Main point of this post: Even when people disagree, they can have a collaborative conversation, which might improve understanding or even find some common ground. But you’ll occasionally encounter a conversation partner who is more interested in playing conversational power games. Learning to recognize the common signs of toxic conversation will help you to avoid being drawn into it and to decide whether to continue or end the conversation.
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I had taken a poisonous viper from the zoo and brought it home. It was darting around, hiding under the bed, then the dresser. It bit me once and did not inject enough venom to hurt. But it was sure to bite again and harm me or someone else if I didn’t figure out what to do about it.
That dream was easy to interpret when I awoke. Over the previous several days, I had been engaged in an online debate with a local newspaper columnist, who continually deployed common but venomous debate techniques. I don’t usually participate in such arguments, but I wanted to study his technique and experiment with ways to respond. So I stayed in the discussion as it alternately flamed and simmered.
My experience with this columnist, whom I’ll call Dogberry, gave me some ideas about how to talk with our less-than-constructive fellow citizens.
My first marriage taught me more than I ever hoped to learn about verbal and emotional abuse. Dogberry’s words—mere pixels on my monitor—could not be considered abuse, but made me realize that some methods for dealing with abuse might also be useful in dealing with toxic debate.
The nature of toxic debate
When conversation is constructive and intelligent, it typically has two intended functions: either to exchange information or to share ideas. For example, a conversation in my current marriage might go like this:
Husband: “We have three open bottles of salad dressing in the fridge. Let’s use those before we open any more.”
Me: “I like to have choices at dinner but if it bothers you, that blue cheese is getting old. You could toss it.”
In contrast, my first husband would have started the same conversation like this:
“How do you expect me to find anything with all this crap in the fridge? You’ve opened more salad dressing than you will use in a year!”
Had I responded abusively, I might have said:
“Are you so dumb that you think an extra bottle of salad dressing is going to break us, considering what you spend on all that junk you drag home from garage sales?”
It doesn’t take a degree in linguistics or psychoanalysis to notice the participants in the second conversation are not trying to reach understanding or agreement.
Conversational bullies are after something else. Their intention is to enhance their own ego or power. One-up; one-down. I’m righteous; you’re scum. I win; you lose.
My debate with Dogberry took place on a mutual friend’s Facebook wall. The friend had linked to a farmer’s letter to the editor about her family’s heartbreaking health insurance problems. Yet Brenda, the farmer, focused her ire on public employees’ health insurance.
Discussion began civilly and focused on how progressives might reach out to people who support politicians who will only make their problems worse. Dogberry entered the discussion with this announcement:
“This discussion is nothing but the time-tested left-wing strategy of assuming that people who disagree with them must be so dumb they’ve been hoodwinked by the right. It’s condescending and insulting.”
Dogberry didn’t have to choose those words. While making the same point, he could have chosen to enter the conversation like this:
“Be careful not to assume that people like Brenda are simply dumb or that they’ve been hoodwinked. She could have good reasons for backing Republicans. Besides, if you think of her as dumb and gullible, it won’t help you change her mind about anything.”
In her book, The Verbally Abusive Relationship: How to Recognize It and How to Respond, Patricia Evans explains that people inhabit different realities, a power mode and a collaboration mode. Power mode is about personal control and dominance. Collaboration mode is about co-operation and problem-solving.
Whether you’re in the power mode or the collaboration mode, you tend to assume everyone else is in the same mode as you. So the power-focus world is a frightening place. In that world, if you are not successful in controlling others, they will control you.
Dogberry was clearly in the power mode, so he came blasting in with insults. The others, who were in collaboration mode, responded peacefully. But when a power-focused person hears a collaborative response like, “We’ve said that Brenda isn’t dumb. Farming takes brains and hard work,” he will hear it only as an attempt to undermine his authority. And so the conversation deteriorates.
Recognizing toxic debate
The key, according to Evans, is to be alert for tip-offs that the person is attempting to change the conversation from problem-solving to power-seeking.
Rhetorical questions are one example. When someone asks questions that clearly seek no information, there’s a good chance the speaker is in power mode. Dogberry repeatedly posed ‘questions’ like “How is that not obvious?” and “So what else is new?”
Other tip-offs include:
- Countering: A flat-out denial or negation of another’s statement with no attempt to offer information or to seek clarification. A Dogberry example is, “To suggest Brenda’s insurance problems are the fault of Republican policies is ridiculous.”
