Social Diplomacy, Part 8: Vulnerability and Venting

  • Find places to be vulnerable and vent safely

When we’re really trying to step up and be our brightest and most powerful, we’re going to experience resistance. Parts of me love being bold and visible, and parts that absolutely hate it. While I continue to learn to be more outgoing and friendly in my public, there are days when I need to sit at home and read a book or play video games and not talk to people.

I like being kind and understanding others, but some days I feel cranky, sad, or despondent about the state of the world. I’m less gracious and forgiving of my own and other people’s stumbling. My old patterns of acting like a superior know-it-all threaten to step out. At times the cultural conditioning that I work against slip through, and I find myself saying something offensive and oppressive. All of these skills and perspectives I discuss in this series are in danger of going out the window, subtly or overtly.

Image of an owl who appears caught by a human hand.
Image of an owl who appears caught by a human hand. Photo by Zachary Bedrosian.

The thing about personal power is that we can offer both grace and accountability to these slippages. I take responsibility. I said or did something that goes against the person I want to be. I hurt someone and will make amends. I must also look at what lead up to that moment and sense what I needed that could have helped me to be my best self.

When we’ve been disrespected, pushed against the wall, given one too many excuses, or once again we’re getting criticism when we asked for help—that’s a time to step back and go to trusted allies. Those parts of us that are hurt and angry need time to speak and get their feelings out so we can go back into the situation in integrity.

In her classic book on behavioral psychology, Don’t Shoot the Dog, Karen Pryor discusses the phenomenon of tantrums that occur during training. When animals are struggling to learn a new skill, and not quite getting it, they will sometimes engage in erratic and frustrated behavior that looks to us like a tantrum. After clearing the anger, however, the animal is soon able to take on the skill. It might be that this is necessary for learning—my suspicion is that the anger both clears out long-building frustration around failure, as well as pushing our nervous systems to make the new connections.

For our purposes, we simply need to accept that our feelings exist, and matter, and sometimes we need places to indulge them so we can hear the deeper needs. We might need to let ourselves be sarcastic and say the awful thing, but in private, with people who know us and who will let us vent and then set us back on track. Otherwise we risk saying these things in public, with greater potential consequences. This is why people in marginalized communities need spaces for themselves, free of people from the dominant culture.

One of the problems of online discourse is that it blurs the boundaries between public and private. People might think that commenting on a friend’s blog or a locked Facebook post is an appropriately private place to do this venting, but this creates its own problems. We’re not always mindful about who can see our online posts, and we may think we’re talking to a small group of people who “get it” only to learn that folks are seeing our words without knowing the larger context. We look like assholes, instead of people venting during a difficult situation.

Less loyal “friends,” moreover, can easily screenshot these conversations and send them to the people from whom we were trying to keep these feelings. Email, as we increasingly know, is a similarly private communication that is no longer so private. Some might be willing to leverage these moments of rupture to cause damage and discredit enemies. Those of us who strive to be diplomatic need to be mindful when and where we do our necessary venting.

Diplomacy is not an easy road, and sometimes quite lonely. We bond with others through shared outrage and enmity against another group, yet it is the kind of bonding that is facile and requires regular feedings of anger and provocation. Diplomacy is a path of integrity, contemplation, and bridge-building. It is not for everyone, but I honor those who step into that role or try on some of these approaches in their communities.

Social Diplomacy, Part 7: Find a Position of Strength

  • Find a position of strength

Without strength, diplomacy is not much different than being a doormat. We end up placating people for the sake of placation, of a false peace that does not adequately address underlying problems. It’s the facile “I just want everyone to get along” instead of “I want there to be justice.” 

Great leaders and reformers embrace displays of power to put their goals on the agenda and push them forward. Laborers engage in strikes to demonstrate their power and compel their employers to take their demands seriously. Civil Rights activists and anti-slavery abolitionists used every means at their disposal to protect the oppressed and demonstrate strength. Even Martin Luther King Jr., who is held up in mainstream culture for his nonviolent approach, said: “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

Image of a stag in a forest.
Image of a stag in a forest. Photo b Teddy Kelley.

