Contretemps and FIML

In FIML practice, we use the word contretemps to indicate a mix-up of meanings between partners. When partners are thinking, speaking, and/or listening from incommensurate perspectives, they are experiencing a contretemps. This causes mental confusion and can quickly lead to emotional reactions that are out of proportion to the situation. As we have seen in other posts, when you do not resolve a contretemps to the satisfaction of both partners (and to the satisfaction of what is true), you will cause a division, however, small in your shared understanding of each other. You cannot fully resolve a contretemps without doing a FIML dialog about it.

Some of the common ways that contretemps are generated:

  • you are dealing with a new subject
  • you are dealing with a different aspect of a familiar subject
  • one of you is saying something close to but not the same as what the other is hearing
  • one of you out of curiosity wants to revisit a subject but to the other it sounds argumentative
  • one of you is not getting sufficient confirmation from the other about what you said, so the point gets repeated

Notice that the origin of all of these contretemps is mental; that is, not terribly emotional. Once the mind becomes confused, however, even if only slightly, it begins to mishear and misspeak, thus compounding the problem while adding emotional elements to it. This happens because interpersonal communication is a complex system. By complex system, I mean it is a system that changes very rapidly and which is characterized by initial starting points not providing sufficient data to predict later outcomes.

Once you understand these points, it should become clear why interpersonal relationships can be so difficult without FIML practice. In non-FIML speech, even very simple contretemps can, and often do, lead to deep frustration and strong emotions. Whether those emotions are expressed or not, they exist. Partners may feel resentment, anger, blame, self-blame and so on due simply to a mix-up of very trivial meaning.

Let me give an example. This morning I noticed that we had very few clean dishes (of a certain type) in our cupboard. They were all in the dishwasher. In my memory, that was the smallest number of clean dishes of that type I had ever observed in our kitchen. I felt curious about it and asked my partner why she thought there were so few. She said it did not seem unusual to her. I asked again, she repeated her answer and we went on to other matters. Sometime later, I became curious about the dishes again and asked her again if she knew why we had so few clean ones. This is where the contretemps began. When she answered, either she had an unconscious tone of impatience or I mistakenly heard a tone of impatience (neither of us is sure). Whatever the case, I thought she was probably feeling that I was blaming her and so my voice rose slightly with the vague intention of putting out a fire before it got going. I wanted to emphasize that I was just curious. Of course, that tone did not work at all but only made matters worse. At this point we began a FIML discussion and within a few minutes established a mutual understanding that was satisfactory to both of us concerning what had just happened.

The basic type of contretemps that led to that discussion was the second-to-last one of the bullet points listed above: one of you out of curiosity wants to revisit a subject but to the other it sounds argumentative.

I hope it is clear to readers that even small stuff like that can cause problems. And I hope it is also clear that you really have to take the time to figure it out with a FIML discussion. If you don’t, both of you will draw wrong conclusions from the incident or at least be vague about it. If we had done as most people do and just dropped the subject when it got a little out of control, I might have concluded that my partner was mad at me for being petty or blaming her for something when, in truth, I was only curious about a small domestic anomaly. She might have thought I was angry about something else and was using the dishes as a way to get in a dig. Even more to the point, neither of us would have had any way to be sure we understood each other or the incident in question. Most couples would probably go on about their day, ignoring the issue while waiting for positive feelings to arise again.

But that doesn’t work so well. It’s an OK way to go once in a while and for some situations, but if you do that a lot, you will develop deeper and much more serious contretemps in the way you relate to each other. In engineering, I believe, there is a saying that cracks never get better but only worse. In interpersonal relations, contretemps similarly don’t usually get better because they almost always lead to further mistaken interpretations. She is too sensitive. You are too argumentative. Etc. Fill in your own blanks. Once the contretemps develop and are not addressed through FIML practice, at least some of them will get worse.

To repeat: almost any particular contretemps is in itself trivial. But if we do not figure it out and resolve it, it stands a good chance of having deleterious effects on our relationship. Interpersonal communication is a complex system. It is dynamic and moves very quickly. We ourselves are often not aware of why we said something, let alone why our partner did. If we do not deal intelligently with those levels of communicative reality, we will run into problems, many of which will not later be soluble.

I can’t think of any other way to successfully deal with the complexity of interpersonal speech than FIML. Even if we have a video and a perfectly accurate transcript of what was said, when we play it back or read it, there will not be any way we can be sure of what was in someone’s mind as they spoke. The really deep and true—the most valid—level of interpersonal communication can only be accessed by quickly recalling the few seconds of speech that have just passed. Then, these few seconds must be discussed using FIML techniques. With practice, slightly longer time-frames can be accessed, and narrative and episodic memories can also be accessed and used, but that can be difficult and won’t work if the basic FIML technique is not part of your interpersonal foundation.

This is one area where I have a fairly serious disagreement with the way Buddhism is often practiced today—with it’s overly strong emphasis on being inoffensive when we speak. If I had done that when I became curious the second time about the dishes, I probably would not have said anything. But if I had not said anything, I would have not done so because I was falsely assuming my partner was overly sensitive and I would have been falsely assuming that my curiosity was somehow wrong or that I would not be able to make myself clear to her. That would have constituted a silent contretemps, a crack in our understanding of each other. On some later day, secure in my conclusion that my partner is overly sensitive, I might have widened the crack by withholding something else from her.

The preeminent virtue in Buddhism is always wisdom, not compassion, not being inoffensive, not necessarily being silent when you aren’t sure. I think FIML gives us a way to do wise Buddhist practice with our partners without resorting to external semiotics or judgements, or misapplied slogans.

By the way, the example of the dishes is a pretty good example of something that might prompt a FIML discussion. It was a trivial incident that, like so many others, might have seemed to be of no special importance. But it was also sort of a trap, one half of which was the incident and the other half of which was our, we humans, poor abilities at speaking, feeling, and thinking. If the incident is so trivial, it ought to be easy to figure out, right?

first posted JANUARY 30, 2012

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