Diagnostics, communication and phenomenology

It is almost a meme in coaching, consulting and also just general problem solving in various areas of life and business: To outsiders it is pretty obvious what the issues are, whereas the insiders seem to be oblivious to them. Depending on the severity, you can sometimes even tell them and they will still not see it. Sometimes they can even spot the exact same problems in other people and still do not see them in themselves.

Now, there are three ways to approach this, two of which are pretty well known, but also a third one we can and should engage in more.

This is just the nature of business

The most common way is in accordance to the old proverb:

Give a man a fish and you feed him for the day. Teach a man how to fish and you lose a recurring revenue stream.

Just buy my consulting and have an outsider tell you what is wrong. The price just has to be high enough so you have an incentive to listen to them. The conflicts of interest in these situations are pretty obvious, and, well, we see in the corporate world how large consulting businesses usually just siphon money away without actually doing something useful. 1

Learning to take a step back and ego control

Many of these problems can be understood, once you can take a step back, get your ego in check and can just for a moment to some extent get the outsiders perspective.

This is a good ability to cultivate, and we have millennia of literature elaborating its importance and how to cultivate it. Yet, it is a skill lost on many, if not most, if not almost all people. Especially in corporate settings this becomes a problem, because only one person bound up in their ego can bring the whole process to a halt.

What good is this approach in situations, where the required skill is not present?

Understanding and documenting the phenomenology

Now, phenomenology seems to be one of those words people have written too much about, so let us do language properly and just look at the word: φαινόμενον "that which appears" and λόγος. Phenomenology is just the study of how things appear or present themselves to us. In general, we as a society, strive to objectively diagnose issues. Part of the objective point of view is that it is an outsider's perspective and then we use tools to inspect whatever issue we are dealing with. It is just not how things present themselves to us us by default.

Taking back a step is a skill which needs to be sufficiently trained, and then we still need to do the - often cumbersome - objective assessment of the situation, only to then come up with a plan to change things and properly operationalize this. These are several pretty difficult things we have to do there, which is also reflected in the reality that most often these things just do not happen.

On the other hand, if we have an subjective description of what typically is experienced in certain situations or in the presence of certain issues, we can skip directly to our own current experience. In general this does not suffice for a good diagnosis, but speeds up the process dramatically.

Superficially the main issue is that nobody writes down and documents the phenomenology. But this is not without reason.

Proper awareness of one's own experience is a skill, which has to be honed. Without it we are unable to write down what we experience, and without it we are unable to properly use other people's description of the phenomenology. Indeed, when looking at the development of literature in applicable fields, we usually see a slow increase in awareness and refinement of documented phenomenology, but it usually takes several generations of experts to arrive at a good description.

Also, people untrained in the mental disciplines have a tendency to run away with it, leading to them believing they have cancer or any other illness they searched on the internet. Which is why we still need to embed it in some objective framework.

Communication and phenomenology

There is another reason why we need to step up our game when it comes to the description of phenomenology: The subjective experience precedes the objective analysis.

This is well known by the advertisement and consent industries, and in fact, it is the first thing you learn when learning how to do good advertisement or propaganda.

Advertising never works by actually giving you an objective solution to an objective problem. Advertising works by giving a feel good solution to a feel bad.

We people in the harder sciences do not vibe with that well, and as a consequence have tried to steer away from any such subjective description. But indeed, this is also just because in our subjective experience, all subjective descriptions are made by dishonest people trying to sell you junk, and fools as we are, this makes us a little bit dishonest with ourselves.

As a consequence, people, companies and society are being kept imprisoned in their respective situations, because all they need is the next supplement, the next software product, another year of consulting or just some other initiative allowing people to display their virtuous life. Whenever we engage with a feel good solution, this takes some time. Most of the quick hack solutions do not increase your awareness of the problem, but just dampen some of the pain, and in the end you are as smart as before, you just pissed away a significant amount of money and, worse, time.

We do not want to do dishonest advertising for things that work, but by ignoring the phenomenology, we give our work an unnecessary disadvantage compared to shills and people who place their self-interest above that of society.

