Punishment is a terrible substitute for interpersonal skills

One common theme that I see in television and movie dramas is the dynamic of punishment and retaliation. This is the conflict that plays out on screen in nearly every minute of popular culture that is available for us to consume. It sort of looks like this:

Offense.

Retaliation.

Greater offense.

More retaliation.

Climactic offense.

Ultimate retaliation with antagonist dispatched.

Like a fractal, this dynamic plays out on multiple levels, from the offense, like a sarcastic retort, to the scale of the violent clash at the climax of the film. Or maybe, for the more discerning audience, it’s the court battle where the offender is finally put away. But most times, the antagonist in popular culture is dispatched, terminated or otherwise eviscerated with zero empathy. Judge and jury are not required in most cases.

Like pop culture, our culture lacks empathy for the offender. Pop culture teaches us that if we just assign blame and deploy enough punishment, that the problem will be solved, and that the offender will “learn his lesson” and will finally comport himself accordingly, to our wishes. Pop culture teaches us that punishment teaches obedience. That is what we can expect from the movies and TV, right?

Real life isn’t like that. People are unpredictable. They don’t follow a script written by a team of left handed writers in Hollywood shared by both sides. No, in real life interactions with other people, it is not possible to predict how another person will respond to punishment of any kind. This is true on any scale, regardless of the type of punishment meted out.

It is also true that the response time to punishment may range from seconds to years. Everyone is different, with different talents, different skills, different histories. If you’ve ever obsessed over someone else, had a conversation in your head as rehearsal, and then tried to carry out the same conversation in life, you will know what I mean. The other person doesn’t have a copy of your script, so they don’t do what you expected, or even wanted.

This is the thought process I go through when I watch popular culture. This is the thought process I go through when someone does something to offend me. But there is something else.

Better to assume ignorance before malice.

I assume that people in my life are just doing the best that they can. I assume that if they could do better, they would. I base this assumption on years of experience with myself and other people with the following observation:

People want to go to sleep at night knowing they did the right thing.

I comport myself in such a way that I can sleep well at night. I assume that other people want to do that, too. I assume that if someone presents challenging behavior to me, that they lack the capacity to do better. And I avoid mind reading to figure out why. I just start there, with that assumption and work from there.

I do that for my wife, my kids and anyone else in my life. I leave the drama to the screen. With good writing, I tend to forget about this dynamic when I watch drama on screen, but if the writing is poor, I start to reverse engineer the plot and lose interest.

I have tried punishment for challenging behavior and found it wanting. I have never, ever gotten what I wanted by punishing someone when they failed to meet my expectations. This is true of anyone in my life. With adults I lose friendships or I get retaliation. With co-workers, well, I’ve never actually punished a co-worker for anything. I just walk away if they can’t show some respect. And with my kids, I’ve found that punishment doesn’t work.

For the adults in my life, there are only two things that I’ve found that work for me in personal relations: acceptance and humor. I just accept everyone for who they are. This is easy to do if we assume that everyone is already doing the best that they can. I accept kids exactly as they are. And I’m already funny, so I’ll pursue acceptance from here.

In my personal demeanor, I offer up no pretense. What you see is what you get with me. If I have a problem with you, I will mention it and will work with you to resolve any conflict we might have. Back in the 1990’s, I took a 60-hour course in conflict resolution and still carry those lessons with me to this day. I practice what I learned and what I write about here.

I don’t rise to anger very easily. I’ve done that and found that anger just doesn’t work for me. When I’m in anger, I tend to lose the capacity to use logic. So if I feel anger, I let it pass. I wait. And wait. And wait for as long as I need, to let it pass. Then I start to think about how I will respond.

When one of my kids is angry with me, I don’t get angry back. I even let them know that, just because they are angry with me, that doesn’t mean I’m angry with them. Kids are like mirrors. If I get angry, they get angry, for every action they see me do, they think that is a life skill. They model me for their survival.

When my kids are angry, I will even sit with them at their eye level and keep talking with them until they can sort themselves out. I know that if I talk with them, eventually, they will hear me talking, but they won’t hear what I’m saying. I know that eventually, curiosity will prevail.

“Hey, wait a minute. I’m absolutely livid, but Dad isn’t getting angry with me.” I think they must wonder why I’m not angry and then, once they realize that it’s safe to be angry with me, that they can let the anger pass and talk with me. When my kids have this storm in their brains, I just keep on talking until they’ve worn themselves out. I’ve done this many, many times, and it works every time.

Anger is very energy intensive. Anger displaces logic and empathy. Anger is dissolved with empathy. When my kids are angry with me, screaming, yelling, carrying on and on, I can sit with them and talk with them, almost stoically. I look them in the eyes while they’re angry. I accept them completely. I advise them that anger is going to make them tired, very, very tired. I advise them that I love them exactly as they are. I advise them that no matter what, they can always ask for a hug. And when they are done, they come to me for that hug and collapse.

I won’t give you what you asked for, but you can always ask for a hug.

I wish I could do that for some of the adults in my life, too.

Compassion is a skill. We learn compassion from our parents, our caregivers, and our friends. I teach compassion to my kids. Every time I fail to do that, I’m reminded of my own childhood, and I correct myself. So I err on the side of peace.

Punishment doesn’t work because it doesn’t teach compassion. Punishment assumes that the other person knows what he or she is doing. Do they? If someone who is presenting challenging behavior really knows what they are doing, and we’re so sure that they could do better, why do they do what they do?

Yes, they’re making a choice to present challenging behavior. Yes, they may even be adults when they do so, but it still comes back to the same question, if you think they could do better, why don’t they? This is the question that always comes to me, and believe me, I’ve travel long and circuitous paths to get to that conclusion. I’ve done it so many times, that now I just take the shortcut and start from there.

It is easier to have compassion for someone who is acting out of ignorance. It is easier to have empathy for someone who is suffering out of ignorance. It is easier to help someone when we can just start with the assumption that everyone is already doing the best that they can. Everyone. There are no exceptions.

There is already enough suffering in the world. I don’t need to add to it. I also know that adding to suffering in the world will not get me what I want. This is especially true if I know that all I really want is peace. And I do.

Write on.

Originally published at steemit.com on September 1, 2018.

Written by

Husband, father, worker, philosopher, and observer. Plumbing the depths of consciousness to find the spring of happiness. Write on.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store