The ABCs of Turning Friends Into Enemies

By: Bonnie
August 23, 2012

This week Rep. Todd Akin very publicly put his foot in his mouth. Last month Pres. Obama very publicly put his foot in his mouth. On a fairly regular cycle in politics, someone with a visible platform is speaking sans the self-editing function and a brouhaha broils for a bit. For those who follow politics, it’s entertaining, or at least diverting. For those who don’t, it’s at the very least annoying and at the very most reason to abstain from political involvement altogether.

I would argue that the acrimony is inevitable because a two-party system based on soliciting a democratic vote automatically sets up an us vs. them mentality and foments behaviors that make it virtually impossible to swim in a shared pool of meaning.

For most of us, the ability to discourse with respect and to collaborate for improvement is demanded of us in a way that we either can’t or won’t demand of politicians. We recognize the need for “give and take” and expect to sometimes compromise. Those with more experience in or aptitude for cooperative work have learned skills in reflective listening and consensus building and consultation. Although many times a two-sided sucker’s choice seems the only set of options available, in most real life situations (as opposed to the virtual reality of politics) a creative set of options is fairly easy to develop.

However sometimes, and often in the severely limited venue of online discourse, a debate among friends (or potential friends) takes a sudden turn and we find ourselves in a bloodfight. If the dialogue is between us and a spouse, it’s painful. Sometimes a teen is aligned against us. Sometimes a co-worker. Sometimes a friend. We come to an impasse of opinion and we’re left with the obvious options: avoid the conflict, or make a mess of it.

Four researchers at an organizational behavior think tank called Vital Smarts put together a NYT Bestseller called Crucial Conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high. In one section of the book, they note that dialogue turns sour and becomes destructive when one party begins to feel unsafe. One example given was of a CEO who had a tendency to bully his team of VPs if he was challenged. When he put forward a proposal that challenged an ethical standard the company operated by, his team was absolutely silent. One employee, however, was able to put forward his dissenting opinion in such a way that the CEO neither felt threatened nor could escape the VP’s conclusions. They were able to continue to dialogue despite a potentially destructive apparent sucker’s choice because of the manner of their dialogue.

Some basic guidelines:

Watch for content and conditions. When the stakes are high (emotionally-charged subjects) the conversation turns crucial when one party begins to feel unsafe. Dialogue requires a free-flow of meaning, which is only possible when one feels that one’s best interests are unchallenged (quite different from one’s ideas being challenged). The most skilled conversationalists process content and condition cues with an awareness that content will change under different conditions. That difference in content often is the difference between creative solutions and a political impasse.

When people are unsafe, they engage in silence or violence behaviors, falling roughly into three types each:

Masking: Understating or selectively sharing our true opinions (sarcasm, sugarcoating, couching)

Avoiding: Sensitive subjects never come up for review or change because the cost of conversing is too high

Withdrawing: Leaving the conversation or the room out of a general belief that no collaboration is possible

Controlling: Coercing, convincing, cutting others off, overstating data, dominating, speaking in absolutes, hyperbole

Labeling: Categorizing people or ideas or behaviors so that we can dismiss them

Attacking: Moving from winning the argument to making the other person suffer, belittling, threatening

When we’re under stress, and we feel unsafe (insecure) in dialogue, we have tendencies toward certain of these behaviors. We stop self-monitoring and become unaware of our own behavior. Our social sensitivities are blunted as we become consumed with ideas and causes, and frequently perceive the exchange as infused with crisis because standards far beyond ourselves are at stake.

Jump over and take a quick quiz to see which ways you tend to go.

Tools for staying safe in conversation the authors suggest:

Step out and back in. Notice when the content overwhelms and focus on mutual respect and mutual purpose to hit the reset button. If we knee-jerk respond with one of the above avoidance behaviors, we can’t focus on the relationship and shared meaning that makes the flow of ideas possible in dialogue. When mutual purpose is at stake, people end up in debate. When mutual respect is at stake, people end up defending dignity. Either condition produces defensive and highly charged conversation and few results.

