I discussed the most common avoidance strategy - merely changing the subject (#1) - and suggested effective countermoves to keep a constructive conversation on track. In Part II, I discussed strategies #2 and #3, nitpicking and accusations of overgeneralizing respectively. In Part III, I discussed strategy #4, blame shifting. In Part IV, strategy #5, fatalism.
This post is the fourth in a series about strategy #6, the use of irrational arguments (previously: non sequiturs; post hoc reasoning; begging the question). Descriptions of this strategy have been subdivided into several posts because, in order to counter irrational arguments, one first has to recognize them. Until this post, I have held off describing the basic strategy to counter irrational arguments until after I finished describing some of the most common types. Today’s post will be the last concerning these irrational arguments, and will also describe the basic countermeasure.
Irrational arguments are used in metacommunication to throw other people. Listeners either become confused about, or unsure of the validity of, any point they are trying to make or question they are trying to ask. Fallacious arguments are also frequently used to avoid divulging an individual's real motives for taking or having taken certain actions.
I once was the therapist for a group where every single member was in complete agreement that anger should be kept to oneself. They all painted a most shocking picture of the dire results that might ensue if their anger were ever unleashed. The anger would be destructive to the nth degree.
If thoughts like that did not scare them into keeping their anger quiet, nothing would.
While it is often true that people who have been stuffing their anger may suddenly explode when there is a "last straw," this usually occurs in the heat of the moment, not when one is planning how to bring up for discussion anger-provoking behavior. For this reason,
Indeed, the extra guilt these people probably would feel for having exhibited angry feelings might make it even easier for them to restrain themselves in the future. This worst case, in which all of a limitless amount of anger would come out in a deluge is a highly unlikely worst case. Furthermore, this worse case is preventable.
The use of terrifying imagery to scare oneself out of a course of action is a very clear example of what I mean by mortification. In this case, an aspect of self, the emotion of anger, is suppressed by frightening oneself with worries about horrific consequences.
From the standpoint of inductive reasoning, one can be highly suspicious of their statements because of their past behavior and motivation, but in order to actually disprove their thesis, one needs corroborating evidence. Just because Castro is a Communist autocrat, for example, one could not conclude that he is always lying whenever he made accusations against the United States government.
Invalidation is a form of an ad hominem attack. The person bringing up a past event is accused of distorting it, or even making it up. This situation usually leads to a fight or flight response on the part of the metacommunicator, which stops the effort to solve interpersonal problems in its tracks.
The basic response is what many therapists refer to as the Columbo style of response. Columbo was a TV detective played by the actor Peter Falk who often got suspects to incriminate themselves by, in a sense, playing stupid. He would point out discrepancies in the suspect’s story and kind of scratch his head, acting if he were the one who was not bright enough to figure out the explanation.
|Peter Falk as Columbo|
In addition to decreasing the target’s need to become defensive, with this strategy the target often feels obliged to clear up the patients’ confusion. In order to do so, he or she must drop the logical fallacy. When this happens, it is important that the metacommunicator seem grateful for the new clarity, and not have a kind of “I told you you were irrational” attitude.
Now maintaining this bemused, self-effacing sort of style is often particularly difficult to do if there is an ad hominem component to the target’s irrational argument.
In that case, as mentioned above, it is the metacommunicator who usually becomes defensive, and who derails the effort for problem solving. In this case, learning and practicing many of the strategies described in my series of posts on how to disarm a patient with borderline personality disorder, such as giving the other person the benefit of the doubt and acknowledging one’s own contribution to the problematic past interactions, come in very handy.