Category Archives: NLP

A series of small epiphanies



For a while I’ve been planning  a talk about what it’s like to be  what Skeptics call “a Woo” and about my journey from there to being one of the folks running Skeptics on the Fringe.

“Woo” is a term I dislike for a bunch of reasons, mainly because labelling people makes it too easy to stop thinking about them as people and stereotype them. No-one should do that to anyone, but we are Skeptics, dammit: we should think, especially when we are complaining that the defining group of this other group is that they don’t think.  Irony, much?

I had a couple of hours of driving to do tonight, appropriately enough  visiting Ash Pryce founder of Edinburgh Skeptics and then Keir Liddle founder of Skeptics on the Fringe.  I used the time to sketch out the structure of the talk and identify the key points I want to make.  It’s now sitting as bullet points on my laptop.

I hate bullet-points because PowerPoint doesn’t kill presentations, bulletpoints kill presentations. I prefer slides – if they are used at all – to be images rather than words.  The bullet-points will become my speakers notes. I could even use this as an opportunity to learn Prezi.

So I need to get some images together.  This glamour-girl from the 1920s in my grandmother.  Come to the talk when I eventually give it and you’ll see why she’s there. Somewhere I have a supercute pic of my dad with me slung under his arm when I was about two years old, and if I can find that I want it in the slides, failing that there’s one of him in what looks like a bishop’s mitre.  I think I still have my O’level certificate somewhere.  And I want to include some book covers, some podcast logos, stuff like that.  As it says here, the talk is about a series of small epiphanies.

It’s going to take a chunk of time to put together yet, but I hope it will explain why intelligent and rational people are still attracted to Alternative Medicine, reincarnation and similar things, that it will interest scientists and atheists lucky enough to have been raised that way, that it will reassure skeptical activists that skeptical outreach really is worth it, and explain why Phil Plait was right when he said Don’t be a Dick.

I’ll be keen to do this talk at Skeptics in the Pub and other appropriate events once I’ve finished the slides. Contact me via if you’d like to discuss dates.


StudyHow do you know you know something?  How do you know you’re learning?

I spent a couple of days last week on the first two teaching days of an academic course.  The topic in question is a fluffy subject for magpie minds – the tutor even used the word “eclectic”.

We spent the tutorial days chatting.   The tutor had a dozen or so slides and if he hadn’t had those then it would have felt like we were just hanging out, sharing tales from our various pasts and blethering.  It was a pleasant way to spend two days, but it didn’t feel structured or disciplined and so I didn’t feel like I was being taught stuff and therefore I didn’t feel that I learning.

I had the same experience years ago when I spent enough to buy a newish small car on NLP training, but couldn’t tell if I’d got anything out of it.  I challenged the tutor then saying “this is interesting and it’s cool, but what exactly are you teaching me and what am I learning?”   He said that different people know they know things in different ways and observed that I need to be able to relay something in a structured way in order to know that I know it.  He also said that they’d taken a decision to teach in a way that suited the majority of people who could learn without the need to evaluate their learning.  Or something.  To this day I don’t know if he was bullshitting on the fly or if I really am that anomalous.

In the old days of surgery the method was watch one, do one, teach one.  Teaching something fulfills my need to be able to relay it in a structured way.  I guess the nearest I’m getting to that in my studies is the discipline of writing an essay on the subject which is transparent enough to explain its own subject-matter to an intelligent lay-person.

I decided to trust the tutor last week.  He’s been teaching his subject at various universities for years, with a lifetime of training before then.  There were only four of us, all with a couple of decades of working life behind us and all well on the way through our studies.    The experience with the NLP training is a reasonably successful precedent.   And most recently I’ve discovered that when I am teaching, I watch people to see if they understand the concepts rather than banging on and on until they and I am bored.  I don’t care whether or not they have an “ah hah” moment of epiphany when they realise they get it, so long as they get it.  I do spell it out when I’m asked to, but that’s because leaving people floundering is cruel.

So I decided that last weekend I’d go with the flow rather than floundering, but I’ll only find out what I learned when it comes to writing the assignment.  It’s flattering to be trusted to pick the bones out of our chattering, but it’s also rather scary if the truth be told.

