Ambiguity in Communication

Posted November 21, 2020 by Andrea Chiou
Categories: Communication, Dialogue, Listening, Personal Growth, Satir, Systemic Modeling, Weinberg

What is obscured ?

Communication can cause a bit of fog. I live high enough up on the 10th floor of my apartment building that my view is usually clear even when there is fog.  I can see the tops of trees and buildings but not everything. The mist turns to blue sky while many shapes on the ground remain unidentifiable – ambiguous.  The fog created from misheard or misunderstood words, ideas, and intentions requires hard to work to ‘dissipate’ than fog droplets on a sunny day.

Ambiguity in Communication

Some people associate the word ambiguity with that which is ‘unknown’ or ‘unknowable’. Others associate the word with ‘double meanings’ or unclear meanings. Let’s explore some examples of ambiguities like these in communication.

Can I hear what you are saying?

This may sound obvious, the first step in communication after one person says something is the ‘intake’ and for that to happen well, the listener has to hear all the words as they were spoken or intended. Here’s a story from my past.

When my grandfather accompanied my family on an international trip – a first for us together – we became stranded for hours on an Indian country road with a broken down car.  As we waited for hours for help, my grandfather engaged the youth that were walking alongside the road in conversation. He was intent on helping them with their English. That day in India – when I was just 12 years old, I stood nearby watching him, and wondered why he worked so hard to get his roadside ‘students’ to pronounce each word very clearly, over and over.  It wasn’t until years later that I understood that the first step in ensuring understanding is that you have to have ‘heard’ the words accurately. 

Jerry Weinberg, one of my mentors on topics of interpersonal communication, spoke in a very soft voice which made it hard for me to hear him in a big conference room. Ambient noise, distance between people, the speaker’s position and speed all have an impact on what you hear. I sometimes cannot understand the words of native English speakers because of varying accents. You can be a guru in communication, and still have difficulty at this step, whether listening or speaking.

Tuning In To the Person you are Speaking To

To go along with speaking and enunciating clearly is the idea of tuning in to your audience. If you are the speaker, are you seeking to notice that folks listening to you are paying attention to what you are saying? Are they engaged? Do you know what their ‘perspective’ or ‘vantage point’ is?  Virginia Satir, a famous family therapist, liked to point out that when a child is being spoken to by a tall parent, they may feel very intimidated by their relative size. I wish I had known to kneel down or set my kids on a chair or table when I told them important things. That way, I would have more likely seen their expression, and held their attention – showing them the importance of what I was saying.

No matter how old your audience, knowing that they appear to be responding in some fashion is key to knowing if they’ve gotten what you’ve said.  It is your job to make sure your words are clearly spoken and your listeners are engaged. Alan Alda, in his post acting career, has helped thousands of scientists and engineers to communicate well by learning to attend to their audience. Here he was less concerned about their ‘physical’ vantage point, but rather their cognitive and emotional context. What a worthy cause.

Do I understand what you said in the same way you intended?

The next issue is that one person’s meaning can be different from what the message sender intended to convey. Here are a few examples:

“Can you please trim the tree?” uttered at Christmas time might mean decorating the tree, but it could mean you are being asked to cut off some of the branches. 

When I was thrown into a French school in Burundi in 1974 with just a few weeks of French tutoring behind me – I remember the teacher asking if anyone knew anything about ‘lion’.  We had just driven through France prior to catching our flights to our new home, and I remembered having travelled through the city called ‘Lyon’ (a homonym to the animal: lion).  I blurted out “It is a city” in French.   Apparently I had missed some context, and the class burst out laughing. The instructor started drawing a lion on the chalkboard. How embarrassing!  And I still remember this to this day. Some learning has to happen via mishaps – the question is how do we get better at communicating so as to minimize the damage!

Know your audience, choose your words wisely, provide supporting context, speak clearly and you’ll find these improvements take you a long way.

Tone of voice and gesture

Another area of ambiguity in communication arises because a person’s words are mismatched to other aspects of their communication. 

If someone says: “Did you eat the rest of the cookies?” in a curious or neutral tone, this won’t likely cause defensiveness. Uttered in a suspicious, accusatory or angry tone, it will.  Most people remember the tone over the content. Stand in front of a mirror and pretend the last cookie is gone.  Practice asking this question with angry, suspicious, curious, and neutral tones.  Practice emphasizing different words as you do so. 

A sulking posture and lowered head accompanied by a ‘Yes, I’ll do it” with ‘air quotes’ around the ‘do it’ might mean your child or co-worker isn’t quite aligned with the task assignment. Spend some time noticing the gestures other people use.  First do you know what the gesture means? Is there a mismatch between the message and their hand gestures or posture?

When you notice a mismatch, where do you store that information? How does it affect you? What, if anything, do you do about it? I’ll never forget the IBM manager who was asking his teams to ‘follow the process’, but he was carrying a gun mounted to a portable piece of wood and was waving it around the all-hands meeting. Needless to say, that may have ‘matched’ what he intended, but I was not going to stick around to find out. I soon left.

Must I Read Your Mind (or How Did You Forget to Mention …) ?

Sometimes communication fails because of what’s not said or conveyed.

“Let’s watch a movie” as a suggestion is harmless (it seems), but if you, the recipient, are currently heads down studying, wound up about some deadlines, or needing some quiet time, you might expect that your partner should know movies are the farthest thing on your mind. This suggestion may trigger you to blurt out something you’ll regret, such as: ‘Are you kidding, you should know I have exams tomorrow – can’t you see I’m studying?’ This will only thicken the fog in your communication, because you never actually told your partner about the exam, the deadline, or your need for quiet.  This sort of situation happens often with people who are close to each other. They subconsciously expect their partners to have read their minds – under the illusion they had already communicated their needs.

Ambiguity frequently occurs where people’s tasks or even their roles and expectations are not well communicated. ‘I thought you were testing that feature’ or ‘I thought you were buying those groceries’. These can often be alleviated by frequently sharing intentions and checking in with each other.

If you’re interested in exploring better ways of communicating, whether for you or for your team, you can schedule a free 1/2 hour time slot for exploration here or simply send me an email me at

Moving to Paris…

Posted June 23, 2022 by Andrea Chiou
Categories: France

Luxembourg Gardens – close to where we will be living – on the Left Bank

I am moving to Paris at the end of July 2022. Officially I will be on a visa for non-working residents for a year (and renewable with the same paperwork each year, but renewable from within France). I will spend the year trying to integrate into the culture and society of France, making new friends, volunteering, taking classes, museum-ing, traveling, reading, taking pictures, and absorbing multi-media French (news, movies, podcasts, theater). Hopefully I’ll do some blogging here as well. The best part though, is that I will be living with my soulmate, ToF (Christophe Thibaut). We have been hopping Atlantic enough over the years to have sadly left a solid carbon foot-print and we both would like to stop that insanity as well as to bring our lives into closer alignment and proximity.

