Sunday, July 16, 2017

Talking about boxes

In an emotional conversation that proves injurious the responsibility to have prevented harm lies with the converser whose words caused the injury. Live long enough and your words will hurt someone by accident, and the immediate response, at least for me, is to decry the hurt as foul since the words that caused it were not motivated by malice or evil intent.

I was thinking recently about the process of stumbling through emotional conversations with people. Everyone with emotions and the ability to communicate has them. Parents, especially awkward parents like myself, have a lot of them. They are great and wonderful elements of the human condition … except when they are not.

“ I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant” -- Alan Greenspan
“I know you think you believe you understand what you thought I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is exactly what I meant.” -- Richard Nixon

It is hard to take responsibility for this accidental hurt as it just doesn’t make sense. We can understand how it is important to take responsibility for injury in many accident scenarios; for instance if we drive over someone on a bike because we didn’t see them while pulling out from a parking space we should know it is our fault since we took on the responsibility associated with steering a multi-ton chunk of propelled metal. Words are just air and the interpretation is done without input of the speaker, so it is like the above described accident without a car or bicycle or visible injuries; Just two people standing around in a parking space until one of them realizes they hurt.

Further complicating things are the natural way many (most?) people react when they are hurt. I’ve lashed out when hurt, and I suspect you have to; those words ARE meant to hurt. How can you reasonably take responsibility for accidentally hurting someone who is actively trying to hurt you in retaliation? Sometimes it is actually impossible to cut through the retaliation to be reasonable and responsible. There are even some people who reflexively lash out ten times as hard as they think that they have been attacked. Sometimes there is just too much crazy to reconstruct a dialog where anyone can be a responsible adult, and you can only hope for space and time to let the flames die down.

Time is what is recommended by people that actually study communication between people. There are thousands of people who insist that they have studied communication between people enough to have a useful opinion, but most of them have just repeated threadbare factoids enough to become convincingly self-delusional. There are groups that have conducted reasonably scientific studies on people attempting to communicate, and even attempting to communicate as a core element of an emotional relationship. The Gottman institute has been studying relationships for years, and have published reams of data suggesting an over 90% correlation between certain communication skills and the ability to form lasting emotional partnerships. There are many people who will insist that the key to a relationship's success lies in something magical; actually magical and not something that just feels magical. The keys can be in astrology or prayer or a special spell said during a astronomic event (like the upcoming total solar eclipse?), but when asked for data there standard answer is that "There are some things that science can't explain". However, science has explained a lot about the emotional interaction of people, and it is nowhere near as complex or magical as humans themselves are. Much can be understood by looking at two factors common to many scientific inquiries: Data and Signal Processing. Or, as generally described at the level of interpersonal communication: Talking and Listening.

Talking about talking about stuff is a little too meta for most conversations, and few people are as luck as I am to have a partner who almost enjoys the strange aftertaste of a self-referential romp through a conversation about the structure of the conversation itself.

The magic amount of time that is recommended by these conversationologists is 20 minutes. For a short period of time in my life I did chimney repair, and I was cautioned never to actually provide a time estimate to a customer when I called them up to tell them I was running late: “Just tell them 20 minutes because most everyone will wait for 20 minutes even if it ends up being almost 2 hours”. I think there is something physiological that happens in the human body that flushes out the hormonal context or filter that prevents rational conversation after there has been an insult; even a minor insult like not showing up to do a job at the time you said you would.The amount of time it takes that physiological process to occur is about 20 minutes.

The instant you read the word “hormones” it is likely that you thought I was talking about females. There is a difference between how females and males interact in conversation, but it is a statistical difference where the mean of responses given by one gender in a sample set is more likely to display a identifiable type of conversational behavior than the mean of the responses by the other gender in that sample set. This does not provide much guidance in any individual conversation as all conversational behaviors can be common in both genders, and there are statistical outliers of either gender that either engage in any particular conversational behavior a lot or hardly at all. If you are letting your understanding of the statistics of populations drive your individual conversations instead of actively listening to your conversational partner then you should really get more practice talking to actual humans.

The other problem in misinterpreting my dropping of the word “hormone” as a slur against feminine conversational stereotypes is that the most severe form of hormone-induced irrational conversational constitution, called “flooding” to conjure up the image of hormones filling up the skull with liquid confusion, is much more common in men. Studies suggest that “flooding” emotional events precede many domestic violence situations where a male is being violent towards their intimate partner. This does not mean that a man who floods will be violent; everybody floods and most people are never violent at all towards their intimate partner. I “flood”. You “flood”. There are people who say they don’t “flood”, but they are lying.

SO, if you’ve hurt someone and are not sure what you have done you can back off for 20 minutes to see if you can reconnect to find out what caused the injury in the first place, and then try the conversation again… only carefully. If you try something like this in the parking accident scenario you would effectively be backing back over the bicycle a second time; make sure that you don’t just re-create the injurious utterance the second time around.

Luckily the way people get hurt by accident in a conversation is usually quite simple. People don’t usually try to be hurt in a conversation and so the hurts fall into causation categories that are embarrassingly simple. I personally like to think that my mind, which can nurture ideas of intricate and sublime beauty, must fail with some elegant and impenetrable complexity. However, most –if not all- negatively-interpreted conversations fall into three different types:

Criticism: You know that important observation about a critical defect in your partner that your partner needs to know about right now? How about that annoying behavior that they need to be reminded about if they are ever going to stop it? If so you should really ask yourself if you are an a**hole and are not just accidentally irritating the people you interact with. How about when you come up with some epiphany about how people, like yourself even, work? Look at this very blog post; someone could see this as being about them and be very upset with me. Criticism can be any factual statement that can be interpreted as being about a person.

Contempt: This can be a tone of voice. Humor can go terribly wrong. It is very easy for a one-sided snarky blog rant to be taken the wrong way, or an email that muses over things in a disaffected tone can be seen as insulting. Of course in these instances a person who doesn’t actively want to be hurt can just re-read the material until their impression of an attack fades. There are some advantages to written correspondence.  In the case of a conversation a self-deprecating joke or misplaced laugh can be seen as a clear announcement of outright mockery and contempt.  Also, watch your body language.

Blame: Do you really need to know whose fault something is, and do you need to announce your findings to the person whose fault it is? If so then you shouldn’t be surprised that you are causing irritation. It is more common, though, to reflexively deflect possible blame. Saying “I didn’t do whatever” does not directly place blame unless it is heard through something like the “I’m the only other person in this conversation” filter. Be cognizant of where blame goes if you deflect it.

“If I am not what you say I am, then you are not who you think you are.” -- James Baldwin

Another problem is that humans are not exactly in control of what we say. Due to nuances in the arrangement of those elements in the brain where we decide what we are going to say and those elements that craft the way we say it we are actually not fully aware of what we are saying until we are saying it. Using a complex playback device perfectly tuned to the spacing of an individual’s spoken words it is possible to convince them that they have actually said things that they have not said. Let me restate that for clarity: even after a person has planned out what they are going to say and then crafted the way they will say it the very brain that did the planning and crafting can be convinced that something entirely different happened if they hear something different.

If such whacky dependencies are occurring inside your own brain then isn’t it of no surprise that someone listening with a different brain can hear something hurtful? Of course not! However, it is deceptively enticing to reason that it was the person who got hurt who chose to interpret something in a way that caused them to be hurt. With a very small adjustment to what one defines as a “choice” that interpretation is demonstrably true. But blaming someone who is hurting for their hurt doesn’t reduce the hurt at all, and should leave both members of the conversation sitting around in their metaphorical parking space wondering what they are doing there.

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