Arguments vs. disclosures

Have you ever been involved in an uncomfortable conversation in which you left the interaction feeling an unpleasant mixture of irritation, intrusiveness, guilt, annoyance, nausea and loneliness?  Perhaps you were involved in an argument, also known as a debate or sometimes a “discussion.” 

Arguments and tend to cause relationship ruptures.  They hype up each person’s defense systems and engage their amygdalas, often eliciting hostile and unrefined behaviors that can hurt feelings and cause resentment.

On the other hand, self-disclosures can increase connection and the rewarding sensation of being heard and understood between people.  Self-disclosures are paradoxically more likely to create change, because each person’s defenses are down, and they are more open to entertaining new opinions and ideas.

What is the difference between arguing and disclosure?  In some ways they are polar opposites.  In arguments, there is an attempt to convert the other person to your way of thinking.  There is also a tense element of helplessness in the fact that no one can control what another believes.  Arguments are judgmental — each person believes (judges) themselves to be right on a specific issue.  Disclosures are non-judgmental and accepting of self and others.  A disclosure often starts with, “I believe/think … ” rather than “it is…”

The underlying dynamic in disclosures is:  let’s share our ideas, no matter how different they may seem.

In arguments, the dynamic is:  one of us will end up right and one will be wrong. 

In disclosures, there is still room for logic, but there is no rhetoric (attempts at persuasion).  I can share the logic that I see in my beliefs without being attached to whether someone else adopts that same logic.  I can listen to their logic, and still have space for my beliefs.  In the end, their logic may persuade me, but because they gave me a chance to persuade myself, rather than being persuaded — the difference is sometimes subtle.

Disclosures convey respect and conserve dignity and equality.  They attempt to bridge chasms.  They encourage authenticity and connection.  Arguments create hierarchies of right/wrong, up/down, moral/immoral, good/bad.

Arguing attempts to coerce conversion and assimilation.  Reciprocal disclosures grow understanding.

Arguing is like smashing rocks together.  It takes your energy and converts it into ineffective output.  It leaves fatigue and discouragement in its wake.  Disclosing is like ice melting in the sun.  It takes more time but results in change of state and increase in energy.

If you argue and someone doesn’t allow your beliefs, you don’t know if they are even able to think rationally, because they are in fight mode.  So you never quite feel as though you can give up in your quest to convert.  On the other hand, if you disclose vulnerably and non-judgmentally and the other responds with rejection, there may be sadness but there is also resolve — you know that you tried and the non-acceptance is about the other person’s relationship with your belief, not with your delivery or behavior.  You can then feel peaceful about disengaging from the topic and saving energy for more productive pursuits.

Advanced Mingling

A friend recently asked me what I thought made someone an “advanced mingler.”    When I think of mingling, I think of connecting in a meaningful way with a new person at a social gathering.   Many people are interested in improving their mingling skills because they realize how important it is to create and maintain social networks and interpersonal contacts, for social support, professional collaboration, and pursuing social and romantic relationships.  Here are some keys to mingling that came up during our conversation:

