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I basically make my living off my ability to de-escalate people who are angry, upset, or frustrated. The keys to understanding de-escalation is that it involves approaching people in a way that is counter-intuitive while understanding that ninety percent of everyone's reality is based on their perception. Most people believe that they need to stand up and defend their point of view when confronted with someone they see as acting irrational, or presenting views and statements they see as contrary to their own perceptions.

For example, say someone is going on about how someone else has belittled and attacked them and we have watched their interactions and seen no sign of the behavior being described. "Bob is constantly attacking me, calling me names, and giving me threatening looks." We see no sign whatsoever this is happening. Bob seems to be indifferent to Bill, the person who is upset about Bob. The natural reaction is to tell Bill, "Bob isn't attacking you or calling you names, you're imagining it." The natural reaction is to defend Bob and to call Bill out for stating what we see as lies. We are reacting when we do so rather than acting. Do we really know with absolute certainty that what Bill says is wrong? Have we actually witnessed every interaction between them? Maybe Bob is doing something on the sly whenever we're not around?

Even that doesn't matter. What needs to be addressed are the reasons why Bill perceives these attacks. The natural reaction is confrontational. It is this natural reaction which causes so much anger, bitterness, and resentment in our society. We are driven by the natural, reactionary response to all kinds of interactions and claims by people. How often do we see people go on the attack against various statements and actions by people? Do they ever really examine why these people are acting this way? Do we care?

Crusaders don't care about collateral damage. Their desire goal, whether it is ending discrimination or killing infidels, tends to end up as a single-minded obsession. Their perception changes and everything and everyone they perceive as being a roadblock to that desired end becomes expendable. Over time they get tunnel vision because of their frustration with the difficulty they face in achieving those ends and it becomes less about reaching the goal and more about eliminating the perceived opposition.

There is a question I often ask people who are railing angrily against people or events they describe as "stupid" or "evil" or whatever derogatory term they've chosen. "What is this going to achieve and what is it you want to achieve?" Does pointing out that someone is making statements or following actions that offend your beliefs and attacking them do anything to further your goals? Why not focus on promoting the positive aspects of what you believe in or want to see achieved rather than expending time and energy attacking or making fun of those with views you consider in opposition to yours?

The problem is that everyone believes they are right. Over time, viewpoints and opinions can turn into absolute truth in the perception of an individual. We have those beliefs reinforced by others who share the same views. In the era we live in, with instant communication and social media it isn't hard to find people who share our views and beliefs. Someone who believes bears can speak Portuguese can probably find a dozen supporters for his beliefs somewhere on the web. We no longer need to face having our views challenged and no longer need to listen to people with different views. Our belief systems become concrete much easier and we become less tolerant of different viewpoints because we don't have to.

The extremism of hot-button issues has grown in the past few decades. One is called to be either for or against with no middle ground. People on opposing sides don't get together to try to find common ground on which they agree. You are either for or against something and the refusal to compromise on an issue is seen as a favorable trait in a person. If experience and knowledge aquired over time causes a person to change their views that person is wishy washy and gets attacked for being inconsistent.

Perception is key. Few people take the time to try to understand why a person thinks or acts the way they do. It is easier to simply say "they are wrong and should be punished for it."

Why does a person think and act the way they do? It usually has to do with the influences they have in their life and what they have been exposed to. Take a rather absurd and hypothetical situation and apply it to the bigger picture. Say a person is born into a community that believes the moon is made out of cheese. For their entire life they have been bombarded with information that supports and promotes this belief. As a child their parents, teachers, and friends have all reinforced this belief. They have reinforced the belief through books, writings, and pictures of the moon that show it being made out of cheese. They are also told that there are many people out there who are ignorant and have been misled into believing the moon is not made out of cheese. They grow up and everyone they talk to, everyone they deal with, shares in this belief about the moon.

Then one day this person goes out into the world. Say this person goes out on the web and sees an article about the moon which contradicts his deeply indoctrinated belief that it is made out of cheese. What does he do? He tries to correct the people who he perceives as being wrong. He is immediately set upon, called stupid, ridiculed, and attacked. What does he do?

The people who have attacked him and his belief have unwittingly reinforced his belief. His perception of truth holds that the moon is made of cheese and his truth has been attacked. He goes on the defensive. He has to do something about this. People don't understand and he has to either try to make them understand or he withdraws from the larger society back into his limited subset of that society that shares in his belief.

What if people are patient with him? What if people were to validate him without validating his belief? What if they were to speak to him as a human being of equal value and ask him to share the reasons why he has this belief? They see his belief as being asburd and ridiculous, but why does he believe this?

A deeply indoctinated belief isn't going to change overnight. Showing this person actual photos of the moon and scientific evidence of its actual composition isn't going to cause him to go "Oh snap, I was wrong. Thanks for showing me the truth!" That isn't going to happen, but that is the natural reaction of people who hear him state what he believes. People don't tend to say, "Hey friend, why do you think the moon is made of cheese?" There must be a reason, but we don't tend to care about that reason, we only care about defending what we believe to be true and attacking or mocking those who believe otherwise. What we are actually doing when we do this amounts to bullying.

