Syncronicity Moment – Push/Pull Communication Modes

Okay, so there’s this very excellent post by Paul Tevis over on RPG Talk that talks about Push/Pull in regards to Setting. This is interesting all on it’s own, and I’ll be thinking about it more in future days when my brain has more room to think, but what made me pick up the link and put it here is his later comments about Push and Pull modes of communication:

“Writing for Presentation and Setting are essentially Push techniques. They’re both ways of saying, “Here’s my position. I’m done. Here you go.” Writing for Discussion and Situation are essentially Pull techniques. They’re both about giving the other person room to tell their side, to make what you’ve started into something different and bigger than what you would have done on your own.”

This is one of the things I was trying to get to in my blathery way back when, but put together much more coherently and eloquently, especially once married to Brand’s excellent discussion with him in the comments. It’s something I’m struggling with over on Storygames, as I try, for the first time in a while to not give up on a forum. I generally don’t do so well on forums, (especially RPG ones) because of the exact thing Paul is talking about.

There’s a discussion happening over there, and it’s about gender, and I’ve been cautious to get too far into it because it’s a tarbaby in that context, because, I think that it has everything to do with gender while simultaneously have nothing to do with gender (I also didn’t want to co-opt the very real concern of the person starting the thread with my own issues). I like that Paul has put it back into the Push Pull context, because while Push/Pull were labeled Male/Female (partially my own fault) that’s not the way that I meant them, and I think that though you can make analogies, that they are essentially divorced from a any concept of sex or gender.

Push and Pull communication modes are not gender connected in any essentialist way at all. I know tons of Pull boys and Push girls. Throw a boy in a bubble over here and a girl in a bubble over there and pull them out as adults and neither will push or pull effectively at all. Neither will socialize effectively at all. Gender only has to do with Push and Pull as much as there is a very big difference (historically more so but still very real) between the way that most boys and most girls are socialized, and the way that girls are socialized have more to do with Pull than they do with Push (though exclusively neither) and vice versa with boys and Push.

So: nothing to do with gender, yet everything to do with gender. Boys by nature are no more capable of pushing than girls, or girls more capable of pulling, but many socialization experiences for each actively encourage one and discourage the other.

So gender aside: it is true for me. I was actively sociallized to Pull and actively (strongly) socialized not to Push. So it’s fun and comfortable and energizing for me to engage in activities relying primarily on Pull but difficult and uncomfortable and draining to engage in activities that rely on Push. I find forums maddening because the mode of most discussions are “Here’s my position. I’m done. Here you go.” followed by a series of challenges and defenses: all Push.

Worse than that, many of them masquerade (or honestly start out) as Pulls: “Here’s where I am, where are you, what does that mean?” and this is inviting to me, but once I’m part of them, they quickly move to Push: declaration, challenge, defense. When it happens I can get frustrated, angry, or hurt because I’ve been promised something that feels collaborative and have been given something that feels competetive, and I am there to share and explore, not to debate.

Now that I have words for it, I can identify that that’s why I started Sin Aesthetics, because I wanted to take part in the body of work that’s being built, but it allows me (for the most part, though less successfully in the past than it will be in the future) to pull the topics I am interested in, as well as moderate to control the amount of push in the discussion.

Now, to touch the tarbaby (hopefully with some latex gloves) for one second: If I’m right, and boys are socialized to push more often than pull, and there are disproportionately greater numbers of boys in RPG than girls, that means that there is a disproportionate amount of push in forums and games than pull, and that because of that, Pull mode people (be they boys or girls) will always feel less welcomed, less comfortable and less accepted than Push mode people.

Thanks Paul. 🙂

P.S. If you don’t understand and need to see the difference, go to SG and read two threads: A Very Special Gender and Gaming Conversation and Playing Across Gender Lines. When you read them, pay less attention to what is being said than how it is being said, and how the what changes the engagement level of the people involved. See if you can identify who’s uses Push Mode and who Pull and how that affects the discussion.

It may not be true for all push threads and pull threads, but the results of each of those threads also goes a long way in explaining why pull is fufilling to me and why push is not.

23 thoughts on “Syncronicity Moment – Push/Pull Communication Modes”

  1. Mo,

    At the risk of derailing the discussion (if I am, just call me out and I’ll take my concerns somewhere else and refocus; I mean, I really find your culturation proposal to be cool) I really need some clarification on the Push/Pull thing (yes, still!).

    I guess I’m just confused about what constitutes pushing vs. pulling. I mean, I have some intuitions about them, but I am unsure that they match up with everyone else’s.

    So, is push/pull based on the intent of the presentor (i.e. is it possible for me to present setting as a pull because I know that this sort of thing will get a response out of you, or is that still a push?) or is it based on the form of the presentation (if this is the case then it appears that a pull takes the form of a sincere, as opposed to rhetorical, question while a push is any other form of statement intended to draw a response).

