Stipulation

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All existence is constantly in situation;

it must make its choices within the limits of

just these particular contingent facts.

- Marjorie Grene


teenage boy and his mother are having a searing argument. He is in agony because he knows that every word he is saying is wounding his mother, but she is not giving an inch. She is tormented by the understanding that she is saying everything wrong, that she sounds just like her parents used to sound – her parents who specialized in being unsupportive. The mother and son stop yelling and look at each other, their wide eyes transmitting their mutual pain. Mom takes a shuddering, slow breath and says, “I know you are not trying to hurt me. I understand that all you are trying to do is to get me to see your side of this argument. And you are frustrated because you see me as just spewing clichés. I can see why what I’m saying isn’t in the slightest helpful to you.”

This mother has just given her son a great and empowering gift. It is the stipulation that his view of the circumstances is valid and that what he is doing makes perfect sense given his situation.

Stipulation is empathy taken to a qualitatively new level. It goes beyond the effort to understand the emotional, behavioral or cognitive situation of another. When you stipulate to the truth of another person, you are willingly honoring their sacred, existential right to self-determine. And you are confirming their grasp of their reality.

If it is between peers – stipulation is über confirmation that the stipulatee’s view of life is cool.

If it is between people of differing power – stipulation is recognition of the existential autonomy of the stipulatee.

If it follows an apology – stipulation clarifies that, not only am I wrong, but also, importantly, you are right.

If it occurs in the middle of an argument – stipulation is pure generosity fueled by love.

The mother watches her son tear up as he absorbs her very genuine efforts to reach him. She continues, “I can also understand how agonizing it is to you that you have to seek my permission for this. It is awful when you don’t have the power to direct your own life. It is just awful.”

This is another generous communication that further stipulates to the son that the mother understands the enraging unfairness of his position. Often it sucks to be young.

Do her stipulations mean she is going to let him get a tattoo? Nope. But neither will she hit him with the complete list of awful as a way to condemn him for the way he is fighting her. Many parents do use these shaming characterizations to disempower the child by disemboweling their self-esteem. That shaming strategy is one of the worst things a parent can do to a child. Her message, instead, spells out to him her open-handed and open-hearted belief – of course he wants a tattoo and he has the perfect right to fight for it but no way is he going to get one on her watch. Because of her willingness to stipulate, he only has to recover from the unfairness of her having the culturally endorsed power to veto the tattoo and not the additional angst of feeling like a mean, unimpressive son for wanting one.

“Of course.” What powerful, beautiful words they are. They are joined by the equally effective, “I see” and “You’re right.” All those phrases represent stipulation – the willingness to acknowledge, without hedge, that someone’s view of their reality is appropriate. Stipulation is saying “You are right for you and, even if we differ in our sense of things, your “rightness” is no less valuable than is mine.” What we are endorsing is the genuineness of another person’s search for his or her truth.

So why exactly is it such a gift?

Even the most existentially resistant among us knows, in some cobwebbed corner of the mind, that we are all guessing about reality. For the most part we can lope along in life without having to pay close attention to the accuracy of our guesses. But at those boundary locations, where our sense of what is real collides with someone else’s sense of reality, we can get rattled.

This rattled state comes in extra small, small, medium, large and extra large. When a fellow with whom I’m talking doesn’t act like he heard what I just said but proceeds to take the conversation off in his preferred direction, I am left puzzled about whether or not I have any significance as an individual. If a driver fails to see you jogging along and cuts you off, you may be startled a bit and wonder if you did indeed have the right of way. When we fight with our spouse for years about how much money to donate to charity, we may start to think we are perhaps stingy. After the third confrontation with our boss over missed deadlines, we may decide to double-check our priorities. And, when nothing we are attempting to do to promote better nutrition in the schools is effective, it is tempting to lose faith in our decision to lead this fight. When the world is giving us no feedback or negative feedback, we feel disconfirmed. At these moments, stipulation from a reliable, special witness is a true boon. Such as: a neighbor says to you “I see you were ‘talking with’ the bloviator”; another driver gives you an oh-man-what-a-jerk-he-was look; your business partner reminds you that you donate many, many hours of your time to others; your boss’s boss meets with you and compliments you on how well you have been juggling your overwhelming workload; or the local newspaper asks to interview you about your efforts to change the school lunch menu. When we are confirmed, we get a brief respite from the bevy of doubts that afflict most thinking people. And that respite comes gift-wrapped in the empathy of the stipulator.

