I did something I rarely do earlier this week. I got into a debate/discussion about a delicate issue on Facebook.
As internet “discussions” go, this one was mild. Things remained civil. We exchanged ideas, kept our responses respectful, and seemed to listen to what the other had to say.
It didn’t take long, however, for me to remember why I don’t really like having discussions about important issues, publicly, on social media. It’s cumbersome to share nuanced responses using my phone’s keyboard. Tone of voice is difficult to discern. And when the discussion is posted, and others can “like” particular responses, there’s a performative aspect that makes the whole thing feel less like a conversation and more like a televised debate.
The Allure of Having the Last Word
None of these things ultimately caused me to step away from the discussion though. It was when he began to repeat himself, using many more words to make the exact same point that I knew it was time for me to step away. As his responses got longer my interest in the conversation shrunk. I disengaged when I realized I had wandered into a discussion with someone who likes to have the last word.
I am often guilty of vying for the last word.
I’ve caught myself, more than once, planning a witty a retort rather than actually listening to or trying to understand what someone is saying. I imagine myself delivering the perfect response rather than focusing on the point someone else is trying to make.
Having the last word is intoxicating. It’s a (temporary and fleeting) ego boost and can feel like a long-fought victory. When we have the last word, we can convince ourselves we are right. It feels like a win.
But it rarely is.
Psychologist Susan Krauss Whitbourne explains, “Wanting to have the last word is very much related to the attack-mode mentality central to destructive conflict resolution, in which you take on your partner rather than the difference in viewpoints the two of you have.”
Resisting the Urge to Have the Last Word
When I’m fighting for the last word, instead of fighting to find common ground nobody wins. When the conversation becomes more about me and less about problem-solving, nobody wins. When ideas take a back seat to ego, nobody wins.
So, when my Facebook conversation felt less, to me, like an attempt to discuss ideas and more like a fight to win, I bowed out. I gave him the last word that he seemed to be looking for and stepped away from the keyboard. Of course, I didn’t step away until after typing (what I considered) a witty response and then begrudgingly deleting it. But I did delete it, and I did step away… baby steps.
I probably won’t be jumping into many delicate public discussions on Facebook again any time soon. But I can’t say I regret the experience. I got a quick reminder of my own destructive habit, and I got to practice a little bit of self-editing. By choosing to disengage when I did, I gave him the last word he was looking for, and I gave myself the time and energy to focus on something more productive.