When I was a child, I never heard the story of Chicken Little; but I was introduced to it once I was older. And I found it quite ridiculous. An acorn hits Chicken Little on the head and she is immediately convinced that the sky is falling. Then she runs, like a chicken with her head cut off to tell the lion about it, and she doesn’t even know where he lives. Henny Penny and Ducky Lucky get on board with her deduction that the sky is falling without a shred of evidence, and when Foxey Loxey sees these three dumb fowl coming his way; he instantly has an easy meal.
Now, this is just a brief summary of Chicken Little, and I advise all of you to find this story and give it a read. It expresses several points and I will try to touch on a couple of them.
The first one is extremism. I am not talking about political extremism or religious extremism. I mean social and emotional extremism. Here’s an example.
Person A: I love you very much, but there are some issues of respect that we need to address. You seem to not think very much of my time, or the things that I need to do day to day. I understand that you need help, but I have things I need to take care of on a daily basis as well.
Person B: Oh! So I’m not important to you! You don’t wanna help me! You don’t love me anymore! Fine then! You don’t even have to deal with me ever again!
As you can see, Person B’s response to Person A’s statement is completely off the mark. This is what I mean by extremism. Instead of listening or reading the words being said or written, they take the things that offend them the most and run with it; usually running the wrong way, much like Chicken Little. Just because something hits you on the head doesn’t mean it’s raining. There is a profound lack of flexibility and pragmatism in our society; which has been garnered by a growth in self-entitlement. There are many in society, who absolutely must have everything their own way and if they do not, then all is lost and not only will they throw a tantrum; they will lash out at the messenger and ignore the true message.
The next point I want to touch on is escalation. This is another aspect of our society that is falling to the way side. In relation to the example above, I am going to continue it to let you know exactly how it might proceed.
Person A: I didn’t say anything like that! You’re blowing this out of proportion!
Person B: No, I’m not! You just said you don’t have time to help me! So fuck you!
Person A: See you’re making it all about you! I’m just trying to explain how I can’t put my life on hold for your every daily need! But since you’re being so unreasonable, fuck you, too! I’m better off!
Do you see how that original back and forth escalated into full scale warfare. Shots fired and returned. When our emotions are involved, it’s hard not to be reactionary. The first hurtful thing that comes across our bow, and we want to fire back harder, stronger and doing as much damage as possible. And of course, the target wants to respond in kind. When situations like this rev up, it can be next to impossible slow them down. It takes a self-awareness, and understanding that communication is being sacrificed due to hurt feelings; and that for the moment personal offenses and damaged egos have to be put aside for the proper delivery and receipt of the message. This is hard. It’s hard to do, and it takes time. De-escalating a worsening situation can be very difficult without a third party present to sort through emotions and keep everyone on track. If you’re ever about to engage in a potentially explosive situation or conversation, consider bringing a long a benign, impartial third party to prevent world war five from breaking out. Maybe by doing this, one can observe how that third party manages the situation and you can start using the same tools to gain a positive result.
The key to de-escalation is very simple. Ask questions. All you have to do is ask questions to peel back the layers of a situation to gain a higher understanding of all points of view. If this can occur, it can usually diffuse a volatile situation and everyone involved will be wiser and better for it. Let’s use Chicken Little for example. When a frantic Chicken Little runs up to Henny Penny and says, “The sky is falling, I must tell the lion.” Henny Penny asks, “How do you know?” And Chicken Little answers, “It hit me on the head, so I know it must be so.” At this point, Henny Penny is as just alarmed and agrees to run around with her. Now, if Henny Penny had asked a few more questions, like, where did it fall on you; what did it look like; or can you take me to where it happened; they might have avoided becoming Foxey Loxey’s dinner in the end.
De-escalation can be the key to individual survival, but we, as a society, have been sacrificing it for gut reactions, fear-driven instincts, ego and instant vengeance. We need to stop being afraid and communicate with each other. Listen to each other. If parents listened to children, imagine the wisdom that could be conveyed during the teenage years. If politicians listened to constituents, imagine the nation that could evolve and prosper. If police listened to citizens, imagine the lives that could be saved. The problems of extremism and escalation are systemic; visible in politics, visible socially and visible in families; but it isn’t beyond solving. All we have to do is be flexible, be calm and communicate.