We need a willingness to stand tall and face the issues clearly and with power. We need to know our strength. Nonviolent protestors in the Civil Rights Movement practiced direct action and emotional self-control, as in they literally subjected themselves to emotionally stressful practice drills so that they were prepared to face the violence of the State. Their actions confronted the State with its injustice and compelled appallingly violent responses that engendered outrage and coverage which supported their causes. There was nothing passive about this. 

I have seen people and organizations in positions of leadership, or people of the majority population, respond to challenges with complaining, defensiveness, and attitudes of victimization. The examples are almost too many to mention, but generally any time someone uses the phrase, “PC culture run amok,” that is an excellent opportunity to question this dynamic. What established structures of power and dominance have been challenged? Who is challenging them? How do those structures hurt the marginalized culture, and how does challenging them hurt the dominant culture?

On a personal level, the complaining, defensiveness, and victimization make sense. Few of us experience ourselves as numb to criticism. Privileged folks in general do not understand what it’s like not to have their privilege. As an analogy, I worked as a barista for about four years. Sometimes during the course of a work day I spilled water upwards of 200 degrees Fahrenheit on my skin. Toward the end of my tenure, I was able to respond quickly, shake off the pain of it, and keep doing my job. My skin had toughened and my nerves dulled. My skin had become inured to the pain. Now that I have the privilege of working a job that’s not manual labor, in which I am not regularly subjected to these minor trauma, I would be more sensitive and reactive.

Privileged and powerful people feel sensitive, hurt, and outraged because we do not experience ourselves as powerful. Oddly enough, however, we project our hurt and outrage onto the challenging person and say they’re the one who’s being “too sensitive” since their criticism upsets us. On the most cynical level, it is an effort to co-opt the experienced of the oppressed to shore up one’s place. Either way, it is generally counterproductive and disrespectful to all involved.

We all have potential for strength and power, particularly when joined in community. It is worth taking stock of your assets, strengths, and allies. What are you good at? Speaking up, identifying problems, building relationships? What is something that you consider a weakness that you’d like to develop? What practices could strengthen that weakness? How is that weakness useful at times? Who’s in your corner? Who would provide you direct and trustworthy feedback? What practices do you have to care for yourself? What resources do you need?

To bolster our strength, we also need safe spaces to feel vulnerable and vent our frustrations. This will be the topic of the next post.

Social Diplomacy, Part 6: Curiosity, Dignity, and Respect

  • Treating people with curiosity, dignity, and respect

On the Internet, some folks behave as though acting tough, forceful, snarky, and condescending is an effective tactic for changing someone’s perspective. Like shame and alienation, these are tools with potent, toxic, and limited effects. Applied skillfully, they have some efficacy. Often they simply communicate disrespect and dismissiveness, which fosters bad will.

Here’s a big idea that I am not the first person to suggest: we respond well when others treat us with dignity and respect. This extends to being regarded as a person who is capable of making informed choices, who has a valid perspective arrived at thoughtfully, and who is capable of being held accountable. Each of these are double-sided: We have a valid perspective, in that we all perceive a piece of truth; that does not mean our understanding of the truth is absolutely correct. We are equal parts right as well as misguided, poorly informed, or outright wrong.

If you and I have radically different understandings of a subject, it is likely that each of our perspectives make sense from our unique positions and experiences of the world, but that does not mean one perspective is truth. It is as much capable of being wrong as being right. Being held accountable means no one is above criticism or scrutiny; you can question my words and behavior when they seem incongruous with my stated beliefs.

What challenges communication is when you attack my character for that incongruity, or condescend to me as though I’m too stupid to understand my incongruity. We all have blind spots. A loving community brings attention to those blind spots with concern, caring, and dignity. They make an effort to understand my unique position and experience of the world, where my choices and my behavior make sense. That doesn’t mean they agree with it or coddle it.

