Surviving Personal Attacks – A Guide for Change Agents

Bugs and Daffy from 'Rabbit Season/Duck Season' skit, with sign on tree altered to read 'Messenger Season'

Image credit: Up The Hammers/Warner Bros

By definition, change agents are ‘the messenger’ – and one thing change agents can be certain of is that as messengers, shots will be fired at them.

‘Shooting the messenger’ is considered a subdivision of an ad hominem attack, which is:

…insulting or belittling one’s opponent in order to attack his claim or invalidate his argument, but can also involve pointing out true character flaws or actions that are irrelevant to the opponent’s argument. This is logically fallacious because it relates to the opponent’s personal character, which has nothing to do with the logical merit of the opponent’s argument.

A lay term for ‘ad hominem‘ is ‘playing the man and not the ball’, an expression from various codes of football, where a player targets the body of the player with no intention of attempting to tackle to take possession of the ball.

It’s against the rules because players are supposed to be focused on the ball (the issue or debate in question), not taking out an opposing player (engaging in character assassination or ridicule intended to undermine an opponent’s position).

How should a change agent manage their response to messenger-shooting and/or an ad hominem attack?

Firstly, be aware of the nature of the response you receive. Even if you have become the target of hostility, be aware that it is your message, not you personally, that the person or group is reacting to. When people attack the person delivering the message instead of debating the issue raised by their message, they are reacting to someone placing them in a state of cognitive dissonance – or where their view of the world is suddenly interrupted and made uncomfortable by new information or ideas that conflicts with their established understanding and belief system. The reaction is because your message has clashed with an individual or group’s ‘belief grid’, or challenged values they hold dear.

Secondly, manage your own response. Like most human beings, your initial reaction to hostility is unlikely to be rational, as such an attack triggers ‘survival’ mode, bypassing the conscious mind and going straight to the ‘older’ parts of the brain. Physical reactions may include a racing heart, a surge of adrenaline, a flushed face, perhaps even shaking hands or voice. You may feel your temper rising, the need to defend yourself and your argument, or the overwhelming desire to sting the person who has stung you (how dare they!).

STOP.

First, make sure you listen to what the other person is saying – really listen, as the words they are speaking might not be exactly what they are reacting against, there may be a deeper issue. Reflect back to the person what you have heard for two reasons – to make sure you’ve understood them, and so that they know they have been heard, and that you’ve not been preparing a counter-argument while they’ve been speaking.

Often, a few moments of silence can work wonders to cool an inflamed situation. Pause before answering. Take a slow, deep breath.

Visualise a white light around yourself – allow yourself to be present, and respond, but without internalising hostile energy.

Ask strategic questions. Create effective conversations by being curious without being judgmental. Practice empathy.

small vial with a green potion labelled 'empathy'

Bottle label reads: ‘Empathy is the ability of blurring the line between self and other’

Image credit: Viralmente

Most of all, realise and accept that your role is to take the heat for being the bearer of change. It’s hard – hard when people arc up, hard when they’re attacking positions you yourself hold to be true, very hard when you’re being attacked personally and/or dismissively ‘shot down’, especially when someone has misinterpreted something you said. The most unbelievably frustrating scenario is when people are attacking something you didn’t even say!

Remember – amazing leaders would be found everywhere if it was easy!

Helpful resources Crux has discovered and recommends include:

Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through The Dangers of Leading by Harvard University’s Ronald A Heifetz and Marty Linsky includes guidance on ‘Anchoring Yourself’, ‘Holding Steady’/’Taking the Heat’ and ‘Controlling the Temperature’; some excerpts below:

When you take ‘personal’ attacks personally, you unwittingly conspire in one of the common ways you can be taken out of action – you make yourself the issue.

Adaptive work generates ‘heat’ and resistance, which present forms of danger to leaders…Learning to take the heat and receive people’s anger in a way that does not undermine your initiative is one of the toughest tasks of leadership.

