Usual Error Intensive: Onward!

We met at the Smith residence and made ourselves comfy, waited a few minutes for stragglers, and at 7:07pm (on the dot) we began the first session of the Usual Error Intensive workshop. I believe that all participants were previously familiar with the Usual Error material, as well as being an awesome group of fabulous people.

You will notice, as I go through here and re-situate my notes for easier reading, that we didn’t get through all the material for the night. There was so much discussion and excellent idea-sharing that we were sidetracked often in a pretty delightful way! But I will provide the information I have as I have it, and show you what we got through.


About six months ago, Kyeli came up with this crazy idea: The Usual Error Intensive. The goal, they decided, was that everyone could discuss the material in an interactive fashion—instead of the Triad being the only ones to ever talk! They don’t want to be teachers, they explained; this is about experience-sharing, and facilitating conversation. (Communication! Growth! Learning!)


Checking in is this awesome thing. It’s come from a ton of different places, but the basic idea is this: Each person takes a turn to talk about what’s on their brain, how they’re feeling right now—anything that comes to mind. Everybody else actively listens. This isn’t about repeating back what is said—instead, it’s about giving someone your full attention, and simply listening.

It sounds pretty basic, but it happens to be incredible. Pace explains that the first time she did it, she felt like nobody had ever actually listened to her before, it was such a wonderful feeling. She was nervous, at first, as if she was giving a speech, but then she realized that nobody was judging her on her delivery. The experience was specifically for her own benefit!

We go over the “rules”: If you’re tempted to give feedback, please refrain. Feedback can be given by “twinkling” (the wagglement of fingers to signify agreement or ‘I hear you, I agree, been there!’), or touching your hand to your heart (if you are particularly touched or can relate to what someone has said). Otherwise, we stay quiet and listen. This is sort of a sacred space. Sometimes we’re not really ready to share something but we want to be ‘heard’ anyway—and because we are not obligated to talk about those things in this space, if you wish to discuss something mentioned during check-in, it’s best to ask permission to talk about those things before assuming that just because they came out, they’re fair game.

Nothing you say during check-in will start a hard conversation or a fight; it’s safe for us all to say anything we need to say. And of course, we don’t share what someone has said outside of check-in—if we think of it, we ask permission, and absolutely honor the answers. (As you can imagine, I did not liveblog anything that anyone said during check-in!)

Your check-in can be really long, or really short, and either one is absolutely okay. You don’t need to be nervous or plan what you’re going to say. There’s never any pressure to say something specific, and no need to worry about it!

When we checked in tonight, we introduced ourselves (although I believe for the most part, we all knew each other) and mentioned what we were hoping to get out of the Intensive overall. Then we went into whatever we ended up going into! I closed the computer down for about an hour and a half while we went around the circle. Then when we were done, I opened it back up.


After check-in we were hungry and wanted to pee, so we decided to grab some grub and have a bathroom break before continuing. We spend our break chattering and munching and laughing and having far too much fun. By a quarter to nine, I’m fascinated with how relaxed and pleased I am in this environment, even after something of a difficult day.

Marty and I notice that check-in has solved a few problems for us—things that we were having trouble putting into words before. That’s usually the way check-in works, which is awesome. We often notice that things tend to boil up underneath, and need to get out, so this is one particularly fabulous way of dealing with that. Almost all conversations that people have are conversations. You go to the place in your head that decides what you’ll say next, which means you’re not completely listening to the other person (who is usually aware of it on some level). But with check-in, you don’t have to be engaged in anything but paying attention—and if you’re talking, you don’t have to worry that the person who seems to be listening, isn’t.

“I just need you to listen—I don’t need you to tell me how you feel about what I’m feeling, I don’t need you to fix anything, I just need you to listen.”

Being Yohn

As we start on the next point, I start to wonder what this post is going to be like—I’ve talked about this so many times, I’m bound to come up with something new and interesting. Now we are talking about Yohn.

Pace: “I was having some problem in my head and I went to talk to Sera about it, and I’ve been really frustrated with work, and sometimes I feel like it’s just a waste of time, etc. I just went on and on and on, and Sera just listened. Eventually I got to the point where I was feeling really good about it! And I said, thanks for your advice! And Sera’s like, I didn’t say anything!”

(As you might already have guessed, everything I quote here is paraphrased. I just can’t type quite fast enough to be completely accurate!)

Yohn, as I’ve explained before, was a character in a tactical game. Yohn was mute, and any time Yohn would say anything it was always this: “...”

Therefore, whenever someone solves a problem by listening, we call it being Yohn!

Sera: “It’s magical! From my perspective, I’m sitting and listening with an occasional nod or question, but there’s this flood of information, like the other person is having a conversation with herself.”

One aspect of Being Yohn is the Cardboard Cut-Out Dog effect, which we have in software engineering (and certainly other places as well). You have a bug in your program and you call your friend over and need their help, and you totally fix it yourself without them doing anything but sitting there. So instead of wasting your friend’s expensive time, why not just have a company dog: “Hey Fido! I have this bug in my program… Thanks Fido!” And then, why use an actual dog!? Cardboard! Sometimes it’s just about talking it out, translating it into words and really understanding what’s going on.

