(Team Design) Defusing the Emotional Echo Chamber

Kent Dahlgren
8 min readMay 15, 2019

I’m the father of 6-year-old identical twin girls.

Image inspired by mother of twins and one of my favorite peeps in the whole world: Beth

Today’s their birthday. Yeet

I have three other children: another daughter (age 9) and two adult sons — but the twins are something else entirely.

The highs and lows of this experience are pretty intense, and frequently infectious, for better or worse.

The collective euphoria of their giggles is almost completely, overwhelmingly joyful.

But, man. The lows are very low, and their fights are hard-core.

I thought I understood human psychology, until I was afforded an opportunity to witness the entanglement of identical twins, up close and personal.

Not my kids, but totes could be

My first great insight came as a byproduct of almost losing one of the twins, when she was five weeks old.

What I witnessed between the twins, and between them and their mother during their reunion, was transcendent and almost magical, if one is inclined towards that sort of thing.

It did not take long for me to recognize that this transcendent quality actually exists everywhere, which made me think that maybe the reason we find twins so fascinating is because we can witness, in a concentrated form, a kinship and familial love which exists between strangers.

Much of what we consider “common knowledge” regarding psychology is predicated upon previous research which evaluated humans in a isolated form.

It’s not that there isn’t research regarding twins; however, the majority of what qualifies as “influential research” regarding how people “think” was conducted on humans with the assumption that they are atomic and independent entities.

So, yes, sure, there are plenty of books and guidance on how to parent twins, but most of it’s garbage.

Because parents are the ones in the trenches, it’s on us to make this up as we go, pulling from personal experience, guidance from others, and whatever else we can get our hands on.

As indicated, we have two adult sons, a 9-year-old daughter, and the twins, so there’s substantial personal experience on our part regarding sibling dynamics, but the twins are something else entirely.

Or wait…

Maybe it’s more appropriate to say that the dynamics which exist between the twins are evident between the other siblings, but with the twins these dynamics are in a concentrated form.

A really good example is in the context of emotion.

One of the trickiest and most nuanced challenges we face is teaching the girls how to distinguish between their emotions as opposed to the emotions of their twin.

Here is something that is really interesting: when the girls look at photographs of themselves, they often struggle to identify which twin they are.

One would assume that out of everyone they would be able to tell the difference, and they can’t, but I can.

They sound different, they breathe differently, they move differently.

I used to worry that I would be confused and would not be able to tell them apart, but the fact is that’s never happened. It’s always been easy to identify who each one is.

But from their perspective it’s not quite so simple.

They spend more time looking into the face of their twin then they do studying their own face in the mirror.

What’s really interesting is that somehow this creates confusion on their part.

Which one is me?

I have observed that they have the same confusion regarding emotions, which can contribute towards the emotional maelstroms which are sometimes giddy and sometimes awful.

I refer to this phenomenon as an emotional feedback loop, and sometimes it requires defusing, else it turns into a real bummer of an echo chamber.

The girls are certainly capable of empathy.

In fact, I have witnessed this in other “multiples,” and as the parent of other children that aren’t a multiple, it’s my observation that multiples are ahead of the curve regarding their ability to genuinely express empathy for others, relative to “singletons,” or non-twins.

When the girls were quite young we were at the zoo, and walking towards us were triplets of about their same age, at the time maybe 18 months.

My eldest twin was running, fell, and hurt herself quite badly, but etched upon the faces of the triplicates were genuine emotions which demonstrated their ability to feel empathy for my daughter.

Typically, strong empathy is not a feature of young children.

It’s not that they don’t possess it. It’s not that they are little sociopaths. But man, sometimes you wonder if they’re not far from it.

It’s my theory that this “feedback loop” which exists between multiples creates a favorable environment for empathy to develop “ahead of schedule,” so to speak.

And it’s not like they are not capable of feeling their own emotion; they certainly do. It’s just that when one of them gets angry, or sad, or happy, or anxious, or fearful, this can bleed out to the other multiple, and, thanks to that feedback loop, can turn into a real storm.

In turn, this can bleed out and infect the rest of the family, causing a bit of an emotional epidemic.

Separate (but related) aside: in my time at Xerox, the company shed 20,000 jobs.

