Monthly Archives: April 2014

Emotions: The Dalai Lama & Paul Ekman in Conversation

So how do I justify bringing the Dalai Lama into my blog? Simple. He  and the Buddhist tradition delve deeply into the nature of the emotions. And in this instance, the inquiry is deepened by conversing with American psychologist Paul Ekman, the expert on the facial expression of emotions and on emotions in general. “Okay”, you may say, “but what’s this to do with persuasion or lawyering?” Well, why there are times and places where you may benefit from having a Spock or Sherlock as your lawyer, but most often you’ll want to keep that person holed-up in the back office because they don’t deal well with people. And a good deal of lawyering isn’t about the clever, it’s about the effective. All the IQ in the world only goes so far without EQ.  The ability to understand and monitor the emotions of ourselves and others is a key component of EQ. Frankly, I don’t think that lawyers (or anyone) can get enough of this. Will it ruin the stereotype of lawyers as sharks? No, some will continue that line of conduct. Will it make us all into compliant pacifists?  I don’t think so: EQ can also involve the strategic use of anger or disgust as emotions to exhibit in appropriate circumstances. The question becomes whether we control the emotion or the emotion controls us. Think about this in any persuasive situation, which, knowing your Aristotle, you realize includes pathos.

This is a fascinating book. I recommend it to anyone for its conversational format, relaxed and personal tone, and its intriguing insights into this aspect of our humanity.

Emotional Awareness: A Conversation Between the Dalai Lama & Paul Ekman

  • by Stephen N. Greenleaf
  • 3 min read
  • original

Leading psychologist Paul Ekman received an invitation to a Mind and Life Conference with the Dalai Lama in 2000. He went because he knew it would it please his daughter, an admirer of the Dalai Lama. Ekman himself had no great knowledge of Buddhism and no religious beliefs or practices of his own. What happened as a result of this initial encounter changed Ekman’s life, both personally and professionally. He hit it off with the Dalai Lama, experiencing a warmth and openness that affected him emotionally and that puzzled him as a scientist. And he learned things about the Buddhist tradition that triggered new perspectives and research agendas from him about the emotions and how we humans can learn to better cultivate them. This book records conversations held between Ekman and the Dalai Lama over several years. These transcripts and sidebars become a treasure-trove of insight into this most basic human (and animal) phenomenon that Buddhism has explored more than two millennia via introspection (meditation). Now science is taking a closer look at, especially with the advances in neuroscience and other techniques that provide us new ways of viewing and testing emotions. This book allows any reader can come away with a better understanding of how we live our emotional lives, and how we can cultivate those emotions for our own good and the good of those with whom we live. No small accomplishment.

The first two of the Four Noble Truths espoused by the Buddha state his assessment of the human condition. The First Noble Truth: Life is unsatisfactory. (More often, we see the original Sanskrit or Pali translated as “suffering”, but I agree that this word is perhaps too aggressive in its portrayal of the original insight.) The Second Noble Truth: The cause of suffering [or unsatisfactoriness] is attachment. Attachment, as you learn, can mean craving for something (greed), craving to escape something (aversion, hatred), or ignorance of the situation (delusion). So what has this to do with emotions? Via natural selection, mammals, and especially humans, developed emotions that refined our ability to approach or avoid. Mixed with our hyper-sociability (Jon Haidt), we developed a wide variety of emotions that attract or repel us from various perceived situations. Natural selection armed us over millions of years with these mind tools, but with the advent of civilization (living in cities instead of small hunter-gatherer groups), our array of emotions, such as anger and hatred, for instance, could lead us astray. Robert Wright argues in his course on Buddhism and Modern Psychology (now offered on Coursera) that Buddhism is an antidote to some aspects human behavior instilled in us by natural selection. Instead of acting on our feelings of attachment (“Yum, doughnuts! Let’s feast”) or aversion (“Your rotten SOB”), we learn to get between our emotions—developed for quick perceptions and responses—and our actions. This is a fundamental insight shared between HHDL and Ekman, each coming at the issue from their different traditions but finding a lot of agreement. Ekman calls a pause in our reactions a “refractory period”, which may be micro-moment, or—with cultivation—something much longer.

After spending time defining emotions—different from moods, we should note—the two discuss how we might learn to tame them (and not, as some think Buddhism suggests, eliminate them). Here we learn of the benefits of meditation as a mechanism for developing awareness, a meta-awareness (B. Alan Wallace) that allows us to observe the development of an emotion within us and thereby make a conscious decision about how we shall (or shan’t) act in response to the impulse. This ability, along with the conscious cultivation of compassion, allows us to take ourselves in happier and more sociable directions than the naturally selected traits of our emotions might push us.

