Part I is the Overview, in which we discuss what is hostile langugage, the cost of using hostile language, and the necessity--or rather, the lack thereof--of hostile language.
In Part Two, we are discussing more about hostile language, and the three Fundamentals to staying with a conflict. : Detachment, Listening, and Metaphors.
Part Three discusses the four techniques: "Satir Mode", Presuppositions, Managing Verbal Attack Patterns, and tension and rapport managment.
Who uses hostile language?
Everyone uses hostile language sometimes--even the most skilled communicator can have a bad day and just spout off accusative, angry words.
But for many people, hostile language is frequent, routine, and chronic. Why?
Type 1--the ignorant--are those who are unaware that any other method for handling conflict or disagreement exists (these people don't necessarily do it to hurt, and may even find the whole thing distasteful)
Type 2--Those for whom hostile language fills a strong personal need for excitement (I really get a kick out of getting other people GOING). This becomes toxic behavior when these folks cannot or will not change their conversational behavior when asked. They seem genuinely unaware that other people are distressed by the hostility. We can call them the thrill-seekers, because they experience verbal disagreements as exhilarating.
Type 3--Those for whom hostile language fills a strong personal need for connection--think about a teenager picking a fight with a parent to feel connected.
Why does hostile language persist?
All spoken language interactions are feedback loops: I base what I say to you on what I understood you to say to me, and vice versa. The people involved are trapped in the loop, going helplessly around and around, feeding more ammunition and more pain into the loop from both directions with every utterance. both are convinced that the altercation must end with a winner and loser, and both feel obligated to win.
There are at least four aspects to any given utterance:
- The actual words, as spoken by a robot with no intonation example: Where have you been? I expected you home 30 minutes ago.
- The "melody" or emphasis put on the words: example: WHERE have you BEEN? I EXpected YOU home 30 MINutes ago
- The body language of the speaker example: imagine the narrowed eyes, the hostile glare, or the pointing finger.
- The listener's own beliefs about the motives and focus of the speaker. (example: imagine a mother worried about a teenaged daughter's absence, as opposed to a controlling husband)
The melody is what transforms a interaction from neutral to hostile.
How Do I go About Ending A Hostile Loop? How Do I Stop Using Hostile Language Myself?
Elgin describes a seven-step method for hearing and responding to hostile language:
- Stay Detached
- Listen--Really Listen
- Choose Your Metaphor
- Choose Your Satir Mode
- Control Your Presuppositions
- Avoid and Defuse Verbal Attack Patterns
- Build Tension/ Build Rapport
Whole books could be written--perhaps have been written--on the fine art of hearing a verbal attack and not falling into the reflex of responding. I personally find, in the heat of the moment, slowing down my breathing and slowing down my movements quite helpful. I also find mentally repeating, "this is not about me, this is not about me". These little rituals help me to remember the three questions:
- What is the [hostile] speaker's motivation for speaking to me this way?
- Ignorance: doesn't know any other way to express conflict or disagreement
- Thrill seekers: enjoy adrenaline rush from arguing
- Need for contact: feel noticed in an argument.
- Disagree with the speaker's claims
- Know or feel speaker's assertions of fact are incorrect
- Object to the tone the speaker is using
- Something else
- Respond in kind
- Restate complaint
- Walk away
Dealing with the hurt and turmoil a hostile episode engenders
Hostile encounters can leave us seething for days. Elgin suggests two methods to manage these feelings.
- Taking Out the Garbage
- Three Part Self Messages
Taking Out the Garbage
- Wait for the end of the hostile exchange
- Leave the area, and write a letter to the person involved
- Write down all the hateful things you would have liked to have said (whether or not you actually said them--remember, this is taking out the garbage--)
- Two goals in writing out these hateful things
- Get the toxic utterances out of your system so they don't keep playing in your head
- Externalize the emotion--get it outside--so it isn't part of you.
- After at least a day has passed, take the letter out and read it.
- At each point, remind yourself that the person is uniformed and inept.
- Destroy the letter, so that no one will ever see it. (I recommend burning.)
Using Three-Part Self-Messages
Three part self-messages were developed by effectiveness trainer Thomas Gordon, and are in the format:
When X happens, I feel Y, because of R (real world consequences).
"When you bring the car back with not enough gas for me to get to work, I feel angry, because stopping makes me late"
In this context, you aren't replying to someone, you are talking to yourself, to develop the skills to think on your feet. Like "Taking Out the Garbage", the three-part self-message is meant to for you to refine your understanding, and not to change anyone else's behavior.
Suppose you go to a party with your spouse, talk to a lot of interesting people, and enjoy yourself tremendously. Suppose that after you get home, your spouse turns on you, repeats three or four things you said to others at the party, and shouts, "You said EVERY SINGLE ONE of those THINGS just to make ME look STUPid!!" You're flabbergasted--you had no such motive, you were just enjoying yourself.
Well, what should you do? Well, first, disengage--say something like, "I can hear you are upset, but I can't talk about it right now."
