Dr Aaron Balick

Connection, boundaries & the problem with relating virtually

Today I have the pleasure of speaking with another great friend of the podcast, Dr Aaron Balick – a psychotherapist, author and director of the international psychology hub, Stillpoint Spaces, an organisation devoted to sharing ideas from depth psychology widely and with integrity.

After nearly 20 years of experience as a clinical psychotherapist and supervisor, and a decade as an academic in his field, Aaron now works as an author, media contributor and consultant, and speaks internationally to a wide variety of audiences about the impact of social media and technology on the individual and society.

As a psychological consultant for the media, Aaron has advised on, and contributed to a variety of projects that aim to bring quality mental health content to programming for young people and adults alike, and he has been the resident “agony uncle” for BBC Radio 1 and CBBC for many years.

The author of several fantastic books both for adults and children, his new title, The Little Book of Calm: Tame Your Anxieties, Face Your Fears, and Live Free draws upon his years of experience as a clinician and researcher, to offer readers techniques, advice and inspiration on the best and most effective ways to manage anxiety.

Key themes

Psychology, relationship, purpose, presence, virtual, ritual, body, sensations, embodiment, trauma, resilience, boundaries, values

Reflection prompt

“How do we define ourselves now, against the reality of things that have happened? And what kind of values have arisen that we’re interested in?”


Books & recommended reading


Nathalie: So I usually ask people the fundamental question, which you first asked me one time when we were talking about this podcast, which is around what we think is happening in the global human psyche. And obviously we’re going to be having this conversation months ahead of when the book actually comes out and months ahead of when this conversation will also come out. So where do you think the global human psyche is right now and December 2020? And if you were to throw some dice and maybe offer a potential prediction for where it might be in a year’s time, what might you say to that?

Aaron: Right. Okay. The global human psyche right now at the end of 2020, I think we might have to kind of say global human psyches, because I think the big situation at the moment is polarization, differentiation, filter bubbles, all that kind of stuff. So it seems to be that at this point in history, more than ever before, people are operating in what feels like completely different realities where their truths are different. And I’m not a post-modernist and I’m not a relativist. And I don’t believe that the truths are different. I think that the perceptions of truth are different and that those perceptions are engineered, aided and abetted by the technologies that we use in a way that at the moment is not very good news. So pretty, pretty dangerous situation. When you have populations that are divided amongst beliefs about what’s going on in the world, whether that’s from vaccines to the verity of national elections and that kind of thing. And I think it’s a really dangerous position that we’re in.

Nathalie: Do you see a way in which these different psyches, almost like a fragmented self can find way to converse with one another, at least if not integrate with one another?

Aaron: So theoretically, yes. And it’s what happens on an individual level every day when people are in conflict with one another or their stories about something that happened are different. For example, like an argument where somebody thinks one thing happened and somebody else thinks another thing happened. Or a crime that’s witnessed by five different people and you get five different narratives because all of those individuals are seeing things through particular lenses, right? The thing is it’s really difficult, even when there’s willing and even when there’s small population. So of two individuals who have a lot invested in each other, say a romantic couple, they come across conflict and they want to resolve it. They have to enable themselves to be open to the other person’s perspective. They have to be impacted by them. That can be a painful process admitting where you were wrong, for example, or showing somebody else where they may have been wrong. And you have to be committed to that process.

Aaron: How that would work on kind of a global scale, I think is just really, really challenging because there has to be willing on both sides to be impacted enough by the other side, to have that conversation. And that’s very, very difficult to do across something like social media and it’s already difficult enough to do in its most basic form.

Nathalie: Yeah. Big challenges ahead. One of the things that’s interesting that maybe weaves into that is the idea of what resilience might mean. So whether that’s on a personal level, on a community-based level, on a business level, on a global level. So how we deal with adversity, I’m curious from your perspective and your psychotherapeutic work, and then also personally, how you conceive of resilience.

Aaron: Well, I mean, I think the positive thing is that human beings seem to be positively and amazingly resilient. People do recover from the most horrific situations pretty well I would say most of the time, which seems a strange thing to say, but actually when people are subjected to traumatic experiences, really most people though they have consequences of that traumatic experience will be resilient to it. And then you’ll have a smaller bit of the population that will suffer longer-term consequences like PTSD or something like that. But actually most people tend to resolve traumas independently. And then if they don’t, there is help, therapeutic help and other ways that people can resolve traumatic experience. And depending on how people have seen themselves through the past year, I guess there’s going to be a whole variety of different experiences on the scale of what’s traumatic and what’s just hard or difficult or could be better.

