Taming Our Emotions

Posted in Dialogue, Ethics, Personal Development at 2:15 pm by Haider

Muslims in general, and Arabs in particular, have a reputation for being too emotional when it comes to debates. A simple comparison between a debate on an Arab channel and one on an English channel will show how emotionally-charged Arabs can be. In fact, Arabs usually refer to Westerners as being “cold” because they do not readily express their emotions. But a sensationalist attitude does not encourage dialogue, and rather than promote understanding of different points of view, it distances people from one another, and undermines the view, or belief, we seek to defend.

A friend of mine noted that when the Al-Jazeera Satellite Channel first started, the set for the show “The Opposing Direction” had a small table between the guests. However, because the guests couldn’t keep to their side of the table when having a discussion, that small table was replaced with a larger table. Guests sometimes appear on the show via satellite link-up, so that the guests are separated by continents, since the table can’t seem to do the job!

Even then, most guests are easily frustrated, and most episodes end up as shouting matches, without any fruitful outcomes from the discussions. Many people enjoy the show, probably because they can associate with one side, and feel relieved that they could vent their emotions during the show. For them, expressing emotion is more important than conveying their ideas, which reinforces the emotional attitude towards debates.

In this article, we will look at some of the reasons behind our emotional outbursts, and what the solution to each reason is. By being able to control our emotions, we can promote a more fruitful discussion every time we participate in one.

The Causes of Emotional Eruptions:

Not all emotional outbursts are for the same reason. And in order to have control over our emotions, we must first know why they arise in each situation. The default reason (i.e. excuse) we say to ourselves when we have an emotional outburst is that others have triggered our reactions. However, the focus should not be on what others do, but on how we respond to what they do, and why we respond the way we do.

We can become emotional when others express an opinion we disagree with, or when they do things we don’t approve of. However, the root cause behind these incidents is deeper than what we perceive. Below are some of the reasons behind the emotional eruptions we can experience during a discussion:

 1) An Attack on Our Values: Opinions express values, and values arouse emotions. When we consider something of value to us, we do not like to see it undermined or attacked. An opinion contradictory to our own expresses values that clash with ours, which incite negative emotions from us. And since dialogue involves the exchange of opposing beliefs, it’s natural that we can become emotional.

Solution: The solution for this can either be simple, or complicated, depending on how we arrived at our values to begin with. If we do not know why we value what we value, then we cannot offer others a reason. And since we lack an explanation that will convince us, we cannot expect others to be convinced of why we are right (and they are wrong). Therefore, the first step to take is to identify the basis for our values. Ask yourself this question: what is the reason why you value what you value?

What are the reasons? And how convincing are they?

If the best you can come up with is: “because I feel it’s true”, “I’ve always been brought up to believe X, Y, Z”, “How can it not be true?” and anything else besides a tangible reason, then the problem is slightly complicated. On the bright side, you would have discovered why you get emotional during debates (i.e. the basis of your values are your emotions, when it should have been rational reasons that define your values, which you should feel emotional about).

You will need to dig deeper to find out whether your values are worth keeping, and whether you need to do more thinking and researching to understand the reasons behind your values. This is especially true if you subscribe to a religion, where you may not be aware of the reasons behind its beliefs, and have always taken your religion for granted.

If you know the reasons why you have adopted your values, and can clearly express the rationale behind them, then the solution is simple (in principle, but not always in practice). What you need to realise is that others may not know your reasoning, or have attached different meanings to the words you use. For example, someone can fanatically oppose religion because he equates religion to irrationality. If you believe that your religion promotes rationality, then you need to identify where the misunderstanding has occurred and offer your own understanding of the term.

The point behind debates is not to oppose other people’s values, but to discuss their underlying reasons. You can’t discuss emotions directly, because you’ll only get emotions as a result. If people have emotions as the base to their values, then you can either try and convince them that emotions cannot be the basis of values, or you can leave the discussion (never forget that that’s an option!!).

2) Difficulty Communicating: A common reason for why we can lose our tempers during a discussion has nothing to do with our “opponents” but our ability to express our beliefs. This difficulty in getting the message from point A to point B usually leads us to blame point B for not getting the message!

Solution: Identify where the misunderstanding is taking place, and seek to correct it. You can either use simpler words, or different words to help bring the message across. It is also crucial that you get used to writing down your beliefs, so you can familiarise yourself with them, and make it easier for you to recall structured sentences in a debate, as opposed to saying: “Well, it’s like… it’s quite complicated really… the thing is, you know… it’s like…”

Many discussions arise without prior notice, and they usually involve questions we may not have asked ourselves before. There are some questions you should prepare yourself for, especially if they are raised in the media (or related to news items), you have heard others asked the question before, you would ask “you” if you were in other people’s shoes, etc. For example, Muslims – especially those living in the West – should know how to explain the link between Islam and terrorism, etc.

 You should also pay attention to using a strategy when answering questions. For example, if somebody is not familiar with Islam and is not involved in politics, but doesn’t like seeing crimes committed in the name of Islam, he may be curious to know what the connection is between Islam and violence: Does Islam promote violence, or do the terrorists derive their inspiration from something else?

