Anger, Aggression & Diplomacy real and imagined

At the beginning of this week's This American Life there's a piece in which the writer David Hill,  who has dabbled in playing the strategy game Diplomacy, takes Dennis Ross, Bill Clinton's old Middle East envoy, to the world championship of the game. 

It is based on Hill's article in Grantland.  A couple of things were percolating in my head when I heard this.  The most prominent was that Dennis Ross seems like a jerk.  As much of a jerk as the people who get angry and overturn the board and yell at the Diplomacy tournaments.  Maybe more.  Not because he is evilly-intentioned or malicious.  Quite the opposite. 

Dennis Ross is sometimes referred to as the architect of the Oslo Peace accord.  For those who don't remember, the Oslo accord in 1993 brought together then Israeli prime-minister Yitshak Rabin and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat to agree on movement towards a two-state solution to the long-standing fight between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs.  There are people who spend a lifetime studying the ins and outs of these things and they can't agree what went wrong, but one thing is clear in the summer of 2014 as a war rages in Gaza and the south of Israel; the Oslo peace process did not lead to anything that anyone could call a solution.  Meanwhile Dennis Ross is a prof at Georgetown in the school of foreign service and a Distinguished Fellow at a fancy institute and Diplomacy coach for hire. 

I am not going to go on about Gaza and Israel.  My interest here is in the dangers of bringing in expert-consultants and why some people chronically behave badly in interpersonal situations and what they have to do with each other.

Dennis Ross could have told David Hill, "If you want to win, don't take me to the game.  You will be painting a huge bulls-eye on your back.  And since I am busy at Georgetown I won't be able to stay and clean up the mess you will make for yourself."  Instead Ross comes in, gives advice based on his gut and his experience, then leaves Hill in an awful situation, possibly a worse situation than if he had just said "No."  Experts generally give bad advice. There are a lot of reasons for this.

1. Experience itself is at best an indifferent teacher.  People need clear, unambiguous, immediate feedback in order to learn.  In complex areas like adult human interactions its very hard to build in such feedback.  When Ross claimed there was a resemblance in the body-language between a Diplomacy player and a Soviet diplomat he dealt with I groaned.  I imagined hearing a cop say "Evidence?! I don't need evidence.  I've seen lots of guilty people and I can tell when someone is guilty."  Which leads to number 2...

2. People who believe they are great at reading people are usually no better than average and sometimes worse.   

3. Experts don't have to live with the consequences of their advice.  But their clients do.  In therapy, I very  rarely give advice.  I look at what I see and hear and offer it back to my clients.  I ask what it means for them.  I try to give them different perspectives on their situation, but I m extremely reluctantly to give advice or make predictions, first because I will likely as not get it wrong and, second because they have to live with the consequences, not me. 

I once worked at a social service agency.  The bosses brought in a consultant who started the session by saying something like, "I usually consult for business.  I don't know anything about mental health and social services but I am sure the principles of managing an organization I will teach you are the same."  I felt like I'd been slapped.  To me, it is rude to come into a room full of people who have over a hundred years of collective experience in their work and say, "Please do not confuse me with information about what you do."  If a consultant or expert is talking more than s/he is listening s/he isn't worth paying attention to. 

The second thing that caught my attention in this piece had to do with angry aggression.  There is a lot of discussion in the piece about whether a person's anger is real or strategic.  Angry aggression like swearing, yelling, threatening and ultimately violence is profoundly paradoxical in that it is a way of gaining control by 'losing control'  Virginia Goldner has written wonderfully (here for example) from a feminist, psycho-therapeutic perspective about how abusive men's anger is both a willed act of control and an out of control act.  Someone else's aggression often provokes such strong reactions in us, even when we know that there is no threat of violence, because it can makes us feel dominated, like control is being wrested from us. 

Because it is so frightening, people who aren't comfortable with strong, aggressive expressions of anger, often treat badly-behaved, angry people like they are weather systems, irrational forces of nature, vaguely predictable, but absolutely uncontrollable.  This can be a great way for the angry person to get others to defer or comply.  Most angry people have absorbed this; the out-of-control expression of real anger gets them what they want.  Angry aggression can be highly adaptive, at least until it becomes a disaster. 

Which brings us back to Diplomacy and one of the questions posed in the piece: How can less aggressive people deal with aggression?  One of the things that the piece explores is the context of angry aggression.  In the game what is strategic, would be unacceptable in real-life.  Except those boundaries are kept deliberately vague.  People are unsure whether aggression is notional or real.   The possibility that anger is real and may become out-of-control is what gives it its power.  If there were a card in Diplomacy that you could present to another player that said "I storm off, angrily," it would have no impact.  For anger to get people to change their behaviour, it has to be real enough

One of the most pernicious things Ross does is not to account for what the real-enough aggression of other players will do to Hill.  Most people can learn to become more detached from another person's angry aggression, to feel less out-of-control in the face of it.  Angry aggressive people can learn they won't regain dominance through an intimidating 'loss of control.'   But that takes time and establishing safety, things Ross (and IMHO many other fly-in consultants) view as outside their job description.