When my choices and behaviors are causing harm or running counter to what I say I want, a diplomatic step would be to approach me with an attitude of good faith. Speak to me as though I am doing my best to live according to my values. Point out the difference between my words and actions with curiosity. “You say you love women, but you are leaving misogynistic comments on that woman’s blog. How does that line up for you?” by Patrick Tomasso.

This approach takes people at their word and invites them to step into their best selves. What aids this is taking the “one-down” position, the willingness to express confusion and curiosity which is, again, a position of good faith. It suggests that I believe you are actually doing your best to live in line with your values and one of us is making a mistake. Even if I believe you’re the one making the mistake.

This empowers us to point out moments of incongruity, conflict, and confusion without heavily shaming or attacking the character of the other person. It comes from a willingness to be wrong. Perhaps if we understood their position better, we’d realize that it was our confusion. If their answers, however, fail to make sense; dismiss the incongruity; misdirect; respond defensively; or outright become aggressive and hostile toward us; then they are behaving in bad faith and we may respond appropriately.

I think of this as “inviting you to step into your best self” because at this stage it doesn’t matter what either of us think about your motivations. You might be behaving in a shady way, or I might think you are, but I am giving you an opportunity to either rectify that or prove to me how my perception is wrong. If you decide to act in your best self, that is a winning scenario for both us.

Some folks might have a problem with this, pointing out that people behaving well in the short-term due to pressure is not the same as getting them to align with a greater principle. We can’t “trust” them to be well behaved from now on. That’s not untrue. My older sister has taught me much about politics, though our values and political leanings differ these days. She came home from college and got me to read Machiavelli’s The Prince as well as his less well-known writings that are pro-democracy. She once told me that politics was about getting people to do “the right thing for the wrong reasons.”

I approach the world with what I think of as a cynical optimism, that we all have aspirational values of which we fall short. We need community to support us in staying consistent. This is why transparency and oversight matter. When what we believe and what we see don’t line up, we find ways to rectify, justify, or dismiss the difference. When held accountable, when seen, when scrutinized, we can no longer afford to repair the cognitive dissonance. We must alter our behavior to align with our beliefs, or our beliefs to align with our behavior. Either way, we become more congruent.

Taking the one-down position of curiosity is dangerous, as sometimes I can be so gentle or mild that the challenge is lost. The other person either thinks they can ignore me, or doesn’t see the confrontation. Even in a diplomatic position, I want to examine the situation with both eyes, both ears, both of whatever I have available: the part of me that sees the best in others, and the part of me that sees the worst. Diplomacy requires strength as much as curiosity, which is the subject of the next post.

Social Diplomacy, Part 5: Difference and Commonality

  • Respecting differences, and identifying underlying shared values

One interesting way to examine polarization—people defining themselves as enemies to each other—is to look at the underlying similarities. Opposites exist in relationship to each other, and have some kind of connecting similarity. For example, what is the opposite of a dog? If I said “the sky,” you would likely disagree. It feels wrong. Several people might have their own opposites for a dog but I suspect most people’s opposite is also a pet, probably a mammal, and most likely a cat.

In a polarizing conversation, we tend to want to find ways to sharply differentiate our position or “side” from the other. Sometimes that means giving up territory that hurts our case in the long run, makes us vulnerable to critique and is actually inaccurate or incomplete. This is what happens when we get more caught up in what we’re against than what we’re for.

Image of a snow fox surrounded by snow.
Image of a snow fox surrounded by snow. Photo by Jonatan Pie.

For example, if your side advocates for the imprisonment of puppies and the giving of free ice cream to children on Sundays, I might in my rage declare all puppies should be free and children shouldn’t get free ice cream. I actually don’t have a problem with the ice cream, I simply have a hard time agreeing with someone who would imprison puppies so wantonly. The problem is, the other side gets to point out how awful I am for denying ice cream to children, and how dare I put puppies ahead of human beings?

This tendency contributes to making excuses for bad behavior on the part of people on our “side,” which further weakens our position and harms personal integrity. We might point to the problematic teachings of one religion and make excuses for the problematic teachings of our own. Another facet of this is when people feel discouraged by being stereotyped and let themselves be seduced into acting out, thinking,“If you believe I’m that way, then I might as well be that way.”

