A still small voice: a method for integrity

This is the story of how playing around with different voices let me give voice to my unconscious, and perhaps my conscience as well.

Playing with voices

A lover once told me that, during sex, I spoke with a different voice, which sounded fake. I reflected on this for a while, and realized that I sounded fake because, for once, I was speaking directly from an authentic sense of caring as I experience it.

Mostly, when I try to show caring for my friends, it’s not a direct spontaneous expression of my inner state. I don’t expect that the mode of caring I feel will be understood. Warm feelings are the kind of caring people mostly expect, but they come and go, and they don’t feel fundamental to me. The kind of caring that feels most real to me doesn’t feel like warmth. It feels hard, like there are steel cables linking my solid core to their well-being, so if they’re tugged off-center it affects me directly. It feels like my well-being is permanently tied to theirs. It feels like a sense of determination. But that’s not the emotional affect people expect from their friends, so instead I’ve learned to throw warmth at them, put on a gentle friendly mask that projects a feeling of, this is safe, I am not judging you, I want to hear how you feel and help you. It’s honest - but it’s not, in some sense, authentic. Because when I actually give people uncensored access to my internal state, they read me as fake.

Once I realized that these different mental modes came with different voices and ways of holding my body, I started playing around with the idea. I’d already identified three different modes: my ordinary conversational mode, my authentic-caring mode, and my projection of warmth and gentleness. Did I have other voices corresponding to different mental states? Could I use this somehow?

I identified a few other “voices” I can be in. One that turned out to be important was what I at first called my “defeated” voice. I use it when I’m exhausted, emotionally or physically. Using it, I feel as though I’ve lost all power to shape my words, and I can just barely drop them out of my mouth, not giving them the socially appropriate flavor or texture, just doing the bare minimum to communicate the facts I need to get across.

Narratives are attractors

A few months ago, I was going through a tough time, and had to make some decisions about how to handle it. There were only five or so people who I trusted enough to understand me and the situation, and I had recently been in close enough touch with, that I felt I could lean on them for this. I didn’t get what I wanted from them.

When I tried to think about how to move forward, what to learn from the situation, my train of thought kept getting derailed into stories about how I had been betrayed and abandoned. This seemed unhelpful, regardless of whether it was true - it wasn’t going to lead me to any new insights, it wasn’t going to teach me how to better interact with people, or how to pick better people to interact with. And yet, I kept getting pulled there.

Memory is notoriously unreliable. We don’t store whole scenes in our minds, we store some core components and reconstruct everything else around them. I have an unusually good memory for specific events, and the details of what people said and did, at least when they struck me as at all important at the time. And yet, I found that as I talked through the sequence of events over those difficult months, I’d end up transposing events to better fit my narrative. I could fact-check any one assertion and my sense of integrity would win out, and I’d be able to tell whether I actually remembered that A happened before B, or whether I was just telling it that way because it was the best fit with my narrative interpretation of the overall pattern of events. But this took energy, and I was exhausted. I didn’t have the mental power to fact-check each detail. I needed a way to defuse or route around the pull of these narratives altogether, so that I could begin to remember, clearly and honestly, what actually happened. Only then could I start thinking about how to do better in the future.

Belief reporting: teaching the unconscious, and learning from it

Most of the power of your mind comes from processes not under direct conscious effortful control. Your gut, or your System 1, or your unconscious mind, uses much more of your brain than your conscious mind, System 2, attention, working memory, explicit reasoning ability. And yet, by default, when making conscious decisions or explicitly working out plans, you don’t have easy access to this. One way of describing what CFAR tries to teach is personal effectiveness through self-knowledge. That is, pulling your tacit knowledge from System 1 out into an explicit form that System 2 can process, and pushing things you’ve learned via System 2 explicit reasoning back into System 1 where it can affect your implicit models of the world, and your fast, gut, or emotional cognition.

CFAR has a bunch of clever techniques for doing this, but my friends at Leverage Research have come up with the idea of “belief reporting,” a technique for pulling beliefs out of System 1 that seems unfairly fast and easy. Put simply, you say something with a firm intent to tell the truth, and watch yourself for somatic “tells” that you’re lying. I know lots of people who report that this let them trace the origins of irrational-seeming behavior to incorrect implicit beliefs about the world. The idea is then that you can show yourself the evidence that this belief is wrong, in a way that your System 1 accepts as a valid argument, and then the behavior just corrects itself now that your tacit model of the world is truer.

