“Are you sure?”: Abuse Accusations and Conversation Protagonists

A friend of mine wrote a post recently about something bad that happened to him. The injury came from an assailant who was a member of a mutual group of friends. The story was not new to me, but as I was reading it, one particular line caught my eye.

He described how, when he spoke about his experience to others who knew them both, those friends would sometimes ask, “Are you sure…”

This is a horrible, toxic, foolish, and also imprecise question. I’ll explain why.

1. A third party

As mentioned, I had heard this story from this friend before. We were talking, just the two of us, after having gotten to know each other under circumstances that meant that I didn’t know anyone else in his social circle.

When he told me that someone had attacked him in the past, my reaction wasn’t, “Are you sure?”, but, “Wow, that sucks, that person was totally inappropriate.”

Why? Because when a friend tells you that a stranger did something shitty to them, you have absolutely no reason to doubt that this was the case. The conversation is 100% about the friend, not about the stranger. In other words, the friend is the protagonist. Asking if he was sure it happened never crossed my mind.

2. “Am I sure?”

Because of my memory of that conversation, stuck in my own head, I was for a moment taken a bit aback when I learned that others had been skeptical about the same situation. But then I pictured a similar accusation directed to someone I actually knew well, and started to see where they were coming from.

When someone tells you something problematic about someone youdo know, something whose truth poses a challenge for your existing reality, suddenly the game is completely different. Instead of your friend-who-was-attacked being the most compelling protagonist of the conversation, the instinctively most compelling protagonist now becomes yourself.

This is what I mean, fundamentally, when I say, that “Are you sure” is an imprecise question:

The real question being asked is, “Am I sure?”

Am I sure that this surprising fact about someone I know is true if it contradicts my previous models? Am I sure that I want to deal with it? Am I sure of what’s going to happen to my personal investments in a social situation that I previously thought was stable? Am I sure that I can stay the same person and maintain my own integrity?

The moment that “Are ‘you’ sure?” comes out of someone’s mouth, the topic of the conversation has actually completely changed. Instead of being the speaker, the protagonist is now the listener.

3. Protagonist Switching

The problem is that the speaker doesn’t know it, didn’t consent to the change, and probably wouldn’t have consented given the option. After all, they just opened up about a really tough thing in their life, are at their most vulnerable, the next thing most people in that situation need is support and space. In times when we as a listener are a third party with no especial skin in the game, empathy and common sense generally lead us to try and give that support and space.

But if we, in response to a threat to our own reality, suddenly allow ourselves to hijack the protagonist role at this critical moment, what follows is actually much worse than just dragging the speaker along on a tangent.

Since the speaker wasn’t aware of the protagonist change, they still experience every subsequent interaction as about them. That means that skepticism, hesitation, caution, or even a reasonable and dedicated examination of the facts is felt as a reaction to their reality, not about your own reality.

4. An Example

This results in a conversation that looks to the listener like:
“X did something problematic.”
“Oh, that’s uncharacteristic of X, I should figure out what your saying that means.”
“No! You should abandon all reason and just immediately start thinking poorly of X, even though you don’t even have any literal picture of events yet!”
“That goes against my values of treating anyone with gravity and integrity, in this case you/X, please just slow down so I can figure out what the right thing to do is.”

And looks to the speaker like:
“I got hurt, do you think things might be okay?”
“I’m really not sure… Let’s see if you deserve my attention.”
“But… wait… Don’t I? I think I do, but I guess maybe not. But… I think I deserve it because these reasons mean I’m telling the truth?”
“You’re so clueless. Don’t you realize the reality of your experience is still up for negotiation? You’re asking for way too much, you need to scale back your conviction way more if you expect anyone to take you seriously.”

In both these cases, the differing protagonists actually arecompletely reasonable. The other party is being unreasonable.

5. Protagonist-selection protocols

The conflict isn’t over who is right. Both people are right.
It’s not over who really needs what they’re asking for. Both the speaker who wants support and validation, and the listener who wants the ability to manage their own reality, have legitimate needs.

The conflict is over who the protagonist should be in that moment.

Let me say that again. The question at play is who the protagonist should be in a given time and place.