Most of my belongings will go into storage, including 1/2 of the books I have acquired and kept this past decade. The ones that I have kept are more or less the ones that I had shared on the pages of this site – the ones about communication, connection, congruence, clowning, clean language, as well as a some books on dying, grieving, belonging, estrangement, and the earth/universe. There is a small collection of anatomy books and few on pain and rehabilitation are there for reference, down the road.

I also cannot seem to part with a set of 5 Cracking Chinese Puzzles books that I strong-armed my parents to buy for me in China in 1987. This is an unusual etymology book for the composition of Chinese characters, explained in English. Just one of them goes for about $60 dollars on Amazon and I sense they may be a collectors item in the future. But that isn’t why. I can’t let go because I loved learning Chinese back in my early 20s. The language is so poetic and beautiful. The book set got as far as the trunk of the car, and then I brought it back up the next day. If I could have found the right recipient, someone currently studying Chinese, ideally, then I would let them go. Sadly China and the US seem far apart culturally now more than ever, and the recent airing of the documentary on the murder of Vincent Chin on PBS reminds me yet again that integrating as an Asian into American society has been more difficult and probably always will be more difficult than my own integration into French society. France has its own issues and its political polarities also in large part driven by rejection of the ‘foreign’ especially from certain locations – the US is not among them (my privilege is showing). But there I go, the tradeoffs will be many and the books will survive their storage until I decide whether my move is permanent – in which case I will have them shipped.

On a more hopeful note perhaps, I am resurrecting an old hobby and skill for my new life abroad. I hope to find some people, expats or otherwise, to have fun playing my flute in small ensembles to revive my love for music-making. I am in the process of getting my flute’s key pads replaced and have bought a sturdier case to protect it well. A good question is – where might I practice so as not to disturb anyone? Problems to solve once all my logistics are completed here.

Lastly, I have put my U.S. business, Connections At Work, LLC aside. I will not be allowed to earn any income while on French soil, in exchange for being allowed to be in that French resident status I described above. The old company root URL – will be redirected to this blog site which I have renamed from the original Adaptive Collaborations. I will still be able to receive email at until I can clean out and save off any files, emails and contacts I will want for the future. A task for a rainy day in Paris.

National Death Doula Day, April 20, 2022

Posted April 20, 2022 by Andrea Chiou
Categories: Personal Growth, psychology, Training

Written by my dear aunt Polly Krieger, who died of congestive heart failure over a decade ago

Death Doula day was created to raise awareness about the profession of Death Doulas and how they can benefit patients and families at the end of life. Death Doulas provide the additional support that families need in order to feel comfortable with taking care of their dying loved one at home. They are non-medical professionals that provide holistic support for the dying and their loved ones before, during, and after death. Trained in the various end of life stages, a Doulagiver is able to assist the family with understanding the natural processes of death while providing comfort and support through these processes. This is the day where all Death Doulas can rise together and be a voice for social change for end of life care – ensuring everyone has the most positive passing possible

Above excerpt from an mail from Suzanne O’Brien of Doulagivers International on National Death Doula Day, April 20th, 2022

The need for death doulas who support the dying, their family and friends before, during and after death has been growing for years and crescendoed during the pandemic. Some people sign up for death doula training for their own personal growth and learning; sometimes because they sense a deep calling to this work. Either way, the need for caregivers who understand dying is growing rapidly as baby-boomers age.

I trained with Doulagivers (Suzanne O’Brien) at the end of 2021 and beginning of 2022 and became a Hospice Volunteer to fully enable my certification. I found both the training and the required volunteer work rewarding. We learned about the social/emotional, practical, medical, historical and structural areas where specific death doula competencies can help fill the gaps in support. We covered diverse topics in great depth including patient safety, grieving (anticipatory and post-death), advance care planning, advance directives, forgiveness, family conflict, medical advocacy, top 10 specific diseases leading to death, working with hospice, alleviating end-of-life pain and complications, creating a calm and peaceful environment that meets the patient’s wishes, post death care and arrangements, home-wakes and rituals, eco-burials, as well as how to reach communities that might not know about these services (or be able to afford them).

If a mini one-evening free introductory course to end-of-life processes and considerations could alleviate some of the stresses that go along with end-of-life, would you take it? Accepting death as an inevitable part of life means being open to learning and ready when the need is there. You don’t have to want to be a certified doula to learn the fundamentals!

If you want to learn about the death doula movement, you can listen to Suzanne’s new recording at the bottom of this post.

And I highly recommend her free, longer Doulagivers Level 1 Training offered tonight – April 20th, 2022 – at 7pm ET in honor of National Death Doula Day!

Register here:… She speaks for an hour but will stay on for up to 2 hours more to answer every single question that comes in via the chat. This is very valuable opportunity to get your specific questions answered.

Lastly and because I care so much about helpful and supportive grieving, I want to share a link to a wonderful service called Often after a person dies, the initial friend and family support fades away because friends and family are not sure how to support the one most affected by the loss. People return to their routines and life goes back to normal, but only at the surface. is a unique service for grievers and up to four core support people selected by the griever. It is available for a full year after the loss of a loved one and can be renewed at a further discount and continued into the second year and beyond. All five people will get unique, highly context specific encouragement and tips via text message, curated by specialists in grieving. The messages are provided in over 10 foreign languages. Additionally the content and frequency of messages are tailored to date, the cause of death ( Accident, Cancer, Cardiovascular Disease, COVID-19, Drug & Alcohol Related Death, Homicide, Natural Causes, Other Illness, Stillbirth, Stroke and Suicide), religion, identity (BIPOC, LGBTQ) and any holidays, anniversaries specific to your situation. The supporters and the griever will get different messages.

I will soon have my own affiliate link to enable you to subscribe at a $10 off discount. Please contact me at if you would like the affiliate link, once it is ready. It will allow you a $10 discount off the 1 year subscription of $100. Corporate level subscriptions are available for companies that want to support grieving employees as well.

Thank you for following me and don’t forget to live your every day to the fullest!

One Year Surgeriversary

Posted February 23, 2022 by Andrea Chiou
Categories: Courage, Personal Growth

Maine, Sept 2021

This week is the anniversary of the two part back surgery I had in 2021 to fuse three levels of my lumbar spine. I chronicled the history of my back and my decision to have surgery here. It was the hardest decision of my life. I don’t know if it was the right decision and I never will. I could have put that surgery off longer or declined it. I did that twice, once because I didn’t believe I couldn’t fix it myself (6 years earlier) and once to get myself physically and mentally in shape just prior. My case was not the worst or the most dire. Outcomes for this surgery are better (relatively speaking) when the situation is dire.