Leadership takes the capacity to stomach hostility so that you can stay connected to people…Receiving anger is a sacred task, because it tests us in our most sensitive places. It demands that we remain true to a purpose beyond ourselves, and stand by people compassionately, even when they unleash demons. Taking the heat with grace communicates respect for the pains of change.

It’s a deep and natural human impulse to seek order and calm, and organizations and communities can only tolerate so much distress before recoiling. Raise the heat enough to that people sit up, pay attention and deal with threats/challenges – no distress means no incentive for change. But lower the temperature when necessary to reduce counterproductive tension.

The book also makes the point that you may also be facing resistance from friends and allies, as well as those opposing you – people who want you to calm things down, not stir them up, because the upheaval has become uncomfortable for them. It also provides useful insights into other tactics often used to neutralise or marginalise those undertaking change work.

A New Earth, by Eckhart Tolle – Tolle experienced a profound transformation aged 29 when he was on the verge of suicide, and heard himself saying ‘I can no longer live with myself’. This very statement enabled him to wonder ‘who is this self I cannot live with?’ and to begin to separate his egoic self from his true being. A New Earth examines the current collective and individual egoic state of humanity, and how a shift in consciousness is the evolutionary leap we need to make to survive. Here are some selected quotes from Tolle’s chapters on ego, which are highly relevant for the change agent:

Most people are so completely identified with the voice in the head – the incessant stream of involuntary and compulsive thinking and the emotions that accompany it – that we may describe them as being possessed by their mind. As long as you are completely unaware of this, you take the thinker to be who you are. This is the egoic mind…

The ego isn’t wrong; its just unconscious. When you observe the ego in yourself, you are beginning to go beyond it. Don’t take the ego too seriously. When you detect egoic behavior in yourself, smile…

Nonreaction to the ego in others is one of the most effective ways…of going beyond ego in yourself…but you can only be in a state of nonreaction if you can recognize someone’s behavior as coming from the ego…when you realize its not personal, there is no longer a compulsion to react as if it were…somebody becomes an enemy if you personalize the unconsciousness that is the ego. Non reaction is not weakness but strength…

All that is require to become free of the ego is to be aware of it, since awareness and ego are incompatible. Awareness is the power that is concealed within the present moment. This is why we may also call it Presence.

Please note, this is very much about the role of your own ego in any kind of exchange, as well as that of anyone you are engaging with. In the moment you become the target of an attack, the kind of reaction you may begin to feel manifesting is the ego in ‘damage repair mode’ – Tolle uses the example of road rage, the abuse of other drivers with language and gesture. By definition, the attacks cannot be personal, as you do not know the others involved, but if you are on the receiving end of aggression, you are likely to have an emotional/instinctual reaction before your rational brain has even engaged.

Becoming aware of your reaction – ‘oh, it’s just the ego, going into damage repair mode’ – and being aware that ‘you’ are not your ego, can help you take a step back at a critical time and enable you to offer a considered, compassionate response instead of a kneejerk reaction.

The Lotus Leadership Guide provides a succinct summary of nine essential leadership capacities. They are all important, but perhaps the most critical ones for when the heat is on are:

Being Present means being fully aware and awake in the present moment – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. This includes connecting to others, the environment around you and current reality.

Suspension and Letting Go is the ability to actively experience and observe a thought, assumption, judgment, habitual pattern, emotion or sensation like fear, confusion, conflict or desire, and then refraining from immediately reacting or responding to the situation.

Compassion is having unconditional acceptance and kindness toward all the dimensions of oneself and others, regardless of circumstance. Compassion involves the ability to reflect upon oneself and others without judgment, but with recognition and trust that others are doing the best they can in any given situation.

If you have practiced yoga, or if you meditate, you might already be aware of ‘becoming the witness’ – consciously becoming a detached observer of your own thoughts, letting them come, noticing them, letting them go, without judgment or attachment. It is this technique that both Tolle and the Lotus guide are referring to when separating from one’s ego (being aware of one’s own thoughts), and practicing suspension and letting go.

Leadership and change involves being prepared to take some heat. While nothing replaces the baptism of fire of a real situation, investing some effort into creating an ’emotional hazmat suit’ is well worth the time and an effective way of developing your leadership skills.