That question actually has a right answer. The right answer is, it should be the speaker who just described their experience with being hurt.

Why? For two simple reasons.

First, they generally have the more compelling problem. We all need to have personal, independent, curative control over our realities/relationships/mental models as a human right. But, the speaker is dealing with a metaphorical bleeding wound, and as a result has in general a much higher level of sensitivity. (Another way to think about this is the ‘dumping out’ model — the listener’s problem should be supported by someone more removed from the situation, not by the speaker.)

Second, they were the one who started the damn conversation. If your friend opens up about a deep personal experience to you, the polite and reasonable thing to do next is to follow up on it, not change the subject to yourself.

Thus, as non-protagonists, we can do what we always do when we need something from someone who is more devastated than us: Plan on going second. Give them what they need first, and then figure out how to effectively, ethically, and compassionately follow them in our own time. Trust our friend and ask them to return the favor when they’re ready.

Or, if you can’t handle it and need to be the protagonist of the conversation, at least let the speaker know. That way, they have the power to decide whether to go talk to someone else, or to pause and start applying empathy to listen to you, rather than vulnerability to receive your input.

6. No aggressors as protagonists

Another person whom you should not put forth as the protagonist of the conversation is the party accused of causing harm. If you feel an obligation to represent someone not present or able to speak for themselves, that’s in general very noble of you, but in this case it stillchanges the topic without the speaker’s consent. Moreover, it causes even more harm by exacerbating the speaker’s vulnerability to injury.

7. Consensual protagonist switching
That said, all these protagonist topic changes can be done constructively with clear consent. Some example requests for consent are:

“I hear what you’re saying. That sounds like a terrible situation to be in. I am having trouble reconciling what you are telling me with what I previously thought, not because I don’t believe you but because my brain is in a different place and connecting my experience to yours is something that will take time. If you’re open to it, I could use your help bridging that gap, but it doesn’t have to happen now. Would you be up for having a conversation about it at some point?”

“I hear what you’re saying. I’m really sorry that happened to you. Would you be open to my running an unrelated thought by you? …What happened to you really sucks. I know that you have cared about X in the past, and no doubt your feelings are really different or complicated now. If you do still care about them, would you be up for having a conversation about ways to productively follow up on this matter with an eye toward X’s specific vulnerabilities? If you’re not up for it, I totally understand, it’s not your problem.”

Things that are NOT effective requests for protagonist-change consent include:

a) Direct challenges. “Are you sure?”

b) Segues to your reaction. “Wow, that thing you just said, that blows my mind.”

c) Logical clarifications. “Wait, can you tell me more about how exactly that happened?”

d) Playing ‘fair and balanced’. “That’s interesting. I’m curious what X has to say about it.” “I don’t want to jump to any premature conclusions.”

e) Proposed explanations. “I know that X has had an issue with such and such in the past, maybe that’s why it happened.”

8. Burning down the world

Lastly, it bears saying specifically of the question, “Are you sure?” that the single person who far and away least wants the event under discussion to be true is the victim.

When someone has taken the long and arduous journey from having a bad experience to telling a third party about it, a lot has happened along the way. Often, the speaker has battled themselves long and hard to get there.

“Are you sure?” is ultimately, at heart, not an unreasonable question.

What it is, is the very first question the victim asks themselves, immediately following the experience. (Or, sometimes, years after the experience.)

The perspective that you hear speaking to you about a problematic event, therefore, is not the one that just experienced it. It’s one that has discovered and rediscovered that the answer to “Are you sure?” is “yes” maybe dozens or scores of times. Against all odds, against the threat of losing relationships, self-image, and stability, the answer was still “yes”.

If the speaker, therefore, acts like they are willing to burn down the world for that “yes”, it’s because they have already burned through their own world to get there.

If they ask you to join that “yes”, it’s because they are hoping that you, their friend, will share a piece of a living, unburnt world with them.

If, intimidated by the fire, the listener then raises the stakes of that “yes” so high that the speaker truly has no choice but to quietly back down, the speaker is still left with a smoldering ruin from their journey, and nowhere else to go.

That’s not something we do to our friends.