possible. What is the emotional tone of the opponent? What can be learned from background noises, from word choice, from references to other parties, from statements about the hostages, from threats or the details of demands?

Listening brings information that can be used for advantage to resolve problems and meet real needs. It builds rapport. It can reveal what the real issues are. It is through the trust and understanding that comes through listening that FBI negotiators often find opportunities to save lives and bring about real change. This should be a fundamental principle for LDS ministers and actually everybody seeking to be more effective in life. Voss teaches a great deal about the art of listening and building trust, not based on sham techniques, but on sincerely listening with all one's energy to hear what the real issues are on the other side, and letting the others know that you are seeking to understand. So basic, but it's an art. I don't do this well, but some of my best moments have been when I really tried.
On the supreme task of listening in negotiation:
  • “Most people approach negotiation so preoccupied with their own arguments to support their position that they are unable to listen attentively.” -- Chris Voss
  • Your top priority is to focus on what the other person has to say and to understand them as fully as possible. This gives you the information you need. This build trust so they can share information and find a solution with you.
  • The most dangerous way to approach a negotiation is to assume you know everything already. There is always something important you don't understand, and you will never understand that if you don't listen carefully with an open mind. You must challenge your assumptions as you listen to find the hidden realities regarding the other party. 
Voss follows his extensive guidance on listening with a treatment of the tool of constructive questions. Rather than looking for ways to press your position and push your arguments in negotiation (ouch, that's how I've negotiated--or rather, argued in vain--so often in my life!), the smart negotiator looks for ways to help the other party find solutions to their problems. Constructive open-ended questions are often the key. These questions are respectful and in essence ask the other party for help. For the FBI, such a question might be, "How can I pay the random when I don't even know if she is still alive?" This presents a problem and asks the other party for help -- for evidence about the state of the hostage -- without demanding that in a way that might just get a "no" answer. Other examples of such questions could be, "The whole report by Monday? How am I supposed to do that?" or "How can I give you the car keys when you haven't kept your part of the agreement yet?" or "What about this agreement doesn't work for you?"

Properly constructed questions can educate the other party about a problem without causing conflict by lecturing them about the problem. The question does not offer a direct target for attack like a statement does, and does not invite a mere yes or no answer that gets you nowhere. They typically begin with "what" or "how" and avoid "who," "when," "where," or other forms that can result in a quick answer that doesn't move the interaction forward. Carefully constructed questions, often crafted in the preparations for a negotiation, can let the other party feel they are being respected and are in control, but can bring out information or concessions as they respond to the problem before them. When needed, open-ended questions can also buy valuable time.

Also key to Voss's approach is the role of emotion. We like to think that negotiation is about both parties logically finding an intermediate solution based on rational principles, but as David Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow reveals, emotion often and easily dominates our decision making process, and if we don't understand and control the emotional aspects, we can make poor decisions. Voss gives vital guidance on controlling our emotions and understanding the emotions of the other party to reach a good outcome. Almost weekly in the business world I see negotiations go awry as parties become emotional or angry and upset the possibility of a sound resolution. Learning to stay calm, cheerful, smiling and in control even when under pressure or attack is so valuable. Understanding how another party may seek to manipulate your emotions can also help you avoid trouble.

When someone you care about suddenly attacks the Church or states that they aren't going to college after all or wish to make a decision you find terrible, the natural man is ready to respond with emotion. It is the saint that can stay loving, listen, and build a lasting connection with the rebel that may be able to influence them for good in the end. Voss's book, whether he realizes it or not, helps bring out the saint in us to help us better cope with threatening challenges such as a crisis of faith. Stay calm. Slow it down. Listen carefully. Be cheerful. Smile. Use a calming voice. Don't let your emotions run away. These are tools for hostage negotiators, but also for ministers, missionaries, moms and dads, employees, and all of us as we face conflict, change, disappointment, and, in the midst of it all, the opportunity to make a difference.

Voss's work shows great sensitivity to the nuances of language. The way we say something is critical. This is a vital lesson for religious leaders, of course. Too often we can speak truth in ways that drive people from it. Gentleness, respect, caution, and emotional intelligence is urgently needed in our religious dialogues and in all our discourse. Reading Voss can move us forward in this area.

