April 20, 2011

Bullets and Flashlights: The Quantum Ways of Being Honest

“When you can’t make them see the light, make them feel the heat.”—Ronald Reagan

THE WAY OF THE WAVE/Image: Michael Moffa

You have had moments when you’ve wanted to or had to tell an applicant or an associate (and maybe even a client) the hard truth, but hesitated, because you didn’t want to “hurt” his or her “feelings”, or maybe it was professionally and “politically” too risky. You’ve probably had other moments when you did try, and failed—either because you spoke the truth too bluntly or not candidly enough. It is a common dilemma, and one that can seem irresolvable.

Thanks to modern physics, there is a path through the horns and thorns of that daunting dilemma—a tool that can extricate you from the quandary of damned-if-I-do, damned-if-I-don’t tell the truth. That tool is the concept of “quantum mechanical wave-particle duality”, which precisely corresponds to the two ways of telling someone the truth they need to hear.

Simple and Short, but Weird Physics Lesson

Before applying this powerful tool, you have to understand it. Fortunately, even though the branch of physics called “quantum mechanics” is mind-numbingly complex and not without its never-ending debates, wave-particle duality is very easily described—a simplicity that, despite its weirdness, belies its usefulness in science and as a truth-telling tool.

Light mysteriously seems to behave in two different ways: sometimes it acts like a particle; other times, like a wave. What makes this dual-nature truly puzzling is that which way it behaves also seems to depend on how we choose to interact with light. If, like Einstein, who got a Nobel Prize for his efforts, we test the properties of light using a photo-electric device, much like your garage door opener, light in the form of “photo-electons” will behave like a particle—like a bunch of BBs or bullets fired at a target.  On the other hand, if we send  light in the form of individual photons through two slits on one screen to illuminate a second screen, the photons will appear to interfere with each other, like two sets of ripples caused by dropping two stones onto the surface of a pond. (The “wavicle”, i.e., a particle with wavelike properties, is illustrated in the image above.)

That’s all the physics you really need to know.

Mother-in-Law Duality

Except for one more thing: You’ll probably want to ask, “So is light really a particle, or is it a wave?” The strange truth is that it is both—or neither, literally depending on how you look at it. Observe it using the 2-slit apparatus (like the one shown above, as the “wavicle” setup, it appears to behave like a wave; observe it using a photo-electric device, it seems to behave like a particle.

Light is a bit like a mother-in-law: Invite her to stay an extra week, and she’ll love you to death; don’t, you’ll wish you were dead. Photons—the ultimate constituents of light—are like your mother-in-law: How you approach them is what you get –a more modern scientific variant of “what you see is what you get”. That, in a nutshell, is what quantum physicists call “Copenhagen complementarity” (named after the city where the seminal concepts were developed by Neils Bohr and others)—the idea that light exists in two incompatible forms (particle or wave) and that which form you observe depends on how you “measure” or interact with it, specifically, upon what apparatus you use to do so.


To apply this duality and to accomplish two things—first, to extricate yourself from the tell-don’t-tell dilemma, and, second, to know exactly which of two ways to tell the truth in any situation, all you have to do is to think of truth as being just like light. That should be easy for you, since we already have metaphors for truth, such as “seeing the light”, “a light bulb went on in my head” and “I am the light”. Not only is truth like light in this correlated way, it is exactly like light in having precisely two independent, incompatible and complementary forms: the “bullet” vs. the “flashlight”.

The Bullet vs. the Flashlight

In the interest of making this approach and its concepts perfectly transparent and practical, consider a very ordinary truth-telling challenge and dilemma: You really want to tell an applicant that the five phone calls a day, every day that he is making to you are way too much and that his chances of getting the job he’s applied for are looking bad. Here is a comparison of the two ways:

  • BULLET: You bluntly tell him to stop calling so much and inform him that he has virtually no chance of getting the job. This searing hot lead “bullet through the heart” particle approach is, of course, the last thing you will want to or actually say. However, it is precisely what far too many people actually do—unintentionally or otherwise.

