The Pursuit of God

Serious Topics for Serious Christians

Improving Your Social Skills: The Principles of Coercion & Power

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The principles we’re going to discuss in this post apply to American culture.  Every culture has different social norms—behavioral rules which play a big role in determining how people feel during their social interactions with others.  Because there is so much variation among cultures, some of the principles we’re going to discuss in this post might sound backwards to how things work in your country.  But because humans are far more alike than they are different, you’ll probably find at least some of these principles useful even if you’re not around Americans. 

The goal of this post is to help people who keep striking out socially.  Some of us have observed a pattern of people trying to avoid us everywhere we go.  When the people giving you ice are people who know you beyond the level of an acquaintance, their reasons for rejecting you can have many aspects to it.  But when you start noticing that people from all areas of your life—family, friends, work, church, social gatherings, etc..—are backing away from you and trying to avoid engagement, then it’s time to give serious consideration to the possibility that you are driving them away by using a style of social engagement which the people in your culture find generally off-putting.  In this post, we are going to explain some common behaviors lonely Americans engage in which pretty much guarantee that they will remain lonely because these particular behaviors come across as very negative to other Americans.  The good news is that behaviors can be changed, and for each negative behavior we describe, we will also explain what you can do to fix it.  The principles we’re going to discuss in this post are useful for every American to understand, and putting them into practice can help you improve the dynamic in any level of social interaction, whether you’re chatting with a stranger in a grocery line, having coffee with a friend, going on a date, talking with a coworker, or talking to your spouse.

ANALYZING NEGATIVE AURAS

You’re walking down a street minding your own business when a ratty looking guy comes up to you and announces that he hasn’t eaten anything for two days.  He then asks you for some money, and suddenly you feel like you can’t say “no.”  Whether you give the guy money or not, by the time the exchange is over, you will likely feel very negatively towards him.  Why?  Because you’re feeling coerced.  By claiming to be in a desperate situation, the panhandler is trying to morally manipulate you.  He’s trying to make you feel obligated to help him in the name of common decency.  He’s working that famous Golden Rule on you: “treat others the way you’d want to be treated.”  What he wants you to do is think, “Gee, if I hadn’t eaten for two days, I’d sure want someone to help me.  What kind of crumb would I be if I just blew this guy off?”  This kind of con job is very popular in certain American cities and it’s a great way to make a lot of money fast.  Most of the guys who use this approach are lying through their teeth: they’re not really as hard up as they claim to be.  A lot of them aren’t even homeless.  They’ve just figured out that people are very easy to con, so they’re conning them.  They’re basically chucking their morals out the window while they count on you having some that they can leverage against you.  And while they might succeed in getting you to give them money, you’re certainly not going to like them.

So why is this particular con so effective?  Sure, it’s a guilt trip, but why do we fall for it?  Because it’s playing off a basic principle that we intrinsically understand: when people are desperate, they get pushy, demanding, and coercive.  Under normal circumstances, it is considered quite rude for people to demand help from you.  People are supposed to ask for help, and the less they know you, the more polite they’re supposed to be about the way they ask you.  So given this rule of American culture, how does the con man who you’ve never met get away with walking right up to you and demanding that you give him money?  Because in his case, being pushy actually makes his story more convincing.  He knows that you expect desperate people to be ill-mannered because they’re too caught up in their problems to spend energy on manners.  If a woman’s child is trapped in a burning house, you expect her to run over to you screaming for help, not to calmly walk up to you with a cheery smile and say, “Sorry to interrupt your day, but if it’s convenient, could you possibly help me rescue my child before he’s totally charred?”