Voss teaches the need to understand and label the emotions of the other party. This approach helps show you are listening and understanding, and acknowledging their position in a non-judgemental way. Rather than ignore the emotions of the other party, they can be identified and influenced through "tactical empathy" to guide behavior. His treatment of emotions is one of the most valuable of many significant contributions in his book.

Never Split the Difference is loaded with high-tension, dramatic stories sharing some of the joys and griefs of a seasoned hostage crisis negotiator. But Voss has found the common vein of humanity through it all that connects our more mundane experiences to the life-and-death dramas where the world's best negotiating techniques have been honed. Not techniques for tricking and crushing an opponent, but for helping them and us at the same time. Techniques that can even become a valuable tool in the work of ministering, when properly applied.

Voss does give some hard-hitting guidance and tools that can be misapplied, and I cannot say that every page or chapter is Gospel-compatible. But I believe there are core principles and many useful techniques that, applied in love and sincerity, will be valuable to a Christian seeking to better help others in ministering or just being a good friend or family member.

It's the least religious "church" book that I think ministers, Christians, and good people of all faiths ought to read in order to better succeed in life and in the work of helping others.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The Beauty of Chance Encounters

From several years ago, a photo of my wife and I
at Mount Lao near Qingdao, China, by a large
stone with the word "yuan" meaning destiny or fate.
In Chinese culture, the concept of "yuanfen" plays a significant role, referring to the fate or destiny that may be behind our encounters. The "yuan" part of that word is a truly beautiful and mysterious character.

After writing about the issue of coincidences vs. blessings from above in my past post, I had an experience that reminded me of just how rich my life has been made by various coincidences and chance encounters, especially those that seem to have a bit of "yuanfen" to them. Whatever the cause, these things have been great blessings to me, and I don't think there is any risk in expressing such gratitude to the Lord, even if He might not wish to take credit for all of it.

A few nights ago my wife and I were enjoyed the blessing of a series of coincidences as we joined some of our favorite friends for dinner. This dinner was special to me in many ways and involved a number of interesting coincidences. The people we were with were what made it truly special: a recently retired engineering professor and his nuclear scientist wife. along with their daughter (a brilliant teacher in New York) and two of their neighbors, another engineer and scientist wife pair with some surprisingly similar interests.

As were were enjoying an exciting conversation on numerous topics and eating some especially interesting and artful food, we had the most remarkable view from the 50th floor of a gorgeous building that I have long wanted to visit. The view of Shanghai was just stunning, but it touched me with more than its beauty. The restaurant spanned the entire floor and provided a 360-degree view of the city, but the particular slice of the city we could see from our table next to a window was especially meaningful to me. By chance, we were overlooking the first apartment building we had lived in and the crazy and interesting old city around it, leading us to ponder on our arrival here and our evolving story in Shanghai.

Further, as night settled upon the city and its skyscrapers began waking up with bewildering lights, the newest and probably brightest tall building on our side of the Huangpu River suddenly caught my eye with its full-building animated display. In between colorful scenes, it was showing the name and logo of my company, APP China, the company that brought me here to help them with intellectual property and innovation. For a moment, I had the sense of looking at a slice of the past, the present, and the future (perhaps the future part is because I always get a sense of looking at the future when I gaze at Shanghai's skyline, but the majestic new building that caught my attention made somehow made me think about my future here). How unexpected and off, to see my company's logo so prominently displayed across a mammoth screen about two football fields long.

Another coincidence began a few days before this I was looking up at the tallest building that watches over a beautiful and popular part of Shanghai called Xujiahui, not far from where I live. I looked at that building -- the one I was now dining in -- and thought, "I really would like to go there sometime." It's a building that has impressed me for years and I have often wondered what was in there on the upper levels, but have never had cause to go. A couple of days after that, I had the pleasant surprise of the invitation to dinner on the 50th floor from a professor friend of mine. I was so happy to learn where dinner would be. It was truly exciting to be there and to eat some of Shanghai's most artistic food at the City View Cafe at the Pullman Hotel. Yes, that's a high-end restaurant, so I was worried that our friends were taking us to a terribly expensive place, but with their typical savvy use of online deals, they had booked a set meal promotion that I think was reasonably priced and mercifully not too heavy (I prefer meals that are light but adventurous, and this was perfect for my tastes). It was certainly a wonderful way to treat their daughter and friends.

