Friday, September 13, 2013

Our Fear of Conflict (or 'be polite')

Back in the '70s, I was a young, selfish street thug. But I also knew that something was wrong with my approach to life. Getting into a lot of fights was a clue. While it sometimes seemed like trouble would go out of its way to find me, I had a strong suspicion what I was doing might have a hand in the results.

Fortunately, I also liked to read. So I figured maybe that could help me with the other. One of the books I read was How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.

It changed my life.

Now granted it took a few decades before I could pull my head out of my ass enough to truly apply the principles. Still, not just in the end, but all along the process; this cheesy titled book, written in 1936, turned me on to effective ways for positively dealing with people.

Kind of important because often the people I was dealing with would shoot you in the face for fucking with them.

Usually when someone says something's a 'lifesaver,' it's a bit hyperbolic. Not this time. This advice actually works to help keep you from getting shot, stabbed, beaten and thrown through windows. But surprise, surprise, the information in the book isn't just for extreme situations. It works for dealing with everyday people. Where it may not be a life saver, but it is a relationship and career saver.

Recently the kid brought home from the library a newly updated, How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age.

On a lark I started reading it. While staying with the original principles, it's a very good look at what we  -- as a society -- have become. How technology, media, and social media have affected our assumptions, expectations, communications, and where we often go wrong in our interactions.

Sometimes it's hard to see the forest for the trees.

Or putting it in a more updated version, it's hard to see our own habits and patterns that we do in our modern, technological, high-speed 'normal.'

While reading, I came across a particular line that set off explosions in my head. Many have mastered the ironic art of increasing touch points while simultaneously losing touch.

Such a simple statement. Yet it helped clarify something that has been bothering me for a long time. Something I knew was big, Something I couldn't quite define even though I was running into it all the time. Something that just didn't make sense, but made me go "WTF?"

Remember, I teach people how to survive and function in both physically dangerous and emotionally stressful environments. When teaching both personal safety and Conflict Communications, I tell people "be polite."

With a lot of people, you'd think I was telling them to cut themselves and jump into a pool of sharks. I mean there is active resistance to the idea of being polite -- especially while in conflict.

This went a whole lot deeper than "I don't wanna." It often shades into outright hostility to the idea and -- to quote Hunter S. Thompson -- 'fear and loathing.' You'd think, by the reactions, I was disarming and telling them they have to be victims.

If that's the attitude, then there's a serious problem with definitions.

In teaching people to be safe from physical violence and handle conflict, I often run across a whole lot of people who self-define themselves as 'nice.' Basically, they're telling me, "I'm a nice person, but I'm getting threatened by bullies and taken advantage of."  Inevitably with the 'nice person' self-definition there comes the 'how they are conditioned to be polite' argument -- and excuse.

I add the excuse tagline because the next step seems to be: Well gawd damnit being polite doesn't work, so I need to learn how to be an aggressive asshole -- to stop those aggressive assholes.

Now I admit I'm from the Los Angeles Unified School District, but even I can do the math on this. One asshole plus one asshole equals two assholes.

But join me in a much bigger reality break. If you're a 'nice person' and he's an aggressive asshole, he's better at it than you are. He's got more practice time and experience than you do. So try as hard as you will, you're playing catch up with him. He has a head start with that strategy.

In the meantime you're hurting other people because you're now being an asshole too. So much for meeting the criteria of being a 'nice person.'
Unless of course you believe that self-identifying yourself as 'nice' is the same as being nice. (And incidentally we'll get to that in a bit -- especially with what's wrong with people's self-certification of being 'polite.')

I often encounter two 'extremes' with what I teach. One is the person who is afraid of conflict -- so they put up with unacceptable behavior from others.

The other is someone who assumes there's going to be conflict and skips over everything else to physical resolution. They call the resulting shit storm 'self-defense' whether it be empty hand or with weapons. Uhhhh... NOT!

Oh look, forest, trees ...

So how about we take a look at what's happening here?

First and foremost: Where is it written that dealing with other people automatically means conflict?

This especially when it's a disagreement or negotiating how things are going to be. If that's your assumption, then odds are it's going to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. In fact, odds are it's going to be a fast track to it.

Second, have you ever sat down to think about how much of it 'becoming a conflict' has to do with how you approach it?

Kinda like when I was getting into so many 'fights.' Dead smelly fish on the table time: Automatically assuming it's going to be a conflict, usually comes hand-in-hand with an approach issue.

Third, how much of what you're doing -- especially around your politeness -- is touch points instead of being in touch?

That third -- but not last -- point is why the line out of the Carnegie book clicked. You can do the form and totally miss the function.

