“yeah, but….” conversations
I’m having a lot of “Yeah, but…” conversations lately. They are unhealthy, yet I keep having them and they go something like this:
“The COVID case numbers are ________,” someone says.
“Yeah,” I say, “but that’s because ________.”
“Well,” the other person replies, “remember that ________.”
“Yes, I suppose that’s true,” I say, “but then _________.”
Point, counterpoint. But, rebut. This, that. I feel myself getting tense.
Sometimes, I change my language a little. I switch from “Yeah, but…” to “Yes, I know, however…” Or sometimes, I try to sound more understanding, like, “I hear what you’re saying, and yet…” The words might soften, but underneath, the defensiveness is the same. What am I defending myself against? Whatever it is, it ignites a strong drive to protect. I know because I feel the pounding anxiety in my chest.
Back and forth these conversations go. Usually they are brief, and most of the time they end well enough, with no one too visibly angry or hurt. But though the outer conversation might end, my inner conversation is just getting started. Once defensively activated, I shift the dialogue into my head and rehash the conversation or perhaps create a new one. I script it mentally; I say this, they say that, and then I say… Sometimes I even switch out the people in my mental theater. I start with the original person, but a few minutes later I am mentally arguing with my mother or a friend from years ago. So what are these conversations really about?
I am almost always disappointed about my involvement in these ‘yeah, but…’ conversations and I feel sick afterward, like I ate something that didn’t agree with me. Like I said, these types of conversations aren’t good for me. At first, I thought the sickness was about my distaste for conflict. But I’ve since realized that what “disagrees” with me isn’t just that someone disagrees with me, but rather the way I handle my fear. My ill feeling is mostly self-inflicted.
Is that right? Am I really so afraid that I overcompensate? So afraid, that I become defensive and tense? So much so that the tension and my defensiveness churn me up inside? Yes, I hate to admit, it is true.
Here’s what happens. I am insecure for all sorts of reasons: maybe I don’t want to look uneducated, maybe I fear that my opinion/idea will be dumb or unpopular, maybe I’m afraid the other person won’t like or respect me. Maybe I am just afraid of being wrong.
The fear is so prevalent that the topic almost doesn’t matter. * Any conversation could possibly expose my insecurity. When fear starts driving my behavior, I try to get on top of the conversation, hence all the energy of the one-upping “Yeah, buts.” I continue talking through my insecurity, yet my goal has ceased to be curiosity or the common good. My goal is now to simply reduce my anxiety.
But it doesn’t. **
I can’t cure my insecurity by being right or by besting someone in a given conversation. The insecurity is too deep and too old for that. Tim Keller said, “‘(here is) the natural condition of the human ego: that it is empty, painful, busy and fragile.” Such an insecure ego is at risk in almost every encounter, every conversation. When I try to protect or bolster myself by besting others, I end up feeling small and being small. “Yes…but” conversations are just another form of idolatry I use to prove myself big enough to matter.
Makes me wonder what conversations could be like if I entered them knowing that I already matter. If I could remember that I am already loved, would I be able to listen, share, learn, and grow? Maybe if I entered conversations like that, I could leave them without feeling sick? Maybe my conversations, whether agreements or disagreements, could be agreeable to the sort of person I want to be?
*Of course, the hotter the topic, the more there is at stake and that increases fear. 2020 was full of hot topics.
**It doesn’t reduce my anxiety because I leave a “yes…but” conversation either 1) feeling bad for being defensive, or 2) making the other person feel bad by gumming up the communication with my insecurity. Either way, I end up feeling even more anxiety.