The most meaningful coincidence associated with this remarkable meal began over 7 years ago, a few months before I was invited to consider a job in China. I was traveling on a work assignment and was in the Chicago airport between flights. As I stepped off my plane and began walking to my next gate, I walked past a Chinese couple struggling to communicate with a United Airlines agent at a nearby gate. Even though my Chinese was very basic, I felt like maybe I could help, so I walked over and talked to them in Chinese. They were on their way back to China, having just landed in Chicago, and were wondering where they needed to go to forward their checked bags to Shanghai. They were thinking of the process they faced when they came to the US as they went through customs in Chicago, a process which involved getting their checked bags and then after clearing customs taking them to another agent to be sent to their next flight. But for their return flight, that wasn't needed, and their bags would go directly all the way to China. I helped to explain this, and while I wasn't really all that helpful, they were so happy to have an American interested in China try to help them that they have me their contact information and told me to please visit them if I ever came to Shanghai. That chance encounter would be one of the sweetest random blessings in my life as we meet periodically with them and other friends of theirs. They are such thoughtful, kind people who represent the very best of China.

Our appealing meal with its particular view, the restaurant in the building I had just wished to visit, and the dear friends whose lives are tied to mine now through a delightful chance encounter, all represent chance and coincidence, beautifully arrayed to make my life more meaningful. Such small means, random or not, pure chance or not, can with the touch of the Lord's hand become meaningful and precious, like many of our friendships and relationships in life. Do not overlook the possibilities that can arise from chance encounters, nor discount the kindness that may be shown to you through coincidence. Be grateful for it all and welcome the Lord's ongoing guidance on how to respond to the opportunities and blessings that may arise from chance, or at least seem to.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Coincidence or Miracle?

On my recent trip to several parts of the United States, I was in the Chicago airport for a couple of hours on my way to visit my parents. I planned to spend some time with my parents to help them with some issues they are facing. To prepare, I had spoken a few weeks ago with my sister who lives in England and needed to speak with her again. She has spent a lot of time with them recently and is most aware of the details of their situation. However, two recent call attempts, email, and text had failed, probably because she has been extremely busy herself.

My wife and I had been sitting at our gate, but eventually both felt it would be good to wander down the hall and look for some food. We considered McDonalds but I couldn't see anything I would want to eat, so we continued further to a food court. With hundreds of people around me, my eyes were simply drawn to one particular woman who seemed familiar. As I got closer, i realized this was my sister, the very person I most needed to talk to in order to help my aging parents deal with some very serious issues.

She lives in England. what was she doing at the O'Hare Airport? We had no idea she was in the United States, but she had come here on a very quick trip to take care of another complex issue and was now on her way back to England. The chances of meeting her in the huge and busy Chicago airport were minuscule, yet there she was, the person I most needed to see and had tried to reach recently without success. The information I got from her during our chat would help us in our visits with my parents and make us much better aware of their needs. Just a random coincidence? Yes, perhaps, but it was certainly the kind of coincidence that should at least open one's mind to the possibility of a blessing from the Lord. The proper response, even if it was just coincidence this time, is gratitude, in my opinion, and a recognition of at least the possibility of the hand of the Lord in the event.

There are some coincidences that really are random or from sources other than divine intervention. The investigator who is visited by an anti-Mormon minister just after meeting with Mormon missionaries may be experiencing a coincidence, or the result of well-meaning friends arranging the coincidence to save a soul from Mormonism. Likewise, it is possible that the person who prays to know the truth and then sees an ad for the Mormons on TV right after the prayer or gets a knock on the door from missionaries may be experiencing a coincidence. It could be by divine design, but coincidence or not, the process of deciding to accept the LDS religion obviously must involve much more careful diligence than just relying on a lone coincidence, even if it may have been a deliberate blessing. It's fair to be open to the possibility of meaning behind the event, but it is not the end of the investigation process.

Life is full of coincidences. Some may seem both wildly improbable and a genuine blessing that solves a major problem, as my encounter in the airport did. For coincidences of that nature, I think it is fair and healthy to recognize that it may have been by divine design and to receive the blessing with gratitude. But be careful not to let a strange coincidence replace the careful consideration needed in making important decisions.