Apologize - Correct misunderstandings - Agree to agree

Confidence, Humility, and Skill. Speak your truth with confidence that it contributes to the shared pool of meaning, proceed with humility that acknowledges that others have valuable contributions to the shared pool of meaning, and get good at sifting through the flow of ideas without fouling the water in the process. Skilled conversationalists engage others because they don’t assume they have cornered the market on truth, but realize that they’ve a vital perspective to contribute and can do so without brutalizing others.

STATE your ideas. Share your facts, Tell your story, Ask for others’ ideas, Talk tentatively, Encourage testing. Facts are less controversial and provide unemotional beginnings to emotional conversations. They are also most persuasive and least insulting. When you share your story then, it’s grounded in facts and not in hyperbole or inflation. When you ask in sincerity out of a genuine desire to learn rather than be right, exhibiting a willingness to change if the dialogue warrants, you build real relationships and enrich your own life as well as enlarging the shared pool of meaning. Tentative doesn’t mean not confident, but willing to entertain other views (our observations may be faulty or incomplete, our stories may be founded on too few observations, etc.) We can even play devil’s advocate when it appears that someone is not willing to call us out, encouraging a more open conversation.

As the authors state:

“When we feel the need to push our ideas on others, it’s generally because we believe we’re right and everyone else is wrong. There’s no need to expand the pool of meaning, because we own the pool. We also firmly believe it’s our duty to fight for the truth that we’re holding. It’s the honorable things to do. It’s what people of character do.”

Some awkward things can then happen:

  • We feel justified in using dirty tricks.
  • We appeal to authority.
  • We attack the person.
  • We draw hasty generalizations.

“The more you care about an issue, the less likely you are to be on your best behavior.”

The authors note that most disagreements they’ve found in their consulting concern the 5-10% of facts and stories people disagree over. The solution then is to AGREE when you agree, BUILD when others leave out key pieces, and COMPARE when you differ.

While I think the virtual reality of public political discourse is probably beyond salvaging, we needn’t bring the bad behaviors we see there home to our families, friendships, or workplace, creating an us vs. them dynamic there. Crucial Conversations may provide a positive way to engage in healthy dialogue that creates a shared pool of meaning rather than alienating, baiting, and categorizing – the political tools of turning friends into enemies.

  • Where did you fit on the silence/violence spectrum?
  • Do you find public conversations taxing or useful or both?
  • As a leader, which of the negative conversing strategies is most destructive or tempting?
  • As a follower, which of the negative conversing strategies is most tempting or destructive?
  • With the obvious difficulty of sensing conditions in virtual conversations, how can we protect friendships?

Do you lean more toward Silence or Violence in stress communications?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Tags: , , , , , ,

25 Responses to The ABCs of Turning Friends Into Enemies

  1. Stephen Marsh on August 23, 2012 at 6:40 AM

    What is fun is that several books with similar names from the same cluster of people in the programs came out at the same time. I’ve 2-3 of them.

    Well worth repeating and explaining.

    Great post, hope it gets the attention it deserves.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  2. Last Lemming on August 23, 2012 at 7:22 AM

    ” “

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  3. Bonnie on August 23, 2012 at 7:57 AM

    Stephen, I own their other books as well. Pretty useful, and arrived in my circle of study at just the right time in my life.

    Last Lemming, care to elaborate?

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  4. Will on August 23, 2012 at 8:28 AM

    Bonnie,

    If you want to stay safe, then your counsel is good; however, sometimes it is necessary to call a spade a spade. Along these lines, I think we have become too safe in our language – too politically correct. The ussification of our society, if you will; where you have thousands of kids applying on national television for a singing competition with absolutely no skills in that arena. Some do it for attention, but the vast majority does it because no one has been honest with them. No one has told them they don’t know how to sing.

