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Communicating with the irrational

Intro

Why do people cling so tightly to their beliefs, in the face of incontrovertible evidence that they are wrong? Why do they get so angry when others point out that their arguments are factually and logically incorrect? Some of these people are the so-called "peace lovers" who believe that violence is never the answer, no matter the circumstances.

How may you communicate with these people who seem to be out of touch with reality and rational thought? One way is to understand their psychological processes. Once you understand why these people behave so irrationally, you may communicate more effectively with them.

Defense mechanisms

Defense mechanisms are unconscious psychological mechanisms that protect us from feelings that we cannot consciously accept. They operate without our awareness so that we do not have to deal consciously with "forbidden" feelings and impulses.

Nowadays, children are taught not to express negative emotions or aggression. Instead of learning that such emotions are normal but need to be controlled, children now learn that feelings of anger are evil and dangerous and deserve severe punishment. To protect themselves from "being bad," they are forced to use defense mechanisms to avoid owning their own normal emotions.

Some defense mechanisms are:
  • Projection. This involves unconsciously projecting your unacceptable feelings onto other people, so you do not have to own them. For example, some fear that people who learn martial arts may lose their temper in an argument and physically attack someone. They think that since they might lose control of their anger that others might do the same. Projection is a particularly insidious defense mechanism because it not only prevents people from dealing with their feelings, it also creates an attitude where they think everyone else is directing their hostile feelings back at them.

    All people have violent, and even homicidal, impulses. For example, it is common to hear people say, "I am so mad I could kill!" They do not mean it; they are simply acknowledging their anger and frustration. Most people acknowledge feelings of rage, fear, frustration, jealousy, etc. without acting on them in inappropriate or destructive ways. However, some people are unable consciously to admit that they have such emotions. They may believe that "good people" never have such feelings, when in fact all people have them. Many times, these people have higher than average levels of emotions and fear that, if they acknowledge their hostile feelings, they may lose control and really will hurt someone. 
  • Reaction formation. Reaction formation occurs when a person's mind turns an unacceptable feeling or desire into its complete opposite. For example, a person who harbors murderous rage toward his fellow humans may claim to be a devoted pacifist. Often such people take refuge in various spiritual disciplines and believe that they are "superior" to "less civilized" people who engage in "violent behavior" such as martial arts. These are the type of people who devote themselves to militant animal welfare organizations that proclaim that the rights of animals take precedence over the rights of people. This not only allows angry people to avoid dealing with their rage, but it also allows them to harm the people they hate without having to know they hate them. True pacifists generally exhibit goodwill toward people with whom they disagree.
Defense mechanisms are normal; their use does not imply mental illness. People may be misguided, uninformed, stupid, or intent on evil, but that does not necessarily mean they are mentally ill.
Because defense mechanisms distort reality to avoid unpleasant emotions, the person who uses them has an impaired ability to recognize and accept reality. This explains why some believe that people who are active in the martial arts must be aggressive or violent, even though most martial artists are less violent than the general population.

Dealing with the irrational

Some techniques to use when dealing with irrational people:
  • Mirror technique. In this technique, you feedback what the person is telling you, in a neutral, inquisitive way. By repeating what the person has said and asking questions, you are not directly challenging the person's defenses; you are holding up a mirror to let the person see his or her views. If the person has strong defenses, he or she may persist, however, if the defenses are less rigid, the person may start to question his or her position. Ask "open-ended" questions that require a response other than "yes" or "no." Such questions require the person to think about what he or she is saying. This will help the person re-examine his or her beliefs and may encourage the person to ask you questions about your views.
  • "What would you do?" technique. Once you have a dialogue going with the person, you might want to insert him or her into a hypothetical scenario. Doing this is a greater threat to the person's defenses, so it is riskier. Do not try to "win" the argument or try to embarrass the person. Remember that no one likes to admit that his or her deeply held beliefs are wrong. No one likes to hear "I told you so!" Be patient and gentle. If you are arrogant, condescending, hurtful, or rude, you will just turn the person off. 

Defusing emotional reactions

Some techniques to use to defuse emotional reactions:
  • "You are there" technique. Rational arguments alone are not likely to be successful, especially since many people "feel" rather than "think," so you also need to deal with emotional responses. You may need to change the person's emotional responses along with his or her thoughts.