And with practice, you won’t merely survive ad hominem attacks, you’ll be able to turn a conversation around from what could have been a potentially destructive situation, and instead create a positive, empowering space for everyone involved.

Have you ever been attacked personally and publicly for breaching a taboo, or saying something that went against what appeared to be the general consensus of a group? How did it feel? How did you handle it?

What tactics have you developed to allow yourself to speak out, without internalising or reacting to others’ anger, frustration or fear? 

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Visual Guide to Cognitive Biases

One term often heard in relation to sustainability, and any other kind of change, is ‘cognitive dissonance’, which was discussed in a recent post, Motivating Sustainable Behaviour:

Cognitive dissonance is a discomfort caused by holding conflicting ideas, beliefs, values, or emotional reactions simultaneously. If something conflicts with an existing belief or value, people will be more likely to move out of the discomfort by rejecting the new information or request than changing their belief or value.

For example, if someone who identifies as being concerned about biodiversity and species loss discovers that their favourite dinner fish is on the endangered list, they may choose to ignore or not act on the information because they can’t bear to give up the meal they love the most.

Crux is just pleased that there are a number of fair trade and organic options for chocolate.

An easier, simpler term for cognitive dissonance is the ‘Say-Do Gap’ – what an individual says is different to what they actually do. Other terms are the Value-Action Gap, and the Attitude-Behaviour Gap – ‘Say-Do’ is just the simplest term with the least syllables.

This bias alone is a tough one to tackle, however, cognitive dissonance is only one of a large group of biases.

Great, right? As if cognitive dissonance was not enough, there’s a whole stack of the things lurking about, waiting to trip up the communication efforts of change agents!

A close relative of cognitive dissonance is confirmation bias, which is:

…a tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs.

Learning a little bit about these can help you to identify and choose communications approaches that effectively respond to the bias.

But first of all, what exactly are cognitive biases?

Cognitive biases are psychological tendencies that cause the human brain to draw incorrect conclusions. Such biases are thought to be a form of ‘cognitive shortcut’, often based upon rules of thumb, and include errors in statistical judgment, social attribution, and memory. These biases are a common outcome of human thought, and often drastically skew the reliability of anecdotal and legal evidence. The phenomenon is studied in cognitive science and social psychology.

Further to previous posts concerning tools to help change agents in thinking and practice – Know Your Logical Fallacies, and Pattern Language – there is now also a ‘ready reckoner’ for getting your head around the taxonomy of Cognitive Biases.

The Royal Society of Account Planning have developed a guide to help people get to grips with all the different cognitive biases in a fun way, designed to introduce the different types of biases and make them easier to memorise.

visual contents page from guide with icons for four categories of bias

The guide is comprised of four categories of biases, and examples in each group. All the examples are represented with an icon, summarised in once sentence, and most are hyperlinked to a Wikipedia reference.

Here is an example of each category – no doubt you will spot the relevance to sustainability and your work!

 

Social Biases:

screenshot of social bias - 'projection'; unconsciously assuming others share similar thoughts, values, beliefs

 

Memory Biases:

screenshot of memory bias - 'consistency'; incorrectly remembering one's past attitudes and behaviours as resembling present attitudes and behaviours

Decision Making Biases

screenshot of decision making bias - 'hyperbolic discounting'; people's preference for payoffs sooner rather than later, focusing on short term over longer term

 

Probability/Belief Biases

screenshot of probability/belief bias - 'hawthorne effect', the tendency of people to behave differently when observed

Crux confesses to being guilty of planning fallacy – the underestimation of task completion times.

Note: the content – derived from the Cognitive Biases wiki – is still a work in progress in terms of comprehensiveness and accuracy. The guide should also be viewed as an introduction and pathway to the works of professionals in this field. Regardless, it is a useful introduction to the layperson.

Do you recognise some of the biases in the guide? Are you aware of using any yourself?

Which biases do you think are the most important ones for sustainability change agents to be putting their attention to?

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