Start with it isn't that being polite doesn't work. It's that aping politeness -- while thinking to yourself 'what a fucking asshole' -- ain't gonna work.

There's this thing called nonverbal leakage that speaks louder than your words. This is especially true if you're being a condescending, self-righteous snob who looks at the other person like a turd. A turd that you're forced to deal with because HE is daring to infringe on your sacred space.

I see this attitude a lot among people who claim they're being polite. They have the veneer, but not the reality. They lack both the sincerity and the intent. That is what is coming across louder than their word choice. Way louder.

A common variation of this is if you're only being 'polite' to get your way -- especially from a stranger.

In Conflict Communications, I tell people, "Relationships are economies. A healthy and balanced exchange of needs and services." As humans, we're designed to have empathy for and are willing to work with those we have established economies with. We do things for people we have economies with. Others, well, not so much.

The problem is a lot of people approach others only when they're trying to get something.

Wait. They want to get something from a person they have no economy with? Yet they want the other person to go out of his or her way to accommodate their desires? And once that's over, they're done with you.

Wow ... nothing like being used as a cum catcher, then thrown away after the other person has got their nut to make you really want to cooperate with someone.

And yes, it's about that rude

This approach is especially obnoxious when it demands a change of behavior from, or attempts to censor, others. This is particularly common among the 'I'm offended' crowd, professional victims and social harpies.* If you want a screaming example, look at social media. **

When you want to bring about change -- despite what many people want to believe -- just being polite isn't enough. This especially applies to just aping the forms while you're a bubbling cauldron of resentment and/or selfishness under the surface.

Even more appalling is how many people don't even pretend to be polite before they demand others change behavior or censor themselves. They're out and out in your face about it.

Even if you do the touch points if you bring a shitty attitude along with these demands that's what's going to come across loudest. The fact you're being shitty, selfish, and demanding is what's going to win out over you being 'polite.'

Let's take a look at bringing something else in rather than just politeness. Your neighbors are having a party. It's getting late and it's still loud. You go over there, knock on the door.

"Hey Joe. Man, it sounds like you guys are having a good time. That's great. But it's getting a little late, so could I ask you to ask your guests to keep it down to a dull roar? Great. I appreciate it. Have a good time. Night."

Oh, so you don't know your neighbor's name? Because you've never bothered to introduce yourself and establish a friendly coexistence and economy before asking him for something? An economy so you can talk to him as an equal in the spirit of cooperation?

Shame on you.

But even if you don't know your neighbor, now's a good time to introduce yourself. Hell, even apologize for not introducing yourself earlier. And then, chat with him at a later date to keep the economy going. You have to establish an economy to get results.

Before we look at all that's going on -- other than just 'politeness' -- with that version, let's consider the other option.

That's you knocking on the door with a shitty attitude and saying to a complete stranger -- in his own home -- "Would you PLEASE turn that music down."

Really, how's that going to go over?

But, but ... you were polite. You even said 'please.' Yeah? So what? Everything else outweighed the 'form' of being polite. Oh yeah and when you call the cops to 'enforce your will,' he's going to know who did it. Wow, great way to establish a working economy with someone who lives next to you.

Being polite is about more than just following a formula and mouthing certain words. And yet, how many people have been told again and again 'to just be polite?'

This to the point of it becoming a meaningless ritual? To the point you assume that if you perform the ritual -- no matter how sloppily -- you'll get your way?

Truth is, in small stuff, faux-polite works -- like passing someone in the aisle. You say, "Excuse me," they step or lean out of your way. But in bigger things -- like changing behavior -- not so much. The sad thing is, we know this. Turn it around, how well does someone being superficially polite, but looking at you like you're a turd work with you?

Yet not only is this faux-polite a lot of people's main strategy, but they don't know what to do if it doesn't work. Well except to become an asshole too. I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, but 'becoming' and 'too?' I think that last word might be misspelled.

I strongly suspect this failure of faux-politeness is a big part of why I get such resistance when I say, "Be polite." People want politeness to work without having to bother to establish a win/win economy.

But let's look a little deeper at the goal of politeness -- and what it has to do with our fear of conflict. Let me give you a paradigm shift about being polite.

Because of my past, I always resonated with Heinlein's summations of politeness and manners.

One: Moving parts in rubbing contact require lubrication to avoid excessive wear. Honorifics and formal politeness provide lubrication where people rub together. Often the very young, the untravelled, the naive, the unsophisticated deplore these formalities as "empty,"  "meaningless," or "dishonest," and scorn to use them. No matter how "pure" their motives, they thereby throw sand into machinery that does not work too well at best.

Two: An armed society is a polite society. Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life.

