I did a TEDx talk!
This is something that has been on my personal and professional “bucket list” for a while. I have taught classes and given professional lectures, but nothing like this! This was a big production with bright lights, tons of cameras, and a 5 foot red dot that I had to stand in. Needless to say, I was a bit nervous. Add to that the fact that in this talk, I share some information about my personal story that I have not previously shared on such a wide platform and… well this was a big deal for me.
It would mean the world to me if you would watch the video and let me know what you think. Additionally, I will include a complete transcript of the talk below. For some reason, the video was edited a bit and took out a few short phrases from the talk. Those will be included in the transcript.
The Cost of Complication Transcript
This was performed by Robert Duff, Ph.D. at TEDx Camarillo on 1/28/2017
In August of 2014, I almost lost my wife. This was the final year of my training before getting my doctorate in clinical psychology (the predoctoral internship). My wife, Joelle, and I had moved into this tiny little apartment in San Diego, California. Not only was it tiny, but it was so dark. It was like a cave. Sometimes we had to go outside to tell if it was light or dark out. That’s how bad it was. What I didn’t realize at the time was that darkness was going to be a theme for the year.
Joelle has always had some issues with anxiety and depression, but the circumstances of our life at this point made it more difficult. We were isolated from the place that we had called home and our support network. Add to that the fact that I could not be there for her as much as I would have liked because I was busy being overworked and underpaid, as all doctoral interns are, and this created a scenario where she was having panic attacks more frequently and they were become more severe. She had been in to see the therapist and the doctor, trying to figure it out. And it was at one of these sessions, it was an emergency therapist session after a particularly alarming panic attack, that Joelle revealed she had thoughts of suicide. She had thought about just wanting to stop fighting, taking a bunch of pills, going to sleep, and letting it all go away.
I remember the scenario pretty vividly. The therapist sitting over here, calmly excusing herself to use the phone to call in her supervisor. They consulted for a moment, talked to Joelle and I, then the supervisor calmly explaining that she’s going to be held on a 5150, which is an involuntary hold for psychiatric reasons. In other words, she was going away to a mental hospital for a few days. Now this wasn’t the crazy scenario that you see in the movies with kicking and screaming and all of that. Instead it was Joelle sitting here with silent tears running down her face, nodding, and my hand on her shoulder gipping tighter and tighter as if there was some way I could anchor her there and stop all of this from happening. But of course there wasn’t and she did go away for a few days.
Now the hospitalization process was not like the movies, but the hospital itself kind of was. We did not get the best hospital in the area and even as a mental health professional, when I visited her it was shocking to me that there were people screaming in the hallways, there was one person who wouldn’t stop harassing us because they were convinced that Joelle was a member of the SWAT team planted there to kill everybody, and she told me that she wasn’t getting a lot of sleep because it seemed like every few minutes they were shining lights in her eyes to make sure she was still there. So I have no room to complain here, but this period of time was also really hard for me.
I spent a lot of time sitting in our little cave alone by myself just thinking and overwhelmingly, I felt like a failure. There’s a part of that I think is normal. I think it’s understandable to feel like a failure as a husband, as a spouse, when your partner ends up in a mental institution. But there was something else there too; this deeper sort of failure that was murky and gross under the surface. It took me a while to put my fingers on why. Driving it was a sense that Joelle shouldn’t have been there. That something went wrong along the way. Because she had books and resources, she had been in therapy, but for some reason the point wasn’t sticking and she wasn’t able to apply it. I came to realize that sense of failure under the surface was actually on behalf of the mental health field that I represented. I thought we had failed her by letting this happen. And I think I was right. I think that we did fail her. Because, you see, language comes at a cost and the cost of the language that my field was using came at the cost of Joelle’s attention and ability to relate to what they were saying. It didn’t work. I didn’t hit the mark. She was somebody so strong and so resilient feeling weak and helpless… and that didn’t sit well with me.
