January 16, 2019

Wisdom Therapy I — Creating Quiet

Wisdom Therapy I:  Creating Quiet

Rabbi Mordecai Finley, “Seeking the Good” March 3, 2016

I have begun to call my approach to counseling “wisdom therapy”. I believe we are, in many ways, healed by wisdom. Wisdom has many definitions, but let me start with a simple one:  a wise person knows how things are, what the human condition is, how peoples’ minds and spirits operate.
Here is an example. Parents say,  “I want my kids to respect me.” Ex’es say, “I want my ex to realize that I am good person. ” Spouses say, “I want my spouse to appreciate me.” 

Wanting is one thing. Talking someone into it is quite another.

Sometimes I tell a person that I will invite a tattoo artist over to emblazon on their inside forearm:  “Never try persuade a resistant person to think, feel or believe anything.” Unless you have coercive force, it will come to naught. If you do have coercive force, stop pretending you are persuading. You are threatening.” Even non-resistant people are hard to persuade at times; resistant people – forget about it.

Why not try to persuade a resistant person to appreciate you, respect you, or think you are good person?  When you are in bad place with another person (and sometimes even when things are not bad), they are not likely to express approval or appreciation. In fact, when you are in bad place with another person, there is often anger, resentment, and hostility. When others realize that you are staking your sense of well being on what they think or feel, you unwittingly give them an opportunity to express their hostility. A wise person knows that most people have some punitive dimension, bigger or smaller, depending on the person. People withhold respect and approval, and criticize, complain, condemn and engage in conflict, it order to be punitive, consciously or not.

A wise person does not attempt to persuade a resistant person to think or feel a certain way. A wise person boils it down to a behavior. A parent says to me, “I want my child to respect me.” There is a problem:  many children, especially teenagers, don’t respect their parents. Attempting to persuade them to have the feeling of honor or respect for parents often time precipitates a rather impassioned speech on why the teenager does not respect the parent. Things escalate from there.

A wise parent demands respectful behavior, the more precise, the better. Let the kids feel what they feel in private. Their negative feelings are natural, maybe even necessary from a developmental perspective.

I recommend, for example, that parents require that their children behave in safe, moral and respectful ways, even if the kid does not feel it. Feelings sometimes come later. In moral psychology, we call this “from the outside in.”  Adapt an external behavior and the inner feelings often follow.
What I recommend here is pretty hard-core, but another thing a wise person can do is minimize ritualized conflict by creating quiet and distance. The teenager comes home from school, shoots straight for their room. Parent wants the kid to greet them, act in a respectful and courteous way. Parent demands, kids argue. Parent criticizes and complains, kids heat up. This can become a daily ritual.

Here is another way. Parent:  “I want you to greet me when you come home.”  Teenager: “Why do I have to do that?” Parent: “I know you know why, but I will explain it: because I want courteous and respectful behavior from you.”  Teenager starts to argue. Parent:  “It is a yes or it is a no. I am not arguing with you. Yes or no:  will you be courteous or not, and if you say yes, are you a person of your word?”  Stop talking. No arguing, no persuading.
Teenager, not used to brief, direct questions, sometimes risks being cheeky. “Ok, no.”  Then they wait for the parent to explode so they can enjoy another argument, except you don’t explode.

A wise parent never, ever argues with a child. Decide what you want, announce it, and think what you are going to do if you don’t get it. If a child is disrespectful, one approach, depending on the age, is just to create distance. “I love you, but I don’t like you very much right now. You have been disrespectful to me. Go away.” No arguing. No attempt to persuade. Just very disappointed that junior has been disrespectful and you don’t feel like being around them right now. Let them figure out how to get back on your good side. This will help them develop insight.

Teenagers don’t mind the distance, of course. Three days later, however, teenager wants the car, or money, or something. Parent says some version of, “Are you kidding me? I ask you for common courtesy and you decline. Don’t you dare ask me for anything beyond room and board.” Don’t persuade them. They already know that disrespect is wrong. They have a simple question to answer. “Is disrespect worth it?” Quietly, make it not worth it. It is a long game.
The more you argue, the more defensive and aggressive they become. They dig in deeper. Fewer words, on the other hand, allow another person – child, spouse or parent or anyone – to reflect. Space gives a person the room for remorse. Pressing in on someone, however, rarely makes things better. Announce your truth about their behavior – not their attitude. Listen to their response. And then do what you have to do, without becoming small or punitive yourself.

A wise person does not burn up a lot of energy trying to persuade a resistant person to think, feel or behave a certain way. A wise person thinks deeply about what behavior they really want. Makes sure that the behavior you have in mind is rational, righteous and precise and that you can describe it. Don’t be bossy or controlling. Your demands should make sense. It should be obvious why you want what you want, but a wise person, if they do explain it, explains the reason in just one or two sentences. The other person probably already knows why you want what you want anyway; they just don’t want to do it. When they ask why, they are often just saying “no.”

A wise person thinks carefully about what they are going to do next. If nothing, then nothing. But don’t complain or whine. Wise people don’t spend a lot of time complaining or whining. They do spend time thinking about what they want, making sure it is righteous and reasonable. Demanding too much of others tires them and builds resentment. Wise people contemplate what they are going to if they don’t get their righteous needs met, without anger, criticizing, complaining, condemning or engaging in lots of conflict

I have found that when there is wisdom during tough moments, there are fewer words, much less conflict, and lots of space for people to weigh and consider. When there is wisdom present, talking actually produces insight, understanding and empathy. Arguing rarely does.

In that quiet space, respect, honor, appreciation and even love can grow.