Ceding values and strengths to define ourselves more sharply in opposition interferes with any ability to work together. Authentic differences in opinion and approach, however, are important and should not be erased. We grow from sharing a diversity of perspectives and finding workable agreements. To some extent, we need strong voices to move our communities in a particular direction. Where we go awry is when we lose patience with being in relationship to the other “side.”

An example: when discussing mass incarceration and policing, we have strong voices pushing for complete abolition of the prison system and police, as well as strong voices advocating for the consolidation and strengthening of those systems. When I am talking with someone on the other side of the issue, it feels important to recognize when we have underlying shared dreams: one possibility might be peaceful communities in which people can live and work without violence. From that perspective, I can explain why I think mass incarceration and “Broken Windows” policing undermines the goal of healthy communities, and why instead investing in the strengthening and autonomy of communities of color promotes that goal.

Even when we do not share values, it builds good faith to make an effort to understand why the other side thinks and feels as they do. This does not require agreeing with them, simply acknowledging that their choices make sense given their perspective and experience. It is about treating people with dignity and respect, which is the topic of the next post.

Social Diplomacy, Part 4: Identifying What Matters

  • Identifying what matters

Diplomacy requires we know what we value, what I am trying to bring about in the world: deep values like Justice, Equality, Liberty, or Respect. In the larger sense, these values are always aspirational—they point in a direction but they are rarely a destination at which we’ve arrived. Having a clear sense of values helps guide my thinking and behaviors. I can name what’s not working for me and suggest a direction I think would work better.

What’s useful about knowing my values is that it keeps me in balanced relationship to my “side.” Knowing my values is also to some extent recognizing my “side,” my home team, my people. The traditional role of a diplomat is one who crosses boundaries to help a relationship between two larger groups, particularly to represent their home group’s interests in that relationship.

Image of a bird, white with black spots. Image by Giovanni Calia.
Image of a bird, white with black spots. Image by Giovanni Calia.

With that, however, the diplomat comes to know and understand everyone else’s perspective and appreciates the reality that no one can get everything they want. They also begin to see how the other “side’s” arguments and criticisms of the home group make sense from their position.

Nationalistic or tribalistic attitudes resist this kind of diplomacy. They want to split groups into all-good and all-bad, and the home group is “naturally” the all-good one. Warhawks on each side would rather push for conflict and dominance and not engage in the compromise and mutual understanding that is the diplomat’s turf.

I find that becoming defensive or overly protective of problematic behavior interferes with effective conversation. It becomes clear I’m less interested in a solution and more interested in promoting my “side”. None of us are free of problematic behavior or exempt from criticism, though some of us have more power and potential to cause damage with our problematic behavior.

Knowing what matters also helps me to focus. In any discussion there are so many issues that arise and opportunities for bad behavior that it’s easy for issues to become wholly derailed, or lost in a sea of problems. In any confrontation, we need to be focused yet flexible, able to honor the complexity while also staying centered around the particular value that matters most. It’s rare that I will change someone’s mind in one conversation, so I might consider the most important task to be stating my case effectively, listening to and addressing arguments, and then walking away so we can all think about it. Other times, I need a specific change to happen and I’m not going to leave until I’ve gained ground on it. 

What I value about diplomacy is stepping out of the need for one side to be right and the other wrong and instead building workable connections. With this value, I am willing to listen to other “sides” and attempt to understand what’s valuable about their perspective. I do not have to wholly agree with their viewpoints, but if I can find something of value in their perspective then I have an opportunity for connection and transformative conversation. I will discuss the promises and pitfalls of this further in the next post.

Social Diplomacy, Part 3: Inviting Us into Our Best Selves

  • Recognizing that we want to be seen as our best selves

Image of a boy surrounded by bubbles, either running or playing in front of a house.
Image of a boy surrounded by bubbles, either running or playing in front of a house. Photo by David Schap.