Bouncing back

Have you ever tried dropping a word or phrase into a conversation and seeing how long it takes for the other person to use it? It usually takes between 30 seconds and two minutes for it to bounce back to you.  If this was a real life example then the word I’d expect to come back would be “bounce” in the same conversation but not necessarily in the same context.

In the last week I have read the phrase “back in the day” three times on different blogs (Le Pen Quotidien, Suz at Large and Paddy K), each entry posted on the 28th or 29th of December.  I noticed it the first time I read it because it jarred slightly.    So, never at all and then three times in a week.  At first I thought that someone, somewhere has dropped that phrase into the collective conversation at the end of December and what I was seeing were the ripples, however the phrase “back in the day” is a song and a movie, so it’s obviously a phrase that’s out there, even if I’ve not heard it before.  Checking it was actually used less in December than in November or October.   So much for my theory, then.

Even so, let me recommend the game of dropping words into conversations.  It works best in three- or multi-handed conversations (pubs, meetings, that sort of thing) and works best with simple and appropriate words that aren’t entirely obvious given the context.

Well, it passes the time.

Soft is hard

Hard and soft centresOne of the things that annoys me about the industry I work in is how much it undervalues what it persists in calling “soft” skills. Tech skills are the hard skills which command respect. Don’t get me wrong. I love geeks, in fact I find geekiness really sexy. I like it when a guy’s skillset is really hard. But before we tumble too far down the road of pornuendo, I want to wave a flag for soft skills.

(Incidentally, it’s not just my industry: surgeons are godlike if they do good scalpel but their bedside manner is considered irrelevant because you can’t quantify it, despite the rather obvious thought that the placebo effect is a neat way to improve a post-op complication rate and that there is a direct relationship between faith in the practitioner and the power of the placebo).

Now I have pretty good soft skills. Give me a bunch of folks and half a day and I can get just about any form of coherent analysis out of them you’d care to mention – be that a plan, a process, a set of requirements, a list of deliverables, a taxonomy. You name it, all we need are post-it notes, marker pens and caffeine and carbs, and we’ll end the day tired, happy and in agreement. I’m not bad at training sessions, though it’s not really my thang. I can plan a series of activities to take a group of people through the acceptance cycle when we are imposing change on them. I know a reasonable amount about NLP and how to use it appropriately in business situations. I spent more of my life than I care to remember selling, which is the ultimate test of soft-skills in action.

The problem is that soft skills are hard. They are hard for a lot of reasons. They are hard partly because soft processes are only logical in hindsight. You can look back at a soft process – the process used to manage a series of changes to the way that people work, for example – and think it was all pretty obvious. But try to design it… ah that’s another thing.

There are very few “how-to” guides to soft skills. I think I’ve found two on requirements analysis in all of the IT bookshops I have ever been to. There’s a lot of literature about training skills and some about introducing change to people, but a lot of it is either off-puttingly pretentious (“Soft Systems Methodology” – I mean, wtf?) nauseatingly cute (“The one-minute cheese-monger”) or theoretical but not practical (“The Tipping Point”).

The other challenge is that soft skills are implicit skills; they are hidden, obscure, almost invisible. This doesn’t make them easy but it does mean they are undervalued. The people with the best soft skills don’t make it look easy. Oh no. When you are with people with really good soft skills, you don’t notice that anything is happening at all. On the other hand when change is introduced badly, it is obvious for all to see. The best and most recent example I can think of from this blog is the MTAS debacle where change was imposed on the victims with no attempt to get them to actually want the change. MTAS could have been a success; the system it replaced was broke enough to be worth fixing. MTAS needed better technical implementation for sure, but those affected could have been brought at least to a state of neutral acceptance of the concepts behind it, and maybe even trust and support, if had been handled right.

Soft skills are subjective skills, when using soft skills you need be aware of context and to exercise judgement. You need imagination. You have to be willing to walk in someone else’s shoes. They involve taking risks and making yourself vulnerable. When you are exercising soft skills, you have to be willing not to know. This subjectivity makes them difficult to turn into a system or a methodology.

With soft skills there’s no right or wrong answer, there is better and worse, more useful and less useful, but no right and wrong.