    To go back to the scriptures, as it is says in Ecclesiastes to everything there is a time and a season – “a time of peace and a time to kill, a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted,…”. The bottom line is that sometimes it is just not possible to turn and enemy into a friend no matter how safe the dialogue. Hilter and Ahmadinejad are two prime examples.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  5. Bonnie on August 23, 2012 at 9:05 AM

    Will, excellent point. The authors call this speaking with confidence. It doesn’t guarantee that the listener listens; it merely ensures that when we speak we don’t engage in dirty tricks to try to win or control or damage another. I had a very forthright conversation with my son yesterday about taking a utility knife to school with him. He did not always feel safe, but I did work very hard not to employ the dirty tricks that are available to one who is in authority or is afraid of the consequences for someone else. He walked away from the conversation, because that is his way of ensuring he doesn’t say something stupid, but he returns to it later when he’s refined his thoughts. Falsely creating a safe environment by sugarcoating is just as polluting to the pool of meaning as attacking or controlling. Make sense?

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  6. Paul on August 23, 2012 at 10:43 AM

    Bonnie, terrific post. I’ve been working for years on my communication skills within my family; I tend far too much toward violence as defined by the quiz. Some good thoughts about how to retreat from that view.

    Will, I agree with Bonnie’s response to you, and would add that it seems the items under discussion are for a particular type of communication, namely collective problem solving and decision making. Sometimes we simply need to give direction; sometimes (like Simon Cowell) we need to pass judgement. In those times we can still speak kindly, but directly.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  7. Will on August 23, 2012 at 11:21 AM

    Bonnie,

    “I had a very forthright conversation with my son yesterday about taking a utility knife to school with him”.

    Hopefully it was a conversation that a utility knife is harmless and is used for construction purposes and if you want a real weapon, we need to go to Gunderson’s on 200 South in downtown Salt Lake (great store by the way). Hopefully, it was about how when we were teenagers we could have loaded shotguns and 7MM rifles in the gun rack of our trucks (along with carving knives and the like in the console) without the administration going hysterical. Thinking of a utility knife as a weapon, or striping people of weapons is falsely creating a safe environment, in my opinion. Maybe like a lot of teens (and millions of others) he feels vulnerable of some Columbine incident where some crazy kids go nuts. The remedy, in my opinion is to have the proper training and use of a weapon and be able to carry that weapon. This will provide real safety.

    My parents gave me a brand new Remington shotgun for my birthday when I turned 12 – best birthday ever.

    Am I being direct enough?

    Like this comment? Thumb up 3

  8. Mormon Heretic on August 23, 2012 at 1:07 PM

    Excellent post Bonnie.

    Where did you fit on the silence/violence spectrum?

    In stressful situations, I use both equally badly.

    Do you find public conversations taxing or useful or both?

    Yes. I have found that discussing politics is taxing for me. I’ve had to withdraw because I don’t see the conversations as productive at all. On the other hand, when talking about controversial church history, I find those conversations quite useful.

    As a leader, which of the negative conversing strategies is most destructive or tempting?

    As a follower, which of the negative conversing strategies is most tempting or destructive?

    As a leader, violence seems most tempting. As a follower, silence is most tempting.

    With the obvious difficulty of sensing conditions in virtual conversations, how can we protect friendships?

    This is the hardest for me. Walking away from a conversation seems to be the best way to protect friendships.

    I see Will is promoting violence in his most recent comment. Whether he is right or not, that approach seems incredibly counter-productive, destructive, and least likely to succeed, IMO. Yet he still continues…. I just don’t get it. (For the record Will, you are almost always too direct. Try some honey, instead of vinegar and see if that works better for you. As a note, I have noticed more honey from you lately, and it is appreciated. When you use vinegar, I am more likely to fight violence with violence. Just FYI. But I do like the honey, and I probably should acknowledge your honey more often than I do.)