While Americans are quick to get huffy when they feel they are being treated rudely in the normal business of life, they are willing to be tolerant of some degree of rudeness from desperate people.  Since the con man is claiming to be desperate, he adds some rudeness to make his act more real. He imitates desperation by raising the volume of his voice, throwing in some emotional intensity and using demanding language.  “I haven’t eaten for two days!  I’m desperate!  I just need a few bucks for a burger or something!  Come on, is that so much to ask?  Just a few bucks!”  If he throws in some emphatic hand gestures, you’re very likely to fork over some cash.  His rude behavior will seem to confirm his hard luck story.  You’ll want to believe that a total stranger wouldn’t act this way towards you unless he really is hard up.  Then you’ll want to avoid looking like a coldhearted jerk for turning him down.  But once you hand over your money, you’ll want to get out of there fast and never see him again because he made you feel uncomfortable.

There are a lot of ways to coerce people.  Our conman used a very forceful approach, but even more common is a routine which we might call the friendly crowbar.  In this approach, the person doing the coercing can put on a very polite or even cheery manner while they effectively pin you into some corner where you feel forced to do what they want.  This is the cashier in the grocery store who smiles and asks in a loud voice, “Would you like to make a donation to feed starving kids in our community today?”  All you really want to do is pay your bill and leave but now she’s just set you up to feel like a jerk in front of a crowd of witnesses if you refuse to add a few bucks to your tab.  The people behind you in line are all looking at you.  The bagger is staring at you.  The cashier’s waiting.  Stores who run these kinds of collection games are counting on you feeling like a jerk if you say “no.”  Like the rude conman who came up to you on a public street, the store is trapping you in a situation where you are forced to give a yes or no answer.  You can’t just pretend you didn’t hear because the cashier has to enter your answer on her screen before you can pay your bill.  If they choose the right wording, they can not only make you feel bad about saying “no”, but they can also make you feel bad for giving the lowest possible donation, thus forcing you to give in the mid to high ranges in the amounts that they’ve prechosen for you. It’s all a big con—a way to psychologically manipulate you into doing what they want, thus enabling them to get positive acclaim or perhaps even a kickback from the charity that they are collecting for.  But no matter how good the cause, this coercive style is going to leave you with a sour taste in your mouth because humans don’t like feeling forced into doing something.

So what does all of this have to do with improving your social skills?  Well, among socially shunned people, a very common problem is that their socializing style includes elements of coercion which are making other people want to avoid them.  Often you’re not trying to come across as pushy or as some kind of leech, but that’s how other people are reading you, thus they’re escaping your company at the soonest opportunity and trying to avoid another run-in with you later on.  Let’s now discuss some specific ways that you can coerce people without meaning to.

THE ELEMENT OF COERCION

If a guy sets a box on the sidewalk in front of your house, it’s on public property, which frees you up from feeling obligated to deal with it.  But it’s also conveniently within reach, which might stir your curiosity enough for you to leave your house and check out what’s inside the box.  On the other hand, if a guy walks up and dumps the contents of a box all over your front lawn, you’re going to be annoyed before you even mentally register what the contents of the box are.  By dumping stuff all over your lawn, the guy is forcing you to have to clean up his mess, and naturally this irks you.

When we’re feeling terribly lonely or depressed, it’s very easy to become like the guy who dumps his load of stuff all over someone else’s lawn.  In America, when two people meet, there’s a social script that they are supposed to use while making introductions.  One person is supposed to ask, “How are you?” and the other person is supposed to say, “I’m fine, how are you?”  You can wander off the script a little bit by saying, “I’m alright” or “I’m good,” but if you wander too far off script, things get uncomfortable because extreme answers make the other person feel obligated to show interest.  If you say, “How am I?  Are you kidding? This is the best day of my entire life!”, then suddenly the person you just met feels like they’re being rude if they don’t ask you for more details.  The problem is that the person you’re talking to might not want to hear your life’s story.  They might be feeling too tired, fried, or disinterested to really get into you right now.  When you give extreme answers, it’s like you’re dumping stuff all over their lawn.  They’ve only just met you and now you’re dragging them into your emotional issues.

Extreme answers in introductory conversations always lead to feelings of coercion.  If you’re being extreme in a positive direction and you catch someone in the right mood, you might end up amusing them or even perking up their day. But it’s also very likely that they’ll find you overbearing and want to get some space.