Right? So it really depends if you’ve lost close people to you, if you’ve lost lots of close people to you, your own health and your work, for example that those are sort of multiple events that are more difficult to overcome. But you just look back at history and we’ve seen our world decimated by this virus, but many different populations around the world have seen their cities decimated by bombs or hurricanes or the infrastructure disappears and social cohesion disappears. And in a lot of those cases, there’s still a lot of resilience. There’s a lot of damage, but there’s still a lot of resilience. So I think human beings are in a sense made to be resilient. And if there’s some optimism in me, it’s that when things get back to normal, yes, there will be long-term consequences. But for the most part, I think we will be resilient as a global society.

Nathalie: I like that optimism. With resilience I think there seems to be an interesting relationship there with one’s values. And if you have a sense of what you value and what you believe in, it can generate a sense of purpose that can then lead to perseverance to help you orient yourself through the struggle, to give you a sense of direction. And I wonder when it comes to businesses and brands, so by this, I mean businesses, the way that they’re structured, the services they provide, the people they employ. And brands, I’m thinking more in terms of the public facing personality of the business. Do you have a sense of what makes a business and its public facing brand more resilient? Are you seeing maybe more people in the business world talk about values as being important?

Aaron: Yes. I mean, I think both on an individual and the larger scale organizational perspective, people are talking about values more. I mean, there is a big difference between talking about values and walking the talk. And I think there still tends to be quite a big gap between the two. But I think, I mean, I’m sure you’re familiar with Carol Dweck’s work around fixed mindset versus growth mindset. And I think that can kind of work within organizations and within individuals. And the fact of the matter seems to be that if you have a growth mindset, you’re going to tend to be more resilient because you’re going to see the challenges that are levied against you as, I mean, opportunities for growth would be a very optimistic way of looking at it. But at least you can survive them because you have a sense that you can pivot to them and learn something and do something different.

So individuals with growth mindsets will be more resilient coming out of challenge and so will businesses. And I would say ideally, so would governments. So the hope is that if you can tilt towards the growth mindset and ask certain questions of yourself or your organization, how do we define ourselves now against the reality of things that have happened? And what kind of values have arisen that we’re interested in? Then moving forward, you would hope that there would be a shift towards those values if possible. And in a sense, a kind of a restart. The fixed mindset would be the reverse, that these challenges have decimated us and there’s no point, and that can go towards despair and nihilism. And I think you will have kind of a Darwinian effect in the sense that I think some of the more fixed mindset companies won’t survive because they were fixed for a certain world that will have changed when this is all over.

Nathalie: That’s fascinating. With our ability to adapt, I think one of the things that was really interesting that the pandemic forced was an adoption of behaviors that many of us were resisting. So whether that was, I don’t know, grandmothers and grandfathers in Italy not wanting to buy from Amazon or people not wanting to switch to video calls. And realizing that if they want to see their loved ones, they have to find an additional way to interact that’s not just by phone or by email. With the technological disruption and the advancements of technology that’s happened due to the pandemic, do you think that there have been some long-lasting impacts on the way we conceive of how we relate to people?

Aaron: I’m really curious about this one, because I think you and I had a conversation early on in the pandemic where I kind of thought differently than I do now. Simply because of the length of time that’s passed inside of it, it kind of felt like, yeah, everybody’s had to adapt to this new situation, but when it’s over people will quickly revert back to a kind of a status quo. But now that we’re kind of pushing a year and I have seen people shifting into a more introverted state, there seems to be a deadening of, and I use this in the classical sense, extroverted energy, which doesn’t necessarily mean I like being in crowds, but I’m energized by being out there in the world. So since that cable’s kind of been pinched off, we just haven’t had a lot of practice gaining energy that way.

I do think that people do adapt quite quickly. So I still think when things change there might be a lag, but people will return into the world. But I’ll be curious to see how. Your question is about the technologies and while the technologies have enabled us to maintain a degree of contact, they’ve also enforced us to maintain a certain low complexity form of contact, which is really fucking exhausting, right? It’s just like the focus it requires on a Zoom call is just so different from the focus that a co-present meeting looks like. And so I think you’ll actually have some, on the one hand, you’ll have some pushback. So it’ll be like, maybe there’ll be more of both because there can be more of both. I think they’ll still be a lot more video conferencing than before, but that will be mixed with co-present work. But I wouldn’t be surprised if you see the improvement of video communications into a high complexity VR and that kind of stuff. So that at least when you’re remote, you can have a more fulsome experience of that remoteness rather than just looking at a screen.