We have these scripts, canned answers, that we use in everyday life. It can be a person, a cut out, a diary… your blog. I often change my mind while writing (and Pace apparently does this too). It matters that there’s somebody listening!

The second part of the power of listening and Being Yohn is that there’s this feeling of safety, having someone’s attention, someone being there for you in that safe space, it’s suddenly very easy and things want to come out that we were maybe hiding before (even from ourselves). Suddenly I’ve been transported to this space just for me. Everything comes out, it’s beautiful and trusting and awesome.

This is one of the reasons we’re doing a lot of check-ins here (every session!)—it gives us the chance to experience that thing, that good feeling.

Everyone here has the power to help someone solve a problem just by listening, and that’s no small thing.

“No one wants to practice listening if it’s not rewarding in some way… Ooh but I want to talk!” (I do this.) “But after practicing more listening, I found that it was really rewarding in a whole different way—it helped me become a better listener.”

A lot of people don’t have space for, say, counseling (a very direct way of having someone listen). Something like this can be very powerful, especially to someone who hasn’t encountered something like it before. We’re always on the surface, using our canned answers—it’s worth it to stop and pay attention.

“She knows that when I say, How are you? I’m not expecting her to say, Oh, fine, fine. We all ask each other that but we’re expecting certain answers.” Really being ready to listen makes a big difference.

We mentioned that the typical mode of conversation is back and forth, so if you listen you might notice that the person you are listening to may often assume that you agree with them. (N)

We are taught “conversation” but not “communication” (A). Conversation turns into a way of hearing yourself talk, it’s not about understanding, it’s about overcoming or converting others. A lot of people don’t understand that there’s a different (more efficient!) way to do it.

9:12 PM: Poem Time

Sera passes around a poem for us to read. Our mission is to jot down our interpretation of this poem. Everyone gets very quiet and reads, and then we write down our responses. I like the poem. Here’s how it goes:

If there is nothing else, then take a couple white stones to bed,
the sea made the stones white,
  they breathe, they preserve scent,
a couple white stones is my counsel,
  if the bed is wide for you alone.

You want to live your own life. Good.
You want to be yourself.
Beware. That’s what the worms wait for.
You want to live while you’re still young.
A mistake. One thousand blind eyes gnaw your picture to pieces.

In you a child’s fear breathes the darkness
  even as the play goes on.

—written by Paavo Haavikko and translated by Liana Foxvog

Then we proceed to talk about our interpretation of this poem. There are a ton of really interesting ideas passed around, many different ways of understanding it. It’s very enjoyable.

“The reason we did this is that the next three of our topics, every single one of us had a different interpretation about this poem—but it’s the same exact poem that we all read.” The next three topics are like that. Wild!

“Will you tell us what it means?”
“You have told us what it means!”
“What matters is what you understand. Poetry makes it extra tricky. Poetry exaggerates on the Usual Error, which is ALL about our interpretations of things.”

How could any one of us read this poem and think it’s about something completely different than anyone else? That’s the heart of the UE —we take our own interpretations and maps of the world, we think that everyone else is going to think the same way, same conclusions, same feelings. It doesn’t make you bad and it doesn’t make you wrong—it’s just how we are!

We expect the same conclusions because that’s all we have. No matter how close you get to somebody, you’re not in their head. We can understand, we can communicate, we can clarify… but it boils down to the fact that we make the UE every day, all day.

In the upcoming book, Kyeli is the storyteller. But telling the story of the UE was impossible because she couldn’t pick just one—she came up with fifteen small examples instead of a 5 or 6 paragraph story. It’s incredibly pervasive.

If we go back and look at what we wrote… we might see that we don’t even agree with ourselves, because we have changed since then.

9:35 PM

It’s the same twelve lines and everyone read it—but everyone understood it differently, completely, completely differently.

Note: We are all having far too much fun, I suspect. We laugh loudly and readily, we’re grinning, we’re discussing fervently. This is a Good Evening, and there will be five more! I admit that I’m a bit alarmed at the length of this post, after two and a half hours not even including check-in… and we’re barely through the fourth topic of ten! This is very interesting time-wise, but I can’t deny that I’m having an excellent time.

N. just said something completely brilliant and my train of thought is GONE.

9:48 PM

At this point we’ve wandered off slightly; we’re talking about political faction communication (disastrous) and definition conversations, the way the usual error slips into many different areas, and something that seems like the opposite of the usual error but… I just BET it isn’t.

10:02 PM Overtime

We’re discussing how to handle the running over. This is such an interesting situation. Sounds like we’re going to make an LJ community (unsure if this will be private or public) to have additional conversation.

We’ll add to that a ten minute rundown right now, to cover the remaining material for tonight. Ten minutes, Pace: GO!!

All right. I’m not going to liveblog this. Too fast!! Pace and Kyeli are talking SO fast and it’s very entertaining! I wonder if they can really do this in ten minutes from 10:02…. omgoodness…. The clock is ticking!

By 10:10 PM we’re on Number EIGHT! So close!

10:12 PM and we’re on Feeling Considered, second to last…

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