Civility is not the same as affect

Having a civil conversation is about mutual listening and mutual respect.

Sometimes that gets conflated with affect — people act like the defining feature of respectful conversation is things like the position of your body, the volume of your voice, and whether you’re using polite words.

Sometimes things like that can be involved in what makes a conversation respectful, but they don’t define it.

The rules of politeness allow people to be dismissive and cruel. Similarly, it is possible to have a mutually respectful conversation that violates the rules of politeness.

For instance, it is often possible to have a mutually respectful conversation with raised voices and cuss words. It is also often possible to use a lot of I-statements and gentle-sounding language to have a conversation that is fundamentally disrespectful and cruel.

Conflating affect with respect ends up drowning out a lot of voices, and privileging people who are good at manipulating the rules of politeness.

(Affect matters, and it’s ok if some kinds of affect are dealbreaking for you in terms of your ability to have conversations with someone. I’m not saying that everything should be acceptable to everyone. All I’m saying is that affecting politeness is not the same as treating someone respectfully.)

tl;dr Body language, tone of voice, and affect can be part of what makes a conversation civil and mutually respectful, but they don’t define it.

Conversations between people who disagree

Conversations between people who disagree with each other can be really difficult. They can also be tremendously valuable.

One reason that it’s hard is that it takes two to have a conversation.

Each person has to be prepared to listen to the other and be prepared to think about what they have to say. Each person has to respect the right of the other person to think for themself, and be prepared to accept the possibility that they will not be persuaded.

Without mutual willingness to listen and think, it’s not really a conversation. It’s just somebody (or multiple people) presenting demands. (There’s a time and a place for presenting demands, but they don’t generally lead to good conversations.)

Another difficulty in conversation between people who disagree is that some opinions can hurt to hear even if someone is expressing them completely civilly. This can be confusing in two directions:

It can be easy to think that someone is being mean when they’re not. If someone’s opinion hurts to hear, it can feel like cruelty even when they’re being completely civil.

What to do about this varies. Sometimes the right thing is to bear the pain for the sake of listening and learning. Sometimes the right thing is deciding that you’re not ready to hear this yet. Or any number of other possibilities. But it’s always important when this happens to recognize that it’s not the other person’s fault that the concept hurts to think about.

At the same time — it can be easy to make this mistake in the other direction. Sometimes people you disagree with are jerks. Sometimes, when you really want to be open to other opinions, it can end up being hard to tell that people are being mean. (And hard to remember that you don’t have to talk to mean people in order to be receptive to disagreement). Blaming yourself for someone else’s decision to be mean to you won’t lead to good conversations either.

I think it’s really important to learn to tell the difference, in both directions. I think important questions to ask are:

  • Do I feel ok about having a conversation with someone who disagrees with me on this topic right now?
  • Am I willing to listen to this person?
  • Am I willing to explain my views in a way this person can understand?
  • Does this person seem to be willing to listen to me?
  • Do they seem to be willing to explain their views in a way I can understand?

If the answers to any of those questions are no, it’s probably not going to be a very productive conversation. In some situations, it’s possible to fix this by changing your attitude and deciding to hear someone out. (And sometimes trying that is a really bad idea.) Often, the best thing to do is either find a new topic or a different person to discuss the topic with.

All of the skills involved in having conversations with people you disagree with get easier with practice. It gets easier to find disagreement bearable. It gets easier to tell the difference between people being mean and people expressing a difficult opinion. It gets easier to listen. It gets easier to tell when people are listening. It gets easier to explain things in a way that can be understood. It gets easier to learn from others.

These skills can be hard to acquire — and they’re really, really worth it.

Conversations get better when you focus on the conversations that you can have productively — and the range of possible conversations gets broader as your skills get better.

tl;dr Discussing ideas you disagree with with people you disagree with is hard for a number of reasons. It’s also really worthwhile. Part of having good conversations is finding contexts in which they can happen productively. It gets easier with practice.

Reader suggestions for non-ABA help for autistic children

Content note: I wrote a post a while ago about resources other than ABA for autistic children. Here are three more suggestions from an anonymous reader:

To the mom against ABA:Try getting him lessons in things he enjoys. They’ll teach him structure while letting him know his interests are important to you ( autistic kids’ interests are often discouraged if they have “too much interest” in them)

For the mom not wanting ABA: I’m autistic. When I was young, my parents put me in horse riding lessons and voice lessons. The horse lessons helped me develop communication skills, which in turn helped me communicate with other humans better.

For mom who doesn’t want ABA: Taking voice lessons helped me with pronunciation and tone of voice by teaching me to match pitches, which is how I learned to apply tone of voice by mimicking how others sounded when they said certain things.

realsocialskills said:

I like these suggestions. I think they’re not necessarily for everyone, but could be amazingly good for a lot of kids. Thank you, anon.

