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Sunday, May 17, 2015

Putdowns, Insults, Attacks . . . and You

     Here they are at the old boys’ class reunion, sharing memories of those long-ago highs and lows in the classroom, the dorm, the gym and the dining hall.
     Sure enough, it happens, one of them tells a story, and the guy across the picnic table from him stands up and says, “That’s a really old joke.” The guy walks off a few feet and stands impatiently, waiting for his buddies to leave.
     The insulted person sits there looking at the insulter. “You haven’t changed a bit,” he says, silently to himself. What does he do now?
     We all dream of coming up with the perfect response for these moments. Actually, any response at all is just one option.
     If the targeted person says aloud what’s on his mind – “You haven’t changed a bit” – he is acting on the fight option, albeit at the lower-octane range of that approach. He is fighting fire with fire; not taking the putdown lying down.
     If he does that, he can expect return fire, almost certainly escalating the intensity as well as the visibility of the exchange. He should be prepared for how he will conduct himself in such circumstances.
     Or he could say and do nothing, just sitting there redfaced while bystanders try to ignore the moment, possibly doing a little squirming themselves. That is called the freeze response.

     Well, as a general rule, what should we do when such things happen? How should we respond to insults, threats and attacks?
     We can expect to have unpleasant behavior directed at us, sometimes in more emotional and uncomfortable ways than the putdown described above. More often than not, the event will be an ambush – erupting unexpectedly during a business meeting or an otherwise unexceptional situation.
     Human behavior studies typically categorize response behaviors as fight, flight or freeze. The person subjected to some kind of negative treatment gives it back in some way, departs the scene to escape the discomfort, or is simply paralyzed with embarrassment, fear or some similar emotion.
     The best behavior, though, is not really a response to the other person so much as a prepared attitude toward managing such situations to the best possible conclusion.

     We don’t fully forget moments like that. We shouldn’t. Their meaning for us, however, is all in how we think about them, and what we do as a result.
     Challenging personal events can deepen one’s sense of inadequacy and a habit of avoidance when conflict threatens. They also, though, provide opportunity for personal growth and enrichment we can’t get any other way. For people seeking to sharpen skills of leadership and influence, moments of conflict are practice sessions of unparalleled value.
     Competency in managing incoming insults, threats and attacks does not come naturally to most of us. Normal maturation, especially in management situations, brings with it a measure of patience and tolerance – but only in limited quantity.
     If you’re going to get good at managing nasty encounters, it will be because you set out to do so and you worked at it.
     Work at it? You bet. The hardest thing we’ll ever attempt to do is make permanent change in our own behavior. Attempts to do so must be wise, determined and well planned. They must be driven by rewards we value highly enough to support sustained effort and overcome the discomfort of change. We have to mean it – really mean it. That is especially true when we are seeking to master competencies in uncomfortable areas such as conflict and face-to-face ugliness.

      What’s the secret? Motivation. We do things we want to do.
     If we just think we ought to do something, that’s not enough. Even if we consider it very important, we won’t do it if we don’t want to. All the regret and guilt in the world won’t drive action unless they give rise to a desire to act.
     So, if we are to prepare ourselves for effective management of tough moments, we have to desire that skill set more than we long to just get by hoping there won’t be any tough moments.
     The eternal human tendency to wish and hope is the big barrier here, and it is the antithesis of determination to act.
     So the initial stage in the skill-building campaign is mental and emotional. We set out to consciously build the emotional level necessary to drive the habit change.
     We call up the memories of ourselves and others skillfully handling the sideswipes and ambushes of bad behavior. We study the behavior of people who respond well to attack behavior and other challenges. We practice what we observe.
     The mental pictures can come from movies or from reading, too. They must be vivid and credible, and we don’t just view them from afar -- we apply them to our thinking about ourselves. We work to see ourselves doing those things.

    This creative visualization is often mocked, but it works.
     It’s going on anyway. The bad memories that cripple our responses and reinforce our fears operate exactly the same way – but in the opposite direction. They keep cropping up, reminding and convincing us that only suffering will come from conflict.
     When we re-run the words, the sneers, the feelings – that’s visualization. The more memorable the moment, the more powerful the rush of emotion that comes back, every time. If we allow the negative to dominate, that’s what we get.
     The conscious effort to insert and replay positive pictures works the same way, but it takes work and persistence to sustain it long enough to effect permanent attitude change.
      The attitude-building effort includes wise use of communication and observation. Human behavior is so complex and variable that we can easily misinterpret words, tone, expressions and gestures.
     So we train ourselves to ask validation questions as we feel conclusions starting to form during a conversation. Is the other party being hostile, or just emotional? Is that irritation directed at me, or at the situation? Am I hearing an accusation, or is it really a question?

     Success is in two stages: First, the assault is blunted and dissolved; the aggression stops. Second, the situation is brought to a satisfactory conclusion.
     How do you make that happen?
     You adopt the attitude that this is a negotiation, however inappropriate that idea might seem. This angry and/or negative person has a reason for behaving this way. What is that reason, and how does it justify – in that person’s mind – the aggression?
     The capable person asks, not belligerently, for those explanations. She is interested, and her nonthreatening manner proves it. There’s a pretty good chance this approach will work.
     It doesn’t always work, of course, but patient, tolerant attention to the other person’s words and meaning is never a bad idea.
     This takes a substantial level of confidence but, as it is employed, it becomes a reinforcement and multiplier of confidence.  
     The end point might be an apology, an expression of understanding or some kind of grudging acceptance of responsibility. In the moment, it might simply be a cessation of hostilities and parting company.
     The competent manager of interpersonal conflict recognizes that relationships are what matter, and every contact with another person should result in a positive addition to the productivity of that relationship.
     That may seem a lost cause as a conflicted situation is brought to a close, but you never know. A positive thought planted at that moment can grow over time. At the very least, it neutralizes the sourness that otherwise could linger.
     While the constructive remark is intended for the other party, its most assured result is the effect it has on the person who makes it: Whatever has taken place here, I am the one who decides how I’m going to feel about myself the rest of the day.

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