20 Oct 2010

So Your Partner's a Rational Creature ... - Part Three.

Continued from: Rational creature - part 1 and Rational creature - part 2.

Fundamental difference #2:

Rational people process (nearly) everything in their head first.

On top of that, the rational part of our brain is significantly slower to respond than our emotions.

This means that, when confronted with new information or an unfamiliar situation, a rational creature will usually do nothing. At least, that's what it will look like, while their brain is working like crazy. On the inside, they're looking for similarities to known situations, considering different responses, looking for the appropriate way to react, etc. On the outside, we see ... nothing.

Of slippery slopes and minefields:

Feelers often misinterpret that lack of immediate response as not caring. We tend to consider Thinkers cold fish, and this can cause quite a few conflicts, especially in romantic relationships.
(For more info on the Jungian or MBTI terminology 'thinkers' and 'feelers', have a look here.)

The rationale behind this suspended reaction is that, by a certain age, thinkers have already learnt that their first response to a situation, especially one that is emotionally charged, is a bad idea.

When dealing with feelings, logic's usually not the way to go. For someone who bases their decisions on logic and observable data, emotional situations are minefields. They don't have enough information to go by. They have no idea how to respond, because the observable data are limited to: 'she's acting strange,' or 'he seems upset.'

Back to Angela and Bob:

Angela and Bob are talking about an article she's been reading, about how microwaving your food is bad for you.
Bob, being his rational self, points out - quite sharply - that microwaves don't do anything but make water molecules in food vibrate rapidly, thus creating friction and therefore heat, and in that sense microwaving isn't all that different from other forms of cooking.

Angela, unable to detect a caring tone in his voice - probably because there wasn't one - feels like he's calling her stupid. He discards what she said based solely on factual arguments that she can't counter with facts of her own. This feels very unfair and disrespectful of who she is as a person. (For a Feeler, nearly everything is about people because that's what we're focusing on.) As a result, Angela gets angry and, because she doesn't want to start a fight, she shuts up.

Bob notices her change in behaviour, but has no idea what happened. After all: he was just correcting an incorrect assumption. It wasn't personal. He asks Angela if something's wrong, but she denies.
Shortly after, Bob goes to watch TV, only to notice that there's significantly more rattling and smashing of pots and pans than usual.

(Again, pardon the gender stereotyping, I'm going for maximum recognisability here. Please adapt names, characters and situations at will.)

Bob now has every reason to suspect something's wrong, but he sees no way of finding out what. Until he gets more information, he does nothing, hoping it will pass.

In the meantime, Angela is still angry and winding herself up to boiling point. Bob can be such an uncaring arsehole sometimes. She bottles those emotions up on top of everything else, and we've got great potential for future self-combustion.

In the meantime it should be quite clear what the basis for this conflict is, and that there's no point in trying to blame either one of them. Each person reacts in their own way, and the conflict doesn't come from either one of the individuals, it comes from the mutual misunderstanding of the other person's social language.
In so many people's everyday lives, a lot of energy is wasted in situations like this one, energy that we could spend on something that's actually fun!

Now, let's look at what we can do to avoid this in our own lives:

For the Emotional Creature:

- Be aware that lack of feedback or response doesn't equal that your partner doesn't care.

- Your partner is not a mind reader. Try and express yourself as clearly as you can, especially when strong emotions hit you.

- When a particular feeling comes up, it's usually triggered by something. Every feeling is a valid response, you're not being silly (most of the time, anyway). It means there's an issue that needs to be dealt with.

- Don't waste mental energy blaming the people around you for not understanding. You are not a victim. Once you've calmed down, as you always will, analyse what has happened and talk about it.

For the Rational Creature:

- Be aware that a feeling is often difficult to analyse, especially for the person who's experiencing it (and while they're still feeling it.) It's an automatic response coming from an old part of our brain, pointing out that something's not right.

- Know that, when you notice in the feelers around you that something's off, you're probably right. However tempting it might seem to ignoring the situation, in the long run that's not a good idea, as it will keep coming back. The longer you wait, the bigger the fallout - and the damage.

- We all function in a social context. Roughly 50% of people are Feelers. That means you can't avoid them no matter how hard you try. And believe it or not, it would seriously reduce the quality of your life if you could.

- However unjustified or unintelligible you think emotions are, don't belittle them or treat them as unimportant.  While the feeling is 'active', it's very real and extremely important to that person.

- It's important to be there to listen, consider and offer comfort. If you don't know what to say, that's okay. You don't have to say anything, just be there.

- Even if your partner repeatedly tells you they're fine, if you have sufficient clues that that's not true, don't believe them. Feelers tend to put up a brave face. Don't pressure the matter either, just let them know you're there, and plan a joint activity for the (very!) near future. Chances are by then the feeling will have gone through its first processing rounds, and your partner might be ready to talk about it.

- Make use of Feeler friends and relatives. They can often help you to translate. Be careful with delicate topics, though, your partner might not like other people to know the specifics!

To keep in mind:

Once the strong emotional response has cooled down, conversation is possible again. It's important to find out what triggered the problem. Usually it's some form of misunderstanding related to how a message was communicated.
Thinkers have a way of giving factual information in a very cool way, deprived of emotion. Because to them it's about the facts.
Feelers read a lack of emotion as coldness, and tend to associate it with disrespect, disdain, disagreement, etc. Mainly because when they try to keep emotion out of what they say, it usually means they don't agree or don't approve and try to spare the other person's feelings.

We're really not that different on the inside, but we do speak a different social language. In order to understand each other, we need to learn to translate.

[Might be continued in the future.]

Image: 'Close Up of The Thinker' by Todd Martin, available under a creative commons license. © 2005, Todd Martin.
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