Sunday, November 14, 2010

Conversational Dodgeball

When it comes to conversations these days, especially about politics or religion, I think there are basically two different mindsets or approaches people engage in: One is somewhat similar to working on a jigsaw puzzle, where each person takes a turn trying to fit their pieces into place – looking at the big picture the way they see it, guessing at where in that picture the pieces they’re holding might go, basing their decisions on what their piece looks like to them in relation to the whole. But each person is working toward a common goal, each person wants the other’s pieces to fit in the right spot just as much as they do. And when it’s done right, each side is equally satisfied with the end result, with how it turned out.

The other approach is more akin to playing a game of dodgeball. There are clear sides to be taken, each with the objective that their side wins and the other side loses. And the harder you throw from your side at the other person, the more chance you have of emerging victorious in the battle. And you can’t let anything in from the other side because they only mean to knock you down. Anything they throw at you is an attack intended to make you lose. You can throw at them, but don’t let what they're throwing get at you.

One of the difficulties with this is that these approaches (or paradigms) are all in perception. Each person doesn’t know what conversational “game” the other is playing at – Dodgeball or the Jigsaw Puzzle. And if you don’t know what game the other is engaged in, you could walk out onto the gym floor with a puzzle piece and get seriously hurt.

And here’s another thing about these conversations – it doesn’t matter what game you or the other person say you are playing. Sometimes people think they’ve got a big round red puzzle piece and if they throw it hard enough they can force it to “fit” into the picture the way they think it should: “Here’s what I think…WHAP!”

I tend to be a jigsaw puzzle person myself (though I have indulged in some conversational dodgeball from time to time). I enjoy working with others in figuring out how the puzzle pieces fit together, and though we will often go back and forth debating what each piece is and how it fits the big picture, the conversations I enjoy involve working toward the same goal – a better understanding of the other’s position, and a desire to get to a picture of truth as best as we can. I generally hate sports, especially dodgeball. And I’ve gotten fairly good at recognizing when others are suiting up for a game of dodgeball – the stance they take, the defensive or offensive posture, the way they hold and present their argument – and I try to stay out of the game and go find people interested in working to make some sense out of the puzzle pieces.

I often see people, however, who keep walking out onto the gym floor with a puzzle piece, to where they think the puzzle is, only to get blindsided by a red ball smacking them in the face. Sometimes they instinctively react by saying “wtf are you doing?” and pick up the red ball to throw a fast-pitch at the other person, getting momentarily caught up in the angry adrenaline of the game, and sometimes they just catch the ball and walk off the court, pissing the other side off to no end. And because this is all a matter of perception, when they first walk out with their puzzle piece, intent on solving the puzzle with the other, the other side sees them walking out onto the court and think they’re holding a dodgeball. When they show them the puzzle piece and either tell them where they think it fits or asks them where they think it should fit, the viewpoint of the dodgeball player only sees a mean dodgeball being thrown at them, and their adrenaline rises. Often, as the other side is throwing dodgeballs, they’re missing, and so the puzzle person often doesn’t recognize them as dodgeballs being thrown until they get hit with one in shocked disbelief. I think those jigsaw puzzle people need to work on recognizing the difference between a puzzle-board and a gym floor, and the difference between people wanting to work on a puzzle together and people suiting up to hurl conversational dodgeballs at one another. In other words, stop a moment, take their eyes off the puzzle piece they’re holding and look at the others, see what kind of conversational “players” they are and make sure they’re headed to a puzzle-board and not a battle zone. And it helps a great deal to realize that some people are only interested in playing conversational dodgeball. Some people just find jigsaw puzzles boring and an unnecessarily complicated waste of time and aren’t interested in that kind of back-and-forth at all.

The bible puts this in another analogy: don’t throw your pearls before swine, otherwise they will trample that which you hold of value and then turn to trample you.

So the question is: what do you do when you’re trying to put a jigsaw puzzle together and someone starts throwing conversational dodgeballs at you?