    Like this comment? Thumb up 2

  9. Bonnie on August 23, 2012 at 2:26 PM

    Actually, Will, my conversation included many of those things. I have a concealed carry permit, which seems to surprise most people. I’m assuming using the word “safe” to describe a conversation is a trigger for you, because you may be equating that with political correctness. I’m not making that equation. You are absolutely right that you cannot turn an enemy into a friend (and it’s manipulative to try.) The point the authors made was that we needn’t turn friends into enemies. When people agree 90-95% of the time, the manner of their conversation and its content needs to reflect that balance if we want to maintain those relationships. But you do make the case quite nicely for the need for this kind of education.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  10. charlene on August 23, 2012 at 2:26 PM

    Bonnie,
    Thanks for referencing a useful way to assess and improve our personal communication skills.

    I’d like to ask about your original argument, “I would argue that the acrimony is inevitable because a two-party system based on soliciting a democratic vote automatically sets up an us vs. them mentality and foments behaviors that make it virtually impossible to swim in a shared pool of meaning.”

    I agree that us vs. them is a major problem and it happens to be one of my kneejerk reaction points. Do you think there is less of this tendency in systems with more players in the game, i.e., multiple party systems where one must form coalitions in order to achieve majority status?

    Like this comment? Thumb up 2

  11. Bonnie on August 23, 2012 at 2:40 PM

    That’s an interesting segue, isn’t it charlene? Yes, I think there is less, but it’s only marginally less, and that’s a completely subjective observation. I tend to think in yin/yang a lot of the time, so I see pros and cons to systems rather than clear winners. For instance, a 2-party democratic system engages more people in the possibility of a win and develops sort of an electoral economy of scale, but forces platforms to be dualistic. A multi-party democratic system engages more issues but thereby divides the people by issue and promotes other kinds of behind-the-scenes games. A monarchy eliminates the games a democratic system sets up and provides an opportunity for tremendous unity, but creates other problems significant enough for us to reject the idea of re-instituting it. I don’t know that I believe there is an ideal political system. Everything is a trade-off. I would probably be willing to give up some of my freedoms to be through with the drain professional politics places on our society, but I just don’t know who I would give that kind of power to, so I appreciate the necessity of our present system. I’ve observed this trade-off situation in lots of things: parents who raise their kids in perfect environments of respect and opportunity might raise amazing kids or weak kids, and parents who raise their kids in environments of want and anger might raise more resilient kids or more angry kids. It’s pretty hard to create perfect environments, because certain kinds of traits and values may be hard to develop simultaneously. We do the best we can.

    And I don’t really believe acrimony is inevitable, or I wouldn’t have written the post. I think it’s the natural man and the natural institution, however.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  12. Will on August 23, 2012 at 3:14 PM

    “I have a concealed carry permit”

    You have officially moved to the top of my list as writers (sorry Hawk, you’re number 2 now) on this blog.

    Fan Favorite! Do you like this comment as well? Thumb up 4

  13. prometheus on August 23, 2012 at 8:48 PM

    The self inventory was an interesting illumination of how I often fail at reasoned discussion.

    Our conversation a couple of posts ago, Will, is a good example. My responses tended progressively more towards the violence end up to a point, and then I quit the conversation entirely, opting for silence instead.

    I would be curious to hear your take on that exchange, Will. :D

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  14. Hedgehog on August 24, 2012 at 1:07 AM