Sometimes this plays out as a dialogue with oneself, where you ask yourself - or the relevant part of your System 1 - a series of questions, to try and trace out its model. Occasionally System 2 can persuade System 1 instantly, through argument alone. And sometimes it turns out that System 1 raises a valid objection - one that changes one’s explicit model, rather than the other way around!

(The unconscious is smart. It gets to use most of your brain. Listen to it.)

I tried to play around a bit with belief reporting a couple of years ago, but failed. Mostly, I think, because I didn’t have the requisite somatic awareness. This also meant that some CFAR techniques didn’t work so well on me, and I also got only weak results from Focusing.

(I weakly recommend that anyone with very poor somatic awareness considering going to a CFAR workshop try vipassana meditation, ideally at a retreat such as the Vipassana Center, first. But only if you’ll actually do it and not just use it as an excuse for inaction.)

A still small voice that cannot lie

As I was telling a friend about my feelings about the events of the prior few months, and about how I needed this narrative-buster, I remembered the idea of voices. I decided to see what happened if I summarized what happened in different “voices,” beginning with the “defeated” voice. And then magic happened.

I found that in the relaxed, no-effort state I needed to successfully execute the “defeated” voice, I simply couldn’t say the things I’d felt compelled to say when an emotional narrative had grabbed hold of my verbal center. It felt as though I was in a plain white room, with small holes in the wall, and the things I said had to first pass into the room. Statements that were emotionally compelling were just not-quite-true. They were too thick to fit into the holes, or too bent to pass through. Eventually, some things did come through, straight thin lines, and I took them in and said them. The facts were recognizable, but the story was very different than before.

Instead of angry, I was sad. Sad that my friends had not known how to help me. They had probably wanted to. But I hadn’t been able to show them how. It had been a missed opportunity for both sides. We could have become so much closer through this, but we didn’t. I had missed this chance.

It felt like the kind of story I would expect to tell after several months of background emotional processing and integration - but I was able to tell it just minutes after I’d been in a state where my feelings of resentment and anger had been inescapable. And it felt, in some deep sense, true.

I use this voice for something like belief reporting now. Instead of speaking with the intent to tell the truth and watching for tells, I speak in a physical state incompatible with the tells, so the slight tensing of my neck when I notice that something’s a bit forced pulls me, not into lies, but into silence.

Some limits of honest speech

The advantage of using this is that I get a quick summary of something that I suspect is a large part of my tacit model of the world. I’ve been able to use it better as I’ve understood its limits:

  • It never volunteers anything. I have to propose a sentence, which it will either affirm or refuse to speak, sometimes midway through.
  • Sometimes it will refuse to say either “X” or “not X”. In that case I can sometimes get it to say “I don’t know” or “wrong question”.
  • Occasionally it will weakly affirm both “X” and “not X”, in which case I have to rephrase until it picks one side.
  • It can report on past beliefs, but not as comprehensively as on present beliefs. And it’s not a direct report on past beliefs - I think it’s just my present tacit belief about my past tacit belief.
  • It doesn’t guarantee truth, just honesty. (This has to be the case, because System 1 can be mistaken.)
  • It is highly sensitive to exact wording. A few months ago, it affirmed “I need to leave the Bay.” A few weeks after that I started asking it how long it thought I needed to leave the Bay. “At least a day” was affirmed, but not “at least a week”.

With this understanding, I was able to use this voice to make belief mapping go much faster. I can even do it mostly in my head sometimes, without vocalizing much.


I can’t help but notice the resemblance between my voice that can only speak honestly, and the common description of conscience as a “still, small voice”. And the resemblance of the narratives it rescued me from to the idea of sin as self-justification through storytelling. Sin as the pull of your various passions and compulsions, distracting you from the truth that, deep in your core, you know is important.

I don’t know whether having found this will make me a morally better person, better able to remember the important things, caring for my friends, caring for the future of the world - but I hope, and intend to try, to use it in that way.

2 thoughts on “A still small voice: a method for integrity

  1. Pingback: Steve Jobs and the Impossibility of Parents | Compass Rose

  2. Pingback: Reading, writing, and thinking, with your brain | Compass Rose

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *