I like a good debate, even if I come to realize I’m wrong. How else do we learn anything? But the quickest way to turn a healthy debate into an unhealthy debacle is to have it with someone who will twist your words around until they mean something else. Then he argues that point, completely ignoring what you really said.
What is word twisting?
I’ve added this definition section because I had a comment once (which I didn’t approve) that made me realize not everyone understands what “word twisting” means. The commenter said that “liberals” always twisted her words. Hand to heart, the example she gave was when she would begin a sentence with “I’m not a racist, but…” and the liberal would tell her that yes, the rest of the sentence after that had indeed been racist.
There’s a difference between someone telling you what you “really” meant (word twisting) and someone calling you out on your baloney. You can’t, for example, front a racist statement with “I’m not a racist, but” and expect people to accept that at face value. It’s like saying, “I’m not a drinker, but I’ve had three martinis every day for the past 6 years.” We all lie to ourselves without meaning to, and we can benefit from having people around who call us out on it.
Why do people twist words?
- Sometimes it’s that you’re absolutely right but it’s a truth they’re not ready to acknowledge.
- Sometimes they just like a fight. Some people seem to get energized by a long, pointless argument. I find it draining, and have plenty of better ways to spend my time and energy.
- And sometimes they want to let you know how little your thoughts or feelings matter to them.
How can I stop them?
If you find yourself dealing with that third type, avoid them if at all possible. That’s a form of abuse called “gaslighting”, in which the abuser keeps twisting situations to make you think you are the one who’s being impossible or losing your mind. They will not stop doing this.
Letting them get by with it is not going to reward you or them, and it may even encourage them to do it more. If you have any suspicion you’re in a close relationship with this type of word twister, you may actually be dealing with an emotionally abusive narcissist. Read Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare to learn how to free yourself. Almost a Psychopath also comes highly recommended.
When your word twister is just argumentative (the second type), you may be able to enlighten them about better argument strategies. Most people learn argument from their parents, and many people don’t know how to have healthy arguments. Some people are willing to learn, if only you explain to them why their tendency to look for a fight is really obnoxious, and what you wish they’d do instead.
If you’re delivering a truth they just can’t handle, stick to your guns mercilessly but politely. Tell them they’re deflecting the point; that’s not what you said; everything they’re saying is irrelevant and they can either deal with what you really said or go away. It may sound mean, but reasonable doesn’t work on people who are unreasonable.
What if it’s your boss / parent / authority figure?
It’s trickier when you’re dealing with someone who can penalize you just for standing up for yourself, even if you’re right. One obvious solution is to avoid arguing with this person. Just nod politely and bow out of any arguments they start as quickly as possible. If they won’t let you do that:
- Enlist allies. Rarely do these people only annoy or harass just one person. Check with co-workers, your other parent, other students, etc., to see if they feel it’s hard to communicate with the person. Remember your words might get back to the person, so choose them with care in case you’re forced to explain them later.
- Twist their words first. You’d be surprised how many of these people are powerless to escape from their own trap when it’s turned on them. Pay attention to how they do it and learn those techniques.
- Learn from people who don’t let this person twist their words. Look for people who are able to dominate the person for reasons other than having authority over them. If the person doesn’t pull this stuff on some of his friends, observe how they keep him leashed and see what you can learn.
- There’s nothing you can do with a bully/bigot. If you find this person doesn’t pull this on everyone, but just on people “like you” (i.e., his opposite political party or just people in one department of your workplace or, unfortunately, people of certain races, religions, etc.), then you’re dealing with a bully or bigot. There’s not much one can do with bullies or bigots, especially if they’re in authority. It’s time to go to someone who has authority over them, if possible – especially if you’re reasonably sure the people above them don’t share their attitude.
Dealing with unreasonable people is never easy, and rarely rewarding. I avoid it whenever it’s humanly possible – even if it’s family. That’s my preferred strategy. Helpful phrases, all of which you should utter in a calm, pleasant but firm tone to show how reasonable you are being, include:
- “That’s not what I said. You’re twisting my words, and I’m done here.” And then walk away. You have to refuse to talk about it anymore, because their first assumption is usually that you’re just playing hard to get. That you really want to have this long silly argument with them, and you’re making it difficult because you’re as big a drama queen as they are.
- “Feel free to have the last word. I’m sure you’re going to anyway.” This is especially helpful if other people are in on the discussion. It forces them to shut up or prove you right.
- “Whatever. I told you that’s not what I said, but you keep saying it is, so I guess you’re a mind-reader.” Sometimes you just have to accept that someone is determined to believe the worst of you and let it go. This little declaration tells them you can’t be manipulated into a prolonged argument that they’ll enjoy and you’ll find draining.
I cut these people out of my life when I can. Who needs this kind of drama and manufactured conflict? There are enough real problems in life. We have enough misunderstandings with the people we love and benefit just from knowing. I don’t know why people want to stir up trouble, but that’s not my hobby.