The value of insincerity

The first steps in conflict-resolving communication often involve disguising or feigning certain emotions—that is, insincerity. Even when the ultimate goal is honest conversation, insincerity seems to be a useful skill in the early stages.  None of the experts (at least in the methods I’ve studied so far) explicitly uses the term ‘insincere,’ but that’s what their advice boils down to. It’s certainly the way it feels before you’re accustomed to it.

In a six-week course in compassionate communication, we were encouraged to use actual irritants as classroom examples. My example was: Husband asks a question such as, “What do you think we should plant in the vegetable garden next spring?” Then, just as you start to answer, he interrupts with a monologue about the various options he is considering.

Whenever that type of conversation would happen (about twice a week), my gut response was either to clam up or to bark “If you didn’t want to hear my answer, why the hell did you ask?”

I learned I was instead to: 1) describe the situation objectively; 2) name my feelings and 3) identify my need that is not being met. Like this: “When you start talking while I am answering your question, I feel frustrated because my need for being heard is not being met.”

When the class full of beginners, we would break out laughing as we practiced. It felt so clumsy and false. Nevertheless, I gave it a try the next time my husband interrupted me. I’m no actress, so I delivered the prescribed line in a flat monotone—not angry, not hurt, just sharing information. It felt so insincere that I could not even look at him as I spoke.

I’ll be damned if it didn’t work.

My husband didn’t seem to notice how awkwardly insincere I felt. He did, however, appreciate the information, and my comment started a good discussion. We discovered we had different perceptions of what constitutes an interruption. I had been thinking I should respond whenever he finished a sentence that ended with a question mark. However, he didn’t feel he had asked a complete question until he had shared all his thoughts. In fact, he perceived that I was the one who had been interrupting, since (his perception) I habitually started answering his questions before he was done asking them.

In the workplace, I’ve often pretended I don’t notice slights, insults, or discourtesies, and I have always recommended that practice to any new hires I supervised. Early in my career, a mentor counseled me, “Never attribute to malice anything that can be explained by incompetence.” He was talking about statistical errors, but that’s good advice in a lot of situations.

When we are not certain of the motives of others—that is, almost all the time—assuming incompetence is more likely to be accurate. Most workplace slights—not being copied on a memo, having your idea presented by someone else as if it was their own, that sort of thing—truly are inadvertent.

But even when an insult is intentional, refusing to acknowledge it is often a productive strategy. A famous instance was during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when John F. Kennedy’s White House pretended it did not receive an inflammatory missive from the Kremlin. Kennedy had his staff act as if the cable never arrived. A more collaborative message arrived the next day, allowing the two superpowers to get on track toward the crisis’ eventual resolution.

On a more familiar scale, a former workplace colleague I’ll call Donna continuously engaged in one-upsmanship with her peers and subordinates, while sucking up to anyone at a higher level. Everyone felt demeaned in her presence, but the people who could get their work done were those who were able to ignore her condescension. They were insincere with her, to be sure—they pretended to be unaffected, or that they had misunderstood, or that they simply did not hear. There may be people who will repeat an insult until their target acknowledges a wound, but most, like Donna, will not bother repeating insults that don’t get the hoped-for response.

South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu—who has more experience with conflict resolution than you or I should ever hope for—touched on the necessity for insincerity in his book, No Future Without Forgiveness. Like other writers in this area, he did not explicitly recommend insincerity, but he endorses “small symbolic acts” regardless of the underlying emotions.

We must, Tutu wrote, “keep remembering that negotiations, peace talks, forgiveness, and reconciliation happen most frequently not between friends or between those who like each other.” We undertake political conversations, he pointed out, “precisely because people…detest one another as only enemies can.”

Tutu cited the courage of Israel’s President Ezer Weizman at the 1999 funeral of Jordan’s King Hussein, for shaking hands with Nayef Hawatmeh, whose guerrillas had  killed Israelis. As Mr. Weizman and Mr. Hawatmeh shook hands, respectful of King Hussein’s legacy, their thoughts and feelings were surely far from warm and cuddly. However, this simple gesture, Tutu wrote, served to humanize them both and remind the world that tolerance is never unthinkable.

As long as we are human, we cannot prevent ourselves from feeling hostility, disdain, or even hatred. If the intent of a conversation truly is nothing more than making sure the adversary knows he is despised or that you consider him to be an idiot, displays of sincere emotions will be effective—but to those ends only.

If the intent is to establish honest communication that might eventually accomplish understanding, persuasion, or even resolution, a certain amount of strategic insincerity is often the only way to kick out of the starting blocks.

(Originally posted to my Open Salon blog on February 5, 2012.)

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About Karen McKim

Retired from a 30-year career in public sector quality assurance and management auditing, I now spend my time in civic activities promoting our ability to exercise our right to self-government. I have two focuses: verified accurate election results, and skills for talking politics with our fellow citizens. Based in Wisconsin.
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