Saturday, January 30, 2010

Repetition: a helpful signal to avert contention

I need to do better at avoiding contention. Though argument and reasoning is of inestimable utility in making better choices and developing superior opinions, the risk of devolution into contention is frequently nigh. My predilections lean toward passion and advocacy and competition, so I must carefully avoid the temptation to contend and/or yield to anger:
29 For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of acontention is not of me, but is of the bdevil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another. (3 N 11)

In addition to becoming "of the devil," I've found that my reasoning and persuasive powers diminish when I have the spirit of contention. Example 1: during a conversation with an ex when I felt offended, I counter-attacked and shared a perception likely to be hurtful to her. This results in my interlocutor being less open-minded to my arguments and position (therefore lost persuasive power). Example 2: after talking about ethics and a medical case involving a 13 year-old boy with Hodgkin's lymphoma who preferred not to undergo chemotherapy, my friend transitioned to a related topic and started making blanket condemnations of lengthy legislation, claiming that any bill over 900 pages reflected a lack of understanding of the problem. I stated that I disagree and quickly ended the conversation, but felt contentious. I was anxious to prove him wrong- however, though my criticism was well-supported, I went too far in disagreeing with him because I didn't have enough evidence to show that he was conclusively wrong. Instead, I should have limited my attack to the sufficiency of his evidence, i.e. the evidence he relied on was too shallow to support his conclusion. (e.g. what if the bill regulated several areas of law, and was essentially 20 or 30 bills combined in one? What if the bill would be ineffective if not sufficiently long and detailed, since previous nationwide laws it would have to modify were themselves convoluted and complicated? What if a bill that was too brief reinforced the status quo because it didn't have enough teeth to enact the change it was designed for? Had he ever read through an entire bill himself? Shouldn't he educate himself on the issue to a greater extent before condemning the lengthiness of proposed legislation? Aren't many parts of the bill merely making small adjustments to other relevant portions of the US Code where the subordination or trumping effect of the present bill to competing statutes calls for clarification? Wouldn't simpler bills be frequently struck down as "void for vagueness?" Don't these types of circumstances make many lengthy bills appropriate? Etc.) Instead I went too far the other way, defending the length of the bills- which I may or may not be right about. Because I don't have much more evidence than he does, the only supportable conclusion is that neither of us are sufficiently informed to substantiate a strong position on the lengthiness issue either way (this example evidences forfeited reasoning powers- see also my mini-blog from November, "(INSUFFICIENT DATA) does not =(support the counterclaim)")

Anyway. So, I noticed in both of the examples above that my interlocutor began to repeat him or herself. (I've observed this behavior trend in other comparable conversing settings as well). In both instances, the partner made essentially the same statement twice or more. Some people become angry when a point is repeated by B, because it can imply that the listener, A, is stupid for not understanding it the first time. If that's the case, B should try to explain in a different way, introduce more evidence/an additional argument, or abandon the attempt. It seems that a repeated point indicates that the partner has run out of supporting arguments and has begun beating a dead horse, which is an additional anger trigger for some. Therefore, I think I'll use the repeated point as a signal for me to, instead of continuing the debate, either: 1) change the topic, 2) transition into listening rather than debating mode (using reflective listening techniques such as "you feel..." statements), since the person at that point probably prefers the soapbox to the "seeking to understand" chair, in which case my arguments will not likely be persuasive regardless of their strength, or 3) ask why the person is repeating him or herself, and if no compelling response or fresh argument forthcomes, go with the presumption and end the conversation. I have an obligation to avoid or mitigate the effects of triggers so I can "choose how to respond" to situations like these rather than permitting them to act on me: "When we believe or say we have been offended, we usually mean we feel insulted, mistreated, snubbed, or disrespected. And certainly clumsy, embarrassing, unprincipled, and mean-spirited things do occur in our interactions with other people that would allow us to take offense. However, it ultimately is impossible for another person to offend you or to offend me. Indeed, believing that another person offended us is fundamentally false. To be offended is a choice we make; it is not a condition inflicted or imposed upon us by someone or something else.

In the grand division of all of God's creations, there are things to act and things to be acted upon (see 2 Nephi 2:13–14). As sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father, we have been blessed with the gift of moral agency, the capacity for independent action and choice. Endowed with agency, you and I are agents, and we primarily are to act and not just be acted upon. To believe that someone or something can make us feel offended, angry, hurt, or bitter diminishes our moral agency and transforms us into objects to be acted upon. As agents, however, you and I have the power to act and to choose how we will respond to an offensive or hurtful situation." And Nothing Shall Offend Them Elder David A. Bednar

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