When we talk about difficult topics we will almost definitely cross paths with people who are vocal in their disagreement of our perspective and position on that subject. By ‘difficult topic’, I mean something that people literally find hard to discuss because of their own social circumstances, ignorance or lack of understanding due to lack of knowledge, and most prominently because of how that social topic impacts their life.
It’s OK to disagree about things, and to hold a different position on a subject- we don’t all have the same circumstances to perceive things in the same way even if there is a clear right and wrong (which there usually isn’t), and actively learning through dialogue is a good thing.
What’s not a good thing, though, is to be so stubborn in our approach of these difficult topics that we remove any space for learning because we are certain that our perspective and position is the only correct one. When we take this approach, we will dismiss anything that doesn’t fall in line with our own view as wrong and usually miss a learning opportunity to expand our thoughts and explore new ideas which could possibly support our own.
In our pursuit of convincing others that we are right, and because we’ve removed the space for learning, we reduce our approach to that of ridicule and empty arguments, often resulting in an attack on the person rather than their message; because addressing the message would require a space for learning.
These circumstances often lead to gaslighting. Gaslighting is a tactic used to avoid the arguments someone gives on a topic by redirecting the discussion to the validity of the persons experiences and reality.
So what can we do about it?
Firstly we should be aware of our own approach to dialogue, and our intentions and motives to avoid gaslighting other people. The first list below can also be used to recognise the signs of gaslighting in ourselves and in people we interact with.
5 Things That Can Lead To Gaslighting
1. You read something that makes you uncomfortable, and start to respond in haste rather than first trying to understand the message.
2. You attack the validity of the message or the experience that’s been shared, implying it’s untrue or that the other person is misunderstood in their own interpretation.
3. You question the credentials or honesty of the person, disregarding any knowledge they may have about the subject.
4. You shift focus away from the topic that’s being discussed by arguing that discussing it is the real problem (eg. “racism wouldn’t exist if we just stopped going on about it”).
5. Every time you see a conversation about this topic you take time to respond with a similar hasty, dismissive rhetoric and avoid trying to build a better understanding about it by considering others’ perspectives.
It can be really frustrating when you start to these signs, especially if you’re trying to engage in a proactive discussion to benefit yourself and others. Sometimes we want to retaliate with similar methods of communications and other times we want to just ignore it completely- and both may be valid responses! Check out the list below for ways to avoid gaslighting and what to do when it happens.
5 Ways to Avoid Gaslighting And What To Do When It Happens
1. Be as clear and thorough as you can in explaining your point so there is less room for misinterpretation or redirection to something they think you’ve missed out because you’ve covered your bases. This wont help you with people from point 5 in the earlier list, as we’ve established their intention isn’t to learn anyway.
2. Actively address common rhetoric that you feel is incorrect, so there’s less room for people to repeat these same arguments in response to you.
4. Challenge attempts at misdirection, and redirect. When a person throws a typical argumentative rhetoric or starts expressing a familiar dismissive narrative, challenge them and don’t entertain their points by repeating yourself in reactive replies. Instead, stay assertive in the message you are giving.
4. Don’t feed their fire! It can be difficult to keep a level head when we feel provoked or irritated by the exchange in dialogue. Try not to retaliate in the same way you are being addressed (wrongly or rightly, and as frustrating as this may be) to avoid the discussion devolving into a meaningless exchange of solely reactionary points or even insults.
5. Remember that oftentimes the best response to gaslighting is to ignore the person doing it. There comes a point where it’s clear that a person does not intend to engage for the purpose of honest dialogue or learning, and there is no benefit in reacting to or allowing a space for abusive or manipulative language, which only uses up time and energy that can be put to better use elsewhere and with other people.
If we learn to recognise inappropriate responses we can attempt to manage the gaslighting approach when it arises. When we host a platform for exploration and dialogue around difficult topics we should pay extra attention to managing these responses and protecting our readers from gaslighting in the comments sections and other places of interaction, and the methods listed in this piece can be used to avoid creating space for gaslighting and to manage gaslighting when it happens.