I still have a numb left foot on ambulation, one symptom I wanted more than anything to resolve. There was no promise, but a hope that the surgery would fix that. Dire would have been: I cannot control my bladder, or stand on my two legs, both of which would have required near immediate attention. Surgeons make a lot of money. And they know how things progress. They can convince you if they sense your fear… Don’t ever stop thinking independently.

What has happened since then? After the surgery and three months of ‘no lifting, bending or twisting’, I started rehab physical therapy and it took 5 more months to get a ‘new’ normal that I could live with, with the following caveats. In addition to the foot numbness, I have the permanent constraint of the hardware in my back meaning that: it is harder to put on socks and pants; toe-clipping almost impossible; sitting anywhere for a long time is very uncomfortable, especially if my hips are not well above my knees; the lumbar area of my spine cannot ‘slouch’ into a bucket seat of a car nor sadly into a comfortable couch; getting into a small car is nearly impossible; and driving in my SUV is bearable for a mere 1/2 hour. I did travel by air twice last year for about 2-3 hours on each segment. It was hard. I would like to fly to Europe. Maybe I can endure 7 -8 hours if I can stand up as frequently as I am allowed if I book an aisle seat.

My upper back has its own scoliosis issues. I have continued physical therapy for that until the present. Spine surgeries often beget ‘adjacent segment’ issues because of compensatory changes and stresses, although I had the thoracic issues well before the surgery. I’ll get new X-rays at my 1 year checkup on Friday and we shall see what has changed.

I also experienced grief this year. The changes in my back, the ‘loss’ of my daughter’s presence in my life, and not feeling able to work full time led me to explore my own philosophy of life and spirituality. I read a lot about grief, ambiguous loss, self-compassion and forgiveness. I ditched a whole 4 linear feet of agile books and replaced them with all kinds of enriching books to help me make sense of my life. Last year I trained as an end-of-life doula. I am a volunteering with hospice and accompanying patients at their end-of-life. I was able to turn my grief to something very positive.

Several times a week, and sometimes daily, I turn my own fortitude gained from facing hardship and pain into compassion and connection with the hospice patients who are often confused, angry, in denial, or sad that they face their end-of-life. I understand that and I learn tacitly from them that I do not want to wait until my own end-of-life to be processing those complex emotions of regret, shame, or estrangement when so much else will be in decline physically. I help patients gently if these things come up, and encourage connection and sharing.

Working at hospice takes courage and presence – especially hard when my body objects. Physically, I am not able to sit for a long time. I explain I have to stand and talk when I am not comfortable. When I dealt with my first patient who was in a sleep coma, I felt better kneeling by her bed, and rubbed her hand as I talked to her. It was more comfortable that way for a time. I sit then stand then sit again. Such is the coping.

I value facing my own mortality openly now. It means so much to me to now be able to talk about death, love and grief with ease. To be able to tell my soulmate I love him. To tell my son the same. To send occasional letters to my daughter (as yet not acknowledged). To be in contact with my siblings and their families. To be kind to myself. To be in awe of nature, of the sky, animals, and of little humans. A year ago I didn’t know my future. It was a crapshoot risky decision. Somehow it turned into a very good year.

Value what you have; take care of your mind, body and soul well. Forgive yourself. Forgive others. Tell your loved ones you love them as often as you need to. Find awe in what’s right in front of you.

Healing, Loss, and Reconnection – a Brief Review of 3 Books That Have Led Me to Greater Equanimity

Posted June 15, 2021 by Andrea Chiou
Categories: Book Review, Personal Growth, psychology

As I try to close the chapter on the months of immediate recovery from back surgery, I’ve been mixing reading and listening to podcasts, cooking and eating well, creating connections with others and exercise. I intentionally create a healthy balance in my days as much as possible.  In the co-working group I now belong to in Herndon (Rowan Tree), I meet weekly to connect with women entrepreneurs and walk with them as we talk. On my daily walks alone, I often listen to great podcasts, often binging one whole series in a week or two.  In an online book club meetup that occurs online once per month, I combine connecting with others and my love for books on facilitation, coaching and healing.  As we are meeting tomorrow to discuss what we’ve each been reading, I decided to create a blog post on 3 books I’ve recently read.

I don’t doubt that you may find one or more of the books I write about below useful to read or share with a loved one or friend.  While I picked each one because it had resonance for my personal situation, I have found that the more I talk about the vulnerabilities I have faced, the more I find people open up about theirs.  I have found I am (we are) not at all alone.

How To Be Sick – A Buddhist Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers, by Toni Bernhard.

This book is a fascinating story recounting the more than 20 year journey the author took while attempting to recover from a chronic illness. While still at the time a successful law professor, she had acquired an unnamed immune dysfunction from a virus while traveling to Paris with her husband. The effects of that bout of illness never went away making social interaction, daily living, and even phone calls very difficult if not impossible to muster energy for. So what did she do? She bravely set about doubling down on her Buddhist practices that she had been already studying for many years – so that she could learn to accept profoundly her life as it had changed and find joy through the experiences of others. She gently introduces these into each chapter as her story unfolds. She shares both the difficulties and successes she encounters and how the specific practices she developed aided her through her long confinement. I found this very inspiring for my own recovery.

One of my favorite practices from this book is called Tonglen.  This practice is described in Chapter 11, Tonglen: Spinning Straw Into Gold. What a beautiful metaphor! When you practice Tonglen, as you breathe in and out to calm yourself or manage your pain, you’ll breathe in the suffering of all those who share the same symptoms you are experiencing, and breathe out with whatever compassion, sincerity, kindness  you have to give.  How lovely to think of your body as the cleanser or all the communal suffering. In the past I have thought only about breathing in the good air, and getting rid of all the stress through the out breath. This practice of Tonglen gives me the sense of having additional agency for healing not just myself but others as well.

Ambiguous Loss – Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief, by Pauline Boss.

When I picked this book off of the New Books shelf of the public library, I discovered a name for the types of losses I have been experiencing this year. These are the losses one feels when something or someone, or part of someone goes missing either physically or psychologically. There is much uncertainty surrounding the loss – as it is in some ways a loss without a certain demarcation or without a known future.   There are often no accepted rituals to accept, acknowledge or mark the change. Ambiguous loss is what happens when there is uncertainty about how to act, what to do because all the norms have changed.  This can be through divorce, adoption, addiction, mental illness, immigration, Alzheimer’s or in the case of war or kidnappings, people who simply disappear. These liminal spaces are where the rules of the relationship get re-written by each person experiencing it silently, alone. These states can last for years or decades.  The more one connects and talks about the shift, the better off one will be.

