Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Connecting with Disrespectful People: The Gates/Crowley Incident

The incident with Professor Gates and Policeman Crowley (about which the President said the police handled the arrest of a Harvard professor “stupidly”) raised a lot of good discussion about racism and respect. But I thought one particular piece was missing from the discussion: the importance of Connecting with Empathy, Attention and Respect when someone is treating you disrespectfully – no matter who you are.

The newspapers carried stories about how various police officers would have handled the situation. Some experienced officers said that if a citizen becomes disrespectful to a police officer, it is appropriate for the officer to arrest them. Others said that if a citizen becomes disrespectful, but are not committing any other offense, then the officer should just walk away from the situation. Some refined the situation, and said that if other people are present, then the officer has to maintain control of the situation and arrest the citizen who is being disrespectful or “disorderly” in their speech.

On the other hand, there are those who say that the professor was within his rights to be disrespectful to a police officer, because the incident took place inside the professor’s home. After all, a man’s home is his “castle.” Also, African-Americans have been singled out for years in the past by police in inappropriate stops when they are walking, driving (“driving while black”), and engaged in other routine activities for which whites are rarely stopped. Professor Gates had just returned from a trip and was probably tired. But he also was an African-American who teaches about racism and apparently felt disrespected by a white police officer.

I can certainly understand and empathize with the concerns of each person in this situation. But, as former General Colin Powell said, you have to “suck it up.” The key point is one that “It’s not about you when you’re personally attacked.” It’s about whatever’s going on for the other person – whether they have a high conflict personality or just had a bad day.

At our High Conflict Institute seminars we teach “Connecting with Empathy, Attention and Respect,” as a method of responding to personal attacks. We have exercises that professionals practice to respond to increasingly personal verbal attacks by clients with high conflict personalities. Perhaps this should be required for everyone.
“Wow, I can see you’re really upset. Sounds like you’re having a hard day. Let’s see what WE can do to solve this problem.” It takes practice to respond to someone who is treating you disrespectfully this way, but it is possible. As high conflict personalities increase in our society (and there is evidence this is happening), we will all be better off if professionals – such as professors and police officers – can practice calming people down, not just responding to disrespect with more disrespect or an arrest. Calming people down should be our goal. We need to practice connecting with people more and criticizing them less.

In this regard, I must commend the President, Professor, and the Policeman on how calmly they have addressed this issue after the fact. As President Obama said, it was a poor choice of words on his part. The ability to reflect and learn from mistakes – and make changes – will help us all.

[Connecting with Empathy, Attention and Respect is Tip #8 in Bill Eddy’s book “It’s All YOUR Fault!” 12 Tips for Managing People Who Blame Others for Everything (2008), available from High Conflict]

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

What (Not Who) Killed Michael Jackson

In the media frenzy about finding who to blame for Michael Jackson’s death, I got to thinking about personality development (you know me: “can’t stop till I get enough”) and the influence of our culture on who he became. I remember him as a young child as the lead singer for the Jackson Five in the 1970’s. Seeing those early TV clips now brings back memories of his total enthusiasm for singing and dancing. Hearing his Thriller album again brought back the optimism of the early 1980’s. I was the Director of the Seattle University Child Care Center at the time, and when the kids hesitated to eat their vegetables we used to joyfully sing with them “Eat it, Eat it!” to his song Beat It.

What went wrong for Michael? I think he absorbed some cultural traits that seeped into his personality development and contributed to his death. He was driven. There are many reports of him being an abused child. As with many abused kids, he wanted to be someone else. He created an image of himself and tried to live it in a way that few people can even try. It seemed that he wanted to be what counted in our culture: being white, forever young and forever a star. He fought reality in a way that only a star with millions of dollars can indulge. Instead of learning to live with life’s limits, he went over the top challenging them.

He’s a handsome man on the cover of his Thriller album – reportedly the largest selling album of all time. Soon after that his appearance started to change. His nose. His skin color. It seemed that he was becoming white, although he always denied it and said that his skin suffered from a rare condition.

MTV before Jackson was quite white. Ironically, he is credited with opening it up for black performers. Too bad he couldn’t continue with his success as a handsome African-American man. But if you were in his shoes and had gazillion bucks in this culture, what would you try to do? Especially if you were an abused kid with an image of yourself in the mainstream culture you were trying to fulfill?
Michael never had a childhood. His father pushed him and his siblings to perform, starting out poor in Indiana and ending up with huge wealth in Los Angeles. He was the lead singer of the Jackson Five from at least 6 or 7 years old, if not before. He didn’t seem to have normal playmates of his age, to just hang out with and fool around with. His brothers were older and he was always working and traveling. In a recent interview with Quincy Jones, he was described as a studious performer – always studying what others were doing and trying out new moves. He invented the Moonwalk. (I still have no idea how he did that – going backwards while he appears to be walking forward!) He put dance troupes into rock videos. He seemed to be a perfectionist.

But he also was a man-child. He often dressed in clothes like a character out of a children’s movie, with a fake-military jacket, etc. He spoke in a child’s voice. He created the Neverland Ranch (like Peter Pan) and invited young children to share it with him. He invited them to share his bed too, and went on national TV saying that this was just fine to do. I can imagine him, still a “child” himself, thinking that this was totally innocent. He ran away to Europe and Japan, where he was still a star. For the last decade or so, he was viewed skeptically as a possible child abuser and very eccentric (“Wacko Jacko”) in the U.S.

Jackson died at 50, while working very hard at making a comeback. He created his own title in the 1980’s: The King of Pop. He was going to show the world: This is It! (the title of his tour). He was apparently heavily in debt, from living beyond even his means. He had a reputation as a spender. He seemed to be still driven - trying to fulfill an image of being someone who looked wealthier and more successful than even he was. Now he was going to prove to the world (and himself?) that he was still a star. Apparently, he was so driven and stressed that he couldn’t sleep. He did what only a superstar can apparently do – paid for a sleep treatment that would not have been available to anyone else. If news reports are true, the primary cause of his death may have been an anesthetic which is not a sleep aid and only to be used in hospitals, where its high risks can be carefully managed.
He died trying too hard to get enough – in a culture that seems to always demand more.

[Bill Eddy is an attorney, psychotherapist, and the author of “It’s All YOUR Fault!” 12 Tips for Managing People Who Blame Others for Everything (2008), available from High Conflict]