Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. Except, I must interject, when you’re wading through a conflict.
This morning during our family debrief (a weekly family sit down where we reflect on how our week’s went, how we treated each other, how our family is doing, etc) my boys locked horns on the issue of video games.
One of the “rules” of the debrief is that all discussions remain sane and respectful, focused on a solution or on reconciliation, where needed. So my oldest Son Noah proceeded to address Joel, his younger brother, explaining in vivid detail why a certain conflict had erupted and what he found particularly annoying. This was going quite well until Noah said something like, “And then, you were like, “I wanna play this. I wanna play that,” (doing a fairly decent imitation of Joel along the way).
Watching Joel’s visceral reaction to this tirade, I learned something.
Joel was able to stomach constructive criticism, partly because he knew his turn to respond was coming. But the moment Noah imitated Joel to show him how he sounded, Joel bristled and shot back a defense of his own. In other words, the moment Noah imitated Joel, the issue shifted in Joel’s mind from what he had done or not done to how accurate Noah’s impersonation was.
“I did NOT say it like that.”
“Yes, you did!”
Not helpful. Which illuminated an important principle and created a new family rule:
When you are trying to help someone understand how what they said and did affected you, don’t imitate them, describe them. No impersonations, because impersonations are always caricatures, and unsolicited caricatures never make us feel good. They carry just enough truth to make our point, with just enough poison to hurt someone in the process. Think about it: How do you react to unflattering imitations of yourself during a discussion or argument? My reaction is almost always, “That’s unfair.” And it probably is.
Much better for Noah to say, “Joel, when we play video games, sometimes you say such and such and it feels like you’re getting upset when you’re saying it, and the way you said it kinda hurt me.” Totally objective compared to the “You sounded like this…”