Reflection 83: Listening to the “Bad” Guys

The author of this Reflection is my son, Jeremy Garson, a Millennial born in 1987. Jeremy is an associate with the Washington, D.C. law firm, Woodley & McGillivary LLP, a union side labor law firm, currently on assignment with the International Association of Fire Fighters. He is an occasional contributor to the Reflection series. See, also, Reflection 71, Dad As An Exception, and Reflection 86, Having Confidence You’re Average.

You can direct comments and reactions to Jeremy at

Listening to the “Bad” Guys

I am a Millennial, and like many Millennials, I spend a decent amount of time on YouTube. I rarely record videos. Instead, I like following certain “channels” that are funny, interesting, etc. One of the channels I have followed for awhile now belongs to a young man who calls himself Captain Sparklez.

Captain Sparklez is in his early 20’s and has made a name by recording himself playing online games. It may seem like a weird idea to watch other people playing games (though I have enjoyed doing this since I was young), but that’s a discussion for another day. What’s important is that most of these games are adversarial. Sparklez is playing against other people and trying to defeat them.

Last night, I watched Sparklez play in the championship game of a “Team Fortress” tournament. Team Fortress is basically a five-on-five cartoonish war game where each player is a soldier character and the two teams try to destroy each other. In this particular tournament, the first team to win seven games won the match.

As a fan of Sparklez, I was naturally rooting for his team to win. The other team was named “7-0” (implying that they wouldn’t lose a single game), and I took that as a sign of arrogance. I watched from Sparklez’ perspective as they slowly, but methodically, pulled out a 7-5 victory. Sparklez and his teammates would comment on the other team’s strategies and try to counteract them. The other team seemed calculating to me. I made up during the course of the match that they had a specific game plan in mind for each round, and that Team Sparklez was the underdog trying to find weaknesses. In the end, the good guys won and all was well.

Out of curiosity, however, I looked at the description under the video and saw that Captain Sparklez had posted a link to “the other team’s perspective.” I had just watched the entire match, so I already knew the outcome. But I was interested to see how it played out for the “other team.” So I clicked.

It turned out that the “other team” hadn’t actually intended for their name to be “7-0.” Additionally, one of their players was having trouble with the controls. They talked about strategy somewhat, but not much. In fact, most of their discussion was focused on Team Sparklez’ strategy.

What was most interesting to me, though, was my visceral reaction to the video. While I wasn’t rooting for them to win (I already knew the outcome and still like Sparklez), I did sympathize with them when things went bad, and I enjoyed watching them keep things competitive. In other words, the perspective switch led to a very real emotional switch as well. They were no longer “the bad guys” but, simply, another team of 20-somethings trying to win a video game.

This type of perspective switch is – in theory – relatively easy to achieve in the modern world, including in the political arena. Turn on the TV and you can watch Fox News or MSNBC. Go to a newspaper stand and you will have the choice of the Washington Post or Washington Times. Go on the Internet and you will have an almost unlimited selection of perspectives on all topics.

However, it seems like people rarely take advantage. Either they only pay attention to their preferred provider, or they selectively listen to the other side’s most “offensive” comments.

This latter strategy is especially ineffective for achieving a true perspective switch. Most people are reasonable most of the time. However, if you put a camera and mike on a person every day, they will eventually say something stupid. It doesn’t mean they don’t hold that opinion, but it’s not their entire story. Unfortunately, my Facebook newsfeed is often filled with liberal and conservative friends posting articles about some stupid thing that a conservative or liberal commentator said recently (and not just a Millennial!).

Those articles make the “other side” seem stupid, ignorant, full of bad intention, and [insert other negative adjective]. While certain commentators do seem to be actual morons, most are likely decent people who just happen to have different opinions on a few select topics.

The problem: Understanding people takes time, especially when you disagree with them on issues that are important to you (unlike computer games). While the information age has made the other perspective available to us easily and quickly, we still only have 24 hours in a day.

As any adult knows (and as I’m learning very quickly), time is a precious commodity. Therefore, when given the chance to listen to somebody with whom you vehemently disagree or do something that is either necessary or gives you pleasure, the logical thing to do is not to listen. It makes perfect sense. Why waste your time on some jackass who is going to give you heartburn when there is no immediate payoff?

So how do we solve this dilemma? We know it has to be solved – at least to some extent – because the problems we face in this world are too large to confront without cooperation, and cooperation requires understanding. A large part of the solution lies within the confines of Radical Decency and specifically relates to the need to treat others decently.

As my father has said, understanding and decency goes hand-in-hand. If you refuse to listen to me, that is being indecent. You don’t have to agree with what I’m saying, but I expect you to hear me out. Unfortunately, for the reasons outlined above, it’s very easy to pay lip service to this mandate. It’s not listening if you are preparing your counter-points while I’m still talking. It’s also not listening to take a single thing I said out of context and blast me for it.

Instead, listening is to see the world from another’s point of view. When I watched Team Sibby (Captain Sparklez’ opponent), I heard their thought process in each battle and I watched the battle take place from their perspective. While I still don’t know Sibby very well, I took 20 minutes to view him as he chose to be viewed – and without responding.