    There are a couple of other possibilities I can think of, but they don’t feel right to me. So, which of those do you think is the case, or is it a variant of those, or something I’ve missed altogether.

    Again, feel free to ask me to take this question elsewhere and just talk about socialization and aculturation since I think you’re probably on to something there.


  2. Thomas,

    I’m not Mo, but I’d like to ask you a couple questions real quick. Bear in mind I’m not really coming at this from an “application in gaming” angle so much as an “application in communication” angle, okay?

    When you say “is push/pull based on the intent of the presentor or is it based on the form of the presentation” I honestly don’t know what you’re saying. Are you saying that medium and message are seperate things? Or that our intent doesn’t modify and shape the way we present things? Or is it that many people only know how to present things in one way, and so sometimes use inapropriate tools because they lack the presentation skills to match their intent?

    I know I may be being dense here, but my training in rhetoric is just sitting in the back of my brain screaming at me “intent and form are inexorably linked! you can’t talk one without automatically affecting the other!” and I’m trying to shut that voice down long enough to figure out what the exact nature of your question is.

    I used to have a teacher who when talking about the difference between argument by dialectic vs. consensus by discussion* that you’ll get more flies with honey, but you’ll get more deer with a rifle. So when you’re going out into the big world of words, you have to know what it is you’re doing in order to get the position you want.

    So from that POV, your intent and your presentation need to match up — or else you’re just being ineffective. That isn’t about push or pull, its just about knowing how to communicate clearly.

    See what I mean? Or am I clear as mud?

    Now, as for this issue: “is it possible for me to present setting as a pull because I know that this sort of thing will get a response out of you, or is that still a push?” — that depends on how you know it will get a response out of me. If it will force me to respond because you’ve just attacked me, it’s a push. However, if it will get me to respond because you know I’ve opened up a chance for you to talk about something you love and there is just no way you can turn it down — that’s a pull.

    Pull is active, and can even be aggressive, and can be very manipulative. There is no passivity implied just by the word pull — just a different way of actively steering the conversation. So just because it necessitates a response doesn’t make it pull or push, it just makes it a rhetorical movement.

    *Oh, if you need me to clarify that bit, let me know. I’ve noticed recently that a lot of folks use dialectic and discussion as synonyms when they aren’t, exactly.

    (Oh, and Mo may tell us to shut up and not do this in her blog. If so you can email me at randomninjas at gmail dot com to talk more.)

  3. Word to your worded word, Mo 🙂

    I think I want my next mini game to be totally about Push/Pull, as a demonstration of what all this fuss is about. Since all my mini games are about China, it may be time to whip out a game about Yin/Yang and how there’s always a dot of Yin in the Yang and a dot of Yang in the Yin.

    And, in Chinese cultural ethos, girls who were all Push-y (warrior maidens, powerful empresses, witches) and boys who were all Pull-y (artists, eunuchs, magicians, Daoist sages) were the ones who are most disruptive to the social order and the source of change.

  4. Hmm… I guess I can allow myself one more comment on Push/Pull itself. If Mo doesn’t provide her blessing after that (Mo, you can drop a comment, or just toss me an email at , whichever works for you), then I’m going to pursue it privately with Brand (email, Skype, carrier pigeon, whatever’s at hand).

    First, let’s drop the intent/content thing for now. I don’t think it will do anything but cause confusion and obscure the issue. I sort of regret framing things that way.

    Now then, at the moment the best articulation of the Push/Pull distinction I can come up with (which I just thought of) is this: A push is an attempt to provoke a response from someone by threatening something that that someone else values. A pull is an attempt to provoke a response from someone by offering something that that someone values. (Note that offering something someone values to someone else can be a threat, isn’t that interesting…)

    Anyway, this seems to work for the hypothetical situations that spring to mind, but my intuition suggests that it’s going to be insufficient for all situations we talk about using Push/Pull.

    (Aside: the reason I get so caught up in this is that I’m a serious abstract thinker. While I don’t tend to have problems identifying hypothetical actions as Push or Pull, I am having problems figuring out what the categorical difference is between the two.)


  5. Hey Thomas,

    I’m kinda with Brand. I’m trying to see the disconnect you’re having, and not being able to make it. I’m not going to move this discussion (at least not yet) because as much as I didn’t want to get back into this discussion, you (whether you know it or not) are pulling a response, and that makes it comfortable to me. If it becomes all that anybody hears in this post, I’ll move it.

    Go back and read Brand’s comments in Paul’s article over there on RPGTalk. I’m looking specifically for you to get context of “The Gap” that he talks about. That gap might help us illustrate the rhetorical movement of push and pull to each other.

    Two folks are discussing something and they have a gap. They have a lot of ways of approaching each other around or in or about that gap.

