Here you are. Fighting. Again.
This time, you were going to do everything right. You had one subject you wanted to address, knowing that things might get heated, but it’s important. You stuck to your guns, had clear intentions about what you needed from this conversation, and were ready to go to the wall for it.
Which would have been great, if the wall hadn’t suddenly moved four feet to the left.
You, my friend, are a victim of conversational avoidance.
Because instead of having the conversation YOU wanted to have, you’re suddenly having a totally different one, quite possibly about you and your faults. This was not at all what you had in mind. And now you’re also probably angry—it’s highly possible you weren’t before. Impassioned, maybe, but angry? Not until the conversation changed.
And of course, you’re now angry AND irrational. Because obviously, you’re going to have to do this crap all over again another day. There’s still no resolution to the original issue.
So what do you do?
Let’s start with understanding the source. Deflection is mostly about blame. Specifically, feeling as though you are being blamed for something. Say I’ve asked you for help cleaning the house. My intention is simple—the house is a disaster area of Chernobyl proportions, and I am simply not capable of getting this job done on my own. But what you might hear is that you never help me clean the house, ever. And of course, you’re defensive, because you know full well that you have, in fact, cleaned the house in the past. You also know that you aren’t responsible for the state the house is in, at least not entirely, which makes you righteous in your indignation, because you’re being blamed for something that isn’t even your fault. You can probably predict how the rest of this conversation is going to go.
However. I never once implied or insinuated that this was your fault. Nor did I ever suggest that you don’t clean the house. So this blame that you’re feeling? It’s mostly self-created. This is different from feeling guilty, because I’m far more likely to act so that I can ameliorate my guilt. But blame allows you to deflect—not just your feelings, but your actions as well. If I am not at fault, then I am also not responsible for fixing the problem either.
Chances are good, this is where you get stuck. Because if I am not at fault, and not responsible for fixing the problem, then there’s really not much left to talk about, is there?
And in point of fact, this is exactly why I do this. Deflection WORKS. I may not be able to make you go away, but I have made the conversation go away. And sometimes, I’d rather fight about something completely unrelated than deal with the matter at hand.
I’ve talked before about ground rules for fighting, and those can definitely help, but this is a different sort of problem. At its core, this is about who has control of the conversation. If I ask for help around the house, and you respond by saying that you work all the time and don’t have time to help, the conversation has suddenly become about who has more time, and whose time has more value. If you respond by telling me that I said I’d do it, the conversation has turned to MY inability to fulfill my obligations. If your response is not about the house at all, but instead about some other, more pressing commitment, then you’ve avoided engaging entirely, and have shifted the conversation to something you want to talk about.
In every example, that conversational avoidance puts me at a distinct disadvantage, because my immediate impulse is to offer a rebuttal to your deflection. After all, that’s the goal. The goal of deflection, at least in this case, is to dictate the terms of the conversation.
So now that you understand why it happens, let’s talk about ways to prevent it from happening.
First and foremost, you must be reasonable about your expectations. This is a conversation, one that you’re having with a real, live person, NOT with the version of that person who lives in your head. You simply can’t predict how the conversation will go, or why it will go that way. Have you ever had a seemingly benign post on Facebook blow up in your face? You thought you were sharing something cool, but by the end of it, you were wishing you’d just clubbed some baby seals instead, because that’s probably less controversial? This is just like that.
Even if you think you know what the response will be, you don’t. You may be able to predict a pattern of response, but the devil is in the details. You may guess that I’ll deflect, but you won’t know how or in what way. Don’t even try to prepare for that, because the very attempt puts you on the defensive from the start. Which leads us straight to:
Keep your cool, dude. I realize this is harder than it sounds. Personally, I have a very hard time with this. But, if you want to set the direction of the conversation, then you need to set the tone, too. There are so many metaphors to abuse here, I’m hard-pressed to choose; so… don’t bring a gun to a knife fight, okay?
Be specific! And I’m not talking about your argument, I’m talking about your request. There’s a HUGE difference between knowing what you want to say, and knowing what you’re asking for. Make those details work in your favor here. Let’s go back to my housecleaning request. Do you know what I want help cleaning? No, and that makes it infinitely easier to deflect from. However, if I say, “the kitchen is a disaster and I can’t make dinner until it’s clean. Will you help me out by doing some dishes?” You can say no, of course, but that’s about all you can do. There aren’t a whole lot of rabbit holes to chase down with a request like that.
Specificity of language is important. It’s not just about what you say, but also how you say it. The more direct your ask, the more direct your response will be. And, speaking of….
Knock off the always/never crap. Yeah, I know. I always do this, or I never do that; except, I don’t. If I can think of just ONE time where I DIDN’T always or never do that thing, it’s like I’ve won the deflection jackpot, baby.
I think it’s important to note here that, generally speaking, deflection isn’t deliberate. It’s an emotional response used to take power when we feel powerless. And we all do it—this isn’t about gender or gender roles. Men tend to deflect bombastically, women tend to redirect through changing the subject, but there aren’t any hard or fast rules there. The chances are good that once you become proficient at avoiding deflection, you’ll realize when you are guilty of it as well.
Set up is important. If this is a long-standing argument, or it has the potential to go badly, give your partner some warning. “I’d like to talk about dishes after the kids go to bed tonight.” I will acknowledge that this could possibly work against you—if deflection is your partner’s weapon of choice, this gives them time to marshal those arguments. On the other hand…. How do you feel when a potential gold mine of conflict is just dropped in your lap? Pretty pissed, would be my guess. So, if it’s possible to not blindside your partner, then you should do that.
However. DO NOT say, “we need to talk.” Because what I inevitably hear is, “you need to talk/yell at me for a half hour while I just kinda nod my head in abject misery.” Again, your specificity of language is important. “We need to talk.” About what? Are you dying? Are you leaving me? Did someone else die? Okay, yes, that may be MY anxiety talking, and no one else’s, but even if it’s not, those words can strike terror in the coolest heart. Even if it’s intentionally vague, SOME kind of set-up is better than that.
Finally, a couple of tips for what to do if deflection happens, even if you’ve done your best to avoid it.
Table it. This one works for me somewhat infrequently, but it’s worth trying. “That’s actually a really valid point, but what I want to talk about is this. Can we come back to it?” Remember, you’re having a dynamic conversation. Both of you have to agree to tabling an issue. But if you can learn this skill, it’s worth using—you are far more likely to have a conversation instead of a fight this way.
Provide options. This one is going to depend a lot on when deflection happens, but we’ll just stick with chores. “Look, I really don’t want to fight about this. I need help. You can either do the dishes or help with homework tonight. Your choice.” I won’t kid you, this is absolutely one of my favorite tactics for getting help. And once again, it is so specific that there’s not really any place to go.
Don’t take the bait. Another one that is easier said than done, but if it’s at ALL possible, don’t allow the deflection to work. “I’m not talking about that right now. I’m talking about this.” This is hard because it requires you to actively engage on so many levels, but it CAN be done. Keep your cool, keep your focus, and don’t allow the conversation to change. You likely WILL get resistance to this, and you’ll probably have to repeat yourself. A lot. But, if you do it calmly, without raising your voice, you have a real chance at directing the conversation.
And ultimately, that’s what this is about. It’s your conversation. You absolutely CAN take charge of it. And like anything, practice makes perfect. The more often you do this, the easier it will be to avoid. Let me know how it goes.