Nathalie: Yeah. I’m super interested in the VR thing. Because I was looking into some of the technologies that have advanced rapidly and their adoption and why they’ve been adopted so quickly. And then why things like VR seem still to be missing out in terms of the spread of adoption and obviously VR, you need to get new technology and things like Zoom and other video conferencing platforms. They tend to work with the hardware that we already have if we’re lucky enough to have a computer, which is fairly accessible to many people. But I think with VR, there is this kind of question of what can we achieve through virtual reality telepresence that will be enrich two dimensional experiences that lose so much of the nuance and the texture and the sensuality of being physically in presence with other people? Do you think that VR is going to be adopted swiftly or do you think it’s still one of these kind of utopian ideals? Just like the hoverboard never quite manifested itself.

Aaron: The hoverboard didn’t, that’s right. But I do remember going to Disney world. I think it must’ve been and it could have been… I’m 47. Now it could have been like 1979 or 1980 or something and going to Tomorrowland. And they had video phones, which I just thought was the most amazing thing ever and would never, ever happen.

Nathalie: Wow.

Aaron: Right. It’s like a mannequin talking across a video phone. And we hardly even noticed when people started having video calls, it was not a magic intervention. And like you say, there’s a resource issue. So most people in the developed world have access to screens and most people around the rest of the world actually have access to mobile technologies also, it’s pretty… there are places that don’t, but it’s actually pretty ubiquitous.

VR goggles is going to be a whole other thing, but it might surprise us how quickly it shifts. And most of my work, what I have noticed as I kind of call it this sort of passive uptake of technology. So we tend to use technologies in ways that are familiar to us and don’t tend to be particularly bold. You take a face-to-face meeting and then you move that on to Zoom. It’s just trying to be an equivalent of the same thing. You have to jump several layers out of the way to imagine a hologram or VR goggles.

However, you could still imagine, say speaking at a conference with VR goggles and feeling like you’re there and having people see your whole body like they’re there, but you’re still not going to shake a warm hand afterwards. And you’re still not going to break off to the pub afterwards and have a drink with some of your favorite people. Right? And that’s a huge, I mean, that’s where most of the important stuff happens, I think, and until they can have the virtual warm handshake in the virtual pub and the virtual beer through VR, which I think is probably a long way away, it’s always going to fall short of a face-to-face meeting.

Nathalie: I think that brings us back into this idea of embodied cognition. So the fact that we’re not just this dual mind body system of which the mind can just get transplanted into a virtual interface and you can just go and it’s fulfilling. I think the whole idea is that we’re this complex and unified system, not just within ourselves, but also with our sensory environments. So one of the things that gets talked about quite a lot, when we talk about an embodied central experience is pheromones. And I know there’s been a lot of debate around pheromones, but there are studies to suggest that they do actually subtly influence how we perceive an interaction to be going.

So whether someone smells good or their hand is warm to the touch, all of these things really help us to form impressions and bond with other people that you just, you can’t replicate it or compensate it online and where you’re just using one visual sense. And I think even this idea which already seen mapped out in sex tech of full body technology, which like a suit, if you like, like a wetsuit for want of a better example. Which applies pressure in certain places or applies a sensation to the skin, it’s still not the same as having another human interact with you.

Aaron: Well, I mean, I wouldn’t even take it. I don’t even think you have to go into that level of complexity. I think just traveling to a meeting and back, it’s a huge thing, right? So like it engages the navigational part of your brain. It takes time, you have all of these experiences. And my area is in the world of psychotherapy where people used to go to their session in somebody’s room and come home from it. And that whole ritualized thing enables a richer experience. So I think the pheromone thing is right. And I think again, if you’re in a room with someone, there are all these unconscious clues that are going on. There could be pheromones for fear or for excitement that we’re unaware of that are kind of feeding our intuitive way of being.

