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Friday, November 19, 2010

It Doesn’t Pay to be an Ostrich

When someone seems timid about taking action, one might say, like an ostrich, that he is hiding his head in the sand.

Dr. Karl of “Dr. Karl’s Great Moments in Science” informs us that the ostrich may do many things “but hiding its head in the sand is not one of them.” Instead, when an ostrich is frightened, one of its reactions is to try to lie flat on the ground  and make itself inconspicuous.  A bird that weighs 155 kg or approximately 341.41 pounds is not easily hidden, so even lying flat, its large belly rises visible to all.

However, like an ostrich, many of us do try to avoid conflict with others because it makes us uncomfortable.   Assertively addressing authority figures when something is wrong is very often worth the effort and energy it takes.

My son-in-law is not happy about the road in front of his office building in Atlanta.  When Shirley Franklin was mayor of Atlanta, she promised to fill the potholes.  The mess in front of my son-in-law’s building was never addressed.

Now Kasim Reed, Atlanta’s new mayor, has appointed a public works commissioner, Mr. Richard Mendoza, formerly public works commissioner in San Antonio.  On Mr. Mendoza’s first day on the job, he was reminded that potholes are among the biggest public works problems in Atlanta. 

In Atlanta, 10th street has a section where the center two lanes of the four lane street are impassable.  The road is in waves of tarmac, rough riding at best and possibly damaging to any car that chooses those lanes.  If you drive on 10th near the Hemphill intersection, you can see drivers move over to avoid the center lanes.  

If you’d like to know the location, here is where the stretch of bad road is.  I use the word “stretch” because the area encompasses at least three to four car lengths of bad pavement.

My son-in-law, is going to make sure that Mendoza knows about the street problem near his office.  Kevin has driven over this section of road for a number of years now and he’s not willing to sit quietly about it any longer.

Unlike the ostrich, Kevin is taking action.  He has written the mayor, the head of the city council, his representative on the city council and Mr. Mendoza, the public works commissioner.  Once he hears or fails to hear from them, he will launch phase two of his approach, which I believe will be either a second letter or a phone call to the office of each of the recipients of his letters.  I don’t believe he will stop until he gets results.

He has already heard from Mendoza who responded with a work order number for the project.  As he said, “Score one for Kevin!”

He has a plan; he’s following it; and if his assertiveness pays off, 10th street will be a smoother ride for drivers in Atlanta.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Sarcasm: Humor that Hurts

When I teach at Emory in the Department of Rehabilitative Medicine, my goal with the doctoral  students in physical therapy is to help them understand that communication is about being sensitive to the other person.  Attaining the necessary level of sensitivity for good communication involves not only tuning in to the other person but also knowing yourself well. 

Communication is learned at your family’s dinner table or in the family car when you were growing up.  Communication styles in families are imitated by the members.  In many families, sarcasm is a style of humor tolerated by the family members to the point that it feels harmless and “normal.”  If this were true in your family of origin, you may resort to sarcasm, thinking that it is just a way to be funny.

I tell my students that sarcasm is disrespectful and always involves a zinger against the other person.  They argue with me that sarcasm is harmless; that it’s expected in their family of origin; and that I must be mistaken.  I challenge them to give me any example of sarcasm that isn’t hurtful. 

They never can. 

They try and even at the end of the semester some remain unconvinced but there is no example of sarcasm or “teasing” as it is sometimes called in families that is not hurtful.

“Definition of SARCASM (from Merriam

: a sharp and often satirical or ironic utterance designed to cut or give pain
a : a mode of satirical wit depending for its effect on bitter, caustic, and often ironic language that is usually directed against an individual
: the use or language of sarcasm
 Sarcasm is from the  French or Late Latin; French sarcasme, from Late Latin sarcasmos, from Greek sarkasmos, from sarkazein to tear flesh, bite the lips in rage, sneer, from sark-, sarx flesh; probably akin to Avestan thwarəs- to cut
First Known Use: 1550”

Since it’s been in use in the language since 1550, we can know that human beings have needed to zing and push away from each other for quite a long time. 

Sarcasm and teasing are used to get distance from the other person.  Zinging a person is a way of pushing them away from you.  A good question to ask yourself is why do you need to treat that person in such a way as to make them distanced from you?
Today in the school systems there is a focus on bullying and the harm that can come from that.  Bullying on the continuum of teasing behavior is teasing/sarcasm taken to the worst level.  If sarcasm is about poking another person using humor as the jab, bullying takes this to another level, shaming and putting another person down in the worst way one can.  Bullying involves controlling another person through the use of put-downs.