A very good rule of thumb for determining whether you have fired off a bullet is this: The shorter the statement and the greater your reluctance to make it (unless you are mean or angry), the likelier it is that it is a heart-stopping bullet. Not only is the bullet very likely to be perceived as impolite or insensitive, it is also very likely to be less accurate than the “flashlight” method, as the following demonstrates.

  • FLASHLIGHT: Instead of wounding the applicant with a quick, narrow-target bullet, you suffuse him with warm, “enlightening” light—as though you are shining a flashlight onto the problems and a lighthouse beam to steer him away from the professional reefs and shoals. Here’s an example of “flashlight” truth to offer the applicant: “I appreciate your enthusiasm and dedication. The challenge that comes with that is to make sure that your enthusiasm—which is a very positive thing—doesn’t become needlessly associated with anxiety. Multiple phone calls of the kind you’ve been making may not only be (mis)perceived as anxiety and thereby communicate a lack of confidence, they may also exacerbate any self-doubt you may have.” Done—and done gently, yet perfectly authentically.  In everyday pedestrian situations, this distinction manifests itself in the difference between “Spare change?” and “I don’t have enough money to get to the hospital to have my plaster cast removed from the leg I broke rescuing a grandma neighbor’s cat from a house fire.”

The angel, not the devil, is in the details.

As for the bad news about the job prospects, the flashlight approach would go something like this: “The client feels that although your skills are excellent, they are not an optimal skills-challenge match, much as caviar and Japanese fugu blowfish fish are not—despite both being prized delicacies. What we have to do is find you a better match.”

What is truly amazing about the difference between these two approaches is that in both emotional and cognitive consequences the flashlight approach is clearly the superior of the two in dealing with someone who deserves light, not heat. True, there will be people and situations in which the bullet is the better choice, e.g., when humor, wit, revenge, shock and debating points really matter. However, these are unlikely to be your top professional priorities when dealing with delicate and potentially unpleasant situations requiring both sensitivity/tact and candor.

By providing ample and accurate detail instead of quasi-cryptic laser-like bulleted blasts, you are furnishing the applicant sufficient information to fully identify weaknesses against a backdrop of strengths or constructive alternatives. Moreover, you are much more likely to provide cognitive rather than emotional content.

Compare, “As a sales manager, you suck!” and “Your sales management style, although highly interactive, could benefit from your more clearly defining and expanding the scope and role of bottom-up communication with you, just as you’ve developed a well-defined top-down communication component. In short, thinking about having a top-down communication component may merit more attention than having a top-down communication style.” See the difference? If you still don’t, just compare honorific speech or diplomatic protocol in any language and note how much more detail is packed into it than into brusque talk.

Also notice that the flashlight approach is definitely not based on mere euphemism or “beating around the bush”. No, it generates lots and lots of weighty and relevant detail and guidance, like the kind Moses got from sitting—rather than beating— around one very luminescent bush.

The Light Touch in Daily Life

The beauty of this Wave-Particle Duality model of truth is that is can be applied in every situation. Your significant other gets an awful haircut and asks what you think. If you are more interested in being a stand-up comic than a stand-up guy or girl, you say, “Well, it looks like the Simpsons—all of them.” That’s a bullet, a high-velocity particle: lots of penetration power, small area covered.

The flashlight, soft washing wave approach, which would be completely different, goes like this: “The punch perm on the left side of your head distorts the appearance of your lovely heart-shaped face, which is beautifully complemented by the straight silky curving curtain of hair on the right. If you replicated that on the left and eliminated the four hair spikes on the top it would be perfect for you.”

Notice that here, and in all other instances, the flashlight truth accomplishes the best part of the bullet method—in pointing out that something is wrong, but then unquestionably surpasses it by giving a balanced evaluation, by suggesting alternatives and by forcing both of you to think very clearly and constructively about not only what is wrong, but also what is right and what can and should be done.

That’s how it should be done—with a light touch.

….of the illuminating wave.

Read more in Workplace Ethics

Michael Moffa, writer for Recruiter.com, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).