Crafting effective stipulation messages

Crafting effective stipulations involves a little über-empathic waltz – one, two, three.

One, the better able we are to respect the rights of another to self-determine, the more easily we can perceive the rationality of their position. So, odd as it may sound, the first thing we need to practice in order to be skillful stipulators is a deep commitment to the prerogative of a person to make un-coerced decisions about what is true for him or her. In other words, to be adept at stipulation, we need to be rabid fans of free agency. I would guess that most people, when pressed, would absolutely agree that the design of each person's life is up to them. Therefore, what we need to practice is to remember that we believe this. It also helps to recommit frequently to maintaining our focus on our own life design. That little task can easily keep our thoughts occupied with our own areas of growth, and our noses out of other people's business.

Two, we need to clear a little space in our thinking (like we do when engaging in empathy) to explore the view from the other side. Can we imagine being them and seeing what they are seeing? From inside their life, is what they are saying or doing or thinking coherent for them? Referring back to the Marjorie Grene epigraph, if we cannot perceive someone’s “particular contingent facts”, we will be unable to see what is limiting the freedom of that person. No one is making choices in a vacuum and no one isn’t trying to do their best. These twin beliefs are crucial in a stipulator.

And three, after we have carefully witnessed the situation, we give the gift of confirmation with a clear and generous statement. The message we want to get across is this: I, This Person Over Here, grant that you, That Person Over There, have adequately assessed the situation you are in and I stipulate that what you are saying/doing/feeling is logical, credible and impressive. Using opening phrases like “I can see that”, “That makes sense” or simply “Oh!” we present the stipulatee with an explicit endorsement of their latest existential project. As is always the case with communication, the more concrete and descriptive the statement, the more efficacious the transmission. To wit: “I can see why you prefer to look through a menu quickly and order the first thing that appeals to you rather than experience the tension of too many good choices. Your job requires you to make choices all day!” is an effective stipulation. Whereas “Take you time ordering. I'm in no hurry.” is considerably less so.

Extra examples:

I can see that you have thought about this issue a lot. It makes sense to me that you would be upset, then, when people dismiss your contributions during the meeting just because you are fairly new at the job.

Oh. I get it. When I interrupt you, you feel like my words and thoughts are more important to me than your words and thoughts are to me.

You have made sure that every guest here has had personal contact with you this evening. I’m impressed with your willingness to make that happen when I know how tired you are today.

I like the fact that you work so hard to be relaxed! You don’t just give de-stressing lip service. You actually try to achieve it! No. I’m not being sarcastic. I mean it. I see you really working to make better choices.

I wish I could be as brave as you’re being right now. I think our idea is bold. I’m just not willing to risk losing my job if this concept turns out poorly. I’ll certainly support you pitching it.

I don’t blame you for losing it with your mother-in-law. Her behavior toward you continues to be rude and condescending. I would have been furious, too, in your situation. I wish you had a mother-in-law like I have. She is very empathic and supportive.

Of course you want new furniture to go in the new house. We may have to wait to get it, but I can understand why you want it. The old furniture looks pretty pathetic in here!

No wonder you struggled with that first Spanish class. Everyone else in the room had had at least a year of high school Spanish. I would have felt lost, too, if I hadn’t spent two summers in Mexico.

The danger in stipulation

There are a few ways a stipulation can careen off the rails.

