It’s up to you: do you want to say something momentarily gratifying or genuinely useful?
This happened on Easter. Yesterday. Some Boogaloo Boys—a right-wing militia group, in case you didn’t know—were having a demonstration in Ann Arbor, a college town, the home to the University of Michigan. Some unarmed guy wearing a Gilligan hat confronts them, as many of us have wanted to do, yelling a bunch of stuff at these highly armed idiots, including “Get your fucking guns out of here, man!”
I don’t know how satisfying Gilligan-hat man found this, but the Twitterverse exploded in glee. Yeah! You go, man. Give it to them! Way to go! You showed them!!
I’m sure many of us felt the same way.
Now this raises an important question. Let’s assume you too would like to give the Boogaloo Boys a piece of your mind. There are a lot of people we’d all like to give a piece of our minds to!! We assume it’ll be very gratifying to do so. And if someone asks, Yeah, but is it useful?, we say, Who knows, who cares?
Now you know my perspective. I look at families. Couples. And I see that giving each other a piece of our minds does nothing but tear apart the fabric of our relationships. What we call “giving someone a piece of our mind” is really just a power move. What else would you call “Get your fucking guns out of here”?
Now sure, it wasn’t an enormously powerful power move, not when spoken by an unarmed man talking to a bunch of armed men! But power moves tend to escalate regardless of how much teeth they have in them. Even if Gilligan-hat guy has no real power in the situation, the Boogaloo idiots may well be feeling, Hey, you can’t talk to us like that! And then they go on to escalate. Then you have a shoving match, then violence. Which didn’t happen here, but sure as hell could have.
And now along comes important new data that says that the approach we’re saying works at the family level also works on the political level. Check it out here. The research shows that even better than compromise at reducing political hostility is civility. Being civil! Which is just what discourse looks like when you’re not using power moves.
Someone makes a suggestion. It’s awful. Makes you feel like a bunch of bonkers Boogaloo Boys have just walked into the room. So, okay, now what?
You could try to squash the other person down to size. “That’s truly the stupidest thing I ever heard!” Or “I’m not going to sit here and listen to this kind of crap.” Or “What are you, some kind of moron?”
Maybe gratifying, but surely not useful, because guaranteed to produce a comeback that’ll keep the pot boiling.
Well, the research I’ve just mentioned says that at the political level, even trying to compromise isn’t as effective at reducing hostility as just being civil. Saying in response to that awful suggestion something like
“I’d like to hear more about where you’re coming from with that.”
“Let me begin by telling you what I like about your suggestion...”
“Let me try to build on what you said...”
Very civil. And more important, very useful at getting the other person to engage in a real discussion about real alternatives in a non-hostile frame of mind.
And that’s really the big point I’m trying to make here. The distinction between what might be gratifying in the moment (giving the other person a piece of your mind) and what is useful (starting from where you’re both at and building towards the best possible solution). Honestly, I don’t in a million years understand why anyone wouldn’t opt for the most useful alternative every time.
One more thing. Is it really so gratifying to give the other person a piece of your mind? This is what’s called the revenge fallacy. We have felt hurt and humiliated. We think about getting back at the other person, saying something to them, doing something to them. We think about how satisfying it will feel.
And what happens if we do it?
People’s testimony weighs heavily on the side of feeling disappointed. “Well, I went over there and gave him a good piece of my mind.”
“Ooh! Good for you! Was he crushed?”
“Well...no. It was like he just didn’t care. He said a couple of nasty things back at me and just slammed the door in my face.”
And that’s more or less what happens. We want to reduce the other person to a blubbering puddle, and that just rarely happens. They give us a piece of their mind back or else they just don’t care. No blubbering puddles.
In the end, giving someone a piece of your mind ends up being a kind of “so what” experience. The revenge fantasy is thinking it won’t be.
So thinking about the politics of relationships we have with someone we love and care about, and focusing on what’s useful, please, please follow what we talk about in Why Couples Fight. Why give away pieces of your mind when what you want is love, harmony, peace, and for you both to be getting your needs met?