After a few days, she was allowed to come back home and we spent a lot of time talking about things, just going over what had happened and how to move forward. During one of these talks are reached over and grabbed one of her books. This was basically the industry standard workbook for anxiety. Not for professionals like me, but for people like her who were actively contending with the symptoms. So I flip open to a random page, read a paragraph, and I had to say to her, “Sweetheart, I have no idea what the hell this is trying to say.” Here I was about to get my Ph.D. in this stuff and I could hardly chew through the boring, dense, psychobabble B.S. on the pages. So I can only imagine that for somebody who’s exhausted from dealing with these symptoms day in and day out, it must be so demotivating to work up the courage and energy and then get smacked in the face by such complicated language.
And it was in that moment with that frustration that I realized the reason that we had failed her as a field. We were guilty of something that I’ve come to call pedantic obfuscation. I know that’s a mouthful. We can also call it P.O. for short, but let me explain what it means. Pedantic just refers to being overly obsessed with the details, the terminology, or the particulars of something. You might have had a professor or a boss that was too pedantic and put you to sleep as they droned on and on about something. Obfuscation refers to obscuring something, making it unclear, or it can even mean to bewilder someone. Putting those together, pedantic obfuscation or P.O., this term that I kind of just made up on my own, refers to that thing that people do that just grinds my gears where they use jargon and unnecessarily complicated language and leave you feeling exhausted and unable to actually relate to what they’re saying. When you don’t consider the cost of your language, you run the risk of alienating people. You separate them from the point that you’re trying to make whether that be in print or in a face-to-face conversation. And since, as mental health providers, we were just P.O.ing all over the place, this made a scenario where Joelle and probably countless others had a hard time connecting to the resources designed to help, which pissed me off.
At this point in the scenario, I’m getting worked up out this. After reading that paragraph, I say something to the effect of, “Man, when they say ‘misattribution of interoceptive cues for anxiety’, basically they’re trying to say that sometimes your brain is an asshole. That sometimes you have this little heart flutter or a pain here or there and instead of sitting back, analyzing it, and thinking ‘maybe this is normal… let’s wait it out and see’ your brain says ‘That feels like anxiety. You know what? Let’s have a panic attack just in case.’” I told her the entire book could probably be condensed down into under 100 pages if they really wanted to. So she looked at me and said, “Robert. You could write that.” Since she’s always right, I did and a month later I released my first book. My series is a self-help series for people that typically hate self-help. I use straight forward language. It’s spelled out and has a healthy dash of my own terrible humor. And I can’t tell you how amazing the feedback has been. People have really connected with my personal attempt to cut the pedantic obfuscation and understand the opportunity cost of my language. The reason I’m telling you this is there is an opportunity here. There’s an opportunity to reach people who might not otherwise hear your message because they can’t get through the words being used. This is really important in the field of mental health. We are in the business of reaching people and to make our resources exhausting to get through shows we are not truly empathizing with people. And I think it’s an issue in a lot of other areas as well.
Coming from an academic background, I wanted to dive into the research a bit to see is P.O. an issue in other areas. Oh, man. It definitely is. There is a lot of research out there. One line of research that caught my eye, though, is in the medical field looking at the impact of unclarified medical jargon. Words or terms that your doctor might use, but they don’t clear up for you. There’s one study that blew my mind. So these are people that were about to be getting major surgery and they had a preoperative appointment where the doctor explained everything to them beforehand. Now they were tested after this session on their comprehension of 10 commonly used medical terms that were thrown around during the session. 60% of the terms used were not adequately understood by the people studied. So that means over half of the terms used, these “common medical terms”, used in this explanation session were not understood by the people trying to get the information, which blows my mind. But as I think about it, a lot of you have probably had the experience of being in with the doctor or maybe even in a business meeting and having some jargon or a certain term thrown around that you don’t completely understand, but you don’t want to ask for clarification because you don’t want to sound stupid. You are not stupid. That expectation to sit back and passively accept the information without fully understanding it – that’s stupid.
