Dear Drama Observers,
Several years ago, I got a call from a lady inquiring about my services as a marital counselor. I called her back and we set up an appointment for her and her husband to come in. “Oh, by the way,” she inquired before our call ended, “do you know anything about Narcissistic Personality Disorder?”
Intrigued by her question, I replied, “I do, but I think most everyone in my field knows something about that. Why do you ask?” “I think I’m married to one of those,” was her response.
My initial impression as I met with this couple was that she was indeed married to “one of those.” Her husband came off as grandiose, entitled, intimidating, and belittling in his interactions with his wife, and he was even that way with me at times—all narcissistic traits. So, I knew the narcissism label might be accurate, but I decided to hold that conclusion loosely until I knew more. I’m always reluctant to stick someone into diagnostic box from which they’re never allowed to escape.
You know what I concluded about this guy the longer I met with him and his wife? It wasn’t that he was a narcissist but that he was a lousy arguer. Whenever the subject matter with his wife became conflictual, he would become grandiose, entitled, intimidating, and belittling. He’d react to her in a way that displayed those traits, she’d react to his reactions, and their arguments would reach stopping points but wouldn’t reach resolutions. Every. Single. Time.
My summary term for this process is bad conflict which I described in detail in my book. But when I pointed this out to them and explained the mechanics of good conflict, they made use of what I taught them and started resolving issues they had never resolved. I must say, I was pleasantly surprised.
In the midst of bad conflict, this fellow looked, sounded, and smelled like a narcissist. But the simple fact that he was willing to learn how to do conflict the better way and practice what I taught them suggested that he wasn’t a narcissist after all. He was actually a guy with normal wiring who was woefully deficient in his conflict resolution abilities. When he (or I should say they) shifted conflict systems from bad to good, his narcissist-appearing features were replaced with ones that were more mature.
My point in telling you this story is to illustrate that arguing poorly brings out the worst in all of us. Everyone appears to be a jerk (a non-clinical term for narcissist) when bad conflict is the standard operating procedure.
Our political discourse these days is dominated by bad conflict methodology. Collectively, we argue poorly and fail to reach resolutions. Every. Single. Time. And then we attribute that failure to the jerks on the other side.
To be fair, this isn’t new. In fact, it’s always been that way to one extent or another (see War, Civil). But with the rise of cable television and social media, we’re perhaps more aware of it—and thus more frustrated by it—than ever before.
Though I could give you a long list, I’d like to point out three features of public discourse that are jerk-like along with suggested alternatives to arguing like a jerk. (By the way, the previously-mentioned couple employed these and other similar alternatives).
- Some jerks fail to make their points because they’re so invested in scoring points. They measure “success” by how angry or embarrassed they’ve made the other side—sometimes referred to as “owning.” They emphasize winning over persuasion and pat themselves on the back when they seem to have pulled this off. I know this illustration dates me, but remember that look of self-satisfied superiority on Barney Fife’s face whenever he convinced himself he’d gotten the upper hand in some way? That’s the same look I imagine jerks have when they’ve “owned” an opponent.
The better alternative here is to place more emphasis on making the points you’re trying to make and forget about trying to score points. The goal should be persuasion, not winning. If your goal is to win, no persuasion will happen, and no one wins. If your goal is persuasion, you might persuade, and everyone wins when the difference is settled.
- Jerks justify their positions by demonizing their opponents and attribute the worst of all possible motivations to the other side. They employ methods of apocalyptic alarmism. That is, if “they” succeed, life as we know it will come to an end. And if your opponent is indeed an existential threat, any methods used to fight them are justified.
The better alternative is to view your opponent, not as an enemy who seeks to alter your existence, but as a fellow citizen who has ideas with which you disagree. With that perspective, the methods you use to argue are no less important than the ideas you seek to promote.
- It’s jerk-like to draw conclusions about a person without understanding things from their point of view. Jerks are prone to draw inaccurate conclusions, get angry about the conclusions they’ve drawn, and then feel justified in their anger.
The better alternative is to listen to the point of understanding before any conclusions are drawn. “When I’m getting ready to reason with a man,” said Lincoln, “I spend one third of my time thinking about myself and what I’m going to say, and two thirds of my time thinking about him and what he is going to say.”
As long as civil discourse is characterized by scoring points instead of making points, demonizing those on the other side, and drawing conclusions while failing to listen, our national food-fight will likely never run out of food with which to fight.
And if you argue this way, people might conclude you’re a jerk and suggest you come an appointment with someone like me. And Heaven knows, you don’t want that to happen.
Till next week.