Politeness (Or: Before you throw him out the window…) – Marc MacYoung (Conflict Manager, MARCH, 2016)

Throw out window


You’re going to get some homework with this article. But you’ll be a better communicator for it. If nothing else, it will help you articulate why you did what you did when being polite didn’t work.

Forbes Magazine ran a web article, ” 21 Ways To Leave A Never-Ending Conversation Without Being Rude.”

It’s a pretty good article. Being as it’s business, the assumption is you don’t want to be rude. It gives nice socially acceptable — and polite — exit strategies to get away from folks who — if we’re being charitable — just don’t know when to shut up. If we’re not being charitable, they’re time/energy vampires. If we’re being practical, they could be something worse.

Part of what you’re going to learn here is how to get this last type to reveal themselves but using manners, politeness and social rules of conduct. From there a different set of tactics is required. Up to and including having to throw them out a window. And no. I’m not joking.

Establishing two data points and two subpoints before we move on.

DP#1: Some years ago Rory started teaching his “levels of violence.’ It goes: Nice people manipulator, assertive, aggressive, assaultive and homicidal. Well technically it’s a visual that starts at the bottom and works up:


I really like this model because it so clearly shows several important dynamics. The visual helps track how ‘nice’ falls to ‘manipulative,’ manipulative falls to assertive, assertive folds against aggressive, etc.. You can see how folks aren’t too fond of going too high up the ladder. There’s also a lot of stuff that’s involved about how we’re comfortable with one level, and while we may go up one, in actuality, we spend most of our time lower — but often threaten we’ll bump it up if we have to (e.g., we use the threat of assault [aggression] WAY more than we actually strike). Still another is the model helps clarify how far away we are from actual physical danger.

DP#2: Much of what we do is scripted behavior. These are ‘short cuts,’ formulaic, cued behaviors and responses to common situations. Scripts are a big part of our lives and behaviors. When cued we respond, mostly by route, but with variations. “Excuse me. Could you pass the salt?” “Certainly” “Thank you.” “You’re welcome.”

The example I just used is what Rory and I call a “microscript.” These short, almost ritualistic, exchanges are very strongly tied to etiquette. They are also a weird blend of conscious, subconscious and unconscious mental processing. As such, break them at your own peril. At the same time, watch for people breaking them — as these breeches are the source of a great deal of our emotional discomfort and anger.

You have to know those data points for the subpoints to make sense.

Subpoint A: We rely on people 1) picking up the cues to prompt desired behaviors and 2) their cooperation with these scripts. This saves us from having to be assertive and the risk being turned down (Go to Youtube and type in “RSA Animate, Language as a window into human nature.” I warned you, homework.) This allows us to stay on the lower levels and avoid violence and conflict.

Subpoint B: Nice people have trouble with manipulators because they exploit the ‘rules of balance’ inherent in scripts. While we all use social scripts to our advantages, manipulators abuse the give-and-take nature of social scripts. What should be an equal ‘economy’ is tilted in the manipulator’s favor by the manipulator’s exploiting the taking aspects of scripts. They use the inherent compassion, cooperation, humanistic ideals and the standards of being ‘nice’ to take more than their share. For example, the ‘friend’ [or coworker] who is always asking you for favors, but isn’t there when you need one.

Now that we’ve laid these foundations we can turn our attention to the person who just won’t let you bow out. We’ll use this as an introduction to a bigger topic. That person is taking too much of your time. But we’re not at how to handle them yet. What we’ve covered thus far is critical for distinguishing between different motivations. Assessing that, tells us how to handle them.

Fact of life time: There are a lot of socially inept people out there. People who –short of you sending up a bright red balloon — will miss subtle social cues. The whys are many but most of them aren’t coming from malice. (Keep that in mind because you handle them differently than the malicious.) Still others you just have to flat out tell them what you want. It doesn’t matter how uncomfortable you are with being direct, with certain people you have to be. Again this often isn’t out of malice, it’s more how they are wired or were raised. With both kinds, you don’t want to go nuclear on them. Or even if you do, don’t. They don’t deserve your unbridled fury — and if you do, then the asshole in the situation isn’t the other person.

The need for the Forbes article is it addresses these people. It’s for when you’re sincerely trying to be a nice person and he/she just isn’t getting the hint. The suggested strategies send up a balloon that is so big that even a socially myopic person will see. Another added benefit of the Forbes article is it helps you learn ways to obviously — but politely — boost the signal. That’s the other side of the coin. It may not be that the other person is socially inept. It could be you aren’t communicating clear enough. So for either dealing with the socially unaware person or you not signaling loud enough, the Forbes article is useful to turn up the volume of “Time to let me go.”

