How to Cordially Disagree

How to Cordially Disagree

In the last fifty years in this country we have learned to question many of the social rules thatonce required women, children and subordinate staff, for example, to be politely reticent and to defer to other people’s opinions before their own. But now reticence and deference are so far out of fashion that any individual may feel it is their right to express their feelings, preferences and prejudices loudly and publicly, and to feel aggrieved if anyone questions their point of view, or hurt if they positively disagree with it. 

Television drama has made it seem normal for people to scream at each other, and the media fosters a combative approach to discussion. We have encouraged a culture of aggression instead of helping each other to be more confidently assertive. Disagreement is inevitable in a world of rich variety and complex individual freedoms. It is certainly gratifying and encouraging when other people share your ideas, but we all benefit from hearing other ways of thinking, and from checking our beliefs against facts and alternative viewpoints. The Quaker principle offers a healthy basis for good communication: “Think it possible that you may be mistaken.” You may think it very possible that the other person may be mistaken, too. But there are more effective ways to disagree than by arguing; or by carefully avoiding the topic or the person you do not agree with.

The two big mistakes people commonly make are to suppose that they need to suppress their own views for fear of upsetting the other person; or that they have to be aggressive to uphold their values and beliefs. Aggression will indeed upset the other person, and demonstrates a failure of communication. Assertiveness acknowledges the right of others to have and to express their point of view, without belittling your own.

Aggression interprets disagreement as a declaration of war, and its purpose is to intimidate. It resorts to Trumpish name calling: “If I don’t like what you are doing or saying, you must be mad/stupid/evil/a bad person/out to get me/WRONG!” Aggression is intent on browbeating the other person into giving way, or on achieving a personal advantage. Aggression accuses: “You always…You never…Why can’t you..?”

Assertiveness, on the other hand, expresses its position without fear or apology. It has no need to score points. Its purpose is to clarify preferences, maintain mutual respect and find common ground. It is an adult approach, while aggression is childish or bullying. It will defend a position, without getting on the defensive.

Assertiveness invites a dialogue: “What is your point of view?”

Assertiveness listens, and finds something to acknowledge or any area of common ground. It looks for any chance to say “You are right, at least in this respect,” instead of an altogether dismissive “You are just wrong.”

Assertiveness does not assume that you know what the other person believes or wants, but checks: “So if I understand you…? Have I got that right?”

And assertiveness explains: “This is how I see it…”

Assertiveness states a position and invites a conversation. It does not tell the other what they should or shouldn’t do, or what is wrong with them.

None of this comes naturally. We have been socialised into avoiding confrontation, or into seeing confrontation as a fight to be right, rather than a comparing of ideas. It is not easy to speak out when you disagree, or when you are bothered by someone else’s attitude or behaviour. But assertiveness can be learned. It is astonishing how unexpected solutions can emerge, when the will is there to be true to your own values and flexible enough to honour someone else’s.

Now Felix Keep on Walking

Now Felix Keep on Walking

Before ‘Keep calm and carry on,’ there was Felix the Cat. From my mother I inherited the last surviving little plate of a 1920s doll’s tea set. The cartoon shows Felix staunchly keeping going, beset as he is by the frenzy of dogs barking and other cats panicking.

Granted, Felix looks strapping enough to handle any setback; but the kind of resilience you need to take difficulties in your stride is more to do with size of attitude than physique. If you believe that you have, or can find, the resources you need to handle a situation, it becomes manageable. And every difficulty you manage to deal with increases your ability to rise to the next challenge.

Conversely, every upset, shock or pressure that you can’t cope with will knock your confidence, and deplete your energy. Anxiety feeds on itself. Avoidance can become a habit. When your confidence leaches away, or if you never had much in the first place, trying to keep on top of day to day living can at times become overwhelming. Then even a trivial setback seems to swell out of all proportion, and your physical and emotional well-being become harder to maintain.

Confidence can be learned. It is not a matter of individual temperament, it is a way of thinking. Many people mistakenly feel it is somehow safer to dwell on what could go wrong, than to imagine a happy outcome; as if worrying in advance might somehow avert disaster, or as if expecting the worst will save you from being disappointed. But the fact is that disheartening thoughts will only dishearten you. They will not enable you to cope better when difficulties arise, as they inevitably will. It takes confidence to deal assertively with the problems that are always snapping at our heels, and to keep going, doing the best you can from one unforeseen moment to the next. 

Keeping on walking will bring you through a situation and to another place. It means not letting yourself be daunted or side-tracked by the growling of your own regrets or resentments, or frightened by uncertainties.

Confidence means ‘with trust’. This is not the kind of trust that shuts its eyes and crosses its fingers, like the ‘peril-sensitive’ sunglasses in The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that go black in the presence of danger, so that you can’t see what you don’t want to. It is not the kind of trust that depends for its peace of mind on locks and alarms, belt and braces, insurance schemes and guarantees; or on rosy-tinted wishful thinking, either.

What you can trust is the extraordinary capacity we all have to come up with new and previously unimagined possibilities. You can trust that (like everyone else) you will make wrong decisions and be disappointed, ashamed, frustrated, like everyone else…but that you will also adapt, change, regenerate and learn as you go along. Keep walking, and your view will change as you walk.

What is hypnosis, and how does it help?

What is hypnosis, and how does it help?

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Despite decades of scientific evidence of its therapeutic effectiveness, hypnosis is still thought of as a mysterious form of mind control, whereby a hypnotist exerts power over someone else and directs his or her actions. Movies and fiction wildly misrepresent the procedures and possibilities of hypnosis, generating some strange fears and fantasies about what it is and how it works. And this is especially ironic, as giving people more control over their fears and fantasies is what hypnosis does best.

Forget the clichés: the swinging watch, the intoned “Look into my eyes…” These are remnants of old-fashioned ways to help someone focus their attention, by giving them something to fix their gaze upon. You can do it yourself: keep staring up at a single point on the ceiling, or fixedly at your thumbnail, until you feel your mind subtly shift into another gear. This detached awareness, as though suspended in time, is a light state of hypnosis.

Forget the idea that to be able to do this readily is weak-willed or will put you in anyone’s power. On the contrary, it requires co-operation and concentration; and if you are not too hot on those, it has been shown that hypnotic ability improves with practice. Forget any fears of being brainwashed into doing something ridiculous, or of falling unconscious, or of having no memory afterwards of what has happened. We do these things to ourselves regularly – spending more than we mean to in the supermarket, sitting in a trance in front of a television or computer screen, drinking too much – but hypnosis cannot make you do any of them.

What hypnosis does is direct your attention inwards. The process combines simple routines, such as closing the eyes and relaxing the body, with paying more attention than usual to your inner experiences and sensations. The real mystery about hypnosis is the mystery of the brain itself: its flexible and ingenious power to join the dots, see things differently, and change its own mind.

In spite of, or perhaps thanks to its long history of controversy and its ambiguous reputation, hypnosis has been rigorously studied, changes in brain activity scanned, professional standards established, benefits officially recognised. Southampton University has been offering hypnotherapy to students since 2016, with a reported reduction in anxiety of 60% (The Times, 26/12/2018). New generations will take for granted approaches to mental and physical well-being that were regarded with suspicion and superstition in the past: what stands the test of time is what still works in time of need.

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