Stipulations are fragile. As wonderful as it is to receive, a confirmation is like a soap bubble and will blink out the instant the stipulator hedges. In order to be a sound source of stipulation, then, we must resist the temptation to parse our confirmation in any way. The mother in the scenario above could allow that, of course, the son wanted a tattoo. She didn’t suggest by word or tone or sneer that only silly boys craved tattoos. So, try not to be half-hearted because when you stipulate you are at the pinnacle of existential gift giving and a glass-half-full endorsement is a poor gift. A full and resplendent gift says: You are doing it your way and your way is okay. Kudos to you.

Stipulation allows for no interpersonal hierarchy. We may believe that, in a situation where I have more power due to age, income, gender, education, etc., I am granting you legitimacy because of my status. In addition, I may believe that I hold a dead-man’s switch that would allow me to undo the stipulation at any time. The message in that case being: "Your way is okay only for as long as I say it’s okay." But that’s not how the universe works. In the trenches of life where we face the dreadful givens of existence, no one has the power to dictate reality to another. In other words, a sincere stipulation trumps institutional or cultural power with existential power – which assumes that neither prince nor pauper has the inside track on the ways of the universe. We're all just guessing here.

Here’s an example of the existential equalizer: An older male supervisor is rattled when the younger female supervisee he is reviewing gives him pushback on the salary differential between the male and female employees of the company for which they both work. She has made an extremely cogent and moving argument, and he is momentarily at a loss. He doesn’t have the power to give her a sufficient raise to equalize her wage with her male co-workers, but he sincerely appreciates her situation. He has two choices at this juncture. He can dismiss her argument without stipulation by refusing to discuss the matter and simply resume his review. Or he can stipulate that her points are valid, her argument well formed and acknowledge that this reality is really rotten. If he chooses Plan B, he has joined with her as a colleague in the human-rights aspect of being an employee of this particular company while remaining her supervisor in the specific department that he manages. Even if he refuses to take on her concerns and join her in the battle, he has granted that she, in this situation, is correct.

Finally, stipulations are easy, unfortunately, to counterfeit. Some people use faux stipulations as a relationship get-out-of-jail-free card, as in “Yes, dear, you’re right. I should have come home at midnight like I promised.” Sometimes a fake stipulation is meant as a sympathetic gesture, as in “Of course you wanted another drink. You had a bad day.” And, sadly, often people will simulate stipulation to simply pacify, as in “I really liked your manuscript. There were lots of places that made me laugh.” If you believe that stipulation is precious, you will be less likely to willingly defraud another person with a poor imitation.

Réchauffé

It is completely appropriate to solicit stipulations. Yes, they are nicer as spontaneous gifts, but you can enjoy them also when they have been requested. When you are genuinely reflecting on your life choices and their consequences, you will be working to sidestep both self-referencing and self-deluding. As scary as it might be under these circumstances, it is is a wise move on your part to seek corroboration of your existential exploration from another, trustworthy individual. The ultimate decision on who you want to become is yours to make, certainly, but another perspective from across the interpersonal boundary is always beneficial. If you are truly brave, seek out input from folks you know who hold views wildly different from your own! (For a compelling look at Karl Jasper’s position on creating meaning in life, see Professor Kurt Salamun’s essay at: bu.edu/paideia/existenz/volumes/Vol.1Salamun.html.)

One last point – stipulations, like compliments, don’t wear out. Please feel free to distribute them repeatedly.

One last plea – get the good stuff out of your head and bestow it on a world that can use all the good stuff it can get. If you are watching someone working through their life challenges and you recognize a behavior on their part that is stipulation-worthy – please, please, please bestir yourself enough to present them with that gift. Too many of us are walking around with our heads full of nicely wrapped presents of positive feedback but, for whatever reason, we fail to give them away. I can, without reservation, guarantee that when you have spent your day attending to the distribution of stipulations, you have left empowered and joyful people in your wake. Being a diligent stipulator is as close to being immortal as humans can get.

© Copyright 2014 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.