This gem of a book is a primer and an exploration of the emotional fluctuations between hope and hopelessness, uncertainty and changing relationships.  It  provides some practices and rituals that people such as therapists and coaches have used to help people talk about such loss and change.  You may have thought that I read this to deal with my own illness – after all, I have permanently lost the ability to flex in 3 lumbar joints as a result of surgery.  My situation is invisible, the outcome is still unknown – it feels very much like I’ve lost part of my physical abilities despite the hope it gives me for better nerve health down the road.  I also read this book because I wanted to understand the emotions and the situation I’ve had with my daughter during the past year – one in which I had not had a name such as ‘ambiguous loss’ to help me process the rollercoaster I was on. This is a perfect segue into the last book on my list for this post, which is ‘Reconnecting with your Estranged Adult Child’…

Reconnecting with your Estranged Adult Child – Practical Tips and Tools to Heal Your Relationship – by Tina Gilbertson

I’ve experienced an estrangement of sorts with my daughter who has held me at arms length for almost 8 months, – and even asked me to not text her or contact her for any reason.  While I had the new ‘Ambiguous Loss’ model to absorb from the prior book, I didn’t know there was a name for this specific estrangement phenomenon called ‘no contact’. I had come to learn as much after joining a support group for parents estranged from their adult children.

I occasionally try my luck by searching for Facebook support groups when I need to understand perspectives I know nothing about. Through a Facebook support group I found, I learned the term ‘No Contact’ – which is all the rage now to help people ‘create boundaries’ and to get rid of ‘toxic relationships’. While I was shocked to learn about the ubiquity of this practice, which separates rather than heals relationships, I was glad to find that a link to this very helpful book.  I soon left that Facebook group because I found that the sentiments and drama expressed by the parents was often very polarizing and full of contempt for the adult child. I didn’t want to be around that sort of negative energy on my learning journey. 

The chapters include topics on unmet needs, independence, parenting (and re-parenting) and ‘filling your bucket’ – which means to me becoming really grounded in your life without your child, and honoring the child’s wishes.  The latter chapters have specific tips for when and how to communicate in the many special circumstances which may (or may not) pertain to your situation.  I marked this book up in orange in many places as there was so much to learn.  I came to shift my perspective that I had thought was absolutely an undeniably truth: that I had provided my child with a grounded, secure childhood with everything that she needed to thrive, meaning that in my mind her insecurities have had nothing to do with me.  Because of this book,  I now can see that I may have unknowingly contributed to her insecurities and that she needs space to grow outside of a connection with me for now. I can now see that my own growth and development will have a direct bearing on how she chooses to be part of my life.  While this whole period of estrangement and distance was a complete shock to me, I am now able to feel whole again, having understood that I am not alone, that many family rifts happen all the time, and that with patience and resolve, I can do my part to heal the relationship when she returns.

What I’ve Learned Through My Multi-Layered Healing Journey and From These Books

The theme running throughout all of these books (and me!) is a combination self-compassion, a general acceptance of courageous suffering through change, finding one’s strengths, practicing as much as possible, and creating a circle of support. 

The strength I acknowledge to myself now as vital and offer to you to explore is that of accepting the paradoxes and ambiguities that exist in the world. This means I can hold seemingly polar opposites at the same time.  For example, I can hold uncertainty about the future with my longing for certainty. I can accept less than perfect health and suffering at the same time as I practice healing and finding joy. I can invite the estrangement with a loved one from a place of sadness and curiosity while acknowledging my need for connection as part of the same reality.  These books gave me a new-found sense of equanimity – a way to stop the struggling.

What do you do to gain support for your growth and healing journeys? 

Through The Earth

Posted May 19, 2021 by Andrea Chiou
Categories: Art used for Change, Communication, Personal Growth

May 2021 – I’ve just taken part in a “Writing Through The Earth” course with the esteemed Lightweaver, Bhavana Nissima.

Hers is as much a personal development workshop as a writing workshop. Bhavana puts our attention on what she calls ‘de-colonizing’ our writing – letting go of the ‘shoulds’ and even of the audience. She elicits our own reactions to our own writing. Her metaphor of the process of writing is: a tilling of the soil, and then a planting of seeds for the next cycle.

I’ve so enjoyed being with 11 other AMAZING women writers – all in India – who also are seeking their own next growth edge.

The assignments were word count restricted and the in-class ones were time boxed to 10 or 15 minutes. The constraints were so useful to get the unedited thinking on paper.


That act of recovery, the walking, it helps in so many ways. Today you took that walk to see what you could see about grief in nature :  the trunk choked up by the invasive ivy, the tree branch that was barren of leaves, and seemingly dead.  But you kept on walking and looking, past those reminders.  And then you recalled that you don’t need reminders, that the grief bits are as much part of you as the sap of the tree is the life of the tree.  And you realized that its okay to feel your blood flow again, to acknowledge your aliveness rather than bury your grief where no one can see it – which you had done.

Oh yes, the positive you on the outside, showing all the progress, while hiding the reality in replies to the comments, that many fewer people would see.  


You wrapped the gift of yourself in 58 years of courageous toil and birthing. That energy bundled, that time spent unseen: now look, see, and jump for joy with your newly signed and stamped lease. You can dance and tango with all your energy released – that ribbon untied. 

Lift yourself out of your limits; rise up that inch and a half taller that you are. And…  bend down to your grand-nephew – to see him where he is.  Hone now the skill of connection, in your late years glory and new-found peace.

Glow in all that the sun grants you. Soak in your vitamins, hydrate your soul, bathe in the smells of the spices you now have at hand.  Love all humbly, yourself mostly.

At My Birth (In My Mother’s Voice)

I looked up and saw the doctor there – that white coat (aging, I thought) and hadn’t I just been about to give birth?
And his advice, I later conveyed to my over-the-ocean needy parents – needlessly needing to know everything – was that: This nut-infested-loony-old-school-unshaven-squirrel – darting in and out of hospital rooms – as he talked-at-me-through-me and drowned-out-my-gut-instinct: “That I should not breast feed. It would be too hard on me after the C-Section.”

Generation 0 – Immigration

Wiping, vacuuming – and this: identically uniformed 
To – what – take away their uniqueness?
Make them unidentifiable for the tips?
Shining car tires, back breaking work
Yet, TipCash into the communal tip jar  – who divvies it up? The owners?

Then there is Kim’s.  Kim’s Tailor.
That’s what the sign says and the Yelp reviews are stellar
Like the car wash, efficient, designed to please the tech-politician-lobbyist-monied.
On the wall: famous politicians. Mr. Kim wears dress trousers, perfectly starched shirt.
Whirring, clicking, stopping, whoosh –  sewing-machine-workers laboring.
How long to build a reputation, put kids through college?


I got up to leave. The shoes first.  Then my little tote backpack.
What did I need – well that’s the wallet, the journal, the glasses, maybe water. It depends.
Glancing outside – what weather? Opens the Juliet balcony slider door and senses…

Ah that’s a wear-layers-weather.  Got me the layers.  Then the what ifs… what if I want to read along the way?
Where will I go? The mask, the keys, and then out the door, glancing back at the un-soaked beans. Goes back in, soaks them.