The impact of language in a medical or mental health setting can be dangerous. In other situations the cost can be… well, money. I’ve definitely had the experience of going to the mechanic for my car and feeling like the intentionally throw me off with the language that they use. Because when you don’t fully understand the language, you can’t participate completely in the conversation. It becomes a one-way street instead of a transaction. So in this situation, I’m left paralyzed and unable to respond as this mechanic reads this gigantic list of things that apparently need fixing right that moment. And a huge price tag at the end.
Now this is not a new issue. Every field of science, information technology, news, politics, and even sports – these are all fields that have had pedantic obfuscation as an issue for a while. Albert Einstein has even weighed in on the topic. He has a quote that says, “If you can’t explain something simply, you do not understand it well enough.” I could not agree more. I see reliance on jargon and unnecessarily complicated explanations as the easy answer. It’s actually safer than keeping things straight forward because it allows you to keep people at arm’s length. It allows you to avoid those people that might otherwise call you out on any misunderstandings that you have. But I don’t think we should settle for that. I don’t think we should settle for lofty, confusing explanations for things that could be distilled down into succinct language with a little bit of room for personality – I mean at what point in time did we have to stop being real people when we talk or when we write things? So if you’re an expert or a thought leader, or even just passionate about what you do, ask yourself if you too are distancing people through the language that you use. Sometimes this is on purpose. In therapy or testing, I might use a jargon term like “malodorous” instead of saying that somebody stunk really bad. That’s me distancing myself from that point on purpose. But often I don’t think it’s on purpose. I think it’s an automatic process that we us to keep ourselves safe from criticism. So instead of asking yourself if something sounds smart or sounds professional, ask yourself how you can reach people. Ask yourself if what you’re saying conveys your true message in your authentic voice. Join me in saying “Hell no to P.O.”.
And here’s how you can get started with that. Here’s how you can check where you fall on that P.O. meter. Next time you have a meeting or you’re writing an email, before you dive into your next written project, ask yourself three questions. 1: Do we already share a language? If you have a language and a vocabulary that you share with somebody and it serves the purpose of actually simplifying things, by all means use that. In my professional work with my partner, I would much rather say that someone has executive functioning deficits and fluent aphasia rather than saying, “Well, they had a hard time paying attention and when they were met with distractions, their productivity dropped. When they talked it didn’t really make sense, but if you weren’t listening closely, it sounds like it should have made sense…” There are two phrases that mean the same thing, so I should use them. The thing is, you need to be sure. Don’t assume. Ask the question of whether you share that language. Question 2: How could I say this to my best friend or romantic partner over a beer or a coffee… or kale smoothie… your beverage of choice. Your best friend or romantic partner is somebody who probably wants to hear you out, but they do not want the overly complicated version. So as you are picturing yourself saying something to them or having them read through something, if you see them crinkling their brow, clearly struggling through your language or being conveniently distracted by their phone as you’re talking, you might be veering off into P.O. territory and need to reel it back in a little bit. The third question is a simple one: how would I like to receive this information? There’s no reason you need to be putting out information or resources that you would never want to consume yourself. There’s no reason you should be saying things that you would be bored to death by or that you would be confused by. So just flip the script and imagine that you’re on the receiving end. How would you like to hear it?
As I said before, I think there’s an opportunity here. Some really interesting things can happen when we start to say no to P.O. and understand the cost of our language. For one, the bar can raise. As thought leaders and experts are pressured to distill their ideas down into relatable language, they’re going to have to be on their game. Just like that Einstein quote implied, you have to understand something better in order to simplify it. That’s going to be good for everybody. And as that standard changes, people on the receiving end of information will actually be empowered because they’ll be allowed to ask questions and get clarification, really understanding what’s going on rather than having that one-way street. Most importantly, you can reach people. Every day, there is someone out there just like my wife Joelle, who is going through the worst year ever and they are desperate for that piece of information that’s just so relatable and clear that it can help them pull things back together. You can be that voice. So please, consider the cost of your language. Avoid pedantic obfuscation where you can. Focus on reaching people and you can truly make a difference. Thank you.