Yesterday, my grandson, Tommy, asked his mom (our daughter Christine) if later that day, he could watch a TV show that was probably more suited to his older brother than it was to him. Undecided, Christine replied, “Maybe,” and returned to making lasagna. A few minutes passed before Christine felt a pull on her sleeve—it was Tommy. Smiling brightly, he made the same request. Not having decided yet, Christine gave him the same vague reply. Sure enough, a few minutes later Christine felt another tug and Tommy asked the identical question. Once again, refusing to be hurried in her decision, Christine uttered, “Maybe,” and got back to the lasagna.
To appreciate what happened next, it helps to know a little about Tommy. He’s a bit of a social savant. I’m speaking from a grandfather’s biased perspective, so perhaps a couple of examples will lend credence to my conclusion that Tommy just might be interpersonally advanced. For instance, when my wife and I knocked at Christine’s front door one day, Tommy opened it a few inches, peered out at us, and said, “We’ve already got grandparents here!” (His other grand folks were in town from California for a short visit.) Then he quickly closed the door. After a short pause, the door flew open, and Tommy said with a huge grin, “Just kidding!”
That’s a pretty sophisticated one-liner for a five-year-old. A year before that, when his mother saw him playing quietly with his toys, she spontaneously said, “I love you Tommy.” He replied, “I know, Mommy,” and then after a brief pause added, “but you can keep telling me.” Once again, pretty advanced for a four-year-old.
Returning to the TV-show incident, Tommy (now seven years old and growing more socially adept with each breath) made one more request. After having been told “Maybe” for the fourth time, he looked up at his mother and said, “You know what I’m listening for, Mom? I’m listening for a yes or no.”
Think about what this response entailed. Tommy had figured out that most of the time he was told maybe, it meant go away and forget about it. It was an unspoken no. In his mind, it was an unfair tactic. At some level, he also realized that if he was going to be told no, he wanted to hear it so he could talk about why and maybe eventually win his way. So Tommy stopped the “maybe-go-round” and instructed his mom how to best decide on the TV show by giving him a workable yes or no.
Stopping the flow of a conversation and telling the other person what is and isn’t working for you is both helpful and rare. Quite rare. When caught in the throes of a high-stakes conversation where emotions kick in, most people resort to any of several forms of silence or violence. Instead of doing their best to ensure that everyone’s ideas are freely added to a pool of shared meaning, as tension builds, people attack others’ ideas, defend their own, withhold valuable information, and end up making poor decisions. In contrast, the more people openly share and consider everyone’s input, the more likely they are to make informed choices that benefit all concerned.
Sadly, when humans find their conversation slipping into silence or violence, they aren’t genetically programmed to stop the discussion, provide feedback, and then move to healthy dialogue. Instead, people are hard-wired to look for and respond to an attack from unfriendly beasts. For thousands of generations, Homo sapiens who lived to pass on their genes to the next generation have done so by assuming the worst of a situation and preparing for an attack. That way, they’re positioned to fight back and survive. If they don’t fall under attack, well, better safe than sorry. This explains why it’s common for a simple conversation to turn into a debate, a debate into an argument, and an argument into a verbal brawl. We’re hardwired to take it there.
However, since humans aren’t fighting slavering beasts all that much anymore, what if in the middle of all of this escalating violence someone were to stop and do three things? One, describe the unhealthy behavior. Two, share the impact it’s having on them personally. Three, ask for a healthier alternative. For example, the person you’re talking with starts to use inflated arguments, and speaks forcefully—with high energy and a raised voice. So you pull a Tommy. You call for new tactics.
“You know, when you raise your voice, exaggerate the facts, and speak quickly—it doesn’t work for me. Instead of paying closer attention and maybe even believing your argument, I feel like you’re trying to sell me on something and I want to resist what you’re saying. I think it might work better for both of us if you lowered your voice, slowed your pace, and shared the facts.”
Or perhaps the other person starts to switch from attacking your arguments to attacking you personally. He’s questioning your credibility, using unattractive labels, and instead of trying to harm your arguments, he’s trying to harm you. So you pull a Tommy. You call for new tactics.
“It’s starting to feel like you’ve moved from trying to discredit my arguments to trying to discredit me as a person. Your use of degrading labels makes it hard for me to hear your point of view and it could also harm our relationship. I think it works best when we focus on the merits of each person’s arguments rather than on the person.”
Stopping and discussing what you believe is happening to your conversation can feel odd. After all, it’s rarely done—whether you’re seven or seventy-seven. Nevertheless, it can be done. Some learn to discuss anomalies at an early age, some later, and many of us have had that discussion in a less than ideal way under extreme circumstances: “Wow, you’re screaming at me as if that’s going to make me want to listen to you more! You know what, I don’t think it’s working.” The idea here is not to wait until a conversation goes nuclear, but to deal with any inappropriate tactic the moment it first appears.
I can imagine a day, twenty years from now, when Senator Tommy stops dead in his tracks the moment a high-stakes conversation turns hostile and says, “You know what, I think shouting my favorite (and biased) facts followed by you shouting your favorite (and biased) facts isn’t helping move the discussion along. What if . . . ”
Wouldn’t that be refreshing? And what would it be like if today we turned on NPR and listened to two passionate advocates discussing an important issue and both believed the other person might have a decent idea or two? So they listen. And what if one of them grew too forceful or insulting and the other stopped the escalating verbal attack and dealt with it on the spot? What would that be like?
Perhaps this shift in tactics won’t take place any time soon or maybe not even during my lifetime. However, I believe that our ability to maintain healthy dialogue, even under stress, will eventually improve. And do you know why? Because, Tommy, I’ve seen you in action, and I’m counting on you.