Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Twelve Steps to Maximizing Hostility and Bitterness in Your Relationships

While going through some old papers over the weekend, I found a handout that I created years ago when I was regularly leading confict resolution workshops. While much of the substance of the handout sprang from my experiences facilitating Alternatives to Violence Project workshops (mostly in the women's prison in Washington State), I'm pretty sure (based on some of the language choices) that I wrote it not long after attending one of Marshall Rosenberg's workshops on Nonviolent Communication. In any event, the contents of the handout actually struck me as closely related to issues recently touched on in this blog--"moral one-upmanship," self-compassion, even religion as a "bifurcated essentially contested concept" and Pat Buchanan's defense of Norway's homegrown terrorist. In short, it seemed like something worth sharing here.

And so, without further ado, here they are...

Twelve Steps to Maximizing Hostility and Bitterness in Your Relationships.

To ensure that all your interpersonal conflicts end with as much bitterness, hostility, and resentment as possible--and, hopefully, culminate in some form of violence, even if only psychological--it is important to take appropriate steps. The following twelve steps have proved especially effective in making relationships as polarized and hostile as possible. For maximum effectiveness, it is important to follow as many of them as you can not only when you confront actual conflicts, but when you worry that you might.

1. Remember that in every conflict there must be a WINNER and a LOSER. It is crucial that you be the winner. While you may not always be able to think of the other party in the conflict as your enemy, it is essential that you at least think of them as an opponent. You and your opponent are in a zero sum contest (like football) where every loss for them is a gain for you, and the important thing is to win. Thus, if you can find out what they need and make sure they don't get it, they become losers and you win. Winning won't necessarily make you happy, but at least you're not a loser.

2. Insist that PEOPLE ARE THE PROBLEM. When a problem exists, try to find out who is to blame. Since they're the problem, the only way to solve the problem is to knock them out of the way or beat them into submission (which can be just as invigorating even if the beating is purely psychological).

3. Put LABELS on people. When others are doing something you don't like, decide what kind of person that makes them: a liar, a coward, an idiot, a jerk, an irresponsible wastrel, etc. That way, you know what they are and how to handle them. You cannot expect them to change their behavior, since they are the kind of people who do that sort of thing. If you can't avoid them, you'll have to rely on manipulation, threats, and violence to control them. (Bonus: You can really magnify the effectiveness of this technique if you apply it not only to other people but to yourself).

4. PSYCHOANALYZE people and let them know how screwed up they are. When in conflict with someone, try to figure out what's wrong with them. Are they suffering the effects of childhood trauma? Are they anal retentive? Are they just plain stupid? Let them know your findings, starting with phrases like, "You know what your problem is?" or "You know what you need?" Explain how they can change their lives to become better people. If this technique does generate advice for improvement, it is important that it be focused entirely on others. The technique can, however, be effectively turned on oneself if it aims purely at producing more sophisticated labels (see #3 above).

5. Always REASON WITH PEOPLE to show them that they're wrong. When you disagree with someone else, this means that they're wrong. You need to set them straight, ideally by giving them a lecture where you prove to them that you're right and they're misguided. If this doesn't change their behavior, they are the kind of people who just don't listen to reason. And we all know what you need to do with people like that.

6. Get people to do what you want through MANIPULATION and CONTROL. The important thing is that people do what you want them to do. Their motives for doing it are secondary. If you honestly share with them your needs and make requests to have your needs met, you risk being hurt. Don't give up control in this way. Instead, threaten some kind of punishment if they don't do what you want, or offer a reward if they do. Try to shame or guilt-trip them into doing it. Make them believe that they have to do it whether they like it or not. 

7. Use expressions such as ALWAYS and NEVER. When another person's behavior hurts you, it is important that they realize the severity of their crime. So point out that they always act in the hurtful way, or that they never act in ways more supportive of your needs. This way, they realize that it's not just a specific behavior they have to change; it's their whole lives. If they feel overwhelmed, tell them to grow up.

8. Use expressions such as "CAN'T" and "HAVE TO." Always keep in mind that you don't actually have choices. The reason you act as you do isn't because the behavior promotes what you value. Rather, you act as you do because you have to. Since you have no choice, you aren't responsible for what you do. When others don't do what they have to do, try to make them do it by convincing them they have no choice. If they still don't do it, blame them. They are responsible.

9. When someone criticizes you, become either DEFENSIVE or GUILTY. If another person criticizes you, then one of you has to be in the wrong. In order to avoid being the one who's labeled as wrong, defend yourself against the criticism by showing how it's the other person's fault (explain how they started it or do the same thing, or tell them that they "asked for it"). If you cannot do this successfully, then you must be the one who's in the wrong. Feel guilty and beat yourself up. The experience will motivate you in the future to be more aggressive in your defensiveness.