    A pusher could rhetorically position himself on your side of the gap, taking all the grey area for himself and denying it to you. He could say: This is the hard line of what I believe, if you want to make me move you’re going to have to convince me, make me, push me.”

    A puller could rhetorically position himself on his own side of the gap and say: “Look here, there’s this gap between us, want to suggest something that could fill it in?”

    Now that makes it look like one’s really passive and one’s aggressive, but when you look at it, that’s not really true. Both people are relying entirely on the listener to take the next step. That might sound like I’m saying both of these folks are passive, but I’m not: they both have instigated rhetorical movement by taking a position and calling for an action.

    A truely passive (and therefore dysfunctional) person in this discussion isn’t a pusher or a puller (because there’s no rhetorical movement in their non-action). They might say “There’s no gap.” And in doing so, they not only take no action, but they allow for no action.

    So in my functional example up above it might seem like I’m saying that pushers are bullies and pullers are all nicey nice. That’s not true either.

    The two people in the discussiion are active pushers the second responds to the first’s earlier challenge by pushing hard and shoving him back into the gap and taking a step in by, say, offering hard evidence, or statistics to either push his own stance forward or offering the same to challenge and push back his opponents’. While this play is in-your-face, it’s not bullying: they’re the rules of engagement that both participants have chosen and are likely enjoying.

    While pull is often thought of in terms of collaborative and constructively building (such as in: “Sure, how does this piece I have fit into the gap? Does it help you find a footing closer to me?” or “I can conceed this part of the gap to you. Can you conceed this part of the gap to me?”) Pull can also be aggressive and take cunning and manipulation. The socratic method is one way of doing this. “Here look at this part of the gap I’ve just exposed. Consider this spot, come on in. It is directly connected to that thing you believe in, right? It could be comfortable here. It is? How about this new part of the gap that I’ve just revealed, can I entice you in one more step? Oh look! you’re over on my side now.”

    So, no one’s more active or more passive than the other, no one’s nicer no one’s meaner. No one is necessarily more effective over all. All of those things are entirely dependant on the skill, the intent and the decisions made by the individual participants and not qualities of push or pull themselves.

    Also, expectation of the receiver plays a big part in the perception or judgement of the interaction: a puller might call a pusher a bully if they came to the discussion and the pusher keeps pushing when the puller asks them to stop. That pusher might call that puller a wimp.

    A pusher might call a hardcore puller manipulative if he wants to be pushed and the puller continues to take a sly hard pull tactic even after the pusher has identified that it’s not comfortable. That puller might call that pusher a thug.

    In both of these examples, the push or the pull is not bad, it’s the enactor’s unwillingness to find a middle ground that’s less harmful to the continuance to the discussion.

    That help?

  6. Thomas, I have to run to an engagement, so I don’t have time to read over your second post tonight (already late) but just a note to say that my post wasn’t a response to your second, just your first, in case that caused confusion. I’ll have a look at the other later tonight or tomorrow.



  7. I’m not Thomas, but that helped me immensely. I don’t know if everyone is using Push/Pull in this sense, but it’s a rendering that is immediately useful and stripped of the baggage that a lot of people are carrying with it. Since you coined it in the first place, you win twice!

    Alex (Fradera)

  8. Hi Mo,

    One of the major issues of the internet is that people often use it as the place for posturing & fighting for “Alpha” position by debate- which makes fruitful discussion hard at times.

    I’m generally posting less in my own blog because discussion there gets sidetracked into such things, while real dialogue gets muddled.

  9. Heh. Thanks Alex.

    I think there’s some people that aren’t using it quite that way either because they have a different take, or, more often, becauase they are using it to go forward towards other applications like game styles, play transactions or mechanics (which makes me excited). In my first post I made the mistake of talking about everything at the same time, which caused some confusion – it’s taken me some time to find the language to talk about it clearly.

    And Thomas…

    Now that I’ve had a chance to read your second post, I’m going to actually refrain from approaching it until you have a chance to respond to mine, in case something got sorted out.

  10. Mo,

    Sort of, but not really. I guess part of the problem is that I recognize a lot of truths about Push/Pull, and I think I’m pretty good at recognizing actual instances of Push/Pull, but I can’t actually tell you what the difference between them is.

    This means (at least for me) that I can’t extrapolate new instances. I can identify experiences I’ve had before, and I can identify most situations once they’re related to me, but I can’t figure out what’s actually different between the two.

    (Quick aside: At the risk of sounding arrogant, I happen to think that I’m incredibly good at aggressive pull communication techniques. I don’t tend to use it much academically, but interpersonally it shows up a lot. So I’m right with you that pull isn’t necessarily “passive”.)

    All that said, I’m still a bit shaky on my definition. Even the one I proposed in my last comment. I suggested that push might be about threatening things of value, and pull might be about offering things of value, but if that’s the case what item of value is being offered in a series of socratic questions (which I concur strikes me as very pull oriented).

