Learning how to deal with interpersonal conflict, the subject of the last chapter in Looking out, Looking in, is a difficult matter. The most difficult conflict style for me to learn to deal with is the passive aggressive conflict style, both in myself and in other people.
Someone using a passive aggressive conflict style presents a face that is substantially at odds with either the ‘ground truth‘ available, other presented faces of theirs and even their perceived face. They will also deny any observation of such deviation, either by simple rejection or a more nuanced dismissal.
This severely damages many of the interpersonal communication techniques we’ve been taught in Interpersonal Communication. Perception Checking, suggested in Chapter 3: Perception, reveals what you’ve seen. The Clear Message Format covered in Chapter 9: Improving Communication Climates is a recipe for broadcasting your intentions. Paraphrasing, as suggested in Chapter 7: Listening, is another technique of deliberate revelation. These tactics work great when someone is genuinely interested in communication, but how effective are they when your interlocutor is willing to twist their response to any disclosure to match their aims?
It’s difficult to figure out how to relate to people that use these sorts of tactics, and part of the reason is the difficulty apprehending intentionality. We all say one thing and do another some times, because of circumstances out of our control, or judgement calls that we made in the face of additional information, or because of an emotional response. Furthermore, passive aggressive folk like to play up these factors.
To an extent, I think, I’ve discredited explanations that play too heavily into the hands of passive aggressive. For example, I’m way more likely to be sceptical if someone gets all teary eyed at how rough things are for them, lately, and that’s why they’ve been such a dork. Unfortunately, that sort of intentional stance can waver pretty far across the line towards a lack of empathy; someone really can have a rough time, and it really can affect them adversely, and your being cold to them just makes you the asshole.
I don’t have any real good answers. I’ve burned people hard and I’ve been burned hard by this sort of behaviour. I really haven’t found foolproof ways of figuring out whether someone is taking me for a ride aside from getting on it and seeing how it comes out. I’ve tried the whole being-more-cautious thing, but I just can’t maintain that kind of distance for long, so what’s happened is I’ve had these kinds of experiences repeatedly, which taught me that a lot of things that seem really scary are kind of all right in the end. It’s led me towards is a sort of sacrificial openness. I reveal things to people that, in my experience, others are unwilling to be very open about. This means they’ll consider me to have “revealed” something to them. Then I pay attention to what they do with those pieces of information, and that gives me some indication as to whether or not they’re engaging in passive aggressive or manipulative behaviours.
Gossip is also essential to checking the unbridled effectiveness of the passive aggressive tactic, because through gossip people compare notes and figure out discrepancies in behaviour displayed over time; one of the characteristic behaviours of the passive aggressive is trashing you behind your back, and that’s the sort of thing that’s fairly easy to correlate.
I’m glad LoLi gave a number of excellent tools for enhancing decent communication. I’m very interested to see if there’s a course that deals more with relating with very advanced forms of social manipulation on an interpersonal and group level, because that’s what I feel like I have to navigate in my day to day life that currently doesn’t go very smoothly for me.