I do the same thing when I listen to my conservative friends talk politics (or at least I try to). I get a feel for their value system and I ask them questions to translate their perspective into something that I can comprehend. I often get upset, but I try my damndest to find the bedrock principles that form the foundation of their philosophy, because I usually have a shared value system to some significant extent.

When a friend tells me that welfare makes people lazy (I have had these conversations), I don’t accuse them of hating poor people. Instead, I ask them what they mean and what they would propose doing differently. I find out that they want a system that incentivizes people to contribute to society, which I think most people would agree is a great goal. I may not agree with the approach they would take, but that isn’t the point. The point is understanding – which can lead to cooperation.

As I wind my way through this Reflection, I realize that the best solution has nothing to do with listening to the Rachel Maddows or Bill O’Reillys of the world. Those people are on the air as personalities to sell and market, which isn’t a bad thing (it is their job). Instead, engage with your friends and/or family members that you disagree with. Find out what makes them tick without trying to convert them. Pretend that, like me, you are watching them on a YouTube channel. Try to see the world as they see it. Ask them where they got their information so that you can look at it yourself.

I promise you this will be difficult. If you are like me, you will begin to have a visceral reaction if you truly disagree with the person and you will want to respond. But don’t. Let the person explain where their head is and only ask questions to clarify what they mean.

If you do this, not only will you be able to strengthen your point of view (because you will learn the other side’s arguments and values), but – and MUCH more importantly – your relationship with the person will be strengthened. It is a compliment to hear somebody and respect them enough to take the time, effort, and patience to understand them. And once you do, they may be more willing to listen to and understand you, which, as mentioned before, can lead to cooperation.

This, then, is the overarching message of this piece: Cooperation STARTS WITH YOU. Don’t expect people to come to you because your side is more logical. First, listen. Second, understand. Third, show them you understand. Only at that point can cooperation begin. Otherwise, you are just watching your own YouTube channel, and that’s going to get repetitive very quickly.

Reflection 82: Intimacy — Not Changing the Subject

Make no mistake about it. The mainstream culture’s way out of balance emphasis on the values I call “compete and win, dominate and control” thoroughly infiltrates our most intimate relationships.

At one level, this reality is reasonably well acknowledged, with most of us recognizing its manifestation in patriarchal patterns or in highly conflictual, “War of the Roses” type relationships. But the infiltration of compete and win values into our intimate relationships, go far deeper than is commonly recognized.

This Reflection provides a key example, examining:

  • Our culturally reinforced habit of reflexively changing the subject, even in our intimate conversations;
  • The price we pay as a result; and
  • The powerful positive effects that result when we commit ourselves to breaking this unfortunate habit.

Despite years of work with couples – and on my own marriage – this congenital “change the subject” reality never occurred to me until recently. The reason, I think, is because of our deep, culture-wide confusion about what intimate relationship is all about; a confusion that, not surprisingly, has slowed my own growth since, as one of my formative teachers, Vikki Reynolds, once memorably said, “we are all in the dirty bathtub.”


Intimate relationships are different – very different – from the more “strategic” relationships that are the norm “out there, in the real world.” See Reflection #44, Intimate vs. Strategic Relationships.

In a typical strategic interaction, a department head convenes a staff meeting at 1 pm and a vigorous exchange ensues. Now, at 2:59, the department head ends the discussion, makes her decision, and the rest of the staff is expected to fall in line.

In an intimate interaction, by contrast, a husband and wife sit down at 1 p.m. to discuss where to send their son to school. Now, at 2:59, with no meeting of the minds, what happens? The decision is deferred. The couple keeps talking.

The difference? The priority, in the first scenario, is on achieving a goal – getting something done. And the relationship is authoritarian: What the boss says goes. For these reasons, it is fully in tune with the culture’s predominant compete and win values.

The second scenario, however, is very different. Here, the highest priority is on the relationship itself, on creating and maintaining an empathic, loving relationship. And there is no boss, no subordinate, no winners, no losers. In other words, done right, an intimate relationship is antithetical to and, ultiumately, deeply subversive of the culture’s predominant values.

Unfortunately, high schools and colleges don’t teach us how to conduct the intimate relationships around which most all of us organize our lives, focusing instead on what they (presumably) see as the more important stuff. And so, expected to “just know” how to do it, we seldom reflect on how different our intimate relationships are from our other, “out there, in the real world” relationships – or on the implications of those differences.

The result? We muddle through. And muddling through, we import into our interactions with our loved ones the compete and win values in which, living in our culture, we are so deeply immersed.


One very pertinent example of this phenomenon is our tendency, even in our most intimate relationships, to change the subject, quickly and repeatedly; a habit of mind that, because it is so engrained in our taken for granted ways of being, more typically operates entirely outside our awareness.

To illustrate, consider the following hypothetical keeping in mind that, while I am dealing with a married couple, the principles I describe are applicable in any intimate relationship.

