cross-posted from Laird's Commentary on Community and Consensus
Today I want to examine a dynamic about which people frequently get confused—especially when they're upset: the difference between having concerns and the way they're expressed.
Suppose Person A does or says something that Person B finds outrageous. Perhaps A is perceived by B to be extreme or acting from personal interest that seems out of alignment with group values or agreements, or has sidestepped what B believes to be good process. Mind you, that may not be A's story (and probably isn't), but B is in reaction. Overwhelmingly, in my experience, they both have a point, but it goes pear-shaped when B does any of the following as a way of expressing their upset—rather than taking their concerns directly to A in a caring way, perhaps with third party help:
• Calling out A in a meeting (often with high affect).
• Railing about A in the parking lot to others.
• Unilaterally sabotaging or undermining something A acted on without group approval.
When this occurs and the choices B has made about how they're expressing their concerns is brought into question, the response is something on they order of, "Person A did an outrageous thing and I'm responding in kind. Now the gloves are off." Sigh. Does eye-for-eye frontier justice ever lead to world peace? Not that I can see. It's just war mongering. While B thinks A started it, does that justify fanning the flames?
Rather than constructively addressing the issues B has with A, they're piling wood on the fire and turning up the heat. Yuck.
Cleaning It Up
OK, so what can you do if you're wearing the FEMA hat? The first order of business is putting the fire out—stopping the sequence of provocative words and deeds. In general, the way in is through making sure that upset people have been heard, starting with the person perceived to be most in distress and working down the line. The concept is that people don't hear that well when they're upset, and you have to unclog the ears first. (People almost always deescalate if they feel heard accurately and their point of view is understood without judgment. Mind you, I'm only talking about hearing, not agreeing—don't conflate the two.)
To be fair, this step can be complicated by a third party (Person C) having a reaction to how B expressed themselves (see the list above), and their urge may be to comment on that first. Don't do that (if the goal is to turn this around). When people are upset they are rarely open to hearing comments about their actions. It works far better if you connect with B before attempting anything else. For that matter, I have the same advice for working with A, who may be poised to retaliate to what they see as B's aggression.
After you have established that all upset parties have been heard (to their satisfaction, not yours) then you can proceed to tackle two things: a) what are the concerns that B (and perhaps others) have with what A originally said or did; and b) what are the concerns with how B expressed their concerns. While these can be done in any order, I think it's important at the outset to make clear that you'll do them both, and one at a time. When working with messy dynamics, it almost always work better if you can break it down into components (simplifying the conversation), and not allow a conversation to mushroom into a free-for-all examination of past unresolved incidents (they can be done later if necessary). Keep it contained!
At the end of the day, people won't remember whether you tackled a) before b) or the other way around, so long as both were fully and fairly addressed.
Choices When Upset
Although this doesn't always occur to people in the heat of the moment, you always have choices about how you respond when you are in reaction. For what it's worth, here is the sequence I recommend for handling this on a personal level:
1. Developing the capacity to understand that you are having a reaction—by which I mean a nontrivial emotional response. It's a normal thing and doesn't mean you're a bad person. It's data. It's a sign that you feel something is off.
2. Take time to examine what that means to you; where the reaction comes from. If you are Person B, to what extent is this about what Person A did? To what extent is this about Person A (unresolved tensions or low trust with them, rather than about the specific action that set you off)? To what extent is this more about you than about A (something you are struggling with internally, or perhaps with another person and that unresolved tension has been triggered by what A did, but isn't really about them or that specific action)? It could be a combination of these—people are complicated.
Essentially, this step is taking time to crystallize what your concern is about, and what meaning you can find in the strength of your reaction. This step is meant to be helpful to you, independent of what happens further.
3. What is your menu of constructive choices based on the outcome of the previous step? By "constructive" I mean potential actions you could take that have a reasonable prospect of opening up a dialog to address your concerns. This probably translates into how best to inform A (and perhaps the group) to the fact that you have concerns about what A did and are in reaction.
The priority here should be on how to clean this up, not on expressing judgment or condemnation (which is essentially indulgent and rarely helpful).
4. Making a choice about how to proceed. At any step along the way I think it's fine to elicit help from friends—not to faction build, but to explore your feelings, to help discern their meaning, and develop a menu of options about to proceed.
Note: it tends to be less provocative if you can report your emotional reaction, rather than being in it. Thus, "I am angry that you parked the community pickup in front of a fire hydrant and it got hauled off by the police. This is the third time you've done this in the last three months and I'm frustrated that you're not being more careful of community property" is different from "You asshole! Don't you ever learn? This it the third goddam time you've mindlessly parked the pickup in front of a fire hydrant it got hauled off! Even an idiot would have figured out how to stop doing this by now." See the difference?
This is not about suppressing your reaction, including your upset, it's about being mindful of how you go about it and how it will land.