Saturday, May 27, 2006

On Confrontation and Getting Sandbagged

Dr Helen wrote some insightful thoughts about the psychology of people shying away from confrontation. She makes a distinction between the kind of confrontation "that is just to get one's jollies, like telling someone off," and the kind "that makes one unpopular, but is necessary to produce positive, constructive change in the long run."

This entry is well worth reading. It also set me thinking about a related issue: how easy it is to get sandbagged in the course of a confrontation by the very people on whose behalf the confrontation was made.

A friend of my family had a dog that was obviously dying and suffering greatly. Unfortunately, she couldn't bring herself to put him to sleep and allow him some final respite. My wife urged me to confront our friend about this sad situation ostensibly because of my professional experience in giving bad news about human patients.

In a very compassionate, very heartfelt but very direct manner, I laid out the reality of the situation to our friend. I commented on how long her wonderful pet had lived. I carefully reiterated how much pleasure and love they had given each other but I also made clear how much pain he was enduring. I emphasized how short his life would be under even the best of circumstances. Finally, the big pitch: It was time to consider putting her beloved companion out of his suffering.

My friend's eyes welled up and it was clear that she was about to burst into tears. Rather than view this emotionality as a negative thing, I saw instead a manifestation of her impending "moment of clarity".

Unfortunately, my wife saw only our friend's sadness and helplessness. Suddenly my wife, with the best of intentions, interrupted me: "Of course, no one can really know how long your dog will live. And no one truly knows how much pain your dog is really in. You might just want to wait and see how things go."

In thirty seconds, she completely undid my efforts to get our friend to do what my wife and I both knew was the right thing. It was my wife's discomfort at seeing our friend's torment that prompted her to jump in and nullify my efforts.

Her heart was in the right place but the end still turned out poorly. The dog suffered in pain another month or so before finally passing on.

Sometimes, the unwillingness to confront and to instead undermine those among us willing to roll up their sleeves and do the dirty work arises out of paternalism or a desire to appear to be the good guy. Thomas Sowell describes an example of this.
"Back in 1997, when black Republican Congressman J.C. Watts denounced people like Jesse Jackson and then D.C. mayor Marion Barry as "race-hustling poverty pimps," House Speaker Newt Gingrich took it upon himself to apologize to Jesse Jackson.

To apologize for what another man said is to treat that man as if he were your child or your servant. "
As a black politician, Watts took an amazingly courageous position by confronting certain activist "leaders" and suggesting that they were harming their own community. His position is one that many conservatives strongly believe. And yet the conservative speaker of the house (who is often heard extolling the virtue of self-sufficiency not to mention freedom of thought) cut Watts off at the knees in a cowardly and pandering manner.

Yes, confrontation is difficult for people but that doesn't change the fact that it is sometimes the necessary and the compassionate and the brave thing to do.

And to my wife who successfully made me look like an insensitive jerk: Thanks dear!


Blogger Helen said...

Hi Medicine Man,

Great post--sad story about the dog but it does make the point that the very people who want us to take action then undermine us when we do. One very disturbing case of this was when a clerk at a 7-11 got angry at another clerk who saved her life with a gun. A robber was holding the place up at gun point and pointed his gun at a female clerk to possibly kill her when the male clerk grabbed a gun and shot. I saw the female clerk on television stating that the male clerk should not have been carrying a gun (a 7-11 policy) and that he should lose his job. Talk about an ingrate. He should have left her on her own.

May 27, 2006 8:20 AM  
Blogger The Medicine Man said...


The woman you just described is one SERIOUSLY conflicted and confused individual.

Slow too. She was obviously not quick enough to wrestle the weapon away from her co-worker for violating 7-11 policy.


May 27, 2006 9:47 AM  
Blogger DRJ said...

Good post. I'm curious about what you believe motivated your wife to "undo" your efforts to convince your friend to euthanize her pet. Of course, I certainly don't want you to analyze your wife's behavior. I'm more interested in a general discussion, but it seems to me there is more than one possible motivation for your wife's reaction in your example:

1. Your wife undid your efforts because she was emotionally overwhelmed by her friend's grief.
2. Your wife was uncomfortable with an awkward situation and undermined your efforts as a way to deal with her discomfort.
3. Your wife perceived your friend as emotionally vulnerable and intervened so she could be the "good guy" to your "bad guy".

I suspect your wife was motivated by option 1. A similar analysis could be made in the J.C. Watts example discussed by Thomas Sowell, only my guess is that Newt Gingrich's motives were more like option 3.

May 28, 2006 9:31 PM  
Blogger The Medicine Man said...


I vote for a combination of 1 and 2 (which I consider roughly the same) for my wife and definitely 3 for Gingrich to ingratiate himself and his party to morons like Jackson.


May 29, 2006 2:02 PM  
Blogger DRJ said...

Fair enough and thanks for responding.

May 29, 2006 7:31 PM  

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