Transpective Dialogs for Learning

One of the techniques I use for my own technical education is to ask someone a question or present them with a problem, then think through the same issue while listening to them work it out. As it proceeds, I ask handfuls of Socratic questions. As I ask each question out loud, I answer it myself silently, and compare my answers with the ones I hear from my counterpart.

It’s not introspection, since I’m not looking solely within myself. It’s also not an examination or an inspection, since my purpose is not to evaluate my partner. So, I coined a new word, which with Google’s help I discovered is not a new word at all: transpection; or transpective dialog. Verb form: transpect.

Transpection basically means to learn by putting yourself in someone else’s place. The transpective dialogs I do are about using someone else’s knowledge, biases, and methods as a counterpoint to my own as I try to solve a problem for myself. As I do this, I generally don’t share my own thoughts, for fear of biasing my partner toward my own way of thinking. The essence of transpection is to get the maximum value out of seeing the world as the other person sees it.

Problems With Transpection

  • Most people feel like they are being interrogated or even tortured (and not in the good senses of those words) when I ask all those critical questions during transpection. Whereas I know what my intentions are, they may not, and sometimes they don’t believe me when I tell them.
  • Some people think I’m judging them, even when I’m not. And sometimes I am also judging them.
  • In one extreme case, I was accused of treating someone like a lab rat. I tried to explain that “lab rat” is just a loaded way of saying “someone from whom I learn” and yes, I did treat her as someone from whom I could learn. She was not mollified.
  • In general, I find I don’t mind when someone does a transpection on me. Actually, I never know for sure if that’s what they’re doing. From my point of view it just looks like they are very interested in what I have to say. I like being listened to. I like to talk. The interrogation aspect rolls off of me, for some reason. Maybe I just like taking tests. This may be why it’s taken me years to realize that everyone does not enjoy being questioned.

Tips for Happier Transpection

Here’s what I have begun to do to help my colleagues and students get excited about doing transpection with me:

  • I distinguish between shallow and deep transpections. With shallow transpection, I don’t ask many questions, the questions are not as sharp, and I share more of my thoughts along the way. Shallow transpection is outwardly identical to that which we call “listening” and is not at all controversial.
  • I explain the transpection process and ask permission before doing a deep transpection.
  • I avoid doing deep transpection on people who are not my students or close colleagues.
  • I invite them to do transpection on me.
  • I watch their reactions and if they seem to get irritated, I disclose some or all of my own ideas and feelings about the situation I’m inquiring about. I will also disclose the specific motivations behind each question I ask.
  • I talk about transpection as part of a general philosophy of sophisticated team learning. To do this with me is to participate in an exciting and vital process.
  • I make a point of listing the things I’ve learned and thanking my partner for helping me learn from them.

Here are some quotes I came across while Googling about this:

Milton J. Bennett: “[Transpection is] the ability to imagine oneself in a role within the context of a different culture”

Yasuhiko Genku Kimura: “Transpection includes but transcends extrospection and introspection.”

Silvia Teresita Acuña and Graciela Elisa Barchini: “This process consists in getting into the “headâ€? of another person. This means trying to think like the other person (temporarily, one person “believes and feelsâ€? everything that the other person “believes and feelsâ€?). This process of “assumingâ€? the thoughts of another person is not easy and it will take people who have never tried it a long time.”


Another common problem in transpection just occurred to me while reading some of the comments. When somebody I’m transpecting says something that reveals a new insight for me, I tend to get excited, and I follow up with questions that I’m told sound especially sharp and even angry. Actually I’m very happy, as a shark is happy to find a tasty sea lion. The sea lion might get the impression that the shark is angry, but he’s really not.

This is a critical moment, because just when I’m learning something profound, my partner may take his brain and go home. I’m still learning how to manage this. For now, I’m consciously forcing myself to say happy encouraging things while this is happening, instead of getting carried away by the content and implications of the new insight and asking only content-oriented questions. It’s not a foolproof solution, though. I’ve found that people sometimes don’t believe me when I say I’m learning something from them. Sometimes they think I’m mocking them. It’s an imperfectly solved problem, in my practice so far.

