Staying Neutral

Strangling Statues by Flickr user victoriapeckham
"Strangling Statues" by Flickr user victoriapeckham

I was talking to a friend the other day about a family event he had to attend. For him, such events are not positive. His family is filled with bickering, infighting, recriminations.

At group events, he dreads the point that always comes, when one family members starts talking trash about another one, and demands some kind of response. You either agree, which allows you to avoid being yelled at for now — but the target of the trash talk gets upset. Or you don’t — in which case the target likes you but the person in your face talking the trash gets hot under the collar.

Over the years, he’s learned a few noncommittal comments that are basically neutral, convey no opinion whatsoever, but allow your conversation partner to believe you are agreeing with them. They are:

  • How about that?
  • I can see your point.
  • You may be right.
  • I’m sorry you feel that way.

I love these.

It got me thinking, though, about just how many people are basically negative. It’s not a lot, but it’s enough to put a damper on things when they get going.

I would like to come up with some neutral comments that don’t reinforce the negativity but encourage the person to be a bit more positive.

Maybe that’s too much to ask. Maybe a better goal is to look at myself first, and just make sure I am not inadvertently contributing to general bad Karma.

2 thoughts on “Staying Neutral”

  1. We have an extended family like that. But in our case, noncommittal and neutral doesn’t work. You have to be aggressively noncombatant, and say things like, “We’re going to have to agree to disagree,” or, “I’d rather hear about your [kids,dog, whatever] than get into any kind of heated discussion right now,” and so forth. Not a put-down but not an agreement and not rising to the bait. It’s exhausting.

  2. Dear Brad:

    I have thought a great deal about this issue: whether such a situation arises in family relationships, in political discourse (presidential campaigning and “trash talking”), or on the slightly more spiritually derived political theories of non-violence.

    First off, my analysis of negative comments from others just conversationally or in daily discourse is the presence of your basically “cup is half-empty” personality. I shared, in the beautiful early morning light, for example, a few weeks ago with one of my carpool charges, the news that we would be getting an English Setter puppy. The 17 year old went on for quite a few minutes explaining to me why that was a very bad choice, indeed. This individual often responds only in the negative, and usually at length. Rather than defend, argue, apologize, or in any way add to the negative energy field that so frantically sought to re-produce (I see this almost as a virus in some cases) I said nothing. Your offerings of “You may be right.” or “I am sorry you feel that way.” could also be used. Another clinically-modeled response that most people learn in pastoral care training is the mirroring model (which I think has now broken into pop culture and become a non-listeners way to not listen but appear attentive.) This is the “So, if I hear you correctly, what you are saying is x, y,and z.”
    These are all essentially responses of neutrality.

    I have explored in my parenting life and discipline the effectiveness (on a 14-15 year old boy-child doing 14-year old boy things like disappearing and coming home at 2 in the morning…etc) of the non-response response to bad behavior. Even the therapist concurred (in retrospect) that this was a stroke of genius! Knowing that exploding or even lecturing would allow the behavior and the individual an opportunity to further misbehave and continue a conflict once I accepted the (truly exhausting) role of explicator and dictator, etc I decided to try an inflection of non-violence theory-informed parenting. That is, I said nothing upon his return home, but instead allowed him to simply face his own behavior in silence..carrying the weight of it himself…as I refused to buy into its attempt to corrupt the peace and calm of my home environment. Amazingly, this worked. He ultimately came to me, almost crushed under his own inner critic, and apologized for his behavior. This is yet another form of refusing to allow the negativity to re-produce (because it will, continually). **(Come to think of it, just a few days ago he reminded me how much he appreciated the fact that I allowed him to make his own mistakes — and how much he learned).

    Just a couple more observations:

    Example three: Obama’s campaign circa Feb-Mar 2008. He demonstrated for the first time, I believe on a major national stage of political discourse, the power of non-violence. He refused to bend to the ever-insistent trash-talking campaigning directed at him by the Clinton machine. I remember watching, in astonishment, as he appeared to actually understand that non-violence could be employed in this Gandhian manner. That, in the end non-violence is a very powerful theory precisely because it is not in any way passive. It is an active theory that understands the only way to create a better path is to ignore the negativity when it seeks to re-produce itself. Once one has bent over and taken the bait…the games is up and the negativity has won.

    I do believe that in the moment of truly egregious and predictable sources of negativity that such sources begin to slowly lose the right to even warrant the picnic chat comment of “I see your point.” I do believe that in some instances simple silence is fine. Going back to that ministerial pastoral care approach, the listening ear serves a wonderful purpose. It supports the other individual. But, and this speaks more directly to the dilemma under consideration here: saves the enormous amount of energy it can take to respond and protect oneself from the bait of negativity.

    I think the best way, ultimately to help people out of these habitual negative modes of behavior, and of nurturing fields of negativity…is to simply stop feeding the beast. If folks find they lack conversation partners they may finally (even in spite of themselves) learn that positive comments will engage and nurture conversations…just as a smile encourages social interaction.

    Sorry to be long winded…but I too believe that the presence of socially sanctioned negativity in conversation has exploded in the past decade.

    Be well!
    Allison

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