If you’re extreme in the negative direction, your chances of repulsing the person you’re talking to are even greater.  When Wendy meets Ramona for the first time, Wendy begins the socially acceptable American script by saying, “Hello, how are you?”  Ramona answers by saying, “Horrible, actually.  I slit my wrists last night.  Almost bled to death.  I just don’t want to live anymore.”  Even if this is true, by dumping all of this onto a stranger, Ramona has just killed the chance of this relationship developing into a positive peer dynamic.  Positive peer dynamics need to have a 50/50 balance of power—one in which both partners feel that they are taking turns at giving and taking.  But Ramona’s answer has just proposed a relationship dynamic in which she will do all of the taking while Wendy is supposed to do all of the giving.  Well, Wendy has her own problems, and she probably doesn’t feel equipped to play the role of a suicide counselor.  Wendy probably doesn’t want another taxing relationship in her life, and Ramona’s answer made it sound like Ramona is planning to devour any emotional resources which Wendy puts on the table.  Wendy is not only going to flee from this intimidating offer, but she’s going to tell her friends to steer clear of Ramona as well in order to protect them from the human leech.

When we’re feeling desperate for social engagement, we often try to force relationships to progress too fast.  It’s rather like you walking up to a young sapling and trying to make it grow faster by seizing hold of it and yanking upwards.  Your forceful behavior is only going to uproot the thing and end up killing it so that you’ll end up with no tree at all.  If instead you’d limited yourself to watering and fertilizing it, you would have a growing tree.

It’s quite possible that Ramona and Wendy could have become friends if Ramona hadn’t rushed in so fast.  The key is for Ramona to not put too much pressure on the relationship.  It doesn’t mean she has to be deceptive, it just means she needs to meter out how much truth she shares.  When Wendy began the social script with “Hello, how are you?”, Ramona would have done better to say, “I’ve had better days, but that’s life.  How are you doing?”  Here Ramona is leaving Wendy with options.  Wendy can either move forward with the script, by giving her answer to the “How are you?” question, or she can pause the script to ask more about Ramona’s current status.  Ramona is still down in the dumps, but she isn’t unloading all of her problems at once.  More importantly, she’s signaling a willingness to give and take by turning the focus back onto Wendy.

HOARDING OR REJECTING POWER

In human relationships, the person who is getting their way most of the time has the most power.  What someone wants varies depending on what their current issues are.  For example, John is currently at a place in life where he wants to be known.  So John is always downloading all of his personal thoughts, feelings, and issues onto his friend Rex while Rex can’t get a word in edgewise.  In this relationship, John has too much power and Rex is growing resentful.

But then there is Jack.  Jack wants to remain unknown so he refuses to share any of his personal feelings no matter how much his wife Tanya prods him.  Tanya is very frustrated by Jack’s refusal to open up to her.  Jack’s secrecy is making Tanya feel lonely and rejected.  In this relationship, Jack has most of the power because Jack is getting his way most of the time.  Even though what Jack wants is totally opposite to what John wants, both men are power hoarders and both men are wrecking their relationships by refusing to distribute the power more equally.

When it comes to peer friendships, dating relationships, and marital relationships, for things to remain healthy, the power in the relationship needs to be distributed as evenly as possible.  A very common mistake desperate people make is in thinking that intentionally throwing the power off balance will improve their chances of starting and keeping relationships.  But no, it won’t.  As soon as the power swings out of balance, there’s a problem.  The longer that problem goes unaddressed, the worse it will become until you either end up in a position where you’re being dumped or abused.  Let’s run through a couple of scenarios to see how this happens in real life.