So we’re missing out on all of that, but just again, on that very basic level, you can move from, I don’t know, having a one-to-one meeting with your accountant or your mother on a Skype call, and then two minutes later be presenting to a virtual room with 700 people in it without moving out of your chair. And that I think is very, very consequential because it just wipes away coming and going, which I think is a really important part of the whole experience preparing for and coming away from and how you assimilate that information. And we know from some of the research in psychotherapy and counseling, that sessions that go online are more forgettable than ones that happen in real life. And one of the reasons we think that’s the case is because you’re not engaging as much of your brain. You’re not going there and coming home from it. You’re not smelling that person. You’re not seeing the inside of the room. You’re just sitting on your bum in the same place you were sitting on your bum watching Netflix or doing your taxes that so really, really important distinction there.

Nathalie: Super interesting, I think also from both from the ritual aspect and also from the gestural aspect, I was reading some other interesting research that was talking about how encouraging young children to use gesture to solve problems, helps them solve the problems more deeply, more swiftly, and then they retain that information better. So there’s also this aspect of being able to physically incorporate our environment and incorporate the experience literally to incorporate to bring into one’s body. Do you think there are ways that we can transmit or at least make up for nonverbal communication when we’re in video conferencing? So whether with friends or with colleagues.

Aaron: So again, this is like the passive use of technology argument. So again, one of the phrases I know you’ve talked to Gillian Isaacs Russell’s well, in her book on Screen Relations that this idea of functional equivalency doing one thing live and then doing another thing online is not the functional equivalent. It’s not the same thing, so you have to do it differently. So the solution in a sense is a full, wholehearted acknowledgement that the way in which one is communicating to someone is different from that real life and finding ways to incorporate that other information that may not be in the same way that you do it face to face. Right? So it might mean making more inquiries about body sensation. It might mean asking people to engage in some kind of ritual before and after a meeting. It might mean setting up a camera further away so that the whole body can be seen. And also like in staff meetings for companies and organizations, they do functional equivalent all the time.

We used to meet every Wednesday, the five of us in a meeting room, and now we meet every Wednesday for an hour and a half on Zoom. It shouldn’t really be that way. Right? What does the online meeting need that it used to get offline, that maybe it can come closer to? You’re not going to replicate it, but you might need to do more of an emotional check-in or you might ask people to become aware of what’s going on in their bodies afterwards. Or you might create breakout rooms after the meeting to mimic what it’s like to walk down the corridor and have the informal conversation after the formal one. There’s a thousand things that get lost that I think you have to really proactively consider and integrate into that technological solution.

Nathalie: Fascinating. One of the other impacts as well I think that that weave into this idea of creating different spaces or different experiences to kind of provide some sorts of experience, analogous to what we would otherwise have in real life. So whether it’s that walk down the corridor or the journey to the therapist office. I think one of the aspects that’s also difficult for people to deal with is the disruption of being constantly on, of using one single device on which you do everything, which you’ve got all your tabs open and you listen to your music, you watch your Netflix, et cetera. Can you tell us a little bit about this connected effect of continuous partial attention and what it is and kind of what it does?

Aaron: Yeah. And again I know I keep rabbiting on about it, but it’s this passive piece of technology, the default usage that we have. When we use our technologies passively, we’re not using them passively at all. We’re using them in the active ways that they were designed, which is to invite a continuous partial attention. To keep those dopamine channels open, those reward centers, to keep jumping from one thing the other to be engaged, to be programmed in a sense. And I think we have – and I don’t exclude myself – been programmed to see this partial, continuous attention as our human default position, which is just not good for us because really we can’t multitask as much as we think that we can. So you have to take control of that. When I talk to therapists working online, it sounds simple, but it’s like, you have to turn off your email program and you have to turn off anything that has a notification.

You wouldn’t dream of having your phone ringing in your room while you’re seeing a client. So why is it okay to have your phone in your pocket vibrating, right? Or why is it okay to have a notification that an email just came in while you’re trying to give someone focused attention? So if you’re having a conversation, you should be managing your technology as well as you can, so that 15 windows aren’t open. And so that it’s only doing the thing you’re asking it to do in that moment. And that when that task is done, you finish that task and you do what you need to do to move on to another task that’s slightly less easy than just clicking a mouse pad. So it’s like mindful eating, isn’t it? It’s just like trying to be conscious about the decisions that you’re making in your everyday life around these devices.

Nathalie: I think also it’s possibly a question of choosing to build friction and to make it less convenient to just mindlessly slide from one task to the next as well. Which is obviously a lot of UX designers spend ages trying to strip out friction to make something as easeful as possible so that we just continue without being alert to spending more time on whatever platform it is, spending more money, et cetera.

