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Choose Your Battles - Choose Your Words

In today's increasingly polarized world, engaging in discussions and debates with others can be tricky. People may appear to be engaging in genuine discourse only to reveal that they are attacking you or your beliefs. You need to differentiate between someone seeking information and truth versus someone simply looking to challenge or belittle you based on their worldview.

Question Mark Versus Exclamation Mark

I once heard Rabbi Orlovsky from Ohr Somayach explain how we fall into the trap of responding to pronouncements as if they were questions. Listen carefully, he advised, to whether there is a question mark at the end of their sentence. If someone genuinely desires to understand and engage with different perspectives, they are asking an open question. On the other hand, statements that are closed off and do not invite further discussion are more likely to be used to assert their beliefs without considering alternative viewpoints. It would help if you attuned your ear, so you don't get hooked on going down the rabbit hole of a nonproductive conversation. 

Entering the Red (and Green) Zone

But what about people who take it to extreme levels and engage in "intellectual bullying?" Intellectual bullies use aggressive tactics to shut down opposing viewpoints. They are not interested in dialogue but only in asserting dominance or undermining your beliefs.

Most of us would steer clear of the rabid keffiyeh-wearing protectors "peacefully" chanting for the genocide of the Jewish people – and not just in Israel. But as shocking as that is, we may be taken aback when our friends, acquaintances, or even family members are completely ignorant of facts and history yet are dug in on extremely twisted positions. 

Attempting to debate with someone like that is fruitless and exhausting because they are hostile and dismissive no matter what you say. Disengaging and focusing on engaging with people who are open to respectful and constructive dialogue is more productive.

But there's something else we can do. 

I assume no one reading this is an intellectual bully. Yet, we could unknowingly be guilty of the more subtle forms of verbal harm that we may unknowingly cause in our everyday interactions with the people we love and care about.

We need to avoid the “harsh start” mistake in our conversations. Here’s how it looks.   

The Case of Alan Ritchson: Controversy and Criticism:

Actors are known for embodying different characters, often making us believe they are like the roles they portray on screen. So, expressing opinions contrary to the characters they play can be shocking and even controversial. This was recently exemplified by Alan Ritchson, the star of the hit show “Reacher,” who plays the role of a military investigative unit head known for his staunch law-and-order beliefs.

In real life, however, Ritchson made a statement that was at odds with his on-screen persona. During a recent interview, he stated, "Cops get away with murder all the time, and the fact that we really can't hold them accountable for their improprieties is disturbing to me." 

This statement sparked a strong reaction from the National Fraternal Order of Police, which criticized him as a "useless Hollywood actor engaging in virtue signaling at the expense of law enforcement officers." Ritchson fired back, calling the criticism "emotionally immature and the epitome of how leadership cannot handle a peaceful disagreement." 

The Impact of Verbal Attacks

True, there was no physical violence. On the other hand, how is a baseless verbal attack “peaceful?” Is the refusal to engage a "failure in leadership" - or is it a wise exercise in restraint? Police brutality is worthy of conversation. But when Ritchson premised it with the pronouncement that "cops always get away with murder," it would be useless to tick off all the incidents that prove him wrong.

The Ritchson incident sheds light on the concept of "harsh starts" in communication, as discussed by psychologist John Gottman. Harsh starts refer to a communication style characterized by criticism, defensiveness, or contempt. Starting a conversation with an attack, complaint, or untrue and unfair generalization sets a negative tone and makes it difficult to have a constructive dialogue. Even worse, harsh starts escalate, causing hurt feelings and, ultimately, damaging trust and intimacy in a relationship.

In contrast, adopting a "soft start-up" approach involves expressing concerns or disagreements respectfully and non-confrontationally, fostering understanding and constructive dialogue. This approach involves beginning conversations with kindness, empathy, curiosity, and a willingness to listen. Start with something the person is doing right before you criticize. Stick to the facts and not your judgments. 

There’s one sure thing - how a conversation starts is how it ends.

The Ones Who Don't Matter 

Ultimately, it is crucial to discern the intentions of those you engage with in discussions and debates. By recognizing when someone is open to genuine discourse rather than simply seeking to challenge or attack, you can navigate conversations more effectively and avoid falling into traps set by those not interested in engaging with differing perspectives.

And The Ones Who Do

While extreme examples of hate speech violate ethical and moral principles, our everyday interactions with those around us also shape the quality of our relationships. If you are feeling helpless by the sudden tsunami of people openly proclaiming hate, use this time to become more sensitive to the unintended impact of your own words. 


By practicing the art of the soft start-up, you can cultivate loving connections with the people you care about. These are not the best of times – but they can bring out the best in you.

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