    When dealing with a person who thinks violence is never the way to solve things, you may put the person (or his or her family) at a hypothetical crime scene and ask what he or she would like to have happen. For example, "Imagine your wife is in the parking lot at the supermarket and two men grab her and try to pull her into a van. I am a black belt. If I see this happening, what should I do?" Just let the person answer the questions and mentally walk through the scenario. Do not argue with the answers. You are planting seeds in the person's mind than may help change his or her emotional responses.
  • Power of empathy. Another emotion-based approach that is often more successful is to respond sympathetically to the plight of the anti-violence person. Imagine for a moment how you would feel if you believed your neighbors and co-workers wanted to kill you and your family, and you could do nothing at all about it except to wait for the inevitable to occur. Not very pleasant, is it? This is the world in which opponents of self-defense live.

All of us have had times in our lives when we felt "different" and had to contend with hostile schoolmates, co-workers, etc. Therefore, we need to invoke our compassion for these terrified people. It is essential that you sincerely feel some compassion and empathy; if you are glib or sarcastic, this will not work.

Using empathy works in several ways. First, it defuses a potentially hostile interaction. Anti-violence people are used to being attacked and not understood by advocates of self-defense. Instead of appearing as a violent person, you are now a sympathetic, fellow human being. This may also open the door for a friendly conversation, in which you may each discover that your "opponent" is a person with whom you have some things in common. You may even create an opportunity to dispel some of the misinformation about self-defense and the martial arts that is so prevalent.

This empathy technique is also useful for redirecting or ending a heated argument that has become hostile and unproductive. With empathy, you can reframe the argument entirely.

You should not expect any of these approaches to work immediately. With rare exceptions, the anti-violence person is simply not going to "see the light" and thank you for your help. What you are doing is putting tiny chinks into the armor of the person's defenses, or planting seeds that may someday develop into a more open mind or more rational analysis. This process can take months or years. 

Corrective experiences

Perhaps the most effective way to dissolve defense mechanisms is by providing a corrective experience. Corrective experiences are experiences that allow a person to learn that his ideas are incorrect in a safe and non-threatening way. To provide a corrective experience, you first allow the person to attempt to project his or her incorrect ideas onto you. Then you demonstrate that he or she is wrong by your behavior, not by arguing.

For example, the anti-violence person may unconsciously attempt to provoke you by treating you as if you are an uneducated "redneck." If you get angry and respond by calling him a "stupid, liberal, socialist," you will prove his or her point. However, if you casually talk about your M.B.A. and your trip to the Shakespeare festival, you will provide the person with the opportunity to correct his or her misconceptions.

If you have used the above techniques, then you have already provided one corrective experience. You have demonstrated to the anti-violence person that martial artists are not abusive, scary, dangerous, sub-human monsters, but normal, everyday people who care about their families, friends, and even strangers.

The most important corrective experience is exposing the anti-violence person to a martial arts class. Encourage the person to ask questions and remember that your role is to present accurate information in a friendly, responsible, and non-threatening way. This is a good time to offer some reading material on the benefits of martial arts training but be careful not to provide so much information that it is overwhelming. Your guest will learn that martial artists are disciplined, responsible, safety-conscious, courteous, and considerate, with total self-control. He or she will see people of all ages, male and female, enjoying an activity together. Even if your guest decides that the martial arts are not for him or her, the person will have learned many valuable lessons. Who knows, a few months or years later, he or she may decide to become a martial arts student.

You should remember that you will not always be successful. Some anti-violence people are so terrified and have such strong defenses, that someone without professional training can't get through to them. Some people have their minds made up and refuse to consider opening them. Others may concede that what you say, "makes sense," but are unwilling to challenge the forces of political correctness. A few may have had traumatic experiences with bullies from which they have not recovered.

You will also not be successful with the anti-violence ideologues. These people have made a conscious choice to oppose violence. They almost always gain power, prestige, and money from their anti-violence politics. They are not interested in the facts or in saving lives. They know the facts and understand the consequences of their actions and will happily sacrifice innocent people if it furthers their selfish agenda. Do not bother to use these techniques on such people; they only respond to the fear of losing the power, prestige, and money that they covet.

Sources

  • Thompson, S. (2004). Raging Against Self Defense: A Psychiatrist Examines The Anti-Gun Mentality. [Online], Available: http://www.therighter.com [2004, May 29].
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