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Am I Co-regulating or Co-escalating? Another look

By John Hoffman

Recently I had an online experience that got me thinking about the “Am I co-regulating or co-escalating question again. Last summer I looked at this issue around the way attempts to use firm decisive discipline with kids can often cause co-escalation that thwarts our discipline goals. This time I want to talk about co-escalation on social media, and also the importance of red brain blue brain balance in preventing co-escalation.

A couple of weeks ago I was angered by about the 50th repetition of an Ontario government TV ad about COVID prevention. It flashes a string of text messages that start with a two people agreeing to get together for “drinks.” Then one of them texts that they tested positive for COVID, then their mother gets COVID and dies. Two things in particular bugged me. One was the implication that scads of people with aging parents are engaging in mindless socializing in flagrant violation of the lockdown. The other was the apparent suggestion that such social get-togethers were the main driver of the epidemic. I felt it was disingenuous to blame the spread of the virus on individual’s socializing when governments have done relatively little to address a far more important macro issue: the spread of the virus, and the safety of workers, in large, crowded essential workplaces like long-term care homes, meat packing plants, big delivery warehouses, schools etc.

So, I posted a crabby little rant on my Facebook page to draw a bit more attention to what I felt was an important issue. My post got lots of likes, and some affirming replies. But one person was quite ticked. And, wouldn’t you know it, he knew someone who’d had the exact experience portrayed in the ad—becoming infecting and ultimately losing a loved one as a result of an ill-advised cocktail get-together.

He interpreted my post as a declaration that the micro-level decision of individuals don’t matter and that the death of this person’s mother was a micro impact that didn't’ matter. I said no such thing. But regardless, my post was escalating for him, and his response escalated me. I was so tempted to reply something like, “ Hello? I didn’t say that! Try reading my post again. Carefully!”

Fortunately, I didn’t make that post, but not because of any great virtue on my part. It was more just my strong aversion to strident (and useless) Facebook arguments, especially on my page. Good thing too, because my snarky reply could well have sparked a round of offensive and defensive co-escalation. That would have led to lots of ill feelings shut down any chance of sparking reasonable thought and dialogue.

Instead I clarified that I agreed that the micro-level decisions of individuals absolutely do matter in this epidemic, but that my main beef was the ad’s implication was that individual behaviour was the biggest problem. Rather than argue, my friend pointed out a couple of words in my post that triggered him. I didn’t feel these words were ill chosen, but I could see how they were somewhat open to interpretation, depending on one’s experience and viewpoint. I agreed to change them and edited my post.

So what’s the lesson, apart from Facebook battles are stupid? I guess it’s a reminder to consider red brain blue brain balance when stating strong positions and disagreeing with people.

When we want to make important points, and we really believe that we’re right, we often use strong statements almost like weapons to win the argument or get people’s attention. When we’re highly frustrated or unfairly (in our opinion) attacked, we feel entitled to be mad (at least I do). Maybe I am “entitled,” but the resulting strong statements we make can cause co-escalation that shuts down dialogue and damages relationships.

That said, the red brain still plays a legitimate role in these situations. It’s our red brain-driven passion that often prompts us to speak out on important issues. But we also need the blue brain to keep our passion from going hog wild so that people who may disagree can hear and process our key ideas, rather than just responding with offense to one or two trigger words. Lots of people balance red and blue very well in these situations, but it’s so easy to tip into red brain dominance, isn’t it?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. How do you avoid co-escalation when you’re talking about a hot issue with someone who disagrees with you?

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