10. Keep in mind that you are not responsible for your feelings; OTHERS CAUSE THEM. When upset, angry, or afraid, look for who is causing you to feel that way. Blame them. Focus on changing them so that they stop making you feel bad. After all, you cannot change yourself since your feelings are caused by others. You have far more control over what happens to other people, so direct your energies there.

11. Live in the PAST rather than the PRESENT. If others' actions in the past have hurt you, dwell on that. Constantly remind them about it, and base your present treatment of them entirely on these past actions. After all, their past actions prove what kind of people they are (see #3). Since they can't change the past, there is nothing they can do to change your view of them or your treatment of them. They are helpless. You have all the power, which means you're more likely to win (see #1).

12. Be MORALISTIC rather than MORAL. The most important use for moral principles and values is not as a guide for making personal choices ("being moral"), but as a tool for judging others ("being moralistic"). Use your principles and values for the latter purpose exclusively. If others don't measure up to your values and principles, it's clearly because they don't care about right and wrong. They are bad people. Since all the problems in the world are caused by bad people (see #2), a morally good world will magically spring up around you as soon as you get rid of the bad people.


  1. Hi Eric,

    I enjoyed your post and it reminds me of the dialogue/debate charts some instructors use: http://uucboulder.org/sm/dialogue.html
    Paul S

  2. Well that is deep thinking as its best!

  3. I would like to use this information wisely and nullify a toxic situation- how best can someone not get caught into this cycle- what do you do when the anger only escalates and the person who is attacking you has an investment to continue-i own getting caught up in it and it does play out- and this person is a father to your children. i would love a suggestion-

  4. Anonymous,

    It is very diffficult to offer concrete advice without knowledge of the persons involved, the history of the relationship, the dynamic, etc. So what I can say in a blog post is at best very general.

    First, you say that the other party to the conflict has "an investment to continue." One way to undrstand this is that he is getting something from it...but the reality as I see it is that none of us ever get our deepest human needs met by perpetuating cycles of hostility. Some surface desire might be served--for an emotional rush (intense feeling can make us feel alive even if the feelings are negative), attention (even hostile attention is perceived as better than nothing), feeling powerful (even if it's the power to harm)--but the deeper human needs and interests go unmet.

    This is a tragic situation, and it is possible to feel compassion for those who are caught up in it even as we seek to keep ourselves safe from the often distructive effects. Sometimes severing the relationship altogether is the best way to meet one's needs--but if there are children involved, this may not be a real option. And in many cases severing all contact is not the best way to meet the needs of everyone involved in any event.

    What I can say, in the abstract, is that the "12 steps" listed here are a kind of opposite of a healthier approach to communications and conflict resolution that is both simple in theory and challenging in practice. The theory, in a few words, is this: Conflicts are resolved by identifying the needs and interests that all parties bring to the conflict, brainstorming solutions, and then collaboratively identifying the solutions that do the best job of meeting the most important needs and interests of everyone.

    But to do this, the parties to the conflict need to get past the patterns of attack and defense that prevent underlying needs from being identified and that poison the collaborative spirit that leads to creative solutions in which BOTH parties' needs are treated as relevant by BOTH.

    Here is where nonviolent communication comes into play. Again, the theory of such communication is simple, but the emotionally fraught human context and the old patterns we're habituated to make following the theory hard. In briefest terms, nonviolent communication involves speaking from a space of of self-disclosure--tell the other what is going on with you and invite them to take an interest in your feelings and needs by making requests (not demands) for what will make your life more wonderful. And it involves listening from a space of compassion, where what you listen FOR are the feelings and needs and requests that lie BEHIND the verbal attacks and demands. The links at the start of this post may be halpful for a deeper understanding.

  5. Apologies for all the typos in the last comment--my children were keeping me company as I wrote...

  6. I needed to read that. In a meeting on Monday I used the word "always" and had to backtrack and apologize. Four of us in the meeting did make three difficult decisions without anything flying at anyone. Humans can accomplish great things even in small rooms in city hall buildings. As for the typos, who could type with children in the room at all? Commend yourself for that!

  7. Excellent satirical skewering, reminiscent of the Screwtape Letters. Sadly, I have fallen into these steps far too many times over the years (and yes even now as a middle aged "progressive" Xian). Hard to get it out of your system when you have had parents that drilled that into you from an early age. This is something to be reread often because in the absurdity of this type of dysfunction, the lightbulb should go on to reshape the reptilian responses in our brains.