My struggle is partly that a lot of transpection feels, when I initiate it, like a personal learning process, whereas it is actually, of course, a social process.

7 thoughts on “Transpective Dialogs for Learning

  1. This is interesting, especially to people like me whom you transpect with and would help to those whom you are going to transpect in the future.

    Whenever I interact with you, I am aware that I should be looking for the learning that are straight forward and those that are hidden. It is kind of you to explain the transpection process and seek permission, since it makes me more conscious to look at more hidden learning than I am able to find, whenever I feel I am being stressed.

    With such a mindset, I am happy whenever I am stressed since I know there is a treasure nearby. Also as your student, it makes me think that there need not necessarily be a treasure nearby :)

  2. James — Okay, I’ll bite…you say “Most people feel like they are being interrogated or even tortured (and not in the good senses of those words) when I ask all those critical questions during transpection.” What exactly ARE the good senses of those words?

    [James’ Reply: Well, it was one of my half-jokes: it seems absurd, but isn’t. Try googling for the phrases “tortuous pleasure” or “tortured pleasure” or consider the positive connotations of the word “tease” as in striptease; and see Webster’s definition #2 for interrogate “to give or send out a signal to (as a transponder) for triggering an appropriate response”.]

    That aside, as another person who has gone through this process with you, aside from the eventual learning of what you learned in the process, I find the greatest benefit to me personally is that it forces me to slow down and try to become more cognizant of WHY I am doing WHAT I am doing at any given time. My struggle to answer your questions reveals to me strengths and weaknesses in my motivation, if not also in my actions. It is a very valuable, and for me, enjoyable, process.

    [James’ Reply: As I recall, I gave you a briefing when we started working that my method was to ask a lot of questions and that some of my questions might sound strange or annoyed, but that I hoped you would not assume that I was annoyed. Then again, the thing about you, David, is you are one tough and confident fellow. You’re like a junkyard dog. It’s more of a problem when I’m dealing with greener or otherwise more fragile people.]

  3. I wonder what would happen if you invited your conversation partners into this conversation explicitly? What would happen if you invited them into a conversation where you would both, together explore your reasoning as well as theirs?

    In doing as you described without preamble you’ve placed yourself in a pronounced “one up” position in transactional analysis terms. If you engage in a conversation they’re not expecting you are well off script in “Presentation of Everyday Live” (Goffman) terms. They don’t know what game they are in. The game immediately available to explain the experience they are having is not a happy one.

    I learn at least as much while trying to explain myself to others as I do questioning their reasoning. The stuff I learn when I let them drive tends to be a bit more startling to me, and thus rewarding.

    [James’ Reply: The whole point of transpective dialog is to learn from what happens in someone else’s head. That is impaired if I inject my own ideas into their thinking. Certainly there is a different way of learning from people, I guess it would be called ordinary dialog, that involves both sides contributing ideas to a community thought process. That’s great, too. I do that. I also do transpection. I find myself doing transpection a lot.

    As I think more about it, I think my preference for transpection is connected with critical thinking. Transpection is a tool for self-criticism. 

    I agree that unannounced transpection can cause trouble, but not because I’m in a one-up situation. You might just as well say I’m in a one-down situation, since I am giving priority to the other persons ideas. It causes trouble in cases where people begin to suspect they are being manipulated or used– when they suspect they are one-down.

    That’s why I have found it useful to distinguish between shallow and deep transpection, and then to let people know what game I’m inviting them to play, when I’m going to play hard.] 

  4. For more information on “transpection” read the works of Magoroh Maruyama, the father of this method of understanding. His theory dates back to 1969. You can find some of his writings in “Cultures of the Future” published by Mouton Publishers 1978. This compendium is part of a series called “World Anthropology.”