The above is just a taste of what the book covers. In addition to insights into basic and ongoing Western scientific research about the emotions and the Buddhist insights cultivated over 2000 years, we learn about the participants, especially Ekman. Ekman’s insight that he changes over the course of these conversations (estimated at about 39 hours) is really moving. Ekman grew-up with a very difficult father, and Ekman shares insights he gains about himself and that relationship. Ekman’s growth of insight and appreciation gives the book an emotional (in a very good way!) valence that adds spice to the wonderful scientific and Buddhist knowledge and wisdom that we garner through it.

The emotions are an endlessly fascinating topic. The quality of our lives is a function of our emotions. Much of morality and ethics revolve around our emotions and how we handle them. Indeed, not just Buddhism, but all of the Axial religions and philosophies—later Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Socratic philosophy and its progeny, especially Stoicism, Confucianism, and aspects of Taoism and Hinduism—are efforts to re-direct human conduct from older, more atavistic (and now less well-adapted) traits vested in humans via natural selection. These religions and philosophies (philosophy, that is, “as a way of life”, in the words of Pierre Hadot) developed in response to a very different environment (civilization) than that of the hunter-gatherers from whom we descended. The challenge to us is to use the wisdom of these traditions and refine them (no more required, I suspect) to best fit our contemporary needs. This book goes a long way in forwarding that project. We must thank Dr. Ekman and the Dalai Lama for their courage in reaching across traditions to help us find our way.

P.S. This is a second take on this book. Indeed, blog 5/682 (i.e., near the beginning of my blogging) addresses my listening to this as an audio book. It was definitely worth a second take!

Legal Writing Potpourri #2

1. R+W Legal Consultants links to an academic paper from Judith Fischer entitled “Add Punch to Your Legal Writing“. Only three pages long, it works as a nice cheat sheet  for cleaning up your legal writing.

2. Legal Writing Prof blog  points to the latest in the ABA Journal from legal writing guru Bryan Garner about words that we lawyers should excise from our vocabularies. While I’m tempted to keep an occasional “whereas”, in fact, Garner is certainly right. I work to expunge “shall” in any legal document. I drafted a lot of ordinances and contracts without it, and the monstrosity “and/or” is just that: a monstrosity. (Remember: “Or includes and“. Yes, well worth a couple of minutes of reading time.

3. Legal Writing Prof blog also does a brief review of a new book by William Domnarski that addresses (in part) legal writing. Not having read the original pieces discussed, I hesitate to comment too much. However, I agree with Legal Writing Prof that good writing is good writing, and what lawyers do is add legal terminology (different that mere jargon or “word gravel”) to their prose. Also, Bryan Garner (see above) is a very useful resource. Finally, writing and thinking go hand in hand.

Trial Practice Potpourri #1

1. Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm’s Persuasive Litigator blog ought to be on any trial lawyer’s subscription list, so you don’t have to depend on me. That having been said, I’ll share this (and other items) for your benefit. This article, “Counterpunch: Ten Ways to Fight Back on Cross” provides excellent advice to witnesses who are going to be cross-examined. Excellent advice. I wish I’d have had it to use with my witnesses. Any future witnesses will have the benefit of it if they work with me!

2. Legal Skills Prof blog via Scott Fruehwald cites an article by Katheryn Stanchi about how strong to come on in persuasion. Great issue. I once gave what I thought was a rousing closing rebuttal in a med mal case. After losing and talking to some jurors, some mentioned that I came on too strong–and I’m a mild-mannered Midwesterner! It’s tough to get just the right tone. This article gives the topic some serious thought.

3. If you don’t subscribe to and read Paul Luvera’s Plaintiff Trial Lawyer Tips, you should. You shouldn’t rely on me or anyone else to keep you abreast, at least if you do any plaintiff’s personal injury work. This particular entry addresses storytelling, a common theme among trial practitioners. I’d like this article and others to provide more particulars, more examples.


Legal Writing Potpourri #1

1. The (New) Legal Writer comments on the new edition of the Redbook (3d. Ed.). I’ve never used it, but guru Bryan Garner does, and the (New) Legal Writer is enthusiastic about its value; i.e., he’s buying.

2. A new book that I haven’t read but that looks worth exploring sometime: Sketches on Legal Style by Mark Cooney. Let me know if you read it first!