It’s not very wise to say: “Why you say we are terrorist?! Islam is not terrorism! You! America bomb Muslims everywhere and you call us terrorists!? You terrorist! Islam is about peace! And Muslims must protect themselves from America!” (the bad English is to complement the disorganized thinking)

For one thing, this answer seems to justify terrorism in the name of defending ourselves. It is also extremely difficult to swallow: how can Islam be considered “about peace” when it sanctions terrorism (which can be assumed, based on the answer)? The one asking the question may not even support US foreign policy, but the example answer is very confrontational, and pits the blame on the person asking the question.

Such an answer is very common, and lacks strategy and structure. While I won’t be dealing with this issue in this post, it’s important to note that the absence of strategy and structure hinders communication (especially because it opens the floodgates to all kinds of assumptions).

If you are not prepared for a discussion, and think you need more time to think about the topic, you can say that! You can easily say: “I haven’t thought about that before”, “I’m not sure about that”, or anything along these lines.

3) Expectations and Experiences: Frustration often arises from the gap between our expectations and our experiences. If we expect people to understand our point of view, and to immediately accept it, we will become frustrated when they either fail to understand us, or choose not to accept what we say.

Solution: Don’t expect people to be moral, let alone perfect. There are tons of reasons why people may not accept your opinions, especially on the spot. People usually need time to change their beliefs, and this often occurs when they are left to continue the discussion in their head. Give people space to make up their own minds.

It is vital that you use every discussion you have as an opportunity to identify what went wrong in the discussion, and how you can fix it in the future. And even if a discussion goes perfectly, people will exercise their free will, which never guarantees the correct action to take. So don’t expect people to do the right thing, no matter how obvious it is to you.

4) Irrational Beliefs: Not every person you have a discussion with will make sense to you. There are beliefs that are irrational to their core, and there’s no way around the irrationality. If somebody says to you: “I’m a communist” then good luck having a rational discussion! (only kidding… well, at least I wouldn’t put it this bluntly if I wasn’t kidding :P). A more serious example would be: “How do we know we even exist?”

It’s extremely difficult to answer such a question, because you wouldn’t know where to begin. Also, you can gauge the “thinking” behind the question from the question itself, and it’s very difficult to identify common grounds with such thinking when it doesn’t seem to have any basis for it.

Solution: Never rationalise the irrational! The worst mistake you can ever do is to think that you can somehow understand irrationality. By definition, irrationality is in conflict with rational thought. Your mind wouldn’t know what to do with irrational opinions, so don’t strain yourself trying to understand them. What you can do is identify what’s absent from an irrational belief (what makes it false), or why it was adopted by the person professing it (the psychology behind the adoption of the belief), but you can never directly understand an irrational belief.

If somebody says to you: “Rationality is for matters of this world, and faith is for matters of the spirit,” you can tell that the person professing this belief has no evidence to support this opinion, and does not place any importance on evidence when it comes to “matters of the spirit.” You can identify the consequences of such a belief, and what sort of beliefs it justifies (every belief under the sun!). You can even say that such a person evades thinking, and has not clearly defined what “matters of the spirit” means, but you cannot begin to understand the irrationality behind this idea. Don’t bother understanding it, otherwise you’ll end up frustrated.

Irrational people are hard to have a discussion with, unless they are willing to question their premises. In most cases, they will not be, because their own lack of understanding leads them to resort to emotions, and emotions cannot be directly discussed. Don’t forget that a viable answer is a smile and a nod, then leaving the debate.

(Some people usually get excited when they are offered an excuse to “let people be”, and are happy to think of others as “irrational”, “stupid”, “ignorant”, etc, so that they don’t feel responsible trying to affect a change, when it’s not possible to “get through to them.” Not all people are lost cases, and there is a lot one can do to promote rational thoughts. I don’t intend to discourage you from having discussions when I say you can always leave a discussion. But you must judge each case and be honest with yourself to find out whether the person you are having a discussion with is worth your effort or not.)

5) Provocative Attitude: The form of a discussion is as important as its content. The vast majority of debates collapse because they are not approached with the right attitude. Sadly, many people assume that just because (they think) they’re right, they can put their message across in any form possible. They usually resort to sarcasm, name calling, intimidation, and a string of other behaviours that amplify emotions and blur out the content.

Solution: You’d be surprised by the amount of sense you can instill in people just by setting an example of how they should behave. People often judge their actions by the actions of others. This works both ways: they can either realise that they are being rude because their opponent isn’t, or can justify rudeness because their opponent is. Therefore, behave in the way you’d like others to behave, and you’ll soon realise that their behaviour will gravitate towards yours.

Even if this strategy doesn’t influence the behaviour of those around you, their actions don’t justify you taking their lead. If they want to be rude, don’t be rude in return. If they try to be intimidating, don’t try to intimidate. Abandoning the retaliatory mentality (if they do it, then I must do it in return) can help you focus on your message, and not be influenced by their attitude. It also helps you act on your beliefs, rather than simply state them. I can’t begin to count the times I’ve seen Muslims behave in the rudest of ways, while trying to defend the Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him and his family). If the Prophet taught us to control our tempers, then us losing our tempers in a debate will do greater damage than what our opponents can ever say.

As Imam Ja’far Al-Sadiq (peace be on him) said: “Become preachers without using your tongues.

While I have not identified all the reasons for why we can become emotional in debates, it’s important to find out what the reason is, and to adopt a mindset that helps you to abandon the emotional reaction (rather than struggle to suppress it).

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