    1. Equal on both, though still within the green section (but only just).
    2. Depends on the forum, subject, and number of people involved. A lot of spoken discussions in a group setting (outside of family) I don’t participate because it takes me too long to process the information and the discussion has moved on by the time I have a response. Also, I just don’t see those cues for whose ‘turn’ it is to speak – though I’m told they exist. From the responses I get, it seems I often speak at the ‘wrong’ time. So quite taxing that way. A written forum like this is certainly better, and more enjoyable.
    3./4. Silence as a leader, and violence as a follower… I don’t like having to follow, and leading is just hard work perhaps?
    5. Be willing to apologise, explain any misunderstanding, try to be polite, I guess. I like the point about recognising common ground. I have a sister on the opposite side of the planet, most of our communication is online these days. We’re totally different ‘Myers-Briggs’ types, and we often get the wrong end of the stick in our virtual conversations, though knowing that we’re totally different types does help.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  15. h_nu on August 24, 2012 at 4:17 PM

    Bonnies been number 1 for a while. Hawk’s too liberal…

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  16. anon on August 24, 2012 at 4:32 PM

    In a previous post Bonnie mentioned her conceal-carry permit, but also said that she neither carries nor owns a gun. Huh? All the permit is doing for her is taking up space in her handbag.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  17. Bonnie on August 24, 2012 at 4:39 PM

    anon – very true. I’ve moved to the bow. But when I borrow a pistol or rifle, I’m a crack shot. (Must still curry favor with right wing extremists.)

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  18. FireTag on August 24, 2012 at 5:12 PM

    Bonnie:

    Does your ancestry go back to a certain Celtic queen who almost threw the Romans out of Britain?

    OK. If things really get bad, everyone meet up at Bonnie’s house to make your last stand. :D

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  19. Stephen R. Marsh on August 24, 2012 at 6:44 PM

    Hmm, I’ve a couple swords, some blunts, and a rifle. No useful handgun, but I do have an old fashioned bow. Need to get a bow string and arrows again.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  20. Bonnie on August 24, 2012 at 6:52 PM

    Is the fact that all of us are now discussing weapons and end-of-world scenarios an indication that we lean toward the violence reaction to conflict situation? Rats.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  21. Stephen R. Marsh on August 24, 2012 at 8:55 PM

    No. I don’t have enough ammunition for that sort of thing, don’t even have arrows at the moment.

    So peace for certain. At least one of the swords in the house was blunted by an armorer, not quite yet a plow share …

    But my oldest daughter, the one who just got married, was four years varsity on the rifle team ;)

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  22. hawkgrrrl on August 24, 2012 at 10:38 PM

    MoHer to Will: “I probably should acknowledge your honey more often than I do.” Is this a budding bromance?

    I was equally low on both violence and silence, but I note that what I do is sometimes when people don’t really care what I think, I disengage. I am aware of doing this at work, and I definitely do it at church too.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  23. hawkgrrrl on August 24, 2012 at 10:39 PM

    Oh, and I too have read and trained this one – well, its sister course “Crucial Confrontations” (the leader version of the material). Also read Fierce Conversations. Some of these titles!

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  24. Tiffany W. on August 25, 2012 at 1:10 PM

    Thanks for this post. You’ve just clarified some things I couldn’t quite explain about some situations in my life.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  25. Andrew S on August 31, 2012 at 4:25 AM

    Recent conversations on this site have given me firsthand insight into how I interact…so let me see if I can answer these:

    Masking: Understating or selectively sharing our true opinions (sarcasm, sugarcoating, couching)

    Avoiding: Sensitive subjects never come up for review or change because the cost of conversing is too high

    Withdrawing: Leaving the conversation or the room out of a general belief that no collaboration is possible

    Controlling: Coercing, convincing, cutting others off, overstating data, dominating, speaking in absolutes, hyperbole

    Labeling: Categorizing people or ideas or behaviors so that we can dismiss them

    Attacking: Moving from winning the argument to making the other person suffer, belittling, threatening

    Masking? Yes

    Avoiding? No

    Withdrawing? Eventually, yes. Interestingly, I see “withdrawing” or “avoiding” as ideals I should be trying to do more often.

    Controlling? Yah.

    Labeling? I can see that.

    Attacking? Definitely.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

Leave a Reply

Subscribe without commenting

Archives

%d bloggers like this: