Series: In the Language of Respect, Part Two

How to argue without offending and hurting the ones you love or need to understand


Deployment and reunion of troops affect loved ones left behind. Do you understand how your children feel?

A comment on the Veterans of Canada blog crystallized a key problem with the way veterans talk to each other as well as to family and civilians, and it sparked this realization: soldiers learn to think in terms of the “enemy.” Always know where your enemy is. Always be alert. It’s an instinctive awareness that often saves their lives.

Gayle Lynds, a popular thriller writer, tells writers of the genre, “Always know where your villain is,” no matter what scene you write. It’s the same thinking. Such an awareness drives the author’s plot forward.

This conditioning is set up for soldier and writer alike, but in normal conversation, it is disruptive. Why?

Soldiers subconsciously “see” the person they talk to as an adversary: in other words, “the enemy.” The vet (mentioned earlier) unintentionally brought this conditioning to light when he commented how he had shifted his thinking from “talking TO” to “talking WITH” members of his family. This is a major adjustment in his communication skills.

“I have since learned that there are many shades of grey and that even though I think that someone is full of C–P, I must step back and take in their perspective on the topic of discussion. This is very hard to do but it is paying off.”

Conditioned to “seeing” the person you are talking TO as an “adversary,” crosses over to thinking everyone is like your “enemy”and becomes the base for hostile behavior as well as paranoid feelings. Is this what we want?

In relearning to communicate, we have to accept that, beyond a soldier’s oath to defend free speech to his death, not all people will agree with us, but what they say has VALUE because it is within their experience according to what they know and what they believe.

What colors communication and our perception of words is our experience with what any word means. This is why two people can be saying exactly the same thing but don’t see it because the way they “see” the word or term – their experience – is totally different. They are reacting to their past, not to the present.

How do we sort out these differences? We go back to our perch on the moon.

Watch and listen.

Take the written exercise we started yesterday. In it, we wrote an event that made us feel angry or hurt and stripped it down to a point-form summary in third person format (he, she, it, they, them).

EXERCISE: On paper, draw three columns. For the first heading call it EVENT.  The second, BODY LANGUAGE (A.)  The third, BODY LANGUAGE (B).

Under the first column EVENT, re-write each summary point from yesterday.

Under the second column heading, BODY LANGUAGE (A), divide this column into two lists.  As you read over each point, from your position on the moon, write down beside it how you “see” yourself – look at your facial expressions, your gestures, your posture. In the next list beside it, put down what you think this physical expression means in one word. Is it anger, smugness, fear, hurt, confusion, aloofness, closed in and/or controlled … whatever? Be honest with what you see about yourself.

Now, split the third column headed BODY LANGUAGE (B) into two lists. Still from your long-distance view on the moon, turn your attention to the other person. What expressions, gestures, postures do you see him or her making? From what you see, what do you think that person is feeling? Write that down beside what you have observed about him or her.

This is the tougher part of the exercise. So far you have been watching in silence, only looking at two people talking from a long distance. While still safe on the moon, turn on your imaginary earphones. Your radio blocks out any personal attack words. Listen to the words you say – write down only the words or phrases that stand out for the topic or subject of the issue beside each summary point you made yesterday. Do the same for the other person. Stick to subject content. Pick up one word or phrase they spoke in response for each summary point.

It’s painstaking, I understand, but bear with me.  Put the exercise away and don’t look at it again. Even if you are tempted, don’t do it. Writers would find this instruction difficult as well once they start rewriting their work, but it’s the most important part of the exercise.

We’ll deal with why we do this next time.


About Bonnie Toews and John Christiansen

Bonnie's Blog Posts invite our readers and free spirits everywhere to share life's adventures with us. I talk about writing my novels, reading books, chatting with other writers and John's and my journeys around the world. We welcome your anecdotes to our experiences and discussions.
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