Heather has just moved to a new city and she’s desperately lonely.  She figures that the solution to her problem is to get out there and meet people. So she goes to her church’s singles group which meets one night a week. Now Heather figures that the best way to get people to warm up to her is to be super sweet and super nice and to not put any demands on anyone.  So when Heather shows up at the group and starts engaging with people, she starts signaling like mad that she’s a power giver, not a power taker.  Remember that in human relationships, we give power to each other by giving each other what we want.  We can symbolize that power as a red ball.  In your friendship with Fred, every time you give him his way in some area, you’re handing him the power ball. When Fred then gives you your way about something, he hands the ball back to you.  For the relationship to stay healthy, you each need to keep passing the ball back and forth so that you each end up holding it for about the same amount of time.  If one of you gets to keep the ball for too long, that person will end up beating the other person over the head with it—that’s called abuse.  Abusers are people who have too much power and are misusing that power.  But here’s a critical thing to realize: not everyone wants to be abusive.

Functional people are those who understand how to balance power in a relationship.  Functional people want their relationships to succeed, so they look for people who are good at passing the power ball back and forth.  Here’s where our friend Heather is going to go wrong, because as she walks into a room of strangers looking for social engagement, she’s trying to attract people towards her by rejecting power.  Every time Tim makes a joke, Heather laughs long and hard, even though some of Tim’s jokes just aren’t funny.  As Heather goes through the room, she’s showering people with compliments.  “Oh, Jane, I love your hair.  Martha, great shoes.  George, you’re so handsome.”  It’s generally understood that people want compliments, so by showering this group of strangers with compliments, Heather is signaling her willingness to give them power by giving them what they want.  But when George responds by saying, “Thanks, Heather.  And I really like your dress,” Heather waves the compliment away and says, “Oh, I’ve had this old thing for years and it’s really showing its age. But that watch you have is amazing looking.  Is that platinum?”  By rejecting George’s compliment, Heather is rejecting the power ball that he’s trying to hand back to her.  By then finding a new thing to praise George about, Heather is insisting that the power stay in his court.

As the evening wears on, all of the people in this Christian singles group are picking up on the fact that Heather is a power rejecter.  She keeps rushing to give them what she thinks they would like, but when they try to do things for her, she shoots them down.  In her mind, Heather is making herself more desirable by not putting demands on anyone. But in real life, this kind of behavior is a turnoff to everyone in the room who is functional.  The only people who are finding Heather’s rejection of power attractive are power hoarders—people who like to be the abusers in their relationships.  As time goes on, Heather not only continues laying the flattery on thick, but she also offers to do things for people.  She starts bringing the snacks to the group sessions on a regular basis.  She shows up to help carry boxes when Tim moves out of his apartment.  She insists on paying for everyone’s coffee when she goes out with Jane and Martha.  She’s always serving everyone, and in her mind, she’s trying to use her services to barter for real affection.  But because she’s not letting the balance of power equalize in any of these relationships, the functional people are feeling increasingly uncomfortable around Heather while the abusers are starting to take advantage of this easy prey.  Martha keeps pretending to be out of cash when she really isn’t so she can bum money off of Heather.  Soon her debt is over $100 and she has no intention of ever paying the money back.  Meanwhile, Jane has “borrowed” Heather’s favorite purse, shoes, and several dresses which she also has no intention of returning.  Tim is one of the functional members of the singles group but after the way Heather gushed all over him at his moving party, he is avoiding her.  Meanwhile, George is an abuser, and he has pressured Heather into dating him.  Now he’s pressuring her to get physical with him even though she really doesn’t want to.  Heather is feeling very upset by this whole situation.  She came to this group to find friends, and instead she’s feeling cheated, manipulated, and iced.  As easy as it would be for her to blame everyone else for treating her badly, she really needs to take responsibility for the way she has invited this abuse by refusing to manage power well.  If you’re going to lie down in the dirt, people will line up to walk on you: this is the painful lesson Heather needs to learn so that she can change her behavior to protect herself from further abuse.  A nice guy like Tim simply isn’t going to engage with Heather because she is going to keep trying to put Tim in the position of an abuser, which Tim isn’t.  Heather is a nice woman with plenty of attractive qualities, but she is coming across as a desperate, groveling mess of low self-esteem because of the way she is rejecting power.