Then go and:
- Write down, as exactly as can, what was said. (Don't editorialize, don't write "when you accused me" or "when you attacked me". Just the words.)
- Write down, as exactly as you can, of what you really did feel.
- Write down, as honestly as you can, what you believed. When you said, "You said EVERY SINGLE ONE of those THINGS just to make ME look STUPid!!", I felt like you'd socked me in the stomach, because that statement proves you don't love me.
- Put the message away for at least 24 hours.
- Look at it again, and decide if it captures everything you wanted to say and everything you believe.
- Keep going until you feel you have expressed everything you felt.
- Destroy all of you work.
The goal is for you to develop the reflexes to know what you are feeling, quickly, so that you can control your reactions and stay detached. Practicing Taking Out The Garbage and Three-Parts over and over again will help you develop detachment skills. You can even look for scenes in TV shows and movies where someone uses hostile language against another character, and respond as if you were that character.
Develop Listening Skills
When one person doesn't listen to another, a bout of hostile language can result. Elgin finds in her consulting practice that most language breakdowns arise out of, or are exacerbated, by poor listening skills.
Why do people fail to listen? Elgin suggests people come up with the following excuses:
- I don't have time
- "Multi tasking"
- Not interested in what other people have to say
- Other people are boring
- My time is too valuable to waste on the speaker's topic
How do you learn to listen?
Assume--no matter how outrageous to you--that what the person speaking is the gospel truth. Then, try to imagine what else must be so for the statements to be true. Then ask open-ended, non accusative questions.(This is called Miller's law, in honor of pioneering psychologist George Miller).
Do your best not to jump to false conclusions. Clues about false conclusions are when you think things like this:
- That's the most ridiculous thing I ever heard!
- I bet he's saying that because....[fill in a supposition]
- Of all the dumb ideas
- He is just showing off
We jump to conclusions from some misperceptions. One misperception is that to really listen will take too much time. Elgin did some experiments, and found that exchanges went from about 20 seconds to about 90 seconds.
How to develop the skill of listening and attending has a lot of similarity, in reverse, to meditating. In meditation, when you mind starts bouncing around, you just herd it back to the object of meditation. In learning to listen, when your mind wanders away from attending to the speaker, you just turn it back to the speaker. Here's an exercise to develop your listening skills:
- Find a TV program where one or more people are talking, using real language, such as a sermon or a speech or debate. It doesn't matter if it is boring.
- Set a timer to go ff in 5 minutes (so you don't have to keep track of time yourself)
- Sit down and give your full attention to the speaker(s)--no doodling, no reading, no wondering how you are doing.
- Every time you notice that your attention had wandered away, just turn it back to the speaker.
Why Metaphors Matter
The word "metaphor" may bring to your mind only the classroom experiences in which you tried to remember its definition for a test or struggled ot "spot the metaphors" in some writer's prose or poetry. We all recognize TIME IS MONEY and LIFE IS A BOWL OF CHERRIES as metaphors; we recognize "Cinnamon is a spice" and "twoo and two are four:" as not metaphors, but statements of fact. And we all recognize the difference between these two kinds of langague. but our tendency is to beleive that facts are important, while metaphors are "oonly figures of speech" and have nothing much to do with life in the real world.
Elgin is saying that we all have underlying "stories"--metaphors--that organize how we percieve the blooming buzzing confusion around us, how we organize our reponses to life. While some of our behavior is governed by rules ("drive on the right", "promptness counts", "cover your mouth when you cough"), a great deal more of our behavior is governed by our underlying fundamental metaphors, or storylines.
And the sad part is, we tend not to be aware of the metaphors we use.
There are two ways that metaphors can trip us up: our underlying metaphor for life, and the metaphor we use to think about communication.
Elgin suggests that the underlying metaphor for most American men is LIFE IS A FOOTBALL GAME; for most American women, it is LIFE IS A TRADITIONAL SCHOOL ROOM. One example of the conflict this causes is the role of misdirection: in a football game, it is "legal" to fake out the opposition, perhaps by falsely suggesting that one player has the ball. In the school room, that would be an immoral lie. In football, it is legal for one player to slam into another; in the school room that is an example of gross incivility. So when you find yourself locked in a inexplicable conflict with a member of the opposite sex, it might be time to stop, take a deep breath, and check your metaphors.
In the context of communication, the three most common metaphors for disagreement or conflictin the United States are:
DISAGREEMENT IS A CONTEST
DISAGREEMENT IS A SPORT
DISAGREEEMENT IS COMBAT
Each of these metaphors has a common rule: disagreement doesn't end until there is a winner and a loser.
It is not necessary for the metaphor include the zero-sum (winner/loser) aspect. The metaphor could be conflict metaphor could be a dance, or construction--like carpentry.
The three things we can do
- Become consciously aware of the DISAGREEEMENT IS COMBAT metaphor and its consequences
- Find another metaphor for a more co-operative one, like DISAGREEMENT IS CARPENTRY
- Learn and use the alternatives to verbal force.