In its own way, sarcasm also involves controlling through put-downs.  If you use sarcasm and zing someone else with what you say, you control them by pushing them away.  In other words, you control the amount of connection you allow when you distance through sarcasm.

In the process of learning to be assertive, paying attention to the role sarcasm plays in your life is an important exercise.

Since I have written over and over again that assertiveness is about respect in relationships, any time I find myself feeling like making a sarcastic comment, I have to ask myself, what happened to the respect I have had for the other person.   I learn about myself in this exercise and usually can return to the respectful communication that I want to have with the people in my life.

In good assertive communication, respect is a constant and self-awareness is the foundation of maintaining that respect in the communication.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Anger Expressed Aggressively Pulls for the Responder to Use Anger as Well

In our country right now, the two parties in Congress are powerfully split, with the current losing party as well as a group called the Tea Party saying angry and aggressive things in public about the Healthcare bill.  Healthcare is such a powerful issue that if the shoe were on the other foot, it might be happening in reverse.

On the View the other day, Whoopie Goldberg and her guests pointed out the aggressive behavior of a well-known political figure who, unhappy about healthcare, had suggested it was time to “reload.”  This politician had published on Facebook a map peppered with people named as targets with cross-hairs on their names.  Her point was to get these people out of Congress because they had voted for the Healthcare bill.  However, using targets and suggesting "reloading" depicted her wishes in an aggressive fashion, implying anger and violence.

The participants on the View were outraged (the politician was aggressive and as they talked about it, the View participants expressed themselves in anger.)  Even as the participants on the View agreed with each other that this was badly handled, they were aggressive with each other!  Two who are usually on opposite sides of the fence, jabbed at each other, even as they agreed that they were on the same side this time.  This blatantly showed how even from afar, the aggression of the aforementioned politician pulled for anger back from the View co-hosts.

Participants on the show also spoke about the 60s and how in those time race riots were incited by aggressive statements and acts between groups.  One participant said, “Violence begets violence” and wondered what the other side would do in response to this level of aggression.

Children on the playground are masterful at matching aggression with aggression.  One little boy says to the other, “You’re a big tattle tale.”  The other responds, “You are a bigger one.” 

In the current culture there’s a whole genre of insults traded about one’s mother. The first insult, “Your momma is so fat that she can’t get in the car,” pulls for the insulted person to say, “Your momma is so stupid that she …..” and so on and so on.

Once with another psychologist, I taught a workshop for Emory employees about assertive communication.  Dr. L. and I were role-playing for the participants.  My role was angrily to return a book to the bookstore, while demonstrating absolutely no respect for the sales clerk.  Dr. L. was the sales clerk.

I stormed into the room and slammed the book on the table in front of the “clerk.”  In a raised voice I said, “This is the worst excuse for a book that I have ever read.  I want you to take it back at once or I must speak to your manager.” 

Without hesitating, Dr. L. looked me in the eye and said, “You just spit in my face.” 

In the process of shouting at him, I probably did.  I was humiliated and felt the color rise in my face.  Here we demonstrated what always happens:  Aggression pulls for aggression from the other person.

Aggression is not assertive – aggression is characterized by lack of respect for the other person.  Nothing will be resolved well if there is no respect in the interaction.

There are ways to express your anger assertively rather than aggressively.  Here are three ways to try:

1.  A basic assertive statement:

“I am angry”
“I feel really frustrated right now.”
“I feel furious.”

2.    A behavioral statement:

“When you do xxxxxxxxxx,  I feel frustrated.” 
This is a carefully constructed sentence:  the first half is a specific behavior described:
For example:  “When you leave your clothes all over the living room furniture, I feel so angry.”

This is done instead of blaming the other person.  You don’t say, “You make me feel frustrated.”  Nor do you say, “You are just a slob.”  Instead you tag a behavior and indicate your feeling in response to the behavior.

3.    An observer/reporter statement:

The reporter acts as a fly on the wall, describing what he/she sees without judgment.  This invites dialogue rather than aggression in response.

“I noticed that you just rolled your eyes when I made my last comment.  Usually when that happens we end up fighting.”

Like all aspects of assertive communication, it isn't easy to change your way of communicating.  However, practice makes perfect so I encourage you to try speaking your anger more assertively than aggressively.