The first one should give you pause all by itself -- especially when it comes to people who believe they shouldn't have to be polite. I think Heinlein was cutting such folks a bunch of slack by suggesting that these motives are 'pure.' It's been my experience that behind the rationalizations -- even if they're idealistic and 'empowering' -- there's a whole lot of selfish going on. As in: "Fuck you. I don't have to be polite. My feelings and what I want are more important than you and your feelings."

But I also want you to look at the first one from the standpoint of people watering down their version of politeness until it becomes an empty ritual. Often such folks have been raised 'to be polite' and claim they are. But they've lost faith in it. Or worse, feel it's a burden they must grudgingly bear. As such, they do a real shitty job.

Yet how often do such people still self-certify themselves as polite?  You don't have to look hard to see this. Try standing in a check out line and watch how people treat the checkers. This especially if they're on the cell phone.

Once you start looking for 'touch points, but out of touch,' you'll see it everywhere. There are a number of folks out there trying to get by with the bare minimum -- unless they want something from you.

But what about the second point? Isn't it ... extreme?

Let me speak from having been out in those extremes. First off, when being killed or having to kill someone else is the cost of not being polite, being polite becomes way less onerous.

Oh, getting your brains blown into a fine pink mist is the cost for not finding a way to get along? Uhhhhh ... whaddya say we find a way to get along?

The interesting thing about environment is the 'form' is different. It's not a Ms. Manners type of etiquette. But there are very distinct rules and protocols about how you conduct yourself with others in these places. And the higher the firepower of those involved, the more strictly followed these rules are. While they are different, they are both learnable and serve to avoid keeping things from escalating to physical violence. Here, like everywhere else -- even though the rules are different -- sincerity counts.

But here's a brain popper, even in environments where violence is not uncommon there's a lot more violence that doesn't happen.

How? Through compromise, negotiation, and 'working things out.' And yes, in these circumstances often working it out involves yelling, screaming, threatening, and posturing. It also often uses the intervention of others to keep it from going bad. If that doesn't work, it goes physical. But very few people actually want it to go that way.

Keep that in mind, it's important.

Because it's something people -- who revel in being verbally and emotionally violent, but detest physical violence -- both refuse to acknowledge and rely on.

How's that for a contradiction?

Generally you'll find that rude people rely on others having too much self-control to throw them through a window for their behavior. I put it in this extreme because a lot of people would misconstrue it if I said, "They rely on other people being polite." Polite has little to do with it.

There is a common limitation -- not on part of the rude person -- but the people he or she is affecting. The affected often don't have the people skills to have options other than:
1) suck it up and suffer in silence
2) get offended and pretend to be polite while confronting the person
3) get verbally aggressive and openly confrontational
4) go physical.

Very few people are willing to deal with the hassle of Number 4. And that's what the rude person is relying on.

This is enhanced by the image the rude person often projects that he or she is willing to become violent. The person already has proved he or she is willing to break social conventions. So it's easy to believe that they'll take it that extra step into being confrontational, out of control, and even -- oh mah gawd -- violent.

Oooohhhh skaarEEEE!

Realistically, this lack of options by others is a free pass for the rude person. The worst thing likely to happen to the rude asshole is he or she encounters someone who yells obscenities and postures and poses back. Gee, that's emotionally unpleasant, but in the end that and two bucks will get you a cup of coffee.

In most circumstances, there's no real danger or negative consequences for rude and aggressive behavior. The rude and obnoxious person knows it and relies on it when dealing with the average person trying to be 'polite' and address his or her behavior.

So, in case you missed it, overwhelmingly being a rude asshole is both safe and a 'win' for that person to get what he or she wants.

That is until the person runs into someone who has other resources and different ways to deal with the situation than just being faux-polite

This especially means someone who doesn't necessarily believes it has to be a conflict, but isn't afraid of it turning into one -- up to and including it going physical.

Such a person doesn't have to be rude and/or aggressive. In fact, they can be sincere, open to compromise and polite. But that same person doesn't cave in or get freaked out when the other person is rude and aggressive. Which sends a serious message about the effectiveness of that kind of behavior around them. Like getting the rude person wondering, "Why isn't this guy reacting in a predictable manner? Someone who's scared of me shouldn't be remaining calm and polite when I'm huffing and puffing. What am I not seeing here?"

Believe it or not, under these circumstances being legitimately polite becomes a whole lot more effective.

I know it's hard to believe, but when everyone has an equal chance of dying, nobody wants to start that wheel of fortune spinning. When that's the cost of not being polite, manners and politeness make all kinds of sense. In such circumstances if someone is politely offering a chance not bleed, you'll be amazed at how fast everyone wants to be polite.