Thoughts on CBT

Anonymous said to realsocialskills:
TBH, I’ve found that for me, cognitive behavioral therapy has been the most helpful. the whole concept of radical acceptance–the “yes this is really hard, I acknowledge this, and I can still do it” mantra–has really, really helped me.

realsocialskills said:

Was that in response to this post about therapy? If so, I didn’t intend that to be an anti-CBT post.

I definitely know people who CBT has helped a lot, and I can see a lot of merit in that approach.

What I meant was that it’s important to be aware that there are different methods. If people think that all therapy is the same, it’s much harder to find a therapist to support them in the kind of work they want to do.

For people who primarily want to do emotional processing work, CBT is not usually a good fit. Something like psychodynamic therapy or art therapy is usually better.

If someone is expecting a feelings—and-history-oriented psychodynamic approach and their therapist is focused on CBT methods, it’s not likely to be a particularly successful therapy relationship (unless they change their mind about what they want.)

Similarly, if what you want to focus on is problem-solving and you *don’t* want to do a lot of problem-solving or delving into your past, CBT may be a much better approach than psychodynamic.

One caveat about CBT: it can sometimes create problems for people with disabilities. For people with disabilities, one of the most important life skills is self-assessment and learning to say “I can’t” sometimes.

If a CBT therapist doesn’t understand disability well, the commitment to teaching “it’s ok that it’s hard, but you can do it,” can be a problem. Because sometimes we can’t — even if every other client the therapist worked with overcame doubts and found a way to do it. Because that’s what disability *is*; sometimes we can’t do things that other people can do.

This can particularly be a problem for people who don’t have good self-assessment skills and have a history of being pushed into thinking it’s wrong to say “can’t”. Or a history of being taught that they can do anything if they try hard enough. CBT can sometimes play into that dynamic and make matters worse.

That doesn’t mean that disabled people can’t ever do CBT safely. (I know people with disabilities who have benefitted from it). It just means that there’s an additional risk involved, and that it’s important to monitor that and pay attention to whether it’s becoming a problem.

tl;dr CBT is sometimes useful, including in situations in which other therapy approaches do not work. It’s not always the best therapy approach for everyone in every situation. There are ways in which CBT poses particular dangers to people with disabilities who have trouble accepting that they can’t do some things. It is also an approach that helps a lot of people in a lot of situations, including some disabled people.

Triggers aren’t always rational concepts

Sometimes people talk about triggers as though as though being triggered means having an extreme reaction to something that it’s perfectly normal for most people to find upsetting.

Some triggers are like that. A lot of them are not.

Triggers can be things that make no apparent sense at all from the outside. They can be anything. For instance, someone might find teddy bears triggering. Or being spoken to in a reassuring tone of voice. Or a certain song. Or wearing a t-shirt.

They are not necessarily about concepts.

Having trauma-related triggers does not necessarily mean that someone will have an unusual amount of difficulty discussing upsetting topics.

Discussing the concept of abuse or the particular kind of trauma they experienced *might* be triggering, but it might not be.

For instance, someone might be triggered by the smell of popcorn, but comfortable discussing abuse and abuse prevention policy. Or any number of other combinations.

Knowing that someone has experienced trauma doesn’t mean that you know anything else about them. Not everyone who has experienced trauma gets triggered. People who do get triggered, get triggered by a range of different things. You generally are not going to be in a position to know this kind of thing about someone else unless they tell you.

tl;dr Trauma-related triggers can be just about anything. They’re not necessarily conceptually related to difficult or politically charged topics. Some people who have triggers aren’t triggered by discussing the relevant concepts, but are triggered by otherwise-innocuous things they associate with their experiences. Trauma can be complicated and doesn’t always fit with the prevailing cultural narrative.

feelings and therapy

Anonymous said:

When I have therapy or counselling, I notice that if I deal with real emotions in a way that is good for me, that I have to drop the neurotypical act of behaviours that show I am doing polite and kind listening.

I’m still listening but just not showing it in the way people prefer. When I do this, I notice that they get very hard and uncaring, even though I do it to make counselling work for me so I can tune into myself instead of acting. Do I give up?

realsocialskills said:

I’m not sure what you mean by “Do I give up?”.

If you’re asking about dealing with real emotions – I don’t think that you should give up trying to find a way to deal with your real emotions. I think that everyone can learn to deal with feelings, both feelings they’re having and feelings that other people are having. I think it’s really great that you’re working on that, and I definitely don’t think that you should give up.