A woman comes home after a busy day at work and, noticing the dirty breakfast dishes, still in the sink, says to her partner in an irritated voice: “Why can’t you clean the dishes?”

Here are some of the typical responses that have been reported, over and over again, by women in my practice (and, regrettably, have come out of my own mouth as well):

  • “Those aren’t my dishes. I cleaned mine”; or
  • “Its no big deal. Why do you have to criticize me?”; or
  • “You’re one to talk, how many times have I had to clean up your messes”; or
  • With body language that reeks of annoyance, silent attendance to the chore.

And, needless to say, similar scenarios regularly unfold in reverse as well, with the woman in the reactive role.

With a moment’s reflection, most of us will realize that these responses are unlikely to promote loving interactions as the evening proceeds. But few of us understand the fundamental trap that we have fallen into: We have unwittingly replicated the culture’s compete and win values in this, their most intimate relationship.

Here’s how.

The woman’s irritation brings with it an implicit assertion of domination and control. And he, rising to this provocation, seeks to turn back her perceived bid for control by:

  • Avoiding responsibility (responses 1 and 2);
  • Invalidating her right to feel the way she does (response 3); or
  • Signaling a refusal to submit with reluctant compliance (response 4).

In an intimate relationship, the ultimate goal is not to dominate, control, or win. It is, instead, to create nourishing and mutually supportive intimacy; that is, to fully see your partner and to be fully seen; to have all that you are, lovingly held by your partner (and vice versa).

In furtherance of this goal, your initial, highest priority as you talk with your partner should be on taking in all that he or she is saying – that is, on listening. And this understanding leads directly to this simple, but vital guideline:

When he or she speaks, never change the subject.

Instead, stick to the issue your partner raises – in our example, getting the morning dishes cleaned. Listen fully. And, importantly, let your partner know that he or she has been fully heard. Then, and only then, think about adding a thought of your own (and then, perhaps, if the issue is a sensitive one, only after you have asked if a change of subject is ok).

So, while a mea culpa (“I’m sorry”) or the offer of corrective action (“I’ll to get them right away”) would certainly be constructive, the essence of the “never change the subject” is this simple statement: “You’re right, I didn’t get to them.”

Note, moreover, that this directive needs to be applied especially when your partner’s words are somewhat provocative, as in our example. Doing so offers the prospect of a meaningful healing moment for your partner since, underneath her annoyance, is almost always a deeper emotional wound – fear of not being appreciated, seen, or heard by you, a panicky sense that with so many things to do she’s losing control, etc.

What is so cool about this “don’t change the subject” guideline is that, as the listener, you don’t have to analyze or, even, understand your partner’s deeper emotions. All you have to do is give yourself over, fully and warmly, to the issue your partner has raised trusting that, in making that choice, you are likely to be soothing his or her deeper needs and longings.

On the flip side, notice how the more typical compete and win reactions, outlined in our example, are the very opposite of our “never change the topic” injunction. Instead of discussing the issue she has raised, the partner in our example shifts to another topic entirely, by either:

  • Talking about what he did that morning (response 1):
  • Critiquing her current behavior (responses 2 and 3): or
  • Trumping her subject of choice by raising (nonverbally) a topic of his own, namely his annoyance with her (response 4).

So, the good news about “never change the subject” is that it does double duty:

  1. Firmly redirecting us toward a more intimate way of relating to our partner; and, at the same time,
  2. Pulling us decisively away from problematic behaviors that our mainstream habits of mind can so easily evoke.


In closing, here are a few caveats to keep in mind as you apply this guideline.

First, “never change the subject” works best when it isn’t deployed in a tit for tat way; that is, where your willingness to persist is not dependent on your partner doing so in return. On the other hand, intimate relationships thrive on mutuality. So if your partner in intimacy persists in this (and, possibly, other) behaviors that are destructive of intimacy, you may need to rethink, not the wisdom of the injunction but, rather, the wisdom of pursuing deeper levels of intimacy with this person.

Remember, also, that “never change the subject” is not a magic cure for all that ails our intimate relationships. To the contrary, it needs to be appropriately applied in a complex context that includes many other important considerations.

This qualifier is especially true when it comes to the choices women make in their relationships with men. While we have made important strides when it comes to patriarchy, these patterns – themselves an important manifestation of our culture’s compete and win mindset – remain deeply imbedded in our relationships.

For this reason, if a man’s commitment to “never change the subject” is tepid or non-existent, a woman’s unilateral persistence may simply enable his patriarchal ways. At that point, others strategies or, even, a re-evaluation of the relationship may be called for. For a more general discussion of this vitally important topic, see Reflection #61 Woman, Boundaries, and Sex; and Reflection #69, Moving Beyond Patriarchy.

More broadly, intimacy works best when what I call the four pillars of a successful relationship are in place: (1) trust, (2) shared values, (3) a priority commitment to your self and your partner, and (4) an ability and willingness to work on the relationship. Reflection #33 Couples Work – What It Is, Why It’s Important. Limitations in one or more of these areas will, in turn, qualify the ability of a couple to follow through on this “never change the subject” guideline or, if they do, to reap its rewards.