Find the difference #5: what you say vs. how you say it

I have been thinking about what has made discussions among me and others become heated, and most of the time it was not what people said, but how. Here are the two sentences I wish to compare:

  • You are not allowed to say that!

vs.

  • You are not allowed to say that this way! which could mean: You can say that, but the way you said it hurts me!

It makes me think a lot of parents and children. How many times I hear: “Don’t cry!” or “Don’t complain!” and I guess that it’s because seeing the suffering of others make us uncomfortable, at the point that we could prefer to silence it completely. There is a great article about this dynamic on happinessishereblog.com, and a shorter post on The Badger’s Smial. But what happens when we try to silence the cries, and worse, when we succeed? The suffering person feels even worse: oppressed, unable to both deal with the issue and to get support. I (among many) noticed that children get increasingly upset when they feel that their message doesn’t get through, and with an immense sadness, that some children (and adults) stop communicating and are therefore considered “good” – just because they are quiet.

I find that if I were a parent, I would promise to listen to all messages my children send me, eventually suggesting to express them a way that makes it easier for me and other people to help, but in no way editing the original content.

A similar censoring reaction happens often also when people get aggressive during a discussion: it seems easier to stop fighting if the other party stops pushing its idea forward, while it could be that it’s a matter of how the idea is expressed, and if the atmosphere calls more for white/black outcomes, rather than mutual understanding. I am trying to practice this form of de-escalation with my friends: I notice how the most vibrant advocates of a given idea calm down when they understand that I am OK with them owning their idea, and I am focusing on the way it is expressed. I think it takes a lot of pressure away, because there are endless possibilities to improve the formulation of a message. It could make me look undecided, when compared with people who get heated when they feel that others don’t agree with them; but I don’t feel comfortable being so assertive. It is actually a reason I left OSGeo Board a few years ago, because I felt that I could not fight for my/our ideas, but it was expected from my role. Now I would come back to OSGeo with a new  awareness, that I can contribute, move things forward in this equally firm, but more understanding way.

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Find the differences #3: taking sides

I was talking with a good friend about comfort zones, and the discussion got heated (each of us sort of got kicked out of their comfort zone 😀 ). I later thought at how we talked, and found two sentences I want to compare in this post:

  1. “It’s common that people disagree with you about something”
  2. “It’s common that people disagree with you about something, but when this happens between us, I try my best to understand your points and discuss fairly”

The first form of the sentence is the one I hear most often. What hurts me is that it is not clear if the person means that it happens with anyone, including your closest friends, partner(s), and family. I can’t resign to that!

Source: tumblr

The first sentence implies the side taken by the other person, so if it is a person close to me, they probably imply they are on my side. There are times when the other person sides with you, and some where they disagree so deeply that they can’t – and I really need to know it. Guessing would be dangerous, or unneccessarily cautious!

I see “taking sides” as deciding whether to fight someone else’s opinion, or to examine it together. I assume that parents are always on their children’s side: I mean, they try their best to examine the children’s opinions in a clear but calm fashion, rather than fighting them like dogs’ bad habits (or horse vices). I am horrified at the thought of children (of any age) not having parents “on their side”, therefore having to prepare for a mental war with them, where they actually could lose.

It is not yet about the positions about a topic – it is a promise that the discussion will not turn into a lawyer’s outwitting challenge. Both parts promise not to exploit the other’s weaknesses in speech, emotions, and coherence. I am aware that it is not the default for the majority of people I meet randomly in the city, but I want it to be a clear agreement with the people I consider close to me. To put it in positive terms: we agree on sharing our ideas in a safe environment, where issues and divergences are discussed with respect and honesty.

(Thinking about it further, it is really difficult to “be on the same side” of a person with deeply different opinions on many topics, and that makes me think that it’s unlikely that this person will ever be among my close friends; anyway, I try to extend safe discussing habits to all discussions.)