Phenomenology, plausible deniability and rationalization

Plausible deniability is something we learn to catch on early in life; I am no developmental psychologist, but it seems to me almost like a phase where children try to do things which can not be objectively traced back to them. At least it is some kind of trope in youth literature and many criminal stories revolve around the theme that the protagonist already knows what is up, but lacks the necessary objective proof.

During our education we learn to dismiss any gut feelings and wait for objective proof. In particular, we learn to dismiss any gut feelings, and instead of being inquisitive about it, objective proof becomes something we are being handed from authorities and it is not something we could possibly hope to attain for ourselves. This of course is a weakness, and as all weaknesses it is being exploited; just because we are being educated and admonished to leave any research to a mystical guild of professionals, even when you are exactly the professional.

We all are familiar with the situation:

It walks like a duck. It swims like a duck. It quacks like a duck. We have to wait for legal to come back to us before we can say it is a duck.

Many things happening under the umbrella of plausible deniability still have consequences which can be experienced, and thus, can be described. A classical and also current example are companies which are going to lay off large amounts of people. While only leaks of CEO or HR mails could really prove such things, there is a pattern to the subtle or not so subtle shifts in internal communication.

Should you really be in denial about such things?

In some instances the antagonist is not external, but we are in conflict with ourselves. We do things that we on some level might even perceive to be not right, but we can make wonderful explanations why this behaviour is correct. Such rationalizations can sometimes be overcome by adding further experiential criteria.

You are dieting for fat-loss, not very successfully, but can still justify eating caloric dense, but healthy snacks like nuts and bananas between meals? But at least you are not hungry all the time? Well, guess what. There is a secret they do not want you to know about: Part of fat loss is experiencing hunger. 2

Actually describing the phenomenology

As with everything, both the awareness and the description of phenomenology need to be trained, and well, formal training for this seems to be non-existent in this society.

I think one of the major issues we had in the more recent past was the communication of extremely dangerous but also very abstract risks, like climate change or a pandemic. With climate change we have the very scary prospect of losing (having lost) stability in a dynamical system and with a pandemic you face the inevitability of an exponential function. As mathematician I am viscerally frightened by these things. But genpop? I think not so much.

Now, how do we communicate such a risk to people without the years of necessary training ? Especially when at first it seems like nothing is going to happen? Nobody listens to "well, this is an exponential process, just look at the chart and the quotient of any two consecutive data points".

Well, by acknowledging that at first it does not seem like anything is happening. I think we did lose quite a lot of acceptance as some of us have fallen astray and followed the dark path of advertising and tried to dramatize the effects. When all your credibility comes from objectivity, you can not afford to risk it by bending the facts, even if it seems to be for a good cause.

A better start could be something like "well, at first it will not seem like much is happening, but it is a devious process which grows upon you". People have surprisingly long history of believing into invisible things being at work, so to them this might even sound less weird as it might sound to you.

It seems obvious, it is boring. But it is the first thing people notice, and still a level on which they can relate, without any shared academic background.

A more refined approach

Clearly, one should not turn completely away from objective criteria and towards subjective experience. This has already happend often enough and vice versa, but it is time to develop a more nuanced and comprehensive framework, which not only encompasses the objective or the subjective side, but both, each with a specific purpose.

As argued, I think this could

  • improve the speed at which we diagnose problems
  • empower people and make them less dependent on external diagnostics
  • get rid of a few of the bugs in our societal system
  • improve communication between science and mortals

I suspect we could use a more formalized approach to the subjective perspective and possibly those already exist and I am just not familiar with them (you know how to contact me). On the other hand, I do do not see how it would differ from increasing awareness, and we have extensive literature on this.

  1. Consulting or coaching can be a good thing, when you have well defined constraints or problems to solve, or probably even more important, need to clarify the nature of the problem. 

  2. If you are not really active in the fitness space, this is a frequent problem and it is pretty easy to distract oneself with all the technical details, when in the end of the day you just need to be hungry most of the time. But "lose fat without being hungry with my new diet" sells better than "be miserable for six weeks to look a tiny bit nicer in the end".