Marshall Rosenberg and the Angry Luthier

It's the response, not the trigger, that tells us what we need to know.

An AI-generated image in traditional Japanese style of a luthier examining a koto.
A luthier examining a koto. Image generated with AI by DALL-E.

Collaborative Communication, Marshall Rosenberg’s approach to resolving conflicts, has an interesting parallel with the black box concept in signal processing.

In signal processing, a black box is an entity that applies an unknown transformation between its input and output. To understand its transfer function, we must measure its response to an impulse of a (theoretically) infinite amount of energy in an infinitely short amount of time.

As our professor Stan Tempelaars put it: “if you know a system’s impulse response, you know everything about it”.

The impulse response fully describes the transfer function of the black box.

Soon after learning about signal processing in college, I brought my cello to the luthier for its annual inspection. When he began knocking on it, I realized he was black box-testing: using impulses to find problems. It quickly revealed a hairline fracture in the soundboard.

Emotional responses could be working in a similar way. In the Collaborative Communication article mentioned above, a stimulus (a project manager’s incessant talking) triggers a feeling (annoyance). Intuitively, we blame the project manager for how we feel. But in doing so, we learn nothing. Just like in signal processing, the information is in the response, not the stimulus.

So if someone gets under your skin, they are merely “knocking” on your system. The knocking has no inherent information. The information is in your feelings. They reveal insights about the self: about what’s alive in you, about your needs.

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