by Laura Anne Gilman
I was working on a scene last week where the two main characters nearly come to blows over a simple comment that escalates because one of them is tone-deaf to what they’re saying/how they say it. It’s a good, chunky scene, filled with drama, shoving the characters where they need to go, plot- and character development-wise. It requires a character to own his shit…eventually.
But what happens on page is choreographed, plotted, planned by a Higher Hand with the luxury of knowing what they’re doing, and why. In real life, it’s messier, and doesn’t always lead to a satisfying conclusion for anyone, much less a Learning Moment that sticks.
And I started to think about why. Because we’ve all done it: Opened our mouths and said something that seemed logical or righteous to us, and trod on someone else’s life (if you think you haven’t, trust me, you have).
It’s easy to understand why someone having their shit called out might get drama-llamaish. Human nature, to not want to be wrong. But – if we really want to change the game, rather than wallow in it, why aren’t we better at calling someone on their shit?
Let’s be honest: if we call out everyone who says something dumb, insensitive or just plain clueless, we’ll never get anything done. But – just like in the scene I was writing – there are times when it has to be called out, either to keep a friendship intact, or to keep someone from doing more damage, or because they’ve finally hit the final nerve and if you don’t you’ll be screaming all night. And the instinctive human reaction when someone hits a raw nerve is to snap at them: to get up in their face and rub their noses in the mess they made, often with a dose of our own righteous anger.
That makes for really good drama – on the page. And in real life, it can burn off a lot of pain - you hurt me, so I’m going to slap back at you. But the thing I’ve noticed, having been on both sides of that, is that it creates an immediate protective/defensive reaction. Even if the other person hears what’s being said, they’re not actually hearing it any more. And the conversation goes nowhere except into escalated, hurt justifications on both sides.
Again: Good for drama. Lousy for actually getting though to someone with a minimum of high emotion and low blows.
There are books and lectures and websites all talking about conflict resolution and deflecting anger, but most of it really seems to boil down to a simple suggestion: Get out of their face, and stand by their side. In other words: exactly the opposite of our instincts. Better practice says “step away from the spotlight, don’t be the hero (or victim) of your own story, and you’ll have more success in getting people to hear.”
So if we know all this, why aren’t we better at it?
Because that’s hard. It requires the injured party to (figuratively) step out of the line of fire, to take the other person’s hand in honest compassion, and say “really? Did you mean to say that? Because it was kind of a shitty thing to say/do, so what’s up?” To open a dialogue, where the thing being said is the issue, not the attack (either offensive or defensive). To let the person with the shit own it, rather than you owning it for them.
And in doing so, we lose the sense of righteous rage, we let go of the injury. And we’re human, we want to hold onto all that, it feels good. That’s why we like seeing in-your-face on the page – it’s more exciting, more emotionally satisfying to see the wrong-speaker taken down, to see the beautiful comeback or the bloody uppercut of Justice…
But the totally unsurprising thing I’ve noted is that when we take this second approach, the offender is far more likely not only to apologize, but to remember what happened, own their shit and be mindful of it, going forward.
Real life isn’t like fiction. It’s harder.