Seems it’s time again to explore the value of civility in discussions of “hot” topics. Several local issues are emerging, or re-emerging, stirring strong feelings and provoking strong words. This can exacerbate differences within our community and make it more difficult for us all to get along. But there are some simple things we can do to minimize ongoing contention.
If you disagree with someone, don’t make it personal. Even if you disagree with them very strongly, there’s no need to be mean. Mean comments tend to come back to bite you. Verbal attacks are unlikely to convince the other person that they are wrong and you are right. On the contrary, the most likely outcomes are that they will hold more strongly to their opinion, completely tune-out anything further you have to say, and begin to think equally mean thoughts about you. When their mean thoughts become mean words in retaliation, they can hurt.
The nasty, uncomfortable truth is that others see us much more realistically than we might prefer. They see us when we’re too involved with what we’re doing to remember to say please or thank-you. They notice the fleeting facial expressions that we’re not even aware we’re making, but which can reveal a tremendous amount about what we’re thinking. They may hear the polite words we say, but register much more strongly the angry or snarky tone of voice we use.
Estimates of the portion of communication that is non-verbal used to hover around 80%. But the latest figures I’ve seen increase that to an astonishing 93%. That means only about 7% of communication is the words we use. (You can see why so many conflicts are created and made worse through email, relying entirely on words, but that’s for another column.)
Even if comments are not mean, we tend to go on high-alert when we hear opinions that differ strongly from ours. Justifiably or not, we perceive a threat to our well-being. When we feel threatened, our bodies go into facing-a-tiger mode, preparing to fight, flee, or freeze. Our attention and blood-flow become centered on the systems that will best help us do one of those three. Unfortunately, higher brain function is not one of those systems. We do not think things out fully when we feel threatened.
But someone expressing a different opinion is not a tiger; there is no need to attack.
We can train ourselves to counteract the automatic response of our bodies. Breathing deeply three times always helps. The challenge is remembering to do it. Because of the way our bodies are wired, remembering to take deep breaths is particularly difficult when we feel threatened, because it requires using the very parts of our brains that are harder to access.
Practicing will make remembering easier. The next time you start feeling a little bit upset about someone expressing a viewpoint you don’t agree with, breathe deeply, pause, and exhale fully. Repeat twice. Now notice how much more clearly you can think.
Start small, when the defensive response is mild, perhaps when you’re alone and just remembering earlier comments that you found obnoxious. The more we practice, the easier it becomes to remember to calm ourselves. When we’re calmer, we can take the time to listen to the views of others. We can also choose our verbal and non-verbal communication so that our own opinions are more likely to be heard by others. That’s when productive dialogue can occur.