Down, down down, step by step, thinking of backtracking my thoughts – so many – flowing all morning.
Not flowing, bumbling about – the plant lights, the bean soak, the tweet about spatial data cubes of the future affecting the way we live, drive, see each other – down the road, yes, but still. I decided walking down, that yes, I would try to remember my thoughts as they come, and not let them flee. For if I had them, I had a reason for them, and if I let them go without being intentional about it, then I was not a good thought keeper….  Not even a housekeeper keeps everything, but surely they keep what they keep with a purpose.


Is aliveness
Is breath
Is eating
Is holding
Is feeling
Is listening
Is resting
Is beholding
Is praising
Is praying

Beyond the sleep
Beyond the dreams
Beyond the fields
Beyond the conscious
Beyond the sensory

In the heart
In the gut
In the mind
Out of one’s skin
Out in the world
Out to serve

A millisecond nod
A wink
A hope, and maybe a rope
A devotion
A lifetime connection
A weight lifted
A gift received
A hammock
A meal cooked
A celebration
A rite of passage
A letter received
A thank you
An effort seen

Sisters Care (or Sisters’ Care, or Sister’s Care)

That early morning plane ride, the last time she would ever be here. The goodbyes to my kids, the cajoling to get her up and into the car. This, until then, the hardest moment of my life.

Like a yank or a push – a different kind of birthing – birthing to give up – to un-shoulder my mother’s late life care – not autonomic like that strongest muscle of the human body – the uterus – but forced by some other mechanism I didn’t understand – guilt, shame, inadequacy, lack of support -some web of this culture which doesn’t allow for all the things we wish for but that somehow gets us to wish for everything.  I drove with an incredibly heavy heart, flew with anxiety tightly holding my sadness, sitting next to her, smelling her, listening to her repeat herself about going home, asking about the clouds. The clouds held us lightly as we navigated the unknown, alone together.

I could more easily get out the snarled tangled mess in my daughter’s long hair day after day than figure out the right way to support my mother in her state, my state, our state.   My mother’s Alzheimer was too far advanced – on the flight back I cried again that I couldn’t, uncontrollably.

My sister had said: bring her to me. You’ve done your part for years.
Let me take over now.

A Second Brain in Roam Research

Posted September 6, 2020 by Andrea Chiou
Categories: Personal Growth, Productivity, Tools

I bought and read many books this summer, started a few projects, read a lot of blogs, listened to a lot of podcasts and audio books. I have noticed that I’ve been incredibly inefficient at finding my links and thoughts later when I want to share them. If I had taken notes, or stored a link – none is easily found. My paper journal isn’t indexed. And exactly which folder did I put that link in? Serendipitously, I came across the idea about a Second Brain being a productivity enhancer and the powerful Roam Research note taking tool that makes it possible digitally. I jumped in immediately and started to use it.

Now when I come across a link or want to jot notes, I put them in the Daily Notes page adding a comment as to why it was important. Here are all the networked nodes of my brain dump from two weeks of use. Much more context, searchability and ease in finding what I need.

A Second Brain as a Productivity Enhancer

A second brain is a place for you, as a knowledge worker, to both unload information and ideas easily and to help you easily create connections between concepts, ideas, questions, experiments, books, contacts, and anything else.

In Roam, the Daily Notes page is the default page with the current date in the header. You’ll notice that I popped in a slider to note my pain level for the day. For that use the ‘/’ key to bring up a menu of options for other enhancing features. I tagged the Slider bullet with #painwhilesitting so I can later see all sliders for that in one place to see any trends. Each unique hashtag gets its own page and collects all the content from text blocks that contain it.

A second brain does not have a structured database. Putting brackets around the word or phrase creates a page, such as [[Tom Ayers]].

Anytime I type someone’s name, I put brackets so that I can accumulate other information about that person as it comes up. If you value connecting with people, this is wonderful for reference. As you get ready for the next call, you’ll think ‘oh yes, last time he talked about trying x – I’ll be sure to ask him about that on this call’. It is stored on his page. Applications of this one usage could include coaching, talking to business partners or clients, managing your 1:1 calls, or relating to a relative or friend.

Within a page, there is no set structure other than the blocks (equivalent visually to the bullets you see above). Blocks contain mostly other text, words, hashtags, links, and dates. This is unlike, for example, a CRM (Customer Relationship Management) tool with given fields that have to be centrally managed. This is infinitely as creative as your brain. As you adjust to the idea that any word can be expanded like that – creating links to pages – you’ll naturally start thinking about what areas you want to develop into pages.

Let’s say I typed someone’s name in today’s Daily Notes, and forgot to put the brackets around their name. I know I created their page a week earlier via my Daily Notes that day. One way to ‘fix’ this is by highlighting the name and pressing [[. That’ll fill in both sets of brackets. But what I did this many times? I don’t want to fix this on each page!

Simply go to the person’s page, and expand the Unlinked References area. This will show any mentions of ‘John Doe’ that are anywhere else in your whole database that are not yet cross-linked. You can then link them in one command using Link All, or separately with the Link button next to each item. In the example below, I typed Writing Club several times, forgetting to link to the page. With this great feature, you don’t have to worry about remembering your links each time, because you can do it later. Do watch out though, because the system is case sensitive. ‘Writing Club’ and ‘writing club’ would create two separate pages and the latter would not show up in ‘Unlinked References’

The Struggle Is Over and the Benefit will be More Writing

As mentioned above, Roam solves what I am struggling with (scattered digital assets, and brain overload). I will stop using Evernote, Apple Notes, and Chrome bookmarks so that I can more find and even more importantly create content in a brain-friendly way, with all the context I have accumulated easily available.

What do you currently do with the collections of links, notes and files on your various devices? Do you fail to wrangle with or work with what is stored to create rapport with these ideas? I’ve been such a collector for years and I want to change my habits because if I don’t create content of my own, I’ll forever chase down new shiny objects because its fun and I won’t be as likely to share why it is important to me and why others might be interested. In other words, I do expect this to have an impact on my desire to write and share content. Setting down my Second Brain, may make it easier for me to express myself publicly.

Final Thoughts

Maybe you currently use a colleague or a partner conversationally to unload and process your ideas each day. Maybe you have a small paper journal and while you are out biking, you stop to jot down your aha moments there. Keep doing all of those things. Just don’t lose your ideas and aha moments – you can always transfer them to your Roam Second Brain when you get back to your keyboard. That’s what I am doing, more or less, and I am loving it.

My USAA Web App User Experience

Posted August 9, 2020 by Andrea Chiou
Categories: Customer Journey, Product Management, Quality, Requirements

This is a detailed post in which I document my experience and expose the 5 problems I encountered with USAA downloaded financial information.  If you want to read it more quickly, you can gloss over the middle section, titled A Haskell Budget App.