Heather’s situation helps us understand why there’s such a thing as being “too nice.”  For peer relationships to work, the power must be equally shared between the two partners.  Heather showed us how rejecting power creates a mess.  Now a lonely guy named Gary is going to show us how hoarding power is equally problematic.

Gary has never been Mr. Popular, and because he doesn’t understand the principles we’re discussing in this post, he has fallen into the common trap of thinking he’s just unlikable.  Well, no, every human has likable qualities.  Every human has the potential to thrive in relationships.  But once we give up on ourselves, our desperation intensifies and we resort to extreme measures to try to get our emotional needs met.  The way Gary sees it, people are always going to walk away from him sooner rather than later, so he’s got to make the most of any opportunity that comes his way.  All you have to do is say hi to Gary and he’ll unleash a torrent of words that you won’t be able to interrupt.  In conversations, Gary always makes other people feel like his captive audience.  He drowns them in a barrage of Gary updates that they didn’t ask for.  The longer Gary talks, the more frustrated people feel because no matter how many different ways they try to interrupt the verbal deluge, Gary keeps on talking.  When they try to physically distance themselves, Gary follows, yammering all the way.  Because Gary is so desperate for someone to listen to him, he’s afraid to pass the mic or share the spotlight.  He already knows that no one will ever stick with him for very long, and that’s a very painful burden for him to have to carry around.  Yet what Gary isn’t seeing is that he can change this pattern by altering his style of social engagement.

When Gary hogs the floor and blocks others from interrupting him, he’s being a power hoarder.  Remember that power in human relationships is expressed by giving someone what they want.  Gary wants to be listened to 24/7.  Well, other people also want to be listened to.  Other people also want attention.  If Gary wants people to stick around, he needs to start sharing power.  He needs to shorten his speeches and give people a chance to take the conversation in a different direction than he might want.  It’s the fact that Gary is consumed with getting his own way that driving people away from him.  He’s not showing any respect for other people’s signals.  When he sees their lips parting, he doesn’t stop talking to hear what they have to say.  When people express a lack of interest in what he’s talking about, he doesn’t give them a chance to change the subject.

A great way for Gary to start improving his approach to conversations is to start giving one sentence answers which are followed by questions that focus on the person he’s talking to.  For example, when Joe asks Gary if he likes cars, Gary’s instinct is to launch into a thirty minute speech about his collection of model cars, his expertise as a car mechanic, and a blow-by-blow of the time he shook a famous racecar driver’s hand.  Even though Joe is very interested in cars, he is not interested in a one sided conversation.  If Gary wants to give this potential friendship any chance, he should shelve the speech and instead answer Joe’s question like this: “Yeah, I’m really into cars.  What about you?”  This answer will spark Joe’s curiosity and likely prompt Joe to ask another question to search for similarities.  Joe might say, “Yeah, I love cars.  I like going to the track, I’m in the process of rebuilding the engine of my truck, and I have a collection of model cars that I put together with my dad.”  Here Gary will really feel tempted to launch into his life’s story, but flooding Joe with a torrent of seemingly relevant information is only going to drive Joe away.

