The Never Complain Dictum – Mark Hatmaker (Conflict Manager – SEPTEMBER, 2015)


In the world of street-response to potential violent conflict one often encounters the word “de-escalation.” I want to define that term, not to insult intelligence but to make sure we’re on the same page about a tactic I find of nominal value as it applies to the everyday citizen. De-escalation is, in short, a micro-version of hostage negotiation. I keep you talking with this or that bargaining chip or appeasement patter in hope of you not engaging in violence (or any more violence).

Now, law enforcement and security professionals (LE here on out) have a serious need for de-escalation tactics and strategies as LE, by the very definition of their job, must deal with the violent or potentially violent. Their professional contract, their sense of duty says that the LE professional must deal with what is in front of them and not walk away. Whereas, we the non-LE citizen do not have that professional onus to stand pat and work our way through a potentially dangerous situation with some possibly dubious advice. (We’ll get to why I regard de-escalation advice being of dubious merit for the citizen in a bit).

First, we would be wise to think of confrontation in the physical realm and the non-physical in the exact same way, with the exact same response continuum. That is, as non-LE professionals we have no duty or burden to respond to or restrain an offender. At the first sign of trouble if the exits are clear we would be wise to exercise the most important F of the Fight or Flight dichotomy and choose Flight. Training/Drilling/Accepting a de-escalation strategy is choosing to prolong a confrontation by default-when phrased that way, does prolonging contact with the violent or potentially violent seem wise? If assault looms imminent, you should get out of Dodge. If it’s too late to get out of Dodge when the violence is upon us, we should respond only long enough to create our flight opportunity. It is not our job to “see it through to the end” as, again, that is not our job as non-LE citizens. To move laterally into de-escalation where a simple exit is available is less than wise. It may feel “cowardly” in some circumstances and not as easy as our combative simian natures will allow, but it is wiser than engaging in wordplay with another simian in an agitated state.

[In regard to cowardly vs. “knightly honor” I can do no better de-bunk of this notion than the masterful distinction between honor and responsibility delivered in Schopenhauer’s “The Wisdom of Life.” In short, not everything is “fightin’ words.”]

Let’s look at how well de-escalation works in non-violent scenarios for a moment. I want you to picture the “ambush” seat on a cable news show. That is the seat or guest spot reserved for the partisan enemy; the guest spot where a single representative is supposed to stand-in for all of the “other side” while a bombastic anchor or table of the “enemy” goes to town on you.

For this example, picture a conservative guest on an MSNBC show and a liberal guest on a Fox News show. There should be something here for you no matter where you are on the political spectrum. Now, how often have you seen the “ambush” guest use de-escalation/appeasement/justification conversational tactics and win? The answer is never, if/when it happens that will be front page news: “Noted [Insert Conservative or Liberal of choice] says, “You’re absolutely right.”

Let’s take another example home. If you are already familiar with de-escalation ask yourself how often you use it in a debate/argument with your spouse/boss/co-worker (insert your personal arguer of choice)? How often do you really, really keep your eyes on the appeasement prize? If we are honest with ourselves, we often (before we move to resolution) realize “Hmm, am I actually a wee bit of the problem here? If so, why do I keep on opening my big mouth?” Appeasement/de-escalation doesn’t happen because, we simians dig in on contentious matters, we seldom shift our opinions in the heat of the moment-we must calm before (if even then) we can see the other point of view. In short, we’re an aggressive species whether that aggression is violence, threat of violence, finger pointing political argument, or passive-aggressive gossip.

Now keep in mind these examples where we don’t exercise our de-escalation skills occur with no threat of violence. Imagine how much more heated a scenario we are talking about when we suggest “How about some de-escalation talk?” If we don’t see it manifest in less-threatening situations (i.e., we don’t drill it in daily life) what makes us think we will be calm and cool enough to utilize it and utilize it well when it hits the fan?

OK, let’s pretend you see my “If it doesn’t manifest in low-stress situations it ain’t gonna rear its head in high-stress” point. Is there something that we can do in its stead, something that gets closer to the true intent of the Flight F, and also actually allows us to drill in day-to-day scenarios to get the gist of the thing down? Yeah, I think so.

I’m going to reference a strategy used by comic/magician Penn Jillette of the Penn & Teller duo. It’s called “Never Complain.” He uses it in a cost-to-benefit, return-on-investment (ROI,) don’t waste your time in matters of free market choice. We’ll explore how he intends it being used and then we’ll add some “You can complain here” allowances, and then move it to the world of potential violence.

Penn means for the “never complain” axiom to apply to low-key disagreements in everyday life. For example, poor service in a restaurant-there is often a strong inclination to make your dissatisfaction known (I was formerly that guy). But let’s ponder the strategy of letting it be known you were not served how you expected to be served. In essence we are telling the server or the manager “Go back into the past and fix what has already occurred,” “Here’s how I would run your business/do your job,” or at most we complain in hopes of “getting something” for being the squeaky wheel which allows you the privilege to return to the environment that you did not enjoy and potentially risk a bit of extra-ingredient comeuppance introduced into your meal.

The “Never Complain” dictum states that instead of putting the time in, raising your own “fighting ire” you consider the poor service or meal as market information, you simply move on and try different establishments. In most matters domestic we have plenty of choices, plenty of outlets where we will be offered good meals, good service, good prices, what have you. I wager that this strategy will be tough for some of us out there where the urge to stick to your guns and “go to the top because nobody treats me this way” will be hard to overcome.

Enjoy your victory, enjoy your fight.

For others who are piqued by the strategy and might be asking yourselves, “but what if money is involved?” Well, then sure you may have a reason to fight that fight, but only if the amount in question will warrant the time and effort involved. For example, if upon arriving home from a department store you discover that you have been shortchanged a hundred bucks, you might wanna drive back out. If the amount is $1.75, you might want to ponder the gas and lost time and do some math.

The “never complain” strategy once fully embraced frees up a lot of time if you are a “get your due” sort. It also allows you to find businesses, environments, and folks that dovetail with your tastes better than trying to re-make the world into your own personal whim. It also supplies real world training for conflict management-in that in situations that do not warrant your time and attention you simply walk away. That’s mighty freeing, and perversely satisfying to see the person who wanted to argue over a parking space not sure how to process your shrug and walk on to the next good thing in your life.

“Never complain” in small matters trains us in flight from trivia in a way that bargaining, negotiating, and “winning” with poor service-providers never does.

“Never complain” also allows us to get our nervous systems, our egos a little used to the practice of “If it ain’t worth it, and I’ve got options I’m taking a hike.” I wager that this trivial real-world practice may serve us better than hypothetical classroom encounters where we all behave as if we’re amateur hostage negotiators.

In short: Treat violence like a fire-get low, get out, and leave it to the firefighters.


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