Continuing our series on cognitive errors, we review two in this post that often lead to flare-ups of incivility. These are catastrophizing and personalization.
Catastrophizing is evidenced by a dramatic anticipation of disaster and corresponding defensive reaction. For example,
+”They’re preparing for armed rebellion and ready to destroy our country” or
+”The ultimate goal of the liberals is a gun free America and ultimately the elimination of our Constitutional rights that America fought so hard to get.” (comment on MSNBC blog post, 4/16/2013).
This can be coupled with Personalization, which involves taking a general discussion and interpreting it as a personal attack, or assuming that behavior that could have more than one explanation is clearly intended as an insult. Personalization will sound something like this:
“So you are saying that me and my family mean nothing . . .”
“All those statistics and other things are just another way for them to say we’re stupid, and we’re not . . . I’m not going to sit here and be subjected to that. ”
Personalization heightens both the fear and defensiveness that accompany Catastrophizing, and when co-occurring can introduce “righteous anger” into the mix (e.g., “how dare they . . .”).
When you hear catastrophizing or personalization it is important to first support the speaker by reflecting what is being said at a deeper level. For example, a facilitator might say, “that’s a frightening prospect for you”, or “so that sounded like a personal attack to you.” After this reflective acknowledgment, the speaker will need some time to process and respond before the facilitator turns back to the group. When ready, the facilitator can then open the discussion in various ways. For example, the facilitator might invite previous speakers to address intent, or ask the group to explore the potential outcomes of various proposals or actions. As with the cognitive errors addressed earlier, use of open-ended questions, and letting the group help shape the direction of the discussion, are also important factors in establishing a more civil dialogue when catastrophizing and personalization are present.