No matter how wrong we see a person's perception as being, there is always a reason behind it.

In human communication there is a strong tendency to wait for your chance to speak rather than actively listening to the other person. We hear certain buzz words and react by forming a response before the person finishes talking and not listening to everything the person says. The many modes of instant communication available to us today have made this more prevalent. We don't think about our responses, we want to respond right away and correct what we see as wrong.

For example:

"I grew up in a place where everyone knows the moon is made out of cheese. My parents told me about this when I was a toddler and when I got older people showed me pictures of the cheese moon and we learned in school all about how it was made, how sky chariots lauched by the ancient Egyptians were sent into the sky with large amounts of cheese to build the moon. It is the greatest manmade monument of all history."

That is what is said by our friend who has been indoctrinated into the belief that the moon is made of cheese. The person he is telling this to hears "the moon is made out of cheese" and doesn't hear anything else. He reacts to this statement because he finds it absurd and stupid and waits for the person to stop talking so he can say:

"You're a fucking idiot. The moon is not made out of cheese. Anyone who thinks that is a moron."

What does this achieve? The person responding only has one thought when he hears our friend talk about the moon. He wants to shoot down this absurd idea about the moon and finds it so ridiculous he wants to take this person down. He equates the person with their belief and invalidates them as a human being for having this belief. He doesn't give a damn about the person stating that he's been brought up on this belief, that he's had it pounded into his head for decades, and that he's never heard any different.

What happens next is righteous indignation. Our friend Ronald, who believes the moon is made of cheese, goes on the defensive. He must defend not only himself, but his family, his friends, and his entire community against this insult against them. It is no longer about the fact that these two people have a difference of opinion over the composition of the moon. It is about this person having devalued and attacked everyone Ronald knows and loves. It is personal. There is no longer any discussion about the moon. It is now simply "You and everyone you care about is an idiot for thinking the moon is made out of cheese" versus "You and everyone you care about is an idiot for thinking it isn't." Ronald must defend himself and his community from this attack. The other person must continue the attack as a reaction to the ridiculousness he perceives Ronald promoting.

It is counter-intuitive to not react defensively when presented with a viewpoint or belief that is in opposition to the viewpoints or beliefs we are committed to. We are told to "shut that shit down" when we face opposition to our firmly held beliefs. We commend people for well-written pieces that make people with opposing viewpoints look stupid.

The only way you really change the world is one person at a time. If you want to show a person "the light" then you have to gradually bring them into the light. You can't shove a lightbulb in their face and not expect them to cover their eyes. It just doesn't happen that way. Human nature and all that.

"I grew up in a place where everyone knows the moon is made out of cheese. My parents told me about this when I was a toddler and when I got older people showed me pictures of the cheese moon and we learned in school all about how it was made, how sky chariots lauched by the ancient Egyptians were sent into the sky with large amounts of cheese to build the moon. It is the greatest manmade monument of all history."

What if instead of concentrating on the perceived absurdity of the moon being made out of cheese we were to listen to what Ronald is really saying.

"Have you ever considered that it might not be made out of cheese? I understand this is what you've been taught by your family, teachers, and friends, but most people believe it isn't made out of cheese."

"I have pictures and books that prove it is made out of cheese."

"I'd like to see these books and pictures. I'd also like to show you some information about the moon that prove it isn't made out of cheese. Maybe we can learn something from each other."

You validate a person by not dismissing him based on what he believes. You can validate a person without validating his beliefs or behavior. Communication begins with this type of validation. If you don't equate the person with their belief or behavior, you can actively communicate with him. Ronald isn't just a guy who thinks the moon is made out of cheese. Presented with an opportunity to state his case and to share his beliefs and the reasons behind them, Ronald is more likely to listen in return when presented with evidence that contradicts his long held beliefs. If the person he is presenting these beliefs to isn't immediately dismissive and doesn't belittle him for having these beliefs he is less likely to become entrenched in his belief.

Entrenchment is what happens when people who have a belief or opinion that is not held by everyone are bombarded with attacks for having that belief. Over time they come to perceive that there is no reason to entertain opposing views. They retreat from any form of open discussion and become dogmatic in those beliefs to the point where anyone with a differing view becomes the enemy. If Ronald goes out into the world and is constantly attacked and derided, he will more than likely retreat to the community he was born into and educated in and shut out the outside world. His belief that the moon is made out of cheese has become reinforced by the mockery and contempt he faced, not because he found further evidence or proof, but because those who don't share his belief are perceived as universally hostile while the community Ronald was brought up is perceived as the only place he is accepted and loved.

Ronald is an extreme example of what happens very frequently in our society, but only because of the nature of his belief. We react to people with different beliefs than ours without trying to understand why they have these beliefs. All you need to do is substitute a few words.

None of these leads anywhere. Learned beliefs are like learned behavior and cannot be changed by calling someone out as wrong, no matter what you believe. You are working against years of reinforcement of those beliefs. If you want to change a person's beliefs you have to do more than that. You have to think about what you are trying to accomplish and what you are really up against. Do you want to slapped on the back by members of your community for calling someone out for being "wrong" or do you want to do more?

We can all do better.

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