Saturday, August 04, 2018

Thinking DIfferently About Same-sex Attraction: A Valuable Presentation from Jeff Robinson

One of the highlights of this week's 2018 FairMormon Conference for me was the presentation by Dr. Jeff Robinson, "Thinking Differently About Same-sex Attraction." Dr. Robinson has a Ph.D. in Marriage and Family Therapy (BYU) and has spent over 15,000 hours in the past 25 years in his private practice interviewing and learning from individuals experiencing a conflict between their religious or personal values and same-sex attraction. I was touched with the compassion and passion he spoke in helping the audience understand the need for compassion and love for others, and in helping us to think differently about SSA.

Robinson explained how those experiencing conflicts related to SSA almost always wish to understand the why behind their challenges. What makes some have SSA? Saying that why is irrelevant does not work well, he explained, because the assumptions people make about the cause will strongly influence the steps they take.

His recommended approach is to simply explain SSA as "something you know how to do." He used the analogy to one's native language. Why do I speak English? Is it in my genes that makes me simply born as an English speaker? Is it because I suffered psychological abuse as a child and am somehow damaged goods? Is it because as a small child I chose to speak English instead of Swahili or other equally valid choices? My genes certainly hardwire me with a predisposition to speak and express myself in language, but the nature of the language(s) I learn can be influenced by many other factors, and English is not the only language I can learn.

If we understand SSA as nothing more than something one knows how to do, it resolves the problems with other theories. We need not assume that someone with SSA is mentally ill or psychologically damaged, or that they have made evil choices and are to blame for their state. Further, we need not accept the myth that they are born into an iron-clad "orientation" that excludes other possibilities. Robinson explains that a large number of those with SSA also experience some degree of opposite-sex attraction (OSA). If they assume they are born into a fixed "orientation," they may be likely to ignore or deny whatever degree of OSA they experience, thus missing the hints of other hopeful possibilities.

This understanding can give us tools to be more accepting, less judgmental, and more supportive of those who face conflict between their values and their attractions. I greatly appreciated his viewpoint.

Update, Aug. 6, 2018: Dr. Robinson was not saying that SSA can be eliminated. He tells his patients that they should expect to experience it throughout their lives. He was not advocating reversion therapy. But he does urge caution in the use of labels and believes at least some people have greater options in life than they realized, including the option to find greater peace in how they live.

Dr. Robinson's patients are those who are seeking help to deal with the conflicts they face between their values or religion and SSA. He clearly indicated that his patients are not a representative sample of the entire population. His approach, which may benefit many of his clients, may not be needed or relevant to many with SSA. If you feel that other ways of thinking about SSA better describe your situation (e.g., being "born that way" with a genetically-determined sexual orientation), that is fine. Dr. Robinson's practice and views in that case may be irrelevant to your situation. But for some seeking to cope with some particular conflicts, it has been very helpful.

Thursday, August 02, 2018

Enjoying the 2018 FairMormon Conference and Speaking Tomorrow on the "Arise from the Dust" Them in the Book of Mormone

I'm attending the 2018 FairMormon Conference at the Utah Valley Convention Center today. The crowd is even bigger than last year, maybe 300 people I'm guessing. I missed yesterday's session due to family responsibilities, but the program today has been terrific with many highlights, including the report from Jeffrey Bradshaw about the stories of many individuals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he just completed a mission. I'm looking forward to learning from tomorrows speakers as well, with the exception of the one at 1:00 PM, which will be given by me on some of the tentative discoveries from exploring the ancient motif of dust as applied so appropriately and artfully in the Book of Mormon.

Some presentations today include:
  • Sara Riley, “'Even as Moses Did': The Use of the Exodus Narrative in Mosiah 11-18," a careful and insightful analysis of the many subtle allusions to the Exodus found in the Book of Mosiah.
  • Brad Wilcox, "'Have You Been Saved By Grace?' How Do We Respond?," a powerful, illuminating, and entertaining presentation on the power of grace and how to help other Christians better understand our views on how grace leads to salvation by understanding what salvation actually means.
  • Steve Densley and Geret Giles, "Barriers to Belief," a much-needed and highly valuable discourse on the role of mental health issues (various forms of anxiety, for example) in responding to complex or difficult aspects of the LDS faith. By better understanding the needs of others who think and respond differently than we do, we can better minister to their needs.
  • Jeffrey Bradshaw, "Stories of the Saints in the DR Congo," a remarkable and inspiring review of the lives of many individual Latter-day Saints in the DR Congo. This will motivate many of us to be more attentive to the needs of our brothers and sisters in Africa and elsewhere.