It was impossible to discern any coherent methodology behind the endless cycles of downsizing. It did not seem to matter how much value the person delivered, where they sat, who they worked for, who they knew, etc.

It was as if the only methodology was a random distribution of physical locations, which resulted in epidemics of fear, leaving the culture steeped in a state of terror, which completely stalled any productive progress.

This creates an impossible situation as a manager.

How do you increase the quality of innovation and the velocity of quantitative development (all while in the context of quarter by quarter downsizing), along with decreasing the rarely addressed (but frequent) manifestations of terror which come as a direct result?

The only way to not just survive, but thrive in the midst of an environment like that, is to create an extremely small circle, and protect it from external infection by helping people discern the difference between their justified fear and the fear that exists outside the circle.

This is similar to the methodology I’ve come to use in coaching my daughters into learning to defuse their own emotional epidemics (of course this part is still a work in progress).

The very first step: identify the emotion.

“Am I mad?”

“Am I anxious?”

“Am I sad?”

There’s a great movie worth watching if you can swing it called Inside Out. It uses color to describe different emotions, and for children a color it might be all they can really work with, because emotions as concepts attached to adjectives don’t come by themselves.

What actually happens in real life are two to three overlapping emotions, and that takes finesse to unwrap.

Once the child has identified how they feel, it’s worth trying to get them to determine whose emotion they are feeling.

This is a little bit trickier, but if the child possesses any empathy for others, it’s not impossible.

It’s helpful to ask them if they can tell that the other child is sad, and from there, help them learn to discern the difference between their sadness and their sibling’s’ sadness.

What we’re shooting for is the ability to logically categorize and isolate overlapping emotions, and doing so while sometimes completely overwhelmed by the aggregate emotional state, which is pretty hard if you think about it.

But not impossible.

I think you’re sad. I think you’re worried. Is that right?

Are you a blue and a red right now?

Or:

OK, good. I feel that with you. Can you help me figure out how much of that is yours and how much of that is theirs?

An additional note, worthy of consideration: there’s a fine art to providing emotional validation without creating your own overwhelming emotional feedback loop.

This is the emotional echo chamber I referred to earlier, and parents (and emotionally-mature managers) do it all the time.

Actual photo of me teaching my youngest son Isaac how to jump. That’s me on the ground

I’ve taught all of my children how to ride a bicycle, and as you probably know, at some point you have to sit back and watch them do it by themselves, knowing that they are going to crash (at times, crash super hard).

When this happens, you can’t run over there and make a big deal of it, otherwise you will scare them to death.

I mean, it’s appropriate to mosey over there with moderate haste, just to make sure they’re not going to die or anything, but there’s a middle ground between freaking out and being cold about their injury.

My friend Beth recommended that I focus on being a rock in a stream, which I find to be a pretty helpful metaphor.

I even created an image meme as a reminder.

When one of the kids gets hurt, or they end up in the middle of some complex layers of emotion, I will absolutely provide validation, saying things like, “That must’ve really hurt your feelings, I’m so sorry that happened.“

But what I don’t do is cultivate that same emotion and then flood them with it, creating a terrifying feedback loop of emotions at the point where the child speaks about 30 to 40% validation and 70 to 80% strength and stability so they know that everything’s going to be OK.

The same is true as a manager.

Layoffs are hard. I would argue they are one of the most traumatic experiences of a person’s professional life.

People need to feel comfortable talking to their boss about just how scary this is, because normally these sorts of awful experiences happen about two weeks before Christmas.

You’ve got to find that line between providing validation and serving as a foundation of strength and confidence, so emotional feedback loops don’t flood the inner circle, overflow, and trigger emotional epidemics which destroy morale.

Helping a child discern the difference between their emotions and those of others can rapidly defuse emotional epidemics due to feedback loops. I don’t pretend to know everything, but I have noticed that a lot of what I have learned as a parent applies to the world of work. So if it works for managing emotions in 5 to 6-year-olds, it will work in a business environment.

As always, I welcome feedback and the experiences of others. Please feel free to comment or share the ways in which you have observed or applied “parental-style management models.”

Did you find them successful, or were they more along the lines of opportunities to do better/differently in the future?

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Kent Dahlgren

Product management fix-it guy. World-famous people skills. Extremely small hands. (edit) marketing lady says I’m also supposed to say “CEO of software company”