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 an understanding. The other participant thinks the interaction is a tug-of-war for power.
On the video, it appears the nurse and the police officer are engaged in the same conversation. They face each other. One speaks, then the other speaks.
You can hear the goal of the nurses’ conversation is 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 personal power. When she tries to explain what’s going on to the supervisor on the phone, 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 of the situation. As far as he is concerned, the only thing anyone needs to understand is that he is in charge. He hears only a challenge to his power, not an explanation of policy. He asks for no clarification beyond the equivalent of “Are you going to give me what I want?”
When he explains what’s going on to the supervisor on the phone, he says “She’s the one who has 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 all the time in political conversations.
I first came across the idea of power-centered and collaborative conversations in a book written for people who are the targets of verbal abuse–Patricia Evans’ The Verbally Abusive Relationship. At the time, my marriage qualified as verbally abusive. It was a genuinely crazy-making experience. (That’s not an exaggeration. I was diagnosably depressed after a few years, with what the psychiatrist called ‘situational depression.’) I’d lay awake until 3AM every night trying to figure out what I could say to get my husband to understand (whatever), and nothing would ever work. Every conversation–on any subject–turned into an inventory of my stupidity, laziness, selfishness, (whatever).
Evans explained that I was in what she called “Reality II,” a world in which people exchange information and ideas so that they better understand each other and at least occasionally reach agreement. In Reality II, people collaborate.
My husband was in “Reality I,” a world in which people compete. Every interaction is an occasion for for changing or reinforcing the power and status of the parties. If you aren’t building your power in the Reality I world, you’re losing it. In Reality I, no one tells you something so that you can understand better. They tell you things to demonstrate they know better than you. If you let them do that, you lose.
Using conversation as a recreational competition isn’t a bad thing, if both partners understand what they are doing–trading zingers, scoring points. Not bothering with anything actually persuasive. And certainly the world would grind to a halt if we never engaged in collaborative, let’s-come-to-an-understanding conversations.
The problems arise when the one participant assumes collaboration, and the other is engrossed in the 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 competitive person feels more disrespected, challenged, and angry.
There’s not much more to say about this than “be on the lookout.” It’s fairly easy to spot. The more polite power-seekers ask only rhetorical questions; don’t explain much; contradict rather than make logical counterarguments. The less polite power-seekers will use sarcasm, insults, and interruptions. Both will eagerly change the subject whenever it looks like they might have to concede a point.
And when you have concluded your conversation partner is seeking only to enhance his or her power over you, don’t waste any more energy unless you want to play that game. The best you can do is to state your own point of view and end the conversation there. It’s not really a conversation anyway.