That’s not easy.

In fact, it’s hard.

Aphra’s top tip…

Aphra’s top tip…

… if you want to retain any degree of respect and professional credibility among your colleagues, don’t tell them that you store you dirty clothes on the floor. They will look at you, but say nothing.

Mental Maps

I need to have a mental map of everything I have to do, in order to be able to get on and do things. Without one, I flounder around and lose track.

If I am going to get on with – say – cleaning the kitchen, I need to know that – yes – I have to clean the living room, but that can wait until tomorrow so long as I remove the dead mouse, and that although I’m going to paint the kitchen, it won’t be before the next free Saturday with dry weather.

All the things I have to do are neatly arranged in relation to each other and to calender dates and other events on my mental map, like squadrons of Spitfires at Bomber Command.

RAF Operations Room - WWII

Sometimes it’s a mind-map, sometimes it’s a project plan, sometimes its a flow-chart, sometimes it’s just a really well internalised list, but if I don’t have that map in one form or another things get forgotten and this has been happening more and more recently. What with having time off, studying, training courses and the like, my mental map has become very disturbed.

We discovered today that we had forgotten about a whole load of things-to-do from last month: the professional equivalent of finding green stuff in coffee mugs which had been put away in the cupboard and left for four weeks.

Through an accident of scheduling I have two completely clear days tomorrow and Thursday and so I have all the time and mental space I need to rebuild my map. Woo Hoo!

However, when I told my boss about this he looked concerned and issued a warning: “don’t forget that things can change”. He’s normally very trusting but he’s resisted my attempts to introduce mental order before. He seems afraid that structure will introduce inflexibility. I find this really interesting, because it is so different from how I think.

I’m going to put a pin in my map tomorrow to remind me to ask him how he keeps track of what he has to do.

… but then again, too few to mention …

FrankieWhen you get a text message at a quarter to midnight saying “Are you still awake?”, what are you going to do? That’s right. I rang back.

My friend has a complicated life. I’m used to being the soap opera around here, and it is rather odd to find myself the stable one while my friend ricochets from situation to situation like the ball in a pinball machine.

He has some choices to make and, for once in my life, I didn’t have advice to give.

I am great at giving advice.

No, really I am.

Sometimes it’s advice, sometimes it’s an opinion, sometimes it’s a suggestion, and one of the things that makes me a good person to ask for help is that I am always really clear on which it is. I’ll even give people advice that I really don’t want them to take, if what is good for them is painful for me. For some reason that’s the one set of advice I have a 10/10 take-up on. Oh well.

So I told him about a couple of ways that I make sure I end up with as few regrets as possible. Coward that I am, I don’t like the idea of regrets.

The first is to kick start some hindsight. Imagine yourself five, ten, fifteen, twenty years in the future, or at the far end of your career, or the far end of your life, and look back on the situation you are in. What would you wish you had done? What would you regret the least? A powerful question that. (Ha!) Use it wisely.

It’s an odd thing to do the first time you do it, but it is so powerful and so useful that it can end up becoming habitual. It helps you get some perspective on the thing and sort out the short-term gain or pain from the lasting consequences of your decision.

The second is to take time to notice that the decision you are making is the right one, given the circumstances you are in right now. This is something that good abortion and adoption counsellors do. They take the time to make sure that, whatever happens in the future, the woman knows now that the decision she has made (to terminate the pregnancy, to give the baby away or to go through with the whole thing) is the right one given the situation she is in and the information she has available.

This one makes it easier for you to forgive yourself for your own mistakes because you know you did the best you could at the time.

The third thing is to be aware when a decision really is not your call, and you are just a factor in someone else’s decision-making. Deluded fools that they are, they think the world revolves around them. Don’t they realise? You see, you can have all sorts of reactions to the consequences of another person’s decisions but unless you caused them to take that decision, regret cannot be one of them.

So there you are. Aphra’s guide to regret-free decision-making. Mind you, you may still make completely lousy choices. You may still lie awake staring at the ceiling and aching with pain. But at least you’ll have got there really really carefully.

Grandmama, Grandmama, here’s this lovely egg. Listen up while I teach you how to suck it.