Readers who are interested in testing systems, and/or in product management decision making may have fun guessing what might have happened inside the organization to enable the discrepancies and bugs I observed to occur.

I have tried to share this information with USAA before, but they have not yet as of 8/9/2020 implemented any changes. This, in my experience, is not atypical for big firms, who may have many other more important things to work on.

I give my reasons for bringing this to their attention again at the end.


I am a long time member of USAA for banking and insurance. Since my late twenties, I have had a useful and somewhat obsessive habit of categorizing my spending transactions and income as they happen. Early on, this was with a pencil in an accounting ledger such as the one shown here:

ledger.pngFor a few decades I then used Quicken via its proprietary interfaces. In 2016, I decided to use USAA’s banking services to make my life easier. This meant that via their app, I would regularly:

  • integrate all my non-USAA accounts in one place
  • view all of my transactions in one place
  • set the proper category for each transaction prior to downloading
  • download all of them to merge, and
  • with a custom written app, produce reports from one multi-year file

USAA has a few unique features that make it special for my purposes. I like the ability to edit the name of the transaction in the USAA app on the fly close to when the transaction happened. If I spend money on a book at Amazon, I can put in the book name for reference later.  I do this whenever I have a few minutes, or worst case prior to downloading.  It is quick, and easy to do, but because my brain doesn’t recall events more than a few days old, it is better to scan for these several times a week.

I can also ensure the category selected by USAA is correct and modify it if it isn’t.  I am very regular in downloading my transactions at the end of every month, so I can see my monthly and year-to-date spending, and adjust accordingly.

The Problem

At USAA, the downloaded fields from my aggregated bank accounts are:

  • the transaction date,
  • a transaction description,
  • a transaction description modified by the customer online
  • the status of the transaction,
  • the category and subcategory, if selected
  • the amount. 

There are three options for downloading a bank account’s transactions as follows:

1.) All Displayed
Screen Shot 2020-08-08 at 4.40.19 PM.png

2.) Selected

Screen Shot 2020-08-08 at 4.40.28 PM.png

3.)  Date Range

Screen Shot 2020-08-08 at 4.40.48 PM

I typically choose Date Range, and enter in the first and last dates of the month in question. Occasionally though I get lazy and use  ‘Option 1 – All Displayed’ if I have an account showing only a few transactions in that month. It saves me entering in the date fields for the filter. I assumed the records exported would look and function the same.

Wouldn’t you too expect that no matter which of these you used to ‘filter’ transactions for download that the formatting of the downloaded transactions would be identical across all three options? 

There is no visible indicator or immediately accessible tip, that the resulting .csv files will have different formats, including in one case with extra (un-official) records.  I found five major discrepancies or problems. I didn’t notice them all at the same time, but over time I noticed the pattern that all the faults are in the Date Range option which is my preferred option, and these problems do not occur with ‘All Displayed’, or ‘Selected’ options.  Here are the five differences: 

  1. Debit entries are prefixed with ‘–‘
    This is a double negative to denote a positive amount. This change was introduced without warning to users like me on the Date Range option only.
  2. The Category field is downloaded with %20% to designate any spaces
    The other options look good and don’t have this.
  3. Extra transactions are downloaded if there are ‘pending’ transactions.
    This causes duplicate records to be downloaded and doesn’t happen with the other options.
  4. Transaction Description is truncated.
    It was immaterial for making sense of the record, as the truncated bits were identifying transaction numbers tacked on to the description, but it caused the duplication feature in the app I describe below to fail. It was an annoyance that we had to account for it in our app.
  5. The Subcategory’s Parent Category is missing

Only the Subcategory is showing when the transaction has a subcategory selected. This will be described in further detail below.

A Haskell Budget App

My boyfriend, Christophe Thibaut, developed a nifty little Haskell app to import the data into one file so that I could run the app’s reports to my liking at the command line.  If you scroll down on the linked page to the user manual, you’ll see all of its features. 

I really appreciate this as I now have access to years of information which I can display as I like and it is far more convenient than using Microsoft Excel. As soon as I download the files, I can run the import with one command: ‘budget import’ and run whatever reports I need. 

To create the app, I acted as Product Owner, and Christophe was the developer. By using the Test Driven Development style of designing and writing the software, the resulting tests made it easy to make changes, add features, and fix some of the errors we found in the USAA data, without introducing complexity.

Problem 1-3

After most of the custom app was built, he fixed the first three discrepancies above  by removing (during record import) the debit amount’s  ‘–‘ and the replacing each category field’s %20% with spaces. In addition, he prevented records with status of ‘pending’ from importing.

Problem 4

The truncation of the description field shouldn’t normally have caused a user experience issue, but we wanted to ensure in the app that the import would not inadvertently re-import a record that was already present.  We needed to do that using this field, in addition to the date and amounts fields.

The duplicate imports might happen if I had made a mistake selecting a previously imported file, or if I had included a Date Range that included records I had already imported before.  We had accounted for this in the import routine using a duplicate checker feature, but we then had to fix the checker when we discovered problem 4. We had to lean on only the truncated text and not the full text of the description as part of the duplicates comparison. Without that, I would see duplicate records representing the same record, thus for example, seeing my health insurance cost double in one month! We knew health insurance was costly, but not that costly! Phew, problem fixed.

Problem 5

We still haven’t addressed the fifth problem related to categories. Within USAA bank’s system, a user may create custom subcategories for a given expense category. For example, under Business Expenses, I have about 8 entries, for Conference Fees, Travel, Publications, Liability Insurance, and so on.  Note that Travel (or any other subcategory I create) may also exist as a Category level – which are controlled entries only USAA can change. I like having the subcategory feature. However …

The Date Range option downloads only the subcategory, for example: Travel. The other export selection options show the category field as follows, with both the top category and the subcategory: Business Expenses – Travel. Thus using the Date Range method, the reports would result in my business travel records getting summarized with USAA’s generic category of Travel which I was using for personal travel, causing me to expense fewer business expenses. Of course, I am too alert for even that to happen, so this is a nuisance that I could remedy with a post download search and replace in VIM.  But I don’t want to spend my time that way. I want smooth operations all the way around.  Alternatively, I could permanently rename the conflicting subcategories on the USAA Web application as a workaround. Yet, I continued to wonder why all of the issues exist only in the Date Range selection optionWhat would crop up next, I thought?

Documentation – Where Are You?

None of the five problems is documented anywhere that I can find. I did find this help online.

Here you do not even see the export filter options explicitly called out, let alone that they behave differently in their output. If they should behave differently, the user interface should reflect that with some explanation.

What is your guess as to how these discrepancies came about?

Feel free to share your guesses in the comments.