I will point to another benefit of learning different ways to say “I have to leave.” That’s it is a step in learning how to be assertive. Remember, that step past manipulative? Yeah, it’s a small step because a lot of polite exit strategies are little white lies, but hey… you’re further along than you were before. Oh BTW, Terry, ‘assertive’ is scary to nice people, it can require aversion therapy and inoculation to work up to being direct. (And in case you, the reader, are wondering about that weird sentence … Terry Trahan asked, “What’s the matter with just being direct?” I didn’t get a chance to answer him when he asked that very good question. So now you, the reader, get to hear the answer too.) Learning other ways you have more than just one strategy — which is a good thing.

A common question I hear is “But what if polite doesn’t work?” Well, the Forbes article is step one in fixing that. Sending up that red balloon is not rude. It’s making sure the signal is clear. However, step two is where we break free from the Forbes article. But the direction we break is influenced by data point #1.

Another thing I hear is nice people waffling about acting to put an end to unacceptable behavior. This often in the form of, “What if I’m wrong?”

Which hey, if you’re talking about defenestration (throwing someone out a window), worrying about making a bad call makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is when the same person is asking both questions. Don’t they get that the two points work together?

If polite don’t work, then we know this isn’t normal. If clear-but-polite doesn’t work it’s a moved onto step three. A step that clearly puts us into the Levels. It’s time to mentally shift gears because it’s no longer innocent. The person has just announced that he’s putting something he wants over and above social protocol as well as your wants and needs. Is defenestration on the table yet? Well no. But it just walked into the room. Why? Because he has made a conscious decision to ignore protocol and put his wants before everyone else’s.

Recap, there’s lots and lots of levels, stages, tactics and strategies you can use between polite and defenestration. The more adept at these levels you are, the less likely you are to make a mistake. See someone who is just socially unaware will let you go when they see the big red balloon of “I gotta go.” Red balloon goes up, is seen, behavior changes and situation is over. Alright what does that tell us? Well, you just needed to be more overt. Overt doesn’t mean rude. Although many of the “what if…” types don’t know that, it’s true.

What’s important is watch for the person who sees the overt signal and ignores it. This is a form of what is called “Discounting no.” It’s both a game changer and a not-to-be-ignored signal. When you set an obvious verbal boundary and someone just blows through it as if it’s fog, they’ve just told you in no uncertain terms that they’re up to something.

But — before you throw someone out the window — you might want to try giving being polite another shot. Make the message very clear. (Kind of like tying a flashing light to that red balloon.) This does five things. One it confirms that being polite didn’t work. Two, it removes doubt that this is accidental or unwitting behavior on his part. Three, it gives you a “Well, I tried” permission to act. Four is if you have to explain your actions later you can truthfully say you tried being polite –repeatedly — and you changed tactics only because polite didn’t work. (As you will be called on the mat for any use of force, it helps if you can explain how you went through “ask, tell and order” before you went hands on) Five it blows any and all pretext that this situation was kosher. This may look like two, but it’s not. While most manipulators will back off when facing assertive, other folks will try to bump it to aggressive. While this is usually a face saving retreat (‘Elvis has left the building’ style), it can also reveal that their intentions were hostile all along. Yes, it’s scary, but it’s a need to know. What a lot of nice people don’t realize is even if it gets emotionally unpleasant, emotionally unpleasant ‘fixes’ are a lot easier than things getting to defenestration. So let’s look at these easier fixes.

The reason why it’s called ‘discounting no’ — is when someone wants something, you say ‘no,’ and they keep on pestering you for it. You know this routine. You might have done it as a kid. “Mom can I have a candy bar?” “No” “Why can’t I have a candy bar?” (Reason given.) “But I want a candy bar!”

From that childhood example we can see several things. One is the general dynamic. Two, the deliberate ignoring of a clearly communicated ‘no’ answer. Three the predictable strategies — especially the faux-request for “why.” This is followed by rejection of the reasons (as in they aren’t good enough). Four is the continued pressing for selfish reasons. (Hint, the counter is “Asked, answered, subject closed.”) Five is escalation.

At best discounting no is selfish, at worst it’s dangerous. (It’s a common tactic before physical violence.) From moment the ‘discounting no’ becomes clear, your goal has changed. Now, you’re oriented on stopping whatever he’s up to — using whatever means necessary. To figure out how to do that, we need to go back to scripts.

