How to have an Intellectually Exciting but Emotionally Unsatisfying Conversatio
I. The Problem
Nowadays, it seems as if everyone is a Nazi, fascist or evil. Everywhere you look, people are labeling others as anti-American, racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, homophobic. People are accused of being killers or committing virtual genocide. It might feel emotionally satisfying to label someone who doesn’t agree with you in a very dehumanizing and demonizing way, but intellectual honesty, as well as just plain decency, is the price. Passions run high, emotions get triggered and feelings overflow. Letting these emotions have free range sometimes feels good. Screaming, yelling and insulting may even feel cathartic. However, not only does labeling people contribute to the division and hatred we see growing in our society (and frankly, around the world) but it is also wrong, irrational and inaccurate. It might feel good to use inflammatory words and make ad hominem attacks on people but we risk our own intellectual well-being by doing so. How can we have intellectually exciting, but perhaps emotionally unsatisfying conversations? By explaining things in concrete and objective terms.
II. The Solution
Anyone who has ever had to write a negative report of a particular behavior on someone (client, student, employee, etc.) has had to write it in a way that is specific and measurable. If someone was disrespectful, aggressive or insubordinate it is not helpful to just write down those words. It is much more beneficial, and often required, to be descriptive and behavioral. They weren’t just disruptive, they threw a pencil at someone or screamed, “f**k you” to someone. They weren’t just insubordinate, they verbally refused a lawful directive to complete their paperwork and got up and walked out and left the building without permission and before their shift was over. They were not just aggressive, they threw a chair and said, “I’m going to punch you in the face” while standing two inches away from the person.
Even when something is positive, such as a personal or professional goal, we are encouraged to write something in objective, concrete ways. Often, this type of writing has a mnemonic or acronym attached to it. The one I was taught was S.M.A.R.T. S stands for specific, M for measurable, A for achievable, R for realistic and T for timely. It takes time to write in specific, behavioral language, but it is much more accurate and beneficial and helpful. How do you fix “disrespectful” behavior? What does it even mean? But you can work on someone not cursing and screaming at someone during a meeting or in class. If you call yourself a “fat pig” for being overweight, how do you set any goals (and give yourself some confidence?). If you say, “I am 30 pounds over my ideal weight” then you have a goal that you can reach: lose 30 pounds. Screaming, yelling, cursing and using dehumanizing language about ourselves or others can offer an emotional release, but the effects are temporary and we likely have and will cause more problems for ourselves.
III. The Real World
Politically and socially we are on the verge of a nervous breakdown in the United States. Instead of calling someone who is pro-choice a “baby-killer” or someone who opposes illegal immigration and the caravan as a “racist, fascist” it would be much more accurate to describe their position objectively, concretely and factually. People who are pro-choice do not believe that a developing fetus has reached the level of a functioning and fully human being. Moreover, they believe that the free will of the mother transcends the “will” of the unborn, still-developing fetus. Pro-wall believers think that a country has the right to create and enforce laws through a legal process in which representative who are elected by the people pass laws on their behalf. Immigration laws have been passed and now they must be enforced. Moreover, past methods of stopping illegal immigrants have not worked, so a wall might succeed where other measures have failed. We might not like what other people think and say and feel. But, everyone has different views on policy, procedures, laws and enforcement of those laws. People prioritize things differently and place emphasis on things that we might not. We all have a different hierarchy of things that matter to us. We also have many reasons for our beliefs that do not rise to the level of Nazism, racism or Anti-Americanism.
IV. Cognitive-Behavior Therapy
To engage in a conversation, if one can call it that, by name-calling, blaming and labeling is to not really want a conversation. It is not to understand or to discuss. It is to attack, lecture, verbally abuse. Cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT) reminds us not to engage in irrational, distorted or exaggerated thinking, both about ourselves and others. It reminds us not to label our behaviors of other people’s behaviors. It encourages us not to blame or engage in emotional reasoning or catastrophic thinking. CBT asks us to challenge irrational thoughts and self-talk and to come up with concrete, behavioral solutions to our problems that can be accurately identified and measured. How do you know if you are achieving your goals? Wat is the measure? If you are improving your network of friends, you look at how many new friends you have made over the last 6 months. If you are trying to lose weight, you look at weight loss over the past 3 months. If you want to reduce anger issues, you look at the reduction of emotional outbursts you have now as opposed to a year ago. Calling someone stupid, crazy or evil does not help to increase positive conversations and social interactions. Maybe that is not your goal? If it is, then keeping descriptions of what people say and believe to measurable, observable, concrete and objective terms is the most likely to lead to a better, more thoughtful and ultimately more intellectually satisfying conversation.
It may not feel as good, at least in the short-term, but if you are interested in just feeding your emotions then good conversation might not be the best way to meet that need. Conversations engage the mind as well as the emotions. Right now, society seems to be feasting on the feelings and not the facts. The end result is that everyone who disagrees with us becomes an evil person deserving of our anger, contempt, hostility and maybe even violence. None of those has ever led to a good and positive end. Think about that.