Day 2127 – Day 2133
If you are not currently getting into debates with people, you probably are in a coma. As we open up our countries from a prolonged lockdown, there are all sorts of opinions of how to properly be out in public. Add to that the issue of the existence or non-existence of systemic racism, throw in a pinch of national xenophobia over border closure in pandemic times, and a climate of political discourse that precedes any American election, and BAM! we’ve got ourselves a nice little Molotov cocktail of disharmony.
This week I got embroiled in a discussion with someone I care about, who happens to be in the public eye. Everyone who tried to engage with him, and caution him about his involvement with something that many deem to be shady, was trying to be helpful. I dipped a toe into the pool and before I knew it, I was head first in the shallow end.
What I got was gaslighting, denial, deflection, dismissal and defensiveness. Okay, okay, I was arguing ethics and as a Minister, I am passionate about morality and ethics. Anyone arguing ethics can come across as condescending and bossy. I’m sure that I did. I was probably judgemental even though I was trying to reserve or at least – let’s be honest – conceal my judgement. I made assumptions. Yeah, I am not perfect. What I can say is that I tried to be kind, and to come from a position of caring concern, but I made a rookie error. I didn’t engage him. I never asked him a question. I just threw statements at him and there is nothing to do with a statement but agree with it or refute it. It encourages lines in the sand.
When hot-headed passion meets hard-headed defensiveness, that’s not going to produce anything good.
A friend of mine, who is one of the most intelligent men and most effective negotiators I’ve ever known, recently posted some advice to his friends who are engaging in BLM discussions. One thing he advised people was to always make sure they are laughing when they respond to egregious comments. If it doesn’t lighten the mood, it will at least keep you from sinking into hopelessness or exhaustion.
I was exhausted. We laughed once but we both have a good sense of humour and in retrospect, we should have gone for more levity.
Why didn’t I ask questions to engage him? To be honest, I didn’t like the way he spoke to me. I may have come across aggressive. He got defensive. In his defensiveness, he gaslighted everyone who had raised the red flag and called us, essentially, liars. My buttons got pushed and I machine-gunned him with statements. I know better! But my point is that when we are passionate, it is so easy to let the worst come out in ourselves.
It didn’t go well, but I’m grateful that I spoke up. I have felt like I’ve been watching a slow-motion car crash. I’m grateful that I tried to divert the car from crashing, but if someone is hell-bent on driving a 12-foot truck under an 8-foot bridge, there is nothing you can do. And, it’s not our job to get in the way of karma. All in all, it didn’t feel good, but I’m grateful that we at least had one moment of laughter. And finally, I’m grateful to be able to discern where I failed in my approach. Yes, maybe the guy is a jerk and nothing I did differently would have helped us to have an emotionally mature disagreement. I don’t believe that of him and I do believe there is always more we can do to improve our communication. Even when we try to come from love, we can fail.
For the benefit of those who may be embroiled in passionately heated arguments right now, I offer you what I’ve learned from my own failures, this week.
Five Ways to Have Healthier Disagreements
1. Convey that you are not here to fight. Never raise your voice, use affirming word choices, and if you are offering a criticism of someone’s actions, do so indirectly so that it gives them some solid ground on which to stand. Even the phrase: ‘I don’t want to fight, I’m here to help’ may be useful, but sometimes, nothing works and you’ve got to diffuse the argument.
2. Ask questions instead of making statements. This effectively engages the person in a conversation rather than creating a situation where everyone will dig in their heels and lob rocks at one another. When asking those questions, really seek to listen and to understand. It is the beginning of the process of helping someone feel heard.
3. Take a breath and listen. Taking a breath can stop us from saying those things we can’t take back. Pause. And then listen. Actually listen to what is being said and to what is being conveyed, non-verbally. There is magic in being heard. Listening does not mean we are relinquishing power. When we give space to someone to be heard, we are actually holding that space and it is we who are empowered. When we have finished listening, we can then mirror back what we have heard. Being heard is the most miraculous heart softener there is. Once someone feels heard, and understood, they are always more open to persuasion.
4. Exercise empathy, humour and seek areas of agreement. There is always something we have in common and if we can find common ground and loosen up our positions a little bit, we both can become more willing to be persuaded. One of the easiest ways to loosen up our positions is to use humour. That doesn’t mean laugh at one another and ourselves and then go home. It means laugh at one another and ourselves and then get back to talking, with empathy, about the topic at hand, but from a more agreeable space. If all else fails, put yourself in the other person’s shoes and try to see it from their perspective.
5. Pick your battles and recognise when to quit. We are not the rulers of the world and we are not here to control the actions or change the thinking of everyone we meet. Why waste time, emotional and spiritual energy on petty matters? By the same token, as members of society, we must speak up when to do so could result in the prevention of harm to another. Even our best intentions sometimes can be ineffective and we must learn to recognise intransigence and conserve our energy. When someone takes a position and digs in, it is very difficult to move them out of their trench. Trench warfare has never resulted in anything but a great deal of loss of life.
Stop, because any caged animal will attack.
Stop. If we’ve failed in any of our skills of persuasion, it is a good time to review the conversation and see how we could have been more effective. Perhaps there will be a better time to re-open the discussion. And perhaps there will not, but – again – it is not our responsibility to change the minds of everyone in the world. Let it be. We never know what impact our conversation may have, over time.
I am sure there will be plenty of opportunities for all of us to practice our skills in the coming days. And even if we feel we must fight the good fight, it is alright to take a break. Exhaustion is as good as defeat. If you find these suggestions difficult to implement, you are not alone. I have a lot of work to do on this.
But, if we are going to bring about the world we want, then we can, and we must learn to have healthier disagreements.