My approach to diplomacy draws upon the concept of self-evaluation motives, the premise of which is that people are motivated to have a positive self-concept and seek to have that self-concept validated in their relationships with others. In other words, we want to be seen as our best selves. And we are not always our best selves. In my observation, every person I’ve met has contained complex and contradictory, sometimes opposing, parts, impulses, or desires. We contain multitudes, to paraphrase Walt Whitman, and in those multitudes are a host of parts that are not always helpful. 

Most of us are, at one time or another, hypocrites. We say or believe we want to be one way, but we are not always that way. We might let ourselves get away with behavior we would not tolerate in others. There are things we consider “wrong” that we insist we would never, ever do, completely blind to the fact that we’re doing them. Or, we’re hoping no one will notice that we’re doing them. This is a human problem, but it is not an excuse. It is the irritation that spurs us toward greater integrity. We can make our beliefs and our behavior more and more aligned, but it requires practice, patience, contemplation, and openness to feedback.

When another person notices that our words and actions don’t line up, we may respond defensively. When someone points out a quality that we don’t like about ourselves, we often respond defensively. It’s easy to experience shame and humiliation when someone sees and names these contradictions. Even the most gentle, loving call-in may stir Shame Dragon.

When the Shame Dragon stirs in me, I’m not very open to growth or positive feedback. I don’t sit in the moment, thoughtfully reflecting on the lesson you are offering—not without a lot of deep breathing and emotional self-care. (Also: writing and deleting several drafts of comments on Internet arguments.) Even if you are 100% correct and I recognize this, I need time to soothe my shame before I can fully take in what you’re saying and make effective changes.

Typical unproductive responses to the rousing of the Shame Dragon include:

  • Denying the contradiction or wrong
  • Emotional shut down
  • Responding with toxic insults
  • Walling off with excessive and fake politeness
  • Breaking down into excessive apologizing or self-abasement until the other person backs down or says it’s okay

The person who is lashing out because the Shame Dragon scours their inner landscape has work to do. In a confrontation, it’s not our job to soothe their feelings, but diplomacy offers tools to deal with contradictions and hypocrisy that help us reduce the intensity of these responses. It comes back to acting in good faith and inviting people to their best selves, addressing problematic behavior as though it was an unrecognized mistake or failing from someone who aspires to be better.

From this position, we can invite people to recognize their behavior and return to their best selves while allowing them to save face. We’ve already begun discussing these strategies by talking about the problem instead of the person. More will be the subject of future posts.

Social Diplomacy, Part 2: Depersonalizing Problems

  • Talking about problems rather than people

To be clear: when discussing political, group, or interpersonal problems, we are always talking about people. What helps is to discuss problems in ways that are not personal.

I’ve heard people savvy in mental health language claim they can identify people with personality disorders, and I am cautious about this. Many of us have personality features that at times resemble disorders, particularly in times of great and unusual distress.

Image of a beachfront town. There appear to be geometric patterns on the beach due to the arrangement of what may be tables and umbrellas. I
Image of a beachfront town. There appear to be geometric patterns on the beach due to the arrangement of what may be tables and umbrellas. Image by Max Boettinger.

My preference is to focus on the impact of behavior, problematic patterns, and systemic issues; giving others the opportunity to stand in good faith and rise to their best selves. If they do not do so, or they do so and later prove they were acting in bad faith, then that is the end of my diplomatic dealings with them. I’m not going to spend my personal time trying to fix or coerce people into constructive behavior.

To break the focus down:

  • Impact of Behavior
    • Rather than accusing you of ill intent, I let you know how I or the community experience your behavior. “When you promise to be kind to me but then make fun of me in front of your friends, I feel hurt and unsafe. I have a harder time trusting your promises.”
    • One of the strengths of this position is that there’s nothing to argue with. I’m not saying you’re a liar. I’m saying if you want me to trust you, this behavior is getting in the way of your goal. It takes the judgment and accusation out while letting everyone involved take responsibility for their experience.
    • This position is necessarily vulnerable and requires some authenticity. The other person might take this opportunity to explode or gaslight. That is a good sign that they’re not acting in good faith. However, if I myself am not acting in good faith, the other person might be responding to that.
  • Problematic Patterns
    • In a systems approach, problems are not caused by one person but arise in relationships in which each participates.
    • Framing a problem in this way empowers all involved to consider how their behavior contributes to the problem, particularly one that keeps recurring. This is particularly useful in intimate relationships and groups.
    • In groups where there’s always one person causing trouble, it’s easy for people to think getting rid of that person is the solution, only to find that someone else takes that person’s place. If that happens, then the problem is systemic.
  • Systemic Issues
    • This takes us into larger contexts than the impersonal, and reminds us to look at dimensions of power, privilege, access, and environment.
    • When I have a problem with my boss, I am always aware that they have more power and influence than I do; whereas my boss might not be, and might think we are having a conversation between equals. 
    • In some ways, we are equal because we’re human. In other ways, we are not equal because we have unequal influence. I find it helpful to name this.

None of these are meant to be excuses or replacements for holding people accountable; rather they are ways of bringing accountability while offering the person an opportunity to save face and rise to their best selves. Too often we attack people’s character and put them in verbal boxes, we offer our criticism as a prison. “You’re a jerk and you never care about my feelings” is a trap, it freezes that person in a role and there’s nothing they can do to get out of it. “I felt hurt when you said that in front of my mother” is feedback that gives the person options to make amends or avoid further problems.

My approach to diplomacy comes from the belief that most of us crave to be seen as our best selves, though we all struggle to be that. I’ve seen people respond well when I frame issues in non-personal ways and invite them to step into their best selves. This topic will be explored further in the next post.

All posts in this series:

Social Diplomacy, Part 1: Conflict with Connection

A while back, I wrote a post about how much we need the art of civil discourse. Since then, I’ve heard more about the need for this kind of approach to dialogue and conflict in a world that feels increasingly fractious and polarized. We know we need to have hard conversations but struggle to do so with diplomacy and tact. No single blog is going to turn the tide, but for the next several weeks I am offering posts with the premises and practices that help me in navigating conflict.

According to Merriam Webster, diplomacy is “skill in dealing with others without causing bad feelings”. A synonym for this is “tact.” Diplomacy is not about conflict avoidance or being a doormat. Indeed, diplomats stand for something, rooted in loyalty to a core set of values or a community; they are simply willing to extend themselves in dialogue and effort across lines of conflict. Diplomacy enables us to meet hard truths and advocate for change in ways that include, that call people into the process. Diplomacy is a set of practices as much as it is a path. We are all capable of developing these capacities.

Image of a person from behind wearing a metal crown and a red cape with furry white fringe. The person is facing a backdrop of trees.
Image of a person from behind wearing a metal crown and a red cape with furry white fringe. The person is facing a backdrop of trees. Photo by Pawel Furman

What we seem to default to, however, are shame and alienation. When someone does something wrong, it’s too easy to pile on, call out, shame, and chase people out of our social circles. Everyone who’s left behind feels momentarily satisfied, having been an “us” against a different “them,” but then all live under the threat of being the next person to step out of line. There are times when people’s behavior is toxic, disruptive, and intractable and the community must be unflinching in its rejection or face dissolution. I do believe, however, that we can become so guarded and protective that we assume bad faith too quickly. I have also noticed that toxic and disruptive people become adept at using shame and alienation against others.

Diplomacy offers us a set of practices to invite in more good faith in our interactions. “Good faith” is the assumption of honesty and sincerity. Whether we think someone is coming to us in good faith or bad faith tremendously changes the way we experience another person’s behavior. If you behave in a way that feels disrespectful, but I believe you are acting in good faith, it is easier for me to manage my reactivity and let you know how your behavior affected me. I assume that you do not want to hurt me and did so on accident. Good faith elicits harmony, respect, and coöperation. If I believe you are acting in bad faith, I am going to wall off at the first sign of disrespect. Maybe I’ll explode at you with a barrage of insults and shame, or maybe I’ll behave in a completely friendly and civil way to your face but go around to all of our friends talking badly about you. Bad faith fosters division, discord, and distrust.

The next few weeks will feature posts on principles and practices that I find helpful in developing diplomacy. These include:

Where I come from: I am a cisgender White gay man who is able-bodied. I have a history of painful shyness and conflict avoidance, yet I’ve often been inspired by the great reformers. People who stand for justice and change in ways that pushed societies to transform, although there is always more work to do. I’ve worked hard to become more conscious of issues of power and injustice in my communities, and I continue to push myself to engage the hard conversations. I do not believe unfriending someone on Facebook is an act of courageous activism, though sometimes it’s what I need to do.

And I’ve messed up and embarrassed myself. I’m not being self-deprecating. I’ve said and done things for which I now feel regret, and I’ve been called out for it. I’ve responded to call-outs with defensiveness and self-justifications, making matters worse. I’ve confronted the limitations and consequences of my privilege. I am not “done.” I will say embarrassing things in the future. I will say things that are worthy of critique. I will likely respond at times with defensiveness, but hopefully less and less often, with less damage.

Some Thoughts on Civil Discourse

In my communities, and it seems in my country, I have watched increasing polarization and the lines of demarcation run sometimes very close to home. When conversations become polarized, it becomes very easy to forget that you are talking to a human being like yourself and instead imagine yourself fighting a righteous battle against an insidious, cunning, super-human villainous horde. As the climate escalates, it becomes more tempting and “justifiable” to let go of emotional containment, reflection, and dialogue with the desire to understand. Parts of us get activated by the conflict, begin to feed it and feed upon it.

A reptilian creature poking its head up from the water. Both the reptile and the water are covered in tiny green leaves.
This guy’s laying low until the argument dies down. Photo by delfi de la Rua.

As an outside observer listening to a lot of arguments (like a therapist who works with couples, or someone who reads the comment sections on the Internet), and a person who has participated in several arguments (and later wondered “Why was I so mad about that?”), I’ve noticed a few things:

  • 20% of conflict is about the thing you are discussing, and 80% is about the emotional experience of the relationship.*
  • If you are accusing another (person/group) of bad behavior, the likelihood is that (you/your group) have participated in behavior that the other (person/group) perceives as similar.**
  • When you are the person accusing the other of behavior you’re engaging in, it is very hard to stop and admit this.
  • At times both parties will make parallel arguments and accusations of each other, but each will focus on a different facet. To offer an oversimplified example: Republicans and Democrats both share Liberty as a value, because America. Democrats point toward socially liberal attitudes as pro-liberty, and accuse Republicans of being anti-liberty for socially conservative policies. Republicans focus on economic and financial liberty and point toward reduced taxes and free markets as pro-liberty, and criticize Democrats as anti-liberty for taxation and regulation.***

We need the art and discipline of civil discourse. It is worth reading and rereading about logical fallacies, as they characterize the worst habits of rhetoric. What I want to focus on is what to do when things get heated. My observation is that escalating emotional reactivity occurs when we feel misunderstood, disrespected, or dismissed.

Think about a time when you felt misunderstood, disrespected, or dismissed. How did you respond? Did you stay in the conversation? Did you stay civil and rational? Did you say something you later regretted?

Think about a conversation where you felt understood, heard, and treated with respect. What was different about the experience?

We’re social beings and we are constantly seeking to be understood. Unfortunately, at least in the United States, the dominant cultural norm is to treat other people’s emotional responses as manipulative, irritating, or a sign of weakness. (Whereas our own emotional responses are always completely correct and justified.) It is when we dismiss, ignore, or patronize other’s feelings that they tend to become more intense and reactive. We do it to ourselves, too. But when it happens in relationship, we can give ourselves the plausible deniability that the other person “lost it for no reason.”

Defensiveness is a great example. We understandably become defensive when we feel attacked, but from the outside it usually looks like we’re attacking, which makes the other participants become defensive. Defensiveness shuts down effective communication and leaves everyone feeling guarded and hurt.