I take it to that extreme to show you an important concept. People are rude, bullying, and obnoxious when they don't believe that physical violence will be a result. Or if it is, they'll be the 'winner.'

But long before it gets to that extreme, there are lots of other ways to steer things away from it turning into conflict. Yeah, yeah, it's on the table, but what do you say we try something different instead? Trying to establish a win/win outcome for example.

Someone actively working to keep it from becoming a conflict has a lot more options than someone confronting a person with faux-politeness.

The first step in keeping it from heading into conflict is to always remember Hillel's version of the Golden Rule: That which is hateful to you do not do unto others.

To give that teeth, I'm going to pull two lines out of HTWF&IPITDigital Age: At the core of this skill is an understanding of one of the most foundational truths about human nature. We are self-preserving creatures, who are instinctively compelled to defend, deflect, and deny all threats to our well-being not the least of which are threats to our pride.

Stop and re-read that again. It's that important.

Here is the no brainer Yet one people, who only want to invest in the forms, totally miss. If it would piss you off, don't fucking do it to someone else.

The same shit that triggers you, triggers others.

Not specifics, but in general. And the list is pretty simple. Don't disrespect. Don't demean. Don't treat other people like shit. Don't insult. Don't verbally attack. Don't go out of your way to confront.

And most of all don't be a hostile, self-righteous asshole -- no matter how self-righteous you feel.

If that tone of voice would light you up, don't use it. If that look of contempt would infuriate you, don't look at other people like that. If someone being more concerned about their own shit and not caring about you lights you up, don't do the same to others. If people not listening to you flames you, listen to others!

When you put it in this context. Being polite is NOT a sign of weakness. It's a sign of respect, reliability, and the willingness to cooperate with someone. Doing that other shit, says the exact opposite.

This is the fundamental fuck-up people who fear conflict do all the time. I say fuck-up because there's a big difference between a mistake and a fuck -up. The difference is what we do about it. We all make mistakes. But it doesn't become a fuck-up until we refuse to own it and do something about it.

Folks who swear politeness doesn't work
1) are using faux-politeness
2) refuse to believe that's what they are doing.

The problem is that politeness doesn't work with assholes, not that they're turning a mistake into a fuck up.  Don't be that person.

Here's both a freebie and an aside, don't be afraid to apologize if you make a mistake. Well it's actually not that much of an aside. Believing you can't admit a mistake -- for whatever justification -- is often the first step on turning it into a fuck-up.

But here's another version. Many people fuck up about conflict because -- upon hearing about these other options -- they whine, "Why do I have to be the one doing it?"

Excuse me? You're the one who doesn't like conflict. The one who's afraid of it. But now you're bitching about 'having to' develop people skills, investing in creating healthy and working economies with others (so people will want to cooperate with you), having to work at negotiation and compromise? This so you reduce conflict in your life?

If 'why do I gotta' is your reaction take a real hard look about that quote about us being 'self-preserving creatures' because we are talking about pride.

More than that we're talking ego. Even if that ego is coming from the place of shame and terror of not being perfect. Nobody is perfect. And we all have room for improvement. It's called being human.

But way too often, fear of not being perfect is a great excuse to not try. To stay stuck in the same uncomfortable circumstances. If you keep doing the  same thing, you're going to keep on getting the same results.

There are some simple, but profound, truths in this article. Truths I had to spit blood to learn. Prove that you're smarter than I am and don't wait unti  your blood is the price before you start applying them.

But here's the real question. If you really don't like conflict and you want to reduce how much of it there is in your life are you willing to break certain habits and ways of thinking? This in order to both reduce conflict and come up with better solutions?

It's really that simple.


*Social harpies -- the virulent shriekers who swoop down on anyone who dares to question certain dogmas, asks uncomfortable questions or has a 'wrong' opinion.

** Hell, often on the internet, if you were the change liberal/conservative to a ethnicity, what you see them calling each other would qualify as hate speech. This behavior is seriously not impressive coming from people who not only swear they're intelligent and open minded, but also that they're nice and polite.

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  1. Thanks for that article Mark. I,m dealing with something along these lines right now, so this blog is very timely for me. GW

  2. Funny... I've been using that all my life. I tend to be a little too nice (okay, doormat), so I learned very early on that if I was careful, being unfailingly polite and cheerful could get me whatever I needed. I never had to worry about confrontations; nobody had any desire to go there. I'm female, which of course helps a bit. Throw in the fact that I can fake confidence like nothing else (I'm not a confident person at all) thanks to years of convincing unruly horses that I am bigger and stronger than they are, and I survive.