March 30th, 2006

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Linguistics; pragmatics; disagreeing without being disagreeable; part 2

Disagreeing without being disagreeable, when the issue itself is relatively minor

One person's minor issue is another person's matter of principle and grave concern; I understand that. The example I've chosen for this post should be considered by contrast with issues such as abortion, immigration, and whether all religions are equally valid. In that context, I'm confident that it qualifies as a minor issue.

Suppose that the issue is where a third-grade class should go on a school field trip. The principal has decided that the destination should be a local dairy farm; the assistant principal thinks that's an awful idea, wants to go to a nearby aquarium instead, and feels obligated to meet with the principal and argue for that position. For keeping that disagreement agreeable, I have a couple of rules and a brief set (by no means a complete set) of suggestions.

Rule 1 (The It-Should-Go-Without-Saying Rule)
Don't swear, don't use obscenities, don't use name-calling, don't use open insults, don't yell, don't get physical. Be civil.

Rule 2
Follow the language interaction traffic rules. That is: Listen with your full attention when the other person is talking; don't interrupt the other person; don't monopolize the conversation by delivering monologues instead of taking turns; don't have a tantrum.

Suggestion 1
If the other person does monologues at you, follow these steps.

Step 1. Match the rhythm of your body language to the other person's. Blink your eyes at the same rate; breathe at the same rate; nod your head at the same rate.

Step 2: Once your and the other person are synchronized for body language, start synchronizing with the words being spoken, saying something innocuous, speaking -- softly -- along with the other person and at the same speed. Use a phrase like "I hear you" or "Mmhmm" or "I see." Choose one phrase, and stick with it. You're not interrupting when you do this; you're supporting and helping. It's like pulling ahead of a car whose driver is obviously lost, getting the driver's attention, and leading the way to the next exit.

Step 3: Now that you and the monologuer are nicely matched, start slowing down your words and saying them more and more softly. Do this very gradually; let the other person follow you, very gradually, toward silence.

Suggestion 2
Do your best to put out of your mind the Disagreement Is Combat metaphor, where you blow the other person out of the water, tear their case apart, shoot down their arguments, and are obligated to WIN, no matter what it takes. Try Disagreement Is Carpentry instead, or some other non-competitive metaphor of your choice.

Suggestion 3
Do everything you can to remove the personal from your language while you're disagreeing, unless what you're saying can be made unambiguously positive. Don't say "I strongly object to your idea of going to a dairy farm." Don't say "I think you will be making a mistake if you insist on going to a dairy farm." Get rid of "I" and "you" and "your" and "our." Say "When children are around cattle, the children get dirty, and manure on a child's fingers guarantees a case of food poisoning." To make that unambiguously positive, say "As you know, when children are around cattle, the children get dirty, and manure on a child's fingers guarantees a case of food poisoning."

Suggestion 4
Keep your nonverbal communication as neutral as possible. Be especially careful to keep your tone of voice and your intonation -- the tune you set your words to -- neutral.

Suggestion 5
If you feel that you cannot avoid making a critical statement or a complaint or a request for a change in behavior, use a Three-Part Message for that purpose. [Posts on Three-Part Messages are at , , , and .]

Suggestion 6
Instead of "if," (in "If X, then Y" constructions) use "suppose." Don't say "If the destination is a dairy farm, a lot of the children are likely to get food poisoning." Say "Suppose the destination is a dairy farm -- a lot of the children are likely to get food poisoning." [Note: There was an uproar in this journal early on when I recommended this use of "suppose," which is a technique I learned from a wise Laotian gentleman. Many LJers hated it. If you hate it, don't use it. It has always worked very well for me, and for the Laotian gentleman.]

Suggestion 7
Whenever an appropriate opportunity arises, use a metaphor. Don't say: "Willowhaven Dairy Farm is filthy." Say: "Willowhaven Dairy Farm is a giant mudpie."
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Linguistics; political language; an alternative approach

I keep fussing in this journal about the long, bland, vague, uninspiring list of "values" being proposed for the non-Right in George Lakoff's current writings on political language. In that context, I want to quote briefly from a review by Jerry Ortiz y Pino of Michael Lerner's The Left Hand of God, from the March 16-22 issue of the Alibi. Ortiz y Pino writes:

"Throughout the book, Lerner uses 'the left hand of God' as a metaphor for the values and attitudes of optimism, hope, humility, caring and service to others that flow from progressive elements in Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and Islam."

He also says that Lerner contrasts this with the "right hand of God," defined as an orientation which warns that "the world is a place in which everyone is going to exercise power over you, dominate you, control you unless you dominate and control them first."

I haven't read the book -- I'll be ordering it today so that I can fix that; if you have read it, I'd welcome your comments about it. (For example, without reading the book I can't know why "hope" and "optimism" are listed as two diffierent values.) But I'd be interested in your reactions to that list of five values -- optimism, hope, humility, caring, and service to others -- and to the "hand of God" metaphors.

Thanks to Patricia Mathews for sending me the review.
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Brief note about "As you know...."

In my medical seminars, some version of the following question comes up over and over again; this is the Dermatologist version.

"What do I do when I get a call from a rheumatologist and he says, 'I've got a patient here with psoriasis on her ankles; what should I prescribe for that?' I'm not happy suggesting a prescription for a patient I haven't even seen, and I don't trust him to diagnose psoriasis, but I don't want to alienate the guy. Do you have any suggestions?"

I have always suggested that the rheumatologist say, "As you know, there are many other conditions that look an awful lot like psoriasis."

And the doctors (from whatever specialty) tell me that that works like a charm and gets them off the "What would you prescribe?" hook; often it gets them a referral.

Among my private clients, I get asked how you can tell a doctor who has obviously forgotten that you're allergic to penicillin that you're allergic to penicillin, without making the doctor mad. [I have learned by now that none of you would put up with "that sort of crap" from a doctor for two seconds, and I salute you -- but I work with a lot of people who lack some of your self-confidence, live in an area where there's only one doctor for miles, are stuck in a health plan where they have no choice about what doctor they see, and similar truck.] I tell them to say, "As you know, Doctor, I'm allergic to penicillin." My clients tell me that that has worked well for them.

I also advise students and junior faculty who are talking to a senior prof who has obviously forgotten some crucial factoid needed for the discussion to provide it, prefaced by "As you know....". And they tell me that that has worked well for them.

There are many situations in which it's desirable to try not to make the person you're disagreeing with lose face. "As you know," if said neutrally, is one way to do that. When it's said arrogantly, or condescendingly, or sarcastically, it won't work.