Years of experience have demonstrated to me how insightful Eric Fromm was in his observations about love and the “artful” way of loving we sometimes call “therapy.” Fromm’s landmark book, The Art of Loving, was required reading in my undergraduate introductory psychology class, and it would be a book I’d delve into again on multiple occasions throughout my graduate training. Being young, naive, and inexperienced, however, I didn’t fully appreciate Fromm’s perspective or principal message at first. In fact, early on, I found a lot of what he was trying to say both trite and misguidedly idealistic. But after years of specializing in the work of promoting character change and growth in both relatively healthy and unhealthy individuals, I came to more fully appreciate both the value and the power of his perspective. And it would take me some time to fashion for myself a deft way to benignly but firmly confront the thinking errors and behaviors that got the people I was working with into trouble and encourage them to try out some new, more adaptive ways of coping. In short, I would have to develop my own art of loving in therapeutic way. In the process I also came to appreciate how important and empowering it is to know just when and how to confront others when the situation demands. Proper confrontation is not just a practical and beneficial way of dealing with the character disturbances of others. It’s also one of the better ways of demonstrating a healthy brand of care and concern for yourself.
Whether you’re dealing with someone whose character is significantly impaired and needs some major “attitude corrections” or a person who is generally a decent sort but could stand to grow a bit in character, there’s an artful way to go about confronting the issues needing attention. You have to focus like a laser beam on the particular aspects of person’s ways of thinking or behaving that need changing, accurately label them, and firmly urge their correction while maintaining a demeanor of civility and calm. Emotion, especially anger and animosity, while understandable in many situations, can never be allowed to take center stage. And for confrontation to be maximally effective, things can’t be allowed to get personal, either. Principle must clearly rule the day. It always has to be about behavior and behavior that’s constructive vs. destructive. There are always better and worse ways to think about and do things. And when principle takes precedence, everything else eventually falls into place. But you have to have both the honesty and the courage to call out the things that need to be corrected, and you have to be willing to do that in the very moment problem behaviors, thinking patterns, or attitudes are displayed. Standing calmly but firmly on principle and setting healthy terms of engagement – that’s what the art of benign confrontation is all about.
In my book Character Disturbance I present some vignettes that depict how the art of therapeutic loving through benign confrontation works (I also provide a few examples in The Judas Syndrome). And in the coming weeks I’ll be giving some examples of how much more powerful it is to benignly call out behaviors than it is to vent frustration on or disparage a disturbed character. Disturbed characters love to shift the focus, blame others, evade issues, offer justifications, etc. – anything to avoid addressing and correcting the behaviors of concern. And they also like to get into a game of personal vindication, incessantly trying to make it look like you’re just trying to tear them down, and in turn trying to cut you down to size by outing your faults. Benignly and calmly making it only behavior, and more specifically the problematic behavior they’re displaying in the moment, changes the game.
For some other thoughts on this same topic, check out: Character Disturbance and the Art of Confrontation. And you can find more information on how to set more effective “terms of engagement” in the chapter of In Sheep’s Clothing devoted to that topic.
This weekend I’ll be traveling and Character Matters will not be a live broadcast (although I’m not sure what program will be rebroadcast), so no calls can be taken. But I’ll be back again live on May 17, so if you have a question you want to ask or an experience you want to share, I’ll be happy to have you join the discussion.