The Soft Answer

verbal T'ai Chi for sociable self-defense

Dec 2015

Dalton Trumbo and Hedda Hopper

The recent movie Trumbo, about the blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, is a symphony of Soft Answer material, both vicious, deliberate attacks (mostly coming from Hedda Hopper) and mindful low drama Soft Answer responses (mostly from Trumbo, but also from the Kirk Douglas character).

See bullying at its worst, as Hopper threatens and intimidates the wealthy and powerful and brings them to their knees. Witness Trumbo stay grounded and emotionally neutral, even when a drink is thrown in his face. Listen to him stand up to
John Wayne when Wayne tries to intimidate him, then calmly level with him. Take note of instances when Trumbo engages compassionate detachment and leaves space for an aggressor to have a gracious way out.

The film Trumbo is also, delightfully, about family, both functional and dysfunctional. The Trumbo family works together, as do the blacklisted writers, persevering through one of the most regrettable times in our country's history, when our national family was a model of dysfunction.

Hollywood bio-pics can never be perfectly accurate, and certain decisions in the making of the movie were ill-advised (such as portraying
Edward G Robinson as naming names to the House Un-American Activities Committee, which he did not). But Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Louis CK and others give wonderful performances, and I'm recommending that you see it twice. First, just for its entertainment value, and the second time, as a Soft Answer study.

Flip sides: verbal attack or Soft Answer?


In the thoughtful article
No More Fake Quoting Maya Angelou! on her Mom, the Intern blog, Jenna Foote explains how an inspiring quote from Maya Angelou has been turned into a verbal attack, of sorts.

Foote's piece brings up the valuable point that depending on how you tweak a statement, motivated by the all-important intention behind it, something which can be—and perhaps is even designed to be—a supportive statement of encouragement can be turned into a snooty, high-and-mighty sounding dressing down.

Let's look at both sides of this particular coin. First, the positive, supportive line Angelou perhaps invoked in different versions at different times:

One version from Angelou has her talking about herself and her own personal development, "I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better." Another version out there is, "Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better."

In the
Oprah's LIFECLASS video The Powerful Lesson Maya Angelou Taught Oprah, Oprah Winfrey discusses in depth the first time she heard Angelou say this to her, and then shares how it affected her and how she's invoked it through the years. In this case, Oprah was telling Angelou about the mistakes Oprah had made back in her twenties. Winfrey says Angelou's reply was, "That was when you were twenty. And now, you're in your thirties. When you know better, you do better."

The saying has become quite popular, and rightly so. On the
E! online website, it's number one in their list of Maya Angelou's 15 Best Quotes reagrding Love, Forgiveness, Humility and Compassion. Sherry Kulakowski, in her Tidewater Women article Know Better, Do Better, shares just how positive this statement can be. Dana Papke wrote about the quote and how it applies to HR departments in "How this Amazing Maya Angelou Quote Applies to HR" on the TPO, Inc website.

So it's a nice thing to say, right?

The problem is, the saying, "When you know better, you do better," is now being turned around by some people, so that it ends up being critical, rather than caring. This is the focus of Foote's blog piece.

How? Foote gives us some great examples, so please do read her article. But I'll try my hand at one here:

A: I put all my appointments into my phone, so I'm never late for anything anymore.
B: That's great. I still love using my old appointment book, even though I sometimes forget to look at it in time."
A: "Well, when you know better, you do better." (sometimes instead: "When you know better, you'll do better.")

See the twist?


The complete thought, if we include the underlying attitude, is: "Unlike me, you just don't know any better. When you know better, like I do, you'll come to the same conclusions I have, and you'll do the things I do, so you'll do better."

This is how a potential Soft Answer response can be manipulated into just the opposite.

Here are two statement to compare:
1)"I used to feel that way as well, but then I matured in my thinking." (implies you are more mature and know better; you're criticizing the other person and putting them below you)
as opposed to:
2) "I used to feel that way as well, and then I started to wonder whether…" (connects you with the other person and invites them to explore another possibility and perspective together. An invitation, rather than a criticism.)

Keep an eye and an ear out for these near misses!



"Toxic" employees hurt everyone

Research out of Harvard Business School as reported in the Harvard Gazette: Beware those toxic co-workers;
Study says they undercut groups in destructive, expensive ways.
The study shows that, even if a person is a top performer, if they present as a bully or inappropriately aggressive, they cost a company a whole lot more than they bring in, and can be a drag on the entire organization. 

You'd think HR departments would screen for this and have a ready solution. But, because people who habitually engage in selfish, abusive and destructive behavior are often also top performers, companies still hire them and keep them, unaware of the extensive collateral damage these "toxic" workers inflict on the business as a whole.

It seems to us that training people to disempower the toxic behaviors of others around them, while helping transgressors to improve their interpersonal skills (thus giving them a graceful way out), would serve as a two-pronged remedy to the ubiquitous problem of toxic behavior in the workplace.

After all, it's not really the people who are toxic, it's their behavior. Turn that around, teach the top performer the joys of collaboration and socialization, and these drags on the company may become assets.

Implementing a Soft Answer Verbal T'ai Chi program may be a cost effective way to accomplish this.


Sometimes you need a little space

Prevention Magazine has regular articles about psycho-emotional health, and heading into the winter holidays they've offered one on What to Do When It's Time to Break Up with a Family Member.

This is no easy territory. But sometimes the kindest and healthiest thing for everyone involved when a relationship has become dysfunctional, is to let go. This piece explains how stressful relationships can be harmful to your physical health, but also that, "it takes two to tango." We are charged with taking responsibility for our own actions.

I'm an optimist, so even when I have had to "break up" with a family member, I've tried to hold things open and lightly enough that a turn around could be possible. But I've also been fortunate. I love my family and I have never had to make the really hard choices many live with every day.

Every situation is different. This article provides some helpful information on how and when to draw the line.