Minutia and Highfalutia: Evasion by scrambling to a safer level of analysis

You see a friend lost in the details of what looks to you like a fundamentally bad plan. You want to help your friend. You ask a leading question or two:

“Do you sometimes wonder if your plan makes sense?” or “How do you feel it’s going lately, I mean overall?”

Your friend generally welcomes your help, but specifically your help in maintaining immediate happiness, which doesn’t include your help in addressing a touchy issue like whether his plans are the right ones.

Friends have two ways to evade the conversation you’re attempting to lead them into. They can snow you with details:

“No it’s not about that. It’s just about my credit rating being temporarily low because I forgot to mail the invoice with the right postage and . . . ”

Or they can snow you with general pieties:

“I’ve just got to keep a positive attitude because you know everything happens for a reason and you can’t be a perfectionist and life is full of ups and downs and if I pray . . . ”

 

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Or they can do both—anything to keep from joining you in the middle ground between minutia and highfalutia.

By asking the leading questions you’re trying to get them to look at the larger picture. To dodge you, they’ll leapfrog you into highfalutia. So you respond by indicating you mean something more specific than that. To dodge you again, they’ll plunge into minutia. You’ll indicate you mean something larger than that, and they’ll leap back into highfalutia. The pattern will repeat until you give up.

It’s scale-to-scale combat over which level of analysis is most appropriate to the situation. You say the mid-level; they say low or high—anywhere but the middle. You want to talk forest; they want to talk trees or biosphere—nothing in between. This is one of the many patterns by which friends misconnect, moving away from intimacy and toward polite but uncomfortable psychic distance. Relationships are only as intimate as their levels of compatibility, compromise, and space taking allow. Compatibilities are givens. You both have your preferences. Compromise is often easy——but where it isn’t, you need compatibility in how you negotiate the incompatibilities. Particularly, to avoid drifting into polite but uncomfortable psychic distance, you need compatibility in how you negotiate space taking—in other words, deciding when to simply “agree to disagree.”

After all, maybe you’re wrong about your friend’s plans. Who’s to say? Ultimately, it’s your friend who decides—assuming the plan is his and not some collaboration. And who’s to say whether your friend is being evasive or you’re being nosey? Conversations that start with one friend asking another to consider alternative plans can often stalemate in a disgruntled mutual disrespect, a smoldering unspoken “You’re in denial” vs. “You’re not respecting my boundaries.”

If the long-term health of your relationship depends upon your compatibility in negotiating incompatibilities, your relationships will tend to stay healthy longer if you both understand the dynamics of boundary negotiations, including the dynamics of scale to scale combat. If you both recognize that everyone deals with tough calls about when to stick with a plan and when to re-evaluate it, you can have an honest conversation about whether to re-evaluate a plan, rather than slipping silently into the cat and mouse chase up and down the scales.

For example:

“How do you feel it’s going lately, I mean overall?”

“Yeah, I know. I hear you. You think I should revisit my overall plan. You think it sucks don’t you?”

“I don’t think it sucks. I just don’t think that it’s your best option. Even with all you’ve invested in it, I think it’s worth switching, and I’d welcome a conversation about that.”

“OK let’s.”

Or

“I wouldn’t welcome that level of conversation just now. I can understand your wanting me to reconsider my plan, but I don’t want to. If I change my mind I’ll let you know. ”

Whether your friend is receptive or unreceptive, if you have joint awareness of the levels question, you’ll know where you stand. You’ll be able to honor each other’s positions rather than being dragged into a smokescreen litany of minutia and highfalutia.

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