- Discounting: Portraying another’s statement or point of view as unworthy of consideration. A Dogberry example: “That remark shows only that you are wearing political blinders.”
- Diverting: Avoiding or changing the topic at hand. While everyone else in the discussion was interested in why Brenda does not support policies that would help her family, Dogberry asked, “When have public employee unions ever put any effort into helping farmers?”
- Accusing: Acknowledging problems but placing blame rather than discussing solutions. Dogberry: “If public employee unions had fought for the farmers years ago, they wouldn’t now have a governor trying to destroy them.”
- Name-calling: Slapping labels onto others or their ideas. When Dogberry was at his most heated, he referred to another local writer as “a liberal columnist in a liberal newspaper (who) takes the usual liberal approach, …a paid political propagandist.”
- Denial, perhaps the most crazy-making technique. When the owner of the Facebook page told Dogberry that calling someone else a ‘paid political propagandist’ was an intolerable personal attack that might cause him to shut down the entire conversation, Dogberry denied he had done anything beyond critiquing his colleague’s writing, even though everyone could see his actual words simply by scrolling up.
Responding to toxic debate
Evans advises spouses targeted with emotional abuse to end the exchange as soon as they realize it has become abusive. However, civic debates even at their most energetic rarely create a risk of physical attack or destruction of families. So we can keep trying– within reason–to engage the toxic debater in constructive conversation.
The first step in dealing with toxic debate is to make sure you’re not doing it yourself. I twice resorted to mocking Dogberry. After he posted four comments in a row, I teased that his insistence on having the last word had finally driven him to need the last word against even himself. Later, after he accused me of ‘condescention,’ I joked about giving him an example of actual condescension by correcting his spelling.
Of course, my adoption of his tactics merely confirmed his success in turning a conversation into a mudfight; closed his ears even more tightly against anything I might say; reduced the likelihood he will engage with me in future discussions; and might have made me look like as much of a jerk as he was being.
It’s often useful to assume–even against obvious evidence–that a toxic debater is only temporarily deranged. In my experience, when many toxic debaters realize their conversation partners are not going to be drawn into that sort of competition, they will either leave the conversation (good riddance) or switch to collaboration mode.
So don’t play their game. Ignore their insults as if you didn’t notice it was an insult. Dispassionately correct any misrepresentation of your ideas or positions. When they choose the most inflammatory words they can, mentally translate their remarks to more civil language and respond to that instead, as if they actually said it. When they try to lead the discussion off-topic, don’t follow. Ask for clarification when they make overly broad or false statements.
Finally, keep your remarks focused on the question at hand, not on the conduct or character of the participants. Act as if you believe his every statement is, or was meant to be, based on a logical argument in which all the pieces (premise/evidence; inference; conclusion) are present if not always explicit. (In a good conversation, that is the case.)
So when your Dogberry says something like “To suggest Brenda’s insurance problems are the fault of Republican policies is ridiculous,” you can point out its irrelevance to the logical argument under examination (e.g., “Dogberry, you seem to be contradicting a premise that’s not on the table. The premise is not that Republican policies caused Brenda’s problems, but that they won’t help her.”) Or you can direct attention to the absence of logic in his statement (e.g., “Dogberry, can you state your premise more explicitly? Are you saying that Republican policies have actually helped Brenda’s insurance situation to the point where it explains her support for them? If so, you’ll need to cite some evidence.”)
A right-wing colleague at my former job used to stop by my desk whenever he had some news that made ‘his side’ look good. (For power-mode people, everyone is always on a ‘side.’) He would open the conversation by making some inflammatory statement about liberals or the left wing. I would reply with a calm, sincere collaborative request for more information. Over the course of four or five back-and-forth comments, I could almost always arouse his curiosity enough to drag him back into a collaborative discussion of ideas or search for information (e.g., Exactly what is the ‘Bush Doctrine’ that liberals hate so much? Did Bush ever state it clearly? If so, when and where? Let’s look that up…) .
If those methods don’t work and the toxic debater stays in the power mode, go ahead and end the conversation. It’s not really a conversation anyway. It’s a childish nyah-nyah game you don’t have time for. Save your energy and spirits for conversations that help to build civic understanding among responsible self-governing people.