3. Legal Writing Skills blog cites an article on writing purposeful sentences. It includes examples and citation to the original article upon which it’s based. You can’t get enough of this because long, confusing sentences are endemic to legal writing. Don’t miss an opportunity to inoculate yourself.

Thinking & Imagining Like Sherlock Holmes

We lawyers, as I suspect most of the rest of the population, would like to think ourselves like Sherlock Holmes, what with our keen intellects and sharp eyes. But in fact, we are human, all to human. Holmes, as a literary creation, is most emphatically not human. But he does present an alluring ideal, and the book reviewed below suggests that we can take steps to closer approximate that ideal. If all of us were more Holmes-like in many respects (his sociopathy  a huge exception), we’d be better at whatever we do.

Was Holmes (as written by Conan Doyle) a sociopath? (Certainly as played by Benedict Cumberbatch on Sherlock.) Perhaps. In portrayals he seems at times unobservant of others, lacking as it were, a theory of mind. A major defect, but as I say, with this said, he provides a fun role model. Read the review below and then enjoy the book.

Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova

  • by Stephen N. Greenleaf
  • 2 min read
  • original
Few literary characters have the staying power of Sherlock Holmes, the creation of Arthur Conan Doyle. Years of book spin-offs, movies, and television don’t seem to have diminished our appetite for this rather bizarre fellow. Recent incarnations include the rather frenetic portrayal of Holmes by Robert Downey, Jr. in the two Guy Ritchie films, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s more recent (and to my mind more faithful) incarnation set in contemporary London (with Martin Freeman providing a superb Watson). Why are we so intrigued by this (almost) super-human misfit? I think because he is human and not super-human—that he does things that we can imagine doing. I think Maria Konnikova shares this perception.

Ms. Konnikova is a psychologist who grew-up hearing Holmes stories read to her by her father in her native Russian. Now with a doctorate in psychology, she unpacks the dynamics of Holmes and his foil Watson to share with us ways in which we might emulate the great (fictional!) detective. For this task, Konnikova draws extensively on both the Holmes stories of Conan Doyle and cutting-edge psychological research.

It turns out the Holmes-Watson pairing matches well with the “thinking fast and slow” paradigm of Daniel Kahneman (more prosaically designated as System 1 and System 2 thinking). Watson goes quick and instinctive, while Holmes thinks; Watson glances, Holmes observes. To put it in a nutshell, Holmes makes the sustained and energetic effort to observe and consider what he perceives, while Watson wants to cut to the chase (a surgeon, no doubt).

Konnikova details the ways these two men go about their detecting work in light of what modern psychology has taught us. She highlights the scientific frame of mind used by Holmes that looks for evidence and tests hypotheses. She considers what information he puts (or doesn’t put) into his “brain attic”. Holmes is rather single-minded in his pursuit of information needed to make him the world’s only “consulting detective”, unlike Watson, who fills his mind with the drivel of the evening paper. But perhaps the most surprising difference between the two is that Holmes uses his imagination. He does so in a systematic and focused way, not in flights of fancy or mental woolgathering. Like Einstein’s thought experiments (riding that beam of light), Holmes tests and weighs alternatives in his mind based on the empirical evidence that he gathers and considers in the light of logic. We learn that imagination is at least as important, if not more important, than logic in resolving the problems that Holmes faces.

We also learn that creativity plays a huge role in how Holmes operates. He improvises in each new situation, drawing on different mental practices as circumstances require—some need the magnifying glass, while others may constitute a “three-pipe problem” that mark an effort of sustained mental work. (Or a three nicotine-patch problem if you’re Cumberbatch’s incarnation in smoke-free London.) Konnikova emphasizes the dexterity and flexibility of the great detective’s mind.

Konnikova concludes with the important point that Holmes never stops learning. He does err (rarely), but he reflects and learns from those errors, and he’s always getting his (non-mandatory) continuing education through his own self-guided study. How many times does Holmes cite a precedent to the unenlightened inspector or to Watson? He knows his subject matter!

This is both an informative and immensely entertaining book. Large doses of Holmes mixed with intriguing perspectives from contemporary psychology make it fun to read. And, I hope, after having read it and reviewed it, we find ourselves a little more Holmes-like in resolving our problems, although, I hope with more social tact than our rather introverted detective. Also, I don’t think that I could ever match the eagle-eyed abilities that he possesses. As an aging, life-long four-eyes, I believe myself nearly hopeless in this regard!