    Also, thanks for your patience with my slow-wittedness. I must admit that it’s pretty frustrating being so confused since just about everyone else seems to understand this without all the questions.


  11. Hi Chris,

    Do you have a new venue in lieu of the blog? I see you on SG, but not so much.


    Hrm. I’d like to help, but I’m not sure how to get you there. I suspect you’ll wake up in the middle of the night in an Aha! moment one of these days and it will just be solved for you.

    Here’s hopin’..


  12. Jonathan,

    I think we should craft one in which there are a series of three (or something) pull mechanics that escalate in intensity followed by a series of the same number of push mechanics that wane in intensity. So that the rheotical movements crash upon eacjh other like waves.

    Hell, we should make some elemental water game, or something with vikings or pirates, or river dragon game. Hey! We should base it on something like the Agatamori… that one’s just *begging* for the Mountain Witch-y, Snow from Korea-y concentrated dynamic that lends itself well to Nar games. Or do a Nar game “Ferryman” which is of course about the ballance between life and death, and in which either the underworld is pull and the overworld push or vice versa. It might be neat if the object was to start one player from either side and have to move against escalating conflicts of the other to find the yin spot or yang spot in the other.

    We should also play at some point with the pattern that we talked about on 1KM1KT that I suggested for interaction that didn’t fit for your bodhisattvas in When the Forms Exhaust their Variety.

  13. Mo,

    Thanks. If you do have a startling revelation in education on this subject, I trust you’ll let me know?

    In ohter news… Let’s talk about socialization! Do you think (I’m sort of assuming you do) that there’s a tendency in our culture to socialize girls more for pull interactions and boys more for push interactions?

    What other endeavors socialize (or teach, or prefer, whatever) push or pull?

    Personally, I’ve found that the paper writing, presentation, and defense cycle in my own field (philosophy) encourages a lot of push while discussion can go either way. You don’t really get to write papers that draw people out; instead you present your position, back it up, and move on.

    Does that make sense?


  14. Thomas,

    I will.

    I do, though less so now than fourty years ago, natch.

    I see what you mean about papers etc. I think that’s an interesting observation, and might be an exacerbator to the frustration I have at RPG forums. Maybe they become more push mediums because not only are they populated by a greater proportion of push-socialized folks, but the written medium encourages a push at to make your voice heard.

  15. Mo,

    Yeah. Pull is hard (impossible?) to do outisde of an actual conversation. Since forums are mostly asynchrounous conversations are hard.

    Also note that the Forge is set up to discourage conversational stuff with the emphasis on more comprehensive, thought-out, and slightly delayed posting than other forums. Another problem with forums is the sheer number of people involved: you don’t want to shut people out, but when twenty or thirty people jump in on the discussion, it rapidly gets too chaotic for a lot of pull…

    Hey, that’s interesting… Does pull tend to work better when targetted against one person while push is more scalable? That bears some thinking…


  16. Thomas,

    If you go and have a look at the Playing Across Gender Lines, you’ll see a rather good example of someone using Pull in a discussion with a lot of voices. It takes a particular focus and some heavy dose of mad moderation skillz, but it’s possible.

  17. Shreyas,

    I heartily agree.

    Now ignore the content (even though it’s very interesting and shouldn’t be ignored) and imagine the flow of that conversation as the transactional dynamics of a game.

  18. Hi Mo,

    No new venue, as of yet. Right now I’ve changed my blog’s policy to where I moderate all comments, with the express idea of making it laser focused.

    Though it’s pretty blog-nazi of me to do so, at least then I don’t have to sweat dealing with the debate-monkeys and attention mongers who’d argue just to argue rather than really read what I’m saying.

    I figure between the 6-7 major forums and free blog options, anyone who wants more open dialogue can open up shop there.

  19. Chris,

    Blog-nazi or no blog-nazi, if you think that it will push your work ahead, more power to you. There’s lot of places to ramble online, and you don’t have to host a social on your blog if you don’t want to.

  20. Dang. This is everything I was trying to say, plus more. I’m glad we’re both on the same page with this stuff, even if you are several paragraphs ahead of me.

  21. Mo,

    Since you’ve made such good points on push vs. pull in rpgs I’m curious if you would ever do a post on games that are generally played with Push that still have an appeal to Pull gamers.

    If you identify yourself as someone who prefers Pull mechanics are there any Push games that appeal to you? Has this been covered well elsewhere?

    I’d be interested in your opinion.


  22. Hey Mo –

    It’s kleenejess, and since I’m just filling myself in on this push/pull thing, can you give some concrete examples from the gender lines thread? I understand what you’re trying to say in terms of “listen to how things are being said,” but I’m not sure I yet follow what you mean.



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