Scripted behavior allows for millions of us to live in close proximity. There are all kinds of rules for different levels of intimacy and relationships. You behave differently to a stranger than you do a family member. That’s the first set of filters to spot when something is off. Is this person asking too much or angling for something beyond the type of relationship you to have? Let’s pick one, say — distance. We allow people we are involved with to get closer to us than strangers. No brainer right? Well, actually way more complicated than you thought. For example greater stranger distance is the rule. While there are certain exceptions — those exceptions have very strict protocols and etiquette. Think of in a crowded elevator or a waitress. Your spouse standing close is no problem. But a stranger crowding you can be a manipulation to get you to move. Start watching to see how many of these unwritten rules you can identify and when someone should keep a distance. Why should you do this? So you can better understand this next point.

Scripts can also be looked at as a lazy man’s version of boundaries. Boundaries are established and maintained by the script. (Think of elevator scripts, what you say and where you stand are predictable.) These scripts have become automatic habits to the point we often assume that’s all we have to do. When they don’t work, we get flustered. Another way of looking at scripts is microwave dinners. Prepackaged, just pop them in, push a few buttons and there you have it. The problem with microwave dinners is you don’t learn how to cook. So if the microwave breaks down, you’re at a loss.

Someone who discounts ‘no’ is trying to short out your microwave. A lot of the time he’s relying on you not being able — much less willing — to do something about it. If people (who he can short them out) are lucky, he’s just going to act like a snotty kid and do what he wants. A lot of times, it can be a way worse. But it usually won’t start out that bad. As the saying goes, “Great storms are preceded by a small breeze.” Before these people really get going, they’ll test to see if you know how to stand up for yourself. How do they do this? With the small stuff.
The problem is, that test looks exactly the same as someone who is just socially unaware. That’s why you float the red balloon and see what happens. If the person is socially unaware you — without being rude — extract yourself. But if you see him look at the balloon, and keep on coming, then he’s tipped his hand.
Now you understand why assessing intent is so important.

When he tips his hand, you don’t have to be polite anymore either — well let me rephrase that. You don’t have to be rude either, but from that moment on you aren’t relying on manners, scripts and social conventions to do all the work of enforcing your boundaries. You’re going to have to take a more active part. And if that means throwing his ass out a third story window … well, that’s what it’s going to take.

But usually they’ll back off long before that — as long as you can communicate you know what’s going on. Let’s keep this at the lower end of the scale. By clearly communicating it’s time for you to go, you have moved up the scale from a nice person to an assertive person. Now the manipulator is in a fix. This leaves him no other choice than to try to either plead or tip his hand. Plead with you to stay (which hey, “you got fifteen seconds to finish”) or drop the pretense that his goals aren’t selfish and manipulative. If he gets angry, that’s fine too. Like I said it’s usually an Elvis has left the building retreat. “Oh I was assertive and you’re responding by becoming aggressive. Well thank you for telling me what’s the appropriate response.” Which believe it or not is not becoming aggressive, but cranking up the assertive. You can still be polite, but he’s using social scripts against you, so you don’t have to abide by them either.

Why? People often win by not just moving up a level, but pretending that they’re willing to go to the next one. Thing is, they’re usually not. This bluff is how they intimidate people. They’re good at bluffing. They get what they want through aggression because you’re scared they’ll become assaultive. But the never had any intent of taking that far. They only win because you chicken out. And you need to know something, they’re good at spotting when others are bluffing too. So if you get all excited and huff and puffy, he knows you’re bluffing. But if you’re calmly shifting gears to match him, that’s where you run into the paradox.
That is that often the willingness to use violence means you don’t have to. Someone who is polite and has no other tools is easily run over. Someone who is afraid of using violence sucks at convincing people he’s not afraid. The unwillingness to use force is what both the bluffer and the assaultive person is looking for. That is the person it is safe to aggress on, including physically attacking.

But the person who shrugs and shifts gears to whatever level this person wants to play at… well, leave that one alone. It’s not safe to mess with that one. You’d be amazed how effective being polite while calmly figuring the trajectory to the window can be at deterring escalation. In other words, instead of worrying about “What if the strategies don’t work?” think of a strategy not working as telling you it’s time to shift gears. “Okay, tried that, didn’t work. Next.” Once you get the hang of this approach, you’d be amazed at how fast trouble takes one look at you and moves onto the next target.

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