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Managing Anger When Humor Simply Can't Be Summoned

Chicago Tribune, by Wendy Donahue, October 24, 2004

Sometimes political conversations just aren’t funny. Offering some coping tips are Dr. Joseph DiMaggio, a former medical oncologist and now a senior program leader with Landmark Education, which offers seminars on communication and other life skills, and psychotherapist Sheri Novar, a licensed clinical social worker in Lakeview and Evanston. She counsels couples and individuals.

How do we stop vehement arguments surrounding this election?

DiMaggio: One of the things we do in the Landmark Forum, we hold a cup up and have someone stand to the right of it and someone stand on the left and ask what they see. One can see the handle and one can’t. The more one is righteous about the handle, the more righteous the other will get.

In that example you get there’s no true view, and that arguing my view is probably not going to work. If I want to be effective I probably want to ask, “I wonder why he doesn’t see the handle.” I start to put myself in another person’s world view. It doesn’t mean I don’t still see the handle. But it means I’m more committed to getting at the substance.

What we get is that it’s possible to listen to people’s view without an emotional response. Often you’ll find out important stuff for your own view. If I’m willing to listen to your view, you’re more interested in listening to mine. That leads to more authentic communication.

Novar: If a couple has been in therapy awhile, and they tell me they argued yesterday about politics, they sometimes can figure out it has something to do more with what happened the night before that they needed to talk about and didn’t. But it’s manifesting in some area that seems acceptable to fight about.

What about cheap shots such as “You’re nothing but a right-wing nut job/liberal wiener”?

DiMaggio: As soon as we bring in personal pronouns, we stop discussing and start defending. Inquiry is way more powerful than assertions of other people’s incompetence: “Have you ever thought, Pat, that it’s possible…?” That’s way more powerful than “You’re mindless.” Maybe Pat answers, “You know what, I’ve looked and I don’t think so.” Then you have to say, “I got it.” If you keep pushing, you’re more committed to your view than to real communication.

I also use the analogy, if someone tells me I’m a brown furry squirrel and they have evidence that other people agree with, that doesn’t mean I’m a brown furry squirrel. The fundamental practice is don’t take it personally.

Novar: I have a client who’s in the labor field. Her family completely disagrees with her politically, but she really wants their approval. So when she goes home, she starts confronting them about their views, rather that asking for what she needs. She needs to get honest and simply tell them, “Look, you’re really hurting my feelings.” People don’t do that. If they did, probably someone would say, “I didn’t mean to do that. I thought you were trying to shove your point of view down my throat. I’m sorry.”

What if someone pushes your buttons?

DiMaggio: Sometimes you have to take a deep breath and say, “Give me a second here, I want to gather my thoughts.”

Another thing we create at Landmark is there’s a game at hand. Part of my game is to see your world as a possible world. Part of my game – and hopefully we can play it together – is to share my view. Creating a game takes away the significance, it takes away the emotional reaction.

Novar: If someone says, “He’s constantly belittling my opinions,” I’d probably say, “Tell me about a conflict you resolved.” That brings it into a more positive light. I ask, “What seemed resolvable about that issue? How can you use those skills to resolve this?”

OK, Iraq: Wife thinks U.S. should split. Husband thinks there’s a reason to stay. Should they discuss?

DiMaggio: We often think in terms of domination or submission. I’m either going to ferociously defend this or submit, in which case you’ve won. There’s no communication in a win-lose structure.

Instead, I could actually listen to your view, try it on. The only way I’m ever going to see if a jacket fits is if I try it on. But either way I can take it off and put my old jacket on.

Does the answer change if it’s a boss and employee? Maybe your boss says, “I’m deathly afraid people are going to vote for Kerry/Bush.”

DiMaggio: A lot of what we think is communication is simply an opinion on broadcast. Don’t give your opinion to anyone who’s not requesting it. Or, ask, “Do you want to hear opposing views or are you just sharing what you think? Maybe someday we should have lunch and talk about that.” In which case you set it up. I don’t need to defend my view all the time. It’s not who I am; it’s just a view I’ve got.

What do parents tell their kids who wonder why Mommy and Daddy don’t agree?

DiMaggio: One of the rules we have in our family is, you don’t get to speak loud. If you speak loud, you lose your opportunity to speak for the next couple of minutes. We’ve made it alot of fun. I’m Italian, and my wife is opinionated. Sometimes our daughter, Alex, will say, “You’re breaking the rules! My turn!” You have to set that up in advance, or else you’ll get sucked in, the way it’s depicted on TV.

The Landmark Forum is Landmark Forum’s flagship course, taking place over three consecutive days and an evening session. Check www.landmarkworldwide.com.