Most of the time when I am confronted by another person’s emotions, I mirror back their behavior. If someone’s angry with me, I tend to respond in kind. If someone’s pleasant, I’ll react similarly. If we find ourselves in a frightening situation, we often become scared. And so on. This is called ‘complementary behavior.’ Another name is ‘feedback loop.’
But what if we ‘flip the script?’ What happens when we confront anger with empathy or kindness? A 2016 NPR episode of Invisibilia recounted how a group of friends who were dining together were suddenly confronted by someone threatening to rob them at gunpoint. One of the group invited the would-be thief to join them with a glass of wine. In time the thief put away his gun, asked for a group hug, apologized, and departed without incident.
A script was flipped. Its academic name is non-complementary behavior. According to Jeremy Watkin of First Call Resolution:
The ability to take a negative situation and give a non-complementary response is a skill, and a great one at that. It’s also not an easy or natural skill but can make a difference in relationships on and off the clock— with family, friends, customers, and perfect strangers.
Consider how non-complementary behavior could translate into non-complementary language. Take, for example, the term ‘at risk.’ I hear it all the time. A kid is at risk because she is using drugs; a family on the verge of homelessness is at risk. As a result, we tend to view the kid or a family negatively. What if we viewed the kid or family as ‘at promise’? Instead of starting by cataloging their weaknesses, we begin with their strengths. Imagine what would happen then.
In the DC Superior Court’s Truancy mediation program we begin sessions by exploring a child’s strengths, not his deficits. We get a picture of the child (and his family) in terms of his favorite subjects, hobbies, music, and so on. Only then do we examine the barriers that contribute to his absences or tardiness. This approach has succeeded because the child’s parents wants to see their child’s attendance improve and at the same time receive services that might rectify some of the barriers such as bullying, medical concerns, or lacking a stable residence.
What if we tried this in our discourse with those who disagree with us? Flipping the script is a learned technique, but these days when civility seems on the decline, it may be worth a shot.