Christophe thinks it is a management issue, all the way down.

Close But No Cigar

On May 16th 2020, I received a phone message from USAA. I was excited that perhaps my issues would be addressed, or perhaps explained. 
I did call back, referencing the ticket number, but the person who took my call would not connect me  to Kevin or to any software developers.  [I was several years into my developer career in the late 1990s when the managers told us there would be no more interaction with the customer] With that realization and disappointment, I did decide to leave the whole USAA export dilemma behind forever. Recently though, the fifth problem started to bother me again. So I decided to bring them all back to USAA’s attention here.

Why Do I Bother?

I bother with this because 15 years ago a USAA service representative saved my mother from a potentially very dangerous situation. I was so grateful that I went out of my way to make sure that the representative got recognized within the company. The story made it into an internal magazine where the rep was highlighted for great customer service. Also, USAA returns its profits to its members every year and thus, I have a stake in it being a company that pleases its customers. My purpose is thus to help the company become even better at delivering its services.

Below you can see I still have the e-mail referencing the service award that I helped a USAA customer service representative obtain.

 Screen Shot 2020-08-09 at 3.36.19 PM.png


For my application to work and to avoid confusion for others, the format of the records downloaded via the Date Range option should match one for one the format of the same records downloaded by the two other selection options. These options are in the account export feature of your banking application on the web, within a specific account.

I hope that by my having documented each of the five discrepancies here, the customer service rep will be able to convey my explanation to a developer or triage team by way of this written record (or via a link to this post).

The original ticket number was: IMC 410-9018.  Thank you, USAA, for considering this change.

How to Acknowledge A New Reality and Move Towards Something New

Posted August 6, 2020 by Andrea Chiou
Categories: Coaching, Personal Growth


There’s a shocking news item for this poor sheep! It is the headline in the Ramsbottom newspaper: 10,000 Sheep to Lose Their Wool Within the Next Week. Now that’s an acknowledgement of a new reality!

I often find myself noticing my own ‘in between states’ – places that spur growth and change. These can be triggered by an internal realization or an external event. Sometimes they are realities presenting more gradually.  I find value in naming this phenomenon and the closest I have found is the term ‘liminal’ or ‘liminality’. I hope by sharing my reflections that I can help others get used to noticing these states, and how to move through them, if desired. For the sheep, they just have to wait a few weeks til sheering – hopefully all else remains intact. Poor sheep.

Definition of Liminal


1.relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process.
2.Occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary 
or threshold.

The word ‘Liminal’ comes from the Latin root ‘limen’ meaning threshold – literally, the bottom of a door. When you welcome someone into your home, they pass over a threshold from the outside to the very different space of your home. While that is a quick transition in physical space, a liminal state can last a lot longer than that. After all, once in someone else’s home, there may be other (cultural) adjustments before one gets comfortable: different norms around eating, wearing shoes, having conversations, use of devices, and hospitality. Their transition may require a new level of self-awareness and possibly self-restraint while observing and then adjusting their expectations and behaviors to their surroundings. This can of course occur upon entry to a new team or a new job as well.


Here are some examples of other liminal spaces or thresholds that I came up with, some broad in scope and time and some very narrow:

  • Getting very upset and finding calm and peace again
  • Having ongoing pain symptoms, but no diagnosis
  • Learning about a topic, but not yet able to study it properly or apply it
  • Similarly, getting a new device, operating system or program, and not mastering it yet
  • Having a great job interview and waiting for the next step (more broadly, the time between losing a job and starting a new one)
  • Writing software, but not able to have it deployed (writing a book, waiting for publication)
  • Starting contractions to give birth, and waiting to actually give birth (wouldn’t it be nice to rush that one along)…
  • Deciding to go out for a walk, and actually opening the door to do so
  • Getting the keys to your new house, and much later finally settling in fully
  • Leaving one’s country, resettling in the new one (also, being tied up in immigration limbo)
  • Experiencing a loss, moving through stages of grief to acceptance
  • Not knowing who is taking care of whom as in the picture below.

I am sure you will start seeing many more. Some of these transition spaces are joyful celebratory ones, where we are striving to attain something new and we are highly resourced. Some are spaces of struggle and frustration where we don’t yet have means to reach our goal.

Others are more representative of the way ‘things just are’ in the world and we have zero agency to reverse course. For example, on the way to the hospital to give birth to my second child, I said to my then husband: ‘I would like to turn around. I’ve decided that I don’t want to go through with it.’ I was in so much pain but I didn’t have much luck with that desired approach!

In all cases of transition, it can be helpful to have a guide, someone who can help you through whether it is a doula, a grief counselor, a personal or career coach, or just a helpful listening ear for encouragement. Even first time home ownership can involve a stressful, even if joyful transition. Asking for help is one of several ways to cope.

Satir Change Model

As I noticed all these various liminal states, I realized that these are natural and normal in life. Another feature is that they won’t last forever. Yet another is that they provoke new experiences and learning. The first family therapist, Virginia Satir, introduced the notion of a process of state change with her now famous Satir Change Model.

Screen Shot 2020-11-02 at 9.08.04 AM

In this model, the liminal space is everything between what she calls the Late Status Quo (the old normal), and the New Status Quo (the new normal). Her ideas helped me explain change to my clients when I first started as a coach and I still find it useful. In my own life, knowing that there would be a better new normal after divorce was a relief. There are many concurrent liminal states – and they coexist and evolve around us. These states are an ironically permanent feature of the complex world we live in.

On Celebrations and Rituals

In anthropology, liminality is “the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage, when participants “no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete”. Bar-and Bat-Mitzvahs and Quinceaneras are examples of periods of transition from childhood to adulthood. Rituals to celebrate an engagement (and last moments of celibacy) prior to the wedding are another example. My nephew’s wedding was postponed due to rain, and the anticipation was intense, but all ended well.


In organizations aspiring to be more agile, we don’t often use rituals to let go of the past way of working, when we embark on a new way of working and I’ve long thought that that acknowledgement might serve as a helpful marker. And while we may not have a definitive border to cross, no final condition that represents arrival, we can still celebrate milestones and markers of progress and improvement. In acknowledging that the liminal space is a challenging and inevitable space of growth and learning, we admit to our vulnerability and humanity. Change may not be easy but others will be there to support (hopefully).

The Limbic Brain

Other cognates (words that share this same Latin root ‘limen’, and have related meanings) include the words ‘limbic’ (pertaining to or characteristic of a border), and subliminal “below the threshold” (of consciousness or sensation).

The Limbic part of the brain regulates emotions and is physically bordering both the neocortex (processor of reason, logic sitting behind your forehead) and the amygdala (regulating survival responses – flight, fight, or freeze at the lower area or the brain near your neck). The limbic brain feels settled when it knows ‘what the rules are around here’ and is unsettled when things are stirred up.