Which leads to the question: What should you do about your current therapy situation? I don’t know the answer to that. I think you’re the best judge of that. Here are some considerations that might be worth thinking about:

I think that you have a lot of options. Some I see (there are probably others):

  • Trying to negotiate with your current therapy to make therapy work better for you
  • Trying to find another therapist
  • Staying with this therapist, but not expecting much out of it (or giving it time)
  • Trying a different kind of therapy
  • Deciding not to do therapy for now

Regarding working things out with your current therapist:

  • If you’re with this therapist voluntarily and could quit if you want to, trying to negotiate might be a good option
  • It might be worth telling them that you need to be able to drop attentiveness behaviors to be able to process
  • And that you want to process and deal with these feelings in a real way, and that you can’t both look attentive and do that
  • Some therapists are receptive to that kind of feedback; some aren’t
  • Therapists are human, and sometimes they misread things. Sometimes if you point it out, it helps.
  • Some therapists are not receptive to that kind of feedback, and might get really annoyed or manipulative
  • If it turns out that yours isn’t interested in meeting your need to drop affect in order to process feelings, it’s likely that they are not the right therapist for you
  • And that’s information worth having.
  • (If you’re stuck with this therapist no matter what, this might be riskier. I can’t tell you how to evaluate the risks in your particular situation, but I think it’s important to consider whether there might be some)

Not all therapists are the same:

  • It’s fairly common for people to need to look unusual in order to be able to engage with emotions in therapy
  • Working through emotions and psychological issues is hard work. Sometimes it means you can’t manage looking attentive
  • This isn’t a secret. A significant percentage of therapists expect that many clients won’t look like they’re listening when they’re processing.
  • Some therapists have the skills to handle this constructively; some don’t.
  • If you can choose who your therapist is, it might be worth trying to find a therapist who already understands this

Not all kinds of therapy are the same:

  • Not all therapy is about feelings.
  • Some kinds of therapy are about behavior, or learning specific skills.
  • If what you want from therapy is to learn to tune into yourself and deal with your feelings constructively, it’s important that you do a kind of therapy that helps with that
  • For instance, psychodynamic therapy or art therapy might work well for that. CBT probably won’t, since CBT is about behavior more than it’s about processing.
  • Just, generally speaking, it’s important to make sure that you and your therapist agree on what the goals are, and that the type of therapy they do makes sense for your goals
  • It might be worth learning more about types of therapy, and thinking through whether you’re in the kind you want to be in, or whether you might rather try a different kind

More generally regarding therapy:

There are a lot of therapy evangelists who talk about therapy like it’s the end all and be all of making progress in your life. They talk like therapy is risk free, universally helpful. They also talk like, if you’re not in therapy, you’re doomed to stagnation and that you’re essentially giving up on yourself. Real therapy is not like that. Real therapy is a set of people with a set of tools, which may or may not be helpful in given circumstances.

Real therapy is a mixed bag. Not everyone has the same experiences with it. For instance:

  • Therapy can be game-changing.
  • A lot of people find that therapy allows them to make progress dealing with problems they’ve felt completely trapped by for years.
  • Others find that therapy gives them skills or insights that dramatically improve their lives.
  • Others find therapy completely unhelpful.
  • Some people finds that it helps some, but not that much.
  • Some people are people are harmed in therapy.
  • Some people struggle to find the right therapist, but have really good experiences with therapy once they find someone who can work well with them.
  • And there are any number of other experiences.

I think there is no universal answer to “Should I work on this problem in therapy?”. I that’s always a complex personal decision. It depends on what you want and what you have access to and what you find works best for you. The answers to these questions are personal, and you’re the best judge of them.

And just, generally speaking: if therapy is not working for you, that’s a problem that you should take seriously. If you don’t feel respected, that’s a problem that’s a problem you should take seriously. Therapy is supposed to be helpful. If you’re in therapy that isn’t helping you, it means that something isn’t right and that it’s probably worth changing something.

tl;dr Therapy means a lot of different things, and people have a lot of different experiences with therapy. There are different kinds of therapy and different kinds of therapists. Sometimes therapy is a good idea and sometimes it isn’t. It’s a personal decision and sometimes it’s complicated. Whether or not therapy is your approach right now, don’t give up on yourself. You can learn and you can make progress.

“Challenging behavior” is not a technical term

In social services culture, “challenging behavior” is used as though it’s a technical term, defined as something like:

“culturally abnormal behaviour(s) of such intensity, frequency or duration that the physical safety of the person or others is placed in serious jeopardy, or behaviour which is likely to seriously limit or deny access to the use of ordinary community facilities”.

This is expressed in a way that sounds like a technical definition, but it isn’t really. It’s a value judgement.

If you take the definition of “challenging behavior” seriously, all of these things literally fall into it:

  • Participating in the Greensboro sit-in or the Montgomory Bus Boycott
  • ADAPT rallies
  • Leaving an abuser when your culture considers it inappropriate to do so and is likely to respond with violence
  • Living in a homophobic culture that actively discriminates against gay people, and having a same-gender partner anyway

Defying cultural norms is usually dangerous. It’s not always wrong. Deciding whether an act of defiance is good or bad isn’t a technical question; it’s a value judgement. “Challenging behavior” isn’t an objective clinical term. It means that you’re judging that particular behavior is wrong and that you have a right to modify it.

I don’t think value judgements are wrong. I think they’re necessary and important. I also think it’s important to be honest about them. It’s easier to think clearly about the value judgements you’re making when you’re willing to admit that you’re making them.

tl;dr “Challenging behavior” is used as though it’s a technical term. It isn’t. It’s a value judgement, and I think it’s important to be honest about that.