  1. Be interested in other people.  People feel connected when they are able to share and talk about themselves to an attentive audience. The best part about this skill is you don’t even need to believe that you are interesting yourself (although everyone is interesting, even if they don’t know it).  Most people are hungry to tell their story, past, present, and future. They want to tell you about significant moments in their past, their present struggles and obstacles, their successes and triumphs, where they are investing their time and energy, and their goals for the future.  Most everyone is passionate about their own life,
  2. Be interesting by drawing on experiences, emotion, and meaning.  People like a good story. Does that mean you have to be an excellent storyteller to be interesting and mingle? Not at all, in my opinion. It does mean that you have to be willing to be vulnerable by occasionally talking about how you felt during events that were meaningful to you. These could be recent, in the distant past, or things you hope will happen in the future – the key is that they must invoke some kind of emotional response for you. This is a win-win after all, because why would you want to talk about something you didn’t care about anyways?  Besides feelings, what makes the story is the meaning that you attribute to events. What did your career change two years ago say about you as a person? What did you learn about life on your last vacation with your family or friend? When you made major decisions, which of your beliefs about the world fueled them? People might not want to hear about a particular field or area of interest, but they will probably want to hear about you, and how you were shaped by your experiences.
  3. Be aware of nonverbal communication. Why nonverbal communication? Because it is in the nonverbal channel that virtually all information about social relationships is carried. Nonverbal communication includes vocal tone, facial expressions, body language, eye contact, posture, proximity – anything besides the words. A laugh, a smile, a scowl, a quick movement of the arms, a raising of the eyebrows – these behaviors are information superhighways, rapidly conveying gigabytes of social data about how you feel about your conversational partner, how you feel about the gathering, who you like, how comfortable you are, how interested you are, how much respect you feel.  And of course everyone is transmitting similar data, and these behaviors are extremely honest and accurate, whereas words can very easily be faked.  Why is it important to be aware of social data? Having a conversation is a bit like driving a car. At any moment there could be an obstacle in the road, a detour or change in direction, someone moving into your lane, or an unexpected turn off. It’s not particularly hard to drive, unless you are unaware of what’s going on around you. Not paying attention to nonverbal signals is like driving with your eyes closed, it won’t be more than 20 seconds before you drift into someone else’s lane and get in a collision. In a conversation, this could look like interrupting, walking away too early or too late, dismissing or invalidating someone when they’re in the middle of an important story or feeling, or missing opportunities to talk with folks who want to connect with you.
  4. Adopt a growth mindset and stay positive about the experience.  A growth mindset is simply a belief that people can learn and improve in their skills and abilities. No one is born good at mingling, and those who seem to be naturals also had to learn the skills of mingling early on in their families.  But I suggest trying on the belief that anyone can improve and become excellent minglers with enough practice.  If you approach someone and crash and burn in a fiery explosion of awkwardness, take comfort in the fact that you learned a great deal from the experience, and it will inform all of your future interactions in some way.   Think like Thomas Edison and learn “10,000 ways how not to” have a conversation, as you build confidence, moving closer and closer to mastery.
  5. Make it fun.  Find people you click with. If you are bored (and you are sure it’s not you), be willing to gracefully exit conversations and move on to more interesting territory.  Fun = relaxation.  Relaxation = clear thinking.  Clear thinking leads to meaningful, gratifying dialogue, which is fun. Be spontaneous, be present, be in the moment. Don’t take it too seriously.  Don’t be afraid to steer the conversation where you want it to go in order to keep it satisfying. If you feel a push back, at least you know you didn’t give up too early.

There are of course many other keys to becoming successful at the art of mingling, and entire books have been written on the subject, but for me these are a few of the most important ones.

Unconditional positive regard and self-worth in regard to narrative therapy

I recently watched a 6-session video-demonstration of narrative therapy performed by Stephen Madigan, PhD.  Watching the same therapist and “consultant” (Dan) work against the same problem for six sessions was a rare opportunity, as most instructional videos only cover an initial and single session, or excerpts from multiple sessions.  Dan and Madigan quickly derail any attempts by the problem (“anxiety”, “nervousness”, and “fear”) to engage in criticism, lying, and other person-undermining tactics.

At one point, Matigan asks Dan jokingly if he has “ever committed a crime against the state,” (in order to shine light on excessive guilt), and Dan responds by beginning to talk about committing a crime.  Madigan does not even allow him to continue or elucidate, instead making a statement of injustice that Dan is suffering a “life sentence” at the hands of the problem.  For me this was a powerful moment in the therapy, because it showed possibly the apex of non-judgment (i.e., unconditional positive regard) coming from the therapist.  It was that moment that I realized something about Narrative therapy, at least from what I’ve seen: all bad / wrongness is attributed to the problem, PERIOD.  Mistakes made seem to be ignored to the largest extent possible, in order to refocus on strengths and successes immediately.

If a problematic story is being told excessively (which is why a consultant would be in therapy), then successful outcomes are regularly being glossed over or forgotten before therapy begins.  In therapy, the process is reversed:  mistakes are purposely ignored while successes are amplified.  In this way, reality is purposely filtered which, from a cognitive therapy perspective, is a distortion.  However, the everyday (problem-saturated) story the consultant tells about himself as a problem is also a distortion.  Perhaps then, the two distortions, cancel each other out and create a more “realistic” picture, like neutralizing an acid with a base to create a neutral pH, or like creating a bend in a bent paper clip to make it straight.

I write “realistic” in quotations because one of the fundamental premises of narrative therapy is that there is no such thing as an objective reality or an “accurate story,” but that the individual writes a subjective story.  This story may likely be rose-colored; as some unrealistic optimism is actually associated with strong mental health, and realistic perceptions about self and future are associated with depression.  But in most cases, the consultant begins with a dirt-colored story, also not “realistic” or healthy.  Perhaps it would be more consistent to say that the new story raises the consultant’s self-worth to the point that mistakes can be viewed without shame and no longer need to be ignored, but can be viewed as opportunities to learn about oneself and the extent AND limitations of one’s strengths, and be able to predict outcomes successfully based on accurate self-knowledge.

“Separating the person from the problem,” an initial goal in Narrative Therapy, results in an increase in self-worth, as it corrects a dominant story that many persons carry around which is that problems reside within people or (even more damaging) that people can BE problems.  This goal to be seems to be the most fundamental and important of the entire process, and it can only be achieved by genuinely providing unconditional positive regard and believing that the person is NOT the problem.  After all, realities can only be socially constructed when they are given life by people who believe in them.