It is in understanding the function of this limbic brain that I have come to understand the way I act or react in certain social situations. Noticing when I am in a liminal situation and not feeling settled, I can take action by getting in touch with what I would like to have happen (my higher brain state). As a coach, I can help others do the same and can help organizations to notice and navigate the liminal spaces they are in, finding their way ‘across the threshold’. It might be as easy as finding out how things are now, eliciting outcomes, and helping people find their own way steadily from one space to the next.

Now What?

You have read this far and may be wondering what, if anything, to do now that you know this term. I don’t really have a specific answer for each person’s particular situation. My best offer of advice, if this interests you, is that you first develop your capacity for noticing liminal states. This can be in your personal life, in your community or at work. Grab a small journal and jot them down as you see them, and ask yourself questions as you sense the opportunity for learning and growing through this space. For example:

  • What is the current state? Where and when does it begin, end?
  • What is your limbic brain noticing (emotions and social aspects)?
  • What would you like to have happen?
  • What support or resources do you have or need to move on?
  • Whom can you call to ask for help?

Lastly, remember that liminal states are perfectly normal and won’t last forever. Ideally, you’ll take advantage of them for the experiences and learning that you can derive. I would be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Justice still pending for Marcus Deon Smith

Posted June 5, 2020 by Andrea Chiou
Categories: Justice

Tags: , ,

As we mourned and remembered yesterday the life of George Floyd, let’s not forget that countless others have died as a result of excessive police force. I am committed to learning about the use of excessive force and and to learn what I can do to lessen its use. I started with researching the state of policing and citizen complaint procedures in Fairfax County, VA where I live. I discovered that there is a device called the Ripp Hobble, one of many listed ‘types of force’ used by the county. It piqued my attention, because I had never heard of it before, nor could I easily guess what it was.

The Ripp Hobble is a restraint produced by Ripp Restraints International which markets and sells its products to police departments. The device is used to restrain a person’s hands and feet. The instructions for its use state to use it only on a person who is a seated in an upright position. It can also be used to connect tied feet to tied hands with an attached strap. The instructions also state: Never Hog Tie a Prisoner. Wait, what?!

This brings us to the story of Marcus Deon Smith who died at the hands of police after being hog-tied in Greensboro, North Carolina on September 8th, 2018.

Marcus, who had mental health issues and was homeless, had been wandering late at night in a state of delusion, high on cocaine, on a two lane road, shouting in the air that he was going to kill himself. Cars were having difficulty passing by safely as he darted across the street many times. The police were patiently and calmly trying to contain Marcus while directing cars to pass by slowly and safely, despite not having contained him. He had no weapons.

In the police video released right after his death in 2018, you can see that Marcus was not a direct threat to anyone, but seemed unable to take directions or walk in a straight line. This is known as ‘excited delirium’. Marcus was aged 38 at the time of his death.

The police seemed to have patience and wanted to help him which they conveyed multiple times to him verbally. I wondered if the blaring police lights exacerbated Marcus’ drug induced delusions. I don’t know much about the side effects of cocaine usage.

Eventually Marcus made his way on his own to sit in the back of the police car. The police weren’t following through on driving him to the hospital as they had told him they would and he became agitated and started hitting the windows. It appears the officers were waiting for an ambulance which they had called for.

Marcus was able to get out of the car. As Marcus emerged from the police car, the officers wrestled him to the ground where he struggled as they first tied his hands, then bent his legs backwards to tie them to his hands at the area around the small of his back. It is hard to tell, but my impression that his struggle had already lessened as they they were tying the feet. When does procedure and training get in the way of making choices about what restraint is actually needed in the moment?

As the officers rolled Marcus from his front to his side, his struggle had clearly fully subsided. One officer checks and notices either a weak pulse or none at all. He dies within the following hour. The shared police video ends shortly after he is put in the ambulance.

By January, 2019, it was decided that no charges would be pressed. The autopsy reveals the restraint as a reason for death along with other factors including drugs, alcohol, hypertension. The family pursues justice through 2019.

The Police Chief doesn’t resign until January of 2020.

And on April 10th, 2020, with the help of a legal team that includes the negotiator of a 2015 5.5 million dollar landmark Chicago police torture reparation award, Marcus’ parents got some good news. A federal judge ruled that several claims can move forward against the city, the county, and the 8 officers and the two medics that were at the scene.

Smith’s family alleges that by binding him, police violated his Fourteenth Amendment right to be free from excessive force. More details on the case can be found here.

Aside from adherence to improved ‘policies and procedures’, it is evident to me that the minute to minute decisions and intentions of police officers are another key to positive future outcomes. How self-aware, individually and as a group, are these policemen about the decision process they are going through ‘in the moment’? This case likely could have gone in several other directions with a likely non-homicide outcome.

As I realize that the Emergency Personnel are implicated in this case, I realize that my own son, who is a paramedic emergency responder could face similar situations. How are Paramedics trained so that they are not ‘bystanders’ to a similar excessive use of force incident? Are they trained for these types of situations?

Together all responders must raise the bar and after doing so, must hold each other to their highest standards of using least-force necessary. Justice is a long, long fight for the family. The systemic factors protecting the police officers and emergency responders may not lead to the outcome the family wants. My prior post addresses those factors.

If you are further interested in restraints, training on their proper use, here is additional information I’ve pieced together.

Ripp International has a separate method of restraint for Emergency Medical Situations. There is training on the Ripp International website where Sudden Custody Death Syndrome is addressed. I gleaned that from the description of the training but did not purchase the training. I learned from the description that ‘positional asphyxia‘ can be caused by use of restraints and the process of restraining. The research on cause/effect of positional asphyxia is far from thorough based on what is in the Wikipedia link. Yet enough information is there to potentially help officers to make alternate decisions in some cases.

There is a youtube police training video on the ‘proper use’ of Ripp Hobble devices for patients with ‘excited delirium’. I found that the description of excited delirium matched the behavior on the police video of Marcus. But when the officers used this method to restrain Marcus, it seemed to me they bent his legs at a much tighter angle than this training video shows. Aspyxia can also be caused by too much pressure on the chest. What would happen if that sort of ‘hog-tying’ was outlawed? What could be used effectively instead? Treating people as animals is inhumane.

My conclusions:

Short of changes to laws and allowed procedures, purchasers of such devices, including police and emergency personnel, should be required to take training in their proper use, on the risks of each type of usage, and on safer alternatives that can be used in the moment.

Training the officers to always go through a quick choice process in least-force first in an evolving situation might further add to fewer deaths. Asking the right questions in the moment of each other and holding each other to account as a team is a possible developmental area.

I am curious now to find out how my Fairfax County police and EMS departments train on proper use and risks of restraints.

6/8/2020 – I just found out how my Fairfax County, VA police department handles similar situations by watching this video.