It’s not what you’re saying that has the biggest impact on someone, but how you’re saying it.  Dominating the conversation for long periods of time is a guaranteed way to get someone annoyed with you.  When people want to listen to speeches, they seek out opportunities to listen to experts speak on subjects of interest.  But when people are in peer relationships, they don’t want to be lectured at.  The power dynamic in a teacher-student relationship is different than that of a functional peer relationship.  In an instructional or mentoring relationship, it’s understood that the teacher has more power than the student, and the teacher’s hogging of the floor is what the student wants because the student is trying to get a download of information.  But in a peer relationship, the goal is not to just download information in efficient bursts.  The goal is to commune—to share information equally while nurturing an emotional bond.  When Gary starts lecturing Joe, Gary is flipping a peer dynamic into a teacher dynamic without giving Joe the chance to voluntarily choose that sort of dynamic.  Forcing humans into power dynamics that they don’t want is a good way to make them resent you.  Certainly there are times when force is appropriate—like when a father refuses to relinquish his parental power in order to be a buddy to his teenager.  But when Gary and Joe meet in a model car shop and the two men observe that they are around the same age, it’s the possibility of a peer dynamic that they’re going to be exploring.  To give friendship the best chance to form in this moment, Gary needs to focus on give and take and avoid hogging the floor.  So when Joe offers more details about his interest in cars, Gary can answer by saying, “Sounds like we have a lot in common.  I also love going to the track and I work as a car mechanic.  I also have a collection of model cars.  I’d love to see some pics of your cars sometime.”  Here Gary has expressed interest in taking the relationship to the next level without pressuring Joe into making a commitment.  He didn’t say, “When can I come over to see your cars?”  That would be too coercive.  Instead, he just expressed interest in more sharing and then he stopped to give Joe a chance to respond.

Because Joe isn’t feeling pressured in this relationship and because it’s sounding to him like Gary is a true car enthusiast, Joe asks to swap cell numbers.  He plans to start by sending Gary some pictures of his favorite models.  When he does, Gary should respond in kind by sending Joe pictures of some of the models he’s assembled.  By focusing on sharing the attention in the relationship instead of trying to hog it all for himself, Gary will encourage Joe towards him.  When Joe invites Gary over to tinker on his truck together, Gary suddenly finds himself experiencing a real friendship forming—something that he’s wanted his whole life.  If Gary continues to focus on sharing the attention, the friendship will have a chance to grow.  But if Gary reverts back into power hoarding mode by dominating the truck project and talking endlessly about what an expert he is, Joe will be anxious to get rid of him.  Humans don’t like being coerced.  They want to have the freedom to choose their peer friendships—not be shoved into them.  It’s the difference between you offering to share your toys with another kid versus your mom ordering you to share.  When it’s your choice, you enjoy it more.  When you’re forced, you get all huffy.

EASING IN

So far we’ve discussed two key principles for helping peer relationships get off the ground: avoiding force and balancing power.  Successful relationships need to be eased into as you might ease into a swimming pool.  Because the pool water is colder than your body, your nerves appreciate adjusting in stages.  If you just dive into the deep end, the drastic change in temperature is quite a shock to your system.  It’s the same with human relationships: even when you feel like someone seems like a great match for you, you want to ease in by giving the person the chance to voluntarily choose each new level of engagement with you.  You don’t want to just shove your company on them like a nasty tasting diet drink.  Coming on too strong by making a bunch of demands on someone is guaranteed to drive them away from you.  A key principle to bear in mind is that every human is walking around with their own collection of burdens in life.  Every human has insecurities, fears, and wounds that they have to contend with.  When you come barging into their lives without giving them any opportunity to signal when you’re stressing them, you’re very likely to end up stomping all over some sensitivity of theirs, and this will cause them to throw up defensive walls in order to protect themselves from further damage.  But when you ease in by keeping the pressure light, and sharing both the attention and the power, you encourage someone to take the risk of relating with you.

Relationships are always a risk.  The more you want out of a relationship, the more you have to risk being hurt.  Two knights who are fully covered in metal armor can try to hug each other, but there are so many barriers in the way that the hug isn’t going to do much.  If they really want to experience true affection being communicated through touch, they need to take off the armor and try again.  But without their armor, they can do more than just hug each other.  They can also hit each other and cause injuries which their armor would have protected them from.  It is the fear of being hurt which keeps people hiding behind emotional armor, and the more people have been hurt in the past, the more afraid they are of lowering their shields.  This is why in matters of the heart, you’ll always get farther using gentleness instead of force.

FURTHER READING:
The Element of Power in Human Relationships
Dating Guidelines for Christian Singles
Boundaries in Marriage: Opposite Sex Friendships
Boundaries in Marriage: Inappropriate Submission

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