Part 2: Avoidance strategies alone are not the solution.
In the first part, I took up the concepts of need to communicate and attention. We are communicative beings because we are social beings. As long as we do not become conspicuous in the process, everything is fine. In thinking about protecting myself from people who instrumentalise me, the phenomenon of attention helps us. I think most people have heard of ADHD. Attention, deficit hyperactivity disorder, is a fairly common disorder in children and adolescents. Those affected have problems with concentration, impulsivity and self-regulation. Often there is also a robust physical restlessness. This is what we hear about most, because these children seem too conspicuous to us. ADHD also exists in adults and is often not recognised. As an aside, I remember hearing at an ICD10 training that ADHD is often misdiagnosed as a histrionic personality disorder. Sometimes it is tough to distinguish because the traits in adult people are very similar. Here are a few typical characteristics:
- Changeable mood
- Easily agitated in stressful situations
- Very impulsive
- Unreflective actions without goals
The similarities fit many other personality traits or even psychiatric illnesses. Who would think that a manic buyer does not have to have full-blown mania but suffers from ADHD? But why am I telling all this here? I think it’s a call not to diagnose people with certain traits at all times. That should be left to the professionals. Only recently I read that a politician called another colleague, narcissistically disturbed. That is very daring, but perhaps justified from the point of view of a real narcissist. If we want to get on better with each other, we need to look more at our behaviour and less at others. This does not mean that we should not observe our fellow human beings. On the contrary, we have to closely monitor them, understand what makes them tick, and what their intentions are. The better I can assess them, the more I can get involved and protect myself if necessary. I know how difficult it is not to evaluate the sense of devaluation. Each of us does this more or less automatically. Whether it is prejudice or not, whether it is a conviction or bad experience, we always evaluate. Perhaps my reader now has an idea of what I am getting at. Why do we do this? Right, to protect ourselves!
Avoidance as a protective mechanism
Humans are not only conflict avoiders, but actually universal avoiders. I recently read a paper on leaders, specifically on the election of board members of large companies. They analysed the character traits of the different members within the boards. The results were precise, as you might expect. Members are very similar to each other within the respective board. Does that make sense? For the individual members, yes, because that is incredibly human. We always look for like-minded people because it makes us feel safer and more comfortable; we protect ourselves. For the companies, this is not good because diversity is missing, and a lot of creativity and development potential is lost as a result. Diversity also means entropy, i.e. disorder. We don’t like that. To develop further, we need precisely these stimuli. This applies to people and companies alike. This means that we need a healthy mix of order and disorder, or like-mindedness and diversity. Apart from the fact that we cannot always avoid uncomfortable characters, we should actively try to get along with them. That means not just avoiding them, but rising to the challenge. Of course, only if we can protect ourselves sufficiently. So let’s get on with it.
Why we are vulnerable
Let’s take a closer look at what makes us vulnerable. I turn the tables and ask: what makes people attack others? I gave some explanations in the first part. To be more transparent, I would like to mention a common saying here: “Give a person power, and you will see his true character” This is absolutely wrong! Character traits are definitely tied to the setting. This means that a new position with more power can change the character, maybe even has to change it. I know that psychologists, especially in the USA, talk about good and bad changes here too. That is precisely what I condemn. Judgements are inappropriate here. Who defines what is right and wrong? These views stand in our way, because we are again charging. When we condemn, we are much more vulnerable because we are actually motivating our potential opponents to attack us. I learned in physics or dynamics: pressure always creates counterpressure, because, without counterpressure, there is no pressure. This is the principle we follow with our avoidance strategy. We evade all pressure; at least that’s what we believe. If we actually manage to avoid 100%, then I am in favour of doing it.
Here’s an example. A right-wing conspiracy theorist comments on a social media post of mine and calls me vile names. How should I behave?
First option / avoidance strategy
The first and best choice is to ignore him and avoid further communication. The potential conflict is reduced to a minimum; ideally, it does not arise at all. Avoiding the conflict fails in attracting attention because the conspiracy theorist’s attempt comes to nothing.
Second possibility / de-escalation
But as soon as someone gets involved in a discussion, counter-pressure arises, and the conspiracy theorist is justified in continuing. He has received the attention he was hoping for. Avoidance is hardly effective here. At best, the attacker succeeds in triggering a shitstorm, and then he has achieved his goal – to get a lot of attention.
Source: ElelandVektor: Antonsusi – Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement.svg, public domain
In a shitstorm or escalated conflict situation, there is, in my view, one right solution that should be tried first and foremost; de-escalation. One must try to break the vicious circle of hardening and thus arrive at a win-win situation. It is beneficial to understand which interactions escalate conflicts. These interactions should be avoided in communication. I find Graham’s model “Hierarchy of Disagreement” very helpful. It describes seven levels in a pyramid.
Insult, qualification, tone reference, contradiction, counter-argument, refutation and rebuttal of the central punk.
With this information, one can gain two essential insights into the level of conflict escalation. What level is my opponent in and where do I stand. I think the model is ingenious, mainly because it can be applied to any conflict. How often do we think we are in the right in disputes? Very often, I would say. I have usually found myself attacking my opponents “ad hominem”, i.e. on their qualifications, and then following it up with a rebuttal. This is reaching into the second-lowest drawer, in that after a personal attack on the person, rational arguments are then added to disguise the insult. This is not de-escalation, but a nasty attack. Then I am surprised when the other side retaliates.
But back to the question of why we are vulnerable. Because we attack. We don’t have to do it consciously, we can do it subtly or just by our presence. Now the question is whether an attack exists even when someone feels attacked. Unfortunately, I think it is. And that’s what makes us so vulnerable because we often feel attacked. We take all kinds of things personally, relate most of it to our person. Now perhaps we understand better why we are so anxious to protect ourselves.
On the one hand, we want to be noticed, we require communication, and at the same time, we are very vulnerable and hurtful. We have different personality traits. We also behave differently in everyday situations. Dealing with this is not easy. In the next article, I will try to present solutions to get along better.