This makes for bad communication. By which I mean, we actually make it harder on ourselves to be understood when we dismiss and belittle others’ feelings. Instead of listening, that person’s mental and emotional energy goes toward managing their reaction. I find this to be true even for those who seem calm and collected. They might have developed some effective skill and flexibility in coping with their reactions, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have them.

But you have power to improve communication when things get heated! Even the smallest effort to show consideration and understanding goes a long way to lower the reactivity in a conversation. I’m not making this up. The Gottmans have spent years researching relationships in conflict and they have identified some simple, effective, and difficult practices to improve communications.

I want to offer some phrases to help you think of ways to try this out. When you read these, you might find these too simple, but I think we need simple, easy go-tos when we begin to get emotionally reactive:

  • “I see your point.” Or, better, try to accurately summarize their points. If they correct you, accept their correction.
  • “I can appreciate why you’d feel that way.” Here, you are not agreeing that the other person’s version of reality is completely accurate and yours is wrong. You are acknowledging that their response makes sense based on where they are coming from—their background, their beliefs, their position in the discussion.
  • “What do you mean by this?” In this moment, you have just caught yourself about to launch into a defensive counterattack and asked yourself, “Am I hearing them correctly?”
  • “I am feeling [a feeling] when you say that.” This is about sharing your subjective experience and helping them to understand the impact of their words and actions on you. It’s not about accusing the other person of making you feel that way.
  • “…” This phrase is the long pause you make when you are about to accuse someone of behaving poorly and stop to reflect on whether there has been a time in which they might have felt that you’ve acted this way toward them.

You may be so polarized that you feel reluctant to step back from the hard, accusing stance. There is vulnerability in seeking understanding, particularly if the other parties do not offer it in return. It is also true that making this effort will not always result in increased safety and respect, but I believe that a great way of finding out if someone is willing to act in good faith is to give them the opportunity to do so. If you earnestly try this and find that it is met with disrespect and hostility, then of course figure out what you need to do for self-protection.

I have seen tremendous changes occur when all parties in a dialogue commit to this kind of conversation, particularly when a neutral party supports the process by holding both sides accountable to it. I aspire to the wisdom of Sun Tzu, to whom is attributed the statement: “The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.” This quote speaks to me of conflicts avoided, relationships not destroyed, friendships sustained, all because of a willingness to address and resolve conflict before it escalates into war.


*Source: I made this percentage up.

**I have mixed feelings about the way I’ve phrased this bullet point as it lacks nuance with regard to conversations between people in different states of privilege and oppression. For example, some people argue that the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Panthers are equivalent because they are nationalist groups based in racial identity. I fully disagree, as the Ku Klux Klan emerged to preserve white supremacy and the Black Panthers emerged to address the harms white supremacy does to Black people. The problem I am trying to speak to is that we get locked into defending ourselves and our groups at all costs, and unwillingness to acknowledge that the other party has ever been hurt or we have ever acted poorly interferes with finding resolution. For lack of certainty about how best to rewrite these statements, I want to emphasize that this is a perceived subjective equivalence.

**What’s interesting to think about with regard to the difference in where each group prizes Liberty is that they are also arguing about the shadow virtue of Restraint. Unfettered Liberty is not conducive to a group identity and somewhat implicitly at odds with any kind of centralized government, so Liberty must be balanced with Restraint (or, more negatively, Control). You could look at the argument as a difference in belief about where Liberty and Restraint should occur. Social conservatives say people should be free to spend their resources as they wish, but should also participate in monogamous sexual marriages and be financially responsible for their families. Social liberals say people should be free to live their lives as they wish, but should also be involved in an equitable distribution of resources so that all may be financially supported. Since Restraint is not a well-loved virtue, however, it is politically more effective to focus on where one is pro-Liberty. I think this is worth thinking about in any polarized argument. What virtues do the arguing parties share overtly and covertly, and where do they disagree about the implementation of these virtues?