In brief: Sometimes conversation has nothing to do with communication, and is instead an exercise in establishing personal power.
In late July 2017, a Salt Lake City emergency-room nurse and a police officer had a conversation that didn’t end well for either. The nurse was briefly arrested and put in handcuffs. The police officer may lose his job, if he can stay out of jail himself.
It wasn’t a political conversation, but I’m writing about it in this blog because it so clearly illustrates a common failure in political conversations: One participant thinks the purpose of the conversation is to reach mutual understanding. The other participant thinks the interaction is a tug-of-war for power.
On the surface, it appears as if the nurse and the officer are engaged in the same conversation. They face each other. One speaks, then the other speaks.
The nurse’s intent is to reach a shared understanding. Through her eyes, the conversation is about the policy. It doesn’t even cross her mind–until she is tackled and forced into handcuffs–that she is in any sort of competition for power. When she tries to explain what’s going on to the supervisor, she says “I have no idea why he’s blaming me. I’m just representing the (policy).”
The police officer, meanwhile, is oblivious to anything but the power dynamics–who’s in charge here? The only thing anyone needs to understand is that he is. He hears only a challenge to his power, not an explanation of policy. He asks for no clarification beyond “Are you going to give me what I want?”
When he explains to the supervisor, he says “She’s the one who told me ‘no’.”
Fortunately, handcuffing your opponent is normally not among the options available for settling a political argument. So this example is extreme. But you see these dynamics in many political conversations.
I first came across the idea of competitive and collaborative conversations in a book written for people who are the targets of verbal abuse–Patricia Evans’ The Verbally Abusive Relationship. The marriage I was in at the time qualified. I’d lay awake until 3AM every night trying to figure out what I could say to help my husband understand (whatever), and nothing would ever work. In hindsight, I can see that’s because, for him, our every conversation was about who had the power in the marriage.
Evans explained that I was in what she called “Reality II,” a world in which people exchange information and ideas so that they can better understand each other and cooperatively solve problems. Reality II people are collaborators.
My husband was in “Reality I,” a world in which people compete. Every interaction is an occasion for changing or reinforcing the power and relative status of the parties. If you aren’t building your power, you’re losing it. In Reality I, no one ever just shares information. They demonstrate they know more than you. If you let them do that, you lose.
Using conversation as recreational competition isn’t a bad thing if both partners enjoy what they are doing–trading zingers, scoring points, not bothering with anything actually persuasive.
The problems arise when one participant assumes collaboration and the other is engrossed in competition. The collaborator will try, ever more earnestly, to explain what it is that the other person doesn’t understand. But with every explanatory comment, the competitor feels more disrespected, challenged, and angry.
Often these conversations are fairly easy to spot. The less polite competitors will use sarcasm, insults, and interruptions. But when the competitor has an ability to hold his temper, the problem can be easier to miss. A polite competitor’s questions will be rhetorical rather than curious. When asked a question, he will avoid a straight answer and will instead answer a question that wasn’t asked. He will caricature the collaborator’s meaning in his replies, and will offer only contradictions instead of logical counterarguments. All competitors will reflexively change the subject whenever it looks like they might have to concede a point.
If you find yourself in a political conversation like this–whether you’re the competitor or the collaborator–just find a way to end it. Don’t waste any more energy. If you’re the competitor, find a different partner to spar with. Understand that you can win only a hollow victory when your opponent isn’t even trying to compete. If you’re the collaborator, the best you can do is to state your own point of view clearly and walk away. It’s not really a conversation anyway.