Aaron: Yeah. I mean, that’s what the developers want from us and just like fast food merchants want it to be really easy to drive up, get a burger, contactless pay or have it delivered by Uber Eats. Every time that bar is lowered it means it’s easy for us to activate not our executive functioning, but our basic drives. And we are, we’d like to think anyway, civilized human beings who should be making choices more from our executive functioning and not just the, it or the, I want, piece of you.

Nathalie: Yeah. I was just thinking about when I recently for the first time this whole year went and got some takeaway from this fantastic Indian restaurant nearby. And it was just, it was almost a revelation because I hadn’t done it, it is with Uber Eats. And I hadn’t done it since being in London like four years ago. I don’t know why I usually just go out to the restaurant and eat. Anyway, and it was just one of these things where it was made so easy that then it was a quick and slippery slope over the next two weeks of just buying way too much takeaway. And it was astounding how swiftly that became a normalized behavior just because it was convenient. I’ve since stopped.

Aaron: Good for you.

Nathalie: Anyway, so one of the things I wanted to talk with you about, especially in the light of so many meetings having to move online, and also, I guess from the therapeutic perspective, there are some significant questions arising to this theme as well. Given that this conversation will probably go out, hopefully when the pandemic is more under control and we’ve got a more of a hybrid remote and in-person work scenario happening. What do you think are some of the ways in which we can create greater psychological safety for people in virtual contexts? So in meetings and in creative collaboration settings, et cetera?

Aaron: That’s a really good question. And I think in the more hybridized world, options open back up to us that are currently mostly off the table. And I think that might be things like making judgements about what can be done good enough online and what should be done in the more highly complex interpersonal setting. So it might be that rather than using convenience as the major draw, which I think it often is, it’s just more convenient to stay at home and do this on Zoom than come into the office. The judgment would be what kind of task needs to be accomplished and what’s the best format to do that task? So if it’s going to be brainstorming, then it’s probably better to do that in a room and have lots of post-it notes and whiteboards and people moving about and having breaks and ordering and food and all that kind of thing.

If it’s a check-in or if it’s just very straightforward task oriented thing, that can be accomplished online or on Slack. If it’s going to be an annual appraisal or if a difficult conversation needs to be happening, bring that person in. And again, this is where it’s a problem because people are kind of lately engineered to avoid having those difficult conversations face to face because it’s harder, right? So it’s like you could send a really difficult piece of feedback on Slack or text message where actually it’s much better to have that face to face, but it’s also challenging to have difficult conversations face to face. So people have to take responsibility for meeting those challenges and walking the hard road of holding them in spaces that are psychologically and emotionally better spaces for those kinds of things to happen.

Nathalie: I think that also means that we then have to skill up on ways in which to approach difficult subjects and listen actively and supportively and give feedback in a constructive way that engenders a desire to find resolution or to move forward. I think these skills are probably going to be more important. Is this something that you think people are increasingly aware of? I know that with the lockdown, a lot of people in the UK, so people that I am in business with would open up a meeting rather than asking, “How’s the weather where you are?” Which is a classic British trope. They might actually start by saying, “How are you feeling today? How has this weekend been for you?” And just creating the space in which to have some form of emotional intimacy, which I was actually quite surprised by. And it seems to have continued behaviorally as the time has worn on. What are your thoughts around that?

Aaron: Well, it’s interesting because before the pandemic happened, it was a big concern of mine that people were actually leaving those more difficult things anyway, to online interaction. Just things like ghosting, for example, or breaking up with someone via text message rather than seeing them face to face. And I think culturally, we were seeing more and more people taking the easy way out. Then it became that the easy way out was the only way. So I think the pessimistic part of me says, “Oh, people are even more out of practice than they already were.” Right. Like having those highly complex interpersonal interactions which are so, so important.

Aaron: So, well, I think, yes, that’s true that particularly because everybody’s in the same boat and the vast majority of people are struggling in some way, and everybody knows that everybody else is struggling, that those inquiries are happening. I’m not entirely convinced that those inquiries are particularly productive, that the question is asked and people say I’m fine, or I’m having a tough time or whatever. But is there a follow-up after that meeting, is the manager then calling an individual for one-to-one that they kind of had a sense that they probably weren’t quite all right. It’s one thing just to kind of say it, it’s another thing to actually pursue it and see what needs to be done about it.

Nathalie: And I think also when so many people in varying degrees are dealing with the longevity of the situation, and then they’re quite worn down and the novelty of remote working with kids or flatmates or whatever has worn off. I think it’s also a question of how much bandwidth do we really have to extend a high quality level of attention, presence and empathy to another person? There’s also that question of how much capacity do we have to really be there for someone else?

Aaron: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s a really important question because in my experience there’s very little Slack in the system, right? Because everybody’s finding this really, really difficult. And it might be that some of those boundaries are that they can’t, they can’t actually, there isn’t more space to help somebody else because you’re struggling so much on your own. And it’s problematic because it’s what happens in a crisis. Everybody’s in the crisis together. So that kind of requires people to be more proactive in their own spaces about how they seek help and how they protect themselves so that there can be a little bit more room to reach out and also be helpful to someone else.

Nathalie: So maybe then this is a good point in the conversation to talk about boundaries, because I think boundaries are something that are brilliant to be able to assert for ourselves in a healthy way. But also potentially quite difficult to express to others, especially when the distinction between work and home life are so blurred. What for you constitutes a good boundary, a healthy boundary, and how can we do it better?

Aaron: Well, the first answer to that question is personal insight into oneself. So what often happens is people are unaware that their boundaries have been trodden over, or that they’ve trod over their own boundaries. And if you’re unaware of that, how are you supposed to find your boundary, right? And you tend not to find it until you’re burnt out, nearly burnt out or have a nervous breakdown or something. And that means that you’ve been unaware that you’ve been over committed or overstimulated or under boundaried for way too long. So first thing is like, look inside, how are you feeling? How stressed are you? Can you get a measure of it? Can you get a measure of one year full? Do you have a regular default setting of boundaries? And these things would include things like no screen time an hour before bed, not looking at emails on your phone or on weekends or after a certain hour in the day. Turning off work-related accessibility, like your Slack and your email after a certain time when you’re off. During those periods, when you’re off, not overstimulating yourself with other stuff basic health, right?

The same way you would want to eat well and exercise, you want to make sure that your general average boundaries are well enough kept so that when the shit hits the fan and you have to extend those boundaries, or you have to do more than you normally would, there’s enough margin in the system that that’s not going to kick you over. So really also identifying when you need to say no. One of my big things is identifying that everything isn’t urgent, you know you can kind of get into the situation…

Nathalie: Yeah. I recognize that one.

Aaron: Yeah, where everything’s so fucking important. And it’s like, actually it’s not. What can go, what can wait till tomorrow? And people aren’t going to do that for you, particularly if you’re working with other people. What do they say? That give the busiest person more work. Right? Because they’ll just get on it. So you really have to take responsibility for that yourself in a work situation that it’s like telling a senior person when they give you another piece of work and you’ve identified that you have enough, instead of saying, “Yes.” You’re saying, “Well, what is on my desk that you would like me to give up in order to take this on?” Right. So there’s a negotiation there, but it’s coming from a place of, I already have enough. I can’t take more. If this is a priority, let me know. And then let me know what’s not a priority. And doing that for yourself as well. Putting down those lower priority items and moving on with the other stuff, just so you’re not in a state of overwhelm.

Nathalie: Yeah. I find that pretty difficult, especially when you get into that state. I don’t know if you have this, but I certainly had this with a book when you’ve got a gazillion things to do, you’ve got one thing you’re focusing on, which is taking up all your time, then you have to switch to a different task. And then there’s a bunch of other things that come in and then it just creates this shit show of stress. And so then even the small things that needn’t be added to the pile get added to the pile. And it’s just, and you look at it from the outside. You just think that this is just bonkers. And yet when you’re in it, everything else kind of blends together and creates this massive dumpster of chaos. Maybe that’s just me.

Aaron: Well, I’m sure it’s not just you, but I think the phrase when you’re in it is such an important one because when you’re in it means I’m identified in a kind of manic crazy thing. So as soon as you’re in it, that should give you pause. Right? Like I’m in it. So what needs to come off the boil? Can I do a little bit of deep mindful breathing? Can I step outside of identifying with this chaos and just sort of start to make some decisions calmly? Right.

Nathalie: I think it’s helpful if you’ve got someone on standby that can tell you you’re in it and to forcibly remove you from your desk.

Aaron: “Calm the fuck down. You’re in it.”

Nathalie: Seriously. That was often the only way I can get out is if my partner, “Okay, you need to just stop, just walk away from the desk, walk away.” And it’s literally a physical, oh, anyway, there’s a couple other questions that I want to dive into. And one of them, which is not particularly sexy and exciting, but I think it is important. It’s about video conferencing platforms. And so most of us when we are, well, even if it’s just on, I don’t know, WhatsApp or FaceTime or on Zoom or what have you, we can almost always see ourselves reflected back on the screen as a little icon, or what have you. And I don’t know about you, but it always makes me distracted. I don’t like being able to see myself on the screen because it means I’m not paying full attention to the person who is speaking. And so I wonder what your thoughts are around what this self-monitoring or self-surveillance does to our experience, to our ability to attend to the other person. So the quality of that interaction as a whole.

Aaron: It’s completely unnatural anyway, isn’t it? To see yourself interacting with somebody else. It divides attention. So my general sense is if you can get rid of that, you probably should get rid of that because I don’t see that it has any sort of added value. I have heard anecdotally, and I don’t have the research to back this. Maybe you’ve looked at some of this, but that actually having your image in your view contributes to things like stress headaches and the kind of Zoom eye strain and this kind of stuff, because you’re constantly switching. A, You’re switching between looking at two different faces. One of them is yours. And the other is that looking at your own face has a profoundly different effect on what’s going on inside of your brain than when you’re looking at somebody else’s. And it’s an effect that you generally only have when looking into a mirror or looking at a photograph of yourself. So it’s probably not recommended that that should be part of your communication.

Nathalie: Yeah. And yet, so many of us are so self-conscious that it becomes tricky to switch that off. And I think also the fact that it’s just on by default means that it can be tricky.

Aaron: Yes. And it’s curious, it’s curious to see yourself and if you’re curious about that, then that’s what you’re doing, but you’re not having just the conversation with another person. So I think there might be room for that if you’re curious about what that is like for you when you’re speaking to somebody else. But when the aim is to speak to somebody else, don’t speak to yourself, get rid of that picture.

Nathalie: Yeah, exactly. So if you’re thinking about some of the ways in which we can be perhaps more empathetic with other people, which is something that I think would be useful after this, especially with the difficulty that so many people will be experiencing in the long-term. What are some of the ways in which you can go about building empathy, maybe in the business place, as well as between friends?

Aaron: So again, this seems like a really basic thing, but I really feel that this everything happening in one place –  the personal calls to the business calls, to the taxes, to the Netflix, to the pornography, to the shopping –  the whole thing happening on one screen gets in the way of you taking the necessary space to be even present enough in yourself to be empathic. And I’m terrible at this. And I’m really working hard to get better at it. But sometimes I will look at a week. I was going to say a day, but even sometimes it’s a week where I’ll look at my schedule and there will just be six Zoom calls-

Nathalie: Oh gosh.

Aaron: …With hardly a break between them. And it’s just like your heart sinks, because that’s so hard. In the real world, you still have to get from one meeting to the next. And that somehow puts a default break between one and the other, right? At least you’re having a toilet break or you’re going down some stairs or you’re going into somebody else’s office. We must not do this to ourselves. So it’s a basic planning thing. And it’s finding yourself in that manic space thing, because if you’re in a manic space, you’re not going to be particularly sensitive to somebody else’s situation because you’re going to be completely obsessed with yourself. That’s what manic is, you’re self-involved. So it’s really, I mean, it’s kind of basic, Nathalie, I think. It’s the boundary thing again. If you’re going to go into a difficult meeting where you’re going to require more empathy than usual, don’t have a meeting before that, and don’t have a meeting after that. And prepare yourself and walk around and ground yourself and breathe and have a glass of water.

And imagine what it’s like to be that other person and engage like a human being. If that’s your fifth meeting out of five back-to-back, you’re not going to find your way to empathy. And this we know from the research. I mean, I don’t know if you’re familiar with research about judges, but judges are less compassionate at the end of the day than they are the start of the day. If you’re being sentenced, you want to be sentenced at the beginning of the day because they’ve got decision fatigue by then. It works the same for the rest of us. Protect yourself from the fatigue so that you can be open to others when you need to.

Nathalie: So one of the other things that I think people are also worried about that I don’t actually go into much detail in the book, but I think it’s worth pointing towards is the fear that people have around the future of automation. In the pandemic a lot of people, a lot of businesses were using chat bots to help deal with some of the service pressures. What do you think are some of the human qualities that we bring that technology can’t? What makes us special?

Aaron: Gosh. I’m not sure it’s that cut and dried because sometimes you can get through to a call center and the person on the other end of that line is not particularly in a good mood either. So it’s like, you’re fed up because you’ve been on hold for 45 minutes. They’re fed up because they’ve been talking to angry people like yourself all day long and it’s just it’s not nice. So I can actually imagine a situation in which if an intelligent chatbot can speak to me two and a half minutes into my call rather than 45 minutes into my call. And can resolve 90% of the problems that I’m encountering without making me more pissed off, because can’t understand what I’m saying or doing. Then I think what you’re doing is you’re delegating lots of really aggravating work onto something that can be automated. Some things are best not automated. For example, if you’re calling the Samaritans which in the UK is a suicide hotline. You don’t want to encounter a chat bot first, right? Because you’re in a state of discomfort.

If you’re operating a medical lab where people are calling in to get their results, similar thing. Right? So again, it’s about making these judgments about when somebody needs to be received by a human being, and when might it be easier for everyone to have this thing resolved with a chat bot?

Nathalie: So in terms of the longer-term success of a business, and here we’re going into the realm of the imaginal. If you fast forward a few years and you had to choose one thing that would be key, what would you choose? What would you say that would be?

Aaron: Well, I really think it has to be values pretty much, because we are on a dying earth that is being over-consumed and we are in a interpersonal environment that’s really divided, as we discussed earlier. And I just don’t think it is responsible to be a business that profits off of either of those things. So for the survival of the species, there are certain priorities that have to get online like how sustainable is it? Are we enslaving people in order to do what we need? Are we raping the earth in order to have something a little bit quicker? In a way it’s kind of basic, but the consequences that a lot of stuff is going to have to change in order for businesses to be aligned with those kinds of values. But that would certainly be the single most important thing.

Nathalie: Yeah. I would agree with this.

Aaron: Yeah.

Nathalie: So if you were to envision maybe what an exciting resilient business might look like, obviously values would have to be a fundamental part of that, but what else might come up for you?

Aaron: So everything gets better because of it, at least just a little bit. So you imagine with something like architecture, for example, a building could not only be zero emission, but also puts power back into the grid by having solar activated windows and ceilings, and that kind of thing. The kind of product that’s used in creating material goods is not only sustainable, but when it goes back into the earth, it replenishes soil or something like that. Human beings are very inventive creatures. And I don’t see why we can’t create an ecosystem that continually is a healing one rather than one that is always running at a deficit that needs to be repaid in the future.

It’s a little bit pie in the sky stuff, but I think we… I didn’t have anything to do with it, but a vaccine was developed in whatever nine months since this virus came on board. When we’re pushed up against the wall, the human species can find ways. And we just haven’t awoken to the fact enough that we are against a wall. We’re pretending that we’re not against a wall. And it could happen. We could have a whole new economy.

Nathalie: I love that. And I don’t think it’s probably in the sky. It is entirely possible. The question is having the will to enact the change, to be able to accomplish that. I was actually going to finish by asking you two questions, but the first kind of speaks to the answer that you already gave, which is what kind of world would you like to build? Unless there’s anything you want to add to that.

Aaron: I think that’s it. I would like to build a world where that value is present and it’s kind of in everybody’s programming that it’s not all about me. It’s all about us. And sadly, the leadership in the world in recent years has been divide and rule rather than how can we club together to make the world a better place? And sadly, I think that has to come from the top. I think we can boycott Amazon and buy organic as much as we want, but until something happens top down, it’s going to be very, very difficult to change it.

Nathalie: So if there was one thing that you would suggest that can help us to get there, to move towards that vision of the world, what would it be?

Aaron: I mean I’m biased because I’m a psychotherapist, I guess, but it starts with you. So any of your own kind of personal pathologies, unmet need, all of that kind of stuff is likely to be projected on the world. And you’re going to want the world to fix your pain in a lot of ways. And in some ways the world can, if you’re engaged in it in the proper way. So it’s really, again, looking inward, being accountable, taking responsibility for yourself, using whatever methodology it takes to get you there. Whether that’s psychotherapy or meditation or plant medicine, or reading, whatever it is. So that you start making those choices that you have those value expectations, you make your choices based on value expectations. You surround yourself with people who share those values. And you do the best you can to spread those values.