    As for real world practice, I have used it passively and primarily through listening coupled with what is called the “walk-in” method to understand people as I travel around the world. It has served me well as a manager with global responsibility.

    [James’ Reply: Thank you Mark!] 

  5. Pardon me for joining the discussion rather late.

    Many years ago a colleague and I co-taught a programming class. Our friend Jerry once observed that “mathematics is fraudulent”. That is, the teacher stands up in front of the students and says “this is how this proof is derived – step one, step two, step three, step four and it is done”. But of course, that is not how it was done the first time, the first time someone did it if six steps with three errors, and over the last hundred years it has been refined by generations of mathematicians to the now elegant solution you see before your. Programming is often taught the same way.

    And so my colleague and I would come to the class and we would take turns presenting each other with a fresh and rather difficult problem to solve before the class. The object was to talk through the thought process as much as possible so that the class could see the mental approach being taken. When one gets stuck it, then there is always a student who will ask just the right question to help you over the hump.

    I think what we were doing was rather similar to your technique. We also had students work our problems in small groups around a white board so that they could share their thought processes among themselves.

    We got all sorts of good feedback.

    Jim Ya’an, China 3 January 2009

  6. James,

    After reading through your blog for a couple of days now, I find it almost frightening how similar my way of thinking and approaching various subjects is to yours. Not to say that I would agree with everything, though. Especially there were a couple of points in the two “Quality is dead” posts that I disagreed with, but more about those once I have the time to come up with a properly formatted response. :)

    Overall, I can only say that transpection, in my experience, is one of the best ways to learn to understand (and tolerate!) views and beliefs that differ from my own. I sometimes even joke about it to the people whom I (ruthlessly) use as my transpection targets; people tend to take my “scrutinizing” more lightly when they think the whole thing is just a harmless jest (oh, those poor souls, if they only knew..)

    One point in the post struck me as something that needs commenting:

    “When somebody I’m transpecting says something that reveals a new insight for me, I tend to get excited, and I follow up with questions that I’m told sound especially sharp and even angry. Actually I’m very happy, as a shark is happy to find a tasty sea lion. The sea lion might get the impression that the shark is angry, but he’s really not.”

    I’d say that’s a rather dangerous analogy to use in this case (eventhough it perfectly clarifies the point) as, in most cases, the said sea lion ends up being eaten – a condition in which I wouldn’t expect it to much appreciate the shark’s newfound happiness. ;)

    [James’ Reply: Yeah, I guess you’re right. It was fun to say, though. I’m looking forward to your further comments.]

  7. Yay! The thread is still alive! Following on from the RST course I became particularly excited that this idea, or method of asking questions, was shared by others in the testing field. And now I learn that it has a name. Transpecting. Cool.

    And so I’ve been asking questions of my team of the transpectional kind. All the time. Maybe too much. I sometimes feel like I’m running around going “Come ON, let’s wake up!” – and I imagine that people do not consider themselves to be asleep and they can react in defensive ways. And this can happen even when the transpection is made explicit. It may sound like fun to have your thoughts reflected on, challenged, questioned, investigated – it does to me, but often the feelings that come along during this process can be very uncomfortable. Did you ever consent to participate in an investigative process only to find that you’re actually quite attached to some of your ideas, and that in fact you own them, and it is quite frankly no-one’s business at all how they came into being? “Hey! Stop messing with my IP!”

    I actually think it is inevitable that transpection will upset someone. It is the nature of the beast. Perhaps I can include this possibility when I frame a transpectional encounter, not so much that I may seem annoyed, but more that “you might find yourself getting annoyed” – I would be willing to continue the conversation even if you do, would you? – we both might learn something.

    NB I haven’t tried this yet, but I’m positing it an option for my next transpectional encounter. It is delightful to contemplate becoming more skilled at asking meaningful questions.

    [James’ Reply: I think you’re right about all that. I guess that’s why I mostly transpect with my closer colleagues, or else my students. My students have to put up with it, and my colleagues enjoy it.]

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